Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.8]

This chapter contains a scene with uniquely graphic violence. Discretion is advised.

“What do you know about Norn von Fueller?”

Before they boarded the Antenora, Gertrude Lichtenberg had convened a private meeting with Sieglinde von Castille. It was not atypical to discuss conditions and protocol differences between ships when transferring personnel, to avoid committing any faux pas, and with someone as high profile as Norn von Fueller, it was an even greater necessity. The way Gertrude looked into Sieglinde’s eyes when she asked her about the Praetorian, however, spoke to a different and greater urgency than normal.

Sieglinde had not been too surprised to learn of their relationship.

There was a lot of gossip about the Praetorian after all.

But what was the truth? From someone who knew her more than passingly?

Seated around a meeting room table, the two of them conversed eye to eye.

With a locked door behind them, and all cameras and recording tools shut off.

“We worked together once.” Sieglinde said in response to the Inquisitor’s initial question.

“Are you at a liberty to describe in what capacity?”

Sieglinde found no need to hide anything from Gertrude. None of this was any secret.

“Lord von Fueller was dispatched by the Imperial Peership Office on behalf of the Emperor himself, upon the deaths of my parents, when I went on to inherit their assets.” Sieglinde said. “Because I am an only child, and involved in the military, and the Castille family possessed significant wealth, the Peership Office worried that there would be a feeding frenzy of lower nobles competing for Castille properties and holdings if I were to be killed in action as things stood.”

“I was not aware that Norn– I’m sorry, I meant Lord von Fueller–”

“You don’t have to correct yourself. I’m well aware of your familiarity with her.”

Gertrude seemed briefly at a loss at Sieglinde’s response.

“I had to learn the etiquette of the Imbrian nobility, but it’s all just for show. Please continue without interruption. I don’t want you to coddle my sensibilities. I am just a soldier on this ship.”

“Right. Then sure, I’ll call her Norn. At any rate, I was unaware she worked for the IPO.”

“Lord von Fueller was an enforcer, a bannerwoman; she managed whatever affairs the Fueller family needed her to manage. I’m sure that the many nobles she killed and dispossessed played some part in her wise and knowledgeable management of my case. Through her I was able to sell off extraneous possessions in an organized fashion and donate the money to charity, as well as develop a plan for my wealth to be donated or auctioned for charity in the event of my death.”

Gertrude looked downcast. “I suppose at this juncture, those plans are null and void.”

“Indeed. I had property in Rhinea, the Palatinate and Skaarsgaard. I assume it is all out of my hands, and that the Castille’s famous castles will go on to house soldiers for warring factions instead of needy women and children.” Sieglinde said. “Such things are out of my hands. I prefer to focus on what is directly ahead of us. So tell me, Inquisitor: what do I need to know about Lord von Fueller to work under her command? After that incident with Järveläinen, I don’t want any further conflict with her ranks.”

Gertrude told her a few brief and important lessons she learned about the Lord von Fueller.

Sieglinde would go on to confirm the Inquisitor’s account aboard the Antenora herself.

“The most crucial thing to understand about Norn is that there is nothing she hates more than liars. That doesn’t prevent her from lying, withholding information or speaking half-truths if she needs to, but she doesn’t really make a habit of lying. She’s blunt and straightforward in personality. She hates liars and she has a natural ability to detect lies. She doesn’t care about dishonesty, if you flatter her she will enjoy it, if you libel her she won’t care. But lying to conceal something will get you killed.”

“So if I have any ulterior motives then I would best tell them to her face.”

Sieglinde had said that with a note of sarcasm but Gertrude took it dead seriously.

“She would honestly appreciate it. She would not even consider you a threat.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Gertrude sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy; but please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. You have to know, and you can be as skeptical as you want to, but I speak from my own experience. Norn helped me in an affair that demonstrated how powerful she is. What I’m about to say, I don’t say frivolously, and I don’t say it to aggrandize her. It’s the absolute truth.”

“After a delivery like that, I’m afraid I couldn’t judge you if I wanted to.”

What could she possibly be leading into with that dire expression?

“Norn has some kind of ability to control people. A supernatural ability.” Gertrude finally said. “It’s not just that she is intimidating or that she commands imperial authority. Everyone who succumbs to this ability becomes unnervingly loyal to Norn. They act mostly like normal people, but they will drop anything to follow Norn’s commands. A lot of the Antenora’s crew will be like this. Those who aren’t are people she can’t or doesn’t want to control this way. Maybe people she trusts; maybe people who are more useful outside her total control. I don’t know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sieglinde’s eyes drew wider as Gertrude spoke, with dire certitude, about literal magic.

“When she becomes angered enough to commit violence, Norn–“ Gertrude saw the look on Sieglinde’s eyes and paused for a moment, self-conscious of how this was all sounding, but she closed her eyes and continued. “Norn can move faster than can be seen by the naked eye. She can also manipulate objects from afar. There’s more but I will leave it that. Norn has some kind of power, I’ve seen it.”

“Next you will tell me that she is a Katarran too.” Sieglinde said.

“Like I said, you’re welcome to believe whatever you want. Just be on your best behavior.”

Her voice took a dark turn and her eyes bore a slight but growing malice.

“I apologize.” Sieglinde said, calmly and with poise. “I will– I will keep what you said in mind.”

Having been with Gertrude for several days, Sieglinde had characterized her as a woman of dark and fitful passions, whose moods seemed as errant as the tides. Sometimes she had to be managed carefully in order to work well with her. Sieglinde had her own storms, but she felt she could work with Gertrude by practicing a conciliatory attitude. Despite this, the turn in the conversation was difficult to navigate.

Although she had seen Gertrude be both a cursing fiend and a contrite maiden, Sieglinde had never seen her so superstitious. She knew Gertrude respected Norn von Fueller, but now she felt like Gertrude revered her. Like some kind of deity with whispered attestations to her great feats.

Or perhaps like the leader of a cult.

“Tell me more about the Antenora’s crew, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said. “Those people she brought aboard. I’m curious about their relationship. They seemed like a motley group to follow someone as elite as Norn von Fueller, who could have had her pick of the Empire’s best soldiers to follow her. If we are pinning our hopes on them as our trump card to rescue lady von Fueller, I need to know.”

Gertrude smiled a little bit for the first time in the conversation.

“Those are the Empire’s best soldiers.” She said.

Sieglinde supposed enough people had died by now to pass on such a title to this crew.

But she had personally seen far greater heroes than these come and go.

“Say that I believe that. How were they assembled? How does one earn the Lord’s grace?”

“I believe Norn values people who demonstrate an ambition to attain power or to commit violence.” Gertrude said. It was a curious response that made Sieglinde raise an eyebrow, but the Inquisitor said it without hesitation. “It would not be a stretch to say she collects people who interest her. I am only guessing her criteria, but she took me under her wing, so I can’t fault her taste in companions.”

“Fair enough. I can’t say I would criticize her for wanting an Inquisitor on her side.”

Around the Empire, the ascension of Gertrude Lichtenberg some three or four years ago to the office of High Inquisitor had set off a firestorm of gossip in the private chambers of the nobles.

On the heels of a conflict between Norn von Fueller and the High Inquisitor Ludwig von Brauchitsch, Gertrude’s star began rising. Even as a noble with high standing in the army, Sieglinde had never learned the full details of what transpired. She simply put together the pieces. Brauchitsch and Norn butted heads publicly over a snap investigation into the Heitzing Officer Cadet School, and in the ensuing year, Brauchitsch would go on to lose a steady trickle of subordinates to undisclosed events, and with them went his standing in the court, culminating in the Emperor personally insulting him.

Along with the steady fall of Brauchitsch came the steady rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg, who would go on to briefly serve as a branch Commissioner of the Ministry of Justice in Heitzing before soaring in rank to the High Inquisitorship that Brauchitsch would go on to lose. Heitzing being the seat of power of the ruling Fueller Family and their esteemed Praetorian, it was easy for everyone to connect these events. However, the nobles had respect, and a certain exotic sexual fascination, with the swarthy and gallant Lichtenberg, perfect in etiquette, swift in justice, a child of the Imperial Guard whose parents died tragically defending the royal family. So the gossip around her was always glowing.

It was this history which accounted for Sieglinde’s earlier comment to Gertrude.

She understood quite well the nature of Gertrude’s relationship to the Fueller family.

In fact, Gertrude’s seeming obsession with Elena von Fueller filled a missing piece of the story.

Sieglinde felt she now understood in full, the dark passionate theater of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Is there anything else you would like to know? I don’t want you to be surprised.”

Gertrude interrupted Sieglinde’s train of thought.

For a moment, the Baron wished she could simply have tea with Gertrude.

Maybe give her advice from experience about duty and passion–

But Sieglinde was around Gertrude’s age when her own future became immovable.

“Where would we slot into the rank structure of the Antenora?” Sieglinde asked.

“Norn is something of an iconoclast. As such the organization of her ship is unorthodox. There are a lot of highly skilled people on the Antenora at any given time who would have some degree of friction with each other and the world at large if Norn didn’t manage them. Norn is the center, and her officers orbit her exclusively. I believe the two of us would simply be another of the powers that would be hers to command. Don’t expect a tidy chain of command in there. Just do what you are told.”

“Understood. That’s all I needed to know.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “Then as soon as the Grenadier is loaded in, we’ll depart.”

Sieglinde nodded back. “Am I dismissed?”

“I have one more thing I wish to say to you, in private, for our confidence only.”

“Speak your mind, Inquisitor.”

Gertrude gave her a suddenly grave look.

“After our affair here is resolved, I think you should go with Norn.” She said.

Those words caused the Baron’s heart to shudder with surprise and even a hint of fear.

Sieglinde crooked an eyebrow. “For what reason would I do such a thing?”

“Do you have any other place to go?” Gertrude said softly.

“Have I displeased you?”

“Of course not. This isn’t personal, you should know that!”

“Then please explain your reasoning, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said.

“You and Norn may be more alike than you think.” Gertrude said. Her words were going from honey to vinegar quite quickly. “Baron, I don’t have a grand ambition. I am confident that Norn will find Elena and bring her back to me. Once she does, I just want to keep her safe and bide our time. You, meanwhile, are an incredible warrior searching for a cause. I saw the justice in your eyes when you confessed to killing those Volkisch turncoats. If you want to purge the Empire of this rot, Norn will crusade with you. Norn’s list of targets for her vengeance should neatly coincide with your own.”

“You really think that is all I need? Targets for vengeance?”

“You’re raising your voice to me. Are you offended?”

“You’re the one becoming upset. I just want you to mind your own affairs, Inquisitor.”

Sieglinde fixed a sharp look on the Inquisitor, and her words took a sharper tone as well.

Gertrude’s own eyes narrowed, her expression darkened. She scoffed, her passion fully aroused.

“Fine. Then– just shut up and don’t question Norn! Follow your orders so we can get Elena back.”

Her storming out of the room neatly tied up their final hours together on the Iron Lady.

Sieglinde did as she was instructed. She remained quiet.

When they transferred over to the Antenora, and in the days after, she kept to herself.

The Antenora was any other military ship. Sieglinde had been in practically dozens of Cruisers. Her last ill-fated ship had been a Ritter-class with a very similar interior plan. Food was much less fancy than on the Iron Lady, the living spaces were adequate, and there were a few recreational facilities like a gym, a media lounge with films, and a social area with game tables. Everything was just a bit more cramped than in the wildly spacious dreadnought, but livable. It was as much a home as any other metal hull.

Sieglinde kept to herself.

She went to the hangar when she was called to standby.

She ate her meals quickly and quietly and spent much of her time in her own room.

While making the rounds, she confirmed many of the things Gertrude told her.

At first, it was difficult to believe. But the crew was indeed acting just a bit odd. Sieglinde had been impressed by their professionalism, but it was an inhumanly unrelenting professionalism. The Antenora, Sieglinde realized, was like the hive of Norn the queen bee. Most of the crew would be unfailingly in the same places at the same times, day by day, to the point that they felt more like part of the equipment than people. There were perfect cycles of activity. Inhumanly perfect cycles.

Then, Norn had a bout with the mystery woman who worked in the hangar, Potomac.

Suddenly she bared the icy fangs of a power Sieglinde could hardly believe existed.

As instructed, she said nothing. She made no remark and did her best to show no reaction.

At the same time, it was impossible for her not to consider what it meant.

Were there more people with powers like this?

Did Norn have anyone outside this ship under her control to suit her purposes?

Their frequent rendezvous with mysterious engineering vessels caused her great concern.

What kind of conspiracy was Gertrude asking her to overlook?

“Samoylovych.”

One afternoon, Sieglinde was on standby alongside Yurii Samoylovych, a long-haired and well-manicured lady Loup in a pristine uniform who was the most frequent standby pilot for the Antenora. Usually the Antenora put either her or Sieglinde on standby, never both, but as they were nearing Goryk Gorge and expecting some kind of presence there, Norn put both of them on standby for the entire day. Sieglinde decided it was a good opportunity to pick the brain of someone else on the ship, since they were both standing around near their mecha on the hangar floor with no other officers around.

“Samoylovych, what is your opinion of the Lord von Fueller?”

“Nice to meet you too.” Samoylovych replied with a cocky voice.

These were the first words exchanged privately between the two of them.

Sieglinde knew that this was a provocation however and did not further play along.

“I’ve only a passing affair here. I just want to know what you think, in good faith.”

“Need I have an opinion?”

“I can’t imagine someone to whom this vessel seems normal in any way.”

“She is right in front of you.”

Samoylovych raised a hand to her chest as if to acknowledge herself.

She then settled back against the leg of her Jagd and winked at Sieglinde.

“Baron von Castille, we don’t all have the privilege of skepticism. For many of us, life itself is inexplicable and our answers are incomplete. The Loup of the Kashak host– hell, all Loup for that matter– are a deeply religious people. People who believe in a creator God who made this world the way it is. The Shimii, too, are deeply religious and superstitious. Even among the secular, there is a lot of superstition and magical thinking. There are stories about explorers who ventured into the hollows of the planet and returned with great treasures. The legends of Nocht the First, founder of this nation, are entwined in fantasy. And these are things recorded on computers just hundreds of years ago.”

“I understand your point.” Sieglinde said. “You needn’t elaborate any further.”

Samoylovych had referred to it as a privilege, and in some sense it was.

Sieglinde could be this skeptical because she had the comparatively secular life of a noble.

As one of the powerful, she could look down in disbelief at the fantasies of the masses.

And she did look down on it, reflexively, without self-awareness.

To think that a world confined to metal stations in the sea could host such blind mysticism!

Now, however, she was staring that mysticism in the face.

Something about it unnerved Sieglinde, clawed at her, tore gashes inside her brain.

These were not just orthodoxies of control, crafted to perpetuate authority.

Norn was not a metaphor, or a deified ruler like Nocht the First.

She was real; and she was really tearing reality apart right in front of Sieglinde’s eyes.

Her brain could not stop reading it as a conspiracy. As a great lie told boldly in front of her.

Every time she allowed herself to feel vulnerable about these events, a million feelings burst forth. All the violence Sieglinde had committed– was it for nothing? Was it for a hidden agenda? How did she know she was not under some thrall right now? What was the extent of Norn’s power? Were there people even more powerful than her? Why was the Imbrium now in complete chaos then?

What else was real? What was truly false?

Could she have any say in the matter?

“As long as I can look forward to a filling meal and a beautiful woman in my bed, I don’t need to ask any questions that might put my job prospects in jeopardy.” Samoylovych added, perhaps noticing how sullen Sieglinde had become after her last speech. “Speaking of– if you’re having trouble acclimating to the ship, I wouldn’t mind helping you relieve some stress. I do love women bigger than me. Makes the conquest all the more fulfilling.” She turned a lascivious grin on Sieglinde–

–and Sieglinde turned the other cheek to it, bodily rejecting the offer.

That idiotic, crass, offensive request brought Sieglinde back to her infuriating reality.

Samoylovych shrugged. “You can find my room easily whenever you feel antsy.”

The nerve of that woman! For someone who was always being waited on hand and foot, Samoylovych was acting rather forward and the offer embittered Sieglinde. She was nowhere near so desperate for a partner. The Baron had given very little consideration to ‘her type’ and it had been years since she last had sex, but Samoylovych certainly was not compatible. For one who had disowned the noble’s etiquette, she still felt quite a sore spot at being asked for something so personal so easily. No woman who devoured life so easily could understand her– several times Sieglinde had thought the only way she would marry was to someone she knew to be in as much pain as her, or worse.

An insane thought, perhaps, but it was her only response to the pressure to marry.

“I would never. I would never! How dare you? Who raised you to be like this? Learn some self control before someone is forced to teach you! Turn your libido on that simpering friend of yours!”

Sieglinde responded with a venomous screed, her fist closed hard.

Samoylovych laughed gently and jovially, slapping her own knees.

“Petra? Absolutely not! She’s like an annoying little sibling! No! You are awful, Baron!”

At that precise moment, red lights began to flash in the hangar, interrupting the scene.

Sieglinde could hardly believe the timing.

“An attack?”

Adelheid van Mueller’s voice sounded over the intercom as if in response.

“All forces to combat alert! We’re intercepting the Pandora’s Box over Goryk!”

Sieglinde felt a sense of dread suddenly wash over her as the bearing monitors updated.

Pandora’s box. Gertrude’s mercenaries — and Elena von Fueller.

Given everything was on her mind, could she go out there again and fight?

She looked up at the Grenadier which had been entrusted to her.

For Lichtenberg’s evil passions– or Norn’s unknowable violence–

With the doubts lingering on her mind?

“Well, looks like I won’t get a chance to win you over. Take care, Baron!”

Samoylovych winked at her as the mechanics powered on her Jagd and the hatch opened.

“Baron von Castille milord, we’re powering on the Grenadier.”

At Sieglinde’s side, Norn’s brainwashed mechanics began to work on her Diver too.

A voice sounded, reverberating through the wickedest parts of Sieglinde’s own heart.

You’ve done as much killing for much less of a reason, Red Baron. You can’t atone for it now. Your future is decided, and the blood won’t wash from your hands even if you turn back now. You can’t escape this.

You can’t escape your own actions, much less those of Norn von Fueller.

Lips trembling, gulping through a dry throat, sweating, her skin brimming with anxiety–

Sieglinde von Castille slowly, silently, climbed inside the Diver and prepared for battle.

This was just another part of a destiny that seemed ever more inevitable, immovable.


Volleys of 20 mm gunfire from the Brigand repelled two dozen incoming missiles.

While the Brigand defended itself it also righted its course, pointing its armored prow toward the incoming Antenora. It was detected about three kilometers away from Goryk’s Gorge by its use of an active sonar pulse, likely in an attempt to image the surroundings of the gorge. Once the Brigand’s crew detected the sonar waves, the computer registered a high probability that they had been successfully imaged and identified, and the incoming missiles confirmed as much.

The Brigand responded with its own sonar pulse, which gave away its position.

But it also revealed the Antenora completely, leaving no doubt as to the ship’s class.

Ritter-class were the most modern Imperial Cruisers according to Union intelligence. They were sometimes referred to as the “sword-class” Cruisers because of their shape. Their pointed prows and long, angular hull, along with the scabbard-like fins and flared rear “winged” armor protecting the jets, made the ship silhouette resemble a sword. Its armament was top of the line, boasting a twin-barrel 150 mm turret, along with a suite of light coilguns and gas guns, and multiple launchers that could fire torpedoes and missiles. It had a complement of four Divers, with a fifth and sixth in storage. This was the Irmingard equivalent of Cruisers, a serious, state-of-the-art main combatant in any fleet.

“We’ve also got a Cruiser. If they want to slug it out, we can punch back just as hard.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya felt bolstered by the Brigand’s initial performance.

However, they had only surmounted a volley of unguided missiles.

There would be more in store, including the enemy’s Divers.

“Kamarik, set a course that takes us around the Antenora’s flank if necessary, but for now, just inch forward to communication range.” Ulyana ordered the helmsman. She then turned to her communications officer. “Semyonova, send an acoustic message to the Antenora. I want to talk to their commander. I would very much like to confirm whether it’s related to Lichtenberg at all.”

“Yes ma’am! I’ve also got Shalikova on for you! She’s preparing the Divers to sortie!”

Semyonova passed a video window from her station to the Captain’s terminal.

On it, Shalikova’s unmistakable indigo eyes were fiery and focused, her pale hair tied up.

She was dressed in her pilot suit and contacting the bridge from the hangar.

“Good readiness, Acting First Officer!” Ulyana said. “What’s the situation?”

“Khadija and Valya are deploying first ahead of us, so we have rapid response if needed. We’re affixing the anti-ship pack on the Strelkannon and I’ll deploy in the Cheka with it once it is ready. Sameera and Murati– well, you know. Aiden Ahwalia is apparently on his way here too.”

Ulyana nodded. Shalikova spoke with confidence, taking matters into her own hands. She didn’t even look tired. “I’m leaving all Diver-related decisions to you, Shalikova, make it work.”

“Then, ma’am, I have to add this. We have Marina McKennedy’s S.E.A.L ready as well.”

Beside Ulyana’s seat on the bridge, Marina stood with her back to the wall, one hand covering her eyes, breathing heavily. She was in no condition to fight. Upon hearing the name of the incoming ship, the Antenora, she began to babble a name, “Norn the Praetorian” and broke her composure entirely. It was the worst breakdown Ulyana had ever seen out of anyone in her command in a long time.

“Shalikova, I don’t think–”

“No. I heard everything captain. I’ll go. I can’t be here when you negotiate with her.”

Marina slowly stood herself up to full height and forced herself to salute Ulyana.

Ulyana wanted to say something. To stop her– to try to sympathize in any way.

There was clear pain behind the inexpressive face Marina turned to her.

Norn von Fueller had never personally participated in the Empire’s campaign against the Union twenty years ago. The Union had intelligence that she was an enforcer of the Fueller family, a sort of bodyguard and right-hand woman for the Emperor, but that was it. Intelligence about her skills and capabilities was vague. For Marina to react so adversely, they must have shared a dark past. In Ulyana’s mind, she had already formed a link between Marina and Lichtenberg, so if Marina had such a reaction to the Antenora, then Norn must be linked to the Inquisitor as well. This was all part of Lichtenberg’s chase.

This was all very bad news– but they could only play the hand they had been dealt.

Ulyana felt if she prevented Marina from going out to fight it would only insult her.

She had made a decision. Whether it was impulsive or not, Ulyana had to trust her.

“Marina, please take care of yourself out there and come back alive.” She said.

“Quit worrying about me. I’ve survived much worse than this.” Marina replied.

“I’m just glad to hear you have an intention to survive.” Ulyana said.

Marina smirked, just a little bit. “Like I said, you have nothing worry about. I’ll see you.”

She turned and left the room. Her running footsteps could be heard when the door shut.

Ulyana turned back to Shalikova, who had been hanging on the video call.

She could only pray that Marina would be okay.

Though she was a loud and offensive person, Ulyana had to protect everyone under her command.

Ulyana had already seen too many of her crews die in her lifetime.

Sometimes, however, all she could do was have confidence in them.

So she purged her doubts and put on a confident smile for her officers.

“Sorry about that, Shalikova. Marina is on her way.”

Shalikova nodded. “Ma’am, I’ll be sending Maryam Karahailos to the bridge when I deploy. I– I wanted her to be safe in the command pod, rather than down here where something could happen. If you will allow that I would be grateful. She absolutely won’t get in the way, I promise.”

“I’ll keep your girlfriend safe, don’t worry.” Ulyana responded with great delight.

The young pilot’s eyes shot wide open, and she raised her hands and flailed defensively.

“What?! No, it’s not like that–! You’re misunderstanding–!”

Ulyana cut off Shalikova, ending the call with a smirking expression.

Aaliyah stared her quizzically from the adjacent chair, having seen and heard it all.

“I’m happy she’s found someone worth coming back alive for.” Ulyana explained.

“We should all be so lucky as her.” Aaliyah said, shrugging, her cat-like ears twitching.

“Indeed. Commissar, let us once again walk into hell for this precious crew, hand in hand.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Aaliyah closed her eyes and nodded her head solemnly.

Ulyana knew that her Commissar understood at least some of the subtext of her words.

Despite the situation, her mood had livened just a little after Shalikova’s request.

When she saw how Maryam took to her, Ulyana’s romantic side started to hope.

To see that dour and standoffish girl living life after everything she had been through–

–It made Ulyana’s focus tighten. She had to surmount this. To give everyone a future.

“Captain,”

Euphemia Rontgen waited for the Captain and Commissar to turn their attention back to the main screen before interrupting. At that moment she approached the captain’s chair and stood beside it opposite the Commissar, to Ulyana’s right. There was an additional seat there that could be pulled from the wall, and Euphemia sat down there, and wiped her hands over her lap as if clearing settled dust.

“I have dealt with the Fuellers before. I might be able to get us out of this.”

“If the person on the other end allows us to get out of it.” Ulyana said.

“Do you agree to my presence? My fate is tied to this ship now. I want to help you.”

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Ulyana said. No reason to leave cards on the table now.

She looked over to Aaliyah for her opinion. Her Commissar seemed untroubled.

“You’re right, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Solarflare LLC can pay for clemency.” Aaliyah said.

“Norn von Fueller, if it is her, won’t be swayed by money.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana blinked. “Then what would you even say to her?”

As far as she knew all Solarflare LLC really had going for it was money and supplies.

“We have history. I think I can appeal to her better nature.”

“What? The better nature of a Fueller? Well. I won’t hope for a miracle.” Ulyana said.

She would allow Euphemia to join but she had no illusions as to their situation.

In Ulyana’s mind all she could do was confirm the vehemence of their enemy.

Negotiating would be extremely difficult.

Moments later, Semyonova spun her chair around to face them again.

“Captain! The Antenora responded. They’re connecting to laser via the Goryk relay.”

“So they know about that, huh? We’ll connect too. Have Zachikova guard the network.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Put their commander on my screen when we have a connection.”

Ulyana waited, taking in a deep breath of stale smelling air, feeling acutely every little itch on her body, every hair out of place on her blond head. Talking to Lichtenberg had been touch and go, but this time she might be negotiating with the Imperial royal family, not just an overdressed thug. Those moments while her screen had nothing but connection diagnostics scrolling on them filled her with dread.

She feared as if there was something, anything more that she could do that she wasn’t, as if the seconds she spent staring at the screen could be dooming them all, the same way that the moments spent stuck in the substation had been enough for the enemy to catch up. The silence, punctuated by her officers working at their stations, was the tensest she had felt in years. She felt helpless, useless–

Deep breaths. She collected herself. Everyone was depending on Ulyana Korabiskaya.

After this was over, she could have a hearty cry in her own room.

She purged herself of emotions and waited until there was a picture on her screen.

“Greetings. Ulyana Korabiskaya, I presume?”

The woman on the other end had a fairly deep voice, but with smooth enunciation.

Her appearance was a bit more casual than Ulyana expected. A fair-skinned woman, with blond hair in a simple ponytail with short bangs and sidelocks that hid her hears. She wore what looked like a simple red camisole and pants, along with an open coat, half blue, and half green with gold trim, bearing, on the left, a series of gold embossed lines that seemed to mimic the circuitry on a semiconductor.

Her eyes were starkly red. Ulyana felt fixed into place by them, as if she was nervous to make any kind of movement that they could see. Though slight of figure, the presence of the blond woman on the other end of the call came through immediately and starkly, commanding all of her attention.

Ulyana felt as if there was an imperceptible weight around herself.

As if she had crossed into a room with a thick, palpable fog that resisted every movement.

Awash in some invisible scrutiny. She felt more conspicuous, more watched, more known.

For a moment, she thought she could understand the terror that Marina felt.

Norn von Fueller.

Her very gaze had a pressure that was indescribable.

“I am indeed Captain Korabiskaya. Your reputation precedes you mi–, milord.” Ulyana said.

That was one thing she did know– proper titles. She was almost caught right off the bat.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I am not one to dwell on pleasantries. Let me be clear and blunt, and get to the point quickly, out of respect for you and what you’ve already been through.” Norn said, raising a dismissive hand. “I feel that I have amply demonstrated that if I wanted to, I could take apart that overgrown can of sardines that you and your mercenaries are huddled in and extract just the one person I’m interested in while the rest of you die. I want you to surrender immediately.”

Ulyana felt something in the back of her head.

There was a sharp and sudden pain as if a nail was digging into her skull.

She couldn’t help it and flinched, unable to conceal it.

Just as quickly as it came, however, the pain was gone. Flinching was all she did.

“You’ll forgive me, Norn von Fueller, if I don’t find unguided missiles that impressive.”

Despite the pressure she felt, Ulyana managed to find a little humor to try to throw her off.

On the other end, Norn smiled. Not just a smirk or a little grin but a rosy, wondrous smile.

As if she had bore witness to something breathtakingly beautiful.

Ulyana could not place her sudden cheer.

“Interesting! Interesting!”

She crossed her arms and sat back. Now she was grinning to herself.

“I can see why you gave Inquisitor Lichtenberg so much trouble. Yes, you are not just a baker’s dozen of mercenaries, or else you would not have been able to fend her off like you did. Very well. Let us not mince words, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are holding the Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller on your ship. Whether you were contracted to take her by a third party, or she herself escaped to you for some reason– the story doesn’t matter to me. Work for me instead. Hand her over.”

There was nothing Ulyana could possibly say to something that sudden and that insane.

She had never been prepared to come to an arrangement with Norn von Fueller.

Because she believed that the target of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s hunt was Marina McKennedy, Ulyana knew that giving her up was impossible. Not only because of the relationship between the Republic and the Union, and not only because of the honor that a Captain owed the members of her precious crew. Where it pertained to an intelligence asset like Marina, it was impossible to believe that the Empire could act in good faith. She could never trust Norn’s word. That being said, the appearance of handing over Marina could have been used to gain an advantage, to lay a trap, to buy time or to sneak away.

Such plans were predicated on them having what the enemy wanted in the first place.

Ulyana felt an icy chill stab deep through her chest.

None of her plans could possibly work if the enemy believed that what they had on hand–

was the Imperial Princess of the entire fucking Imbrian Empire!

Something like that was inconceivably urgent! There was no possible negotiation around it!

A nervous smile crept up on Ulyana’s lips. She could not conceal it. She tried to play it off.

“Milord, I believe I do not fully appreciate your humor.”

“You made verbal sport of my young, awkward subordinate, Captain, but I’m not like her.”

“I guarantee you I am not playing games. I am more serious than ever. You are mistaken.”

“My patience is running very thin, Korabiskaya. I will gladly pay triple, or even four times, whatever amount of funds you were promised, in any media that you desire. Gold, supplies, marks, bonds, fur rugs from real wild-grown bears from Thuringia’s eighth station. I have, Captain, a near infinite power to fulfill your wildest dreams, or kill you in the most brutal, painful, and evil ways that you could possibly imagine. I want your life, Captain, its up to you whether I own and cherish it, or crush it in my hand.”

Norn held out her palm and pointed a slender finger into the middle of it.

No matter how many gestures she made, however, Ulyana was unprepared for the situation.

“Of course, milord.” Ulyana said. “I’ll hand her over, if you–”

“Don’t lie to me, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Norn raised her voice. “You can’t conspire against me.”

Ulyana found herself thrown off-balance.

Yes, she had indeed been conspiring.

She had to conspire– because it was impossible to surrender what she didn’t have!

“Norn von Fueller, we are innocent of the deeds that you unjustly ascribe to us. You have absolutely caught the wrong ship. It is ludicrous to think that a group such as ours could have possibly taken your Imperial Princess! It is my understanding that she was supposed to have perished in a collapse over two weeks ago! Isn’t that right? Have you any shred of evidence that we could have her?”

This was news that Aaliyah had learned from her time in Serrano station.

Marina had confirmed it too in one of their meetings about recent events.

Ulyana was taking an entirely different tack than she intended with Norn.

She was trying to tell the honest truth and swear the innocence of their crew.

And Norn was quite obviously unconvinced by it.

“You told Gertrude Lichtenberg you had her.”

“Gertrude Lichtenberg was speaking euphemisms. We have a VIP — she is no princess!”

Norn scoffed.

“I know you have her, Captain, because I know that you spoke with her.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Her voice is reverberating among your surface thoughts as we speak.”

“Excuse me?”

Ulyana was completely losing her cool. This was insane– farcically insane!

“Captain, allow me, please.”

From off to Ulyana’s right, Euphemia Rontgen suddenly peeked into the video call.

Norn began to stare intently as soon as she saw that hint of blue hair and teal eyes.

“Euphrates?” She asked suddenly.

“Euphrates?” Ulyana asked back.

“Quiet, Korabiskaya. Turn your monitor to face her, this instant.” Norn grunted.

Her voice took on a new urgency. She was rattled for the first time.

“Listen to her for now Captain.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana stared between Norn and Euphemia Rontgen with increasing confusion.

There was nothing she could do but play along.

She shifted her monitor– such that Euphemia could be seen but she was still in the picture.

That way she could continue to watch Norn.

At her side, she glanced to see Aaliyah’s reaction, but the Commissar shrugged helplessly.

This was moving out of their control quickly. Ulyana hoped Euphemia could do something.

“It is you.”

Norn put on a much different smile for Euphemia than she had for Ulyana before.

Cold, cruel, amused, arrogant.

For her part, Euphemia’s own softly smiling expression did not change upon meeting Norn. She had overcome even that briefest moment of concern Ulyana had seen in her eyes when she first heard the word Antenora. Having spoken to Norn now it was impossible to believe that Euphemia– Euphrates–? could possibly appeal to her “better nature.” Norn’s expression made this especially clear.

“It’s been a long time, Norn.”

“Incredible. It really is you. All of my troubles have ended up in the same ugly hauler.”

“Why are you after Elena von Fueller? Duty to your family?”

“Duty to my people, writ large.”

“So you don’t believe she died.”

“That’s neither here nor there, Euphrates.”

“Then I can’t confirm or deny the location of your princess, Norn. You’re right, it’s irrelevant.” Euphemia said calmly. “You see, these people are working for me now. Our existing agreements extend to them. I would offer to turn myself over to you in good faith, but I want to get my money’s worth out of them. So I would appreciate it if you ceased hostilities– if they do have the Imperial Princess aboard, which I highly doubt, I will do what I can to see her to safety when her business is concluded.” 

Norn turned a sharp-toothed grin on her.

“We can all get what we want here, Norn.”

“Euphrates–”

There went that name again! Ulyana felt frustrated. Rontgen was hiding far too much!

“Euphrates, Euphrates, Euphrates.” Norn shrugged mockingly, flashing a grin. “Seeing you among those hapless mercenaries confirms my suspicions. From the instant I saw you on this screen. Did you know that I met with not one, but two Sunlight Foundation vessels on the way here? Did you call for assistance when you became stranded? Why was I told to go to Goryk’s Abyss with no mention of rescuing you? Why didn’t an Alonso De Ojeda class come fetch you? I wonder, I wonder.”

Ulyana briefly glanced at the doctor to see if Norn had gotten under her skin.

She was not successful at first– but that changed very quickly as Norn spoke.

“Euphrates” looked surprised. As if there was a dawning realization on her face.

As Norn said more and more proper nouns known only between them.

“If you were sent to rescue me, then it is no longer necessary.” Euphrates said.

Her jaw was set. She was clenching her teeth.

“Rescue you? You’ve been abandoned, Euphrates. Face it. I’ve got you now.”

Norn smiled viciously.

“Norn, I’m pleading to the decency that I know you have, don’t do this–”

“This is the part where you beg for your life, Euphrates. See if it will move me.”

Ulyana sat in her chair staring at Norn and “Euphrates” in utter disbelief.

It was almost dreamlike what a sudden, inexplicable turn the negotiation had taken.

She felt like she was hearing a conversation in Shimii Fusha or in High Elvish.

To Ulyana these were all euphemisms, but Norn and Euphrates understood each other.

Euphrates let out a deeply held breath, her hands balling up into fists on her lap.

“Norn, if you’re set on revenge then go after me alone. Don’t involve these people.”

“I have all the power Euphrates, and I’m setting all the rules. I don’t hear you begging?”

Norn sat back in her chair, craning her head on one fist. Perfectly composed.

Euphrates fixed her with a smoldering stare.

A gaze full of desperation.

There was more emotion in those eyes than Ulyana saw her express since they met.

For a moment no words were exchanged. They were just two people staring at one another.

The Bridge fell so silent that the void in the sound itself felt palpable.

Ulyana was still trying to process what they were talking about previously–

Then Norn flinched on the screen, brought a hand up to her forehead clearly in pain.

Euphrates did the same–

–And the video cut out to a black screen. Sound off. Norn was gone.

Suddenly and without warning.

“What? Semyonova–!”

The Captain had scarcely called the name of her communications officer, when the bright blond girl whipped back around on her swiveling chair looking like she’d seen a ghost, pale as a sheet, her hands trembling. “I don’t know what happened, Captain! Everything was fine until now! I’m not seeing any disconnection requests logged on our end, but the channel just closed!”

Ulyana immediately suspected “Euphrates” had something to do with it.

Maybe a remote disconnection– with the implants–? She turned to accuse the woman of foul play, but when she did, she found “Euphrates” slumping forward, clutching her face. Blood trickled down her fingers. Her entire body was shaking. Ulyana laid a hand on her and there was no acknowledgment.

With one exchange of gazes she had fallen, unresponsive, and hemorrhaging.

“Call Kappel now! Right now!” Ulyana cried out.

Aaliyah shot up from her seat and rushed to Euphemia’s side as well.

Captain and Commissar grabbed hold of the doctor, peeled her hands from her face–

Immediately, blood, so much blood, from her nostrils, her mouth. Ulyana was speechless.

Euphemia shook as if freezing, her breathing was ragged, her eyes crawling into their sockets.

“Call Kappel for god’s sakes!” Ulyana shouted. “And tell Shalikova to deploy! Right now!”

Negotiations were over– and Ulyana could not possibly understand how and why.


Norn had both Euphrates and Ulyana Korabiskaya practically groveling in front of her.

She had been so excited — Euphrates! Euphrates had suddenly appeared before her!

Gertrude’s plight almost entirely vanished from her mind. This was the real prize!

Ever since Potomac had told her about Goryk’s Gorge, Norn had thought about this outcome as a distant possibility. Euphrates was always going after nests of abyssal denizens, and Potomac was no fighter. If she was sent anywhere near the Abyss of Goryk it would have been to report on the activities of someone like Euphrates to the Sovereign. Yangtze knew that Potomac was with Norn– so any mission she sent Potomac on would include Norn by default. Now Norn had a picture of the situation.

Either Yangtze was foolish enough to think Norn would just pass up an opportunity to get rid of Euphrates, or she was foolish enough to try to take advantage of Norn’s killer instinct to purge her. Norn had heard there was friction within the Immortals. Potomac being trusted as Yangtze’s right-hand woman was enough by itself to prove a rift between Euphrates and Yangtze. She never would have thought that this might lead to Euphrates falling so squarely, so helplessly into her grasp.

Norn had no intention of rescuing Euphrates. And she would not let her escape.

She would extract her from the Pandora’s Box and pop her head like a balloon.

A fitting first step in her vengeance. Unlike Potomac, Euphrates was unaffiliated with Eric.

She was alone, apart from all her defenses, out of communication with Yangtze.

In one moment, Norn was practically savoring her triumph–!

In the next, she found herself in some dark place full of swirling aether.

Without warning, without explanation, the Brigand and the Antenora vanished.

“Euphrates?”

It happened faster than a blink of her eyes. Before the instant where her vision went dark as the eyes shut, and the instant where they reopened again, she had already seen the darkness creep at the corners of the visible world like a snapshot of paint streaming down a wall. She felt a pinprick of psionic shock that her prodigious psychic defense battered down– but before she could confidently say she had repelled it, she found herself dragged into the aetheric current and brought out of the material world.

She was more annoyed and confused than she was alarmed at first.

How did this happen? An Apostle was nearly immune to mental attacks.

Even Mehmed had failed to alter her behavior or corrupt her senses, so how did this–?

“It’s not an attack. I’m inviting you here to settle our differences.”

Before her appeared Euphrates. That blue hair, those blue eyes, her butch mode of dress. It was unmistakable. Norn wanted to think at first she had blinked into existence, but she came to realize that Euphrates had always been there. Euphrates, and the glass-like floor upon which they were both standing, amid the dim void surrounded by the current of dull colored aether like the eye of a storm. They had both been in this place, and in the material world. This was their minds meeting, nothing more.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Good job Euphrates. I have hardly explored the currents, hardly ever seen this place. You’ve had many years of a head start on me in Clairvoyance. I commend you for exploiting this weakness and being a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing to discuss. I am going to return to the material world and kill you. You’ve only yourself to curse for this fate.”

Euphrates turned a look of gentle contrition on her that Norn despised immediately.

“All I want is to talk Norn. I don’t want to inflict any more violence on you.”

“When we last met, Euphrates, I still had hope in something. Twenty years ago. You have found me now at my most corrupted. I can think of nothing else than how much you’re responsible for this.”

“I know. I secretly hoped the Fueller Reformation would succeed and you would forget your vengeance.”

“Excuse me? I can’t believe you would even dare to say something so facile to me.”

“I know that simple contrition won’t suffice, Norn. That’s why I am here now.”

Her face was calm. Her expression toward Norn looked– resigned.

Her hand was trembling as she ran it through her hair.

Standing there in her white coat, her shirt and tie and dress pants.

“Norn, you’re right to hate me. I was the one who found you. So I’m the one responsible for everything you have suffered until now. I have regretted everything that happened between us for years. I know there is no way to expiate except to accept whatever punishment you desire, but I can’t let you endanger those people, not on my behalf, and not on Elena von Fueller’s. What you are now is not the result of their actions. I have brought you here to punish me, Norn. You can scar my soul in any way you need.”

“You’re lying.” Norn said.

Norn hated liars. Nothing infuriated her more.

Lying was an exercise of power. It belittled the recipient and aggrandized the speaker.

Everyone who knew about her powers assumed Norn could only read people psionically.

Nobody had ever realized that, perhaps, Norn knew a liar when she saw one, because of how much she had been lied to, abused, exploited. How much of her life was shaped by the lies told to her and how much proximity she had to liars. And in turn, how much those liars had belittled, underestimated, and humiliated her through the act of their lying. Liars were easy for her to spot. If she knew someone well enough she could always tell if they were lying. She could tell someone was lying through social cues, physical cues, information disparity– Norn wasn’t just reading Euphrates’ aura.

She knew that Euphrates was lying because of all these cues. Because–

“You did this to Mehmed.”

Over forty years ago, during Mehmed’s Jihad, Norn and the Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation had confronted him at the height of his power, when he was perhaps the most psionically gifted individual to have ever lived on Aer. Despite his power, skill, and unmatched understanding of psionics, in the end, Norn and Euphrates withstood him. It was Euphrates who stood by Norn in the final reckoning.

Norn felt her chest squeeze with the sudden, furious realization.

She had become Mehmed.

Euphrates had done something to her. Some kind of psionic trap in the aether current.

She could suppress people by casting them into the aether somehow–

This was how she weakened Mehmed enough for Norn to kill him.

Euphrates shut her eyes and bowed her head, her shame accepted and laid bare.

“You figured it out. I brought you into this space to keep you from hurting the Brigand. But I was not lying about my intentions. As I accepted a punishment from Mehmed, I accept a punishment from you.” Euphrates said. Her tone of voice was unnerving, infuriating. That sadness with which she spoke, that pity. “I cursed you with my knowledge and led you to be used by Yangtze, because I was too naïve. I didn’t see the Eighth for what she had become. The same thing happened to Mehmed, so I took–”

“Shut up! Shut up! You still don’t understand anything!”

Norn’s voice reverberated across the void.

The Praetorian trembled with fury, radiating her sheer seething anger.

Euphrates’ aura shrank as Norn’s furious cloud of black beset her like a tempest.

“You brought Mehmed here and he was killed Euphrates! He was killed, butchered, his body was used by Yangtze the Eighth for all manner of horrendous things, his blood begot a child who must now live with being born of a dead tyrant! You think letting him punish your soul in the aether makes up for that sin? Do you really, truly, believe that your affair with Mehmed was settled like this?”

All of that fake pity and self-aggrandizing grief faded from Euphrates’ eyes.

Panic, the panic that came with being bludgeoned by an unwanted truth.

That was what Norn wanted to see from her. To rattle her, to win the war of wills over her.

Mehmed could still move in the material world when Euphrates suppressed him. He had been slowed down, he had been clearly struggling under psionic attack. But as an Apostle, as the greatest of the Apostles, even at his weakest he was deadly strong. Norn had seen it face to face as she fought him to a standstill, as she brought him low. She could also escape from this trap.

When she escaped, she would give Euphrates the justice she had earned.

Euphrates was just using psionics. Her body could not withstand an infinite amount of the psionic feedback it would take to hold Norn down. As they spoke, Euphrates’ material form must have been suffering unimaginable pain to sustain the two of them in the Aether against their will. This was an incredible feat of mental power, but it had to have its limit. And when Norn escaped, she would command the Antenora’s attack, and Euphrates would cease to exist in any world.

In any psionic engagement, certitude was power, and doubt and fear created weakness.

“Norn– I– There’s nothing you want from me except my death, is there?”

Norn didn’t answer that pathetic whimper. Her silence spoke loud enough as a response.

Everything Euphrates had done to her could only be paid with her death.

“Death is the only thing I can’t give you, Norn.” Euphrates said, voice near bereft of breath.

That should have been a statement which was filled with defiance. Yet Euphrates looked at her with panicked eyes, the tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her body was shaking, her gaze barely holding Norn’s own. So little composure, but the space had not yet broken down.

Norn could not place that reaction.

“How shameless can you be? Are you trying to stoke my sympathy?”

Euphrates hugged herself and fell to her knees in front of Norn.

“I can’t expiate with my death, Norn. I can’t be cleansed by death. I’ve replayed this encounter in my mind so many times, but death is the one thing I feared you most desire, but I can’t give you that, Norn. You can’t kill me. It’s been tearing me apart for years. I want so badly to release you from all of the pain that I have caused you, to allow you to lead the life you should have had. My interference ruined you and brought so much violence to this ocean; but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t satisfy you.”

“What the hell do you mean–? No– you can’t be serious–”

Norn stomped forward, grabbed Euphrates by her coat and lifted her up.

Euphrates made no attempt to resist, to struggle or fight back. Her feet weren’t kicking.

Her hands weren’t striking. Her eyes were barely meeting Norn’s own.

Norn had her completely under her power and yet the space was not breaking.

Why wasn’t she free of Euphrates’ power? She had broken her completely, and yet–

“No.”

A bitter, skeptical laugh escaped from Norn’s lips.

Her mind was running over an extremely horrible and pathetic possibility.

She knew that Euphrates was ageless, but–

“No, no, no. You’re not seriously– you’re literally saying–”

Norn’s eyes went wild. Her thinking became fogged.

In a violent impulse she seized Euphrates’ head and twisted it with all her fury.

Brutal strength issued a horrific cracking sound–

Neck snapped, the whole vertebra, sinews, and muscle tore–

Euphrates fell limp and hit the false ground of the void–

–head hanging like a bag of meat where Norn’s hands tore it.

She watched the corpse speechless.

Everything blurred from the mind fog of unreality.

Euphrates was alive.

Alive.

Glassy dead eyes staring far-gone but;

Red rings;

Psionic sight self-puppeteering;

Shaking arms rigid like a doll’s reaching;

Head snapped back into place like pushrod into hole;

Coughing breath reconnected to the windpipe like completed circuitry;

Blood spilling where neck muscle and bone tore and scarred refilling new skin;

ALIVE.

Watching as the hands worked dead. Unable to accept–

Norn;

laughing;

shaking;

seething;

crying;

To the colors of creation she had spilled red, brown, black and bile.

And yet–

Euphrates was alive.

There was no believing what she had seen. And yet the truth came to her lips quite simple.

“You can’t die.” Norn said, her voice trembling.

She reached out a hand toward Euphrates’ shaking blood-soaked body and sent a psionic pulse through her that popped her organs in her chest like bubble wrap. One after the other psychic hands pinching her heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach into boiling blood. Her corpse rattled, gore and spit spilling from her mouth, flailing like firecrackers from the force of her insides liquifying. Norn thrust her hand forward again and again and again like she was feeling the recoil of a firearm and Euphrates’ battered body with its helpless expression of death accepted each and every cruel blow like she was nothing.

“You’re not resisting! Resist it goddamn you!”

Norn shouted herself hoarse as the blood pooled in the eye of the storm.

Euphrates came to fall on her side, her arms still capable of enough motion to hold herself.

Fetal, ruined remains curled up.

In moments, her chest was rising and falling.

Blood gurgled in her throat when breathing resumed.

There was a guttural noise escaping her windpipe along with a gulp of gorey vomit.

There were holes cut into her shirt where rib bone had shredded out at acute angles.

Norn watched them recede as if her violence was playing out in reverse.

“You won’t release me.” Norn realized. “Because holding me won’t kill you.”

The Founder of the Sunlight Foundation who relinquished her dream to Yangtze the First.

She was not only ageless.

Norn had underestimated her, gravely, vastly, underestimated her.

Euphrates could be uniquely certain of her fate. She could not die.

Certitude was power in the mind. Just as her soul would not die, her body could not.

“Mehmed could still act in the material world when you were doing this.”

Norn still had to be able to influence the material world. Mehmed had done it.

She waited for Euphrates’ body to heal enough for her to speak. She picked her up again.

“Say something.” Norn demanded.

Holding Euphrates by the throat which she had not seconds ago completely shredded.

“Our hearts want to connect, Norn. That’s why I can bring you here.”

Her voice was rough. Her blood-stained lips curled into a little smile.

“Ganges’ childish philosophy.”

Norn put a hand to Euphrates’ forehead, ignoring her weak, pleading gaze.

Frost began to creep across Euphrates’ skin, bruising her, turning her purple and ghost white. Every bit of sweat and blood on her was turned into a needle that drove into her skin and released more fluids for Norn to freeze. She was in her sinews, sending cold-burning agony into her core.

Her eyes crawled back up her head, choked sounds of pain animal and automatic–

She was not resisting.

Euphrates had truly given herself up for punishment. For anything Norn could do to her. She stood holding Euphrates’ once-dignified form now frozen stiff in her hands. The closest thing Euphrates had to a soul was in her grasp. She felt nothing hurting it. She could not possibly have been satisfied.

This was not any kind of vengeance. It was not any kind of closure.

There was great certitude in what Euphrates did. A complete, unimpeachable finality.

There had to be a way– there had to be a way to break free of it.

Norn pored over everything she knew about psionics, the mind, the aether.

“Our hearts want to connect, you said?”       

Norn formed a conjecture in her mind. As soon as she did she tried to be certain of it.

She scanned around the void trying to thread the colors with her eyes, to follow the currents.

This was not a space in which only Euphrates had control.

Where she had brought her was a communal space, viewed in a way to unique to psychics.

Without vision, it still existed, in the back of everyone’s mind, in the core of everyone’s heart.

All of the colors around her represented the sum total of humanity.

Emotional footsteps which had left pain and elation imprinted onto the fabric of reality.

This was a unique place with unique possibility.

In this place, it was not only Norn and Euphrates who existed.

Their currents were the ones closest, most connected, but they were not alone.

“Ganges would have you told you. No matter where you go, you can never be alone.”

Norn focused her psionic vision to the fullest extent.

Inviting that hated swarm of aether that threatened to overwhelm her senses.

Inspecting with keen detail the feelings that swirled around her.

She felt the chains of her myriad connections that Euphrates represented–

Anger;

Pain;

Betrayal;

Entwining her and Euphrates in thorns which had driven Norn for years and now bound her.

Mehmed had been trapped by these thorns too. He could still move despite this.

To the very end, Mehmed had resisted. Resistance was his strength. His certitude.

It led to his death.

Norn was not Mehmed. She had neither his prodigious ability nor his all-abiding ambition.

But just as Euphrates had something Norn lacked, Norn had an advantage Mehmed failed to accrue.

Taking a deep breath, focusing all of her might and power–

Driving away the fear that crept in her heart as she felt the upswell of humanity–

She let go.

She let go of the grudge that tied her to Euphrates.

She let go of her guardedness, of her reticence, of her insecurity, of her need to have control.

She looked upon those scars in her heart as past things, as flesh wounds closed.

She let go of position.

From standing upright and separate amid the stream of humanity.

Norn fell through the makeshift ground that held her and Euphrates level.

Falling into the current of all the sinews which bound her heart with others.

As certain as she could ever be that there was one heart that would accept her desire to heal.

Her desire to be free. A unique possibility in this realm.

Falling–

And letting herself be filled with thoughts of a red-headed young woman’s childish grinning.

Of the look of understanding that those green eyes gave even to the darkest of Norn’s colors.

Adelheid van Mueller.

The woman to whom Norn had sworn her life.

Her gaze, her touch, her smell, the deepest depths of her being enveloped the falling Norn.

For the first time since she was introduced to the cruel Imbrium, she felt something close to bliss.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.7]

“Okay, so you want to hold them like this–”

Inside one of the Diver simulation pods, Maryam Karaihalos buckled herself into the seat, while behind her, Sonya Shalikova showed her the controls. It was a fairly tight fit for Shalikova. The Diver pod was realistic in its dimensions, so there was hardly space for her behind the seat. Usually the only thing back there was a slim box containing emergency rations, an air tank, and a mostly useless survival suit. Had Maryam needed any more legroom up front, Shalikova could not have fit behind her.

Thankfully, Maryam was not especially tall.

Shalikova reached over Maryam’s shoulder and pointed out the sticks.

“Each of these controls one of the arms. You can rotate it on the socket, and you can also lock the rotation and you can tilt the stick too, and this will affect the movement of the arms. It’s really unnatural at first but you get a sense for it. As you pilot more you will start to understand the degree of motion the arms have. These triggers are for the weapons, and the grip buttons on the stick can control the fingers in groups. It’s weird at first, but you hardly ever need to flex the digits if you have your weapons. Your issued weapons will be connected to the Diver triggers by the mechanics during dive prep. Oh right, and you can push the stick assembly forward or backward like levers, that controls the leaning of the chassis; down there you have your pedals and they–”

“I see. I see! I see.”

Maryam’s eyes lit up with such excitement as Shalikova explained every detail.

Together they adjusted the cameras and diagnostic screens to Maryam’s liking.

They tested the pressure on the pedals too. At first Shalikova, once again deceived by Maryam’s outward appearance, wanted to make the pedals more sensitive, as if her companion’s feet were too dainty to have an effect. However, Maryam was actually very strong, and the pedals needed more resistance to prevent her from flooring them constantly without meaning to do so. Similarly, Shalikova had to adjust the sticks on the pod to make them less sensitive to motions.

“Remind me to readjust all of this stuff for non-cuttlefish use later…”

“You’re so considerate Sonya!”

With the controls sorted, and Maryam having been shown where everything is, Shalikova started the simulation. After the start-up screen, they found themselves in the deployment chute of a nonexistent vessel. Shalikova helped Maryam skip the deployment, and the chute deposited them into simulated water without having to open the hatches or wait for pressure to equalize.

“Ohh, it feels floaty when we sink down.” Maryam said, backing up into her chair.

In turn her chair backed up into Shalikova. “Careful, I’m back here.”

“Ah, sorry Sonya! What should I do now, can I start moving it?” She asked.

Shalikova nodded in the affirmative, leaning forward so she was almost cheek to cheek with Maryam. Maryam engaged the pedals, and pushed the sticks forward, causing the Strelok they were meant to be piloting to charge chest-first, arms at its sides, taking in water through its intakes and accelerating it out of the hydrojets in the back and the legs. The very concept of the Diver’s mechanical movements seemed to inspire fascination in Maryam, who was laughing throughout the demonstration.

“Sonya! This is so fun! No wonder you signed up to be a pilot!”

“I didn’t sign up because it was fun! It’s different if someone’s shooting at you!”

Maryam began to explore the extremes of the Diver’s movement.

In the middle of a dash, she suddenly let up on the pedals and jerked the controls back.

Unmoored in the back of the cockpit, Shalikova lurched forward.

“Maryam!”

“Ha ha ha!”

Maryam rammed the pedals and discharged all the fuel-engaged verniers.

In an instant the simulated Strelok shot straight up like a missile.

Shalikova was thrown back and up from the sudden changes in direction.

She came to land back behind the chair, her vision briefly spinning.

“It’s just a game right? Can I get more fuel for the thrusters?” Maryam asked.

“We can reset it– if you promise not to burn it all up at once again!” Shalikova said.

“Ahh, nevermind! Let’s shoot the gun a bit!”

On the screens, the simulated gloomy ocean lit up as several rounds of simulated 37 mm ammunition detonated in the distance. Maryam rammed the trigger and looked around as if she was expecting something more dramatic to happen than her ammo counter going down, and small explosions to begin blooming nearly at the edge of visibility. The 37 mm AK rifle had some recoil when not held in place with both of the unit’s hands, but nothing the pilot would actually feel.

“Hmm. That was kinda boring.”

“We could swap it out for the 76 mm braced cannon or the shoulder gun.”

“Naaaah. I think I’ll just pirouette a little bit more. Thanks for teaching me, Sonya!”

Shalikova nearly hit her head on the side of the seat as Maryam returned to her joyriding.

As an experienced pilot she couldn’t help but notice how unrefined Maryam was with the sticks in her hands. Her movements were jerky, she would lift her feet off the pedal entirely, and when she wanted to move the arms she would move the stick very stiffly as if inputting each movement separately, rather than turning the stick fluidly to achieve complete motions. It had been so long ago since Shalikova had been learning the basics– she couldn’t have remembered if her first outing in a simulator was any better. It brought to mind how far her own skills had come from where she was even at Thassal.

She breathed out a bit of a sigh.

Though the world was in shambles, there could be enemies everywhere, and the Brigand was still in the initial stages of its mission, Shalikova felt a certain sense of peace. Maryam was happy, smiling, having fun– they could still allow themselves humanity even in this situation. It felt like a release valve for the tense guardedness and helpless anxiety that colored recent days.

In a sense, Maryam had already proved herself every bit the VIP–

Hmm.

“Maryam, I have a question. I won’t judge you, okay?”

“Sure, Sonya! Anything!”

Maryam let go of the sticks and turned her head to gaze sidelong at Shalikova.

“You used psionics to trick our agents into letting you aboard the Brigand, didn’t you?”

Her hair and skin color flashed white as the shock ran through her body.

Her hands slackened on the controls and her lip trembled.

“Don’t worry.”

Shalikova reached a hand down to put it on the controls, over Maryam’s own.

She was not angry whatsoever, and she wanted to comfort Maryam.

“When you started saying you were a soothsayer and all that other stuff to me, I kind of suspected it would be something like this. I mean, I couldn’t have known it was like magic from a fantasy story but I assumed you’d turn out to be a swindler– no offense. I don’t blame you– you wanted to go to the Union to get away from mercenary work right? I’m sure tons of people have lied to be smuggled out. I’ll back you up if it becomes an issue. I just wanted to know the truth for myself.” She said.

“Sonya– thank you. I– I understand that what I did was selfish, I really do.” Maryam said. “I did not think I would end up in a military vessel that had an important mission when I fooled your agent. I thought I would be smuggled out to the Union on an ordinary ship and escape the Empire and live peacefully. But now– I want to help you! I have a lot of information and skills. I feel like this must be the will of God. I have a chance to do good deeds and make up for my selfishness.”

“The will of God? I guess you really must have been a nun once.” Shalikova smiled.

“I’m very pious, I’ll have you know. I still pray and read the book every 7th cycle.”

Maryam smiled gently. Shalikova looked into her eyes and felt contented.

“Alright. You can play for a few minutes more, then we should go back to the room.”

“I am feeling tired! I’m all cuttled out.” Maryam yawned, her head fins drooping.

Shalikova nodded. She felt that a burden had been lifted from her.

There were still so many questions to ask, mysteries to delve further into–

–but looking at Maryam, she felt satisfied for now.

When the pair left the simulation pods, they found that they were no longer alone in the hangar.

There was someone approaching the pods, who drew back as if himself surprised to see anyone there.

Shalikova recognized him– it was Aiden Ahwalia, suited up, hair tied in a bun.

“Sonya Shalikova. I’m surprised to see you here. You hardly need the simulator, do you?” He said.

When he spoke, she felt a temptation to try to view his aura, because she couldn’t read his tone. That tiny flicker of thought, that desire, was all it took to switch the auras on as if a lens had flipped over her eyes. Coiled around him like rope or chains of gas, feeling tough and stiff, the aura was mainly green and purple with notes of red and yellow. Pride and irritation, anger, disgust. That sounded about right for him. Shalikova had only ever known him as a loud, inveterate asshole.

“Or perhaps you do. Maybe the secret to your success has been harsh and intensive training every night– no, wait, I would’ve seen you. Because it’s me who usually comes out here at night to train. Despite how much you all disdain and suppress me, I continue to work so hard. I hope you’re seeing this, acting squad leader! In fact, I invite you to watch me.” He said.

She did not have the same virulently political disgust that Khadija showed him.

His conduct during their previous sortie was enough for her to be disgusted with him.

At her side, Maryam was still all smiles, not a care in the world.

“Good evening! Um, I don’t know what you meant by all that, but we were just playing around.” She said happily.

Shalikova raised her hands feebly as if that would have stopped her.

Aiden raised an eyebrow and looked irritated to have received any acknowledgment.

“Playing around? Wish the rest of us had time for date night, Acting Squad Leader.”

His disdainful gaze sized up Shalikova as if he could glean anything from staring at her.

There was something about his tone of voice which grated on her nerves.

Even when she couldn’t see his arrogance in the colors, it was plain in his mocking tone.

“You have no responsibilities Aiden, so I think it isn’t time that’s stopping you from having as much of a social calendar as me.” Shalikova said. “Come on Maryam, let’s leave now. I’m not in the mood for any more tonight–”

“Wait.”

Aiden looked over at the pods behind them, cracking a smile.

“Since we’re all here, how about you and I have a spar in the simulators, Shalikova?”

“You’re not going to provoke me. Wait for Khadija if you want a response.”

“Provoke you? Are you so afraid of facing me that you make up excuses like that–”

Maryam looked between the two of them silently, her skin and hair colors starting to blur.

Shalikova sighed. She didn’t want to put Maryam in this awkward situation.

“I’m not afraid of you Aiden, I’m more emotionally mature than you. Good night.”

Shalikova interrupted him, calmly and coolly as she could. Ayden fumed at her.

Ignoring him was both the most offensive and most healthy thing that she could do to him as a leader.

Khadija always attacked him and insulted him, and it only fed his ego to receive that kind of attention. It only made him more eager to fight back, surer of himself as the righteous martyr. Shalikova had no desire to get caught up in the whirlwind of his personal narrative, especially now that she was acting squad leader. He was just a petulant kid who needed to cool off, but Shalikova was not herself so adult as to become the one responsible for it. She just wanted him to go away.

Aiden was not going away, however. He had clearly set his sights on her now.

“So even with two pilots down, you still dismiss me, you won’t let me prove my skills–”

“You’ve already lost to me just for thinking a duel would prove anything. Good night.”

Shalikova turned her back on him and began to walk away, dead set on escaping–

“Don’t walk away from me! How dare you! How dare you treat me like–”

Aiden stepped in as Shalikova tried to walk past him–

For a brief instant, she realized, before he moved, that he would try to grab her shoulder.

Acting almost as if between time, in the interstitial between seconds–

Shalikova batted away his hand with such alacrity he staggered back in confusion.

She confused even herself with the speed of her reaction. Maryam had noticed it too.

Aiden stared at her in a brief confusion, tears welling up in his eyes, his face turning red.

“Acting Squad Leader– If you gave me a chance– I’d show you–”

Shalikova was not only irritated, she was alarmed by her own reaction.

“Aiden, I’m leaving! Just go do whatever you’re up to. Maryam, not a word. Let’s go.”

Feeling suddenly stressed, Shalikova quickly turned her back again and tried to leave–

“You–” Aiden grit his teeth, closing into a fist the hand which Shalikova had struck. “All of you are the same! All of you resort to violence because you can’t mount a legitimate challenge! You can’t confront me when I bear the truth except by trying to suppress me! Jayasankarists, this whole ship, you rigged everything, you conspired in the shadows, I’m being unfairly sanctioned–”

Shalikova could hardly respond to his sudden, loud outburst of politics.

Then she heard a loud bang in the hangar, the stomping of a thick boot on metal.

Echoing across the vast space, the sound finally got Ahwalia to stop mid-cry.

At first she imagined it was Chief Akulantova having finally found them but–

Instead two women approached. Both were wearing the tight security suits that Klara and Lian wore.

And both of them were openly armed.

Across their chests, they had AK-72 personnel size assault rifles hung on shoulder slings.

Nobody on the security team was so heavily armed, but these two wore their firearms casually.

“What’s all the racket? You’re lucky Chief Shark’s not the one who found you.” One of the women began to speak with clear irritation in her voice. “Akulantova would actually do something to make you all behave. All I want is for all of you to shut the fuck up– Oh, wait, wait, isn’t that Sonya Shalikova? Sonya Shalikova! I never thought we’d run into each other!”

Her tone of voice was altered completely when she realized it was Shalikova.

Shalikova recognized the two women who approached from the adjoining hall.

One silver-haired woman with neon pink cybernetic eyes, tall and lean with a foxy grin.

With her, a blond woman with her hair in a ponytail, shorter, skinnier, inexpressive, quiet.

They were both good looking and fit, older than Shalikova but still young. Maybe Murati’s age.

“Do you remember us, Sonya?” said the silver-haired woman.

When the woman got close enough she reached out a hand to Shalikova.

Shalikova took her hand in both of hers almost automatically. It was– a childish gesture.

Like they used to–

Her hand dropped on top of Shalikova’s head and stroked her hair.

“You’ve grown a lot. You’re just like Zasha– you should be proud. She’d be proud too.”

Zasha–

“Stop it.” Shalikova mumbled.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I’m not treating you like a kid; it’s just my honest reaction.”

Maryam looked delighted to meet them. “Sonya, are these friends of yours?”

They weren’t–

“Friends of my sister.” Shalikova said. “Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterberg.”

It made sense that they would be aboard the Brigand. Those two were Union navy elites.

Out of their cadre Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were undoubtedly the stars, good at everything.

A Brigand packed with the Union’s elite soldiers had to include them.

“Valeriya, go on, say something. It’s little Sonya! Give her some encouragement.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, her shy blond companion Valeriya raised a hand in a half-hearted wave.

She then lifted a tactical mask that had been left hanging from her neck back over her mouth and nose.

“You know how she is.” Illya said, shrugging at her companion’s symbolic self-silencing.

“I know.” Shalikova said. “What I didn’t know was that you two were marines here.”

“When Nagavanshi came to get us we didn’t have much of a choice.” Illya said with a wry smile. “Our actual job is surveillance, so we stay in the security room with Syrah. We were covering for Klara and Lian today, and checking up on the cameras while we’re at it. We’d only ever seen you on camera, Sonya! I guess we keep to ourselves most of the time.”

That struck Shalikova as more than a little strange for a way of life on a ship.

Shalikova did not want to make Illya’s business into her own, however. It was– too sudden.

Her heart felt so torn.

Illya and Valeriya looked the same as in Shalikova’s foggy memories of their past. She had not thought about them in so long, and now that they had appeared, there was a lot surfacing with them in Shalikova’s memories. They were not at fault– but they were associated with something very painful. Something she did not wish to think about at all. And Illya did not realize this, and of course Valeriya would realize even less. Illya was just being her usual self. Coy and a little too full of herself, but ultimately harmless, and quick to heap praise. Valeriya hiding behind her, inquisitive eyes scanning the surroundings, gently unsmiling beneath her mask of isolation, two inseparable companions missing their third from back in the day.

Shalikova was already tired and already reeling from feelings she wanted to set aside.

Why did it have to be them? She had no more room on this night for painful recollections.

“Secret midnight date with the VIP huh? So proud of our little ladykiller here–”

“Hey–!”

Before Shalikova could respond to the joke and try once again to leave, Illya turned to face Aiden.

He had been standing stock still and Shalikova had not looked his way since Illya and Valeriya arrived.

“–And who is this with you? Oh! It’s the Ahwalia boy? Did he get jealous of you two?”

Illya was joking still, but Aiden looked worse than Shalikova had ever seen him.

His expression came as something of a shock to Shalikova. His aura was quickly filling with red, yellow and a notable band of black. His hands were closed into fists, and he was staring at Illya with an expression that was as hate-filled as those black and red bands of gas coiling around him. They were tightening around his neck, around his wrists and ankles like binding tendrils.

Something was reaching out to bind him– it felt like the past– overwhelming regrets the texture of broken glass–

A flash of violence woke Shalikova from her rumination.

Without warning, Aiden launched forward and tried to punch Illya.

She stepped back in surprise and this was enough to spare her from the attack.

His fist swept in front of her chest, but he was taken by a sudden fury and charged anew–

In the next instant, the buttstock of an AK-72 struck him in the temple.

He staggered and fell on his back, blood drawing from his forehead–

Valeriya rushed him, dropping on top of his legs to pin him, and striking him again.

Two lightning fast, vicious attacks completely subdued him, the buttstock striking his stomach and then his upper chest in quick succession. She then pinned him by forcing the length of the weapon against his neck. Shalikova was stunned. Around Valeriya an entirely black and red cloud seethed. Her once inexpressive eyes were drawn wide, dilated with unrestrained fury. It was impossible to read her expression due to the black mask over her mouth, but her eyes told enough.

“Target suppressed. Awaiting confirmation to eliminate.” She said in an atonal voice.

Even Maryam was shocked at the violence. For that demure-looking girl to be so brutal–

“Oh jeez.” Illya had been as unable to respond as anyone else. “Lerya, stand down!”

Shalikova remembered, those distant old days with her sister–

Zasha, Illya and Valeriya were best friends, but–

Valeriya was always with Illya. She always regarded Illya as her “favorite person.”

I would do anything for her. Even kill.

Her behavior was not so bad when Zasha was alive but–

“Standing down.”

Obediently, Valeriya withdrew her rifle and stood up as if nothing had happened. In that instant, all of that evil black aura dissipated from her. Her intent changed entirely. Illya took her hand, looked her in the eye and began to gently reprimand her. She understood Valeriya’s needs. With the aura receding, Shalikova’s hazy, mystical thoughts gave away to practical feelings.

Despite the sheer aggression of the attack, Shalikova could not blame Valeriya for it.

That being said, she also felt a surging of emotion and a sudden sense of urgency. Had Murati been here she would have made it her duty to be responsible to Aiden, and so, despite her misgivings, when he was dropped, Shalikova rushed to the side of him and knelt down, trying to assess whatever injury was done to him. Maryam joined her, shocked so much her skin went pale.

Shalikova reached out to him, try to get him sat up– but Aiden struck her hand away.

“What is wrong with you?” Shalikova said. “You idiot! They’ll throw you in the brig!”

Coughing as he sat up, Aiden pointed an accusatory finger at Illya, eyes filled with tears.

“That woman was there! On the day my family was attacked! I saw her kill my mother!”

Shalikova was rendered speechless. Maryam gasped and covered her mouth in fear.

“Those eyes! Those cold metal eyes! They were looking down on me then too!”

Aiden Ahwalia, son of Elias Ahwalia– five fateful years ago, his family had been put under house arrest.

Then Justice Minister Bhavani Jayasankar announced a sweeping purge of corrupt and abusive officials in the communist party, aligned with Elias Ahwalia, who had been lying to the public about spending on social projects, the rationing of goods, and other areas of the economy in service to themselves. Shalikova had been in her third year at the Academy, just entering the military program at 18 years. Solstice’s news channels broadcast all of the evidence of the corruption, including lurid details of secret funds and diverted stores of goods and materials. Scores of projects were cancelled that had aimed supposedly to digitize and automate various functions of the economy, build new machines and advanced systems to limit human working hours. Scores more secret projects were revealed that had sucked up the people’s resources. All of it was stopped, all resources reallocated.

There was a furor in the Union. Popular mobilizations supported Jayasankar’s purge. Troops from outside the Justice Ministry’s ranks almost unanimously backed Jayasankar, including all of the Navy High Command, insuring that civil conflict would not ensue on Ahwalia’s behalf against Jayasankar’s internal troops. Ultimately, Bhavani Jayasankar went on to assume control of the country as a whole when Ahwalia was ejected from office in an emergency all-union retention vote.

It was impossible not to know this about their history– not to know this about Ahwalia.

She turned to face Illya with a dreadful understanding of Aiden’s words.

Her eyes felt painfully warm as she tried to read Illya. Her aura was resisting scrutiny.

By outward appearance, it was impossible to tell Illya’s response to that accusation. Her expression never changed. She had been frowning because of Valeriya’s actions and continued to do so out of worry for her partner. Clearly her good mood had been dampened by the events, but she didn’t look guilty or boastful or like she had any emotion toward somebody accusing her of murdering their mother. Beyond the bare fact of murdering a civilian, to murder someone’s mother in front of them

Shalikova did not want to believe Aiden but in the back of her mind, she simply knew.

She knew that Illya and Valeriya were soldiers worthy of the special forces.

The kind that would be invaluable assets, taking decisive actions in a time of turmoil.

Illya would carry out any mission. Valeriya would follow her anywhere.

Zasha too–

“Illya–”

For them to be marines on the Brigand, which was full of other elite soldiers–

The Brigand ferrying Aiden Ahwalia, who had suffered from the coup attempt–

Shalikova felt a terrible history assembling itself in her mind.

Illya sighed openly while Aiden continued to blubber accusations.

“Sonya, you don’t understand–”

“What the hell is going on here?”

Joining the ensuing drama, the broad-chested, wide-shouldered, towering figure of Chief Akulantova appeared from the adjoining hall, looking incredulously between the sedate Valeriya, the exasperated Illya, and Shalikova, Ayden and Maryam on the floor. As she stomped forward, Shalikova could only imagine how ludicrous the scene must have looked to the Chief, walking in on her two subordinates, the ship’s most controversial ward on the ground, and Shalikova, who should have been more responsible than this, in the middle of it with the ship’s weird new V.I.P.! It was mortifying– Shalikova remained dead silent.

“Why is Ahwalia on the floor? Rostova, Peterburg?” Akulantova grunted.

“Valeriya broke up a fight.” Illya said. “She was way too rough. You know how it is.”

“It was my fault.” Valeriya said sheepishly.

“Oh my god.” Akulantova raised her hands to her face.

“Chief–!” Aiden tried to raise his voice, prompting a coughing fit.

“Shut up, Ahwalia.” Akulantova said immediately. “Nobody say anything now. Especially not the two of you.” She pointed her burly arm at Illya and Valeriya. “You two have caused me maybe the biggest headache of my career right now. We’re going to have to get statements, file reports, involve the Captain– fuck, I’m going to have to call Syrah here too, I can’t believe this!”

Shalikova watched security deliberate with a wide-eyed, empty-headed expression.

It was going to be a much longer night than she bargained for…


“Why are you looking at me like that? Never seen me eating before?”

“I mean. I haven’t ever seen you eating before, that’s true–”

“Warm food and potable water are preconditions for warfare.”

“–That’s not remotely relevant to why I’m staring.”

“Stop staring then. For whatever reason it is. Get some food and sit down.”

Norn von Fueller pointed to a chair opposite her own in the cafeteria’s rows of long tables.

Selene Anahid ambled away from the lady (technically, lord) in charge of the ship and toward the self service area. The Antenora had a strangely ordinary cafeteria, with a closed kitchen that cooked two menus a day using typical appliances, and then stocked the meals in a dispenser machine at the far end of the row tables. The food dispensers stocked the morning or evening meal and kept it warm for hours. A touchscreen controlled the machine– a finicky resistive screen that Selene struggled with.

It was nothing like the sleek, responsive devices she was used to.

In addition to the dispensers containing hot meals, there was also a table set off to the side with a case of cold sausages, a tray of hard biscuits, and two automatic drink machines, one of them a kettle for hot pork broth, the other filled with lime water.

“Um. Hey. I guess I’ll have– Uh– let’s see, what are they actually cooking?”

Selene scanned the selections on the dim screen, feeling a bit discouraged.

For the centerpiece staple, there was a cornmeal and oat porridge with bits of meat in it, probably some kind of lard or pork scraps, which tended to be the Empire’s ground meat of choice. There was a dish of Wurstsalat, cut sausages with pickled gherkin, radish and onion bound in an oily dressing thickened with coarse mustard. Black bread and a simple fish soup were also on offer, along with small reusable bottles filled with a mix of coffee and sweetened condensed milk, a limited item on the Antenora.

Eyeing the available meals, Selene felt rather silly. She wanted to ask for a burger.

Back in Frederich’s Abyss, machines prepared all the meals at will.

They would cook practically anything. Selene wasn’t aware how.

She asked, and food appeared. Whatever kind of food she felt like eating!

Euphrates and her common companion, Tigris, loved to eat things like burgers and pizza.

Selene was used to getting her food from a machine at any hour, but she was not used to having her choices limited by whatever had been cooked by a real live human using a limited set of ingredients and then put into the machine at certain times during the day; and she had a somewhat spoiled palate on top of everything else. It proved difficult for her to fill her tray with the day’s meal, even when she could operate the dispensers. There was always a table with plain sausage and biscuits, so for the moment, Selene grabbed bread and sausage, a bottle of sweet coffee, and made the best of it.

When she returned to Norn’s table, the Praetorian gave her a critical glare.

“You can’t be serious. Go back there and grab some of the salad at least.”

Selene stared at her with narrowed eyes. “Huh? But I don’t like pickles.” She said.

“What?” Norn looked scandalized. “All this time you haven’t been eating the pickles?”

“Uh, I haven’t, yeah. I said I don’t like them.” Selene averted her gaze.

Norn dropped her spork and laid a hand over her face in exasperation.

“I can’t believe you. Do you want to die? When was the last time you ate a vegetable?”

“There was sausage and peppers for dinner three days ago!”

“Those peppers are pickled too!” Norn shouted.

“Oh.”

Selene did not have a come-back for that.

Norn stared daggers right into Selene’s eyes.

“Do you think we live in a palace? Put some salad on your tray this instant.”

She pointed authoritatively in the direction of the trays again.

And so once more, Selene begrudgingly took her tray to the dispensers.

When she returned, she had added a bowl of the salad– and a little bit of porridge in a cup.

She figured she could cut the salad with some of the porky porridge if it was too pickle-y.

Selene sat down and stared at her plate and at Norn, awaiting inspection.

Finally her commander looked pleased with her.

“Good girl. Pilots need a balanced diet! Especially ones like you.”

Norn’s plate had some of everything in it, porridge, salad, bread, sausage, fish soup.

Big appetite for a big personality, Selene supposed.

Thankfully Norn did not watch her eat. After commanding her to get the salad, she focused on her own plate. Selene noticed that Norn ate fairly slowly and really seemed to savor her food. Did she really like this cafeteria slop? She had heard that Norn had a hard life, so she imagined that maybe Norn savored her food so thoroughly out of fear that she may never get to eat again.

That was pure speculation, but Selene thought she hit on something deep there.

Selene picked up a bit of sausage and pickles with her spork and lifted it to her mouth. At first she recoiled a bit at the vinegary dressing, but she was surprised by the taste. Crumbly, meaty sausage with the mellow tang of the gherkins and the sweetness of the pickled radish and onion. Taken apart, perhaps they would be gross, but everything worked together somehow. She did not spit it back out — furthermore, she picked up a second sporkful and chewed it a little bit longer.

“You’re pinning down your antennae.” Norn said off-handedly.

“Huh?” Selene raised her eyes from her plate. Norn’s eyes went back down to her food.

“I just noticed you had them out when we talked in your room, but they’re pinned now.”

It was true. Selene usually tied them to her hair so they bent down as if part of it.

“It’s annoying to have them pinned down all the time, but I don’t like them sticking out.”

“How come? I think they’re kind of cute.” Norn said, pointing her spork at them.

“Why don’t you swing your tail around all the time?” Selene snapped.

Norn narrowed her eyes. “Nice joke.” She said dryly.

“Sorry.” Selene said. She knew immediately she had spoken carelessly and impulsively.

“I’ll be sure not give you any more fodder for your incredible sense of humor.”

Norn stabbed her spork into a sausage with great violence and chewed it brutally.

“Finish your salad, get out of my sight and watch your mouth in the future.”

In the next instant, a video window appeared on the surface on the table.

One of the bridge drones appeared on the screen.

Selene could tell because the officer drones had more elaborate uniforms and hairstyles.

“Milord, we have detected an approaching vessel. Sunlight Foundation Alonso De Ojeda class Frigate. We believe we’ve detected signs of deployment chute activity under the vessel. In case of Magellan-class Divers, how should we respond?”

Norn’s eyes drew wide. She stamped her hands on the table as she half stood.

“What? Tell Samoylovych to deploy immediately. Link me to the ship commander–”

Another window then appeared beside that of the bridge drone, also on the table.

This one had Potomac on it. She appeared to be down in the hangar, near a bearing monitor.

“Norn, this ship is picking me up. You can accept the Magellan that will come out of it.”

Norn blinked with surprise. “Oh this is rich. Who authorized them to meet us?”

“I’m leaving, Norn. I’m done putting up with you. I’ve arranged for a tech to replace me.”

Potomac’s window closed. Norn pounded her fist on the table again.

“Whatever then! I hate that bitch’s guts. She can fuck off! I’ll kick her out myself!”

“Milord–” the bridge drone began to ask for clarification, but Norn interrupted.

“Detain Potomac. Tell Samoylovych to deploy and escort that Magellan in.” She said.

Norn stood from the table and shot a sharp glance at Selene, who had a sporkful of salad in her mouth from when she was ordered to eat. Selene averted her gaze from the Praetorian, who in turn sighed and bid her to follow. At first Selene did not know what to make of the gesture.

“Bring your salad plate and eat on the way. Come on. I need you as backup just in case.”

Need you.

Something stirred in Selene’s heart, and she bolted up off the table, salad in hand.

Maybe if she was obedient enough Norn would forgive the slight–

Maybe she already had forgiven her.

“Good. Follow me.”

Norn turned and walked at a fast, confident pace out of the cafeteria.

As she was commanded to do, Selene followed behind her.

She was dressed in her pilot suit, but she had no weapons if a confrontation broke out.

No weapon except her mind– but her mind was unusually powerful, after all.

Potomac was an Immortal, but Norn was an Apostle, and Selene– she was special.

“Don’t worry too much. I expect this will be easily handled.” Norn said.

She must have seen Selene’s expression, deep in thought.

To try to guard against further assumptions she started eating her salad again.

By the time they reached the hangar, Selene had an empty bowl in her hands.

As soon as she could, she handed it off to a drone.

There was a commotion in the middle of the hangar.

One of the deployment chutes was held open with a white Diver half-trapped inside, while Samoylovych’s Jagd started climbing out of the adjacent one to help corral it. Four marines with shoulder-mounted anti-armor missiles were aiming at the captive Diver in the deployment chute. While most ordnance used in the water was purely explosive, since penetrators were not as effective in water as in air, those AP missiles had very small explosive effects and instead perforated armor with a tungsten cored round. This made them safe to use in this situation — they could fire on the Diver without endangering the hangar itself.

In a corner of the room, Potomac stood with her hands up, eyeing with disdain the group of infantry surrounding her with assault rifles trained. Along with this group, Petra, Adelheid and Hunter III were helping to keep Potomac trapped. Selene was surprised by the efficient response. Norn had only ordered her detained and not mentioned any specifics as to how.

She supposed Samoylovych and Petra were just doing whatever and going with the flow.

Adelheid and Hunter III though looked like they had taken good command of the situation.

“Norn!” Potomac called out. “You know I don’t like fighting! Please call off the goons!”

“Let her go. If she wants to leave I’m certainly not going to keep her.” Norn said.

Having arrived at the hangar, Norn eased the tension immediately. All of the soldiers backed off and disarmed or engaged the safeties of their weapons. The white Diver in the deployment chute was finally allowed to rise into the hangar, while Samoylovych took her Jagd to the nearest gantry to be locked in and powered down. Hunter III and Adelheid left Potomac’s side and went to join Norn and Selene. Adelheid let out a long-held breath in relief, while Hunter III looked quite eager.

“Boss, is it time to eat her yet?” Hunter III moaned.

“No.”

Norn patted Hunter III’s head like that of a dog.

Hunter III pulled her hood up over her head and sat barefoot on the cold floor, sulking.

“I saw her eyes light up.” Adelheid said. “Really briefly though.”

“Could you tell what she was doing?”

Adelheid shrugged as if that wasn’t her problem.

“I’ll set her straight. Selene, you go check on the pilot of that Magellan.” Norn said.

Selene nodded her head.

While Norn and Potomac commenced a loud, circular argument, Selene walked away.

In the middle of the hangar, the incoming Magellan-class Diver had been left stranded atop the deployment chutes without a gantry to hold on to. Selene had seen Magellans before — she had trained to pilot Divers using one. Going from that to piloting something like a Volker would have been a nightmare, but the Jagdkaiser was a decent upgrade from any other available mecha.

Still, Selene had a fondness for that white and blue Diver in front of her.

The Magellan’s body plan was like a Volker if it was done right.

Rather than simply round like a Volker or rough and angular like a Union Strelok-class, the design of the Magellan class’ body was all sleek beveled edges and complex surfaces that gave it a truly futuristic look. The upper body had round pauldrons and a rounded “neck guard”, with arms that could slot into the flanks of the body for improved hydrodynamics. Rather than trying to mimic a helmeted human head like a Volker or Strelok, the design had 360 degree armored “mono-eye” orb head that rotated on its own axis, allowing for a “main camera” with incredible vision supported by a few auxiliaries on the body.

Meanwhile the legs were thick, triple-jointed with an integrated water system with flexible channels, allowing for natural adjustment of the angle of the leg jets based on movement of the whole leg, allowing more precise lower thrust and quicker changes in direction. On the midsection, the pilot’s pod slotted between the chest plate and skirt, a loop of convex armor covering the gap. On the back, there was a standard magnetic strip and the hands could accept a variety of weapons.

While there were four traditional hydrojets, two on the legs and two on the back, there were also wake-jets on each shoulder. Like the Jagdkaiser’s jets, these were self-contained propulsion pods that accelerated water through themselves like a hydrojet but were lighter and more efficient, using a bladeless turbine– something about salt ions and heat and agarro-conductivity, Selene didn’t know all the details. Euphrates certainly made it sound impressive and it supplied all the Jagdkaiser’s thrust.

It was the pinnacle of Sunlight Foundation engineering, taking the crude concept of the Divers other nations produced, which grew out of labor suits and overblown dive bells and bathyspheres, and removing all limits to production, using only the most advanced materials and the most fit-for-purpose design methods. Or at least, that’s something Tigris once said to Selene.

When Selene stopped at the side of the Magellan’s kneeling leg, the convex armor ring in the middle expanded sideways, opening to reveal the entrance to the pilot’s pod. From inside the machine a young woman in a blue and white jumpsuit climbed out. The woman had her back turned; Selene’s eyes were immediately drawn to the definition of her shoulders beneath the tight jumpsuit, and a bushy tail with dark-brown fur swaying anxiously as she dropped down from the midsection of the machine.

“I was expecting a bit of a warmer welcome. That Jagd scared the daylight out of me!”

She turned around and nearly ran into Selene, who had wandered closer to the pilot pod.

“Watch where you’re going!”

Selene put her hands to her hips, while the pilot withdrew a step.

“Ah! Sorry! I’m a little clumsy getting off these– I still feel like I’m in the water for a bit.”

“Get yourself together already! What are you doing here?”

Selene looked her up and down.

She was a young girl, maybe even Selene’s age, slightly shorter but comensurately better built, with lean, muscled arms and shoulders and slightly wider pelvis. She had a soft rounded face that was framed with wavy brown hair, and thin-framed white glasses perched on her small nose. Atop her head she had two dark-brown, furry cat ears with visible white fluff. Her expression was strangely shy, almost withering under the disdainful look Selene gave her as she looked her over top to bottom.

Quite demure and gentle for that tough-looking body that she had.

Her suit covered most of her, but Selene noticed her fingers were subtly segmented.

Very thin grey gaps were visible, minute separations in the artificial skin.

Her eyes, too, were clearly cybernetic, with concentric cool green rings over baby blue.

“My name is Dunja Kalajdžić!” She said.

After a moment, she stiffened up and her eyes drew wide, staring dumbly at Selene.

“Ahh! No, no, no, forget that! I meant to say Neretva! My name is Neretva!”

A dramatic twitch worked itself out through her tail as she corrected herself.

Selene narrowed her eyes at her. “Okay, Neretva. What are you doing here?”

“I’m– I’m just a mechanic, here to replace Madame Potomac on the Jagdkaiser project! We’ll be partners– I mean we’ll be working together now, pilot! Rest assured that I have read all the appropriate technical manuals and memorized all of the equipment needs! I know I can’t measure up to an Immortal, but I did train under Lady Hudson!” Neretva cried out.

Selene ignored most of the blathering and focused only on what mattered to her.

“So Potomac is taking this thing back out?” She said, pointing to the Magellan.

“That’s the idea. Ojeda frigates can’t handle shuttles.” Neretva said. She looked around the hangar in confusion. “Ah– forgive me, I don’t know the whole situation, but I was told there would be a Jagdkaiser Type II to service here. I see a Type I over there that looks like it took a few lumps– and there’s some Foundation compression crates all the way over there–”

“You’re in luck!” Selene said, her voice taking on a cruel tone as she found another way to make sport of the shy mechanic. “You’ll be getting so dreadfully hands on with the Jagdkaiser Type II, in that you’ll be assembling it from scratch, because we don’t have any gantries to put it in. You’ll also be disassembling my Jagdkaiser Type I as well! Have fun!”

Neretva stared at her with nervous eyes. She then fixated on Selene’s antennae within her hair.

“Oh, are these the interfaces– you clipped them down–”

She reached out a hand absentmindedly to Selene’s head. Trying to touch her–?

“What do you think you’re reaching for? Creep!”

Selene batted her hand away and Neretva blanched in response.

“I’m sorry! I wasn’t thinking! I’m really sorry, your antennae are part of the equipment–”

“Go to hell! Norn, I’ve got your stupid pilot here, she’s fine! I’m leaving!”

Hands balled up into fists at her sides, Selene tossed her hair and turned her cheek, leaving Neretva by the side of the Magellan with an aggressively brisk walking pace. She was met halfway by Norn, escorting Potomac to the Magellan class. With one look, Norn got Selene to stop and join them briefly. Potomac had her arms crossed and was looking away from everyone around. It appeared that those two had come to a final understanding and were no longer on cordial speaking terms.

They barely wanted to look at each other, it seemed.

“Selene, got anything to say to this gasbag before we get rid of her?” Norn asked.

“Hmph!” Potomac made a noise to protest but did not follow through with words.

Selene stared at Potomac only briefly before deciding. “I have nothing to say to her.”

“Selene, I hope you won’t become embroiled in this woman’s warpath, for your sake.”

With only those words, Potomac advanced past her and Norn, past Neretva.

She climbed into the Magellan-class Diver and plunged into the deployment chute.

Soon, she was gone. Neretva took her place and quietly resumed work on the Jagdkaiser.

Of course, the Antenora hardly felt bereft of Potomac’s presence in the ensuing voyage.

There was no friendship to be had with her; and Norn just had one less person to fight with.

Briefly, an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation had graced this vessel. But like the rest of those ancient conspirators, she left no mark, and took with her all that she had learned and done. Euphrates once extolled to Selene the virtue in not interfering with the world, but Selene knew it for what it was. It was the selfishness of a woman who toyed with the world only for her own use.

“It’s the luxury of all those freaks to live like that. I won’t follow them.” Selene mumbled.

With a sense of surreal non-absence the Antenora’s course for Goryk’s Abyss continued.


“Zdravstvuyte! May I come in?”

“High Volgian is fully unnecessary. Come on in.”

“Well, I don’t get to use it very often at all. Warm greetings, First Officer, Science Officer.”

When the door the medical bay opened, a cheerful, blue-haired woman with very intricate eyes appeared to greet Murati and Karuniya in the ancient Volgian tongue. The Union had a very strong Volgian character, but High Volgian was hardly used, and certainly did not carry the cultural importance that High Imbrian did for Imperial subjects. Nevertheless, the perfect pronunciation made an interesting first impression. Murati found herself thinking that high language must have been the kind of pursuit that occupied the spare time of an intellectual woman like Dr. Euphemia Rontgen of Solarflare LLC.

Now Murati’s next question was: what did this passenger want with me?

It was very early in the morning. The Medbay was quiet, the lights dim, Doctor Kappel had not even been in yet for the morning checkup. She had stayed up late checking up on and treating Aiden Ahwalia, who had been the victim of an altercation and now occupied the third bed in the room, bruised but ultimately still whole, resting peacefully after being given a strong painkiller. Sameera had been awake overnight due to the commotion and so lapsed into a deep sleep at this hour.

Murati had been asleep for most of it, due to her own strong dose of painkillers.

She had learned of everything that happened when Karuniya had appeared with a sweet cornmeal porridge and a cup of broth to feed her that morning. Karuniya had learned of the events from Braya Zachikova, who had found out in her capacity as Electronic Warfare Officer by readingthe incident logging without permission. Those two were working together on some project.

“For some reason Aiden confronted one of the surveillance room girls.” Karuniya said. “It got ugly. They’re intelligence officers who aren’t good at handling security situations safely, not like Klara and Lian are, or even Chief Akulantova herself. I don’t know why they were patrolling, maybe Klara and Lian were overworked. But anyway, it got out of hand and one of them absolutely thrashed Aiden. Honestly, that kid had it coming, if you ask me. He gets on everyone’s nerves and acts so arrogantly.”

Murati sighed deeply. “I was afraid it’d come to that. I’m just glad it wasn’t Khadija.”

“Ah, I suppose that’s true. You’d have been the one filing all the incident reports then.”

“Worse. If it happened last night, it would be Shalikova dealing with the paperwork.”

It was at that point that Doctor Euphemia came to visit without prior warning.

Murati was decently informed about the nature of her presence on the Brigand.

She was a private science theorist working for an Imperial company who had become stranded after a failed excursion to the Goryk Abyss deeper into the gorge. It was the duty of all sailing ships to conduct rescue if they found civilians in danger. This was a maritime honor that no decent ship would ignore, so they rescued the Solarflare crew. But of course, there was much more to it than that. Euphemia and Theresa were apparently frequent employers of mercenaries, and the Brigand was doing business in that capacity in the hopes of acquiring some extra supplies. It could be a good scheme — if it ultimately paid off.

Certainly, Euphemia did not fit Murati’s picture of an avid underworld player.

“The Captain gave the green light for me to visit, on the condition I agreed not to pry into the particulars of the Brigand’s origin. She happened to drop the surname ‘Nakara’ in conversation, you see, and I wanted to see the child of Kauthik and Lakshmi Nakara. This is quite a chance meeting. Perhaps there is indeed wisdom to what a certain Daksha Kansal believed about people.”

Murati and Karuniya looked at each other in disbelief as Euphemia spoke.

Neither interrupted her, despite how long-winded she was getting.

“I was also informed the Science Officer would be taking care of Nakara, so I will defer to the two of you if I should be allowed to stay or leave.” Euphemia finally said, bowing her head in deference to the pair.

“Of course you can stay.” Murati said. “But– you sure know a lot of meaningful names.”

She was hesitant.

Her heart lit up when she heard the names of her parents spoken, and that of the first Premier of the Union, Daksha Kansal. Of Kansal much had been said and much had been written but Murati had so precious little about her parents. In the early Union, the sermons of communism which united the rebels were mainly oral in nature, and her parents had little time to write. They deferred to the teachings of Mordecai, and on writings Kansal had published before her exile explicitly for the dissemination to prisoners and slaves. She knew that her parents were also prolific activists and writers. She was old enough to understand they led dangerous lives in the Empire that ultimately led to their exile and enslavement in the Nectaris Ocean 23 years ago.

But those writings they did in the Empire, and those actions which they took, stayed in the Empire if they had been recorded at all.

In the Union’s archives, other people’s words extolled the virtues of the Nakaras among many other names in the early revolution. Their own words and own voice were hardly represented in those archives. Murati did not believe there was anything about this that was deliberate or malicious. Her parents had died to Imperial forces in battle near the end of the Union’s revolt. They had been busy with commanding and organizing people. They had the responsibility of commanding the Union’s first dreadnought. They didn’t have time to write theory or to pen memoirs before they were taken.

It was a tragedy of history, not some kind of conspiracy.

Deshnov had believed it was a conspiracy– but Murati knew better than that.

He was, after all, for all his virtues, an Ahwaliaist, and Murati was a Jayasankarist.

They had their separate biases and that was fine–

Despite the rationale, despite the logic, however, Murati still lived with a lingering doubt.

Who were her parents, truly? Were they simply and vaguely, nothing but ‘heroes’?

So when Euphemia spoke those names, she had begun to hang on every word.

Like that curious little girl searching desperately in the archives in Solstice again and again for any sign of her own history. Suddenly, a piece of that history hitherto unseen had walked in. Murati did not know where to place it.

And she didn’t even know whether she could trust it.

After all, who was Euphemia Rontgen?

“How did you come to know her parents?” Karuniya asked.

God bless her– she had overcome Murati’s hesitations for her.

Euphemia smiled, calmly and pleasantly, as if they were sitting down together for a warm cup of coffee on a peaceful day. “So to preface, I didn’t know them personally, but I am familiar with their work and I was well aware of their exploits through Daksha Kansal. Only a few people know the name Nakara in the Empire, people who had been involved in the old academic and labor movements. But for some the name ‘Nakara’ gave hope for change to an entire generation of reformers in the Empire. Many of whom only came to find their reform in founding the Union and have yet to export it back to their old home.”

The idea that her surname was famous to anyone in the Empire made Murati nervous.

“I suppose I should conceal my surname to avoid any odd questions then.” Murati said.

“Like I said, only a few people would know nowadays. Almost everyone who was involved with them back in the day would end up exiled or worse.” Euphemia replied. She looked amused at how Murati recoiled, but the Lieutenant was being practical. Euphemia should not have come to know they were all from the Union just from hearing a surname, that would have been brutally awful opsec. “Do you have any questions about them? Or about Daksha Kansal?” She said.

“Should I have any?” Murati said. “I know they were organizers in the Empire. They were deported to the Nectaris colonies for inciting riots. That’s not mundane, but it’s also not a great secret. How much more is there to know?”

That was a fact that always plagued Murati’s attempts to uncover her family’s past.

What questions do you ask to get beyond the most superficial facts?

Euphemia sat back in one of the free chairs and smiled knowingly.

“Well, firstly, young lady, they would have blanched at having their project reduced to ‘inciting riots.’ They organized mass activities with students and workers, and ultimately strung together networks of solidarity that almost lead to the Empire’s first General Strike. It was the threat of a massive stoppage of work, premised on punishing the failed promises of the Fueller Reformation, that got your parents exiled. It was not just riots. Once upon a time they resisted the idea of rioting in fact.”

Euphemia spoke with the cadence of a lecturing professor, long-winded and self assured, her cybernetic eyes scrutinizing Murati’s face for reactions, a little smile creeping as she spoke and as Murati stared speechless at her. This description did make it seem like her parent’s activity was far wider and grander than simply burning a few government offices in North Bosporus. Murati briefly looked to Karuniya to gauge her reaction and found her wife-to-be similarly stumped by the doctor.

“By trade, your parents were oceanologists.” Euphemia said, continuing unprompted. This got Karuniya to widen her eyes further. “This afforded them the pleasure to travel all over the Imbrium Ocean, which is something not many get to do. In our time, most people are bound to their station and maybe a few neighboring ones. Your parents made many connections, and studied a lot of theory that they then spread. They formed a network, a fabric between many far flung organizations and interests: because they believed that Oceanology had to be sociopolitical. To save our Ocean, to protect our resources, to sustain our lives and livelihoods, we had to completely change not just environmental policy, but our modes of production and social organization. Like Daksha Kansal, they believed that humans who had become individualized, needed to communalize to survive.”

“My parents became Mordecists because they wanted to protect the Ocean?” Murati said.

Her voice sounded more skeptical than she wanted but– she had never known this.

In her mind her parents were materialists– not idealists like her beloved Karuniya.

Oceanology was important– but it was an animal and chemical science, not a politics.

“What an interesting response!” Euphemia said. “Does it strike you as a contradiction?”

“Topics like this are my constant battle with this narrow-minded woman.”

Karuniya cracked a grin and rubbed her elbow cheerfully against Murati’s shoulder.

“Listen to her! Oceanologists can be very politically conscious!” Euphemia said, putting on a similar face.

Two of them, Murati thought. Now there were two of them ganging up against her!

“Oceanologists are constantly swearing as if ocean salinity numbers are some form of divination of where we are as a society and that all production and consumption should veer dramatically to protect corals and leviathans.” Murati said. “But if the two of you accept that Mordecist organization of production and society are correct and superior then we finally agree on something, and I can’t fault whatever alarmist nonsense has led you to that conclusion.”

Murati didn’t actually believe what she herself was saying to such a harsh degree.

She just felt defensive, and it made her want to contradict the two of them.

And what she felt was a gross mischaracterization of her positions on Oceanology.

“She’s just going to stubbornly quote the Union’s environmental policy at you next.”

“Ahh, she’s so unlike the stories of her parents! She’s so much more like Daksha Kansal!”

Euphemia and Karuniya seemed to reach a silent understanding to make sport of Murati.

So Murati’s response to them had completely backfired. She was in the nest of two snakes.

“Are you having fun?” Murati snapped. “Let’s get back to the point. I was a little kid when they passed away. In the Empire I only remember them leaving through a door and coming back in through another. I didn’t even get to go to school because we kept going from place to place and they were always out. So thank you, Doctor Euphemia Rontgen. I now know that I was entirely wrong in my conception of them, and that they were not the militarists I thought they might be.”

“Oh Murati, don’t be sore.” Karuniya said. “I think your parents sound wonderful!”

“Of course you would.”

Murati felt strange. It was, in a sense, as strange as she had felt about almost dying in battle.

She felt nothing. So her parents were pacifist idealists who wanted to “save the Ocean.”

Murati herself didn’t really put stock in such things.

She was a materialist, some would call her a militarist in bad faith, even. She believed firstly in promoting the power that humans had collectively, through the sharing of their resources, through the improvement of their systems and tools, through the things they could build — and the forces they could muster, and the enemies they needed to destroy.

Things like the condition of the waters or the affairs of animals were purely secondary concerns to her.

She saw them as something apart and distracting from human events.          

So what? That was frustratingly mundane. To find out her parents were just big dreamers.

“Were you expecting me to reveal a big secret? Like maybe you’re the heir to the Empire? A secret princess who was spirited away at birth and could return to claim the vacant throne? But who has instead been enlightened by mordecist communism to bring revolution? Perhaps you’ll develop secret magical powers too? Quite romantic!”

Euphemia smiled broadly and indulged in a little chuckle.

She really had a way with people; it was like she could read Murati’s thoughts.

And then say the most annoying thing possible.

“This is nice, you know. To bequeath a legacy to someone, however mundane.”

She gave Murati a fond look that the latter was not willing to receive.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Murati said. “So my parents were boring–”

“–Murati!” Karuniya interrupted as if scolding an unreasonable child.

Murati did not pause. “–So what about Kansal? What was their relationship like?”

“Daksha Kansal was their enabler. She knew them far better than I.” Euphemia said. She continued to speak with gentle eyes gazing as if past Murati, delivering a lecture but not necessarily engaging the audience. “If your parents were the heart of the operation then Kansal was the fist, maybe the knife or the gun. She grew to love styling herself an adventurer and a rebel, an international woman of mystery juggling many conspiracies, but in reality, by trade she was a neurobiologist radicalized by the Empire’s racist politics.” She paused for a moment as if falling deep into remembrance. Perhaps she could see Kansal in her mind’s eye. Murati could as well. Her brown and white hair tied up in a bun, her pristine uniform.

“Even Kansal was not just a plain militarist. She had an interesting belief which she infected your parents with.” Euphemia continued. “Remember when I talked about individualism versus communalism? Kansal did not just believe this in a political sense. She thought that there was a way of thinking, not just in the sense of political theory, but biological theory– literally a mode of thinking which had been lost to individualism and which had to be reclaimed via communalism. A brain chemistry that humans were developing in the tight, desperate quarters of underwater life and that could unite our society.”

How was she supposed to respond to complete pseudoscience like that?

Was this really still the same Daksha Kansal she was talking about?

“You’re telling me she believed a bunch of quackery too?” Murati said.

“But what is quack-ish about it? Isn’t it a beautiful thing to believe?” Euphemia said. “Isn’t it lovely to think that humans are destined to reach a communal enlightenment that will elevate not just their material conditions, but the very way we think and communicate? Whether or not it be empirically proven, it reflects optimism and a great love of people.”

“Murati’s rarely this entrenched in materialism versus idealism as she is today.” Karuniya said with a hearty, mocking sigh and a quick, dismissive wave of her hand. “Please forgive her, good Doctor. She’ll be less grumpy when fed.”

“What do you want me to say?” Murati protested. “Do you believe that nonsense for a second?”

“Well, not necessarily.” Karuniya said, with a little shrug and a mischevious little smile. Which she now turned on Euphemia instead. “That is a pretty out-there thing to claim about the first Premier, doctor. Other people on this ship might pick a fight with you for acting like Daksha Kansal, the great liberator and founder, was actually a weird religious freak.”

Euphemia winked at them. “But why does a band of mercenaries care so much about it?”

Karuniya covered her mouth in shock.

“Hah, don’t worry. I’m not blind, but of course I’ll keep my suspicions to myself.”

“As long as you’re professional about it.” Karuniya sighed.

Murati forgave her wife’s carelessness quite easily.

It was clear that Euphemia had them figured out from the start. If she walked through the hangar even once she must have realized it, and she and Theresa were supposedly helping with the repairs, so the fact that the Brigand was full of Union personnel couldn’t be kept strictly secret. Clearly the matter of what Euphemia knew about them was being handled by Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara in some way and Murati had to trust them. That was not at the forefront of her mind.

Daksha Kansal still was.

This idea of hers– did she really believe something so near mystical in nature?

Mordecai argued for communism from a material standpoint: economics and structural organization.

This idea that human brains were undergoing a change was purely idealist.

Did Dakshal Kansal really hold that conviction so deeply it led her to fight for liberation?

When did she, Murati’s parents, lose these ideas and take up the practical fight in the Union?

Did they ever?

“What about you, doctor? Do you believe Kansal’s ideas? Or my parent’s ideas?”

Euphemia smiled at her. “I don’t necessarily believe it. But it roused their spirits. The road that began with those ideals ended in the liberation of a nation of slaves and the downtrodden, which even today is an inspiration and refuge for dissidents; so can you truly criticize them for being idealistic? Their convictions helped them repel the world’s mightiest nation.”

Murati kept quiet.

She knew all of the story after her parents and Kansal, along with a few others like Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia, ended up in the Nectaris colonies together and began to organize the exiles and the enslaved. She assumed this was part that Euphemia would know less about. Murati now knew a bit more about the origins of some of these people– that their ideas were not as straightforward as they had been presented to her. They had taken their own journeys to arrive at the conclusions reached in the Union. Perhaps– perhaps that was beautiful in some way. Murati struggled to see it as Euphemia did, however.

“What was your relationship to Daksha Kansal?” Murati said. “You said she knew my parents and helped them when I was a kid. You don’t look so old as to have been a peer to her so long ago, that woman is probably pushing her sixties.”

“I’m older than I look, and I’m not afraid to admit it.” Euphemia said calmly. “Daksha Kansal and I used to be colleagues, though not in revolution. The Captain gave me assurances that my past would not pried into, so I will leave it at that. And then I won’t ask you how you went all the way to the colonies two decades ago and are all the way out here again.”

“Fair enough. Thank you for telling me so much about my parents.” Murati said.

“It’s truly my pleasure.” Euphemia said. “Daksha Kansal once believed that all of us were linked together, drawn together, by a force that was the sum total of all of our wills acting in concert. She compared it to a current. Whether you believe in that, or god’s will, or destiny, or dumb luck– I think our meeting was serendipitous, and I’m happy we got to speak, Murati Nakara. You are not a princess, but in my opinion, you are someone whose life was begot and protected by many bright people, and that is more special than any sort of heredity. Your parents were normal people — but they were passionate folk with hopes and dreams.”

She reached out a hand to Murati, and Murati reached toward her and shook with her.

Karuniya reached out as well, and Euphemia shook with her afterwards.

“I am scarcely worthy to say such a thing, but if you’ll indulge me, I think your parents would be very proud of you.” Euphemia said. “And not out of pure sentimentalism. I think they would have cheered the person you became.”

She waited a moment, as if to see if Murati would react harshly and stop her.

Again, Murati simply didn’t know how to respond.

It was something she had no feelings towards now.

As a teenager she had cried her eyes red many times over her parents.

There was no pain left there. There was little elation. “Normal” was a good way to put it.

Euphemia fixed a soft, admiring gaze on her. “Older people burden the youth with the idea that our experience was easily arrived at. We appear before them, fully formed, and even without us knowing it, we pressure them into growing up without teaching them the method behind our struggles. I think your parents would be proud that you have grown to be able to argue against their ideas. They would never want you to imitate them; they would want you to build your own convictions.”

“Thank you.” Murati said. It was all she could say. What else did one say to such a thing?

“When we make it to the Imbrium, I will return what effects I have of the esteemed Premier and the two revolutionaries that she fostered, to you, Murati. You are the correct keeper to preserve what is left of their pasts.” Euphemia said.

Murati blinked. “I– I don’t know what to say. I didn’t imagine there was anything left.”

“The Empire has tried to overwrite them in history, but the truth is not so easily buried.”

“Did her parents entrust you with something?” Karuniya asked. “What is it? Writings?”

“I was not entrusted with anything. However, as the one who they left behind, I felt it was my duty to preserve their work in the Imbrium. I saved writings, memories, curios.” Euphemia said. “You won’t find big secrets there though.”

“Right.” Murati said. “But we’ll be able to confirm what you’ve said, in their own words.”

Reading about her parents, in their own words, their own voices.

Murati felt a renewed surge of emotion that she had not expected. Her feelings were twisted every which way.

Euphemia nodded her head. “As a scientist, I don’t speak without having access to evidence, you know?”

“I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.”

Murati sighed deeply. It was only the first thing in the morning, but she felt quite tired.

There was a lot of disorganized thoughts swirling in her head about all kinds of things.

But there was no point in asking Rontgen more — not if they would get the primary sources.

“They would be proud of you, Murati. Don’t let their ambitions interfere with your own.”

Euphemia stood from the chair she had taken beside Murati’s bed. Easily and mysteriously as she appeared, the doctor left with barely a wave of the hand. Karuniya looked at Murati and rubbed her shoulder in solidarity, but Murati could only watch the wake of her lab coat and wonder. How much more had this woman seen? In that old life cloaked in youth– how much did she know?


By the late afternoon, work on the Brigand had been completed ahead of schedule. Layer by layer the breach on the port-side near the prow, caused by the Iron Lady’s powerful 200 mm twin cannons, had been repaired. There were still electrical systems that were offline and needed to be physically reconnected. Tests would be needed to insure the C6 block and other access ways connected to it could be used again safely under the correct pressure, by people unprotected by suits and without air tanks. But the hole was plugged in and the armor in that sector could withstand gunfire and the stresses of ocean travel once more.

And travel it did. Soon as the repairs were completed and hull’s exterior integrity verified, the Brigand undocked from the small substation on the edge of the abyss and gently traveled into the open water around it, performing a few circles over the station to test worthiness. While Kamarik coddled the ship back into its course, the crew got ready to leave Goryk in the past and begin the next leg of their journey into the Imbrium Ocean. Ulyana Korabiskaya felt relieved to be moving again.

“It’s not the prettiest reconstruction, but I’m pleased with the work we could do under these circumstances. Out in the middle of the ocean with only our tools and some elbow grease! It’s exhilirating to be able work up a sweat again!”

Theresa Faraday smiled with satisfaction. She arrived in the main hall dressed in a form-fitting mechanic’s scuba suit, which would be worn inside Labor armors or pressurized dive suits by sailors, in the same way pilots wore tight suits. Under one arm she had her helmet, and there was a small air tank on her back. Her red hair had been collected into a functional bun. She had gone out to work with the sailors. Ulyana initially thought it would make unnecessary trouble with the Chief Mechanic, Galina Lebedova, since they had read Theresa as someone prideful who would want to micromanage repairs, but Theresa showed humility–

“I’m not here to lead anyone’s projects. I just want to work like everyone else!”

And like everyone else, she worked. She installed and welded composite panels and steel supports, she replaced ducting and nitrogen tanks. Along with every other sailor, she heaved plates into place until the armor over the breach was as thick and perfectly joined as the untouched hull. She worked fast, efficiently, with more strength than her slim frame seemed capable of.

More than anything, this willingness to work elevated Ulyana’s opinion of her.

Euphemia Rontgen also seemed like a pretty harmless person. Acting the jovial professor, she had dropped in on Murati and had a conversation that Karuniya Maharapratham described as quite entertaining. Later, the good doctor joined the Commissar on the bridge and shared news about the Imbrium. She seemed willing to cooperate beyond anything Ulyana expected of her.

Their bodyguard Laskaris just sat around and read magazines on her portable terminal.

Ulyana started dropping her guard around the Solarflare group. They were agreeable.

She would have to take charge of finding them real lodging soon.

Maybe Fernanda and Alex could be moved to one room so the doctors could have beds–

However, as she began to contemplate such things, the doctor conveyed a personal message.

Theresa Faraday wanted to talk to her alone in one of the meeting rooms.

“I want to show you something I discovered.”

When Ulyana arrived at the meeting room, the doctor stood in her scuba suit holding a small segment of armor plate, taken from the materials which were brought out of storage. The Brigand was a unique vessel, and as such it had a large stock of its own spare parts. While they had a capacity to manufacture new parts themselves, in a pinch they had to rely on the materials already stored. Theresa brought her attention to the object, but it was just one of the surface armor plates, colored rusty beige.

When the Captain began to show obvious confusion, Theresa flipped the plate horizontally.

Now Ulyana could see the sections that composed it. Still nothing worth talking about.

“I wouldn’t know what it’s made of.” Ulyana said. “It’s not a technical detail we have any access to. Armor composition is kept secret by the factories isn’t it? So if you work with these materials doctor, you’d know more than me.”

“I guess I do then. So let me say first: this is not a normal piece of plate.” Theresa said.

She ran her finger along the flat sides of the plate. Where it would normally be welded.

“This is in fact an extremely rare form of composite plate. It has layers of alloyed metal, military grade, and a layer of complex nanoceramics. I would expect this from a high-end military vessel and won’t ask how you acquired this material. There are also layers of depleted agarthicite plate, very fancy. Even more unexpected however is that at a molecular level, low grade agarthicite has been ferrostitched into the plate. This piece of armor, Captain, is agarro-conductive. Watch this.”

Theresa set the plate on the meeting room table and withdrew a tool from a bag she had brought with her: it was like a forked prod hooked up to power block. Ulyana assumed this was Solarflare LLC property that was loaded up with the rest of her and Euphemia’s effects. Ulyana had never seen anything like it, but she wasn’t a materials scientist. There was a handle on the side of the tool that engaged the electric current, perhaps by physically sliding something between the battery and the prod–

–in Theresa’s hands, it looked like she was holding a very weird firearm.

One that glowed dimly purple, a color Ulyana had come to associate with nothing good.

“Doctor, what is that? What are you doing? Explain yourself this instant.”

Ulyana raised her hands defensively in reaction to the tool. Theresa blinked at her.

“Huh? No! It’s perfectly safe! This is just an agarro-electric catalyst, for ore reactivity–”

“It’s a reactor tool?! Does it have agarthicite in it?!” Ulyana started shouting.

“It’s totally safe to use outside a reactor testing scenario! Just stop freaking out and look!”

Before Ulyana could stop her, Theresa pointed the thrumming tool at the armor plate.

For a moment, Ulyana felt her entire body tighten, her stomach squirm, awaiting a bright purple sphere to separate every atom in her body and turn the Brigand into two perfectly sliced halves of a ship. Eyes drawn wide she watched the prong touch the armor plate– and saw a tiny purple spark fly out that singed a tiny hex-shaped burn into the table, about the width of a finger.

Theresa then shut down the tool and tossed it casually behind her as if was made of trash.

“It tried to annihilate it! So I was correct!” She said cheerfully, throwing hands up.

Ulyana took several steps into Theresa’s personal space and grabbed her by the shoulders.

She started shaking Theresa’s body vigorously in a fit of nervous passion.

“Next time you will explain what you are doing clearly, you psychopath!” She shouted.

The Captain could have almost cried. She really thought this woman had killed them all.

“Ahh! Fine! Fine! Let me go! It was my fault, I’m sorry!” Theresa protested.

Once Ulyana had sufficiently vented her anger at the Doctor, the conversation resumed.

“This type of prod is used to test agarthicite before it is used in reactor cores. You can tell whether the rocks have a useful life ahead of them by the reaction. As you saw that piece of plate reacted very minimally to the prod: it’s low reactivity agarthicite.” Theresa said. “To put it simply, this is just one plate the size of my head with very little agarthicite content, and the agarthicite being used in it is really cheap and bad. You’d have to drop a station on it to get it to implode, it’s useless in reactors, so most of the time, only miners are relieved when they smack it out of its little osmium nest in the continent wall. That being said, because it doesn’t implode if you just look at it funny or tune a magnetic field wrong, it is used for batteries and electronics. Its use in this plate is really novel though — it forms a channel with the other plates around it, across the entire outer hull.”

Ulyana followed along as best as she could. So far everything she said made logical sense even without the context of the Doctor’s knowledge. Certainly Ulyana knew that agarthic material was used in electronics and Diver batteries, and she knew the term “depleted agarthicite” was used for a somewhat common type of alloy made up of crushed non-reactive cores within a composite alloy plate. It was not just the extremely dangerous energy source that thrummed demonically in their reactors.

That being said, she also knew the material in batteries and electronics didn’t glow.

It didn’t annihilate anything, not even a finger’s width. Otherwise it wouldn’t be used!

That purple glow as a tell-tale sign that something was about to get burned in a hex pattern.

Or entirely obliterated, turned to dust in a perfect circular hole.

“So you’re saying that low quality scrap agarthicite is part of the composite for our armor.”

Theresa sighed. “You should be much more surprised than you are!”

“Like I said, a ship’s crew isn’t told what the hull is made out of, we don’t need to know.”

At no other time in her life had Ulyana cared what the hull of a ship was made out of.

Fundamentally she did not understand why this was anything more than minutia.

“Fair enough. But as a soldier, you should know this: I think there’s probably a device on the ship that can make the entire armor reactive. If that was the case, you could use it to help deflect munitions from the hull. Think about it, if the entire hull repels an incoming shell, for example, and annihilates it and all the chemical that is trying to explode against it. Just think!”

That sounded far too convenient to possibly be true. Ulyana was instantly skeptical.

“How would you know about such a system if you’ve never seen this before?”

“I have professional experience with such things!”

Ulyana fixed a sharp gaze at Theresa. Was this capitalist trying to sell her something?

Theresa crossed her arms and put on a smug little grin.

She made a gesture as if to toss her own hair, but she had it in a bun, so she tossed nothing.

“My better half theorized such a system ages ago!” She declared, with a proud little smile. Ulyana crooked an eyebrow. Did she mean Euphemia Rontgen? She was speaking so casually and looked so happy to have said such a thing, that Ulyana wondered about their relationship. Theresa did not seem to notice Ulyana staring and continued. “It has no civilian applications! Because it would only be useful for ablating direct attacks by munitions. If a leviathan smashed into your ship it would just suffer a lot of hex-shaped burns and continue smashing the ship. Furthermore a purely defensive system is not interesting to military minds, who don’t so much care about the survival of crews as the potential offensive power that can be extracted from each ship.”

Theresa ran a finger up against the bridge of her nose as if adjusting nonexistent glasses.

“And even worse,” she resumed speaking with almost no pause between, “making so much composite plate with agarthicite in it, even the cheapest lowest quality agarthicite, is incredibly expensive and would require extensive connections to suppliers of raw Agarthic materials, who in the Empire are all highly regulated. So it’s not something Solarflare is in a position to do, but it is interesting. Seeing this plate, I immediately became curious who built this ship; but I won’t pry into it.”

Theresa was not the only one now curious about the Brigand’s origins.

They had already identified dummied systems before. Zachikova had been trying to test and write software to use them, but they were focusing on only a handful of discoveries that seemed like they had practical applications. Could this defense system be part of that too? Were there more hidden modules? Ulyana sighed inside. None of this was disclosed to her. How many more experiments were covered up within the bowels of this ship? Did Nagavanshi know about all of this nonsense?

She was mildly frustrated. They would need help figuring it out. Zachikova could not do so alone. So would she have to ask Theresa and Euphemia? Their relationship was cordial and they had business arrangements, but there were many secrets between them, and Ulyana felt hesitant to be the first one to reveal any of what went unspoken in their negotations.

She hoped their party would acquiesce first.

In the middle of all these personal deliberations, Ulyana found herself interrupted.

She expected to be able to press Theresa a little further but the ocean currents brought something their way.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon!”

Red lights began to flash in every room. It was just like when the Iron Lady attacked.

In place of the klaxons that felt like they should be blaring, was Semyonova’s voice.

“Unguided missiles detected off the starboard side! All personnel to alert semyon!”

Ulyana ran to the bridge without thinking any further, leaving Theresa Faraday behind without a word.

How could it possibly be, the instant they entered open water again? An attack already?

On the monitors in the halls, the profile of a ship appeared: an Imperial Ritter-class Cruiser.

“Shit.”

It was the only response the Captain had to the sight as she hurried down the hall.

When Ulyana rushed through the door to the bridge, she found both Marina McKennedy and Euphemia Rontgen standing near the door, staring at the Ritter-class on the main screen. It had apparently been identified; it was broadcasting an IFF. Several secondary screens showed trajectories of missiles and camera feeds of the flak response from the Brigand. Semyonova was in the middle of broadcasting the alert, while Fatima was concentrating on the sonar. Fernanda and Alex in the gunnery section were looking at each other in disbelief, the two most prone to panic in the bridge, while beside them, Kamarik kept the ship steady.

Everything was in chaos, but everyone was doing their individual jobs.

Nevertheless, the captain’s job was to immediately turn that panic to purpose.

Ulyana quickly took her place in the captain’s seat, alongside Commissar Aaliyah Bashara.

Her Shimii companion fixed her a gentle look and seemed glad to see her.

Trying to seem confident, Ulyana winked at her.

There was a battle to fight, so once again the Captain had to look gallant.

“Gas gunners! Look lively! I want a truly brilliant flak barrage!” Ulyana shouted.

Aside from the description of the enemy ship, projections on the screen showed the gas guns taking out incoming missiles.

At the fore of the Bridge, the gas gun operators were the most frantically active people in sight.

Hundreds of rounds of 20 mm ammunition peppered the surroundings from remote controlled flak turrets.

Small explosions began to blossom harmlessly dozens of meters from the Brigand’s starboard.

The shockwaves caused the ship interior to stir ever so lightly. Ulyana could feel it in her chest.

“We’re keeping the initial volley at bay. At least it’s only one enemy.” Aaliyah said, exposing a momentary hint of relief.

“For them to come out swinging like this, they must have something to do with Lichtenberg.” Ulyana said.

“Vessel identifying itself as Antenora.” Zachikova said above the din of activity on the bridge.

Her words were a little slow and slurred. Her mind was still out in the water, still mostly in the drone.

“Stay in the drone, Zachikova, we’ll need it out.” Ulyana said. “Fernanda–“

She was trying to move quickly between orders, switching instantly into her Captaining style–

–until she was interrupted by a panicked voice that rose even higher above the rest.

“No way! No fucking way! It can’t fucking be! Not now!”

Ulyana turned her gaze back to Marina McKennedy.

She stood, lips trembling, staring with wide bloodshot eyes at the screen.

“No, no, no, please no–“

“McKennedy? What’s–“

Ulyana almost reached a hand out– then recalled Marina’s trauma and retracted it.

The G.I.A. agent’s eyes were fixed on the screen, tears building, her whole body shaking.

“Norn.” Marina said, her voice filled with despair. “Norn the Praetorian.”

Euphemia Rontgen stared at her in disbelief and then snapped her head toward the screen too.

It was the first time Ulyana had seen the doctor look shaken.

And it was the worst she had ever seen Marina break down.

Soon Ulyana would come to understand the meaning of those reactions and the depth of her bad luck.

Just as the Brigand made itself ready to leave–

–the Fueller family flagship Antenora had finally arrived at Goryk’s Gorge.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.6]

Spinning fan blades, through a grating directly over her bed in the dim metal room. There were four clusters of LED lights in the room, one set in each corner, and the placement of the ceiling fan blocked one of the clusters. Selene Anahid liked to turn off every cluster except the one which was blocked, just over her head. It glowed partially into the fan box and had a curious effect, as she laid down in her bed. It was as if the light was spinning inside the box. Her lips formed a little grin.

Selene lifted her hand as if reaching for the fan blade. She closed her fingers.

Pretending as if she was grabbing the center of the blades and forcing it to stop.

And the blades did stop, almost effortlessly.

On her wall, a terminal window opened which blared an alert about room airflow.

Selene released her fingers and the blade resumed spinning.

She looked at her hands.

Furious red and sickly green trailed off of her hand.

Similar colors dissipated from around the fan box and drifted back towards her.

“Push, pull, twist, spread, turn,”

Euphrates had taught her that it was easiest to think of psychokinetic abilities in terms of familiar mechanical movements. Most people who learned about psychokinesis thought of it in terms of pushing an object, like bending a spoon by smashing the top back over the handle. When she was first learning, Selene found the visualizations helpful. Now, however, she was powerful. She could exert exactly the force that she wanted on any object. She needed only to command the object and it would obey.

The same as Norn could seemingly do to people’s entire minds.

She was powerful. Or, well– she should have been powerful.

Out here in the world, outside the Sunlight Foundation’s secret installations, she had begun to feel limited.

It reminded her of when she was younger. Never learning fast enough, never succeeding with ease.

Hungry to become something but unskilled at surmounting obstacles.

“Psionic power is perhaps linked to the human will to control our environment.”

Euphrates had said this once as if to guide her.

“Then how do I become stronger?”

Euphrates did not have the answer to that. In fact, she resisted the nature of the question.

“Do you aspire to do something that is truly beyond your current capabilities?”

“I don’t know. I mean– doesn’t everyone want to be better at shit? It’s not philosophical.”

“Perhaps you are already skilled enough for everything you wish to do. Think about a concrete goal you want to accomplish and then think about what you need to accomplish it. Strength means nothing in the abstract.”

Idiot! What goal does a lab rat like me possibly have?

Euphrates always philosophized to her in that way. But what did Euphrates know? She had practically no limit to what her powers could do. Meanwhile Selene kept finding herself limited. She sought to lift the next highest kilogram count, the next farthest meter throw, to crush the next hardest object, to read guarded thoughts and overcome powerful wills. She did not have goals, she was not born into goals or given goals. All she had was a role and an understanding of where she was limited.

Every time she crossed one threshold she found another closed door.

When she was in the Jagdkaiser, she could feel her power expanding to the point she felt she could see the future. When she took the drug, psynadium, she felt the same. Her consciousness expanded, her body felt like it could do anything. She felt so assured, like nothing could stop her. And yet, both psynadium and the Jagdkaiser caused her to run against her limits and break. She had visions sometimes, delusions; she would freak out, end up comatose. It made her feel weak.

She had been recently released from the infirmary. And now she was just sitting around.

Psionics was like a muscle. You could stretch it to the breaking point so it would grow tighter and tougher.

But what if you couldn’t surmount the breaking point? What if you could not push it further?

Selene grit her teeth.

She had to be stronger. She had to be strongest. Because she had nothing else in life.

No family, no heritage, no destiny. Made for nothing, born from nothing.

Selene grunted.

Euphrates was not here now. She couldn’t field any of her endless questions.

And Norn–

She wouldn’t understand. Norn was born with immense power. Norn had no limitations. Her massive power was the only reason she was not piloting the Jagdkaiser. Yangtze must have feared Norn having access to that machine. So Selene was the test pilot instead. Not that Norn even cared about that. Any machine in her hands was like the Jagdkaiser, invincible and almighty.

Selene pictured that if she asked Norn a banal question like ‘how do I become stronger?’ it would be impossible for her to even comprehend the request. Or worse, she might tell Selene the one thing it would mortify her to ever hear– that it was just not possible for her to ever achieve Norn’s level of power. Selene was simply not born special like her and would never be special.

But Norn was born from a machine, just like her. So what was it that separated them?

“How am I different from Norn?”

There was one way she was different. And it was in her own favor.

Thinking idly about this and wanting to do something other than sulk about her current situation, she reached her hand down off her bunk, pulling open a drawer. Inside there was a cylinder filled with a viscous red material.

Like sickly red egg yolks suspended in seawater.

Selene mindlessly uncapped the cylinder and flicked her fingers toward the material inside.

At her command, the fluid rose out of the cylinder.

Spinning in on itself around her hand until it kneaded itself in a spherical “dough.”

When she focused on moving it, the material spread, and then coalesced, amorphous in shape and radiating a certain warmth in its mechanical action. Selena watched it without expression, and at her behest, the ameboid matter started to take on a shape. Within moments, a red butterfly took off flying from her hand, as if by its own accord. In reality, it was hardly alive.

Proteins, lipids, water and iron, hydrocarbons, folded in just the right way to appear alive.

Moving at her command with no will of its own.

Was this so fearful a thing?

Selene had been born and spent much of her life in an SF station hidden in the Abyss of Frederich, a cavernous gorge like the one they were approaching, Goryk’s Abyss. Euphrates told her she was under the care the Sunlight Foundation. As she grew older, Euphrates encouraged her to learn various skills. Selene fashioned herself as a soldier, but Euphrates always resisted her becoming anything– she just encouraged her to learn for no reason. As she watched the butterfly traverse the room, she thought of Euphrates, the master of Frederich’s Abyss, and the one who had taught her so much, but also, kept so many details from her.

Questions Norn promised to answer, Euphrates always kept hidden.

Direction that Selene craved, Euphrates always refused to provide.

And one fateful day when she showed Euphrates her power over red mass–

Her breath caught in her throat, and she had nothing to say, except–

“Merrimack, promise me you will not do this again. Do not show this to anyone.”

Would Norn react the same way if Selene showed her this ability?

“Euphrates was always getting on my case about everything. She was so self-righteous, she never understood anything I wanted– I bet Norn would understand.” She smiled. “I bet Norn would think it’s a unique and amazing power. Maybe a sign of my potential, something I could master that would help me surpass even the Immortals. Something that I could cultivate to surpass all of my limitations. I should show it to Norn– when I can make something scarier than a butterfly anyway.”

Selene pinched her antennae in frustration, shooting a tiny knot of pain into her head.

Her butterfly was pretty deficient. All it could do was fly and look pretty.

She couldn’t even see through it, for example, because it had no eyes.

Selene could feel what the butterfly felt, to some extent, but that was useless.

Once she thought of a military purpose for it, she would demonstrate it to Norn.

“Euphrates thinks we should keep all of this stuff bottled up for ourselves. She’s always bitching about not interfering with the world. But Norn would use it. She would change the whole world with it, just like she wants to change the world with her own powers and her own soldiers. With Norn, I’ll definitely be someone with power and prestige.”

She stuck out her tongue in defiance of the Euphrates in her mind.

“Take that, Euphrates, you liar.”

Selene guided the butterfly into the cylinder, whereupon it separated into fluid once again.

She capped the cylinder and returned it to the drawer in her bunk.

“Maybe Norn would finally tell me about my fucking parents too if I showed her this.”

Selene hardly remembered her childhood, a stultifying series of lessons and tests.

In her early teens, however, she had begun to truly consider her origins.

Even a child born artificially needed genetic material from live human beings.

But Euphrates refused the question; and Norn held back the answer as a carrot.

Her parents must have been either heroes or heretics of the Sunlight Foundation.

No one dared invoke their names it seemed, whether in reverence or disgust she did not know.

For Selene, it wasn’t even about the knowing itself. She knew she was born in a vat; she was aware that “third party” genetic material was not used in her creation in the same way Katarrans used, rather she was an ordinary human child born in an unorthodox fashion. None of that truly bothered her. Rather, knowing her parentage was a way to move forward with certainty. There was a hole in her knowledge of herself, and it was holding her back. She wanted to be able to dismiss it.

It was a limitation. It hid in the corners of her mind, gnawing at her little by little.

To make the butterfly out of red matter she had to understand the idea of a butterfly. The action of the wings, the composition and body plan of a lepidopteran, the relative weight, the many compounds that made up carbon-based life. Everything she knew helped her create the end product. As she learned more and more, the butterfly she made became more and more realistic.

Her understanding of a butterfly had become, perhaps, more complete even than her understanding of herself.

Could she perhaps become stronger if the understood, fully, the origin of “Merrimack”?

After all, Euphrates had said psionics was the power of the mind and will.

Norn knew what she was, who she was; Euphrates never had any doubt of herself.

Maybe that gnawing doubt about the core of her being was one of the limits she needed to break.

Perhaps it was the most important limit to match the Apostles and Immortals.

At this point, any forward movement, any progress, would suffice for Selene’s frustration.

She just needed a step forward. She was becoming desperate for proof she was still growing.

For proof that she was more than Potomac’s homunculi–

“Maybe I’ll just– go talk to Norn about it now. It’s late, but I know she doesn’t sleep.”

Selene stood up from bed with a renewed determination. She was half undressed, wearing a pair of tight, long bottoms and nothing up top but a sports bra. Most of the time she just wore her pilot suit. She was supposed to be on standby, but they had a whole zoo of people they picked up while she was out of sorts, and Samoylovych had been assigned as the standby pilot instead.

Swiping on a wall panel, she caused it to open, revealing a mirror and sink.

Her reflection looked sullen. Her skin was pale, her eyes had shadows under them.

Her red hair was long and a little too messy–

Red–?

Selene blinked and her countenance changed immediately.

On the other side of the mirror–

Long red hair, a white leathery robe, and a black horn bursting out of the side of her head.

She staggered back as if the image in the mirror had threatened to leap out.

Images flooded her mind that she couldn’t place;

The Antenora was gone from around her and she was standing somewhere–

Rocky;

Deep;

Dark;

There was a silver-haired female Shimii beside her–

And a red-headed male Shimii approaching her in anger–

His burning fist about to collide with her–

Selene fell back, she screamed, seized her head, kicked her feet, thrashed helplessly.

Her antennae stood on end, the tips widened and spread and felt hot.

Standing erect, they became hyper-sensitive, as if something was in the air.

Selene felt a distant rumbling in the aether–

Colors came flooding into the room like a cloud of poison gas–

Her power of clairvoyance, her sensitivity to aether, it was not normally this strong; she was much more of a kinetic in skillset– yet now she felt an ominous, chilling feeling gripping her heart, felt the stirring in the grand current of the aether. She felt it so strongly, like she was inside the Jagdkaiser or doped with psynadium. Something out there, something vast, a gigantic presence had shifted the aether, like the movement of a dreadnought shifted the water around it.

There was a great roar in the currents!

Aether was everywhere, it was swirling and writhing and taking over her senses–

So powerfully that Selene felt it, still felt it on her skin like the tremor of an earthquake.

Selene forced herself to stand and started to run out to the hall in her underwear–

At the door, she bumped into someone and nearly screamed again.

“Selene? What’s wrong?”

Adelheid van Mueller. An idiot; she didn’t know anything!

“I– I need to talk– to Norn. Something’s– weird, something’s wrong!”

Her feet grew unsteady and Adelheid grabbed hold of her.

She struggled, but– her body–

“Hey! You’re teetering around everywhere! Have you taken your medicine?”

As much as she wanted to move her body felt as if in water, slow, without earth beneath–

She hardly heard Adelheid’s voice, it was growing distant–

Colors, colors everywhere–

Aether swarming everywhere like a great cascade–

Did Adelheid not sense it?

Did it not shake her bones and sear her skin?

Selene reached her hand to the side of her head and she could feel the horn–

“Adelheid, please, get Norn, please–”

She felt her body being moved back to her room–

Something pricked her hip, plunging deep and sharp.

“I’ve injected your medicine. You’re going to be okay Selene. I’m here, okay?”

Selene could feel it–

Warmth.

Adelheid’s warmth, holding her close, holding her safe.

For a brief instant, she felt an almost overwhelming surge of emotion for that redheaded woman and her soft face, her bright-colored eyes looking down at her with their gentle concern. Being held by someone was something Selene had hardly ever felt in her entire life, and that gentle warmth lulled her out of her panic, and into a deep, dreamless, peaceful sleep.

“You’re going to be okay.” Adelheid said.

Those gentle words reverberated in the soft, black-tinged colors that flew off her body.

Until everything turned black, and the aether grew as still as Selene herself.

Before her consciousness faded she heard a voice–

“Norn– What is happening to her?”


“How do you feel, Sonya?”

“I feel like an earthquake went off in my brain.”

When the colors overwhelmed her, Shalikova was positive she had seen things which were quickly losing sense and coherence to her. She was somewhere dark, there were figures– what she recalled most strongly is everyone was a Shimii for some reason, or at least everyone she strongly remembered. A Shimii had been superimposed over a crying Maryam as well. Was all of this real, or was like a dream? Was her brain trying to process something through random memories?

None of these were her own memories.

Shalikova suddenly blurted out the question that was rolling in her head.

“How much do you know about Shimii?”

Maryam bobbed her head to one side.

“Hmm? Shimii?”

“Nevermind.”

Shalikova rubbed her head. It must have been some kind of dream.

“Maryam, that– that was a lot more than soothsaying!” Shalikova raised her voice to just above a whisper, as if shouting in a volume no one would hear. “You didn’t just take my palm and tell me a fortune. I was seeing colors and visions that I can’t place. I wasn’t prepared for any of this! What did you do to me?”

“I baptized you!” Maryam said innocently. “You said you saw the colors before right?”

“I did. I saw the colors in the hangar, and in the ocean, and around you once. It was totally random. Now though for some reason, I feel like I can see them whenever I want. Like if I squeeze my eyes just right I’m seeing them around you. It’s not as overwhelming as before, I guess. But I don’t even know what they mean at all.”

Maryam nodded knowingly, wearing a smile too pleasant for how Shalikova felt in that moment. “You were seeing auras at random times because your special power was on the cusp of awakening. I drew out the power that was struggling inside you, so that you could become used to it, and control it without losing your senses to it. Scrunching your eyes will hurt probably, so try to just focus gently on the colors, or on something else if you don’t want to see them anymore.”

“I– I’m having a lot of trouble accepting I have a special power Maryam.”

“Not everyone can see those auras! In fact, I almost thought that I would fail to baptize you, because when I was trying to tell your fortune I couldn’t read your aura, I could barely see anything. Oh no, why are you making a mean face?”

Shalikova furrowed her brows and closed her fists at her sides.

“What do you mean read my aura Maryam? You need to back up and explain all of this!”

“Ah! I will, don’t yell!” Maryam squirmed a little. “Ah, nothing is going like I thought!”

Seeing Maryam turning white and shying away– Shalikova sighed deeply at herself.

She tried to control her temper. She had promised to trust Maryam, right?

“Sonya, please don’t hate me–”

“Maryam? I–”

Seeing those gentle eyes filling with fear was mortifying.

Maryam had promised to tell the truth about her soothsaying. Thinking about it rationally, Maryam had done much more than just tell the truth. Somehow she had shown Shalikova the colors and their insane possibilities, first-hand. She enabled her to control the colors somehow. The more Shalikova thought about it, the more this was a truly radical action on her part, an almost dangerous level of trust that she had given to Shalikova so easily, having not even known each other a month yet!

Anyone else who saw a Katarran doing these things might pull a gun on them.

Explaining it to the rest of the crew would be daunting. What if they locked her up?

Maryam trusted her with this miraculous power. She had gone to Shalikova first– ever since they met.

“I’m sorry Maryam.” Shalikova said. “I didn’t get how difficult this must be for you.”

“I’m sorry too.” Maryam said. She turned her gaze to the floor, kicking her feet a little, looking ashamed.

“I should’ve explained everything better before I did this to you, but I was–”

Shalikova walked forward and took Maryam’s hand in her own.

It was a sudden reaction, and it even startled Maryam a little, but she tried to be gentle.

In her heart there was soft, warm feeling she was hoping to convey.

“You were excited to have someone else who knew about this right?” She said. “Someone to share it with you. A partner in crime. I bet you’ve been really lonely, having the burden of hiding this with nobody who understood. And you’ve been having to use this power of yours to survive all this time, too. That’s why you were so keen on me when you first saw me right? You could tell we were alike, even though I couldn’t. So to me this was all really crazy, but for you, it must have meant a lot.”

“Um. Yes. That’s– you really hit the mark.”

Maryam turned bright red, staring down at the hand Shalikova was holding.

There was no reason for Shalikova to be angry at Maryam.

She smiled at her instead, with the fullest of warm feelings.

“I’m happy you chose me.” Shalikova said. “But you have to explain everything that you know to me so I can understand. And I need to you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone else about any of this, okay? Tell me, and then I’ll figure out a way to let anyone else in, okay? I don’t want you to get treated like an alien for this. They’ll see and hear it from me first, instead.”

“Sonya–”

Maryam stared straight into her eyes, her skin and hair turning ever more flushed.

Those diaphanous little fins atop her head practically wiggled.

“Yes! Yes of course Sonya!”

She smiled more happily than Shalikova had ever seen it.

Her eyes glistened with tears in the dim monochrome light of the hangar.

“Thank you! Sonya, thank you so much. You are such a wonderful soul.”

Shalikova was a bit surprised to see Maryam weeping, but then again, she felt moved too.

She had spent a lot of time hiding from people’s gazes, fearing what others might notice. How she might be read– when she decided as a teenager to get on hormones and transition, that was one thing that led her to see, over time, the gazes of those around her. When she started to stand out as a soldier and a pilot, she saw gazes– admiring where they shouldn’t be, envious in ways she didn’t understand, fawning, self-righteous, critical and two-faced. And she saw herself making the same eyes too.

When her sister passed away– the change in gazes that had once been unfriendly–

Shalikova couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand having to fear those gazes that were so hard to read.

Gazes that changed so often; that could catch you off-guard if you were not vigilant.

Gazes that made her feel so lonely even while surrounded by people.

Maryam had been hiding from people’s eyes too. She also had to be vigilant and guarded.

Except with Shalikova. In that sense maybe they could understand each other.

In this hangar, they turned their gazes on each other and something extraordinary happened.

Shalikova would not discount it. She would not try to avoid Maryam’s gaze any longer.

She would not betray the extraordinary trust that Maryam had given her.

Nor the burgeoning, strange feelings which that trust engendered in Shalikova’s heart.

She didn’t fully understand it, but Maryam was starting to feel special to her too.

“Okay. Well. With that settled. Can you explain special powers to me like I’m a little kid?”

Shalikova said this, trying to shake her own self out of just staring at Maryam’s eyes.

Maryam smiled.

“Of course. Hmm. We should start with auras then. So let me see if I remember, um, the way this was explained to me was,” Maryam’s fins wiggled on her head as she fell deep into thought. “Aura is an invisible interstitial, energy, thingy, in the world, and its inert most of the time. Aura is like footprints that sensations of living beings are leaving in the sand of the world.” She looked at Shalikova with an embarrassed expression. “Is this making any sense so far Sonya?”

Shalikova blanked for a moment. “Um. Sort of. So are the colors and aura, the same thing?”

“Yep. Technically it’s called ‘Aether’ but when it gathers around a person it’s called their ‘aura’. It changes colors based on how the person is feeling and stays that color even if it drifts away. Red and Orange are like anger or hate, Green and Yellow are like anxiety and sickness, Blue is happiness, Purple is like pride, Black relates to death, White aura is like, peace or faith.”

Shalikova looked around the hangar. Nobody around. The coast was still clear for them.

“Can you explain to me how you did your soothsaying?” She asked. “What were you trying to do a few days ago when you got the nosebleed? Did that have something to do with the colors– the aether or aura around me?”

Maryam nodded her head, gesticulating with her tentacles. “So normally, if you focus on people’s auras, you can kind of get a sense of what the person is thinking. It’s not like you can read their minds, unless they’re really simple-minded, and it’s not just because of the color. It’s like there’s also a texture, and you can feel what that person is going through, so you can learn a bunch of stuff about them. It’s different for everyone, some people are really easy to read this way and others are more mysterious. Soothsaying is just a cheap trick to make money; the way I did it was reading people’s emotions to see what they were thinking about and then I told them a fortune based on cold reading coupled with what I learned from their aura.”

Shalikova tried not to think of it as a violating act– despite feeling immediate misgivings.

“And with me, you can’t get anything?”

Maryam ran a hand through her hair, one of her tentacles shaking like a head saying ‘no.’

“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all, and I thought maybe I had just gotten rusty, so I put more focus and effort into it, but it just made my head hurt.” Maryam said. “That’s another thing about this power, if you misuse it, you can hurt yourself. It’s like trying to twist your leg backwards, but instead of your leg, it’s your brain, or something.”

“I see. I don’t get it though, you’ve been at this for way longer than me, right? So why wouldn’t you be able to see through me? I should be about as strong as wet stone paper to you. And yet you’re saying I’m unreadable to you?”

“It doesn’t work like you think.” Maryam said. She smiled, as if amused by the idea. “So, lets call the power by its name– it’s called psionics or psychic power. I had a mentor who taught me about it. Because it is something that can be taught. But of course, not many people know about it. So when someone has a lot of psionic potential, but hasn’t been taught anything about psionics, my mentor called that a ‘seed’. When someone has a natural ability to resist psionics even if they’ve never been taught about it, my mentor called that ‘potential’. What I did to you, she called ‘baptism’ — deliberately flooding someone with aether. It can only be done to people who have some kind of latent psionic ability. Otherwise, they have to study and awaken power themselves.”

“Psionics, huh? Who was your mentor? Is Solarflare LLC related to them?”

Maryam started running her fingers through her hair again and averted her gaze.

“I’ll– I’ll introduce them to you someday, but right now, I’d rather not talk about it.”

Shalikova nodded. She was trying to be understanding. Maryam was already doing a lot.

“Sure. No problem. So, this psionic stuff, you say it can be taught, but that people also need to have potential to do it? So even if they don’t know about it, they can have it. So is it like, something you’re born with in your genes?”

“Sonya, absolutely no.” Maryam replied passionately. “It’s nothing to do with genes.”

“Huh?” Shalikova was confused by the reaction. “But you said I was a special girl–?”

“When I say you are special, I do not mean you were born any certain way Sonya! That’s not it at all!” Maryam said. She sounded almost offended by the notion suddenly, her voice distressed. “You were born in a slave state, survived a revolution, and worked hard to be here, on a special mission to save everybody in the Empire! Your willpower and determination aren’t because you were born special, but because you cultivated a special soul in you through your actions.” She averted her gaze, perhaps a bit embarrassed by her own excitement. She rubbed the side of her left arm with her right hand, sighing a little bit.

“For us Katarrans, it’s tough to escape the idea that you can only do what you were born to. But the Warlords didn’t get born with their fleets and soldiers. You aren’t a Katarran at all and you’re the closest I’ve seen to the gallantry of an ideal Warlord. And I’m not here just because of my birth either. My mentor taught me that, anyone in the world can grow to see the Aether and use psionics; the difficult thing is, what will they do with that strength when they have it? I didn’t do this lightly. I want to help people. And I think you will help and save a lot of people with your power. That’s why I want to help you use it! And I’m glad you want to teach the Brigand about it too! Someday, Sonya, I want everyone to see the Aether! I strongly believe everyone can do it!”

Shalikova stared, wide-eyed, her heart stirring at Maryam’s grand declaration.

Without squinting her eyes, she tried to take in Maryam’s aura, to focus and refine it.

She saw the colors of Maryam’s determination, purple, white, a band of red, a band of black. Pride, euphoria, passion (perhaps not “anger” as Maryam had put it) and that ominous black band, maybe a hint that, whether or not this mission killed her, she was still committed to her goal. Shalikova recalled what Maryam said about texture and she thought she got a sense of purity from Maryam’s aura, like sliding fingers down perfect, crystalline sheets, smooth and unblemished.

“I understand.” Shalikova said. “I think that would be pretty amazing, Maryam.”

“I think so too! If everyone could talk like we are right now, and see each other like we see each other, Sonya, I really think that would be the end of wars and killing. We’d all help each other instead of hurting each other. There would not be mistrust or misunderstandings any longer. So someday, I want to help everyone I can, to learn about this power!”

She had such a sweet expression, for such a tragic idea.

Shalikova did not want to tell her what she really thought about Maryam’s ambition.

There was no way that war would end so simply, as long as there were different classes and interests vying for control. As long as there were oppressors and subjugators, and as long as there were revolutionaries and liberators, there would be fighting. Maryam didn’t understand social class and politics. Mistrust and misunderstanding would only be heightened if the idea of psionic powers was revealed to the world as purely true, and if its practice was made known. There would have to be a time, a process, whereby people became psionic, and those who weren’t would be full of the worst distrust and misunderstanding.

She felt nothing but trepidation at the idea of Maryam becoming a herald for this wild idea.

As if the future, already chaotic and uncertain, had become more so.

Now that Shalikova knew about “psionics” and auras, things already complicated turned ever more twisted in her mind. All she could do in that moment was smile, nod, and silently support Maryam as best as she could.

“I’ll– I’ll do everything I can to help, Maryam.” Shalikova said.

Crazy as it was, this girl had a dream that shone with all the might of her soul. Shalikova found herself moved by it.

Though anxious, she wanted nothing more at that moment, than to remain at Maryam’s side.


“I was afraid that this might happen, I just thought it wouldn’t be so soon.”

“Quit acting like you foresaw this, it only makes you seem callous!”

Norn put on a sour expression, while Adelheid looked shocked at how she raised her voice.

From one of the bunks, Selene watched them, wrapped up in a big bundle of blankets. She had fainted after having her medication administered via emergency injection; before that she remembered completely losing her mind, seeing things that weren’t there, going hysterical. She felt ashamed of herself to be in the presence of Norn in such a state, pale, downcast, hiding in her blankets like a little kid. She had woken up to find Norn and Adelheid sat side by side, staring, staging an intervention.

It felt like the kind of HR-type meeting the Sunlight Foundation would sometimes do.

However, with Selene’s bedroom as the setting, it took on a shameful quality. Adelheid had given her a fruit jelly drink pouch, and though she welcomed the brain sugar, she thought it made her look even more immature to be sucking on juice after everything that happened. She felt weak and foolish for having broken down. Despite this, she knew she couldn’t run away or tell these two to go away, not in the same tone that she did to Lydia or Potomac. Selene told them what happened.

Her mirror, the visions, the things she had felt in the aether. She laid herself bare.

Norn scratched her golden blond hair and sighed in response.

“You saw a red-haired woman with a horn in the mirror, correct?”

“Yeah.” Selene mumbled. She sipped her juice pouch.

She couldn’t read whether Norn was exasperated or worried about this.

“And a silver-haired Shimii, and a red-haired Shimii. And you felt a quake in the Aether?”

“Yep.” She finished off her juice pouch with a sigh.

“Well, I didn’t feel anything in the Aether like you say you did. And I’m not so sure you would be more sensitive than I to the Aether, so I’m going to dismiss that part as just nerves.” Norn said. “As far as your visions, it looks like you’ve already forgotten most of what you saw, and the rest can’t just be prodded out of you. So that’s a line of inquiry dead in the water also.”

“Even if you read my mind, you wouldn’t be able to see it?” Selene asked.

Norn was correct– immediately after waking, Selene had the barest memory of what she had seen. At the time, it had felt so vivid, like she was standing between worlds in a way that caused her to panic, that made her body feel wrong. Now all she had was a few details, figures in empty, cavernous space with the barest scrap of their identity. Like a dream only an eighth-remembered.

But still, Selene always thought Norn had incredible, far-reaching, and unique powers–

“Reading people’s minds beyond surface thoughts and emotions is nearly impossible. Especially if you care about the state of their mind after.” Norn paused and crossed her arms, her face growing stern. “Believe it or not, I do care about you; I’m here to try to help you get your head on right before we reach Goryk’s Abyss. You need to calm down about that vision of yours.”

Selene didn’t know what to say to that.

“Norn, I saw myself in the mirror as a monster. I saw a vision of some place–”

“You saw a monster. It wasn’t you unless you obsess with it being you.” Norn said simply.

That was such a nonchalant and dismissive response it shocked Selene’s senses completely.

“But–” She could hardly believe it. “How am I supposed to feel after seeing that, Norn?”

“You should take your medicine, get rest, eat regularly, and practice your meditation. You’re unwell.”

“You’re keeping secrets from me again.” Selene said. She felt her heart sink with defeat.

Of course– there was no other reason for her to be acting this way. Everyone was lying to her again. All of them were keeping the meaning of this vision from her just like they were keeping her history, her parents and past, hidden from her.

Selene convinced herself this was the real issue.

Norn ran a hand over her face and looked down at the floor, groaning in response.

Adelheid stared at her then cracked an incongruous grin. “You’re so bad with kids, I can’t believe it.”

“I never signed up to parent anyone, or to deal with so many brats.” Norn shot back.

“I’ll never bear you a child. You’ve dissuaded me from motherhood.” Adelheid pouted.

Norn’s stared incredulously, “Is that what you’re on about now? I’m sterile, so it’s not–”

Off in their own little world again. They weren’t even taking her seriously.

She pulled down her antennae into the bundle of blankets with her hands and covered herself in them like a fort, protecting her from this ridiculous exchange. Hiding in a little pocket of shadow with her arms around her knees, exhausted and bitter. Norn and Adelheid’s salacious argument continued in the background for several minutes. For a moment she just wanted to disappear. She did not understand anything. She felt like she was talking past them, and they were talking past her.

She had been right. Norn fundamentally did not understand what she wanted.

Because Norn was so strong and so sure, she did not need to think about her past. She was never bothered by her origins. Potomac had compared Selene to other bits of meat goo they grew in their labs, and as far as Norn was concerned this shouldn’t have bothered her. She should have simply tuned it out. But it was not possible– Selene did not have the world in her hands like Norn.

Norn knew about Selene’s past, but she seriously thought Selene didn’t need to know.

To her none of that mattered; and now she didn’t know what else was being kept from her!

All of her life, how many things had she been lied to about?

“Norn, look, you scared her.” Adelheid said. “Selene, please forgive her and come out.”

Norn grunted. “I scared her? You’re the one who started publically litigating my fertility.”

“It’s ok. I’m ok.” Selene mumbled. “You can just leave. I’m full of drugs, I’ll be fine.”

She heard footsteps approaching and felt a strong hand settle where her head was. Blankets peeled gently from over Selene, and Norn patted down her head, antennae, and all, smiling gently in a way that Selene had never seen her smile. Norn could be cruel and mocking and stern, those were the moods that Selene had seen her in. She couldn’t place this guffawing camaraderie at all. Still, it didn’t feel so bad to have Norn’s hand over head. It almost stilled her heart for a second.

“You both suck at taking care of adults too, let alone fucking kids.” Selene grumbled.

“We’re trying! I was kinda hoping you’d think we were funny.” Adelheid said, shrugging.

Norn’s hand began to rub down Selene’s head more strongly, messing up her hair.

“Could you stop that? Teasing is the last thing I want from fucking Norn the Praetorian.”

Selene pushed that hand away, sighing. Her exhaustion was reaching its limits with this.

“Are you both here to flirt and make fun of me, or are you here to help?” She protested.

Adelheid and Norn looked to each other briefly, smiling. Norn sat back down.

“One is part of the other.” Norn said. “Selene, do you think I have no sympathy for you?”

“Of course you don’t.” Selene mumbled. “I’m just here to kill people for you.”

Euphrates had told her she was a ward of the Sunlight Foundation. But Selene only identified one possible purpose for her existence. Like the mass-produced lab assistants, she had to have been made to serve them. Selene wanted to fashion herself a soldier, a psionic warrior. She read about military campaigns, marveled at the weapons the Sunlight Foundation produced like their Colombus-class cruisers. When Yangtze made a deal with the Fueller family, Selene was tapped as a pilot the Foundation could trust. That confirmed to Selene what she was to Euphrates and the others. She was a weapon. She was made to kill people.

“Why would you have any sympathy for me?” Selene said. “I’m only here because of the Jagdkaiser.”

Norn’s eyes glowed with a red ring around them. She was performing psionics.

Selene was not scared of it. She could tell Norn was just reading her aura.

Her innate defenses would have been raised against Norn if she tried to do any more.

“You think I don’t care because you’re just here to be used by me.” Norn said. “But I was the one who chose you to join the Antenora. You weren’t sent here without reason. I have an agreement with Erich and Yangtze that you specifically would test pilot the Jagdkaiser. And I have an agreement that, thereafter, you would be released from service. To do whatever you want. I chose you, Selene. And I chose you against a lot of resistance from Euphrates. You are here because of me.”

Selene stared at Norn, eyes drawing wide, render once again stunned by the Praetorian.

Was this woman not a demon who killed thousands? Where did her interest come from?

Handpicked by Norn? A deal to be released from service? Why– she didn’t even know–?

“I don’t get it. I don’t get it– why–? Why would you do that? I’m– I’m nobody–? How did you even know?”

“How did I know about you? I’d been suspecting you existed for quite some time.”

Selene continued to stare at the two of them, tears building in her eyes. She shook her head.

“I don’t understand. What– what’s the point for you? Why would you go out of your way and challenge Euphrates? Why would you agree to release me afterward? I don’t understand! I’m just a random piece of biological equipment!”

“No you are not. You are a scared girl who is being done wrong in the same way that I was by the exact same people.”

“So– so what? If that’s what you think then are you turning your back on the Sunlight Foundation?”

Norn grinned. “The only reason I am ‘helping’ them is to take advantage. To stop them from getting their way all the time. I won’t stand them for them having you, so I took you away. You don’t belong in their silver cage.”

Adelheid spoke up. “Selene, Norn won’t admit it, but she does care about you.”

Every word came like a shock, burning through Selene’s sinews.

She grabbed hold of her antennae, gritting her teeth.

“Huh? I can’t even process this! Norn the Praetorian trying to tell me she’s always had a conscience and that she’s the good guy? And you think this all supposed to be helping me?” Selene openly scoffed at them.

Norn fixed Selene with a curiously gentle gaze, another truly mystifying expression.

“Did you consider yourself for a villain for being at my side?” She asked.

“Yeah? I’d be really stupid to think I’m the heroine, killing people left and right.”

Selene bitterly gave an answer right away. Of course they were all monsters on this ship.

“Killing the people deemed narratively worthy of killing is a time-honored heroic deed.”

Norn continued to grin, so self-assured that she was right, always with the right response.

Selene wanted to find some argument to knock down her sophistry–

–but she couldn’t because she wanted to believe it. Fresh tears streamed down her cheeks.

“What do you want me to say? You want me to thank you? I won’t.” Selene sobbed.

Norn returned her scorn with calm, gentle words.

“All I want is to give you an opportunity and a future. I have hope that you will continue to fight alongside us Selene, but what I want most is to free you from the Sunlight Foundation’s grip. I would like you to exceed their sick whims. People like us are not wanted by the world. We are used and abused. It is only right that we take up weapons for our own cause.”

“I’m not like you. I can’t run around thriving on my own stupid philosophy.” Selene said.

Despite her words, Selene felt strangely moved.

No one had ever approached her, trying to give to her anything more than a weapon, an objective, a task to complete or something to master. No one talked to her about her future. No one had told her they had hopes and wishes for her–

Except, perhaps, that self-righteous bitch Euphrates–

“I will tell you what I know about your parents, if you promise you won’t chase after it.”

Norn spoke solemnly. Selene’s gaze shot up from the floor and fixed Norn’s red eyes.

Was this really happening? Was this really finally happening? Did she hear right?

“You’ll stop keeping secrets from me? You really will?”

Selene started crying even more openly.

She felt she was prying open her chest and spilling blood out, something inside her hurt.

“I can’t promise that. I am only promising what we agreed to when you joined me.” Norn said.

Selene was practically begging. “Norn, I’m going crazy. Potomac compared me to one of those fucking things she put in the Jagdkaiser. I need to know I wasn’t just born from a machine for no reason. I need to know– please!”

“Then promise me you will take what I say and bury it and live the rest the of your life.”

“Selene, I’m not letting her walk out of here without saying what she knows.”

Adelheid spoke up and set a hand down atop Norn’s as if pinning her arm to the bed.

Norn shot her a sidelong look, and Adelheid instantly lifted her hand with a small smile.

“I don’t need to get ganged up on.” Norn said. “Selene, please just promise me.”

Selene didn’t feel in the right mind to promise anything, but she was desperate.

“I won’t– I won’t try to chase after my parents or do anything like that. Is that okay?”

“I’ll hold you to it. Remember that the thing I hate most is liars.” Norn sighed deeply. “I was hoping you would forget about it, but if you need this, I just hope it can help you move on. It’s not a nice or pretty story. Prepare yourself for that.”

There was nothing she could say to that. Especially not in the state she was in.

So Selene remained quiet, while the blond and the redhead exchanged worried glances.

“What I’m going to say is conjecture; but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t have evidence.” Norn said. “‘Anahid’ was Euphrates’ suggestion right? Then she and I must have similar suspicions as to what really happened twenty years ago.”

“Euphrates said it was a surname that was fitting for me.” Selene said. “I knew it was a clue; but I queried Eden in every possible spelling of that name and couldn’t find persons in the Sunlight Foundations’ records with that name, either first name or surname or even nicknames or codenames.” Eden was a record system in Frederich’s Abyss. Euphrates had designed it, and it contained data, and even the digital memoirs of many Foundation personnel. It was ultimately useless but sparked her quest to know.

After all if she was the child of people who were struck from the Foundation’s records–

Could it be that she was not just a science experiment, but someone born for a reason?

“Eden huh? Forget about that garbage then. I’ll tell you what they’re hiding.”

Selene nodded her head. Norn was so strong; Eden contained memories of her in it and yet she was apparently not curious at all about what Selene knew about her. To Norn, that past really was dead. After all, in the Eden database, she was always called a name she never used: Cocytus. Perhaps that was the reason that she wanted Selene to forget about her own past so strongly.

But Selene was sick of thinking of herself as just the product of a science experiment.

Norn began to unveil the details, while Selene stood in rapturous attention.

“I’ll refer to the lead scientist in the project to create you as your mother. Her ego definitely would have led her to use her genes to create you. Your mother’s codename was Asan. She believed that psionics was genetic, and that this explained why people with no knowledge of psionics could exhibit different amounts of psionic potential and aethereal defenses. Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation treated this as a cosmic lottery for hundreds of years, but your mother was obsessed with finding a deterministic reason, and she strongly believed that biology held the secret. She was a complete eugenicist who sought to engineer a human who was born psychic, in order to prove that psionically gifted people had psionically gifted genes to pass on.”

Eugenicist was a quite unsavory term, but Selene still felt her heart suddenly go aflutter.

She had a mother– her name was Asan and Selene had been made with her genes!

Asan.

A Sunlight Foundation researcher had created her– as part of a special project.

Selene was taken by the notion. It was so darkly romantic. She saw Asan in her mind, a deathly serious woman who had devoted herself enough to science, at all costs, that the Sunlight Foundation had made her a River and given her the resources to engineer a psionic being. And Selene was the product! She had not just come from nowhere! Now she had a context for her existence!

Silly as it was, it felt like an empty part of her started filling, like she was more than shadow.

Norn continued, briefly scanning Selene’s face for an expression.

“Now we enter into the realm of educated guesswork.” She said coldly. “Your father was probably the Republican agent Samuel Anahid. He worked for the General Intelligence Agency. Twenty years ago, Asan’s project was being run through Bio-Radiance, one of the Sunlight Foundation’s front companies, and it appears the Republicans infiltrated the company to use as a front of their own as well. Bio-Radiance was founded as Rhinea began to liberalize, and Republican sympathy ran high. I can’t speak as to her actual motives for helping the G.I.A in the first place, and I don’t know all the details of the Republican’s infiltration, but I think it’s safe to say she had a close relationship to Samuel and she part of his plot to murder the Emperor out of the feelings she had for him. Euphrates found out about Samuel and the G.I.A. connection and was desperate to stop it– enough that despite herself, she went out on a limb and reached out to me in the capacity of a Fueller enforcer to investigate further.”

Selene’s brain lit up– she imagined something devilishly romantic must have happened.

Never before had Selene thought to herself that she could’ve been a product of love.

That was the way she was characterizing this web of conspiracies to herself.

Asan must have used Samuel’s DNA to complete her, to immortalize their tragic love.

Samuel. Her father; but she didn’t know how to feel about him.

Selene knew what Rivers were like. She had been a River herself. She knew the culture of the Sunlight Foundation.

Asan appeared vividly in her head, well-kept, white lab coat, the cutting edge of technology at her fingertips.

Proud, driven, unwilling to set aside her goals for any reason. Her project, Selene, was her highest expression.

Rivers did whatever they were ordered; but they also did whatever it took to satisfy their ambitions.

They were once-ordinary people who were given infinite resources to bring to life their wildest imaginations.

Despite having never known her, Selene felt she knew Asan, vividly, closely.

Asan was a figure who made perfect sense, who fit perfectly in Selene’s story.

Samuel was more of a mystery. Selene could not imagine what he might have been like.

She wanted to believe that his enigmatic world collided with hers, and the resulting star-crossed love gave birth to her.

In Selene’s mind, Asan was fast becoming the principal character in her birth– Samuel was already beginning to fade.

Norn continued despite Selene’s wild fantasizing.

“I believe Asan must have used Samuel’s DNA for you. But I never got to the bottom of it all. Asan’s actions, and Euphrates’ role in opposing them, ended with me capturing Samuel, incriminating Konstantin’s favorite wife in the murder plot, and neither of them gave up anything, to the last breath. I was no longer in control of the situation after the incident at Schwerin Island. Maybe Konstantin ended up knowing more than me, but it’s impossible to ask him. So we can only guess.”

Norn turned her gaze away from Selene, as if she were staring into the past itself.

“So when I say you are not to dig into this Selene, I mean it in the strongest terms. All of your allies will become your enemies if you take your parent’s side. In that tragedy, Euphrates and I were principal actors. Do you want revenge on us?”

Adelheid stared at Norn in sudden shock. Norn’s eyes remained fixed on the purple-haired pilot.

Selene shook her head solemnly in return.

Some part of her had been prepared for what Norn had told her.

Whether her parents had been heroes or heretics to the Sunlight Foundation–

Selene had already accepted that if they didn’t exist in Eden’s database, they were probably controversial and dead.

When she first realized she might have parents at all, Selene worked out every negative emotion she had.

That process of giving up on ever meeting them, had been done long ago.

All she wanted was to know. She held no grudges. She had already lived an entire life with feelings of loss.

“I could never turn against you, Norn. Or Euphrates. Not for something that happened so long ago.”

Norn looked relieved. Her posture loosened up a bit. “I’m glad. Euphrates should have never told you that surname. Regardless, now you know what I know. I believe you were the result of Asan’s research, made with Samuel’s DNA and her own. I urge you to move on past that and forge your own identity. On this ship, I forbid you to bring up your parents again.”

Norn turned her gaze on Adelheid. The redhead raised a finger, pointing to herself.

Moi? Why are you looking at me?”

“You’re also another busybody who needs to forget the past. Are we clear?”

Adelheid rolled her eyes. “Sure, Norn, absolutely whatever.”

“I’m being serious here, you flighty brat. Set a good example for Selene and move on.”

Selene was no longer paying any attention to Norn and Adelheid’s relationship theater.

In her mind, regardless of what she promised Norn, she was losing herself in a flight of fancy.

Hugging her legs close to her chest, her antennae flicking, a little smile on her face.

Her mother had made her;

from a passionate tryst with her father;

in a quest to create a being born powerfully psionic;

Selene was gifted! She was special! She was made special! Born into incredible power out of maternal love!

Every time Selene was given a task or a training to undertake when she was younger, she always aced it. She was an exceptional Diver pilot, she had a unique psionic skill, she was adept in every element of psionics that the Sunlight Foundation had cared to track. Personally studied under the Immortal Euphrates and now chosen of the Apostle Norn. Selene was not nobody! She was special! Powerful and unique! She had been born to a fateful destiny! She was the fruit of the search for psionic potential in the human gene, and surely, that meant her mother had succeeded! She was a genetically psionic wunderkind!

As if to interrupt her reverie, Norn raised her voice once more.

“One more thing, about your visions. It absolutely cannot leave this room either.”

“Huh?” Adelheid said. “Whipping back around suddenly? What happened to moving on?”

“She wants to know, and I want her to trust me. Be quiet.”

“Of course!” Selene said, taken in by a rapturous, insane joy. “Tell me!”

Norn seemed to have noticed her excitement and returned another stern look.

“You want me to stop keeping secrets from you, right? Then I’ll tell confide in you something that must remain secret. Something you saw. You said red hair and a horn and a white robe that looks fleshy; the woman you described seeing in the mirror has features that recall the Omenseer’s Autarch. Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.” Norn finally said.

Her voice had gone quite cold as if she hated saying that name.

“Arbitrator II? Isn’t that Hunter III’s boss? Her remains were recorded in Eden.” Selene said.

“She is not Hunter III’s boss. I’m Hunter III’s boss.” Norn said suddenly. “And I would strongly encourage you not to believe everything you saw in Eden. Euphrates designed the system, but the narrative within was built over time by Yangtze.”

Selene nodded. She had no idea what there was to be skeptical about, however. Eden recorded that Arbitrator II of the 1st Sphere was a kind of spiritual leader of the Omenseers. Omenseers were special psionic beings who could navigate photic currents and past Leviathans. They wandered the world and plied their powers in secret, in exchange for shelter and wealth.  

Arbitrator II’s remains had been used to determine that Omenseers were genetically human.

That was everything Selene knew.

“So Norn, if you think I saw Arbitrator II, why would that even happen?” Selene asked.

“I think that your vision was caused by your stressed-out brain recapitulating all of the traumatic memories you must have seen in the Eden system when you were searching for your past. In short, you had a nervous episode.” Norn said sullenly.

“How does that explain the two Shimii I saw? And the weird cave they were all in?” Selene said.

“I bet one of the Shimii was just Mehmed and the other was Faiyad Ayari. Both of them are figures you must have met in the Eden if you know about Arbitrator II. You became so obsessed with your past that you started giving yourself delusions– which I’m sure the Jagdkaiser and your psynadium dosages are only making worse. You need to rest and meditate.”

Selene nodded obediently. She did not think Norn’s explanation was entirely true. It felt just as much conjecture as anything, but it made more sense than her own personal explanation. For a moment, she had thought she was seeing visions of her own past. But that was not possible. If this was Arbitrator II, why would she be seeing visions of her? She could not place that.

“If you say so. I promise I’ll rest up and I won’t mention the visions to anyone.”

That said, she felt a certain sense of relief. She chose to believe this explanation.

Norn had given her a command. She would follow it.

And she finally knew about her parents too. Selene Anahid, daughter of Asan and Samuel.

It felt like the holes in her soul were being refilled.

Selene Anahid was powerful. She had infinite potential for a glorious future.

She no longer needed to fear or waver. She did know who she was, what she was born for.

“I’ll meditate, get my head sorted, and I’ll be ready to sortie again, Praetorian.” She said.

Selene saluted with a determined expression.

Norn and Adelheid noticed the change in her attitude. Both of them smiled at her.

“Fantastic. And what will you do about your past?” Norn asked.

“I’ll make sure it stays in the past.” Selene declared.

“That’s what I like to hear. Come on Adelheid, let’s give the girl some space.”

The two of them stood, each giving Selene a friendly pat on the shoulder before departing. Selene watched them go and watched them shut the lights in her room and close the door. She was in shadow, lying in bed with her blankets over her, dressed in nothing but tight pants and a bra just like where she started the evening, but she felt, suddenly, like an entirely different person.

Riding the high of a catharsis that she never thought would come.

She was not nobody; she was not just anybody.

“I’m the most powerful psychic. Selene Anahid, daughter of Asan,” She told herself, giggling. “My mother made me out of love to prove that psionics was genetic– and did she not succeed? Norn doesn’t know it yet, but–”

Absentmindedly, she withdrew the cylinder of red matter, holding it up above her eyes.

Smiling as she manipulated the fluid within. Norn didn’t know; but Selene was unique.

Maybe she didn’t need to know. It was enough now that Selene herself knew.

Soon Selene drifted off to sleep, more secure in her own self than ever before–

–as the Antenora neared Goryk’s Gorge.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.5]

Shortly after closing their video discussion with Euphemia Röntgen, Marina McKennedy appeared on the bridge, and Maryam Karahailos was also summoned — peeled off the side of the Cheka, where she had been standing in determined, unwavering support of Sonya Shalikova as a gaggle of engineers struggled with the mech. Together, the group huddled around the Commissar’s and Captain’s chairs on the bridge, going over the situation and then the conversation with Röntgen.

When the Doctor was first mentioned to her, a wave of white colors washed over Maryam’s skin.

Ulyana knew that this was an involuntary stress reaction on her part.

She grew suspicious, as it was obvious to see Maryam recognized the name.

“Who is Euphemia Röntgen? She told us the history of the outpost, that it was established by Admiral Gottwald and used by Katarran mercenaries for running supplies skimmed off the Southern Border Fleet. You must know about this; can you corroborate her story at all, Maryam?”

Maryam put her hands behind her back and rocked side to side while speaking.

“Euphre– Euphemia Röntgen is some kind of scientist– she uh, she’s kind of a repeat customer with mercenaries, that’s how I met her. Her company and the Foundation make money together from making gadgets. The Foundation can get expensive and rare materials, and Solarflare makes stuff with it. As for this outpost, I– I think the Doctor is right! I just knew where it was hidden and who used it, but no specifics. It’s just one of a lot of places where Katarrans can hide out for a while– it’s nothing more to me.”

Maryam laughed, a bit nervously, as if trying to play off the seriousness of it.

Ulyana felt predisposed to believe her, despite a few clear verbal stumbles here and there.

That said, she was not ready to let it go quite yet. It was part of her job to overthink things.

The Captain turned to Marina McKennedy and gestured toward Maryam to her. “What’s your thinking on this, G.I.A? The way you talk about Katarrans makes it sound like you have experience with the underworld, am I right?”

“Of course I have experience with it. If you’re in the intelligence business you need connections to the underworld. And in the Empire, the underworld runs on Katarran blood and muscle.” Marina said, crossing her arms, and fixing her gaze on Maryam before continuing, “Truth is I’ve never heard of this kid’s ‘Foundation’ or that Röntgen’s ‘Solarflare’ company, but plenty of legitimate companies are set up just like she says. Dealing in the underworld is cheaper but risky; however the ‘risk’ becomes essentially free if you don’t care what happens to the workers that will suffer the risk. And if you manage to get rare and valuable materials using cheap disposable merc labor and without a heap of bribes to corrupt officials, that’s more profit for you. It’s well known that Katarrans have a knack for getting their hands on stuff, and if they die doing it, everyone says good riddance.”

Though Ulyana certainly saw the sense in her words, the unkind, blunt way in which she spoke about this depressing topic rubbed her the wrong way. Perhaps that is why she was a frontline officer and not a political or intelligence apparatchik.

This turn in the conversation finally prompted Commissar Aaliyah Bashara to join in.

“Capitalism has always run on the back of an underclass, whether officially with colonial slaves or under the table with Katarran mercenaries. I have to say though, for even scientific companies to be tied to the underworld is surprising to me. The Empire is more corrupted than even the bleakest theories in my political training.” Aaliyah said. Ulyana wondered if she felt unnerved by the discussion, as a Shimii. She turned to the Captain sternly. “That said, we need to get back on track. We can reasonably confirm there won’t be a thousand Katarrans ambushing us now, and I’m not sure we need to be concerned about Röntgen’s business either. We didn’t escape from that Inquisitor to waste time playing Inquisitor. So, Captain, have you reached a decision?”

Aaliyah fixed her lovely eyes on Ulyana, who felt put on the spot.

There was a sense that, before she made any move, she felt she needed it to be fully solved.

Being chased by the Iron Lady, and almost killed in the event, instilled in Ulyana a sense that she needed to be far more cautious than she was. The Imbrium Empire was a more deadly and complicated place than they had ever given it credit for. Aaliyah was right. She had to reach some kind of decision quickly to get them moving again. Ulyana was not so sure they should let Röntgen’s “business” go, but there was nothing more that they would gain by deliberating among themselves.

Ulyana stood up and addressed the bridge crew.

“Zachikova, I want you to bring the drone back from long range reconnaissance and instead go over the wreckage of Röntgen’s ship and compiled a graphical record for me. Kamarik, we’ll move in and dock beneath the outpost structure. It does seem like everything is sufficiently quiet, and the outpost seems to have no defenses, but I want you to keep your eyes and ears peeled, al-Suhar. Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa should remain ready to fire at a moment’s notice. I also want all the gas gunners at attention as well, I want a flak barrage ready if we see any Divers. Let’s all move with caution, for now.”

Around the Captain, the bridge crew members and acknowledged and quickly got to work.

Marina stood off to the side of the door, her part for now completed, and Maryam skipped out to the hangar again.

Their course was clear. They were going to dock at this outpost for their repairs.

When Ulyana sat back down, she tried to relax, but her shoulders were stiff.

She had a lot of tension in her; and there was still a lot of tension around all of them.

“I can’t help but think we’re missing something in all of this.” Ulyana said.

Her voice was low, but her Commissar heard her. With Marina standing with her head down and her back on the opposite wall, they had the small amount of privacy they usually did and could talk to each other how a Commissar and a Captain usually did. Aaliyah’s ears perked up when she heard, and without turning to face each other, they spoke, dissimulating their discussion.

“We’re career military, so we’re used to working in an information-rich environment.” Aaliyah said. “I don’t blame you for worrying. We’re going to have to get used to not being entirely in the loop about some things. Best guesses seem to be the nature of this kind of mission. But we can’t lose sight of our own interests, Captain. Even if Röntgen is lying, does her lying affect us negatively? We can revisit this question when we let her go; but for now, we ought to play along with her.”

Ulyana smiled. “You have an uncanny ability to keep a clear head, Commissar.”

Aaliyah smiled as well. They were on the same wavelength.

They weren’t turning their heads or fixing each other’s eyes with passion, but they knew.

Both of them still understood one another, in the little conspiracy that a Captain and her Commissar formed on a Union bridge. It was nice to be able to engage in this closed conversation even with everyone around them.

“A Captain and a Commissar should be everything the other is not.” Aaliyah said. “When you have doubts, my role is to help you clarify them. When I am unsure, your role is to give me direction. That’s how we make a good team. And I do appreciate the caution you’ve shown. Being perfectly honest, I was worried you would be more reckless and impulsive.”

“So have I finally proven myself to you, then?” Ulyana asked with a swelling of pride.

“Of course. I acknowledge you as the picture of Union gallantry, Captain Korabiskaya.”

Ulyana’s heart fluttered somewhat at the response, and she tried not to react too strongly.

But her Commissar seemed to realize or perhaps even expect the effect of her words.

“That being said,” Aaliyah shut her eyes and grinned a little. “I will continue to be critical of you, so don’t think you can slack off. In fact, now that you’ve shown yourself so capable, I will certainly be upset if I see you making a stupid mistake. Keeping you honest is part of my role. When a Captain errs, her Commissar should strongly correct her.”

Ulyana sighed a little inside, but she should have expected this anyway.

It wasn’t like she had put a ring on her finger or anything.

She had not even confessed just how deep her feelings for this furry-eared, bright-eyed, thin-tailed Shimii had become. How much any word of support from her meant to Ulyana. Aaliyah, more than she knew, turned immediately into Ulyana’s guiding light whenever she spoke. With this woman at her side, the Captain felt like she could go anywhere and conquer any obstacle.

This was not something that Ulyana could say aloud.

Despite all her experience with sex, she was unused to having such powerful feelings for someone else. Whenever she dated someone it had been fun, and she certainly cared for them, but she never felt such an irrational girlish longing before.

All this time she had been trying to do little things for Aaliyah but, of course, she wouldn’t reciprocate.

In their profession, such a thing was even more difficult to confess to.

Geninov had once joked they were like mother and father.

That was indeed part of the relationship of a Captain and a Commissar to a Union crew. They were like mother and father — a divorced mother and father with a professional parenting relationship over their children, the crew.

So Ulyana had to hold her heart still and maintain her usual calm, coy demeanor.

“Of course, Commissar Bashara. I welcome your principled critique. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Ulyana said.

“Oh, wouldn’t you?”

For the first time since they began speaking, their gazes briefly met.

Was Aaliyah teasing her? What was that tiny smile playing across her lips?

“Eyes ahead, Captain. We’ve got work to do.”

She crossed her arms, looking self-satisfied– she had put Ulyana quite off-balance!

“Of course.” It was all Ulyana could say, but now there was a greater thrill in her heart…


When the Brigand finally descended into the Goryk’s Gorge outpost, they found little room to maneuver around the pillars that anchored it to the rapidly encroaching edge of the cliffs. Serrano had dwarfed the Brigand, an absolutely vast city akin to a rectangular mountain into which they could dock, but this outpost had barely enough space to cover the ship’s width between the legs. Small ships could have fit tightly, but it was impossible to service more than a single cruiser. Beneath the steel disc of the habitat, debris littered the benthic surface, rusted out lengths of steel twisted into every imaginable shape had fallen to the soft earth, skeletal when the floodlights turned on them, forming cavernous walls around the rim of the outpost.

There was not enough space on the underside of the habitat for a moonpool and definitely not enough for a completely dry berth for ships. There was instead a rudimentary anchoring structure, accompanied by an L-shaped side duct that slotted in with a ship’s shuttle bay ramp, giving access to a cargo elevator. This improvised design was not unknown to Union sailors, as ramp access chutes were used in situations where an automated system conveyed raw materials into cargo ships. What terrified the Brigand’s sailors and engineers was the idea of that design taking people up and out of the ship– that was innovative.

“No one is going on that without personal dive suits.” Chief Mechanic Lebedova declared.

Everyone in the boarding party accepted this safety measure, and donned dark green dive hardsuits with life support backpacks and visored helmets. Among those boarding were two sailors selected by lottery, led by Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and “Acting First Officer” Sonya Shalikova, along with Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse for security. As soon as Shalikova was recruited to the boarding party, she immediately began to protest, but this was just as immediately followed by Maryam Karahailos demanding to follow in an advisory capacity. Her overbearing enthusiasm shamed Shalikova into participating alongside her.

And so began their excursion into Goryk Outpost.

Despite a seemingly rickety appearance, the elevator remained dry and retained the correct pressure throughout its ascent.

Shalikova had not worn a dive hardsuit in a long time.

Everything was just a little heavier than she would like, as if her limbs had a pair of bedrolls duct taped to them and she was forced to carry a backpack full of steel pipe. Despite this, the material was flexible enough to allow her a decent range of movement. While the elevator rose, she extended her arms and closed them over her chest in repetitive stretch motions, trying to get used to it.

After a few moments, Maryam began imitating her for seemingly no reason at all.

“Quit playing around, you two. We’re almost up.” Ulyana said.

Shalikova grumbled; Maryam was clearly smiling through her visor.

When the elevator finally stopped, a noisy bulkhead opened to admit the party into an enormous landing where air levels and pressure were controlled before admission into the habitat. Tall steel walls grown opaque with disrepair, protective paint peeling, hearing mechanical sounds from unlubricated instruments around them. Shalikova felt unsteady on her feet. All of the worlds she lived in were mechanical in nature, but the standards of ships and stations gave her confidence to walk as if on earth.

The state of this outpost starkly, grimly reminded her that under the ocean, only metal walls kept her from death.

With every step, she thought of the water flowing freely beneath the habitat floor.

Could her foot go through the old, welded seams of the steel and cause her to fall through?

Her feet felt suddenly unsteady. As if this was not ground like any other.

Feeling pathetic, she tried to swallow that anxiety and hold herself firm.

After minutes that felt like hours the inner bulkhead opened into the habitat proper.

Past the bulkhead door they stepped into a broad square lobby attached to a long, dark steel hall that branched off into innumerable closed rooms. The only illumination came from a single cluster of LED lights that shone intermittently from the corner of the ceiling. Every other light had the merest flicker, as if a dying ember, and contributed very little in their burnt-out state. Shalikova thought this lobby must have once actually been a cargo processing area. There was a conveyor belt along the left side of the area that led to a dark hole in the wall, places now unknown and unseen for what must have been years. There was a fenced-off area on the right that had a dismal little pile of broken-down parts of different forklifts and labor suits.

“You are welcome to take off your helmets. Air quality is acceptable.”

That voice belonged to Doctor Euphemia, and she had a few companions with her.

Three figures altogether occupied the neglected lobby. It seemed that they had left all of their belongings in this hall as if they hadn’t the curiosity to venture further inside. Organized neatly along the walls were three crates about six or seven meters tall and over two meters across. Bedrolls had been stretched and discarded packaging for food items lay strewn about. Shalikova figured they must have been living in here for a day or two, judging by the amount of trash, about eleven containers.

“It’s good to be able to meet in person, Captain. Welcome to our hopefully temporary abode. I hope you can tell the mood here is more along the lines of ‘gloomy school dorm’ than ‘evil organization’s secret lair.’” Euphemia said.

Ulyana removed her helmet and extended a hand to the doctor, grinning.

“You can never be too cautious in this line of work, Doctor. Pleased to finally make your acquaintance after all this.”

On the Union side, the sailors and officers took their helmets off to greet the Doctor.

Shalikova looked briefly at Maryam when taking her helmet off and found her bashful expression puzzling.

Her colors were a little muted, she was quiet, and she was trying to hide behind them.

Doctor Euphemia shook hands with the Captain. “Let me introduce you to my colleagues.”

There was a young woman who had been standing close to Doctor Euphema ever since the boarding party arrived, and she was introduced first. Slightly taller than the doctor, longer-limbed, with skin a light olive tone but with the same brilliantly unblemished and soft facial features. They both seemed young, older than Shalikova but maybe not by much. Like the doctor, her companion wore a white lab coat with an ID card hanging from a pocket clip lanyard. As if they had intended to form a pair, this colleague had shockingly bright red hair tied in a simple ponytail, in contrast to Euphemia’s messy blue hair.

“This is Doctor Theresa Faraday. I’m purely a theorist; she does actual mechanical work.”

“Without that fathomless brain of hers I wouldn’t have anything to assemble.”

Ulyana shook Doctor Theresa’s hand as well when offered, wearing a smile that the redhead did not return. Though Theresa’s lightly nasal voice was energetic and did not indicate any anger or offense by itself, the doctor had a thoroughly friendless look to her eyes and down-turned lips, as if she were scrutinizing and judging everything that crossed her line of sight. It was a haughty and conceited sort of look, Shalikova thought, perhaps even bratty, certainly ill mannered all the same.

Faced with that expression, Shalikova responded with trepidation when the captain silently urged her to step forward and shake hands as well. She knew she had to– she was First Officer on this excursion and had Murati’s responsibilities.

Euphemia smiled when taking the young girl’s hand, offering a gentle shake; when it was Doctor Theresa’s turn, she shook quickly, firmly, and perhaps in a perfunctory sort of way, but her expression never once changed.

Getting close to her, Shalikova peered briefly into those complex, mechanical eyes of hers.

Both she and Euphemia had visible cybernetic implants– were their eyes the only augmented part of them?

After Shalikova, the two security officers shook hands with the pair of Doctors as well.

While they were shaking hands, the third member of the doctor’s entourage left the side of her bedroll farther down the hall and forced herself to a stand, stretching out her arms and yawning. It was at that point that the Doctor introduced her, by way of gesturing vaguely in her direction as if beckoning her forward. Soon enough, the woman followed up on the Doctor’s gesturing and joined the Doctors, grinning the whole way, until she was finally within arm’s reach of the boarding party.

“Yo!” She said, drawing out the ‘o’ sound. “I don’t wanna work, so let’s all play nice.”

“This boisterous girl is Xenia Laskaris.” Doctor Euphemia. “She’s a security contractor.”

“That’s just boardroom jargon.” Xenia said. “‘Katarran mercenary’ is way more honest.”

Everything about the girl did scream ‘Katarran’ to Shalikova.

Dressed in a brown vinyl jacket over a zipped red shirt and sturdy-looking blue work pants with thick boots, wearing a Union spec Gepard SMG on her chest, hung on a plastic belt from her shoulder. She clearly trod the path between civilian and soldier, the place where the Katarran mercenaries had made their reputation legendary. There was a certain messiness to her. Her hair was colored a dusty orange-brown, cut unevenly about level with her neck, bangs slightly swept, two dark green colored antennae peeking out from under; her skin was mainly dark grey, but mottled orange around her neck and hands. On closer inspection, her clothes had a few patches here and there, covering rips perhaps, while the finish on her submachine gun was clearly worn out.

Behind her, there was something protruding, like a thin, stiff, hard tail that could hardly bend.

Shalikova thought she had a girlish appearance and demeanor, carrying herself with strange ease. Like a college kid from the shooting club, just happy to be there. It was the way she smiled, and her casual body language. Shalikova thought she was not taking things quite seriously, or maybe she was too confident that everything was under her control.

When she spoke, her voice had a mysteriously saccharine sound for what she was saying.

“Such cute little guns! Suits are all Union spec too! Y’all are real serious business huh?”

Xenia pointed at Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse, who had Karov handguns holstered to their dive suits and openly carried. However, the scuba suits themselves were painted Union green and were undoubtedly Union designs, since imperial design air tanks were supposedly lighter than theirs, with a smaller capacity. Shalikova realized that a keen eye could tell they were stuffed to the gills with Union gear. Compared to that the spec of Xenia’s Gepard was an inconsequentially small detail.

“I get it; Imperial stuff’s all shit,” Xenia continued, “the equipment is more complicated, the spare parts are expensive, and they grift you on service packages for everything. Communists make stuff like they won’t ever get another one, like they’ll have to take care of it. They get real quality. And just like a communist, a merc has to cherish every bit of gear they have.”

She walked closer to Shalikova and looked her up and down with a smile. Her hand caressed the side of her firearm in a way that briefly raised Zhu and Van Der Smidse’s hackles, and the two brought their hands closer to their holsters.

“Relax! I’m just showing off my little guy, I’m real proud of it– but all your stuff is so brand new-lookin’!”

Xenia’s hand left the stock of her weapon and extended suddenly to Shalikova.

Shalikova shook it without reservations. Xenia had a gentle shake, with nothing to prove.

But all the while, she was looking right past Shalikova.

Her eyes fixed briefly on Maryam and the Captain and darted past the rest.

“With how paranoid you sounded on call, Korabiskaya, I thought you’d all storm in guns blazing. Y’all are so disciplined– two security with nothing but small arms, two unarmed officers, one out-of-place fishie and two unarmed randoms. You must have been confident in the good Doctor to come in so light. So orderly, no like any ordinary Imperial mercs.” She said.

That forced cutesiness of her voice had risen to the level of outright mockery.

“We’re just better than your run-of-the-mill Katarran outfit.” Ulyana said confidently.

Xenia’s lips curled into a little grin. “Nah, I don’t think so. Only better equipped.”

She stretched out a cheeky hand to Ulyana for a shake.

Ulyana took it without raising a fuss.

Not once did Xenia’s provocations get any rise out of the Captain. Ulyana kept an inhuman cool, even as Xenia was clearly probing her for information. Had she been ordered by Doctor Euphemia to do so or was she simply this disorderly? For all she knew about how vicious they were, Shalikova did not know what kind of discipline Katarran mercenaries were known for under contract. Xenia’s demeanor suggested she was being rowdy– but maybe she was just that sly, too.

Barely a moment passed; Doctor Euphemia implied an answer to Shalikova’s thoughts.

“Forgive her clear attempts at needling you, Captain Korabiskaya.” Doctor Euphemia said. She smiled serenely at the captain. “I don’t like to shout down at kids, and I’m glad you’re a cool-headed professional about such things too.”

Now it was Xenia’s turn to avoid the doctor’s obvious provocation, smiling wryly.

“Well, I’m sure she’s fantastic at killing anything that threatens you.” Ulyana said.

So far all the conversation had been carried by the Captain.

Shalikova tried to look dignified as the (acting) First Officer, but she had no handle on what to say, especially when the conversation was being scrutinized so thoroughly by both sides. She feared saying something that would give Xenia more information than she needed to know; and that could have been anything, with how tense that Katarran made things. Meanwhile Doctor Euphemia acted like the tension was nothing but the sound of the air conditioning inside this old outpost.

For a moment, Shalikova thought her head would burst open from the pressure.

Thankfully, the Captain did not seem like she needed much backup at all.

“We both hope your mercenary won’t have much to do for the foreseeable future, Doctor, so let’s just get down to business. I’ve got some lads here to assess your cargo, then I’ll get more lads to get it loaded up. I’d be curious to know how you got it out by the three of you, those crates look pretty heavy. Have you got a Labor suit or a Diver around?” asked the Captain.

“We had a loader around; regrettably it broke down.” Doctor Euphemia said.

“So, what, did you also destroy it to protect Solarflare LLC intellectual property?”

“Indeed. You will find it among the scrap beneath this outpost.”

Ulyana turned a weary expression on the Doctor, who remained understatedly cheerful.

“So what’s in the crates? Would you mind if I scanned it?”

“Two of them are spare mechanical parts, and the third is only research chemicals.”

“Is any of it ‘Solarflare LLC intellectual property’?” Ulyana pressed.

Theresa butted in. “I can corroborate her story, if you’re intent on playing detective still.”

“I’m sure you can.” Ulyana replied, her sarcasm growing more obvious.

“I believe we’ve amply proven we mean no harm. Can we simply let the rest go already?”

“You have someone else who can vouch for us too.” Doctor Euphemia said.

She looked past Ulyana and Shalikova, her eyes set firmly on Maryam.

Maryam raised her tentacles and pointed the paddles toward herself, acting confused.

“Maryam Karahailos. She’s a very special girl; I’m sure you are all acquainted with how kindly and forthright she is. It’s serendipitous that we would run into her among your party, Captain.” Doctor Euphemia said.

“Right, Maryam did say she knows about you and that you’ve worked together in the past.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms and staring sidelong at the cuttlefish girl. “I guess that explains why she wanted to come aboard so badly.”

“Um, I only wanted to follow Sonya.” Maryam said, throwing an arm around Shalikova’s and squeezing up against her as if for protection, an act that caused Shalikova to balk and try to peel her off, but only briefly– she could not challenge Maryam’s freakish strength. “But yes, I did know the Doctor, I worked as a navigational aide. It’s what I was made for. I can say that she’s a nice enough lady, but I don’t want to work for selfish people anymore. I only want to help people now.”

Maryam turned her strange eyes briefly on Shalikova, as if wondering why she was squirming.

Shalikova, sighing openly, decided to give up when Xenia appeared to be laughing at her.

“That’s a valid desire. I’m not just in it for the money though.” Doctor Euphemia said.

“You say that, but everyone else besides you and Theresa aren’t so kind.” Maryam said.

She did not sound too impressed with the Doctor. Again the doctor was utterly unfazed.

The two of them started opening up; Maryam was speaking candidly in her usual way, and Doctor Euphemia’s manner of speech toward Maryam was warmer, and Shalikova could see that her demeanor was less stiff and guarded. It was as if the presence of Maryam had assured her of something that the Captain and the Union personnel could not. It must have had to do with their previous relationship. Shalikova, unable to budge Maryam from her side, began to feel a growing curiosity for what Maryam had done in the past– even the Captain seemed to know more about Maryam now than Shalikova did. Must’ve been disclosed in their meetings, which Shalikova wasn’t privy too. She felt almost a creeping jealousy about this.

Suddenly, Doctor Theresa left Doctor Euphemia’s side, speaking up and approaching.

“Well I’m glad you didn’t die out in the cruel ocean too, you big purple dummy.”

Theresa walked up to Maryam at that point and laid a firm hand on her head.

Maryam squirmed as Theresa rustled her hair and messed with the fins atop her head.

“Wah! Stop it! I’m not a little kid, I wouldn’t have died.” Maryam protested.

“Hah! I know, you’re a big tough mercenary aren’t you?” Theresa teased.

“Do you treat all employees like this? She gets headpats too?” Ulyana pointed at Xenia.

Xenia shut her eyes and continued grinning in self-assurance.

Maryam’s squirming threatened to pull Shalikova back with her– it was a shameful scene.

Once Maryam was finally spared Theresa’s familial torment, which everyone silently agreed not to remark upon, and then finally released Shalikova from her deathly grip, the Doctors and Ulyana came to an agreement. They would bring the cargo in, Theresa and Xenia would help the repair crew until the Brigand was back in top form, Euphemia and the officers would draft a formal contract amenable to all parties, and any further discussion of Solarflare or Treasure Box Transport’s confidential business would be tabled until they disembarked at the next nearest station and collected their negotiated rewards.

Goryk outpost would be nothing but a bad memory for all of them come tomorrow night.

“Sonya,”

Shalikova and Maryam remained behind in Goryk Outpost for a few hours even after the Solarflare staff and the Captain had boarded the Brigand, nominally supervising the sailors as they moved Solarflare’s heavy cargo onto the ship, and then nominally supervising a sweep of the outpost, which largely found nothing as several rooms were sealed and may well have been flood hazards. At some point during this indeterminate, dull stretch of time, Maryam finally said something to Shalikova.

Her tone of voice and the Xenia-like smile on her face, suggested something conspiratorial.

“Remember, we’re on for tonight! The Captain’s order not to work late shift is still in effect, so we can sneak out to the hangar. I’ll teach you my powers and you’ll teach me Diver stuff. It’s a date, so you had better not forget it!”

After everything that happened, Shalikova was almost excited having Maryam to herself.

“Alright, we’ll go out tonight. But remember, you can’t tease me!” Shalikova said, meaning every word.


“Maryam, I’ve got a question,”

At Shalikova’s side, Maryam’s head fins stiffened and stood on end.

“Of course, Sonya!”

“What do you mean when you said you are ‘made for’ being a navigational aide?”

That night, as they promised, the two of them headed down to the hangar.

Shalikova was following Maryam’s lead. She claimed to be able to tell the direction that Chief Akulantova was patrolling in order to be able to avoid her. It felt a little stupid; there wasn’t a curfew, and it would just be a little embarrassing to have to explain themselves to the Chief, no harm would be done in the end. But Maryam was adamant that they needed to be sneaky, and Shalikova was happy to play along with her. She wondered idly if maybe it was because Chief Akulantova was also a Katarran Pelagis, and an older, bigger, and stronger one at that– maybe it triggered Maryam somehow.

Of course, that was not something she felt comfortable asking about.

Still, she wanted to know something about Maryam’s past, after all these insinuations.

“Oh! That? Yeah, I can explain it! You know how Katarrans are born right?”

“You’re made in artificial wombs, right? They use stem cells to create the babies.”

Shalikova could not fully keep her tone under control as she described it.

There was something about the reality of that process which made her skin crawl.

Maryam seemed to notice her trepidation.

“Right, okay. So in Katarre there’s groups of people, or companies, who are able to make babies. They manufacture eggs and put them in womb machines to simulate birth. Uh, you’ve been weirded out by Katarran stuff before so brace yourself for what they’re called: Embryo Farms– Are you okay?” Maryam paused and looked behind herself at Shalikova.

Her skin turned a little grey; Shalikova was outright grimacing at the name.

Embryo farm? How much more dehumanizing could this be!

“Sorry, it’s a lot to take in, but go on, I want to learn.” Shalikova said.

“If you say so, but I’m going to be blunt. To me this is just normal stuff.” Maryam said. “Anyway. Embryo farms make babies and sell them to people who raise them to work. One time, Athena told me that maybe 5% of Katarrans can actually reproduce, so Embryo Farms are really important. Depending on how much unique human genetic material is used to make your Egg, you’re more expensive. Some Kattarans are born from more synthetic and fish stuff than human, but they’re born all the same.”

“Do you–” Shalikova was practically reeling inside at this information. “Do you– know your–?”

“Nope! I don’t know what my price tag was, but it must have been pretty high. I was not made just to fight or to work, but with a specific purpose. That’s why I’m a cute cuttlefish girl.” Maryam pointed her index fingers at her cheeks, making a cutesy expression. “They’re the smartest fish in the world, so I’ve got a really good brain in my head.”

Shalikova had actually meant to ask about the percentage of actual human genes in her egg.

Not just her price– but she realized that if she asked that outright it’d be a social atrocity.

It would be akin to asking, ‘are you really human’? Definitely crossing an awful line.

“So– your purpose is to help navigation right? But don’t Katarrans have computers?”

“Making a larva is cheaper than installing a ship supercomputer.” Maryam said.

“I mean– I– really? A supercomputer is more expensive than you?”

Maryam puffed her cheeks up, her skin and hair color cycling through a range of reds.

Shalikova raised her hands and smiled awkwardly. “Jeez, I put my foot in it didn’t I?”

“My price is beside the point Sonya!” Maryam said in an exasperated tone of voice. “Let me finish, okay? Katarrans buy navigators and raise them to hold information that nobody ever commits to a standard map anyway. My actual job was to keep track of all Athena’s secret bases, supply caches, the unplubished routes of her logistics vessels, and stuff like that. Super-secret war stuff where if you ever wrote it down you’d burn the stone paper afterwards. Do you get it now?”

“When you put it that way it makes total sense.”

Shalikova felt like an idiot.

She thought she was really saying all the worst things to Maryam and felt quite sorry.

“Hey, Maryam, listen, I’m really–”

Maryam sighed. Her skin turned pink again and she put on a gentle expression.

Interrupting Shalikova, she turned around and took her hands gently into her own.

“I can’t stay mad at you Sonya. You’re just too earnest. I really like that about you.”

Shalikova averted her gaze.

“Well, I’m glad you’re not mad. You’re probably the nicest person on this ship to me.”

Where did that come from? Why had she blurted that out like a fucking idiot?

Maryam’s entire body turned the color of a tomato, a soft red rather than an angry one.

“I’m– Uhh– I’m glad you think so!” She teetered from side to side. “Anyway!”

She turned around on her heel and resumed leading the way through the halls.

Still wondering about her own loose lips, Shalikova followed along a step behind.

Rather than the elevator banks, they snuck through an emergency stairwell, and got down to the hangar that way. Shalikova had never seen the place so empty. It was dark, with only a few dim ceiling LEDs left on to keep the space from being completely pitch black. Shalikova could hear nothing but their footsteps and the biological noise of her own body as they crossed the hangar. Everything was a monochrome except for a few gently glowing bits of bio luminescence from Maryam.

In the hangar, the broadest bit of open space was the shuttle bay, at the far back of the hangar past the workshop and diver pods. Because the shuttle was not designed to stand on its own but had to stay inside the ship for protection and maintenance, it was suspended from the roof of the hangar, and the length of the closed shuttle ramp beneath it was free. Shalikova led Maryam there and urged her not to start jumping and trying to smack the shuttle– but Maryam did it anyway, giggling.

“Come on, focus, Maryam. I’m really serious here.” Shalikova said. In a fit of emotion she reached out and took Maryam’s hands. “Listen. I want to learn about these colors. I’ve been seeing these weird lights and colors floating every so often ever since I got out to sea. I’ve been trying to ignore it, but they pop up at the weirdest times. I can’t make any sense of it but when I saw you trying your weird tricks in the cafeteria, I knew it wasn’t just me being stressed out. We could both still be completely insane– but I’m willing to believe if you promise to tell the truth about them. So please stop joking around.”

Maryam looked down at Shalikova’s hands holding her own.

She intertwined her fingers between Shalikova’s with a soft smile.

“Of course, Sonya. I’m sorry, I’ll take things super serious, okay? And I want to say, we’re definitely not insane, and you are right, I do know the significance of the colors that you have been seeing. I’ll tell you everything I know. But it’s really very weird– are you sure if I told you that you would actually believe me? If I promise to you that I’m telling the truth?”

Shalikova took a deep breath.

“If you promise you’re telling the truth, and not teasing me. I’ll absolutely believe you.”

“Then, I promise. I am telling you the whole truth, as I know it.”

“Are there things you don’t know?”

“Yes, there are. It’s something very mysterious.”

Shalikova felt her heart stir. “Alright. I accept that. So– I guess I yield the floor to you.”

She let go of Maryam’s hands and took a step back to give her room.

“Alright. I’ve been thinking about where to start, so I’ll just show you.”

Maryam held out a hand in front of herself, palm up.

“Do you see my eyes glowing?” Maryam said.

She did.

Shalikova could see red rings beginning to glow brightly around the edges of Maryam’s eyes, outlining the shape of her pupils in the gloomy hangar. At first, she could only see that glow and hardly anything else in the dark. On Maryam’s hand there was nothing visibly happening, and the colors had yet to make an appearance. But she continued to hold her hand out, so there must have been something on it. Shalikova focused, tried to make out anything that was happening around Maryam’s palm.

Just when she was about to give up and accuse Maryam of pulling a trick to tease her–

She noticed debris flying over Maryam’s hand.

Dust– there were specks of dirt and metal shavings dancing over her palm.

There was a current, a little vortex, dragging in particulate matter.

“Do you see the colors yet?” Maryam asked calmly.

“N-N-no.” Shalikova stammered out a response.

Maryam’s fingers curled slightly over her palm.

Shalikova’s hair began to gently blow as the current on Maryam’s palm grew stronger.

Now it was clearly visible, a tall and thin vortex of air spinning at storm-like speeds.

With this exertion of effort Shalikova could now see the colors around it.

Blue and white streaking the tiny windstorm like aerodynamic paint in a test turbine.

“Do you see it?”

“I see it. There’s colors around it.”

“What colors?”

“Blue– blue and white.”

Shalikova’s voice left her lips like a gasp.

Her heart started banging in her chest, her head hurt as if something was trying to split it open, her vision was wavering and blurring, she was seeing something insane, something she felt she was never meant to see. She felt as if her eyes were doors to something alien that could not now be put back in its place after being released. It was her own assured understanding of the world and the things in it, changed forever. Maryam had no chance to prepare some kind of parlor trick, she had no tools, no devices, Shalikova had been with her all day. All she had was the flesh of her body, and the knowledge in her mysterious brain.

Maryam was not just a ‘soothsayer’, not just a wandering charlatan running a scam.

She had some kind of power. There was no denying it anymore, no papering it over.

There was some kind of unknown force out in the world that Maryam could control.

And it could do insane, amazing things.

As if to demonstrate that she had control over this spectacle, Maryam cupped her free hand over the hand which she had palm-up. Putting this cap on her little vortex, it suddenly warped, widening like a disc between her palms. It looked more like a hurricane than a tornado in that state. And when she raised her hand, the vortex grew taller and thinner, and widened again when she closed her hands together once more. When she clapped them together, the little vortex was suddenly gone.

“Maryam this is a hell of a lot more than soothsaying.” Shalikova said near breathlessly.

While the wind disappeared from Maryam’s hands, the colors had not.

Now those colors that Shalikova had seen in the air drifted, aimlessly at first, but slowly collecting around Maryam, joining the personal color that seemed to float about her like a nebula, like a glowing shadow, an after-image that trailed in her wake. Her color intensified, blue, white, with a band of green and a band of black. Shalikova could see it so clearly. The colors had “come back” — like in the hangar that one time, like around Maryam, like when Khadija was fighting–

Shalikova began to shiver, and she shut her eyes and embraced herself with fear.

“Maryam, everything’s turning into colors, I don’t understand!”

“Sonya! I’m sorry! I’ll get the colors under control– I just needed you to see them first.”

Footsteps; Maryam rushed to Shalikova’s side. She felt Maryam’s hand touch her forehead.

“This might feel weird at first, but please trust me! You really have to trust me, okay?”

As soon as she was finished saying this Shalikova opened her eyes, only to meet Maryam’s bright glowing red-ringed eyes directly in front of her own. She could almost feel Maryam’s breath on her own lips and thought to back up, but her body would not move. Maryam had a hand on her forehead, and touching Shalikova’s forehead, only the thin width of that hand separating their faces. Maryam’s wide-open eyes and blank, unsmiling expression, the purple bangs framing her face, this was everything Shalikova could see, and it inspired such fear and trepidation into her despite being so familiar.

Seeing those eyes so close, so vast, Shalikova began to feel lost in their magnitude.

Colors trickled up, a cloud of particulate matter like the marine snow out in the ocean, engulfing the two of them. Maryam’s colors became overwhelming, they completely shut out any possible vision of the world, they moved over Shalikova. She felt her body lose weight and rigidity as if she was falling down, suspended in the color, in a vortex of every color all at once–

“I have to trust her. I have to trust her. I have to trust her–”

Shalikova mumbled to herself, clinging on to the sensation of Maryam’s touch.

Even as everything else fell away to some kind of alien oblivion–

“I have to trust her–”

She could not see anything around herself, could barely hear her own voice, and yet–

The touch of Maryam’s skin was still there, so she was still alive!

Focusing on Maryam within the baptism of the colors–

For a moment, it quelled the vortex and revealed something in its place.

Shalikova felt a flash before her eyes as if she was opening eyelids long closed–

When the world around her regained definition, she was no longer standing in the hangar.

She was no longer even on the Brigand.

At the edges of her vision the colors swirled in and out like a glitchy screen–

There was a sense that this was not her body. She was moving without control of herself.

Her lips parted to speak words she could not understand. Mournful, regretful words.

She stood in a pitch-black cavernous place intermittently lit by dim beams of purple light.

Surrounded by stone, a jagged roof, an uneven glass window like a slash cut in the rocks.

Outside there were seething, bubbling, roiling clouds of red biomass.

Strange creatures swam in the murk, their shapes irregular.

Waters so contaminated they could not possibly be anywhere real. Bodies so warped they couldn’t be natural.

It was stupid of you to come here. Stupid and pointless like your entire existence.

Inside of her brain, a voice spoke– but it also came from her side, where its presence was located. Involuntarily, Shalikova’s head turned, and she noticed, her body was thickly cloaked in a dripping wet, leathery clothing, almost as if the flesh of some bizarre creature. And at her side was a woman clad somewhat the same, in a white and black dress as if made of flesh, long red hair the color of blood, a black horn emerging from the side of her head as if it had been stabbed there.

An enormous tail trailed behind her, and at the hems of her dress tentacles stretched and squirmed.

That haughty voice had come from this woman, and it was directed at a figure approaching them.

Tall, straight furry ears atop the head marked the person as a Shimii.

Slim in build, long-haired, with a handsome countenance, wearing layers of thick robes–

–and bearing glowing red eyes filled with hatred, a solemn expression on the lips.

Streaks of glowing flame played about the figure’s tense hands and fingers.

The horned woman spread her arms. A cruel grin marred her perfectly pale face.

Do you feel like a big man fighting your way here? It’s so futile! Look around you! I’ve got nothing but raw material to make as many minions as I want. You’re in my kingdom, kitten priest! You have trapped yourself here with me!

He was not impressed with the woman’s threat.

“Give the lady back to me, and I’ll only take your powers instead of your life.”

Shalikova realized at that moment that she had a tail too–

–because the horned woman beside her grabbed hold of it with her long, thin fingers.

Idiot; she came to me herself! Unlike you and your ungrateful band of demagogues, she understands that fighting me is impossible, and has accepted my generosity in order to spare your people the punishment I bring.

Shalikova felt the figure’s eyes turn to her, filled with regret and longing.

“Stay put. This will be nothing but a bad dream from which we’ll both awaken soon.”

Then the woman at her side drew wide her snake-like eyes, and they began to glow.

Don’t ignore me, kitten priest! That God you’ve fabricated for your people can’t help you here!

Water infested with red biomass leaped from two currents running along either end of the room and began coalescing at the horned woman’s sides into monstrous half-alive figures, muscle and claw and razor-fanged jaws and serpentine hind limbs, violent maws dribbling stupidly and hungering for flesh. That man who had come to invade this alien realm confronted them calmly, drawing in a breath, his eyes never ceasing to glow red, fire circling his arms like snakes ready to lash out.

You fashion yourself a prophet? Well, I’m a real God! I’ll put an end to your stupid fairy tales!

Shalikova’s body wept, and drew back helplessly from the clash certain to come–

Images flashed of violence and struggle that were impossible to place–

Colors intruded on the vision and displaced parts of the images–

No! Please not this! Why are you tormenting me with this?

There was a voice, that was neither the Shimii prophet’s nor the horned woman’s–

Before her eyes another brief flash of glitchy colors disappeared the contaminated abyss.

In the midst of a maelstrom of colors, Shalikova saw a squirming, crying, suffering–

“Maryam!”

Maryam on the floor, weeping–

In the middle of the baptism of colors–

Shalikova rushed to her side, stood over her, held her shoulders and reassured her–

When her head turned, in shock at being touched, Maryam had disappeared–

In her place there was a darker-skinned, cat-eared, brown-haired figure leering at her.

Tears streaming down their tormented face, teeth grit, the tip of their tail cut off and bloody.

When their lips spread to speak, the words seemed to reverberate through the air–

You– you’re really coming here to throw this in my face– after all I’ve been through–?

Anger flashed in that face– Maryam’s features became superimposed over the Shimii–

Shalikova nearly screamed from the shock of what she was seeing.

In that instant, however, the colors receded, like an old screen blinking shut without power.

As if no time had passed, Maryam was still in her face, back in the Brigand’s hangar.

Her warm hand on Shalikova’s forehead. Her breath close enough to feel on her own.

Maryam smiled. She looked untroubled, as if nothing had happened to her in all this time.

“Did you get a vision? What did you see? Did it look like the past or the future?”

“Maryam, I couldn’t make any fucking sense of it if I tried.” Shalikova said.

Her heart had stilled. She was not panicking anymore. She didn’t even know why.

That alien presence of the colors had grown muted, had become almost something–

–Ordinary?

–Coherent?

When she set her eyes on Maryam long enough, she could see the faint outline of her colors, however. And she felt like, if she narrowed her eyes and focused, they would come into sharper relief as well. And if she truly wanted them to disappear, she felt like she could “tune them out.” Somehow these felt like options she had– as easy as jumping if one mastered how to walk.

“Sonya, you really are a wonderfully special girl.” Maryam said gently.

Something had been done to her. Shalikova felt, in a truly eerie way, that something had changed.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.4]

“Gamer, your risible thighs have once again violated the threshold of my station.”

“Then move your chair farther away! I have less legroom here than you do!”

“A pathetic conspiracy to surreptitiously touch me born of your involuntary celibacy!”

“You’re the one who made your entire identity from trashy novels for pathetic virgins!”

Zachikova could not help but stare at the farce playing out as she entered the bridge. She ignored late-shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa, who always found some stupid thing to argue about, and instead sat herself down at her station. She checked to make sure the drone was online and not in Geninov’s control– and unfortunately, it was locked in use by Geninov’s station.

Behind her the late shifters shouted themselves hoarse, then began talking in normal voices.

“Bah, so much for nights off! I can’t believe officers still have to work all the time. I want to go back to my room. I’ve almost got motion controls for Leviathan Fury II working in the room terminal.”

“Hmph! You’re welcome to retreat timidly from the darkness if it suits your nature, gamer. I for one, am a child of the night, and I thrive when the clock strikes midnight, and the shadows fall. It is within the curtain of the witching hour that I am able to weave my strongest of magicks.”

“Huh?”

Normal being a strongly relative term.

Despite previously calling each other ‘incels,’ and ‘fujoshis’ and other unendearing terms born of modern network culture, they seemed to have silently forgiven the obscenities, as if it was a ritual clearing of grievances between them. What kind of relationship did these two idiots even have? Zachikova would not even be thinking about this if she did not have to report to them. Even if they had not noticed her walking into the bridge, she ultimately needed Geninov’s station for her plan.

“Ahem.”

Zachikova stood up and loudly cleared her throat; not that it perturbed the night shifters.

“What are you reading tonight anyway? Is it still the Witchdeemer?”

“If you must know, it is indeed. Think you that I would abandon the SaGa partway?”

“Do Pythiria and Tritipha actually fuck in this one?”

“Such vulgar terms are always crossing your lips! Their relationship, I’ll have you know, is quickly approaching a thrilling apex of titillating hurt/comfort escalation in volume three.”

“Which one’s the top? It could go either way from what you told me.”

“Could you two shut up for even one millisecond of your lives?”

Zachikova shouted over them. Her volume surprised even herself.

Both Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa turned their heads and stared.

“Oh, Zachikova, didn’t see you there.” Geninov said. She raised an absentminded hand to the messy bundle of brown hair pinned to the back of her head and twirled a strand around her finger. At her side, Santapena-De La Rosa seemed to doing the same thing with a purple-streaked lock of her blond hair while leering Zachikova’s way. She truly hated to use a gaming metaphor when faced with Geninov’s presence but seeing them both enter the same fidgeting ‘animation’ immediately after being called to attention made Zachikova wonder if ‘the simulation had broken’ right in front of her.

Or maybe those two just spent too much time together.

“Geninov, I’m taking over drone recon from you. I have something I want to test with the drone’s software performance. You can go play games in your room if you want or whatever.” Zachikova said.

“Wouldn’t it be better to run tests in the morning, when we have sonar up?” Geninov said.

Why was this idiot trying to be responsible now?

“No, it’s better now when it’s not in anyone’s way.” Zachikova replied.

Geninov looked at Santapena-De La Rosa as if for an opinion; she shrugged back.

“Well, if you say so.” Geninov said. “I’ll keep an eye on sonar while you do.”

“You really don’t have to.” Zachikova snapped back.

“I don’t want the Captain to say I’ve been slacking off or being irresponsible.”

“It’s really unnecessary.”

Santapena-De La Rosa spoke up, arms crossed.

“Is it such an imposition upon you to allow the gamer to exercise her duties?”

Zachikova nearly threw her hands up. “Why are you backing her up? Ugh, whatever.”

She turned back around and sat at her station with her head in her hands.

Geninov flipped a switch to unlock software control and sent the drone over to Zachikova’s station. She then wandered over to the sonar station as if skirting around an angry animal who may have threatened to bite. She put al-Suhar’s earphones in her ears and stared at the displays on the sonar console, while Zachikova got the drone’s bearings and began preparing for her excursion.

“Geninov,” Zachikova said, trying to rein in her tone. “I’m going to transfer my mind to the drone. Don’t talk to me while I’m doing so. Send a text message to the drone if you must.”

“Um. Got it. I guess.”

She seemed to try to avoid eye contact with Zachikova after that.

Good. Zachikova didn’t need her for anything anymore now.

That pair of milk chocolate and vanilla flavored idiots could go about their business.

She had a mission she needed to complete.

Having failed to contact the Dancer earlier that day, she felt a strong need to try again.

To do that, she would have to control the drone again.

Her antennae adjusted their angle, which was more a physical ritual than anything actually necessary for her work. She felt like it helped her “toggle” the “interface” in her brain that connected her to digital devices. Everything that needed to be done was done with her mind. Within the Brigand, she could connect wirelessly to the ship’s network and from the network access any device in the ship.

Connecting was a difficult action to describe physically. There were people she had met with imaginations vivid enough to generate imagery which they could “see” in their own heads, with their eyes closed or even open. ‘Playing a movie in your mind’ or ‘listening to a song in your mind’ were close metaphors to what Zachikova did. Except in her case, she was executing the logic that allowed one digital device to connect to another, in her mind, and parsing the results.

In laymen’s terms, she could control computers with her brain.

On the Union intranet, anyone in their station room could pull up the news or even watch state television via the network. Zachikova could do the same in her own head. Her brain sent a digital call to the host computer, and it could receive the news page or the government broadcast and interpret that data, using the correct codec to “play” any audio or video, the correct “fonts” to display text, she could parse the stylesheet. A computer had been grafted to her brain, and it did all that computers could do from the comfort of her skull and all of it senses. Zachikova was special in that way.

Kids who got the surgeries and recovered couldn’t just go and do this.

Their instinct would be to remain tethered to their physical bodies. The Union fostered in Hartz sufferers a proclivity toward software and engineering work and would install the digital interfaces on every person who recovered. Even then, most would treat machines as machines, and even if they could connect to them wirelessly, they would operate them from the center of their human body. They would not play movies in their head, they would play them on a screen. Their head just pushed the button. Zachikova’s ability to “become” a machine wasn’t unique, but it was hard-won in practice.

Her skills were not common, and her implants were heavily regulated.

Brain implant surgery had an extravagant mortality rate and required specific parts. 

Zachikova was special — she conceived of herself as a “robot,” a sapient machine.

And she was candid with anyone who asked how it felt to use her “powers” to their utmost.

Dissociating was the first step. Feeling, for a moment, like she was seeing her body in a third person perspective, like she was no longer in it, like she was something apart from it. It was that ability to become separable which took the most practice, because it was not something which her interfaces did for themselves. Her mind wasn’t a machine, her perspective wasn’t inherently mechanical. Having the interface did not allow, by itself, displacement of the senses from the center.

She had to teach herself, psychologically, to detach, to discard her flesh and blood body.

Once she dissociated, there was a sense that she “pushed” away the senses of her body. That “movie” which played in her head of the drone’s cameras, the “sounds” she heard in her mind’s ear of the drone’s hydrophone and sensors, these became primary. No longer confined to the back of the mind but fully dominating the neural pathways that fed stimulus to the brain.

In a sense, it was her physical body that became a dreamlike decoration in her mind palace.

Her mind adjusted to the rules and limitations of a new body fairly quickly. There were a few seconds where she felt quite like she was confined in a box, so heavy and so cold and so stiff, but these moments passed quickly and without panic. Her mind came to understand the “weight” as she input commands for the drone to deploy, the hydrojets to start, the fins to adjust. She felt keenly the feedback from her new limbs and the time it took to manipulate them to motion.

When she set out into the water she felt the pressure around her hull, tight, cold.

There was something pleasurable about it, however, something freeing.

Having a new body with a new set of skills and a new environment. It was exciting!

She cut through the water with alacrity, exploring a world her flesh and blood body could never have. She was not so vulnerable, not confined by the physical constitution she dealt with on a daily basis. Her senses were keener, she was faster, her stride more confident. She was untroubled by breathing and the inelegant sliding of muscles and joints. She was a fusiform machine without a floor and with hardly a ceiling to her activities, and before her lay only the truly limitless horizon of the sea.

To her human eyes, the world around her would be cut off by the wall formed by the water itself and the biomass called “marine snow.” She would have been barely able to see a few dozen meters ahead of her own nose. With the supercomputer’s predictive ability, using sound, laser, and thermal data, her vision was instead a near-perfect picture of the surroundings. Below her, rising and falling, was the topography of the ocean floor. Above and around, the water column, dark and deep blue and green.

Small details like scuttling crabs, bubbling geysers, ghostly skeleton coral that thrived near vents far away from the sun, benthic creatures playing about a massive carcass. Perfect mechanical senses helped her navigate and experience the beauty of the ocean in a way her human body never could have.

Her tether to the brigand was kilometers worth of fiber optic cable, her lifeline.

So stretching this umbilical cord, she dashed behind the Brigand, farther and farther.

Searching with all of her senses for a familiar biological noise pattern.

Until she found the noise. Her unique song across the featureless depths of Sverland.

I have to try to communicate with her.

Zachikova had some ideas. Light patterns, sounds, movements; mimicking its behaviors.

When she had gotten close to the Dancer she had noticed colors around it. Feeling that this was perhaps some kind of bioluminescent display, she wrote a program to create a light pattern using various tools available to the drone, like the floodlights, UV and bluelight effectors, status LEDs, flares, and beacons. She also extracted the sounds the creature made during her encounters with it and mapped them to another program, creating a series of “calls” she could perform.

I don’t know if she’ll understand– or even the content of what I’m saying to her.

But I have to try. I think coupled with my peaceful approach, she’ll respond to it.

At least, hopefully, she would understand it as an attempt to broach peaceful contact.

An attempt to expiate for the “wrong thing” she felt she had done to scare it.

(Perhaps an attempt to receive a touch for which she had grown desperate.)

Zachikova descended as close to the seafloor as she could, decelerating to reduce noise and weaving slowly between the rocks as the pulse of the Dancer came closer and closer. When she was about a hundred meters away, the prediction algorithm finally showed her the figure of the Dancer swimming cheerfully overhead, freely weaving lines of bubbles through the liquid sky.

Please work.

With the same degree of effort as “thinking” to breathe or “thinking” to move a muscle Zachikova ran the script she had written and loaded into her station. Through the drone’s audio equipment, normally used for sonar pings or alarm noises, the melodious call of the Dancer played, once audible only through the sonar station hydrophone. Zachikova could not describe the sound in naturalistic or humanistic terms, but the gentle slope of the waveform it generated gave her a strange comfort.

Please respond!

There was no noticeable difference in the movement of the Dancer, so Zachikova lifted off from behind the rocks and rose gently, as slowly as she could move and still exceed the creature’s own pace. In addition to playing the call, she ran the software she had coded to control the light display. In front of the drone there were UV and bluelight effectors, like flashlights for scientific purposes, and along the spine of the drone there were LEDs which began to glow in patterns. There were floodlights on the rear and on the front, but Zachikova only lit the rear floodlights, and angled them such that the drone appeared to be leaving brilliant light in its triumphant wake as it climbed the water table.

Please listen to me! Please look at me!

Why was she feeling so strongly? But she couldn’t help it! Her heart was breaking!

I’m sorry! Please don’t hate me!

I don’t hate you!

Barely a dozen meters separated Zachikova from the soft, pale form of the Dancer, wrapped as if in a gorgeous shawl and skirt of shimmering, trailing color, predominantly bright blue as the sky that had been denied to humanity. With a burst of speed, the creature dove toward Zachikova, and touched the front of her body to the front of the drone, nose to nose, a soft, playful little hit.

Zachikova was rendered speechless. She felt a tingling all across herself.

That sensation of touch, so warm, so soft– it was fleshy, but she didn’t hate it. In fact that affection made her think something she never thought she would. It felt like for the first time ever, a flesh and blood body, with its pliability, softness, smoothness, attracted Zachikova the most. She wished, as she tried to return the Dancer’s physical affection, that her body, the flesh, and blood body she now recognized as hers, could be out in the water with the creature, could touch it.

That touch was perfect– it made her body feel like it was perfect.

I wish I could tell her to follow me.

I will follow you.

Zachikova must have been imagining things. She thought that she kept hearing a voice speaking back to her, but it was speaking back to her in the voice associated with her flesh and blood body, and of course regardless of its provenance, the Dancer had no way to generate voice, no understanding of speech. It must have been something with the connection, or even just stress.

She had been so stressed, but now, she felt an unbridled joy, a sense of euphoria.

It was such an odd feeling, but she did not resist it.

For half her life, she had simply accepted her lot. She was sick, broken, in her mind, not truly human. She was going to die. And when she survived, having already given up on living, she treated herself like the machine she felt she had become. She sought challenges, occupations, to be fully used, to be fully utilized, maximized and challenged. Those moments amused her, engaged her mind.

Amusement, engagement; but perhaps not joy. Perhaps not actual fulfillment.

In the middle of this desolate ocean, alone with this beautiful creature– She felt captivated, her soul felt healed. She felt like she was seeing life as she never had. A creature so beautiful and so free, without obligations, danced before her eyes, danced only for her, returned to her willingly.

Touch; was it really so sublime? When was the last time her body felt so warm, so loved?

Zachikova’s world of metal corridors had become full of colors.

Colors that captivated her mind. Colors challenging her understanding like never before.

Giving herself onto an insane thought–

What is she? Is she really just a leviathan?

Hmm. Maybe.

No, they could not possibly be speaking.

Zachikova wanted to sigh deeply.

She started to feel a little ridiculous, but she truly, really was so happy to see the Dancer again and to know that she was okay, that she was playing with the drone and didn’t run away. She was still curious and still affectionate toward the false metal fish that Zachikova wore as a body. Zachikova didn’t want to hate herself for those feelings. Having settled her anxieties, she let herself enjoy the moment for a while, but ultimately felt she needed to try to rein in the hysterics of the past few days.

Before they brought her embarrassment in front of her crew.

So she began following the fiber-optic cable back to the Brigand.

And trying not to be too surprised or too assured by the fact that the Dancer was following.

Following the drone with joyous, acrobatic maneuvers, all the way, to Goryk’s Gorge.


Next morning.

“Umm. Huh. Well. That’s interesting.”

Standing in front of the captain’s chair, Braya Zachikova held up a portable terminal that was playing a video for Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to watch. A large fish-like Leviathan, its body mainly white but beautifully streaked with red, like a large koi fish, pirouetted around the drone capturing the video, before suddenly unhinging its jaw to enormous degrees. Seamlessly, it stopped being cute and began to clumsily filter-feed with its enormous maw through the marine snow, as if it had utterly forgotten what it was previously doing. While it fed, its otherworldly lilac eyes assumed what Ulyana anthropomorphized as “a very stupid-looking expression,” though she did not say this thought aloud.

“It’s a brilliant display of animal evolution, isn’t it?” Zachikova said.

Standing next to Zachikova, Karuniya Maharapratham was part of the demonstration as well. Seated close on the captain’s right was Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, her cat-like tail swaying gently as she watched the video with her usual look of stern focus on her face. Together they were reviewing footage of the creature, which had some of the crew unnerved as it began following the ship.

“Zachikova and I discovered it while calibrating the drone.” Karuniya said. “We saw it was harmless and made it a subject of study so nobody here would shoot it down. Honestly, I know it’s big enough to show up in the bearing monitors, so it has people worried, but it’s really docile. I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s my duty as a scientist to get as much data on it as possible.”

Zachikova repeatedly pointed her finger on the display as if to say, “look at it, isn’t it neat?”

Ulyana was looking. It did seem harmless, but while feeding, not terribly majestic.

“Fine, I’ve got more important things to worry about. Just keep an eye on it, Zachikova.”

“Will do!” Zachikova said. Did she sound excited? Was Ulyana just imagining things?

“It might even come in handy.” Aaliyah said. “You can pass the spy drone off as a biological being more easily if there’s another, louder biological being there to hump it and draw attention away from enemy sonars. If it’s playing with the drone while you patrol, I say just let it do so.”

“Colorful imagery there.” Ulyana said. She sighed.

“If anyone has any questions, you can refer them to me.” Karuniya said.

Waving a hand, she quickly took her leave. She wasn’t usually a fixture in the Bridge.

Ulyana looked away from her and at Zachikova specifically, causing her antennae to raise.

“I feel I’ve been working you too hard since we escaped the Iron Lady. You deserve a break, Zachikova. You’ve been out on that drone so often, I can decisively say we’re not being followed right now.” the captain finally said. Zachikova seemed to go from visibly tense to softening and slacking, the expression on her face never once changing but her anxiety visible in her grip on the portable. Ulyana wondered briefly about her body language but decided not to comment on it. “No more night shifts until further notice. We’ll find someone else to cover for Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa.”

“Umm. Thank you ma’am.” Zachikova said. Her voice betrayed absolutely no emotion.

“Ma’am, the topography shifts drastically up ahead. I’m getting imaging up; we’re here.”

Fatima al-Suhar spoke up from the sonar section and pointed a finger forwards. 

Ulyana turned to face the bridge main monitor and practically gasped.

Soon the landscape of Goryk’s Gorge appeared in its vast, overwhelming magnitude.

The Brigand had been traveling about 100 meters above the seafloor, which had put them between 900 and 1000 meters deep. Now they were practically flying, as the ground descended dramatically, a steep slope about 500 meters down that evened out into a semi-circular clearing that then dropped even farther and more dramatically down the jagged, rocky edge of a canyon.

Goryk’s Gorge itself was a vast fissure in the rocky seafloor, stretched long as the eyes could see and perhaps one kilometer wide and thousands deep, as enormous as the vast Khaybar mountain range that it had cut from the rest of Sverland. The Gorge was a yawning abyss, thick with biomass that the predictive algorithm detected and rendered as essentially a roiling cloud behind which it was impossible to “see,” blocking the soundwaves, LADAR, thermals and other data sources for their imagers.

At the very edge of this precipitous hell-maw there was a small, squat station, a disc-shaped circular habitat standing on many thick legs for support. This was the smallest possible kind of station design, which was neither rested atop nor built around a Core Pylon. Without this uniquely powerful kind of reactor, the station was instead likely run with a ship’s reactor core, or a few depending on the grade of the engines. Beneath the habitat there was probably a wet berth for one or two large ships at a time, at most. Serrano supported a million lives and was commensurately vast enough to hold an entire city; a station like this could support only hundreds of lives in much tighter confines.

Nobody lived on stations like this. They were always built for a specific task.

“Our maps completely undersold this place.” Aaliyah said, sounding as shocked as Ulyana.

“Any mechanical activity detected?” Ulyana asked suddenly.

“Negative. I’m only getting biologics.” Fatima replied. “If there’s anything docked down there, it’s fairly dormant, or it has sound stealth decades ahead of ours. I think it’s safe for now.”

Ulyana sighed. “I don’t feel safe. Semyonova, what is the status of the Diver team?”

“We have Khadija al-Shajara and Valya Lebedova awaiting orders.” Semyonova replied.

The Captain could hardly believe what she heard. “Really? Only those two?”

Semyonova nodded, briefly glancing at her console for incoming details. “Sameera Al-Shahouh and Murati Nakara have doctor’s orders not to pilot; Sameera for a week and Murati for potentially several. Murati claims she heals fast, but still– anyway, Sonya Shalikova was made the squad leader and was assigned the Cheka, but it had a surprise battery issue, so she isn’t ready. Dominika Rybolovskaya is in the medbay right now, I’m not sure why. Only Khadija and Valya are ready to deploy.”

“If Rybolovskaya isn’t injured have her sort herself out quickly.” Ulyana said. She turned to the right side of the Bridge. “Geninov, load a torpedo just in case, and Santapena-De La Rosa, prime the guns. We need everyone on alert for a potential ambush, I want rapid responses here.”

Ulyana was cautious for a reason. She had been born in the Empire, so she knew.

She assumed from Maryam’s story that this outpost was set up by Katarran mercenaries. This “Foundation” she was talking about was likely a Katarran warband. Maryam had good reason not to say that up front, but it could be inferred. Katarrans in the Empire didn’t have a lot of choices.

And growing up in the Empire, Ulyana knew all kinds of stories about Katarrans.

Even with top tier military training and equipment, elite Union soldiers still had something to fear from warbands. Katarran bandits and mercenaries had something that a lot of armies in this world did not — a vast amount of realistic and practical combat experience. Palatinate and Vekan soldiers had infrequent battles with the Republic or the Empire of Hanwa to look back on, but Katarrans were always fighting, at home or abroad, every month, every year. Famous for their ferocity, it was their resourcefulness and adaptability that made Katarrans actually dangerous. Many mercenary warbands learned to thrive on irregular logistics for fuel, food, and ammunition, and with poor equipment repair.

A professional might see an outpost like this and think nothing of it, but Ulyana knew that Katarrans could make do with this and even use the fact you would overlook it against you.

Compared to a battle-hardened Katarran warband, the Brigand were rank amateurs.

Not only that, but Katarrans were known for the sort of warfare the Brigand was supposed to perform but had so far proven dismal at executing — asymmetrical guerilla fighting. Ambushes, hacking, mine warfare, stealth attacks, attrition, running warfare, Katarrans practically invented the book of dirty tricks from which they famously drew to use “every dirty trick in the book.” They could build hideouts from seemingly nothing and launch raids with fewer weapons and numbers that succeeded in catching larger forces off-guard, and then brought that legendary Katarran ferocity to bear in full.

Marina had blithely said she would always take dealing with Katarrans over Lichtenberg.

She didn’t know what the hell she was talking about!

“Captain!”

Almost soon as Semyonova had turned back to her station to contact Rybolovskaya, she turned over her shoulder again on her seat to address the Captain anew. Her soft face had an expression Ulyana had come to associate with something eventful, lips quivering, eyes wide. “C-C-Captain, we received an acoustic message all of a sudden. It’s a laser connection request!” She said. “It’s from that station below us! They apparently have a wired laser relay post, atop the slope we just passed.”

Overlaid on the visual of Goryk’s Gorge, Semyonova’s map showed the apparent location of the laser relay post; they had just passed it minutes ago. They had seen nothing. It simply was not rendered on the visual. It must have been hidden as a rock– fine details like that were tough to render and detect. They were limited in how much they could blast an area with sonar pulses without drawing too much attention. Setting up a hidden communications relay like this was quite ingenious.

“Zachikova, we’ll be accepting the request. Watch the network closely.” Ulyana said.

Returning to her station, Zachikova confidently nodded her acknowledgment.

“Semyonova, send them to my screen when they’re ready.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova saluted stiffly, clearly quite nervous. “Y-Yes Captain!”

At her side, Fatima gave Semyonova a pat on the shoulder to comfort her.

“Time to flex that silver tongue, Captain.” Aaliyah said, closely at Ulyana’s side.

Ulyana took a deep breath, readying herself for whoever would appear on the terminal screen attached to the captain’s chair. Semyonova exchanged a few acoustic messages with the mysterious contact before connecting them, and then sent the video to Ulyana’s screen. She expected a Katarran, maybe with blue skin, odd colored eyes and a few fins in their hair– and she was surprised not to find one.

“Are we connected? Greetings to the fine cargo vessel. I am quite fortunate to reach you.”

On the monitor, the crisp, clear image of a woman appeared on the screen. Perhaps it was the slimness of her shoulders and the softness of her facial features, but she seemed young to Ulyana, certainly younger than herself. Her eyes were her most prominent feature, they were quite extraordinary, crystal blue and gold. When the connection was most stable and video fidelity was at its best, for a few seconds Ulyana could see digits and tiny text scrolling over those incredible eyes which belied that they were cybernetic implants. She did not have the antennae, so it was not part of a Hartz treatment package. She must have either gotten those implants herself, or they were installed by her employer.

Her skin was fair, but her hair was light blue as the color of her eyes, wavy and cut short at the level of her jaw, but voluminous and a bit messy. One streak of white would have seemed like a sign of aging on an average person, but it was likely bleached, the same as the rest of the hair was likely dyed. Her facial expression was blank, even when speaking she seemed neither to smile nor hold any scorn, and her tone of voice was so even and controlled, perfectly pitched, it seemed rehearsed.

Not only that, but the texture of her white coat and shirt– were those biological materials?

Who was this character? How did they end up in this dismal place?

“Greetings.” Ulyana said. Trying not to betray any outward signs of her emotions to her counterpart. “I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya, captain of this ship, the Pandora’s Box. We are hauling cargo for Treasure Box Transports. I’m going to need to get to know you a little better, ma’am, and quickly.”

Her counterpart nodded her head in acknowledgment. “I am Doctor Euphemia Röntgen. I work as a materials analyst for an engineering firm, ‘Solarflare LLC.’ We develop equipment for hazardous environment exploration. My team was running a trial in Goryk’s Gorge when we had a critical equipment failure and took refuge in this small station. We could use any help you can provide.”

The Brigand would have to get nearer to the station to confirm some of these details.

One thing was certain, this woman was not a Katarran. She could, perhaps, be a captive used by Katarrans for a ruse, but it seemed doubtful. She was too calm for a civilian who was in danger and if she harbored ill intentions, her acting was supernaturally good. Ulyana decided to play along for now. Her story of having run into equipment trouble near an abyssal gorge was not implausible.

As if she realized she needed proof of what she was saying, Doctor Röntgen held up an ID card.

It had her picture, in a blue shirt and waistcoat, and was a security card for Solarflare LLC.

They had quite an avant-garde looking logo of a sunburst, and the card itself was made of a reflective material that seemed to have a code imprinted on the foil. It would have been a lot of effort for a fake. So it did appear that this woman worked for Solarflare LLC — and that she understood her situation enough to try to dispel Ulyana’s concerns. Ulyana allowed herself to feel more comfortable.

“Thank you, Doctor. What’s your story? How many people do you have down there?”

“Three personnel counting me, uninjured.” Euphemia said.

That was shockingly low. Ulyana was immediately suspicious again.

For a lie, it was a pretty stupid one to tell.

“Doctor, I must have misheard you. Did you mean to say thirty? I’d expect you would need at least thirty personnel to sail to a place like this.” Ulyana said, scrutinizing the doctor’s response.

Even the smallest type of blue water naval vessel had around ten officers and twenty-five to forty sailors. At the minimum, a Cutter could run with five officers sharing the duties of ship communications, navigation, weapons, leadership and detection and electronic warfare, and about a dozen exhausted sailors, enough to run maintenance, tend to the reactor and electrical systems, respond to repair emergencies, and handle duties such as rations, cleaning, rearming the internal magazines of the torpedo and shell weapons, and so on. You would have several duties assigned to a single man, and it would be a nightmarish task to run like that for any given amount of time, but you could.

Larger crews could perform duties more efficiently in rotations, making sure there were always personnel assigned to any given duty at any given time of the day who were fresh, rested, aware and ready. Larger vessels needed crews of hundreds of people, however, not just for rotations but to be able to physically cover the large amount of machinery that needed to be inspected and maintained. This was reflected in the total crew numbers for blue water vessels, whether commercial or naval in scope.

Blue water being the key term. Vessels that had endurance at sea, far away from stations, needed these large complements of professional crew in order to sail. Personal vessels could be run much leaner, but they would have never made it this far from a major station. To explore a place like Goryk’s Gorge that was foul with biomass and far off the beaten path, you would absolutely needed at least a Cutter for the journey. You would need a real reactor for power, not a battery, and you would need enough space for supplies. You would need redundancy in personnel in case of emergencies.

Three people? It was not possible. It had to be a clumsy lie or a joke.

Doctor Röntgen looked like she meant every word, however.

That expression of hers had not changed. She was speaking with perfect confidence.

 “Three people, me, an engineer colleague and one security professional.”

“How did you pull off that miracle, doc?”

Despite Ulyana’s pressuring her, the good doctor continued speaking without affect. “We were testing a semi-automated ship called an L-CEV, the Lightly-Crewed Exploration Vessel. We wanted to explore the viability of studying abyssal zones with such a ship, to limit the personnel needed.”

Though it was a somewhat farfetched detail, it did fit with her description of what Solarflare LLC did. Certainly, more hostile environment exploration would be waged if less lives could be put on the line. Ulyana found that goal to be quite a fool’s errand, however. Even if you could run the systems that lean, to carry out any maintenance on a ship large enough to have a real reactor would have been impossible with only three human bodies. Physically, you would still need at least a dozen.

And to run that much maintenance you would need bodies, not simply computer routines.

Companies in the Empire spent money far too loosely.

This L-CEV must have been an incredible ship indeed to fulfill this insane purpose.

“So what happened to this engineering marvel you described to me?” Ulyana said.

Doctor Röntgen treated this request with the same stoic professionalism as before. “We had a water system failure due to the red biomass concentrations in the Goryk Abyss. Thankfully, this station was in good enough condition to host us and we got our ailing ship into port here. We transferred supplies from the damaged ship to this station and then destroyed the ship to protect Solarflare’s intellectual property. If you would dock below the station, you’ll be able to find the wreck in plain sight.”

A poor invitation; even a drunk Ulyana wouldn’t accept that as pretext to be taken home.

Let alone lead her entire crew down there without further information.

“No offense Doctor, but we didn’t even know this station would be here. And I have no idea how you could have stumbled upon it — seems like too much serendipity. I have no plans to go near you until we have definitively sorted out what this station is for and what your situation really is.”

Ulyana wanted to test what her reaction would be.

For the first time in the conversation, Doctor Röntgen put on a small smile.

She began to explain in a calm, matter-of-fact voice– almost like a teacher.

“Very well, I’ll assuage your fears. This outpost has a colorful history. It was set up by Katarran mercenaries, that’s how our contractor knew of its existence, but even Katarrans can’t operate so freely without a certain degree of consent from the authorities. It’s like any criminal organization, Captain. From the way you speak, I know you are a learned woman, to whom I can speak to as a peer. Once upon a time, this outpost was used by a certain Admiral Gottwald to run supplies and weapons that were skimmed off the allotments for the Southern Border Fleet. They moved to passing Katarran vessels, or even to the pirates at Khaybar. This station was a link in a long chain of traded favors and ill-gotten gains of all sorts, that enriched corrupt Imbrian men and kept their hired guns afloat and killing.”

Admiral Gottwald was the Commander of the Southern Border Fleet.

He had been killed in Thassal but– that didn’t really matter.

Doctor Röntgen was being candid and Ulyana felt she was telling the actual truth of things.

If she knew so much mercenary history, the tone of her request began to make more sense.

“There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to take you where you need to go.” Ulyana said.

“I understand completely.” Doctor Röntgen said. “You said ‘Treasure Box Transports’ correct? I can assure you nobody is going to intercept this transmission. We can be honest here, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are a mercenary company and I’m not unfamiliar with hiring mercenaries. My lips will be sealed as to everything I learn about your operation, if you’ll ferry me to wherever your cargo is going. Any station will do. I’ll find my way from there. Of course, Solarflare LLC will pay handsomely.”

“I’m flattered that you found me so eloquent, but I never said we were mercenaries.”

“Hmm, did I misread the situation? ‘Transport company’ is a common euphemism.”

Ulyana felt somewhat mortified and tried to hide her surprise. Hadn’t this come up once before?

Gertrude Lichtenberg’s voice reverberated in Ulyana’s head at that moment.

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company.” Lichtenberg had said this when confronting Ulyana.

In that instant Ulyana wished she could clap her hands over her face and never let go.

To someone from the Union, the phrase ‘transport company’ made all the sense in the world!

And yet in this twisted polity, ‘transport company’ was code for mercenaries?

That was what all their carefully falsified documents said, and they couldn’t change it all now.

Every station they docked in, they would be doing so under a euphemism.

Sighing inside, Ulyana put on her best mercenary voice, because they were mercenaries!

“I will consider working for you if Solarflare LLC can pay in-kind.” She said. “Services and supplies. We can discuss the specifics; but in this new era, I can’t feed my people Mark bills, Doctor. Is that acceptable? I truly don’t want to leave you down there, but I have to look out for my crew.”

We have enough troublesome passengers.

That was her first thought. Imperial money was also pretty useless to her in the long run.

However, allies were an important part of their mission.

And the key to everything would be logistics. They had to be able to resupply in the hardest possible times. If this L-CEV ship of Röntgen’s was real, Solarflare could be a useful partner. A company with manufacturing muscle, needed to have a strong and varied supply chain, and judging by the good Doctor’s clothing and cybernetic implants, Solarflare LLC was loaded. They had also dealt with mercenaries before, so they probably knew how to be discrete and covert.

Such an entity could be a very useful ally, over and under the table.

Based on Doctor Röntgen’s expression, it looked like she agreed.

“You’re very astute. I’m glad to be talking to a professional.”

“So you can pay our professional rates then?”

“Of course. I look forward to a long, fruitful relationship between our companies.”

She had an uncanny ability to read people. Ulyana almost felt unnerved by it.

Doctor Euphemia Röntgen– this lady was more than just some white coated nerd.

Regardless, they had a deal. If it panned out, it might just save their asses one day.

“We’ll need to dock for repairs at the outpost. It shouldn’t take more than a day.”

“I’m in no hurry. In fact, as a sign of our cooperation, we’ll help with what we can.”

Doctor Röntgen gave Ulyana her biggest smile yet, before the two agreed to end the call.

The Captain of the now-mercenary ship Brigand sighed her deepest, weariest sigh yet.


In the middle of the empty ocean wastes of central Sverland a shimmering vessel entered suddenly into view, approaching prow forward. Plates of armor which had once rippled like disturbed ocean water began to turn white instead, revealing a sleek pointed fore that tapered out from a curved, disc-like hull. It had approached silently, gliding across the water using a pair of strange rectangular engines set atop the hull on either side of a squat conning tower. It was not an ordinary ship design.

This was a Columbus-class cruiser, a mainstay of the Sunlight Foundation.

These ships could be so stealthy that regular military patrols simply would not see them in the water. It would take a deliberate sonar pulse to detect the mass of the object. And its specific design, the materials from which it was made, and the special equipment carried aboard, was meant to give the sonar operator launching the pulse some trouble telling what exactly the object was. It would not identify as any class of ship on any standard Imperial databank, and depending on the approach angle could be mistaken for a creature or written off as a glitch in the sensor returns. While it was not a perfect disguise, combined with a circuitous route and a swift response to detection, it made them tough for anyone to catch.

Certainly, the crew of the Antenora had not seen it coming.

They knew they were going to be resupplied before they went north to hunt Gertrude’s phantom mercenaries. However, the nature of the resupply operation had taken them by surprise.

“Scary, scary, scary.”

Norn von Fueller laughed. On the main screen of the bridge, she watched the ship appear.

Always, the Sunlight Foundation scurried in the shadows while longing for the sun.

“Sunlight Foundation Columbus-class identified. Requesting shuttle for cargo delivery.”

One of Norn’s bridge drones spoke up. The Praetorian nodded her head and acknowledged.

“Ask them if one of the rivers is aboard.” Norn said.  

The query was sent, and a reply came quickly. “Negative, milord. Only lab assistants.”

“Boring!”

Lab Assistants had barely any individuality worth speaking about.

Norn had hoped to poke one of the Rivers for information about the organization’s status.

Rivers were the flunkies they recruited rather than created. They were privy to real information.

Yangtze would not send an Immortal on an errand like this, but at least an inductee!

Clearly, she was getting too comfortable working with Norn. To send a ship full of lab assistants meant she expected nothing to go amiss. Norn felt she had to think of a way to send a message to that arrogant sociopath Yangtze, that not everything would be going her way in the future.

Her rumination was interrupted by its most frequent interrupter–

“Looks like you’ll have to settle for Potomac then, poor you.”

Adelheid van Mueller punctuated her speech with a cutesy shrug of her shoulders.

Seated beside Norn, her lover was a permanent fixture on the bridge.

While she was just trying to be a smartass, Norn had to admit she had a point!

“You’re not wrong. I’ll go make sure she’s earning her keep. Hold down the fort.”

“What if they try something while you aren’t here?”

“I trust you to make grown-up decisions.”

Sighing, Adelheid half-heartedly saluted. She leaned back on her chair as Norn departed.

The Antenora’s hangar had never been so full as it was then, at least not in recent memory. Norn finally had a full complement of Divers. The Jagdkaiser on its special gantry found itself in the company of a Jagd and a Volkannon brought aboard by Samoylovych, as well as the fancy Grenadier contributed by Gertrude and von Castille. Behind the gantries and the deployment chutes, they had launched the Antenora’s shuttle to pick up the cargo from the Columbus class and transfer it.

Norn found Gertrude and Sieglinde von Castille loitering around the hangar as well, and she waved at the two of them, wearing a broad, self-satisfied grin to meet their sullen expressions. They were not the ones who interested her whatsoever at that moment though. Instead, she made for Potomac, who was standing around in front of the grey steel shutter that had closed over the shuttle’s moonpool. She must have been awaiting for the cargo; Norn had ordered her to get more Jagdkaiser parts.

“So, what’s the haul? Are we finally getting the parts for the Options?” Norn asked.

Potomac looked surprised to see her. “Uh, well, no, actually!” She said.

“You’re being funny, right? You’re telling me a joke?” The Praetorian’s tone darkened.

Potomac crossed her arms and avoided meeting Norn’s eyes, shifting her feet nervously.

If she thought this body language would better her situation, she was sorely mistaken.

“No, Yangtze is not sending us the Option parts. She’s actually doing us one better.”

“Explain quickly before I fold your spine for not doing what I instructed you to.”

Norn’s eyes narrowed, her brows drew closer together. She had told this bitch–

“I asked her for the parts you wanted! It’s not like I have control of that woman! She actually sent us parts for a brand new version of the Jagdkaiser and a Magellan for you! And spare parts for both! We’re making off like bandits here, so you don’t have to be mad at me!” Potomac cried out.

For anyone else this may have sounded like incredible news, but Norn knew quite well that just having a preponderance of equipment lying around didn’t improve the effectiveness of a unit. Giving them a new Jagdkaiser was not entirely unexpected, but it was inconvenient since it needed a special gantry and they only had one. They would have to tear down the old one and set up the new one, and such a messy project would have to wait until they were docked somewhere safe and protected.

Furthermore, she also knew that Yangtze of the Sunlight Foundation was not running a charity. Sending a Magellan suit for Norn’s use meant Yangtze wanted her to do something with it. She would have to prioritize getting that thing put together when the shuttle returned with the crates.

“What does she want?” Norn asked. “And when were you going to tell me?”

She took a threatening step into Potomac’s space, forcing the latter to step back.

Potomac held her hands up in defense. “I didn’t think it would be a problem! We’re already heading where she wants us, so I was just going to ask you then and avoid making it an issue–”

“You were going to lie to me? Potomac, you dense bitch, do you want to die?”

Norn was barely able to restrain herself from punching Potomac’s head off her neck.

This spacey idiot– she knew that nothing made Norn angrier than being lied to–!

“Goryk’s Abyss! She just wants us to go to Goryk’s Abyss! That’s it!”  

“You’d better have my fucking Magellan set up before we get there, then.”

Norn shoved Potomac, not too hard, but it was surprising enough of an attack to push her down.

From the floor, the Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation gazed up at her with a petulant anger.

Even this minor physical humiliation was more than she had suffered in likely decades.

“You’re– You’re a monster, Astra!” She cried. “What happened to you? You used to be so–“

In the next instant, Norn was looming over Potomac on the floor with burning red eyes.

Something long held taut inside her finally and suddenly snapped.

Words she had held in her throat for decades.

You pieces of shit happened to me. Yangtze; Euphrates; Tigris; Nile; Hudson; Ganges. You.”

Her eyes were not just red-ringed from the psionic power raging inside her, not just red because they had been engineered that way to command respect and strike fear; she was seeing red, blinded with an incredible fury. She raised her hand to Potomac’s face, and in the air around it, a series of razor-sharp knives began to materialize as if out of thin air, each the crystalline white of packed ice. Potomac’s eyes drew wide with sheer terror, and Norn was one provocation from gutting her–

She hissed in Potomac’s face, tensed like a harpoon in its launcher–

“Monster? How fucking dare you? After all that you people did to me–“

“Master! Don’t! Please calm down!”

From behind her, Gertrude Lichtenberg appeared and laid gentle hands on her shoulders.

Norn turned her baleful red eyes on the tall, swarthy woman in her ornate uniform.

She had such a gentle expression at that point, as if she feared for Norn more than Potomac.

It was such a contrast with that evil title of Inquisitor that Norn helped her attain–

–which had come to define Gertrude in perhaps the same way that Yangtze had defined Astra.

And it made Norn’s righteous anger begin to turn alchemy-like into a seething guilt.

She couldn’t explain it– but Gertrude really was the last thing she wanted to see in that state.

Sighing deeply, Norn withdrew her arm. Her knives turned uselessly to vapor.

Brushing Gertrude’s hand aside, she stood up and marched out by herself.

“Gertrude, just– just see to the cargo for me.” Norn said, walking away, meeting no one’s eyes.

Taken by an anger that was ebbing but still hurt.

No one called after her, no one inquired. Sometimes, Norn was just angry. They understood it.

For now, Norn would play Yangtze’s game. She would go to Goryk’s Abyss for that bitch.

She had a resolution in her fractured heart, however.

Whatever she found there that Yangtze wanted, she would break it into a million pieces.

If the Sunlight Foundation wanted to retaliate like they retaliated against Mehmed–

Then they knew where to find her. And she knew very well where to find them too.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.

The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.

“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.

She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.

Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.

As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.

She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.

And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.

However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.

Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.

While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.

Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.

At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.

“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”

Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.

“We’re doing this now?”

“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.

“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”

“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”

Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”

“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.

Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.

“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”

Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.

Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?

Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.

“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”

The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.

She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”

Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.

“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.

“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.

“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.

“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.

“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.

“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”

Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”

Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.

“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”

“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.

“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.

“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.

That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.

“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”

“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”

Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.

Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.

Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.

The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.

Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”

“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”

“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.

“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”

Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!

“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.

“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.

“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”

“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”

“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”

“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”

“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”

Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.

“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.

Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.

Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.

Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.

Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.

She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.

Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.

Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–

“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”

“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”

“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”

Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.

Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”

“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.

Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.

At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.

“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.

Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.

She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.

“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”

Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.

Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.

Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.

It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?

“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?

“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”

Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.

“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.

“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”

“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.

“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”

“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.

Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.

“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”

At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.

The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.

“Here!”

Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.

“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”

Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.

However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.

Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?

Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?

Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.

“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.

Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”

There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.

“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.

“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.

She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.

And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.

Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.

Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.

“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.

Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.

And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.

Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.

It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.

This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.

Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.

“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”

Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.

The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.

Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.

She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.

As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.

“We’re going to get out of here.”

Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–

Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.

Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.

Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.

Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–

–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.

“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”

Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.

“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”

Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.

At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.

She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–

“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.

Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.

She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.

Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!

Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”

In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.

“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”

“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.

“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.

“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.

“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”

Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”

At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.

Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.

“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”

Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.

Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.

Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.

She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.

“I have to find her again.”

I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.

What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?

Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.

They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.

“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”

Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.

“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.

She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.

She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.

Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.

Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.

“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.

“Huh?”

Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.

“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”

“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”

“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.

At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.

“Karuniya!”

Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.

Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.

Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.

“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.

“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.

“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”

Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.

Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.

She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.

“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”

“I promise. I really do.”

Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.

She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.

And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.

That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.

She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.

Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.

Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.

“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.

“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.

Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.

Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.

“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”

Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”

“Shut up.”

Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.

“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.

After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.

“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”

Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”

“Did we lose anyone?”

Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.

“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.

While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.

“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.

“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”

“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”

Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.

“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.

“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”

“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.

Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.

Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.

“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”

Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.

“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”

Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”

Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.

Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.

Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.

At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.

“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”

Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.

“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.


Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.

With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.

There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.

But not for the next few days.

“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”

Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.

“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”

As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.

The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.

She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once.  She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.

Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.

Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”

She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.

Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.

Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.

“Fuck.”

There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.

Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.

Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.

“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”

She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?

There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?

“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”

She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.

Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.

She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”

Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–

There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.

When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.

Someone on crutches.

“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”

Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.

She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.

“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”

She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.

Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.

“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.

“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”

“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”

Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.

“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”

“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.

“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”

It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.

When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.

How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?

In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.

Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.

Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.

She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.

“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”

Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.

Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.

“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”

“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.

She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.

Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?

Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?

For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.

She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.

How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.

Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.

She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”

Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.

“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.

Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.

Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?

But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.

Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.


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