Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.

Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.

Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.

This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.

Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.

Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Forced had to overstretch themselves.

Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Noble Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.

Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.

Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.

Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.

Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.

Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.

Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.

Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.

There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea, Sverland and Skarsgaard. This junction was known as the Khaybar Mountain. What was now the “mountain” was once a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.

Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.

The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.

Khayber was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.

Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.

In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.

PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.

This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.

Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.

The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.

The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.

Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.

“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”

Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.

On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.

“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”

The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.

Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.

Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.

And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.

It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.

Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.

Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.

For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.

On every one of the ships, there was a mark.

A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.

“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”

His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.

Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.

“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”

He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.

An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.

Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years.

Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?

If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.

Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.

Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.

Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.

There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.

As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”

The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.

Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.

Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.

Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.

There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.

That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.

“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.

“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”

“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”

“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”

They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.

She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.

For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.

Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarians symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


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Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.

“Nothing.”

She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.


“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.


Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.4]

The Holy Body

Polity: Holy Kingdom of Solsea

Naval Strength:  Papal Guard (400 ships), plus Solceanist irregulars.

“Skarsgaard retainers! Cease your heretical resistance at once! Her Holiness is guided by God and goes where He wills! You are all her subjects, and must turn from the abdicator to her!”

Volleys of coilgun shells crossed paths in the waters over Amaryllis station, seat of power of the Skarsgaard duchy. Though Amaryllis was a small pillar-type station housing only one major domicile, it was fiercely defended. Barrages of light and fast rocket-propelled missiles launched from recessed racks on the station surface, forcing the attackers to keep up a massive flak barrage to defend themselves from the projectiles and slowing down their progress. A fleet of several dozen frigates held their ground around the station’s waters, forming a defensive formation that maximized their ability to fire on the invaders.

Such a scene could have come out of any station invasion scenario in any military textbook.

However, it was the identity of the attackers that shook the confidence of the defenders.

Rather than a flotilla of bandits or anarchists, the invaders composed a massive fleet with dozens of ships, all of which were painted stark white, red and gold and decorated with the cross and sun of the Church of Solceanos. They did not fire the first shot, not with ordnance. The Papal Guard and the Church Paladins demanded entry and occupation of the station. Such a demand itself constituted violence as the station belonged entirely to the Duke of Skarsgaard’s House.

However, the young Duke Carthus von Skarsgaard had all but abdicated his duties.

He had left with his close friend Prince Erich von Fueller, and there he remained.

Amaryllis was abandoned. The Skarsgaard family retainers would not be relieved.

Skarsgaard’s own history precipitated the conflict.

While Skarsgaard had always contained the holy see of the Solceanos church, there had always been tension between the Ducal estate and the Holy See over the state’s coffers, military power and social policy. It did not matter to the Dukes and Duchesses of Skarsgaard that the Church was sacred and sanctioned by the Empire, and beloved by the people — affairs of power trumped any affairs of the afterlife. A separation of powers and thus of influence kept a delicate peace. The influence of the Emperor prevented either force from fully taking control of the state. Now, however, there was an additional problem for Skarsgaard’s secular military forces.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller was dead. With his death, the balance was sundered.

To complicate matters, the current head of the Holy See was Millenia von Skarsgaard II. The disinherited youngest daughter of the ducal family, who had risen through the ranks of the church, acknowledged as a holy woman touched by God. This woman, who had been denied the secular control of the state, had achieved comparable power through control of its religion.

This produced a standoff, in which the detachment sent to take the Station for the Holy See met with the Skarsgaard defenders. While the defenders stood their ground and upheld their secular duty to defend the Skarsgaard family holdings, they had no leadership and were outgunned. All they could do was harass the Papal Fleet with missiles, forcing them to slowly move forward under a massive curtain of flak, largely unable or unwilling to deliver much firepower in return.

“Skarsgaard retainers! You stand against God and all that his holy! You will drown in the flooded hell and be barred from the warmth of heaven! We do not wish to condemn any more souls to the horrors of the Deep! Surrender yourselves and your weapons, and repent for your evil!”

In the center of the Papal Guard fleet was the state-of-the-art Irmingard-class Dreadnought Anointed One, a massive and beautiful ship with its stark white armor decorated with swirling gold patterns. The Anointed One used its superior electronic warfare package to push acoustic messages on the lesser and older Frigates of the Skargaard retainers. All of the messages were sent by the military leader of the church, Paladin-General Rosemont, a radiant older woman clad in shining armor. Had the retainers been able to see her furious face as she conveyed the messages their morale may not have survived it. Anything she said seemed powered by the utmost righteousness.

Behind her, raised on a throne in the middle of the bridge, was Pontiff Millennia herself.

Long, flowing robes of a vinyl-like material trailed down her lean body, bedecked with gold. She wore a tabard with two horizontal red stripes along the edges and the sun and cross of the church. A habit partially covered her rusty-red hair, but messy bangs could be seen to come out of the front, and the sheer length of it could be seen to come out the back. She had a bored expression on her lightly painted lips, propped her olive-colored cheeks up with her hands.

Her wine-red eyes developed a glowing ring around them. A small cross-shaped ornament hovered in mid-air near her, spinning as the Pontiff turned it over and over in her mind, distracting her from the tension around herself. This sort of thing happened around the woman known as “The Holy Body.” Her miracles were well known, and over time they came to be seen as a qualification to lead the church. Objects would move by themselves; common people would become inspired to sing holy words in her presence; messages from God would appear spontaneously on the walls.

“Sister Rosemont, I would like to address the leader of the enemy fleet if possible.”

Around the bridge, all of the officers wore white and red uniforms. They were all faithful of the church, but also military personnel with full Navy training. Being able to work on this vessel was a privilege for them, and they cared about the Pontiff. They hung on her every word. When she spoke, they paid attention. They pored over her every word very carefully and silently.

Rosemont turned and kneeled in front of the Pontiff.

“We shall do always as you command, Pontiff. I am deeply sorry.”

Millennia narrowed her eyes. “There is nothing to be sorry for. I am not so unmovable that I demand my retainers do the impossible for me. These heretics will learn their place, not because your faith was not strong enough to show them, but because their ignorance was too dreadful. Besides, we could do battle with these heretics, but I do not wish to cause any harm to the station.”

“Thank you, most Holy one. Your mercy and understanding bring me joy.”

A laser request was sent from the Anointed One to the defending fleet.

The Skarsgaard retainer’s fleet selected a missile Frigate, the Unwavering, to answer.

This was predictable. Missile Frigates had more experienced crews than Gun Frigates did. When asked for a representative, an unled flotilla would always select the most experienced crew to do so. Millenia had counted on being able to talk to the Captain of that one particular frigate. An unremarkable uniformed man appeared soon on her personal screen, trying to look confident.

“This is Captain Emmett–”

She could instantly feel it. A weak, unguarded mind with no potential whatsoever.

He was not only unguarded, but afraid, and that also compounded things. Those without potential had few mental barriers, and confidence and force of will could still decide the contest, but fear always undid them. Even the slightest lick of psionic power would have made her switch strategies. Such a weak-willed nonbeliever, and already in a vulnerable state, had no defenses.

“It is unnecessary for me to introduce myself.”

Millenia had him where she wanted him the instant their eyes made contact.

Red rings appeared around her eyes which his eyes took on as well.

Those around him who lacked psychic ability could not tell he was being controlled.

“Put me on the main screen and use the upper room camera to show me the whole bridge.”

Emerich obeyed instantly. Millenia felt a sting as her neurons burned with effort.

On her screen, the video expanded so she could see all the confused faces on the bridge.

All of them looked at her with the red glow around their eyes.

Nonchalantly, she declared her orders.

“Fire all of your missiles at any surrounding ships. Use instant tracking and do not monitor their progress. Simply fire at will. Then turn your ship around and flee at maximum speed.”

Complicated, suicidal orders would have been much more difficult to execute.

This was not simply pushing on their arms to make them hit buttons.

Millenia was overriding the crew’s will. She was controlling their minds directly.

All of them broke eye contact, and began to do as Millenia ordered.

On her main screen, Rosemont and the crew watched as the algorithmic predictor picked up a dozen heavy missiles flying out of the center of the Skarsgaard retainers’ defensive formation. Explosions went off around the fleet, and ships began to list and sink, such that the remaining undamaged ships could do nothing but flee and there was total chaos among the defenders.

To those watching in the bridge of the Anointed One, it was nothing short of a miracle.

They crossed themselves, gave prayer, and a few prostrated themselves before Millenia.

“Praise be, Pontiff,”

Rosemont turned to meet her Pontiff again and venerate her, but gasped when she did so.

Blood flowed copiously out of Millenia’s nose and down her lips.

From the sides of her eyes, tears of blood began to trickle down her cheeks.

She felt a burning inside her skull as if her brain had been cleaved in half.

Her hands grabbed hold of the armrests of her seat, squeezing as she endured the pain.

Backlash. A monumental amount of psychic backlash.

Even with all that she practiced; she was still not completely ready.

It did not matter. She was still alive. As long as she lived, God would be with her.

To her subjects, however, the sight of her bleeding body was quite shocking.

“Pontiff, is this the stigmata?” Rosemont asked. That large armored woman kneeled beside Millenia and tenderly held her hand and kissed it. “Can we do anything to ease your suffering?”

Millenia grit her teeth. She could not speak, not immediately.

For minutes, she rode out the pain of the backlash.

Finally, she gasped for breath, released from the fog and agony that had taken her mind.

“Pontiff?”

“I am fine, Rosemont.”

Millenia smiled, her mouth, tongue and lips soaked in her own blood.

“This is the price that must be paid to God to beseech his divine presence into the Deep to which we are condemned.” she said. On some level, she believed this, even if only as the explanation she had concocted for abilities she understood to be beyond the purview of Man. God had never spoken to her directly.

She imagined God did not Speak. He made his presence known in other ways.

Weakly, she stood from her throne. She wiped the blood from her mouth with her hand.

Everyone on the bridge watched her raise that bloody hand.

Today was not the first time she had killed, or even killed many.

Only she knew that it was herself who killed them. To her faithful, it was God’s doing.

“Miracles are not solely the purview of the Holy Body. Your own faith can make miracles if you can make the commensurate sacrifice. Faith is key; the ignorant will never reach God.”

There was a reverent silence as the crew took in the Pontiff’s words.

“Now, unleash the Divers and take the station. Without the fleet’s flak, they can’t stop us from boarding them. Continue to interdict any missiles. Once the station is secure, I will board it.”

She sat back down on the chair, and requested an attendant come clean her face.

A long time ago, Millenia had learned that it was possible to manifest her powers against anything she could see. To make “miracles” happen she moved things by spying on them with drones or video cameras. For sentient beings, they could come under its effects if they could see her live. They could not be affected by video recordings, images, or any such thing, but if she could see and speak to them with a connection lag time of a few seconds or less, such as with a laser connection. Furthermore, she understood that there were powerful people other than herself.

There was a limit to what she could do. Pushing and pulling did not hurt her too much.

At least, not when using those powers on small objects or on weak people.

More complicated psychic tasks took far more of a toll on her health.

This made it vitally important to use her powers strategically, on the weakest targets.

Through politics and trickery, she had exposed and crushed most of the people with strong potential in the Church. There were only a few, who were loyal to her, or too important to get rid of, that remained. One such person arrived at the Bridge at the command of the Pontiff herself.

Dressed in a red and white habit, matching the Pontiff, if not as ornate. This sister was a young woman, olive-skinned with very light red hair, almost pink, and slightly pointed ears. She had a tidy, shoulder-length bob and a regal beauty to her facial features. Everything about her appeared collected, calm. Inexpressive. Almost doll-like, save for the small smile she gave the Pontiff as she arrived. With a portable basin of warm water and a cloth, she began to clean the face of the Holy Body, tinging the water a rusty red color as more blood came off the dipped cloth.

Once we’ve taken Amaryllis, I’ll use the network override hub to declare myself Holy Empress of the Empire of Solcea on every government screen that can broadcast a picture. Carthus will be excommunicated. Anyway, what do you think of the name? Good branding?

Outwardly, Millenia was just resting, recovering from her miracle.

Sounds impressive. It will certainly draw the attention of our opponents.

Her attendant, Sister Salvatrice Vittoria, appeared only to be cleaning the Holy Body.

And yet, the two them carried out a conversation. They spoke directly to the other’s mind.

Like with any psychic ability, if this was done to the unaware it would be more difficult.

Millenia had Salvatrice’s consent, so it was effortless to use her powers to speak to her.

I would like you to try dreaming again, Millenia said.

My dreams have been of little use to us, and I don’t enjoy them, Salvatrice replied.

I am curious. We need more information, and you have uncovered some useful things.

Only as a fluke. I’d rather put my efforts into something more concrete.

Millenia acknowledged her psychically. As if sending a “nod of the head” via their link.

How have your dreams ended lately? Did you die again?

Salvatrice sent a distressed, somewhat silly expression over the link.

Forget about that for now. I have important news. I found Faiyad Ayari.

Millenia sent her an annoyed Millenia face into her thoughts, with big, round, angry eyes.

Do you realize how scary that guy’s aura is? I almost felt like he would notice I was looking for him in the aether and that he would just link to me from that far away and attack me.

Where is he?

I traced it to Sverland. Millenia, we should be careful the hornet’s nests we stir.

What should I be afraid of?

Things we are not meant to see, know, or dig up. People we should not mess with.

More concretely, please.

Faiyad Ayari.

I’m not afraid of him. The Church kept him locked up for decades.

Millenia, he escaped! He escaped from your Church!

He is just an opportunist. I will expand the search for Maryam and we will leave our options open when it comes to dealing with Faiyad. Unfortunately, we may have to struggle for physical control of Sverland with the Volkisch and the Noble Alliance. And if we cross that line, our Southern and Eastern fronts may be opened to Veka. We may have to be underhanded instead. We can use the flock to apply pressure beyond our borders.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and nodded sagely, in Millenia’s mind.

We should let Sverland be fought over by the Rhineans. They’ll weaken themselves.

We’ll let the military dictate battle strategy. Rosemont is a bootlicker, but she’s smart. But like I said, I’m leaving my options open for dealing with all of this. From where I’m sitting, I have no shortage of assets to use.

Soon it came to pass that Salvatrice had completely cleaned Millenia’s face.

They had very little reason at that point to stand beside one another any longer.

Salvatrice was a civilian, and Millenia did not want her to draw too much attention.

“Thank you for your service, Sister.”

“It is my honor and pleasure to serve you.”

“I will see you again tonight. You must attend to my meal, bath and bedchamber.”

“Of course. It is the honor and privilege of my life to render such service.”

Salvatrice dried Millenia’s face with a new towel, took the basin and left.

Millenia would be able to speak more with Salvatrice.

When they ate, when they bathed, in bed. There would be opportunities.

There was no sense feeling like they needed to have the whole conversation right then.

Nevertheless, Millenia felt frustrated.

Eager to make her wishes come true. Salvatrice lacked ambition. She didn’t understand.

Millenia was beginning to develop a concept of how the world really worked and if she was correct in her assumptions then the Imbrian Empire was small potatoes compared to what was hidden from her in the aether. However, the Empire and its resources were necessary to fulfill her ambitions. Skarsgaard had a developed industrial sector able to exploit its mineral resources, and create any necessary weapons for a war. Their agriculture could sustain hardship in the near term. By ruling Skarsgaard with a regime of religious authoritarianism she could keep the social and political sphere stable and expand from there.

Scrambling the right brains would help with that ambition as well.

No one would dare defect or flee, if they knew the agony that she could subject them to.

Millenia needed more and greater scientific development. And the right sort of development.

Imbrians seemed to develop psionic power the least. Could the power be genetic in nature?

However, the ethnic makeup of most Imbrians was complicated.

Salvatrice was a Kattaran elf. Millenia suspected she was not purely Imbrian herself.

Without proper facilities, personnel, equipment and resources, she could never unravel this mystery. She needed more than just Salvatrice’s dreams. She needed more brains, more minds to throw at these questions in order to decipher the mystery. They had to be the correct minds, as well.

If she was successful, she might be able to ascend beyond this fallen place, beyond this accursed ocean beneath a dying sky.

Millenia dreamed of an Empire that spanned more than just the territory of Aer.

And if she was correct about the world; and if Salvatrice’s dreams proved true–

“Pontiff, the defenders of the inner sanctum have surrendered.”

Rosemont reported the good news. On the bridge’s main screen, they connected to cameras showing the interior of Amaryllis being surrendered to several Volker and Jagd class Divers that had been sent from the Papal Guard fleet. Millenia’s Paladins had routed the opposition. Amaryllis was hers. With it, Skarsgaard’s secular government was no more. All of the state bowed to her.

Millenia grinned from ear to ear. She wanted to burst out laughing, but controlled herself.

This was just a small step on a journey that promised to take her past heaven itself.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.3]

Election Night

Polity: Duchy of Rhinea (“Rhinean National-Socialist Republic”)

Naval Strength: Rhinean Defense Force (In flux), Volkisch Movement (~400 ships)

As the night wore on and the votes were tallied, the crowds marching through the streets of Thurin station grew ever volatile. Protesters and counter-protesters clashed in each borough. Because it was a square arcology-type Station, the upper classes of Thurin had no “upper level” to fleet to that would have seen nothing of the fires and riots. Instead, the police presence was stretched thin guarding the gates to the government district and to the wealthy properties north of the city.

Much to the anger of the protesting crowds, the authorities gave a clear preference to “right-wing” figures, defending them from crowds with high security including riot forces and even Divers at their homes and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, just that morning, a “left-wing” member of the Constituent Assembly was assassinated by a member of the Volkisch movement. There was no official protection for people who were known supporters of the “left-wing” agenda in Thurin.

Philosophically, both sides claimed that what was at stake was the soul of the nation.

Concretely, the night’s vote for Governor was taken as a referendum.

Rhinea’s hereditary Dukedom had become politically and economically powerless over the years. Increasingly, private industries became fiefdoms of their own, particularly large institutions that made key goods, like Rhineanmetalle and Volwitz Foods. Enterprises began to provide the lion’s share of employment and standard of living and in turn commanded a greater share of the nation’s wealth. Aristocrats invested in Enterprises and ignored their dues to the Duke.

While in other Duchies the governing aristocracy, the Duke and his closest Lords, had used personal investments, political alliances and military threats to remain firmly in control, in Rhinea, Duke Pfefner had inherited young and was too timid to spare himself becoming a figurehead. The moneyed class had de-facto control and the nation liberalized around the rule of the Purse. Contract and profit took over for blood. Rhinea was increasingly bourgeois, rather than aristocratic.

They paid dues to the Imperial crown and enriched their own coffers; who would care about the Duke?

Rhinea’s upper class made a gesture of sharing their economic control by allowing the population of Rhinea’s stations to vote for a chief executive to manage “ducal” affairs, as well as voting for members of the aristocracy and corporate boards to serve as politicians in a legislative Assembly. It was this system that brought the acrimonious situation in which the station found itself.

Everyone knew the election was a referendum based on the three candidates available for Governor. Ossof Heidemann, a stakeholder in Volwitz Foods turned political activist, ran for increased democratic reform and liberal, Post-Imperial government. Adam Lehner, a right-wing politician from a bourgeois background, assembled a coalition of military, academic, religious and middle-class people with a message of nationalist populism. Karl Schlieffer stood for status quo; an aging ex-Admiral who sought rapprochement and to continue the unity of the Empire in some way.

As far as the streets were concerned it was a contest between Lehner and Heidemann.

“It is time for the people of Rhinea to stake a claim on that which the idle, the ennobled, and the ignorant demand to take from them! For far too long, our land, food, labor and treasure have supported the lives of bloodsucking parasites! Real Imbrians rise to retake Imbria!” shouted Lehner.

“Rhinea has more than enough food, fuel and shelter for all of us! But the Empire is a relic of darker times and inefficient governance! We need greater democratic control of our resources! We should, all of us, give and get our fair share, so we can prosper together!” said Heidemann.

Everyone agreed that the Empire’s days were numbered in Rhinea. Konstantin von Fueller was dead and Erich von Fueller couldn’t protect Vogelheim. Pure-blooded aristocrats were fleeing the state, afraid of populist violence no matter the political winner. And yet, history had two paths.

Heidemann courted the nascent liberal political awakening. He received the begrudging support of more radical left-wing forces inspired by the student anarchist wave in Bosporus, but he did not acknowledge them for fear of inciting the average Rhinean into Lehner’s arms. So, with dark irony, there were anarchist riots essentially happening for him, sans his actual support.

Lehner, meanwhile, was known to be a darling among the Volkisch Movement. They were a motley collection of violent people. Conspiracy theorists, free-market capitalists, pseudo-science believers, militants and patriots, and an odd contingent of “leftists” who had been swayed to the rather different conception of “the working class” that was at the crux of Volkisch populism.

This was Lehner’s “National Proletariat,” the Volk for whom he enthusiastically fought for.

These were the “counter-protesters” exchanging blows with the “rioters” on the streets.

Above these demonstrations, video screens blared up to the minute election updates. Voting had begun that afternoon and was essentially completed before night. One particular detail that had agitated the rioters was how long the tallying was taking. Everyone voted by machine. Results should have been tallied very quickly. Both sides accused the other of vote fixing.

Thurin’s streets raged with protests. Beneath the large, looming broadcast screens and the pale light of false star-lamps on the black steel sky, lit by the dim pink and blue neon of shop video-signs and the red and yellow of holographic directional signs, street markers and pedestrian warnings. The two sides waved signs, screamed slogans, and made sudden, opportunistic attacks.

Particularly ferocious were the confrontations in Hertha Park. Atop the grasses and around the trees there was enough open space for a massive battle line to form. A sparse force of police stood with the Volkisch “counter-protesters.” Across from them, the leftist “rioters” had fashioned shields out of chassis pieces of overturned vending machines, lids ripped off the tops of municipal cleaning robots, and any other boards of polymer or thin sheets of metal they could scrape together.

For weapons the leftists had anything they stole or scavenged that could be swung, as well as balloons full of paint or, for the craftier and more resourceful people, makeshift incendiaries. Meanwhile, it was no secret that the police had simply handed the Volkisch riot shields and vibro-batons in matching quantities and essentially deputized them to contain the “rioting” in Thurin.

Hiedemann himself made no comment disrespecting the integrity of the election, or police conduct.

From the Lutz Hotel south of the central district, closer to the heart of the insurgency but not so much as to become directly involved or associated, Heidemann urged the rioters to calm down and return home a single, solitary time. This was his only communication with the rioters, delivered at the end of an election night speech thanking Thurin’s elections committee.

“I admire their courage and professionalism on this occasion.” He said about Thurin’s authorities.

This did little to assuage the crowd. Skirmishing continued to flare up across the city.

Hertha Park in particular remained on the verge of exploding.

Everyone who wished to remain uninvolved hid in their apartment rooms.

At the doors to the hotel, the small amount of police officers there were given an order to relocate to Hertha Park, officially to shore up reinforcements since the Lutz was away from the violence. A small group of liberal protesters and a token presence of leftist militia replaced them. Not at all at Heidemman’s orders, but because they collectively thought they knew better than the old man what he needed at the moment, and conspiracist thinking was at all time high among them. They essentially became the only security detail Heidemman had beside his campaign staff.

Midnight neared, and Hertha Park continued to deteriorate. Amid the dim, ethereal scene of Thurin’s nighttime cycle, the protest lines that had been jockeying for position finally and irreversibly collided. Shields smashed into unguarded bodies, pipes and vibrobatons swung and clashed. Scant firearms, stolen or smuggled in by both sides, went off in the distance. Cops within the rioting fired gas grenades that went up into green and yellow clouds among the warring sides.

There was blood, there were bruises and broken bones. Both sides took terrible wounds.

At first, the leftist side outnumbered the right-wing. They had an enormous crowd, and whenever someone was pushed back, clubbed, pepper sprayed, gassed, or otherwise routed, they had helping hands who could surround and protect them from further attack, if not with fighters then at least with supporters. Even when the only opposition was unarmed, the numbers were so out of proportion that individual right-wing attackers could not penetrate the left’s ranks. Because they themselves had no better organization than the left, they went on the defensive very quickly.

Police prepared to escalate their presence as the violence started to grow out of control.

Fighting went on inconclusively for what seemed like hours to the protesters. Fires started to rise and spread, police vehicles were captured and overturned. From many wounded, the night managed a few dead. Then, with blood still pooling on the ground in Thurin, the results came in.

45.4% Heidemann.

49.1% Lehner.

Lehner was broadcast widely as the projected winner of the election.

He was winner beyond any margin of error.

Due to the chaotic situation, this information took some time to disseminate to the crowds.

As the realization set in, the rightists started to grow emboldened.

And the massive crowd of Heidemann supporters began to falter.

Those who had been only chanting slogans or carrying signs for Heidemann stumbled first. They had been buoyed enough by the confidence of their peers to stay in the crowd, not engaged in fighting but able to bolster the leftist presence. These people started to peel away from the press of bodies, demoralized by the turn of events and unwilling to join a greater uprising. They had made themselves believe that the chaos of this night was permissible because it would end with Lehner’s defeat. Anyone on their side throwing a punch was throwing it for Heidemann.

Unable to see a world where they could resist the Volkisch without their political leader, they retreated. Only the militant leftists remained, a front line left without hope of reinforcement.

When the rightists saw the thinning of the crowds, they capitalized on the fear and disorder and pressed their attack. Now that they had the advantage of numbers, they could throw themselves into the leftists without fear of being overwhelmed. Cowardly as they had been when outnumbered, they grew ferocious against weakened prey. Those right-wing attackers who had individually been powerful grew more so, and rightists who didn’t dare throw a punch before now joined the fight.

That night would be bloody for the leftist remnants in Hertha who stuck with the uprising.

Once the night turned in the Right wing’s favor, police activity dropped dramatically.

Open murder was essentially sanctioned in Hertha Park by the retreating authorities.

Soon as the news reached him, Heidemann moved to announce a concession.

“If I can’t change the outcome, I can at least try to stop the violence.” He said to his staff.

He came down from his hotel suite, hoping to deliver a speech in the street outside.

On the way down, he met with the grim-faced crowd of leftists who had come to the Lutz.

Heidemann could not look them in the eye. He started to move through them.

They had nothing to say to each other. It was farcical for the anarchists to remain there.

However, the weight of history was dropping on all of them. Nobody knew what to do.

Then into the flagging fire of their wills, a young woman spilled a tank of gasoline.

“Drop your weapons and back away from the old man, now!”

From around the corner, a small group came running in to confront Heidemann.

Those accursed black uniforms awakened the spirit of the anarchist defenders on sight. They immediately formed a protective ring. Heidemman’s supporters grabbed him and pushed him and his staff back up to the door of the Lutz as the anarchists positioned themselves on the street to protect them. On the landing from the door to the Lutz, a confrontation suddenly brewed.

A squad of Volkisch had arrived at the Lutz: led by a recognizable young woman.

Heidelinde Sawyer, sporting a riot shield and a vibro-baton, stood at the front. She was flanked by a skinny, red-headed young woman holding on to a large weapon. And around them were four men in uniform. Likely they were all former Navy. Like Sawyer herself, a lot of the Rhinean Defence Force had defected to the Volkisch. Very few Navy defectors joined the leftists that night. It came to pass that one side had riot gear and the other improvised weapons.

“We’re taking Heidemann into custody. Drop your weapons and leave.” Sawyer said.

Before her stood at least fifteen leftists, armed with makeshift shields, knives and clubs.

“We’re not giving up shit to you.” Said one of the leftists. “You bastards aren’t the law to us.”

At Sawyer’s side, the young woman accompanying her put on a sadistic grin.

“Listen to the boss lady, unless of course, you wanna show me a little red tonight.”

Sawyer grunted. “Make yourself useful and apprehend Heidemann.”

Her companion stepped forward. In her hands, she held what looked like a miniaturized Diver weapon. Though it resembled a jet lance, the pole did not appear to be coil-driven, since coil weapons had not been produced small enough for a human to wield. Instead, it had a thick handle like a vibroblade and trigger, attached to a magazine at the base of the spear. Those magazine-fed cartridges fired unfolding, arrow-like stakes. It was a Jet Harpoon, an expensive military weapon more common to K-9 boarding units, intended to shred humans without damaging ship interiors.

 Her opponents shook at the sight of it.

Unlike Sawyer, who wore riot armor and padding over her black uniform, sans helmet, this woman menaced the crowd in nothing but a black Volkisch uniform and peaked cap. A playful, mocking expression played about her lips, and her wine-red hair was collected into an ornate bun with two little brown sticks made to look like wood. But on a military salary, they had to be fake.

As she stepped in front of the crowd, she swung her weapon to scare them.

Sweeping in a harmless arc between herself and the anxious mob around Heidemann.

Seeing their terrified reactions made her titter with joy.

“Who do you think you people are?” Heidemann yelped, sweating bullets.

Again, the woman accompanying Sawyer put on a grin.

“Ever heard of the Samurai?” She laughed. “Ancient warriors who could cleave opponents in half with a swing of their sword? It’s an old Hanwan legend. I’m like a Samurai of the streets.”

At that moment Sawyer rolled her eyes, instantly regretting her command decisions.

“I’m not letting this crazy bitch scare me!”

One of the leftists took a swing with a crowbar.

“Hazel!” Sawyer shouted.

In the next instant, Hazel caught the crowbar with her Jet Harpoon, blocking the swing. She pushed against the man who had attacked her, holding her weapon with both hands, pressing him with the blunt surface of the thick, cylindrical pole structure. Her speartip was pointed elsewhere as the two of them struggled, the man trying to push her back, her trying to push forward.

Two other leftists in the formation moved to support him, hoping to throw the woman back. At first the confrontation appeared almost juvenile, like the false blows of a random street brawl.

Then Volkisch Rottenführer Hazel Streichter pressed the trigger.

A stake went flying past the man Hazel grappled and stabbed through two leftists in the wings of the phalanx. It went right through their shields. They must have been polymer or plastic boards with no way to withstand the jet-driven stake. Blood spilled onto the steps of the Lutz.

Blood sprayed onto Heidemann’s staff and a speck upon his coat.

He looked at it with widening eyes and his body began to shake.

At the sight of his fallen comrades, the man grappling with Hazel fell back, shaken.

Hazel retreated a step and pointed her jet harpoon confidently at the rest.

“Anyone else want a taste of my steel?” She said coyly.

“Oh my god, Hazel, shut up! Just shut the fuck up and go grab him for fuck’s sakes!”

Sawyer stepped in front of her companion and swung her shield in a wide, brutal sweep.

That blow knocked back the remaining few leftists in front of Heidemann and his staff.

One more desperate phalanx cracked by the Volkisch that night.

Sawyer stood before the cowering crowd and two dying people.

She set her boot into an expanding pool of blood.

Her eye had developed a twitch, and the arm she had swung with was shaking.

Whether she was angry or mentally affected by the violence, no one knew.

“Listen. None of you are worth my time. You can return to your lives tomorrow like none of this crap ever happened if you leave my sight right now. Otherwise, I’m going to break every last fucking bone in your fucking bodies. Do you understand? All of you lost. Step aside. Now!”

“We can be more persuasive than that, Sawyer.”

Over Sawyer’s radio, a third female voice spoke up.

Around the corner, a sudden rumbling made the stones on the pavement shake.

All of the leftist crowd lost their will to defend the failed politician in that instant.

“Diver!” They shouted. “It’s a Diver! Disperse! We don’t have shit against that!”

Sawyer put up her shield and Hazel raised her weapon to guard, but nobody took a swing.

Rather than fighters, the people in front of them became panicked pedestrians.

Everyone suddenly abandoned Heidemann and ran in different directions past the Volkisch squadron. Even the press and his secretary had fled along with the leftist militants. They left behind nothing but Heidemann, and a pair of discarded corpses that had once been their comrades.

From around the same corner where the Volkisch squadron had come from, a Diver ambled over the cobblestones. A black and red Jagd model with a pair of black antennae sticking out of the head. This Diver resembled its pilot somewhat, as the voice on the radio was none other than Rue Skalbeck’s, coming from inside this machine. Nobody would dare stand up to this machine’s jet lance, and the machine guns on the shoulders also presented an insurmountable challenge.

After the peak of violence and emotion that it had seen all night, the Lutz was silent again.

“Ugh, what a drag. That was barely a proper fight at all.” Hazel lamented.

“Strip off your uniform and go to Hertha Park if you just want a fight, dumbass.” Sawyer said. She jabbed hard on Hazel’s chest with her baton, asserting physical dominance. “You’re not in a fucking gang anymore. I don’t care how much you run your stupid mouth while carrying out my orders, but when I tell you to do something, you do exactly that without fucking theatrics.”

Hazel raised her hands up. “I followed your orders! I was trying to disperse the crowd–”

“I didn’t tell you to fire your weapon!” Sawyer shouted. “I told you to apprehend the old man! He’s standing there listening to this fucking tirade, so go do it! Or is that so fucking hard?”

“Fine, fine, fine!”

With an exaggerated sigh, Hazel walked over to Heidemann. Since the Jagd appeared, the old man backed up against the Lutz’ locked doors. Employees must have closed the doors behind him when the confrontation began. Everyone had abandoned him to the claws of the Volkisch.

She grabbed hold of him brusquely with one hand, much stronger than she looked.

“Old man, if you don’t want to die, cooperate, ok?” Hazel said.

She lifted the tip of the jet harpoon to his face, grinning violently at the defeated man.

Sawyer shouted again. “Watch your trigger discipline you stupid fuck! We need him alive.”

At Sawyer’s continued, very loud insistence, Hazel dragged Heidemann over to the group. Their men grabbed hold of the old man and cuffed him, and put a black bag over his head, muffling his protests. If he said anything coherent, nobody was listening. At that point, he was an object.

“We’ve got him. Rue, get us a ride out of here.” Sawyer said into the radio. She then turned to the men. With some disgust evident in her expression, she pointed a shaking finger at the bodies. “And someone clean that up. I don’t care about the blood, but dispose of the bodies immediately.”

On the radio, Rue’s voice sounded again.

“Roger. City seems to be quieting down, judging by police radio chatter.” Rue said.

“Good.” Sawyer said. “Keep your eyes on those sensors of yours.”

“I’ll keep you safe.” Rue said. Betraying perhaps a bit more emotion than intended.

Soon a boxy electric coach arrived. Hazel nonchalantly stuffed Heidemann in the back.

Sawyer took control, leaving behind their men to take care of the scene as they drove off. In her Jagd, Rue followed as best as she could. Their destination was not too far off. They were going to the Rhinean News Network’s main building, a tall, daunting spire in the city’s southwest.

Lehner’s family owned R.N.N., and it was there that he awaited the delivery.

When the bag next came off Heidemann’s head he was in a twentieth-floor office.

Sawyer, Rue and Hazel stood alongside the night’s ultimate victor, Adam Lehner.

Blond-haired, flashing a smile full of white teeth, a lithe man with a delicate complexion.

He hardly appeared the militant type in his silk suit, black tie and shiny shoes.

He seemed like just a different kind of dandy than the hedonistic aristocrats he hated.

He was Governor of Rhinea. And he was the unifying mind behind the Volkisch.

Flanked by black military uniforms who carried out his will all through the night.

He had Heidemann seated across from his desk. There were a lot of model ships in the office, in cases, in bottles, atop the desk. They were all old models. There was a certain exhibited fondness in the decorations for the old Koenig-class Dreadnought, with its beaked prow and winged fins. It was one of these models that Lehner picked up and turned on his fingers.

“What is the meaning of this, Lehner? Does winning a vote put you above the law?”

Heidemann broke the silence first. His voice was desperate, pleading. Defeated.

Lehner shot a glance at him from behind his desk. He was still fixated on the ship model.

“It’s so funny to me that I beat you in the vote. It’s convenient, but so funny.”

He set the model down on the desk, and turned a bemused expression at Heidemann.

“All this time, you’ve been thanking the electors, talking about running a clean race and having pride in our institutions. You had so much confidence in our institutions, our fucking institutions, and look where you are? It was so incredible to me how much we weren’t even playing the same game. I was on an entirely different board, and there you were, going on video every day talking about decorum and respect. Thinking that you would stop me with votes? By voting?”

Lehner burst out laughing. Heidemann could not muster up a retort.

The Volkisch leader turned to his subordinates as if expecting them to laugh with him.

Sawyer and Rue made no expression. Hazel cracked an uncomfortable little grin.

Lehner quickly turned back to Heidemann with a shrug.

“That’s the difference between us. I’m a go-getter. I’m an innovator. You left your entire future up to others to hand you. I went out, I put together the plan, the money, the people, the gear– I made it happen.” Lehner circled around to Heidemann’s chair and gave him a mock sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “It’s funny that I won the vote, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Wow! Bag him up again.”

Lehner turned his back and began to pace near the broad glass wall at the back of the room.

When Heidemann started to protest, Hazel put a black bag over his head again.

This muffled his voice, but he started kicking, and trying to swing his cuffed arms.

“Sawyer, can you please?” Lehner said, clearly starting to become irritated.

Stepping up behind Heidemann, Sawyer pushed Hazel aside and knocked the old man in the back of the head. He slumped forward, his bagged head hanging. He struggled no more. He was out cold. That one strike wouldn’t kill him alone, but it had knocked all sense out of him.

“Thank you.” Lehner said. He turned to his retinue, putting his back on the gorgeous view of the city at night, that they had from such a high place through such expansive glass walls. “Everything is working as planned. The nobles have fled from Thurin, Weimar and Bremen. Some of the old-school Navy went with them, but we got about 400 ships on our side. A majority in the Constituent Assembly declared themselves for the Volkisch. We will motion to refuse to sit non-Volkisch members for supporting the riots or the nobles — whatever makes sense. So now what I want, is I want this guy to vanish like the nobles did. Nobody can find a trace of him.”

“Understood.” Sawyer said simply.

“I don’t care if you kill him, frankly, but you should. You’re going to, right?”

Lehner crooked an eyebrow at them, waiting for a response.

Sawyer did not even blink. “I have no sympathy for him. We’ll dispose of him.”

“Solid. Love that response. I’m pleased with you all, you know? I’m gonna make you all big deals here. So much of the Rhinean Defense Force has been running around like their dicks are on fire; leave it to the militia women to be the most trustworthy fighters I got.” Lehner said.

“We’re all behind you, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. Her characteristic passion was missing.

Despite her seeming lack of enthusiasm, however, she followed orders to the letter.

At the moment, that was the best that Lehner had access to.

He had defectors and militia, and he would have to cobble them together into a new Navy.

Just after the destruction of Vogelheim, Rhinea’s aristocrats began to flee. Sizable portions of the Rhinean Defense Force, the territory’s contingent of the Imperial Navy, fled too. Half joined the Volkisch Movement outright. Whether the rest ran away as individual ships, organized under the fleeing aristocrats or outright defecting to other territories, the fact of the matter was that the new Volkisch government had lost many troops without even engaging in any hostilities. Sawyer and her flotilla were one bright spot amid this chaos. They seeded the fear that routed the nobles.

Lehner turned an amicable grin on Sawyer.

“We’ve got the gear, the discipline, the training, the morale. We just need people. And you three are a great starting point. Sawyer, you already have many achievements under your belt. I’m keeping a close eye on you. That’s why I wanted you in the city while all of this happened.”

He walked close to her and poked her in the chest playfully.

At that moment, his eyes settled on Rue Skalbeck, standing inconspicuously with Hazel.

He looked at her with a crooked little smile.

“And this one is interesting to me. Hah, some of our guys would be pissed. Name?”

Sawyer stiffened up.

“Rue Skalbeck.” Rue said. She replied in a strict monotone.

“She’s with me, Fuhrer.” Sawyer said. She was starting to raise her voice. “She’s fine.”

Lehner ignored Sawyer’s remark.

He eyed Rue’s antennae.

“Why did you get these installed? Did you need them? Are they an augmentation?”

“Hartz Syndrome, sir.”

Anyone paying closer attention to Sawyer than to Rue would have seen discomfort in her face. She was unsettled by Lehner’s sudden attentions on her subordinate, but there was nothing she could say about it. Lehner continued to hover around Rue. Rue herself stayed expressionless. Her hands could be seen to shake slightly, but she mastered herself well under interrogation.

“Tell me about your condition, Skalbeck. What brought you here?” Lehner asked.

He was testing her. He had to already know what it was. It was impossible not to.

Hartz Syndrome was an uncommon but well-known neurological development issue that afflicted many people in the Empire. While it was extensively studied, there was no biological cure that could prevent or revert the symptoms. There was simply something in a certain percentage of children that caused poor development of the brain and audiovisual senses. Cybernetics were the only way to save those children. Brain cybernetics were extremely dangerous. Hartz sufferers had an appalling death rate under the knife. That Rue was standing before them at all was a miracle.

She described that miracle directly and without emotion.

“Rhinea Medical College used me as testing material to develop new surgery methods, so I was able to get my corrective augmentations that way. I received cybernetic lobes; biosynthetic eyes; and the antennae act as cybernetic ears in a sense. They help me maintain my balance and allow me to pick up sound. My cybernetics help process audiovisual data that my brain alone lost the ability for. Due to Hartz, I was not able to complete my studies as a teen. So, after my recovery, I joined the Navy, and I studied part time so I could complete my schooling there.”

Lehner was nodding his head all along as Rue described her ordeal.

He clapped his hands together once.

“So, you studied while completing your training? What prompted you to do that?”

“After I regained the fullness of my faculties, I wanted to make up for the time I lost.”

Her response made Lehner clap his hands even more.

Sawyer sighed with relief.

“Amazing. Wonderful. Inspirational, even. You gave your body up for science! Holy shit. I have talked with a lot of our rank and file, Rue, believe it or not. I’ve seen so many sentiments of patriotism and self-sacrifice. But I’ve never seen someone sacrifice to that degree. Holy shit.”

Lehner reached out and gave playful, soft smacks on Rue’s cheek like she was a child.

“See this girl? In my ideal world, every inferior being would work as hard as she did.”

He turned to Sawyer with an elated expression. “You got really lucky with this one.”

“Sir?” Sawyer asked. She had flinched when he referred to Rue as an inferior.

Lehner continued to speak, gliding around the room in a passion.

“Despite all that was set against her, she never whined and bemoaned her situation. She never begged someone else to take pity on her and give her a handout. At every turn, she fought, she sacrificed, and she paid her dues. She sacrificed for the National Proletariat. Rue Skalbeck has given back to society. She’s not perfect, but she is exemplary. Sawyer, keep this critter close by.”

Rue was speechless, clearly mortified. Her jaw hung just a little at this description of her.

“Yes, sir.” Sawyer said. Her fingers curled up into fists.

Lehner did not notice this. He returned to his desk and sat on it.

“You’re all the future of our movement. I’m so proud of all of you. Great job tonight.”

He yawned. He checked his watch. He glanced over to Heidemann with disgust.

“Anyway, all of you can go now, we’re done here. Take him.” Lehner said, nonchalantly.

Without a word, his subordinates silently, obediently, took Heidemann out of his sight.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.2]

The Queen

Polity:  Empire of Greater Veka

Naval Strength: Grand Eastern Fleet (1200 ships)

A succession of events precipitated the de-facto, if not strictly legal or official, partitioning of the Imbrian Empire into its constituent ducal states. Chief among them was the death of Emperor Konstantin von Fueller, but this only provided the gasoline. Vogelheim withdrew a match from the box; and the uprising in Bosporus lit the match and threw it. While the Volkisch’s violence had the aristocrats on edge, it was the leftists who truly terrified the upper classes into organizing.

To protect their own interests, the ducal governments sought the loyalty of military and industrial leaders within their own territory. What followed was a time of logistic flux, where ships defected, enterprises fled to their preferred states, and assets shuffled between the various territories. There was a state of war that was both open and public, and unacknowledged and subtle. Loyal military vessels would set up “defensive patrols” in stations to occupy them for “their” side; corporations based in multiple nations began to “transfer” their assets to the side they picked, as fast as they could; stocks of food, weapons and ammunition were bought up, stolen, lost, taken.

In this preamble to war there were only two military forces that suffered no defections.

First was Erich von Fueller’s Grand Western Fleet.

Second, Carmilla von Veka’s Grand Eastern Fleet.

The Vekan state held together strongly while other nations fell into their organized chaos.

In Veka, all enterprises were state-owned. Food and jobs were essentially state-subsidized.

In the decades before the Emperor’s death, the Vekan state’s free market experiments ended in the collapse of many of its native industries. Wracked with corruption and inefficiency, Veka became characterized by the broader Imperial culture as a failing state that was gobbling up Imperial money into the coffers of incompetent and hedonistic oriental lords. Quietly, and slowly, Veka’s ducal government “bailed out” its failing enterprises and managed them directly.

For years, Veka lived up to its negative image. While Rhinea’s industrial monopolies grew to post profits unmatched by any other state, production and growth in Veka lagged behind. Veka was important to the Empire as a bulwark against what they saw as the savagery across its borders to the Mare Crisium in the east. Especially the warlike Kingdom of Hanwa and the collapsed, chaotic state of Katarre, a massive territory whose people were trapped in a perpetual civil war threatening to spill into Imbria. For this reason alone, Veka was propped up with military spending and deliveries of state of the art hardware. The House of Fueller refused to open its purse strings for Vekan agriculture or industry, however, due to its history.

Slowly, steadily, with patience and diligence, largely unacknowledged, Veka recovered. Within the past five years, while Rhinean workers saw their standard of living decline as the profits of the monopolies soared, the Vekan people saw gradual improvement in their caloric intake and wages. More people were employed, food prices slowly stabilized, and trade in luxury goods rose.

When this first, phony stage of the civil war began, Veka remained highly stable.

Its military forces were by and large composed of ethnic Vekans, with the odd foreigners here and there such as Yuyenese or Katarran. Unlike the more complicated ethnic and state identities of the Imbrians, Vekans in the Imperial Navy could all reasonably claim to be serving in and thus defending their own homes. Therefore, the Grand Eastern Fleet easily became a “Vekan” fleet at the outset of the civil war, and not one man in the fleet had any reason to flee outside Veka.

All of Veka’s important industries were owned by the House of Veka and managed by the state. While they were more modest in size and scope than a firm like Rhineanmetalle, they could produce enough goods at a decent enough quality standard to sustain the Imperial art of war as Veka practiced it. They could produce in every key sector from energy, to weapons platforms, to ammunition. There was no economic upheaval, because the firms could not just decide to transport all their plants to Skarsgaard in exchange for preferential taxation or cheaper labor. In essence, for the past few decades, Veka had somehow stolen a march on its civil war rivals, and nobody had even known that these conditions would have prepared Veka so well.

Compared to the rest of the Empire, Veka had a particularly tolerant culture that also helped prevent widespread social chaos at the start of the civil war. Leftist uprisings fizzled out quickly in Veka, finding little grassroots support. Most people simply did not live poorly enough in Veka to be convinced to fight the government that by and large employed and thereby fed and clothed them. And those who did try to organize against the ducal government were crushed brutally. One place Vekan cruelty did greatly exceed that of its rival states, was in its carceral culture.

By and large, however, most people felt somewhat comfortable with their lot in Veka.

One of those tolerated transplants who had come to enjoy Veka’s hospitality, was a Shimii from the north, who had been given the name Victoria van Veka. She had sat out the first days of civil war aboard a ship, with scarce access to news or intelligence. Once she arrived at the Vekan capital of Ulan, she was happy to see the city life continuing as she remembered it before.

There were crowds, bustling in the streets. Government trucks ferried raw materials such as metal and raw foodstuffs to be processed into goods, or in some cases, to sell the raw material for the use of craftsmanship. Shops of all sorts flanked her as she walked down the main city street. Most of them sold government goods at a small profit, but the economy was liberalizing slowly, and many shops began to sell goods that were made by small private groups with raw materials.

Up above, flat panels projected a very false blue sky that still gave Victoria some comfort. It was nothing like the sky over Vogelheim in its artifice, not even close. And yet, the falsity of it was what reminded her of home. She was home, and it was safe. Her wounds had almost healed, she had rest and clean clothes. Vogelheim was far behind her, but her hands brimmed with nervous energy nonetheless. She was still coming down from the fight, somewhere inside herself.

Victoria was a student of history, so she was not expecting Ulan to be in disarray.

She was still impressed, judging by how the situation appeared in other places.

And perhaps, she was impressed, because having been in chaos, she expected no reprieve.

“No more tarrying, then. I will go see her. Then I will definitely feel better.”

Victoria made her way to the white and brown, palatial manse of the House of Veka.

Like the rest of Ulan, the Vekan ducal estate had an earthy, lived-in atmosphere. Unlike the Villa at Vogelheim there were no wooden walls. There was no wood anywhere. But the metal was painted and textured so it seemed like varnished wood. Dark umber, gold and pearl were common colors and surface patterns in the décor. Thin trailing green vines rose up in the interior in certain places, such as the side of the main staircase, the columns on the second-floor landing, and various walls. They grew small, pretty white and gold blooms. These were genetically modified “designer plants” that were fed by the misting systems that periodically cleaned the walls.

While the Estate was vast, it housed few people these days. Government functions were now hosted in a bunkered office beneath the center of town, and the Estate was exclusively housing the Duchess, Carmilla von Veka, and a small coterie. There were two maids who helped her with cleaning and clothes, an Estate purser who managed their goods and the Duchess’ personal finance, a personal doctor, and a few security guards. And then, Victoria herself also lived there now.

She was home. These were the walls she had known for many years now.

From the landing on the second floor, she followed a long hallway, flanked with portraits.

All of the grandiose men and women who had ruled Veka looked down at her.

When she first entered this estate, she was twenty, and terrified of this gothic scenery.

Now she was twenty-five, just like Elena, and the portraits struck her far differently.

She would not be crushed by their grandeur. In fact, their brand of rulership was obsolete.

At the end of the hallway, behind a set of double doors, there was an office.

Victoria hesitated for a moment.

“I’ve returned, ma’am.”

She had not hesitated out of fear. She just wanted to have the perfect greeting.

Soon as the door opened, she found herself scooped up into a woman’s chest.

Picked up, with an arm around her waist, a second behind her head, stroking her hair.

Carmilla von Veka pushed her against a wall and took her lips into a passionate kiss.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Victoria let her defenses down in the other woman’s warmth.

She was tall, strong, safe. She was Victoria’s home, and Victoria gave back the passion she was given.

Their kiss lasted precious, healing seconds where neither of them had to be on guard.

They parted and locked eyes. The taste of that kiss lingered on Victoria’s lips.

A kiss that tasted like fragrant tea. Carmilla had taken that kiss and many before.

She stood before Victoria in the throes of a passion. Her golden eyes wept with joy.

“My precious jewel, you’ve returned safe and sound! I’m so relieved to see you.”

Had anyone seen the two women in such a state of vulnerability they may have found it ridiculous.

That cold Shimii and the Empire’s own “Queen of the Eastern Wilderness.”

Thankfully they were very much alone.

Victoria was so happy; she was nearly moved to tears herself.

“I’m home.” She said, taking in the sight of her lover, her heart beating wildly.

She could do nothing but drink of the sight of that woman and think, she’s perfect.

Carmilla von Veka was a statuesque woman, as if a mythical figure that had been carved from pale gold. Victoria would have composed poetry about the sight of her body, even though creative pursuits were not her strong point. The Duchess was lithe and long-limbed with an excellent figure, visibly fit with slim muscles on her shoulders, stomach and limbs and yet a warm, ample bosom soft enough for Victoria to sink into. She was taller than Victoria by over a head.

She was ten years her senior, but Carmilla had a beauty that Victoria could only call eternal.

Among the Vekan court she was once complimented by saying she was “built like a horse.” Such a compliment would have meant death in any other part of the Empire, but in Veka it referred to her grace, beauty and strength, found only in those rare and legendary animals which they raised only for their magnificence. In Victoria’s fancy, she sometimes compared her to a fertility idol.

Her face had an arresting majesty that Victoria could never forget, no matter how separated they were. A soft-featured but striking profile with skin a gentle olive-brown, and she wore makeup just as gently, a touch of red on her lips and a touch of blue around her eyes. She had what Victoria considered to be perfect facial features. High cheekbones, but gentle cheeks that gave her jaw a good angle, neither too gaunt nor too round. An elegant nose with a gentle brow. Her hair was a magnificent dark golden-brown, voluminous and falling in silky waves. While much of it tied back into a business-like ponytail that day, there remained several long locks framing her face.

She could wear anything, from a formal suit, to a military uniform, but on that date, she wore a long-sleeved, black outfit ornamented with patterns of gold leaves. It was stark, grandiose. While the top looked much like the fancy bodice of a dress, below the waist, the outfit seamlessly became a pair of tight pants. There were gaps along the hips and back, and the completely exposed shoulders and collarbone, that revealed the white bodysuit she wore beneath that dramatic one-piece. Complex, geometric, translucent heels cheekily exposed her feet.

Victoria was moved further and further to tears the more she looked over Carmilla.

She was perfect; she was perfect! Beautiful, smart, compassionate.

She was hers. She was her Carmilla. And she was Carmilla’s precious Victoria.

Nobody ever made her feel so wanted, so supported, so safe.

For Carmilla, Victoria could sink a fleet. She could exterminate an army.

This was the profundity of the love that Victoria felt in the arms of that woman.

A depth of emotion swelled in her breast that she could feel for no other person.

“You were this worried about me?” Victoria asked.

“Of course, I was worried!” Carmilla replied. “I’m well aware of the danger you were in.”

“But despite that, you let me go?”

“Of course I let you go!”

Carmilla put Victoria down, her feet gently touching the floor again.

She let go of her, and looked at her with a serious expression, no petting or fussing.

“I respect you and I trust you! I won’t belittle your convictions. But I will worry.”

“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

Victoria looked her in the eyes again, this time looking up at Carmilla.

She averted her gaze. “I– I failed, ma’am. I don’t know the status of Elena von Fueller, but Vogelheim was destroyed. The Volkisch Movement were the perpetrators. Like in my dream.”

“I know, dear. You’ve been through so much. Sit down with me. Please.”

An invitation to sit was an invitation for Victoria to let down her guard and relax.

Sighing gently, her heart beating strongly, Victoria followed Carmilla’s lead.

Carmilla’s office was spacious and comfortable. In the back of the room she had her desk, mainly taken up by a keyboard, touchpad and a monitor installed on an adjustable arm. The actual mainframe was buried underground, and everything they used on a daily basis was a thin client that made use of its computing power. Aside from the computer, Carmilla had little on her desk. All of her reading, review and signing was done digitally.

There was a much larger monitor installed on an adjustable arm attached to a rail in the ceiling. It could function as a display for videoconferencing, or it could be tuned to the 24-hour broadcasts by the state network. Carmilla used a small remote control to set it to the state music channel, which played soft, relaxing folk tunes most of the day. It created a comfortable ambiance in the room. As the network had expanded so significantly the past few years, Carmilla could have possibly conferred with her counterparts in other nations through video calls from that monitor.

Finally, there was a large couch along the left-hand wall, dark red, firm but plush.

Carmilla sat on the couch, and patted her hand at her side, urging Victoria to join her.

Smiling, Victoria took her place beside the Duchess. It was rare that she felt so comfortable.

She relaxed against the back of the couch and let her body lean against Carmilla’s side, feeling her warmth through her tight clothes. Victoria felt the Duchess’ hand settle on her shoulder first, and then glide up the nape of her neck, behind the back of her head, up to the base of her fluffy brown cat ears.

Victoria’s tail swayed contentedly as Carmilla’s fingers traced the firm cartilage.

Her fingers were so slender, so soft, brushing over the ear flap from the base to the tip.

Victoria’s whole body stirred as the duchess stroked her so gently.

She closed her eyes. From her chest, she let out a soft purr.

“How is this?” Carmilla asked.

A trimmed fingernail scraped where her ears met her head, delivering a rough sensation.

At first teasingly, but then with a firm and continuous rhythm.

Victoria’s hands kneaded on the couch. Her hips trembled. Tiny, almost surprised gasps escaped the Shimii’s lips. Carmilla teased her ears in the exact way that drove her mad.

First a scratch, then a firm rub from the fingertip, bending the ear; draw back for another scratch; repeat. Faster, building up heat each time. Victoria pressed her body against Carmilla’s, moaning gently.

“That’s what I love to see. My precious Varisha, in the glow of happiness.”

Hearing the Duchess’ voice cooing her secret name while scratching her ears, while feeling the warmth of her body and the firmness of her grip. It sent a thrill through Victoria’s chest and down her body.

“Call me by my special name, Varisha.”

In the midst of her passion, Victoria murmured it. “Mishagh–”

She felt Carmilla’s finger moving faster. “Beautiful. Such a good girl.”

Victoria’s tail shot straight up, quivering. She started to bow her head under the intensity of that touch.

The Duchess’ finger slid down Victoria’s ears a final time before lifting off of her head.

Victoria’s eyes drew wide with surprise.  Carmilla took her by the waist, pulling her close.

“You’ll get more scritches soon. In the royal bed, next time.” She said, winking.

Carmilla’s finger traveled down Victoria’s cheek.

She lifted the Shimii’s chin and bent down to kiss her. Gentle, brief, but reassuring.

As their lips parted, Victoria’s head felt airy with contentedness.

“Soon.” Victoria cooed. She was letting herself be vulnerable. Letting herself savor it.

Soon. Right now, I want you up and by my side. A historic event is about to unfold.”

Victoria obediently sat up again.

Carmilla’s gentle smile faded into her queenly mask. She turned a serious look on Victoria.

They stared at each other for a moment, before the Duchess put on a little smile.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be an amicable chat. But this is someone who can’t see my gentle side.”

Carmilla leaned back, and stretched one arm around Victoria’s shoulder.

Her other hand reached out to her desk.

Red rings formed around her golden eyes.

A long, thin vaporizer pipe with fake wood finish rose into the air out of an open drawer.

If she focused, Victoria could see the tiny threads of power lifting the pipe like fingers.

That pipe hovered all the way to the couch, to be held tantalizingly in Carmilla’s other hand. A woman in one arm, a smoke in the other. She looked strong; business-like. It was the aura of the Empire’s “Queen of the Eastern Wilderness.” Victoria could feel the transformation occur.

“We’ll begin shortly. Please watch me, Varisha. I’m stronger with your support.”

Victoria nodded her head silently.

She sidled closed to Carmilla, keeping her hands on her own lap.

Soon after, the office’s main screen came down in front of them with a countdown.

At the appointed time, a video call bridged a divide that had been broken decades ago. Through fiber relays and laser networks stretching many kilometers, Ulan in Veka connected with Mt. Raja in Solstice. It was the first Union-Imperial video conference between national leaders.

In front of them, on the screen, two women with dark skin and hair appeared. They were both wearing military uniforms. Premier Bhavani Jayasankar was dressed in an ornate green uniform with numerous decorations. Beside her stood her own attendant, Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi, in a black and red uniform. Comparing attire, Carmilla looked downright casual. It was as if the Union was trying to project an image of pervasive militancy to them.

Carmilla leaned forward, grinning. “Greetings, Union. We can speak; so, let us talk.”

Premier Jayasankar returned a similar expression. She seemed to ignore the presence of Victoria in the room. “When we received a request to reestablish the trans-national network, I was quite ready to blow it off if it was traced to Skarsgaard or Rhinea. Those two hives of Imbrian supremacist thinking would have nothing to say that I wanted to hear. I’m only on this call because I am aware of the Empire’s attitudes toward Veka, historically. Therefore, you should talk first.”

“Are we hoping to speak as equally racialized subjects then?” Carmilla said sweetly.

“Let’s just say I have a small amount of sympathy for your position, but only that much.”

“I understand, Premier. As a sign of my hospitality, I have an offer that will cost you little.”

“We’re listening.”

Carmilla lounged back in her seat and took a breath of her vaporizer.

She blew a gentle-smelling smoke. Victoria likened it to the scent of fragrant tea.

“Recently, the Empire changed its categorization of Union citizens, from ‘runaway slaves’ to ‘bandits and rebels’. It was part of a push to abolish slavery and slave-like legal conditions, mind you, but it still constituted a positive change in the Union’s status here.” Carmilla said.

Wow. Color me grateful for such generosity.” Premier Bhavani said, laughing.

“I am ready to give the Union official recognition as a peer nation of the Empire.”

“Well then. I suppose that is no small thing for you. And in exchange, you want–?”

Carmilla smiled, and she leaned forward again as if whispering to the two communists. “I want a ceasefire, mutual intelligence cooperation, and recognition of the Empire of Greater Veka.”            

Premier Bhavani’s face stretched into a broad grin. “Consider my interest piqued.”


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Arc 1 Intermissions [I.1]

“Obsession”

For fifty seconds the image was unclear. Predominantly cut through by bands of grey static. But there was color; tantalizing color. Whether the color was a result of the video’s degradation or smeared because of it, unknown, but there were a few stray bands of color. There was audio, wind gushing, metal rattling. Something like a rope and chain clanked periodically. The algorithm tried to sort out the colors.

Once the algorithm ran, the video began to play anew.

Fifty seconds.

This was the buried treasure in the coffin. Nothing organic had withstood the brutality the coffin was subjected to, nothing but the most trace amounts of fluid that might have contained some DNA.

Nevertheless, the technology was magnificent, and some of it had survived.

Nothing but seconds. Fifty seconds from a mythical time and place.

Some grain was removed from the video.

Was that a blue sky?

Could she trust the picture of that blue sky she had never seen in the flesh?

There was no sense in being skeptical. She had nothing to lose by believing.

She ran the video against the computers, again and again.

Obsessively.

Obsession characterized the Sunlight Foundation.

Obsession characterized her.

In a past life she had spent several painful decades working to repair the first ever bit of Surface Era footage ever recovered by the Foundation. She acquired a good solid chunk of silicon storage, full of data marred by a tongue of purple agarthic energy. She had worked so obsessively to make that footage visible that she gave herself a second problem to solve, absentmindedly, while she was at it — how to keep living long enough to somehow, sometime, finish repairing that piece of video.

Both of those endeavors made everything that followed so much easier.

That fifty seconds of video, garbled beyond recognition, was run against recovered video from several other sources. Heavily trained computers began to sharpen the image, to undo the damage that had been done to it, to replace elements according to what she knew to be correct. Soon, she could see it again. That beautiful, sunny sky. There were clouds, distant, licking the earth with tongues of glowing purple lightning.

There was enough sky that she could place it.

She had divided the history of the Surface Era into a few broad periods.

Those clouds told her that this video was situated just before the end of that world.

Much of that video was a blue sky, a beautiful blue sky.

A portion of the picture was taken up by a close gray object. Like a concrete pillar.

She imagined the context. A concrete pillar, flying in the sky? Chains and ropes?

Perhaps it was the camera of an ancient station. About to be dropped into the Ocean.

Her curiosity peaked. Her mind filled with questions out of that unconfirmed assumption.

Who dropped it? Where? Why had this camera ended up in their Imbrium Ocean?

She was so excited that it flooded over into a different emotion: frustration.

How was it that they collectively forgot about something so magnificent?

She knew the answer to that last question, of course. Why did they forget? That one was the easiest mysteries to solve even if she did not account for her own biases. After their descent into the oceans, Humanity were just homesick monkeys who turned to religion and war and ruined everything beautiful. That was why these ocean-bound degenerates had forgotten the utopia that they had come from. Somehow, around the time she was born, they had already destroyed so much of their heritage. And for what?

For control of these dismal prisons within the Ocean?

They destroyed so much, lost so much, forgot so much, that she had to stand in a cold room under the Ocean scrobbling a fifty second video over and over, like a starving woman gnawing–

No. Not that metaphor. Any other metaphor but that one. She held her head in pain.

“I should do something about that memory. I don’t want to think about that again.”

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why the ocean-dwellers lost this knowledge.

All that mattered was learning everything they could and reclaiming their knowledge.

Reclaiming and using the secrets of the Surface Era to return where humanity belonged.

She looked through the video again, frame by frame.

At one point, she saw something moving, something fast and metallic.

 She paused the video. She focused the computer’s attention on that frame, that object.

Her eyes drew wide with excitement, and she put on a child-like smile.

Once the object in the image was enhanced, she understood what it was.

“A jet fighter! That is a jet fighter! So, they were flying! Flying in the sky!”

She waved her hand at one of the screens, and a dossier on the Surface Era objects known to the Foundation as “jet fighters” appeared. A sleek vehicle used to deliver explosives to a target. Flying through the air, without the density and resistance of water to slow them down, they were faster than anything that could ever live underwater. A testament to the Surface Era humans’ superiority. Divers did not even slightly compare.

“I’m coming in.”

Sovereign “Yangtze” of the Sunlight Foundation looked over her shoulder.

The door to the laboratory opened, and a woman walked calmly inside.

A woman of ageless beauty, pearl-pink skin and soft features frozen in young adulthood. Dark blue hair, very slightly curly, reached down just below a sleek jawline. Extremely tiny digits danced over her bright blue cybernetic eyes, nearly imperceptible to anyone with an inferior body and senses than those their kind possessed. Her clothes were simple, a sleeveless vest over a button-down shirt, a suit jacket and pants, over which she wore a white coat. However, in the pathetic societies of the Ocean-dwelling, the all-organic suit and shirt were worth a king’s ransom.

Only the coats were synthetic. They got dirty or broken often. It was easier that way.

Real clothes helped remind them of their stature, and of the things they coveted.

But Euphrates was different. She lacked Yangtze’s obsession. In fact, she criticized it.

An absolute fool; her brain must have been addled after being alive too long.

Euphrates turned that familiar unfriendly face at Yangtze.

“I’m back from the Northern Imbrium. It was a bigger nest than we thought.”

“Did it provide a stimulating challenge?”

“It was nothing we couldn’t handle; the problem is they’re gradually growing faster and more diverse.”

“It’s good, isn’t it? Someday they’ll repopulate this dreadful Ocean.”

“Yangtze, those things are practically anathema to natural life. I know you like them, but–”

“Do you ever think about how this world has lost such a ridiculously large amount of life?” Yangtze said. She was trying to get Euphrates to think of things in a different way. And yet, she began to lose herself in the middle of her rhetoric as well, to the point that she could only distantly hear herself speak. “Billions of humans died in the recent memory of those who mourned them. Don’t you think it’s insane how little we care now? Our biodiversity here in the Ocean utterly collapsed. Ninety percent of the species that were alive are dead. Maybe that’s why the early years of the Ocean-dwellers were so chaotic and destructive. We worked out the insanity of our grief back then.” In the end, she knew she had not said anything effectively convincing.

Maybe she needed more than a few memory edits to keep her brain going.

Euphrates narrowed her eyes, perhaps frustrated. Yangtze sighed, feeling bullied.

“You don’t have to be quite so strict; you know?” She finally said.

Euphrates shrugged.

“If we’re going to talk about lost life; Vogelheim station was destroyed.”

“So?”

Yangtze had spoken a bit thoughtlessly, but she genuinely just did not care.

Euphrates, putting her hands in her coat pockets, shot her a sharp glare.

“They’re still working out the casualty figures, but the fact remains–”

“During the strife, six or seven hundred years ago, 40% of all standing stations were destroyed.”

“Does that make it fine that habitations are being destroyed right now?”

Yangtze shrugged. “A single station was lost, but the Republic and the Empire can both build new kinds of stations. Yes, they are smaller than the stations they inherited after the strife, and not as sophisticated, but they can. Even the Union can build agri-spheres! If you’re worried about the extinction of humanity, then you should be here helping me. But I don’t begrudge you that. I just don’t really care about stations.”

Euphrates lifted an eyebrow.

“You care about life, but not stations. Is your brain doing okay? Did you do your cognitive exercises lately?”

Yangtze put on a weary expression.

“I maybe dissociated a little today. I will have my memory checked soon.”

Euphrates nodded with understanding, maybe even compassion.

“Why did you have me leak information to intervene in Vogelheim?”

Euphrates liked to use the phrase ‘intervene’ casually. The Sunlight Foundation was not supposed to ‘intervene’ in foreign affairs. They were supposed to do their best not to ‘intervene’ with the ocean-dwellers. Yangtze had far different criteria for what ‘intervening’ meant. After all, they were citizens of this Ocean too. It was inevitable they would have to take action sometimes.

“It wasn’t for the station. It was returning a favor to someone.” Yangtze said.

“How did you come to owe some G.I.A. agent a favor?” Euphrates said.

“It wasn’t for the G.I.A. agent. It wasn’t even for the Princess or anybody there.”

“I don’t follow.”

“It was for someone who died.”

Euphrates smiled a little. “I didn’t take you for someone with respect for the dead.”

“It’s not really respect, and it was not I who really felt it. I saw a chance, due to the situation, to assuage some irrational feelings. Let’s call it pity. Pity that an earlier version of me possessed. Or perhaps, if it strikes you as more authentic, we can say I did it purely out of personal whimsy.”

“I suppose I would call this version of you whimsical.” Euphrates said.

Behind Yangtze, there was a ding, as the computers recovered something new in the video.

She turned around to monitor, and saw a series of numbers.

Her eyes and smile spread wider and wider.

“Yes! These could be coordinates! Or some other kind of metadata! Oh I must decipher this!”            

Euphrates watched with a perplexed expression, as Yangtze returned to her obsession.

“She wasn’t always like this, was she?” Euphrates murmured.


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