Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.1]

After a short journey from western Sverland, the Irmingard class dreadnought Iron Lady made it to Serrano Station in the south and was cleared for a double berth in the lower docks. The absolutely massive craft required delicate and patient handling to enter its berth gently, without smashing into the confines of it from any retained momentum or striking any of the vast quantity of ships sailing around them. For what seemed like fifteen minutes the vessel inched its way parallel to the berth walls. With its skilled crew and experienced Captain, there was no danger.

Once it was secured and drained, the crew received a transmission from Station Security.

Such was the urgency of Serrano’s authorities that they requested to speak to Gertrude Lichtenberg as soon as possible on the matter for which they had called her and requested to bring their prisoner to her; and such was their indelicacy that they left her waiting for hours even after requesting she descend alone. And so a sullen young woman in uniform stood aimlessly in the docks, crossing her arms, tapping her feet, glaring furiously at the guardhouse in the distance. Sometimes she walked to and fro. Halfway through her vigil, food and water was sent down to her.

Nevertheless, she spent an insulting number of hours simply waiting, by herself.

Official business was usually beset with setbacks. Gertrude was not unused to waiting for a contact.

But she hated that she was given time to think of where she was and what she was doing.

Serrano was preceded by what felt like an interminable chaos after the fall of Vogelheim.

There was so much discord raging across the Empire that Gertrude’s Inquisition reeled in its attempts to get a hold of any of it. Several states made explicit declarations of both disregard for the central authority of the Empire, and willingness to take violent action against one another. The Inquisition was ultimately not a military authority, it did not have the power to go to war. It had impressive weapons, which were used to pursue and prosecute criminals in the Empire ranging from anarchists springing up on college campuses, scheming nobles with private security forces, and katarran bandits who snuck into the Empire armed to the teeth and pushing guns and drugs.

As a Grand Inquisitor, Gertrude made a careful statement that her loyalty to Imperial rule of law had not changed. She had hoped to remain neutral, and to do her best to continue to protect the common people from opportunists during the unfolding conflict, but the rival political factions immediately came to treat the Inquisition as part of Erich von Fueller’s camp. She was explicitly not allowed to operate in their territories by the new governments of Rhinea, Bosporus, and Skarsgaard, so after leaving the Imbrium to help quell banditry in the weakened southern Sverland, she found herself “stuck” in the Nectaris Ocean. Unless she took her chances through Rhinea, or snuck through the Khaybar Pass, she could no longer return home to the Palatinate to link up with the Prince and his forces.

Even in Sverland, she was friendless, as in the Emperor’s absence the national parliament, the Council of Lords, had joined the Royal Alliance. What could she do when the basis of the law she followed was also just heedlessly throwing itself into partisan war? Not that it mattered. Gertrude was merely filling her time to avoid thinking and feeling. When she told Prince Erich of what happened to Elena, he had no sympathy to show. She hated his cold, pragmatic reaction, and could not support him, not wholeheartedly. The Volkisch were animals and freaks, braying for violence. She wanted them all dead. And the rest? The so-called Royal Alliance, the “Vekan Empire,” the anarchists, all a farce.

Gertrude was moving, in mind and body, purely because stopping brought back the pain.

In reality, she felt lost. Her body was driven only by the tiniest, most demented of hopes.

Everything she held dear, everything she wanted to nurture and protect, was destroyed. Hunting bandits at least prevented innocent people from becoming prey. It was just something to do while she struggled with what she really wanted to do: whether a hopeless search or a bloody, screaming vengeance. Could Elena really be out there? And if not, could Gertrude avenge her?

Now, however, she was drawn back into the fulcrum of the Empire’s new age of strife. She had been called to Serrano to deal with a “sensitive prisoner” at the Station. As the only vestige of the central Imperial government left in the area, Gertrude accepted. It was her duty. And so her ordeal in Serrano stretched on, her lonely, aggravating ordeal. Waiting, alone and unstimulated.

She contemplated returning to the ship. Her mind was starting to wander her many wounds.

Then a lorry painted white and blue arrived just around the corner and deposited several official-looking men and a few uniformed guards. At the head of the group was the Serrano Defense Commissioner, Arberth Hoffman, who had contacted her when the Iron Lady berthed. As his entourage approached her Gertrude wanted to give them an earful. However, she was given pause by the figure in their escort, and the state in which they dragged her along.

She was a tall woman, taller than her captors, long-limbed and lithe. Her shining blond hair trailed behind her, tied into a voluminous ponytail. She rarely lifted her sorrowful, tear-stained blue eyes from the ground. Her perfectly proportioned figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a sleek, fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold.

Her facial features were partially hidden behind a Loup muzzle, but she was not a Loup. Her hands and feet were also shackled, and the chains met with each other, and then attached to a shackle around her neck.

Gertrude recognized this woman immediately. Anyone in the military would have.

“Baron Sieglinde von Castille.” Gertrude muttered to herself.

Her shock would have been forgiven but nonetheless, she hid her feelings behind a mask.

An Inquisitor’s unreadable, taciturn expression to meet Sieglinde’s sad, frustrated eyes.

What did you do? Gertrude wondered silently. How had this war hero ended up here?

And more importantly: what did they want Gertrude to do to her?

Rather than waiting even more for these people to walk to her, Gertrude met them halfway.

She reached out a hand to the Commissioner and they shook. Everything was cordial despite Gertrude’s personal displeasure toward the group. The Commissioner was sweating and had a friendless look to his face that made him look much smaller and more pathetic than his pristine uniform would normally suggest.

“Inquisitor, apologies for the delay in meeting you.”

“I’m sure you’re quite busy, Commissioner. I’m curious why you have a member of the nobility under your custody, and in such a humiliating position. Frankly, it makes me quite upset.”

She pointed past the Commissioner at his entourage of guards and their captive.

“Milady, it was all we could do to pacify her, I’m afraid. You don’t know her strength, nor her resolve to escape from us. I’m afraid we have all had good reason to fear her these past days.”

Gertrude’s expression darkened. Her annoyance with this man was boiling over to hatred.

“I know her strength perfectly well, Commissioner. She’s a decorated and exemplary war hero and more importantly bears a peer title. It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to have her in such restraints. Maybe you’ve forgotten such things with the times. Before any further discussion, I demand that you release her from those horrible bonds and treat her with dignity.” She raised her voice such that Sieglinde might hear her. In the background, the men guarding her became startled, and Sieglinde’s eyes looked up from the ground for the first time since she had appeared.

For a moment, the Commissioner seemed to silently weigh his options, but the growing petulance in his expression belied his helplessness in this matter. Gertrude had all the power in this situation. Never mind that she had the power and access to military assets needed to potentially seize him by force for any grave offense he caused her; she could also just leave. He called her because he needed her, and therefore he needed to follow her terms so she would help him.

He turned to his subordinates and nodded his head in Sieglinde’s direction.

Two men behind her back with electric prods stepped back, while two other men undid the shackles on her hands and feet. They disconnected the chains which connected these shackles to her neck shackle, and undid her mask, but she would not allow them to remove the shackle around her neck completely. Or at least, she gave them a very stern look when they returned to her orbit to try to touch the nape of her neck. So this particular shackle simply remained as part of her look.

When the mask came off, it unveiled a youthful, strikingly beautiful face even for the brooding, petulant expression upon it. For someone who fought in the Colonial War, Sieglinde looked remarkably like she could be Gertrude’s age, and with only the barest hint of makeup. Her soft nose and sleek cheekbones gave her a royal appearance, and along with her blue eyes and golden hair, she was the ideal of Imbrian aesthetics. Moreso than the dark-haired, swarthy-skinned Gertrude — not that she was envious. Nobles worth their salt were simply unmatched in beauty.

Nowadays most nobles were not worth their salt.

“You are Baron Sieglinde von Castille, correct?”

Gertrude shouted past the Commissioner so the captive would hear.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Sieglinde responded simply, in a deep and rich voice. She was rubbing her wrists each in turn where she shackles had been and stretching her arms. All of the guards gave her a wide berth as if they feared being slapped away by accident for being near her as she moved. It was quite a ridiculous scene. One woman surrounded by armed men who were all terrified of her every move.

“Then I humbly request you join us, Baron.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner sighed heavily as Sieglinde stepped forward and stood at his side.

She glared at him sidelong before turning her full attention to Gertrude.

“Commissioner, did you catch the Baron in an act of wrongdoing? Are there witnesses?”

It was then the Commissioner’s turn to glare sidelong and up at the taller Sieglinde.

“I did not, and we have no direct witnesses. Allow me to explain the matter–”

“You’ll be allowed. But first, I have to say, even common criminals deserve a chance to prove their innocence if they have been accused without witnesses. Why was she restrained?”

“I confessed.”

Sieglinde spoke up. Gertrude turned to face her with sudden interest.

The Commissioner cleared his throat.

“To elaborate, she confessed to the murder of the entire bridge crew of the cruiser Oathkeeper.” The Commissioner waited for Gertrude to have any response to this, but she was using all her power of concentration to avoid having a reaction to such a ludicrous scenario, and so said nothing while studying Sieglinde’s unshaken expression. While the Inquisitor silently questioned the brooding Baron, the Commissioner continued. “It is my understanding that Oathkeeper was ordered by the Grand Western Fleet to serve as part of the Rhinean Defense Forces in case the Republic’s forces penetrated the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach. According to the Baron, the bridge crew hatched a plot to defect to the Volkisch Movement forces in Rhinea. She ambushed and killed them in a melee and commanded sailors to sail the ship to Sverland where she hoped to turn herself in to the Royal Alliance. Clearly, she’s no helmsman — she was wildly off course, never made it to the Yucatan gulf, and we caught her here instead.”

Sieglinde closed her eyes and set her jaw, clearly bothered to be spoken about like this.

“Where is the Oathkeeper now?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s berthed in Ajillo substation with the rest of the Southern Fleet’s inoperable craft.”

“Inoperable?”

“When she surrendered, we struck its jets and towed it. We couldn’t take any risks.”

“But you confirmed the deaths of the crew?”

The Commissioner nodded his head. “We found the bodies in the ship morgue and no attempt was made to clean the Bridge. All of their wounds were consistent with a chaotic brawl. You can review the evidence yourself, but everything ultimately matches the Baron’s own testimony. She did not hide anything from us, Inquisitor; however, she believes her monstrous act is justified. Several times after we took her into custody, she attempted to escape judgment, once she realized we would not simply agree with her that an entire Bridge crew had to be slaughtered.”

Sieglinde scoffed loudly.

“I misjudged you as men of honor, when you are clearly the same type of rats as the Volkisch.”

“Baron, you will keep silent for now. You’re in enough trouble.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner took a step to the side, creating more room between himself and the Baron. He then addressed Gertrude once more. “Inquisitor, we would like to transfer this prisoner to your judgment. She surrendered herself to us, but as you are well aware, we can’t render the appropriate punishments because of her circumstances. Furthermore having custody of her puts us in a difficult position with regards to the current events. I hope you understand the situation.”

Gertrude was keenly aware of the Commissioner’s problem.

When the duchies rebelled and declared their intention to separate from the central Imperial government, it had a profound effect on the aristocracy. Every duchy had long lineages of noble families, and differing attitudes toward them. In Rhinea, a highly capitalistic and industrial state, the aristocrats were just old money. They were not seen as special or remarkable individuals. The disparate Volkisch movement had several anti-noble factions. Similarly, the anarchists in the duchy of Bosporus and the communists in Buren were united in their hatred for the nobles.

Veka’s nobles were largely bankrupt save for the ruling ducal family, and easily cowed into submission.

Skarsgaard’s nobles had small institutional power compared to the might of the church, despite their coffers.

Erich von Fueller expressed no interest in retaining a relationship with the aristocrats writ large. He had not declared himself Emperor and had not called for the aristocracy to join with him against the usurpers. He had already carefully cultivated his personal allies and was extending no other hands. Some aristocrats even accused him of fomenting the attack on Vogelheim to kill their heirs.

The Imbrium Empire had codified rights and privileges for the aristocrats, but many had wasted their wealth, fallen into debt, and failed to adapt to the economy of the modern Imbrium. In many states, there had been a mass transfer of wealth from the aristocracy to an industrial class of rich “new money” capitalists. Access to capital, workers, industries, and innovations trumped the privilege of one’s title or the worth of one’s ancient holdings, particularly when the real value within those duchies had become the protected, private property of the capitalists and not the nobles.

All of this led to the creation of an additional faction in the civil war: The Royal Alliance, formed by the coming together of like-minded aristocrats from across the Empire who wanted to preserve and even expand the privilege and power of the aristocracy. Or who simply needed a place to hide from the persecution in their home duchies. Taking all the assets they could run away with and leaning on their old money siblings and cousins who had achieved high positions in the old Imperial Navies; they gathered and began to build a resistance in the Yucatan Gulf to the northwest.

Sverland, which was still essentially an underdeveloped colony and had little autonomy from the central Imperial government, became the chosen ground for their own movement, as it had no ability to defend itself from them.

Knowing these developments it was easy to see how Sieglinde was a problem for Serrano.

As a noble and a war hero, Sieglinde would be highly valuable to the Royal Alliance. As a killer of men who swore themselves to Rhinea, the Volkisch would want her dead. Both these factions were descending on Sverland. Serrano had no means to oppose either of these factions and could not simply assume they would have reasonable reactions to Sieglinde’s presence there. More than likely, it would give each side an excuse to act more punitively.

By transferring Sieglinde, they would have a simpler position toward whoever appeared.

“What is the status of the Southern Border Fleet?” Gertrude asked.

“Essentially disbanded.” Said the Commissioner. “Lord Admiral Gottwald started the year with maybe a hundred functional ships. A quarter of the fleet was already just stuck in Ajillo and Pepadew awaiting a fleet overhaul that never came to pass due to the Emperor’s passing. After the death of Lord Groessen, and Lord Gottwald’s failed punitive expedition, only a handful of ships returned. Some incorporated into our patrol fleet; but we also lack supplies to maintain readiness.”

“So if the Volkisch Movement invaded southern Sverland, what would be your plan?”

“Surrender, obviously. But you see, the Baron’s presence could complicate that process.”

“Understood. I will take the Baron into custody. Do not expect any further assistance from me. If you’re not looking to fight, then I will be organizing some of those men for my own purposes. Erich von Fueller pays a damn sight better than you lot do, at this point, so it shouldn’t be hard. I expect to receive the patrol roster before I depart.”

“Very well. You have our support to do as you please with, Lady Lichtenberg. Good luck.”

The Commissioner had a truly bitter look. At his side, Sieglinde almost looked a bit smug.

He and his entourage departed with their heads hanging low. Their future was bleak.

Gertrude did not envy them. She escorted Sieglinde back to the Iron lady and stopped her just before the cargo elevator. Gertrude was quite tall for an Imbrian, man or woman, but Sieglinde was almost 190 centimeters. To lock eyes with her meant looking up at her, and this was foreign to Gertrude. She suppressed a hint of bitterness toward the tall, perfect noble who was constantly giving her such a childish, petulant expression, as if caught drinking underage and scolded. She looked like– like a princess pouting when things did not go her way. An ignorant demeanor.

“You are incredibly lucky to have the protection of your family title.” Gertrude said.

Her hand reached out, and she jabbed Sieglinde in the chest sharply. Sharper than intended.

Gertrude’s aggression toward the noblewoman was starting to boil over too rapidly.

To think, while certain others were dead through no fault of their own, this fool was–

“I won’t accept pity for my family circumstances. Try me as you would any other.”

Sieglinde spoke up, cutting off Gertrude’s train of thought. She found her words offensive.

“You led a massacre on your own ship! I’m not unsympathetic to your reasons, but if you were any normal person Serrano’s guards would have simply killed you where they found you! But you’re the last scion of a noble title. Whether you like it or not, your adopted name is why we are talking. You need to have some perspective here, Baron. Your conduct has been erratic and naïve, and that childish face you’re making belies your foolishness.”

“Inquisitor, I do not care what you make of my character. So what will you do to me?”

“I guarantee the fullest extent of the law will be carried out upon you.”

“Then mete out justice however the law says you should. When I drew a weapon on those scoundrels, I was prepared to face any torment that befell me for it. That is the righteous thing–”

Gertrude slapped Sieglinde across the face. Her anger had swelled for a tragic instant.

“These are not righteous times, you imbecile! Are you just throwing away your life?”

Tears.

Tears welled up in Sieglinde’s eyes. Her cheek red where she had been struck.

She raised a hand to hold down the reddening flesh that was once so pearlescent.

Gertrude realized how far she had gone and felt horrified with herself.

Not as a matter of privileges; Sieglinde’s privilege did not matter to her.

But as a matter of humanity. Since when had she become someone who abuses her charges?

Sieglinde looked to all the world like that hand had cut across her very soul.

Weeping openly, teeth grit with frustration. A woman nearly ten years Gertrude’s senior.

“What is it about my face that invites so much abuse?” She whimpered, sobbing openly.

“Baron, I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. “I was frustrated, and I got out of hand with you.”

She raised her hand gently but lowered it immediately when she saw the Baron flinch.

“I will accept my punishment, Inquisitor. But if you think you will earn my respect and cooperation by beating me, no one has, and many have tried.” She grit her teeth. “If you presume to lecture me, then put away your hands! Otherwise, you will have to shackle and muzzle me again, like an animal, because you will turn me into an animal. Send down your damned elevator when you’re ready, but do not speak to me until your pointless anger abates!”

Sieglinde stormed off toward the Iron Lady’s cargo elevator without awaiting a response.

Gertrude watched her go, silent, ashamed of herself.

Her eyes went down to her feet and her fists were at her sides. Everything was in pieces. She felt suddenly that she was deluding herself. What authority did she even have? There was no law that could try Sieglinde. And maybe Sieglinde’s was the right attitude. In this horrifying maelstrom, Sieglinde did what she could to fight back. Even if it cost her life; her life was cheap. All their lives were cheap. What was Gertrude judging her for? That she lived when Elena didn’t?

Gertrude was the one who had failed.

Standing alone in the lowest docks of a backwater southern port, unable to affect anything in her life. She was unable to save the person she loved when it mattered. She had no power to save the citizens of the Empire from the civil war that was brewing around them. She could barely keep them from the depredations of bandits and opportunists. An Inquisitor who served a Justice that had fully collapsed, who struggled for a life she had lost in the span of a night. Leader of a crew that was adrift, far from home, without a master to serve or any ability to return.

Maybe Sieglinde still stood for something. And maybe in this era that had become naïve.

At that moment Gertrude wanted to raise her head to the steel sky and scream.

Then her eyes met with the eyes of a stranger, stealing away on a cargo elevator.

Ascending into the belly of a nondescript old cargo vessel, like a pearl lost in the sand.

For a moment, the world stopped moving. For an instant, Gertrude was transfixed, frozen.

Her time had stopped. It stopped the moment she randomly, fatefully, met those eyes.

She felt as if she had glanced into a broken seam that once stood between her lived reality and an impossible otherworld. Her eyes pored over the figure in that cargo elevator that was slowly, slowly disappearing, and with a ravenous hunger snatched every single detail about her that they could. Was it really her? Could it possibly be her despite everything that had happened?

They saw each other. Gertrude knew that her longing gaze had been reciprocated.

Those bright indigo eyes, full of intellect, magnificence, regality. Her skin, pearlescent and untouched, her features nymph-like, delicate, with soft lips and cheeks. That perfectly silken hair that fell down her back like a cascade, luxurious even when painted black. That lithe, ethereal figure, fairy thin even with her small shoulders draped beneath a sleek business-like suit.

It couldn’t be.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wider. Her breath caught. Her heart stopped. Obsessively, feeling insane, her eyes followed that woman until she disappeared. It couldn’t be. Elena was gone. Gertrude had lost her. Gertrude had failed her. Gertrude, the tragic fool, the puppet of fate, who had dared to surpass her station and taste the forbidden fruit. Who had dared to love an Imperial princess condemned to a beautiful bird cage in Vogelheim. In those eyes, in the soft skin of her hands, in the delicate flesh between her legs, Gertrude found heaven. But God had cast her down from that heaven. It just could not be Elena; it was insane to think so, because Elena had to be gone.

She had to be gone for Gertrude to suffer, for Gertrude to be punished forevermore.

This was some random woman she was obsessing over– but those eyes! Those indigo eyes!

Gertrude, whose fate had been defined by those gorgeous indigo eyes, could not turn away.

She recalled the maids, those survivors of Vogelheim who said a strange woman took her.

Did she dare dream? What would Dreschner or Ingrid say to these wild fantasies? How could she possibly prove that woman was Elena? How could she even prove Elena was still alive to begin with? How did she survive the tragedy that Gertrude had brought upon her? There was so much against her, so much of her logic was strained, but Gertrude wanted– needed to believe. She needed an inkling of hope so she could take a step forward in any direction.

Dumbfounded, she watched for what seemed like an eternity, until the ship began to move.

Her entire body shook with fear and frustration and elation and madness, sheer madness.

“Dreschner,” Gertrude tapped her ear, breath ragged. “Call the tower– the cargo ship– the one there–”

She couldn’t speak as she watched that ship of fate disembarking from the port.

Elena was alive. Someone had taken her to this ship. Elena was on board.

That ship was leaving the port with Elena in it!

How could they have taken her? Was Vogelheim entirely a plot to steal Elena?

Were they working with the Volkisch? Where were they taking her?

“I’m sorry, Lady Lichtenberg, you may be breaking up?” Dreschner replied.

Gertrude watched with wide open eyes, moving as if in slow motion, suspended as if in the water outside of the station, cold and crushed with the pressure of what was happening. That cargo ship transferred through its berth and started on its way. Where could it possibly be going? Whoever took Elena from Vogelheim, they already had a chance to deliver her to the Volkisch or to the Royal Alliance if they were in Sverland. But they bypassed Rhinea and the Yucatan Gulf and traveled this far south. If they were in Serrano, what places could they possibly take her to–

“Veka.”

Those words rose to her lips like hot bile. Could it be the Vekans?

Was it– was it anything to do with Victoria? Victoria who had become van Veka?

Gertrude had confirmed that Sawyer was present at Vogelheim. So then, could it be–

Her head was racing, but a terrible clarity emerged to tie together disparate pieces.

As if all of the naivety of their childhood had resulted in this evil time they were living in.

“Dreschner, I want Schicksal to gather as much information as she can on that ship, that cargo ship that just left from the berth next to us! I believe they have a VIP hostage! We must prepare to depart right away and go after it! We’ll need boarding parties, Divers, cutters– we have to catch up and detain them! Understood?”

Anxiety brimmed under her skin like electric bolts as she awaited Dreschner’s response.

“Of course Inquisitor, it shall be arranged right away.”

He did not question her. Of course, Dreschner would never question her.

She was Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg and nobody on the Iron Lady would question her.

Even as she descended with all of her fury on some cargo ship, purely out of wild emotion.

“I’m insane. I’m going insane.” She mumbled to herself as soon as she was off the line.

With a trembling jaw and tearful eyes she looked over to the cargo elevator.

Sieglinde had her back to her, head bowed, awaiting her fate.

Gertrude drew in a breath, purged her face of emotion, set her jaw, straightened her back.

Maybe she was going insane. But she was driven by an inkling of the radiance she had pursued all her life and thought lost forever. For the warmth of that light, she would do anything.

More than justice, it was that light which held the meaning of her life.


Previous ~ Next

Overheard In The Waves #1

On a particular evening that could have been like any other, the perennial pair of late shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa found themselves once more drawn by duty to the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand. Both of them were ordered to stand ready for another night that would be assuredly full of petty bickering and sniping. Though they tried their best not to do so, procrastinating some amount of time in their rooms to give the other a head start, the two quickly ran into one another in the hall and found themselves at the exact same pace to their destination.

Fernanda gave her blond-and-purple hair a haughty toss and turned her cheek.

“One would think you were shadowing my steps, gamer, with how regrettably often I meet thee!”

Alex rolled her eyes, but made no effort to keep her lanky frame at length from the smaller officer.

“Well, since you’re here, listen: you can’t just drop a thee at random when you already used you.”

Fernanda bared gritted fangs and closed her fists. “Oh, just be quiet, Geninov!”

Alex raised her hand to her own cheek and put on a silly expression.

Had her silky brown hair not been tied up in its usual bun, she would have tried to do a mocking toss of it.

Silence, ye pitiable gaming worm— or something like that, would be more appropriate.”

“You–!”

Met with narrowed, unfriendly eyes, Alex felt rather satisfied with herself until, distracted as she was, she stumbled right over a folding chair which had been left in the middle of the hall. Even in the evening, with the hall to the bridge becoming quite uninhabited, one would not have expected a folding chair to be in the way, and so Alex hit her leg with it, lost her balance over it, tipped right across the seat and slid off, coming to rest on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Staring up at the ceiling, with the world spinning around her, she almost thought, maybe Fernanda did have dark powers locked in her eyes, or the ability to perform vile hexes, or all the other strange things she talked about.

“Be careful with the chairs please.”

At that point, Alex thought she heard the droning voice of Braya Zachikova.

But it couldn’t have been. Why would she be out in the middle of the hall for no reason?

In a strange display of camaraderie, Fernanda stood over Alex and actually helped her to get back up.

It was at that point that Alex noticed that along with the folding chair, there was a table in the hall.

A black folding table, behind which was a second folding chair.

And sitting on this particular folding chair was, indeed, Braya Zachikova.

That spiral-shaped ponytail was unmistakable, as well as those two thick antennae she had for ears.

“Please return the guest chair to its neutral position.” She said, giving Alex an unkind look.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Alex started shouting.

Fernanda let go of her in response to her thrashing, and Alex nearly fell over again after being released.

“Zachikova, the fate of certain gamers aside, this behavior stands much unreasonable from you.”

The haughty gunnery officer put her hands to her hips and gave Zachikova a stern look that did nothing to faze her.

“‘What I am doing’ is I’m setting up a fortune-telling station.” Zachikova said.

Her unaffected tone of voice made it sound like the most natural thing to be doing at this hour.

“You’re setting up a fucking, what?” Alex asked. “And fucking, why?”

“An absolute refuse heap of vocabulary, Geninov.” Fernanda shook her head.

Zachikova gave the two a smug little grin. “There is a simple reason. I am bored. Entertain me.”

“I’m gonna flip this table right into your face!” Alex shouted.

“Will you flip it over with your entire body, like the chair?” Zachikova teased.

Fernanda grabbed hold of Alex before she could do something she may have regretted.

While the two of them vainly struggled in this way, Zachikova withdrew a minicomputer.

She set it down on the table, turned it toward the pair and pressed the power button.

Focusing on the screen for a moment, Alex and Fernanda stopped horsing around.

Green text on a black background scrolled by, to be replaced by a logo formed by text characters.

It resembled a crystal ball, lightly shaded, with the words “AugRy v.1.4” below it.

“While the graphics may look unimpressive, this is a fortune telling program honed by advanced machine learning of the sort used for our algorithmic predictors. All it needs from you is for you to touch the screen and speak any word. Using the underlying mathematics behind acoustics, it will divine your future, just as it can divine geometry and the classifications and bearings of enemy ships. And just for tonight, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is yours.”

Zachikova waved her hand over the device like a magician proudly revealing a trick item.

“What kind of sense does that make?” Alex said. “Just touch it, and say anything? Acoustics?”

Zachikova nodded her head silently and without expression. At Alex’s side, her blond companion scoffed.

“Fortune telling finds its provenance in the grandeur of the romantic epics.” Fernanda said. Her thin lips took on a serious expression. “It is unconscionable that a mere machine could divine the twisting fates of mortal souls!”

“What she said.” Alex replied, pointed with her thumb at Fernanda.

“Everything about ‘fate’ can be determined by mathematics.” Zachikova said. For a moment a tiny hint of passion crept into her voice. “From the moment you were born everything about you is a formula that a computer could have already figured out with the right data. Except when this idiot touched a Dendy and allowed it to ruin her entire life.”

“Well I bet your stupid computer wouldn’t have known I actually started on an Imperial Poly-Play–”

“I don’t care about your tedious opinions whatsoever. Just do the thing or go away.” Zachikova said bluntly.

Zachikova stamped her index finger on the table repeatedly like a demanding kiosk owner.

Fernanda and Alex glanced briefly at each other, sighed, and shrugged their shoulders.

“You know what, fine, I’m curious now what the hell this thing will even say.”

Alex put her finger down on the touchscreen and spoke into the hidden microphone at the bottom of the compact, square minicomputer. “Leviathan Fury.” She said. It was the first thing that came to mind — a title she loved to play and for which she held official high score records. Soon as the words left her mouth, the screen on the minicomputer turned into a scrolling wall of green text. Alex watched as the computer slowly generated a coherent message.

You will find lasting love in an unlikely place. Look near before you look far, and keep an open mind.

“That’s it? You just have an RNG in there don’t you? Sophisticated machine learning my ass.”

Alex crossed her arms and casually looked over to Fernanda, who was giving the screen a deathly glare.

“I– I believe I shall concede my own turn! For what adventure is one’s fate, if not unknown?”

There was a tiny tremor in her voice and a blush on her cheeks that Alex simply couldn’t place.

Regardless, all of the mystery had gone out of Zachikova’s little theater, and they were late for work.

“Well, the witch and I are needed on the bridge for late shift, so, uh, bye I guess–“

“I would rather you stay for a moment, actually.”

A gentle voice came from down the hall that send a chill down Alex’s spine.

Fernanda and Alex turned their heads and found a very large figure casually approaching the trio.

Waving one hand, long overcoat draped over her powerful shoulders, a smile on her soft and girlish face; it was none other than Security Chief Evgenya Akulantova, the enormous grey phantom stalking the halls of the Brigand ready to chomp on unsuspecting night shifters found goofing off. Despite her size and power, she could be whisper quiet when she wanted to, and never missed her mark. Alex and Fernanda had a powerful reaction even to the cheerful and maidenly demeanor of the Security Chief, who came to a stop between the two and looked down at the table.

“This is such a novel way of causing trouble that I’m more excited than pissed off.” Akulantova said.

She crossed her burly arms over her broad chest and stared directly at Zachikova.

Zachikova’s dull, unemotional expression did not change with Akulantova’s appearance.

“So, since you’re seated at the table that’s presently being a safety hazard right smack in the hall like this, Zachikova, can you explain to me what you’re even up to? Are you all gambling? I frankly can’t read this situation at all.”

“I’m administering a sophisticated fortune-telling program created by advanced machine learning.” Zachikova said.

Akulantova smiled and let out a toothy, jovial laugh.

“Fortune telling? Why are you doing this out in the hall at the start of the late shift?”

“I am bored and wanted attention.” Zachikova said simply.

“Kinda childish, don’t you think? You have important work to do, you know?” Akulantova said.

“I have already completed all my important work. My superior IQ and untroubled neurology renders me much more efficient at my tasks than the rest of you. This is both good and bad. It allows our ship to operate in the information space at much higher capacities than crews of which I am not a part of. It also means I am frequently very bored.”

After explaining herself, Zachikova’s lips curled into a tiny self-satisfied grin.

Akulantova smiled vacantly at Zachikova for a moment.

She set her jaw, and clicked her tongue.

“You two can go.” She said, briefly clasping her hands on Alex and Fernanda’s shoulders.

For her part, Alex felt like she was close to passing out from the brief but intense pressure.

“Zachikova, since you’re so bored, I’m going to give your mighty self something to focus on.”

Akulantova gently took Zachikova’s computer with one hand, and seized the folding table with the other hand,.

With a metallic creak, the table began to warp and buckle in Akulantova’s clearly wrathful grip.

“To make amends for your flagrant safety violations, you’re going to keep an eye on the bearing monitor in the hall here for two hours, and while you do that, just so you don’t fall asleep on me, and to get your blood pumping, you’ll do squats. Hundreds of squats. If you don’t know the form, I can show you like I’m showing this table I got in my hands how to squat.” Akulantova’s grip tightened on the table to the point her fingers went through the plastic surface.

Zachikova, still seated in her chair, did not hesitate to stand up and walk across the hall to the bearing monitor.

Standing in front of it, she lowered herself into a perfect squat and made sure she was being watched complying.

Watching her squat away, Akulantova sighed deeply and shook her head, murmuring “Officers,” to herself.

She then looked down at the minicomputer in her hand with a weary curiosity.

“Hey Chief, if you want your fortune told, just touch the thing and say a word.” Alex said.

She was trying to be amicable, but Akulantova merely glared at her sidelong.

Alex and Fernanda took the hint, saluted, and quickly went about their way.

Once they were out of earshot and Zachikova was well engaged in her punishment, Akulantova laid her thumb on the touchscreen and raised the underside of the minicomputer near her lips. She whispered a name, “Syrah,” into the machine and watched the text churn for a few moments. Looking about in a conspiratorial fashion, hoping no one else would appear in the halls, she then looked back down at the screen in time to catch her fortune spelling itself out.

Do not expect a second chance. Forgive yourself even if she doesn’t forgive you, and seek a new flame.

Akulantova stared at it for a while and sighed to herself, running her free hand over her face.

“Ugh, god damn it. Doesn’t take sophisticated machine learning to know that.” She mumbled bitterly.

Thieves At The Port [5.9]

This scene contains graphic sexual content.

When the Captain and Commissar arrived at Doctor Winfreda Kappel’s office, they found her reclining in her chair, her face sullen, swirling a tiny bit of yellow-brown fluid in a small glass. There was an uncorked bottle on the counter nearby, along with a minicomputer with an open patient file. Ulyana glanced at the screen and saw a freshly-taken photo of a certain Marina McKennedy on the screen.

“No one on the crew is supposed to drink unless we approve it.” Ulyana said.

Her tone was more playful than it was stern.

Dr. Kappel smiled at them, arranging her colorful hair out of her eyes and behind one ear.

“Good Evening, Captain, Commissar. If I recall correctly, and I do, the regulation lists the specific alcoholic beverages that can only be drunk with a formal release by the Captain. However, the ship doctor’s standard-issue lemon brandy is actually exempt. It’s why I took this job at all.”

“Huh. First time I’ve heard of this. Is that true?” Ulyana asked Aaliyah.

“It doesn’t sound true.” Aaliyah replied. “It sounds like shameless excuses.”

“Wait, so you don’t know for sure?” Ulyana said.

“You’ll forgive me for indulging after the depressing visitor you sent my way.”

The doctor winked at them and took a small sip of her brandy.

“I’m glad you did see her, and not just the depths of your brandy bottle.” Ulyana sighed.

“I’ve got good news for you, Captain: she’s biologically alive.” Dr. Kappel laughed.

“We’d like to know the bad news then.” Aaliyah said. For a moment, the room quieted.

Then it was Dr. Kappel’s turn to sigh. She ran her hand over her forehead briefly.

“Let me think of where to begin. It was a lot of work I’ll have you know.”

Ulyana was afraid it would be something like this. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t see patients like this in the Union very frequently.” Dr. Kappel replied.

“Start with the basics then and work your way to what’s actually bothering you.”

Dr. Kappel reached out to the countertop and picked up her minicomputer to glance at it.

“Marina McKennedy has a strong baseline level of health if you judge purely on her general physicality. She has the level of fitness I would expect from a combat soldier. No chronic illnesses. Lots of lean muscle, flexible and dexterous, not too dense, or heavy; full range of movement in her limbs, solid reflexes, good hand-eye coordination, perfect hearing; good eyesight, from her good eye. I’ll get to that shortly. Her weight can’t really be faulted, but she clearly has been eating poorly. Despite this, she maintains an acceptable level of fitness by Union standards.”

She spoke almost robotically and looked up at the Captain and Commissar for remarks.

Neither made any expression, so she continued reading from her notes. “She disclosed a single gender affirming chest surgery, but not the timeline of the surgery. I believe she has fully recovered from it. Upon learning of her status I prescribed her hormone treatments. She did not disclose any other health information: including that she had a second skin applied, which is visibly fading. I figured that out myself during our checkup. I did not disclose this suspicion to the patient.”

“A second skin? Over what specifically?” Ulyana asked.

Normally second skins were applied on certain parts of the body.

They were applied to the faces or bodies of performers to typify certain beauty standards.

Unblemished cheeks, the illusion of a beautifully toned body, different skin colors.

“Full body, except a patch on her chest where there’s an older scar.” Dr. Kappel said simply. “And I believe it’s not for gender affirming reasons. In fact, I don’t think the surgery she disclosed was for that either. I would know. As a trans woman and a doctor I can tell you nobody gets surgery for such a humble size when they can go bigger.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced briefly at each other. A full body second skin was quite rare. In the Union you rarely saw it. The ingredients were better used for other medical purposes. Applying a second skin required a lot of hours of precise work in order to look perfect.

“What is she trying to hide then? That’s what you’re implying, right?” Aaliyah said.

Dr. Kappel sighed as if it was painful to recall what she saw.

“Scars. Lots of scars and damage. All over her body. Not just surgical scars, either.”

“I’m not sure I understand the reaction you’re having here, Doc.” Ulyana said gently.

“I’m just upset whenever I see evidence of extensive and brutal torture, is all.”

Dr. Kappel turned a weary glance to her superiors. Her voice grew more impassioned.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other again as if they hadn’t expected that.

“Marina McKennedy was traumatically tortured, Captain, Commissar. Any doctor could have told you that. Even the Security team’s medic. Marina is covered in irregular scars all over her body, that are becoming visible again. She styles her bangs over one side of her face to cover it, but I believe she suffered violent eye trauma too, necessitating an implant. Likely a back alley job, but I didn’t want to push her to let me check it. Psychologically, she is deeply troubled. She is afraid to be touched on her bare skin. Even if she knows she will be touched and if extensive consent is sought, she will allow the touch but react quite negatively.”

As she spoke, Dr. Kappel pulled back the sleeve of her coat and bodysuit to reveal a bruise.

“Even for someone with military combat training, it was hard to block her strike.”

“Solceanos defend.” Ulyana whispered to herself. Aaliyah’s tail turned stiff and straight.

“I don’t want you to think she’s dangerous. I think she’s just deeply, deeply hurt.”

Dr. Kappel set her minicomputer back on the counter and downed the rest of her drink.

“I understand. Is there anything else we should know?” Ulyana said.

“Her main vice is smoking, which she herself admitted.” Dr. Kappel said. She had the same tone of voice as when she was rattling off facts collected in her notes. As if she had walked herself down from getting too emotional about the patient. “I’ve informed her this ship is a smoke free zone, and tobacco is relatively rare in the Union, so I’ve prescribed medication to wean her off it. You’ll have to keep an eye she doesn’t bring any tobacco into the ship. It’s more prevalent in the Empire than the Union. She has a mild dependency on opiates, I also prescribed drugs for that. That’s all the pertinent information.”

“Do you think her judgment is impaired in any way?” Aaliyah asked.

“Bit insensitive to ask after all I just told you, no?” Dr. Kappel replied.

“I don’t see it that way. I have to know so I can help the patient be safer too.”

“Fair enough. I don’t believe so. I think she is fully cognizant and operating in reality.”

“We’ll just have to be patient and see if we can get her to open up.” Ulyana said.

“Good luck with that. At any rate, I did let her know we’ll be doing weekly checkups.”

Ulyana smiled nervously. “Thanks for volunteering, Doc.”

Dr. Kappel scoffed. She poured herself another glass. Her cheeks were starting to flush.

“I feel obligated to help, from one transgender sister out in the world to another. I can’t leave a patient to depend solely on you two brutes for her long-term health.” As the doctor berated them, Ulyana and Aaliyah simply stood in place and averted their gazes awkwardly. “But you understand that henceforth, I can’t tell you anything she confides in me, per Union regulations.”

“We get it. Don’t worry. She’s a spy, we know we’re being lied to.” Aaliyah said.

“As long as you keep her from blowing up on us, I agree to confidentiality.” Ulyana added.

“Good. Honestly, I should have braced myself to see such things, but still. What she’s been through, it’s so evil.”

Dr. Kappel looked up at the ceiling, as if referring to the whole ocean around them.

“I feel like we’ve all seen enough of the Empire to last us a lifetime already.” Ulyana said.

“Well, we’re barely getting started. So we’ll all need to toughen up.” Aaliyah said.

Her own droopy ears and tail belied her personal sense of demoralization, however.

For a first step, this mission seemed to have only reminded them all of their smallness.

There was nothing bold or glorious about it.

Of course, that was military work through and through. It was not always glorious.

Not for the officers, not for command, not for the sailors or even the doctor.


Ulyana did not have much to move from the former Captain’s quarters over to the Commissar’s.

Her personal clothes were packed in a neat bundle, and she could always get more TBT uniforms. They had extras. Aside from one nice dress, she only had a few good pairs of pants and their matching coats and dress shirts, and one good Union formal uniform. So she took these effects into the Commissar’s room right after the room was reassigned, pulled down the bunk on the right-hand wall and set them there. Her makeup kit was easily portable and slotted in nicely into the storage under the bunk. There was one item she had to be delicate with, a bottle full of something quite special.

It was this item she was fetching from a lockbox in the Commissar’s room wall, when Aaliyah entered in from the hallway, looking exhausted. As soon as the door closed behind her she took off her hat and set it on a hook, took off her long coat, and pulled off her tie and the top few buttons of her shirt. The way she did it, it was like ritual: a daily, trusted act of undressing, in the mindlessness of privacy, fully at ease with herself. Her whole body language softened that instant.

She even let out a little cat-like purr.

Of course, she then noticed Ulyana in the room and immediately jerked back.

“Captain!” She cried out.

Ulyana waved a hand, her lips curling into an awkward little smile.

“Warm greetings, Commissar. I live here now.” She said.

Aaliyah’s wild expression softened, and she averted her gaze.

“I– I know that! I thought you would be somewhere else at this hour!”

Her ears drooped and her tail curled, flicking behind her.

Ulyana extricated the bottle from the confines of its padded bag and pulled it up.

“I was planning on a shower, but first, I actually wanted to invite you to a drink.”

“What? A drink? What kind of drink?”

Holding it by the neck, Ulyana showed Aaliyah a dressed-up bottle of a fancy liqueur.

“It’s tuzemak infused with coconut.” Ulyana said. “Small batch, but good quality.”

Ulyana uncorked the bottle. She had already tasted it, quite a few months ago.

Her demeanor was guarded as she offered the bottle. She ready for Aaliyah to yell at her.

Instead the Commissar looked intrigued. She approached and gave the bottle a good look.

“That’s quite an interesting combination. How did you get your hands on this?”

“You’re acting like I stole it.” Ulyana laughed. “It was on a plaza table in Sevastopol.”

“Sevastopol is situated close to an agri-sphere. I guess it makes sense for a plaza find.”

Ulyana felt lucky that Aaliyah’s response was so passive. Maybe she was too tired to moralize. Feeling emboldened, Ulyana pushed things one step further, set the bottle on the commissar’s pull-down writing desk, and withdrew two small, clean shot glasses, setting them both neatly on the desk too. Aaliyah watched her quietly while she was doing this.

“Would you do me the honor of joining me for a toast?”

Aaliyah’s tail went from flicking back to swaying gently behind her.

“Well. One drink could not hurt I suppose.”

That response put a radiant smile on Ulyana’s face.

She poured a full shot glass for each of them and handed one to Aaliyah.

The second she took and raised to eye level.

“A toast: to a successful mission, and a victory for communism!”

Aaliyah and Ulyana touched glasses and lifted them to their lips.

A slick, sweet taste, sugar beet with a hint of coconut, burning all the way down.

It made Ulyana’s chest warm. Even in this ship, in this unknown ocean, it felt like home.

“That was amazing.” Ulyana said.

“It was delicious. Thank you for the toast, Captain.”

“Want to go for seconds?”

“Going to have to stop you there.”

Aaliyah put her hands on her hips and threw a narrow-eyed glare at Ulyana.

Ulyana took the shot glasses and bottle back with a knowing grin.

The Commissar stood there watching her Captain clean the glasses in the room’s water dispenser and remained like a fixture or a piece of furniture while she put them away. Once they were back safely in the storage under the bunk, Ulyana came face to face with Aaliyah again, and she, too, became a fixture in the middle of the room, between the bunks. They avoided staring directly at one another and neither spoke for several long seconds. Ulyana then realized she was standing in the way of Aaliyah’s desk, so she moved aside and sat on the bunk instead.

“We can’t go on like this.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s set some boundaries, Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

When presented with an awkward situation Ulyana would always smile.

Because it was a forced smile, it was usually crooked. It did not really improve things.

It was, simply, just what happened. “Not Captain Korabiskaya?”

“Ugh. If I had to maintain that formality at all hours of my life, I would go insane.”

“I agree. I just thought you would prefer it. Like keeping a bit of distance, even in here.”

“Not at all. I think you’ve misread me. In my room, what I want is to relax, and to be able to dress down from the mask I have to wear around the crew. I’m expected to help the Captain enforce discipline. I need to command respect even if the Captain is lenient. It’s a big burden that I take off for a few hours in solitude. I won’t be alone anymore, but I still need to have that time.”

Ulyana nodded. Maybe Aaliyah did not realize that the Captain wore her own mask too.

That was something she would not bring up. She was the guest, and she would fit in.

“I understand completely. I want to help ease your burden however I can, Aaliyah.”

Aaliyah’s ears straightened up. She averted her eyes again in a demure expression.

“Well, thank you. My routine is that I write a Chronicle entry in silence, so I can reflect on the day. I want to ask you to be silent and still while I do so. Maybe take a nap or go catch your shower at this time. I always do this at 2000 hours, and then I read before sleeping at 2200 sharp.”

“I’m fine to keep that schedule.”

The pair stared at one another as if they were each waiting for there to be more to say.

Another awkward silence fell between them. The ship was so quiet too.

“Well. I guess it’s all settled. Thank you, Cap– Ulyana.”

“You could call me Yana too. Most of my friends do. Even Nagavanshi did.”

Her face turned briefly warmer. Oh, why did she chance on saying that?

Aaliyah merely shook her head and walked past her to the desk and sat down. She reached over the desk and pressed her hand down on the wall, sliding out a fake metal panel to expose the Osmium lockbox in which the ship’s chronicle was kept. All the while Ulyana watched her as she unlocked the box, took out the chronicle, gently booted it up. From her holster, she took her snub nosed revolver and set it down on the table — of the Bridge officers, only the Captain and Commissar were so armed.

Then she began to write. With her back to Ulyana and her eyes staring down at the screen.

“Duly noted. I’ll go catch that shower.”

From the desk, Aaliyah waved at her. “Enjoy your shower, Ulyana.”

When she said her name there, it felt so pointed. Ulyana shrank just a little from it.

Like an arrow right through her heart. What a stupid thing to feel!

Of course, what was she thinking? That they could have another passionate night?

That sort of fantasy would have just gotten her in great trouble.

At least she was not cast out into the hallway without a bed to call her own.


Her body was flung from high into a jagged precipice and fell down a dark chasm. She watched a stark white sky shrink into a sliver as the walls encroached around her. Falling for what felt like eternities, skin unfeeling in a rushing wind until she suddenly hit the ground.

Her back arched from the impact and she cried out soundlessly.

Skin and clothes split off from her body like glass shattering instantly into dust, rising into the air like a cloud.

There was no pain, but she still settled with the wind knocked out of her, naked on the ground, sweating, heaving. Her skin, the only layer that was left behind over her body, was wet, soft, and pale like an insect’s callow after molting. Eyes heavy, dragging herself on the cold, blank floor, her surroundings a blur. Who was she? She could barely remember her name.

All around her there was nothing but a curtain of squirming shadows.

Footsteps. Why would there be footsteps? She was supposed to be alone.

She looked over her shoulder in time to see thin shadows lashing out of the walls.

Her leg was seized as if by a wet, black rope and she was lifted bodily by the ankle.

That tendril dragged her toward a gaping maw of shadows that seethed and curled.

A second tentacle whipped around her neck and pushed her head up.

Thin, inky limbs formed bonds around her wrists and forced her arms behind her back.

As suddenly as she was seized, her body was set down, forced to her knees with her back straight.

Before her eyes, a human figure appeared from the shadows as if phasing through a membrane. A woman’s upper body leaned forward, red eyes, grinning lips, nose to nose with the skinny, soft callow that she had caught in her arms. A bioluminescent glow upon certain areas of her skin gave delineation to a slender chest and its exposed curves. Her eyes pored over the pale figure.

“Sonya,”

That sweet, luscious voice recalled the nymph’s identity with great joy. Sonya Shalikova.

As the woman spoke, Sonya’s cold, unfeeling body tingled with the warmth of the woman’s breath.

Then the tentacles binding her arms pushed against her back, forcing her chest forward.

Limbs slid around her back, tracing her ribcage, climbing over and squeezing her breasts.

A tendril glided up her thigh, sliding heavy against her groin, its slender tip curling around her dick.

Breathing ragged, pulse quickening, her pale flesh slick with sweat.

Sonya’s body reacted in a primal way.

Hips shuddering, chest quaking, a building pressure in her core that caused her to bite down on her lip. She did not hate the sudden grip of pleasure she found herself in. She didn’t fight it. As her body bucked, the tentacles moved in rhythm with her.

Sonya let out a soft, soundless gasp into the face of her captor. Her own lips curled into a little, exhausted smile.

“Sonya,”

A human hand reached out and caressed her cheek.

Two fingers penetrated her lips. Saliva trickled from her mouth, her tongue struggling instinctually against the intrusion. The voice grew more possessive as its lips closed in on Sonya’s face, past her cheek, and dug into her neck, leaving a red marking.

As the figure neared, the arms around her body squeezed to the point Sonya felt crushed.

Pleasure and love that once danced electric on her skin became consumptive, choking–

“Sonya,”

In a deepening constriction, the voiceless Sonya finally let out a scream in agony.

Everything went dark.

Back aboard the assault carrier “Brigand,” Sonya Shalikova darted upright in her bed.

Her undershirt clung close to her heaving chest with patches of cold sweat.

She reached to the wall and struck the contextual button that appeared to dimly light the room.

Lying on the other bunk, Maryam Karahailos stared at her, covered up her neck in blankets.

Her skin and hair were completely white, and her expression was frozen in a vacant smile.

“What are you looking at?” Sonya shouted.

Though her facial expression remained unchanged, Maryam shook gently with fright.

“You were making strange noises that woke me up. Then you started screaming.”

As if expecting further verbal outbursts, Maryam pulled the blanket over her head.

That bundle of blankets continued to shake for a few moments with Maryam’s fear.

“You had a very scary aura.” She said. “I was afraid you were in pain.”

Sonya brought her hands to her face and dropped back into her pillow, squirming.

Fleeting images of some kind of dream emptied out of her head.

She felt unsettled. But she knew it wasn’t Maryam’s fault and she shouldn’t have yelled.

After a few minutes she rebuilt the courage to speak. “Sister Karahailos–”

“Please call me Maryam, Sonya! Oh I hate hearing that cold formality with your voice!”

“So you’re still just awake and staring at me under the blankets?”

“Well, yes–”

“Maryam–!”

At that moment, Sonya was interrupted by flashing red lights going off in her room.

There were no loud alarm sounds– no alarm sounds went off for silent running alarms.

Maryam pulled off her blankets.

“Sonya, is that something important? Oh– your aura is scary again.”


“It should be illegal to make me do late shift so much. This is cruel and unusual.”

“Then at home you should have remained, therein bemoaning your pitiable existence.”

“All you did was say the words in a weird order. You’re not as fancy as you think.”

“Silence, gamer.”

Fatima al-Suhar sighed under her breath.

In the background, the two other late shifters kept themselves entertained complaining at each other near-endlessly. Had she been the sort to gossip or provoke, Fatima would have joked that Alexandra and Fernanda sounded like a married couple. Maybe once upon a time, she would have done so. But she could no longer stand causing inconvenience. She was so thankful to be alive and so sorry to have ever done wrong in her life. So she bit down that troublesome instinct.

Instead she hunkered down and went to work.

Raising her headphones and tucking them into her ear fluff, tail gently swaying as the sounds of the Ocean overtook the cacophony that proceeded apace directly behind her. It was this sound that strengthened her belief in God, even when everything looked bleak. That sound of gentle rushing punctuated by the sharp notes of life beneath the water. Fatima thought of it was the heartbeat of an organism that encompassed all things — for Allah was exalted and seen in all things.

Most people did not understand that the Ocean was always singing with life.

Within the water table, the ocean itself moved, creating currents and underwater waves that made bubbling and rushing sounds. Their ships were designed to move by sucking in water and accelerating it through the structure, so at higher speeds the disturbance of the water as the ship passed could also be heard, and understood, if the operator had a good ear. There was life all around them, even in the aphotic depths at 1000 meters below. Fish swam, crabs scuttled, squid and cuttlefish hid in the benthic depths and rushed out for prey. Sharks and other large fish that dove deep for food could be heard distinctly from the rest.

They rarely ever acknowledged it, but there was so much more in the Ocean than humans.

Fatima loved hearing those sounds. It was soothing. Even with the tension of hearing an enemy ship always looming over her, she could be at peace with the sounds of Ocean life. Most of the time, her job involved her sitting as if alone, isolated even in a room full of people. The youthful, noisy gas gunners below her, the bridge officers around her, and the Captain and Commissar behind and above her, all disappeared, and she only heard the endless call of the deep.

As if she herself was surrounded in the water, adrift in the lightless blue.

When she looked down at her console, she had various diagrams to monitor.

There were three major ones: a square spectrogram display for the hydrophones, a bearing imager with its own graph using the acoustic data, and a digital visual drawn up using the acoustic prediction algorithm.

In her opinion, the predictor was useless, except as something to look at to pass the time.

Most of the time she was staring at the spectrogram, watching the sounds being recorded and keeping an eye and an ear out for anything strange. All of the sounds picked up would appear in her spectrogram as lines, and she was well trained in discerning meaning from those lines. Meanwhile the bearing imager had angle markings and displayed the paths of large objects as lines so that Fatima could tell what direction ships may be coming from. There were bearing imagers installed in various places on the ship, but Fatima was the one tasked with the one on the Bridge, and it was the most fully featured on the ship.

Below the imagers, a text terminal displayed predicted origins as well as spectrum data.

On that night, like any other night, Fatima expected to hear more “biologic” noises than ships.

And the ships she expected to hear were slow, noisy civilian vessels.

They were heading to the Nectaris jet-stream, a major byway for Ocean traffic.

So at first, when she heard a distant, but distinctive sound of a large hydrojet–

She second-guessed herself. Her reflexes were lightning quick, however.

As soon as her brain registered a sound, and the realization shuddered through her whole body, she looked up at the spectrograph, bearing imager, and even at the predictor. She read the data on the terminal, as it was sometimes faster than calculating from the frequencies in the spectrograph. In seconds, Fatima’s little world had gone through several convulsions. Her ears stood straight. Her tail started flicking in the air. Her eyes drew wide as she slowly accepted the truth of what she calculated.

“It can’t be– It just can’t–”

Even as she said this, she stood from her station suddenly.

Beside her was Semyonova’s station. She ran her finger across a touchpad to awaken it.

From the side of the station she pulled up the corded handset.

Red lights started to flash as Fatima raised the alarm.

“Attention! All hands, duty “Semyon”! Repeat, duty “Semyon”!

Semyon was the code phrase for the combat alert.

Fatima’s voice came out from speakers installed throughout the ship.

Fernanda and Alexandra turned sharply around from their stations in disbelief.

All around them the red lights flashed. Doors started to open throughout the ship, bleary eyed people stepping out. There were no klaxons, and she could not say too aloud the words “combat alert,” because the enemy could possibly pick out loud sound from within the Brigand and glean insight into their intentions. Instead, Fatima simply repeated, in a falsely calm voice, “Semyon!”

She could not say out loud that an Irmingard class vessel was tailing at combat speed.

Nor that it had brought company.



Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.8]

“Captain, why are we doing this? We can just disembark right now.”

“A hospitality order means we have to keep them in here, but I just can’t accept doing so under the present circumstances. Not when neither of them actually knows the whole story.”

“We only have to keep one, technically speaking. Those are our orders.”

“We can’t just leave Republic Intelligence out to dry. We need them as allies.”

“Did you plan on doing this from the start? Orders are orders, you know.”

“We have to tell them. I’m not going to hold innocent people hostage here for months.”

“While I will support your chosen course of action, I disagree with it.”

“Aaliyah, I can’t live with myself if I tell them halfway to Carmen that they might never set foot on a Union station. If they end up leaving, I’ll take responsibility with Nagavanshi.”

“Ulyana, it won’t just be with Nagavanshi and it won’t just be you alone, you know?”

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya stopped in the middle of the hallway.

She and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were just meters away from the planning room.

Ulyana had not considered how her actions might have affected Aaliyah.

It was this that gave her pause as she contemplated going against her orders.

She looked back at her Commissar, visibly conflicted. Aaliyah shook her head.

“You need to have the conviction to choose your course of action, Captain.”

“Well, I don’t want to end up making decisions like this for you.”

“I happen to agree with the ethical thrust of your decision.” Aaliyah said.

She sounded a little frustrated. Ulyana felt a bit baffled at her response to this.

She was such a ball of contradictions sometimes.

Perhaps that is what it meant to advise someone. Maybe this was just her style.

“So you agree with the sentiment behind my actions but not the actions themselves?”

“I’m just saying, Captain. Orders are orders. But I will support your decision. It’s my duty.”

Ulyana nodded in acknowledgment.

Silently, she turned back to the door of the planning room and stepped inside.

Around the table, Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy waited with Akulantova.

Marina’s analyst was away: in security custody with Van Der Smidse for the moment.

“Greetings, comrades! I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the UNX-001 Brigand.”

Marina gave the Captain a quick salute. “What does UNX stand for? Union Navy what?”

“Experimental. I’m Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. Care to introduce yourself, Republican?”

Aaliyah interceded. She bristled at Marina for her breach of etiquette.

“Marina McKennedy, I’m with the G.I.A Directorate of Operations.” Marina said.

Republic personnel had a reputation in the Union for having sloppy decorum.

Ulyana did think that Marina looked a bit disheveled, even in that sharp suit.

“I suppose I don’t have many questions, except, ‘how long from here to Ferris’?”

Marina grinned and leaned back on her seat with arms crossed over her chest.

Beside Marina, a cuttlefish Pelagis with a gentle smile raised her hand.

“I’m Maryam Karahailos. It’s nice to meet all of you. Thank you so much for taking me in.”

“Pleasure to meet both of you.” Ulyana said. “Agent McKennedy, your appearance was unexpected, but we welcome you board. In fact, having your Diver unit aboard has really fascinated our techs. So feel free to make yourself at home. Sister Karahailos, we will want to speak with you about the information you want to share and get it on the record.”

“Indeed!” Maryam said. Her hair and skin seemed to glow just a little bit.

“How long will I be making myself at home here for? I’m hoping for a clean run south.”

Marina seemed quite impatient, and Aaliyah looked to be chafing against her attitude.

“We’re here to talk about that.” Said the Commissar, her eyes narrowed and her hands on her hips. “And the reason we’re not disembarking yet is precisely because of that, otherwise we would have just stocked you with some blankets and roomed you in one of the torpedo chambers.”

“You’re right, there shouldn’t be much to explain. So what’s going on?” Marina asked.

“Simply put, we’re not going back to the Union. You got a bit unlucky with your rescuer.”

Ulyana heaved a sigh after saying this. She tried to play it cool, but the responses were dire.

Marina stared at her, briefly speechless, tentatively raising and lowering her hands.

Maryam turned momentarily pale white as a cave mushroom. Her whole body shuddered.

Her body’s color scheme seemed to “glitch,” a wave of disturbed, “noisy” color sweeping over her.

“What the fuck do you mean by not going back?” Marina shouted, standing up suddenly.

Akulantova reached out a burly arm and casually forced her back to her seat.

“Language. Address the Captain with respect, if not for her then for me, please.”

Marina scarcely resisted. Most people didn’t once they felt Akulantova’s grip on them.

“God damn it. So I’m just your hostage then, to wherever you’re fucking off to?”

“No. You can walk back out that cargo elevator and go back to Serrano if you want.”

Ulyana pointed her thumb over her shoulder to indicate the door behind her.

“In truth, we don’t really know where we’re going next, but it’s not the Union.”

“We’re part of a train and equip mission to sabotage the Empire’s ability to suppress the Bureni insurgency.” Aaliyah said. It was an accurate enough description as any, though Ulyana felt like she was being charitable about the ultimate goal of their journey. Certainly, Buren was a destination, but whether they would be able to train and equip anyone, and what that would do to the Empire’s fighting ability where it mattered — that was very much up to luck to sort out.

Even Marina seemed able to quickly tell the obstacles in front of them.

“No disrespect to your sense of duty, but you comrades are getting sent out to die.”

“You must understand what that feels like, as a G.I.A. agent, but also why we do it.”

“Sorry commie cat, but I’m not a blood and country type like the rest of you.”

“Well, you can always be a ‘washed up on the docks with no ride’ type instead.”

Ulyana interrupted before Aaliyah could respond to the ‘commie cat’ remark.

“Fuck you.” Marina replied. Akulantova sighed audibly. “You fucking know I can’t leave!”

“Nobody knows who you are! You could go back to the dockworkers and get another ship down South. The border’s all clear! We can even give you money for bribes. You can leave right now. If you stay here, I’m going to need you to really consider the situation and acknowledge your support for us. And you don’t have long to decide.”

Ulyana leaned down to the table, setting down a fist on it, and locking eyes with Marina.

Marina’s whole body was shaking with a visible fury and frustration.

“Excuse me, may I butt in for a second?”

Maryam raised her hand, and one of the tentacles coming from the side of her head.

She had a nervous smile on her face and her colors had returned to their lively hues.

“Right, sorry we forgot you for a moment.” Ulyana said. “Sister, to us, you are a VIP that we have orders to retain in custody. Those orders came from our direct superiors. That being said, I can’t in good judgment force anyone to stay that does not want to. It could undermine morale and cohesion to have people here under false pretenses.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I will stay.” She said. “I am valuable to you, so I know you’ll keep me safe.”

For a brief moment, Maryam’s gaze looked intense, full of determination and confidence.

Ulyana looked into those odd, beautiful eyes and felt a wave of reassurance wash over her.

She smiled back at Maryam. What a relief to have somebody cooperating with them.

“I’m glad to have you aboard Sister. So what do you think, Agent McKennedy?”

Marina scoffed. “Well, you have me by the dick so what am I supposed to say?”

“You can start by apologizing for that mouth of yours.” Akulantova raised her voice.

“I need to get out of this station, Captain Korabiskaya.” Marina begrudgingly moderated her tone. “I can’t risk waiting for another ship. I don’t have a tail now, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring. I can’t gamble her– my life like this.” She paused briefly, rubbing her hands down her face. “All I have now is you people and my Diver in your hangar. So I will stay. And it behooves me then to cooperate with your mission, so I will do it. But I want access to all of your intelligence. I want to be an equal partner in this. I can stand in your bridge; I can see everything you do. Clear?”

Ulyana crossed her arms. “I suppose that’s fair. Commissar?”

Aaliyah’s ears bristled. She really seemed to hate Marina’s tone of voice.

“I’m not against sharing information, but she’s not part of our chain of command.”

“If she wants to stand on the bridge, she can stand there, and I’m sure she can make herself useful. You and Maryam can be our advisors on Imperial culture and current events. Does that sound good enough, McKennedy?”

“Sure.” Marina shrugged. “And as for Elen, my analyst, I want her exempt from ship duties.”

“She can take a pleasure cruise then. Looks like we’re all agreed finally.” Ulyana replied.

Maryam clapped her hands gently. “Welcome aboard, Agent McKennedy!”

Marina gave her a weary, dismissive look. “So, where’s my torpedo tube?”

“Good question.” Ulyana said. “We’re going to need to clear out some room space.”

“All our officers are housed alone in two-bunk rooms.” Aaliyah said. “So we can assign each our guests to bunk with one of the officers. That would be the simplest solution to get everyone housed with the least trouble.”

“I want to bunk with Elen. Is there a spare room I can have for two?” Marina said.

“You ask for a lot, you know that?” Aaliyah snapped.

“I’ll give my room to her and Elen.” Ulyana said. “That should make everyone happy, right?”

“Overjoyed.” Marina grumbled.

“Captain, where will you go then?”

Ulyana turned from Marina to Aaliyah with an awkward expression.

“Well. I was hoping my next-door neighbor could help with that–”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail darted up as straight as they could go.

“Captain– We’ll discuss it later!” She said, clearly flustered. Ulyana should’ve known it’d become an issue.


“Serrano has cleared us for departure!”

Semyonova’s face appeared on every screen aboard the Brigand, informing the personnel that the carrier was departing Serrano, only a few hours since they first arrived. While there were some groaning sailors who wished they could have gotten to see the shore at all, almost everyone felt relieved that they had entered an Imperial station and could now leave it without incident. It meant that maybe the crazy journey they were on had a chance in hell of actually succeeding.

Around the Brigand, the glass and steel of the berth shifted, isolating them from Serrano’s port and then flooding their chamber. Finally, they were exposed to the Nectaris Ocean and then released from their docking clamps. The Brigand freed itself from the port structure and began once again to make its way through the ship traffic out from under the station and into the open ocean. In tow, the ship had a VIP, a Republic G.I.A. agent and her mech, an analyst of no repute, and several crates of pack rations courtesy of Warehouse No. 6. Their first mission was a success.

“We’ll talk about our next moves tomorrow. For now, just rest up. Have a biscuit.”

Captain Korabiskaya dismissed Maryam and Marina with a gentle nod.

They had resolved the long-term situation with their guests’ lodging.

Marina and Elen would be staying in the Captain’s room.

The Commissar reluctantly agreed to bunk with the Captain temporarily.

“Oh, what a cute bear!”

Maryam Karahailos was assigned to bunk with Sonya Shalikova and arrived at her room.

When she walked through the door, Shalikova nearly jumped off her bed in a fright.

“What are you doing here?” Shalikova called out.

She shouted with such a passion that Maryam’s colors briefly turned pale.

“Ah, I’m sorry for disturbing you. I was assigned to this room.”

“Assigned? This room?”

“I need a place to stay long term. After all, you’re not returning to the Union.”

Maryam closed her eyes and smiled, her hands behind her back, with a cutesy expression.

Shalikova felt a gnawing guilt in her chest, watching Maryam trying to act unbothered.

She knew it was only just acting. Shalikova was too observant not to notice the signs.

The Pelagis had hid her hands behind her back because they were shaking.

Her whole body language spoke of someone covering up what they really wanted to say.

That smile was all false; her cutesy posture and movements meant to hide her anxiety.

She had just caused Maryam more pain in the end. She had not really spared her anything.

“I’m really sorry. I– I could have told you back then and I didn’t.” Shalikova said.

Regardless of whether she was a soldier and needed to follow orders, Shalikova was raised as a communist. She didn’t know a lot of theory like Murati did; and she was not able to just blindly follow all orders like the Commissar might. But Shalikova was a communist and a soldier because she could never stand by and let people be hurt or trampled over. And maybe that meant keeping her distance from others. So she couldn’t hurt or inconvenience them herself.

Shalikova could have told Maryam the truth.

She lied because she was pathetic.

Because as much as she hated to, she was always hurting others too.

“Ahh you have such a sad aura suddenly! I understand, it’s ok! You’re a soldier. They asked you to come fetch me. If you told me you weren’t going to the Union, and I ran off in a passion, it would’ve caused you trouble. I get it. I don’t hold anything against you. I’d hate it if you felt guilty over something so small, you know?”

Maryam’s body language visibly relaxed. Shalikova was a little perplexed.

She really expected Maryam to hate her.

To have taken this room assignment solely for the purpose of confronting her.

Or something like that.

Maybe it was her overdramatic brain, twisting herself into knots. How stupid!

For a girl with such keen senses Shalikova’s feelings had become very unclear to herself.

Her heart was twisted up in a knot. It was– it was very unsoldierly of her.

“I told you, and I meant it. You help me feel comfortable. We’re on a first name basis, even!” Maryam beamed ever more broadly. “I was so nervous that I’d bother you by showing up here, but when the Captain said I could room with anyone, there was only one person I wanted to stay with. If it’s someone I could be around for months and months, then it had to be you, Sonya.”

That impassioned speech fell on Sonya’s head like a falling light fixture.

“Why are you like this? What is your problem?” Sonya shouted suddenly, in a cracked tone of voice like a crying child. Her face was burning red. “You’re so weird! Fine! You can stay in my room if you want! But stop being so familiar!” She raised the blankets of her bunk over her head, gritting her teeth.

Maryam stared at that particular display for a moment without any reaction.

“Ah, I’m sorry. Back in the convent the other nuns always said I was too emotional–”

Sonya grumbled. “It’s not about being ‘emotional’! What you are is much too ‘forward’!”

“Eh? Well, I don’t get it, but I’m sure we’ll sort it out over time, roommate!” Maryam said.

“That’s what I mean by too ‘forward’!”

Sonya remained defiantly under her blankets.

She had wanted to rest after the mission, and even secured permission to do so from the Lieutenant, who headed straight to her bunk herself. Now the prospect of resting was furthest from her mind. Her room had been invaded by a certain cuttlefish. And that cuttlefish was bringing a bag of clothes she got from the quartermaster into the room.

“Sonya, can you come move this bear?”

Maryam asked this quite innocently.

“Why?”

“I can’t move it, or can I?”

Sonya snapped. “No! Don’t touch Comrade Fuzzy.”

She threw off her blankets and stood up from her bed.

Dressed only in a pair of shorts and an undershirt, she was quite unprepared for visitors, but Maryam should not have been there, so it was too late to lament her wardrobe choice. She stomped past the Sister with her fists closed at her sides and carefully brought Comrade Fuzzy up into her arms, before stomping back across the room and hiding with him under her blankets once more. She put her back to Maryam and grunted.

Maryam watched without expression and then giggled at her.

“I knew it was special. It gave off your aura. It is very well cared for.”

Sonya’s eyes drew wide under the blankets, but she did not respond.

“I didn’t want to touch it without your permission.”

“Okay.”

She was in no mood to say, ‘thank you for being understanding.’

Though no longer looking at her, Sonya could hear Maryam shuffle over to the other bunk and unfurl her bag of clothes on top of it. Then her locker slid open. She was putting her stuff away. While she did so, she hummed a tiny little tune. Sonya could not help but imagine it in her mind’s eyes. The purple-haired, pink-skinned cuttlefish in her black dress, skipping around. Those tentacles coming from the rear sides of her head wiggling around.

“At what times do you get up and go to sleep?” Maryam asked.

Sonya sighed. She really was just going to hash out the entire arrangement right then.

“0600 to 1800 at the ready, sleep at 2100 hours.”

“I can do that. I don’t want to disturb you. You have a really important job after all!”

“Okay.”

Sonya successfully avoided saying more than one syllable at a time to Maryam for hours.

That also meant, however, that despite her best efforts, she talked with Maryam for hours.


“Hubby! Aww, look at you, rough day?”

Karuniya entered the shared room and instantly found Murati, whom she continued to cheerfully dub her “husband,” lying down on the bed drawn out of the left wall of their room. She had a pillow over her face. Too weary to say anything, Murati merely grunted in acknowledgment from under the pillow. Then she heard footsteps.

She could see a shadow fall over what little light she saw from under the pillow.

“Get up for a little bit, make room.”

Murati felt Karuniya’s hands patting her on the shoulder.

Without giving it much thought, she pulled the pillow off her face and wearily sat up.

Then, Karuniya sat beside her, grabbed hold of her head, and pulled her back down.

“There. Isn’t that better? Just like the picnics we used to have at the Academy.”

A lap pillow: Murati’s head now rested atop Karuniya’s warm thighs.

She looked up at her girlfriend, her eyes weary. A trickle of tears drew from them.

“You can talk to me, you know?” Karuniya said, stroking Murati’s forehead.

“I got back from my mission.”

“I know.”

“It was– it was tough, Karu. I just need a moment to rest.”

“You know, I’m going to be upset with you if that’s all you end up saying.”

Karuniya looked down at Murati, smiling, her fingers running softly over Murati’s hair.

“I told you that I am quite done with your whole strong, silent type posturing.”

At her girlfriend’s behest, Murati stopped fighting back her tears and putting up a front.

She lifted her arm and put the back of her fist over her eyes, weeping openly into her gloves.

“I hate that you’re hurting, Murati. But I’m happy you’re being honest about it.”

Karuniya’s hands felt so warm over her head. Murati almost felt that she didn’t deserve it.

“I’m here to comfort you, no matter what happened. So please let me in.”

“I just feel really helpless. I feel like I don’t know what we’re supposed to do here.”

Murati finally spoke up, raising her voice through a particularly violent sob.

“People are going to keep dying here. We can never save them all. And who knows if we’ll even be able to save any? Why would they help us at all? How could they possibly see this one ship and think it’s going to change anything? Against the enormity of what the Empire has built? They just dispose of their people so easily. It’s so monstrous.”

As a soldier, Murati had always been confident that she could win battles against enemies provided she had the resources: weapons, allies, solid intelligence, and the ability to move. But in the Empire, the enemy she was up against was not just soldiers with ships and divers. This was a whole society that was unleashing violence on multiple levels. Murati felt such immense pain in her heart from staring at the injustices of the Empire and not being able to do a damned thing about it. She felt that she had lost a battle that day, and it shook her faith in their ability to win a war.

Maybe the Brigand could kill Imperial soldiers. Maybe it could kill scores of them.

But their mission was not simply to engage and kill Imperial soldiers like in a normal war.

They were supposed to build a resistance against the Empire to help them fight.

How could they do so with one ship?

How could they do it if all they could do was kill soldiers?

Killing soldiers and destroying ships wasn’t going to save the downtrodden of the Empire.

Not by itself.

And if not the common people of the Empire, who was going to fight alongside them?

Murati felt herself falling down a spiral of hopeless thoughts until her fiancé spoke up once more.

“You know, there’s something about me I never really told you.” Karuniya said.

Murati lifted her hand off her face to look at Karuniya. Her eyes were red and puffy.

“I can’t imagine what it could be.”

Karuniya smiled knowingly. “You know, Murati, I love you more than anything in the world. I love you more than my own ambitions, and more than my own beliefs. So that’s why some stuff was not worth saying.”

She winked at Murati, who failed to understand what her fiancé was getting at.

“I really don’t follow, but now I’m getting kinda anxious Karu.”

“You don’t have to be. It’s really silly. But I really used to be afraid you’d be mad if I told you.”

“Could you come out with it and stop dragging it out?” Murati pleaded.

Karuniya giggled. “Sure. It’s about a line of theory that was suppressed by the Union.”

“What? What do you mean ‘theory’? What kind of theory? Karu, talk to me.”

Was Karuniya about to confess to being a capitalist or something?

That was the last thing Murati needed to hear on this rotten day!

“Okay, I’ll just tell you then. I had a professor when I was a teenager, who was exiled from the Empire to the Union for his beliefs on environmental conservation. Truth be told, he wasn’t much liked for the same reason in the Union. He believed that agarthic salt concentration was anthropogenic and rising, which is a bit of a doomsday prophecy.”

Murati let out a loud, heavy sigh. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“Ah, well, I’m glad you disagree with Union environmental policy writ large.”

“Everyone thinks I’m some kind of zealot. There’s a lot about the Union I disagree with.”

“Name one thing, honey.”

Murati grumbled.

“What’s this theory of yours? Tell me the whole story and stop teasing me.”

Karuniya’s stroking became slower as she lost herself in thought.

“Let’s see, where can I start? I think I was still in preparatory school thinking about what I wanted my career to be. I studied introductory oceanography under Dr. Hans Wadzjik. I must have been fifteen; it was before we met. He never taught according to curriculum. There would always be fights between him and the Education commissar at Lvov Station, where I used to live. But his classes were really fun, and his ideas felt really convincing to me. He was stuck teaching in preparatory school because his life’s thesis, about agarthic salt in the Ocean, was too radical. Even the Union did not want these ideas to gain too much purchase. The Union has a dark side too; Dr. Wadzjik was always being censured. They didn’t throw him in jail or anything. But they made life just a little bit harder for him.”

“He should have stuck to the curriculum then.” Murati said callously.

Karuniya laughed. “Ah, there’s the Murati that I know and love!”

“What? He’s supposed to prepare kids for the Academy, not impart personal ideology.”

“You’d make such a horrible teacher Murati.” Karuniya said, her voice gentle and fond.

It was as if she found Murati’s attitude charming and cute. Her tone was quite annoying.

“Explain what his theory is in full and maybe I’ll agree.” Murati said.

“Okay. Basically, the activity of agarthic reactors and agarthicite mining is giving off an increase in agarthic salt in the ocean water. Agarthic salt is microscopic agarthic matter: basically the tiniest specks of dust, unable to react meaningfully. We used to believe that deposition from the surface, trickling down the water table, was responsible, but Dr. Wadzjik believed that human activity in the Ocean itself was actually responsible for the increase in Agarrhic content in the Ocean’s water table. He spent his life building as much solid evidence for this as he could. No one wanted to hear that, of course. Agarthicite is so important for our lives down here after all.”

“Without those reactors, we wouldn’t have stood a chance for survival.” Murati said.

“True, and it’s not even the station reactors that are the main culprit. It’s the inefficient miniature reactors on ships that are the problem. They’re built smaller and cheaper than Core Pylons at the cost of longevity and fuel efficiency. So of course, neither the Empire nor the Union wants to hear about this sort of thing. But I was fascinated by it. And I do believe it’s true! When I entered the Academy I swore that in my current thesis, I want to package his scholarship in a way the Union will listen to. He had one other belief that was a little too radical for anyone, as well.”

“More radical than the rest?” Murati drew up her eyebrows.

Karuniya laughed a little bit.

“He predicted in 200 years that we’d see the Calamity under the Ocean.”

“What? That’s just mad. Do you believe that Karu? The Calamity, again, down here, in 200 years?”

“No, I don’t believe it. I think the conditions under which he grew up in the Empire colored his perceptions. He was a bit of a misanthrope and a fatalist. For agarrhic salt to start reacting on its own, without human intervention to deliberately blow up the Ocean, it would take a truly insane level of salinity. Even when we try to make Agarrhic salts react, the reactions are tiny; there was a case where a red tide occurred during a black wind in Katarre, the most polluted place in the Ocean. In that case, the survey ship was coring the earth for Agarrhic deposits when it struck. The ship that recorded this event suffered extremely minor instrument degradation. So no, it won’t become a Calamity. At least, not in 200 years, at current conditions. Of course, things could become suddenly worse.”

She looked down at Murati with a cute smile, stroking her hair.

Murati sighed. Why was she telling her all of this now? It didn’t really matter.

In fact, the Lieutenant was mostly annoyed that Karuniya hid all this out of some irrational fear.

“I wouldn’t have said anything about this, you know? Are you that afraid of me?”

“I’m not afraid of you at all. I didn’t tell you this because it didn’t really matter.”

“If it’s something you’re passionate about, it matters to me. I wish I had known.”

“I’m passionate about conservation. That’s just one tiny aspect of it. That’s my point.”

Murati frowned. “You’ve neglected to make this point of yours at all, during any of this.”

“I was getting to it.” Karuniya puffed her cheeks and lifted her hand from Murati’s head.

“Well, sorry for being so annoying then, I guess.”

Karuniya laid her hand back down on Murati’s hair and ruffled it very harshly.

“My point, you blunt, stubborn, tragic fool, is that you can’t just give up because the problem is too large for you by yourself! I can’t save the Ocean by myself, but I want to promote and advance the science of Conservation to teach others to do their part, and maybe, slowly, budge society in the right direction with regards to our environment.” Murati blinked. Karuniya’s voice grew impassioned, so much that she herself started to weep just a little and started wiping her tears periodically. “If we feel helpless, the world doesn’t get better for our inaction. The Union Naval HQ didn’t see the Brigand and think ‘this will be useless because it can’t destroy every Imperial fleet by itself.’ They saw the larger battle of which we are a part and decided to act. You should know that! We can’t save everyone; but that’s no excuse for giving up. Even if all we can do is give the Empire a black eye, that in itself is not a useless undertaking.”

She raised a hand to her own face and wiped her tears.

“I think the Murati who pursues justice at any cost and never lets anything go, is really admirable and really sexy and really cute! That’s the woman I fell in love with. When you set your mind to it you keep trying, doggedly, standing in front of the same apathetic crowd again and again even if the outcome doesn’t change. You did it in the Academy, you did it in your military career, and I want you to keep doing it. That’s what I admire about you. And it makes me feel emboldened to take my own crazy ideas in front of people who don’t care. That’s it; that’s my whole point.”

Murati looked up at her fiancé as if seeing her in a new light. Was this something about Karuniya she had overlooked this whole time? She felt monumentally stupid for a moment, both deeply touched and deeply ashamed. She recalled when Karu teased her about being neglectful. Had she ever expressed to Karuniya this level of passion, of admiration?

“I’m sorry for making you sad, Karu. I seem to keep doing that.” Murati said.

“Don’t be sorry! I’m not crying because I’m sad.” Despite the presence of ever more tears, Karuniya continued to wipe her eyes frequently. Her lips slowly curled into a smile again. “I’m so happy that I’m here with you. I always thought that our careers would break us apart one day. I wanted us to be able to pursue our dreams together some day.”

“I could have stayed with you.” Murati said. “I could have left the Navy.”

“No, absolutely not. Because the woman I love doesn’t turn her back on her ambitions. All I want is for you to keep your chin up, and if you can’t take the pain, to please, please, come to me. I’m here for you. I want to be part of what makes you strong. And you don’t even know the degree to which you are part of what makes me strong too.”

Her words hung in the air for a moment. She looked down at Murati, locking eyes.

“I feel like you’re confessing to me all over again.” Murati said warmly.

“Think of it as my long overdue vows then.” Karuniya said, wiping more fresh tears.

Murati sat up from Karuniya’s lap and turned around on the bed to face her.

She took Karuniya’s hands in her own and looked deep into her eyes with determination.

Drawing out all of the feelings that she had trouble giving form to: her own vows.

“Karuniya, I admire you too. You’re so important to me!” She said. “You always felt so strong and casually confident. Like you knew you’d get anything you wanted. So maybe I haven’t been putting in the effort for you, from my end. Maybe I have been neglecting you. Ever since I met you, I wanted to be a part of your life. And I do want us to be able to pursue our dreams while having a home with each other. I’m sorry I’m telling you this on a fucking warship.”

“Sounds like we both need to practice that whole ‘openness’ thing more often.” Karuniya smiled.

“I guess so. But you know… there was always language we shared that we both understood.”

Murati took Karuniya, pulled her in and suddenly kissed her.

She seized her with such fervor that she stumbled over her in bed. Not one more word was said. Their eyes locked together, and the pair followed their hearts and bodies, laughing in each other’s faces, fumbling with each other’s shirts, kissing on the lips, on the neck, biting, clawing, breathing heavy with the weight of their passion.


Marina knocked on the door to the room but let herself in without waiting for recognition.

Not that Elena wanted to say anything to her.

When she saw who was at the door, she curled back up in her bunk and turned her back. On the floor, her coat and pants lay discarded. She had thrown herself to bed in her bodysuit alone. Covered up with the blankets, she wanted nothing more than to sleep for months, maybe years. To sleep until she couldn’t tell sleep from this nightmare.

“Settling in?” Marina asked with a sweetness Elena read as forced.

Marina stepped in and the door closed. Elena made a low, irritated noise in response.

She had stood for about an hour in the hall while Marina talked with the Captain.

Then the Captain returned, introduced herself briefly, and took her things to another room.

Elena finally got to lie down and had five minutes of peace before Marina barged in.

The more she thought about everything happening to her, the angrier Elena became.

Her feet hurt. She felt like she had never walked so much in her life without having a soft bed to settle into. The bunks in this ship were not the same. Everything seemed to be filled with a stiff gel, from the mattress to the pillows. Back in Vogelheim her pillows and her bed were feather-soft and held her body with perfect amount of resistance. Such a simple thing, and even that was denied to her in current predicament. She almost wanted to cry about it.

And she felt stupid for that. Stupid, small, helpless, unable to do anything for herself.

“I have to get a medical evaluation on the Captain’s orders. I’ll be back later.”

“Why?”

Elena turned around briefly to look at her self-styled guardian’s face as she responded.

Why would they care about Marina’s health? They would be gone in a few days, right?

That ‘why?’ seemed to go through Marina like a knife. Her face grew sullen.

“Shit. How do I explain this?”

“Explain what? Explain fucking what Marina?”

Curse words just tumbled out of Elena’s royal lips now. Maybe Marina’s influence.

Elena had become practiced in pinning every problem on that woman’s influence.

Marina sighed audibly. She covered her face with one hand.

“We’re not going to the Union anymore. The Brigand has a different mission–”

“Ugh. Whatever. I don’t even care anymore. Just go away and let me sleep then.”

After a sharp pang of anger all Elena felt was a hole in her chest, as if sucking in air.

She turned her back on the door again and covered herself in the stiff blankets.

“Tell me when we’ve arrived wherever we’re supposed to be.”

She heard a foot stomp on the room floor.

“Elena, I’m really not in the mood for your fucking attitude. You better start shaping up.”

Oh? Gears started spinning in the princess’ head and heart.

“Yeah? So what? Are you going to knock me out again? Stuff me in a crate?”

Elena gritted her teeth under her blankets. She let herself steep in hating Marina.

 “I’m strongly considering it.” Marina grunted.

There was a little, pathetic victory swelling in the heart of the lost Princess.

She had hurt Marina finally. Finally pierced through her shitty little armor.

She could feel it. Radiating from Marina like a cursed fire.

“I’m not scared of you.”

“Elena–”

“I just have to touch your bare skin; you’ll go down crying like a baby again.”

“Elena!”

“It’s Elen, stupid, don’t blow my cover, especially if we’re going to be here longer.”

Marina’s breathing grew heavier and more audible.

“I can’t believe you. You ungrateful– I’ve done nothing but protect you–”

“Looking for a reward? You won’t get one from me. I don’t have anything anymore.”

“If your mother could see you like this–”

“Shut up about my mother! Just go get your head checked already.”

In an instant she heard the door slide open and closed again behind her.

All of this was Marina’s fault. And Marina didn’t even care about her anyway.

Your mother this; your mother that. Every other word out of her mouth was about Elena’s mother. If she was doing all this for Elena’s mother, well, that woman was dead. Elena barely remembered her. Certainly, Elena was not doing a goddamned thing for her mother’s sake. Her mother abandoned her in Vogelheim to be an accessory to the Emperor’s family gatherings. Had Marina even once said she was doing anything for Elena’s own sake alone? She couldn’t recall.

“I hate you. Just leave me alone.” She mumbled to herself, tears swelling in her eyes.

She did not want to say another word to Marina ever again.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.7]

After their eventful walk into the industrial core of Serrano station, Murati and her team finally stood before the Warehouse No. 6 office door. All of those tall, tight buildings slowly gave way to the low, broad warehouses that stood within their fenced blacktop. There were workers organizing goods in the other warehouses, but No. 6 looked almost deserted. Discarded equipment outside, nobody going down the back or sides of the building. They couldn’t hear any activity from in or around the building.

Zachikova was sure that this was the location indicated in the E.L.F. message, however.

Their VIP would be waiting for them inside, and they would then escort them to the ship.

“Will you be okay, Lieutenant?” Zachikova asked. “You’ve been out of it.”

“She’ll be fine.” Shalikova butted in suddenly.

Zachikova blinked hard at her in surprise and narrowed her eyes.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’ll be okay.” Murati said, before Shalikova could make some kind of response to Zachikova’s glaring. She was surprised that Shalikova had stood up for her. “I’m sorry about before, but that– it won’t happen again. We’ll meet with the VIP, and extract. I’ve seen enough of this awful city to last me a lifetime, so I won’t be distracted any longer.”

Murati felt quite embarrassed. She had really been failing to lead them.

Zachikova had gotten them to the VIP’s location. Now Murati had to take charge.

“You once tried to comfort me by saying you trusted me despite the tension during our technology meeting. I’ll return the favor. I trust you, Lieutenant. I’ll let you do the talking.”

Zachikova briefly saluted her. Murati could not help but smile.

She had thought Zachikova was angry at her, but she was glad to still have her support.

Even Shalikova looked a little surprised to see them getting along now.

“Thank you, Zachikova.” Murati said. “Shalikova, I’ll be relying on your instincts in there too.”

“Just do the talking and let’s get out of here.”

Shalikova averted her gaze from the two of them, kicking her feet a little.

Who knew what was going on behind those big indigo eyes of hers?

Murati laid her hand on the door-handle, took a deep breath–

“Wait!”

Zachikova tapped her ear as if to indicate something, while reaching out to stop Murati.

Was she getting a message?

“Is it the Captain?” Murati asked. She swallowed a bit of bitterness that crept into her voice.

“We have new information. Identify yourself as coming from ‘Cyril Station’ at this office.” Zachikova pointed to the door. “That will let the man on the door know who we are. Apparently, there have been a few individuals asking for passage to the Union lately, and the dockworkers are on edge about it. The Captain said not to contact her in front of them: it might freak them out.”

“Got it. Thanks for the heads up.”

“It’s just my job.”

Zachikova winked her eye with an otherwise completely deadpan expression.

Murati turned back to the door, twisted the handle and finally, walked inside.

“We’re here to pick up!”

Entering from the city street was jarring. Warehouse No. 6’s front office was tight and clean and sparse, entirely utilitarian in nature, a sharp contrast with the city that surrounded it. It resembled Union offices in a sense, nothing more than a square room with a few chairs that folded out of the wall, and a single long desk behind which an older man stood. There was a poster on the wall that explained the “cargo cycle” as if it was an organic, circular process driven by nature.

Behind the desk there was one door, slightly ajar, the crack fully shadowed.

Two women stood on the opposite side of the counter, arguing with the old man behind it. They were dressed in tailored suits, black and grey with sharp jackets and pants, white shirts, black ties. There was a younger woman, maybe even an older teenager judging from the gentleness of her features, with the clearest skin Murati had ever seen and flowing, silky dark hair; and a taller, clearly more mature lady, leaning on the counter and seemingly doing most of the talking. She had her hair pinned up messily behind her head, bangs over one eye, and a severe expression. Her black bodysuit covered up to her neck. Though not as strikingly beautiful as her partner, the older woman clearly made up well, and exuded a sort of gritty handsomeness.

When they turned around to meet the arrivals, the younger woman seemed untroubled.

 But the older woman’s expression was almost wild with anxiety for a brief moment.

The pair reminded Murati of stereotypical depictions of foreign agents.

“G-men” they were called. Even in the Union, tropes like that persisted in media.

“Badge,” Shalikova whispered. “Back pants pocket.”

Murati did not visibly acknowledge.

“Um. I’m Murati– I mean– I came from Cyril station!”

She raised her hand up to her shoulder and waved with a smile. Stupid! I’m so stupid!

Zachikova looked at her with a bit of confusion. Murati was thrashing inside herself.

I can do this, it’s not a problem! Remember your speeches at all those navy meetings.

Murati steeled herself. She didn’t know what she was seeing yet, but she had to take charge.

The old man behind the counter clapped his hands together and greeted the new arrivals.

“Cyril Station?” He said. “Then the women of the hour have finally arrived! My name is Benji! You came for the girl in the back, but can I have just a bit of your time first? I got some friends here who could use your help too. We’re all comrades here, right?”

At the counter, the older of the pair of women turned fully around.

She leaned back against the counter with a crooked grin on her face.

“You could call me Benji’s friend.” She said. “But my name’s Marina McKennedy.”

She then pushed off from the counter and walked forward, extending a hand to Murati.

Murati looked down at it briefly and took it, shaking hands with Marina.

“Heh, I thought you’d leave me hanging for a second, Union.” Marina said.

At that moment, the younger woman stepped forward with sudden determination.

“I’m Elen–”

Marina wrapped an arm around her just as suddenly to quiet her.

“This girl’s my partner, she’s a bit clueless! Let’s talk, Union, just you ladies and I.”

Elen did not look very happy to have been swept up against Marina’s chest.

Just then, Marina reached behind her back.

Murati would’ve had her hackles up had Shalikova not told her about the badge.

Instead of a weapon, Marina did indeed produce some form of identification.

She flashed her badge at them.

Carried in a plastic folding wallet, it was a badge with an owl atop a shield.

“Marina McKennedy, General Intelligence Agency or G.I.A. I’m from the Republic.”

“That badge is pretty banged up.” Shalikova said. She was staring daggers at Marina.

“Well, I’ve been pretty banged up myself.” Marina said. She winked at Shalikova.

Unlike Shalikova, Murati could not tell at first glance anything much about the badge.

In that brief moment when Marina unveiled it, Shalikova must have been able to notice.

“Hand the badge to my associate.” Murati nodded toward Zachikova. “She can verify it.”

They did not confer about this beforehand, of course, but Murati trusted Zachikova.

Marina sighed deeply and handed the badge over to Zachikova as Murati instructed.

Zachikova quietly complied with Murati’s tactic and scanned over the badge.

Tiny yellow lights played about the surface of her eyeballs.

She was deep in thought for a moment. Then she handed the object back to Marina.

“It’s a gold Osmium alloy. It has her name and some identifying information. Or, well, it has a name.”

Marina looked conflicted for a moment. “If you want to interrogate me on the name, fine.”

Elen looked between Zachikova and Marina with her gentle brow furrowed in confusion.

“Lieutenant.” Zachikova looked to Murati. “Republic ID badges are known to be alloyed with Osmium. It’s a relatively rare metal as far as the composition of the planet’s crust, but it’s in high supply due to Agarthicite mining. They are found together in nature. Osmium is the only known agarthic suppressor: a dense piece of Osmium will rebuff small exposures to agarthic energy, and a very large annihilation can be “slowed” by Osmium, causing less destruction.”

“I see.” Murati said. “They add Osmium to the badges as a symbolic gesture.”

“Correct. It will probably not survive a ship’s annihilation, but it is more durable. At any rate: this badge is authentic.”

“And it has her name on it– or you said, a name. Can we confirm her identity with it?”

Marina looked like she was bracing herself to hear something she did not want to.

“It has the name Blake McClinton.” Zachikova said. Marina cringed a tiny bit and sighed openly. “It also has a message printed on it. Any ordinary person would not be able to tell, but it’s encoded text. I bet that it can be read by machine to ID an agent, but the agent would know the content of text as a challenge. What’s the message on the badge, Marina McKennedy?”

“I give this blood not for love or country, but for world peace.” Marina replied bitterly.

Zachikova nodded. “Lieutenant, she either ran a thorough scan on this badge after she stole it and has a lot of inside information about it; or she is the owner of this very authentic badge, but placed in interesting circumstances.”

“Are we done?” Marina said. “That was my old name you just blabbed out. I’m the owner of this badge.”

At that point, Murati truly understood the situation.

Elen’s gaze turned to focus on Marina. She looked like her brain was working overtime to decipher this.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Let’s not be insensitive, Ensign. Please apologize.”

“Of course.” Zachikova bowed her head to Marina. “I apologize for deadnaming you.”

“Whatever. You did what you had to do.” Marina met Murati’s eyes. “So, Lieutenant, you can confirm that I am who I say I am. My partner here is just an analyst, not a full-fledged agent, and she’s also a cis woman so there’s nothing you can grill her on.” She was making a joke, but it was a pretty bitter-sounding one. “Do we want to go through more tedious interrogation, or can we talk?”

“I’m also transgender, so please forgive us for what happened. I’d like to hear your story, Marina.”

“My story is much too long; the reason I need your help is that our spy cell disbanded and scattered.”

Murati nodded. She retained a neutral expression, but she was anxious about Marina. This whole situation was very irregular but if she was cautious, it could become an opportunity too. “Are you compromised?” She asked. It was the most obvious sticking point.

“No. I made it out with my partner. We’ve been avoiding the authorities, and I am certain we don’t have a tail or a trail of any kind. We just need to escape somewhere safe. We don’t have any contacts or resources left in the Empire, so we can’t resume operations here. However, we have inside information about the situation in the Empire. We have a lot of value to the Union.”

Marina reached out and confidently tapped Murati on the chest with her index finger.

“If you get us out of here, we’ll make it worth your superior’s time, Lieutenant.”

Murati looked around Marina. Behind the desk, Benji nearly jumped from her gaze.

All of Murati’s pent-up malice was channeled into the glare she was giving Benji.

“Benji, Marina is not the person we came to pick up. She’s your ‘friend’ — right?”

“Yes, that’s correct. I told you, the girl you want is in the back right now.” Benji said.

“So you just told Marina about us. And you just promised her she can get on our ship?”

Benji was caught in a vice. Murati understood everything.

Marina needed to run away, and she had depended on the smuggling dockworkers of Serrano to get her over the Union border, like many before her. But his arrangement with Marina had fallen through, and to avoid the wrath of a G.I.A. operative he desperately promised her a spot aboard the Brigand, whom he had already arranged to deliver a different person. So he knew they were coming to pick that person up. Marina was not the VIP — he had tripped up and told them this immediately.

Too honest for his own good, and yet quite conniving away from their eyes.

He was slowly devolving into a stammering mess as Murati stared him down.

“I mean– Ms. Lieutenant, ma’am I– I didn’t promise anything–”

Marina grit her teeth. “You miserable fucking sack of shit–”

“Benji, it looks like nobody is happy here. I’m not happy. She’s not happy.”

Murati shook her head at him. To play these games with military personnel was not wise.

But she judged the situation as one that she could gain from. She had him in her grip.

“I’ll take Marina and her analyst to meet my superiors on our ship.” She said. “But you have overstepped the bounds of your relationship to the Union, so we’ll need you to do us a favor, or we’ll leave Marina and her friend here to take out her anger on you. Are we understanding one another, Benji?”

Her voice was icy cold, ruthless. She did not betray an ounce of sympathy to this man.

Marina seemed to understand what she was doing and started to grin.

“Y-Yes, of course ma’am. I don’t want to upset any of my clients after all.”

Benji submitted but was still apprehensive. “But ma’am, I’m not sure what I can do–”

Murati raised her hand sharply as if to block his words and interrupted him, keeping up the pressure.

“We’ll be leaving with more people than we intended. If we all exit as a party, we’ll draw more attention. Unwanted attention, Benji. For ourselves and ultimately for you. So you will help us get back to the port faster and safer. You’ll deliver us to the port in one of your lorries. We’ll also be needing some additional supplies for the extra people. Are we clear on that?”

She glanced over at Shalikova and Zachikova, who nodded their acknowledgment.

Marina looked like she was holding back an uproarious amount of laughter.

Benji looked mortified at the prospect of handing over warehouse gear to them.

“Supplies? And a lorry? Well, with all due respect, ma’am– I’m not sure I can get you–”

“Do you want my security detail to have to come escort us, Benji?” Murati said.

That threat visibly shook Benji to his core. “No, of course not. I’m at your service.”

Murati grunted, maintaining her aura of displeasure to keep Benji under her foot.

“Very well. Then I would like to finally meet our actual charge and get her out of here.”

“She’s at the door.” Shalikova said suddenly.

At that moment, the door behind Benji did finally open up. He almost jumped with surprise.

A soft, gentle, but firm voice addressed the room with great confidence.

“Indeed, how observant. I’ve been listening. I’m in agreement with the plan, Lieutenant.”

Stepping out of the shadows, a young woman pulled down her black hood to show her face.

“My name is Maryam Karahalios. I met with a Union agent here in Serrano who promised that he would help me escape. I’m a political refugee and have information to give the Union. I apologize if I caused any trouble.”

Her long, straight hair brightened before Murati’s eyes, taking on a pale purple hue, and her pink skin very slightly lightened as if adapting its color to the light. What looked at first like two discrete lengths of hair shifted and moved from the sides of her head, shaking themselves free of the interior of the hood and revealing round, paddle-like ends that could move independently.

Two thin, fin-like structures atop her head wriggled slightly as the hood brushed over them.

Her retinas were deep purple with green and black pupils the shape of a W. When Murati looked into her eyes she thought, for an instant, that she saw something like a red glow to them. This effect was brief, and they quickly returned to their previous color. Murati chalked it up to the same effect as her hair and skin. She must have had some ability to change the pigment of her body.

There was no doubt that she was a Pelagis. From the looks of it, with cuttlefish traits.

Nonetheless, all Pelagis were human, and this was by all accounts just a harmless, slender young lady.

Murati could not openly give her the benefit of the doubt that easily, however.

“I also wanted to say, I believe we would all benefit from the G.I.A. agent’s information as well.”

Maryam gave them a sweet smile that really made her delicate features shine.

Though perhaps, part of that shine was also the color manipulation.

Marina crossed her arms and stepped aside to allow Murati to approach the Pelagis.

“We were ordered to pick up a VIP here.” Murati said, trying to size up the gentle and waifish-looking Maryam. One could not put all their trust on surface appearances when it came to military affairs. “I assume that’s you, but I have no way to confirm. So I am hoping that you prepared for this eventuality and can provide proof for us. Do you understand, Maryam?”

“Of course. You are right to be cautious. It was like this when I escaped from Katarre too. Your agent and I thought ahead, and we furnished these– hopefully, it’s enough proof.”

From her long and modest black dress, Maryam produced an item to hand to Murati.

It was in fact a thin, plastic folder of Union ID sheets. They even had a stamp on the corner.

Murati had seen and dealt with identification documents.

She could not be sure that the stamp was up to date or accurate in any way, but the idiosyncrasies of Union documentation were clearly visible. For example, the fields for “self-identification,” “sexuality” and “gender” which Pelagis usually filled with jokes. These were never present in Imperial documents, and sloppy forgeries would not have bothered with such a minor detail, but Union documents were exacting about allowing the person to choose their own identity to be referred by. In Maryam’s case, she had doodled a smiling, round cuttlefish for her self-identification and written “inky” in her gender but she did disclose her bisexuality.

A Union citizen definitely issued these documents to Maryam.

While Murati looked over the sheets, Maryam turned her odd gaze to Shalikova.

Her face turned a slightly flushed color. Even her hair shifted to look slightly brighter.

“You have beautiful eyes, and so sharp. I’m not easy to see, you know?” She said.

Shalikova stood stiff and speechless. She averted her gaze — their eyes had briefly locked.

“I’ve only come this far because of my camouflage. I’m glad you’re not my enemy.”

Maryam lifted her long skirt in a curtsy for Shalikova that quite upset the indigo-eyed girl.

“You really don’t have to! My eyes are nothing special! Lieutenant, is she legit or what?”

“She’s legit. She definitely got those papers from a Union agent. That’s good enough.”

Murati handed the sheets back to Maryam, smiling at Shalikova’s exaggerated displeasure.

“We’ll talk more on the ship. Just know, if you’re lying to us, we’ll jettison you right out.”

For an instant, Maryam’s skin and hair turned a spotty, dusty white, then back to normal.

“Of course. You have nothing to worry about from me. I was a Solceanos sister, you know.”

“So was my mother.” Murati said. “And that didn’t stop her from killing a lot of folks.”


“Are you able to tell me your name? I’d love to have something to call you.”

Shalikova grunted and turned her head away. There was not much else to stare at than Maryam and the walls of the crate around them. Even when she turned her head, Shalikova could still see a pale white light from the gentle bioluminescent glow of Maryam’s tentacles and from a strip of soft bioluminescent flesh across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes. There was no avoiding it. She was stuck in a box with this woman, so she had to humor her at least a little bit.

“Sonya Shalikova. I’m no one important, so feel free to ignore me.”

“It’s a beautiful name. As beautiful as your eyes are, Sonya.”

Going for the first name this soon?

This woman clearly wanted Shalikova to die. There was no other explanation.

“Oh come on! My eyes are nothing special! They’re just like anyone else’s eyes!”

Despite Shalikova’s attempts to rebuff her, Maryam sounded as excited as ever.

“Your eyes have a beautiful and rare color. And they saw through me so easily.”

“Maybe catching you sneaking around isn’t such a big accomplishment?”

Maryam giggled. “It’s not just that you saw me, but the circumstances.”

“Ugh, can you calm down? You’re so cheery for no reason.”

“You knew I was listening at the door the whole time, right? Even before I came out.”

“I spotted you when I called you out. That’s it. Nothing fantastic about it.”

“Ah, well, if you say so.”

Shalikova couldn’t escape her, laying down, side by side atop tight stacks of pack rations.

Never before had she felt so unnerved beside such a peaceful and harmless person.

“Sonya, you’ve helped me feel relief for the first time in months. I can’t thank you enough.”

Maryam shifted onto her side. She was definitely looking at Shalikova.

With her back turned to her, Shalikova avoided the eye contact that would have resulted.

“I haven’t done anything. You’re just way too quick to heap praise.”

Maryam giggled again.

But she acquiesced to Shalikova’s desire to be left alone and in silence, for a little while.

For a while, the two of them simply lay beside one another, waiting for the end of the ride.

The sooner Shalikova could leave this crate, and this woman’s side, the better.

It felt like such a blur of events. How had she come to be trapped in here?

After Murati had satisfied herself with interrogating everybody at the Warehouse, with the help of that G.I.A. agent they cornered the old dockworker into driving them to the docks. He had an electric lorry, eight-wheeled with a ten-ton bed, associated with Warehouse no. 6 but rarely used. Already loaded on this lorry were a few crates of packed imperial rations, from which the dockworkers would dole out one or two meals for the road, to the people they smuggled out.

Two of the crates were emptied enough that someone could easily lay atop the rations.

“This will be sufficient. Open up the crates for us. Shalikova and the VIP in one crate, and Marina and Elen in the other. Zachikova and I will hide in the front. You’ll drive, Benji.”

“I’ll drive? Ma’am, if the fellas see me running around, they might have the wrong–”

“Who do you need to please the most right now Benji? Us or your friends?”

“Right. I suppose that’s true. And you’ll be taking the rations too?”

“That’s the plan. We’ll stop at the entrance to the docks to report to our security team, and then you’ll drive the truck over to our ramp. We’ll do all the unloading, and then you take it back.”

“And I am not gonna be able to negotiate you down to letting me keep a crate?”

“No Benji, you’ve failed at negotiations enough as it is, we’ll spare you another one.”

Murati could be really terrifying when she wanted to. Shalikova made a mental note of it.

Afterward, Shalikova climbed onto a crate with Maryam and that was that.

“Do you believe in God, Sonya?”

Shalikova sighed. Her answer came quickly after, without much thought. “No.”

“Do you believe in something like fate then?”

“I guess I believe in luck.”

“I see! Then it was lucky that we met.” Maryam said.

“Look, you’re being really weird. How could you possibly think that? You don’t know anything about me.”

Shalikova turned around to meet Maryam’s eyes. She wanted to look at her.

She wanted to look at her so she could glare at her. But she was struck by what she saw.

When she met those w-shaped eyes they looked so soft and sad in return that Shalikova slowly lost her ability to be antagonistic toward her. Maryam in general was a very gentle-looking girl, so delicate and ephemeral that it almost felt like a strong gust of air could have scattered her like dust collecting on an intake vent. Shalikova dared not to touch her, but she imagined that the Pelagis must have felt like marshmallow, a skinny marshmallow, but soft and delicate, nonetheless.

It was hard to be angry at someone so vulnerable-looking, someone so gently full of sorrow.

“I’m sorry for getting too familiar. I’m just a very emotional girl I guess!”

Tears started to collect around the edges of Maryam’s eyes. Her jaw clenched a little.

“It’s really ok! You’re fine.” Shalikova said. A note of anxiety crept into her voice.

“I’m so sorry. I’m finally going somewhere safe, after all this time fearing for my life.”

Maryam sounded so emotional that even Shalikova could not just ignore her now. That Pelagis really was just going to break down crying in a box with her in it. Shalikova felt compelled to keep talking to her just to calm her down. As difficult as it was, she held Maryam’s gaze as warmly as she could. She could not just turn her head away again. That would have been cruel.

“You don’t have to be sorry! I’m glad you’re safe too! You said you were from Katarre?”

“Yes. I was born there. Unfortunately.” Maryam said.

It was tough to see, but her colors shifted. She turned paler than normal.

“Well. I don’t know how you could feel safer with me, but I’m glad you feel safer.”

Maryam laughed bitterly. “I’m just happy to know where I’m going and with whom.”

Shalikova almost felt like saying she herself did not know where they would end up.

But with Maryam’s teetering mood, it was better she learned about the Brigand later.

So Shalikova choked down that truth and held Maryam’s gaze as best she could.

“I’ll– We’ll all help you out. So you don’t need to cry or worry about anything.”

Growing up in Katarre must have been really rough. Shalikova could not imagine it.

She was just a baby when her family was deported to the Union. It was impossible for her to remember the battles of the revolution. And even then, growing up in a poor country after a horrible war, she knew she could not compare her experiences of pain and privation to those of a Katarran. Shalikova was not as much of a historian as a certain self-righteous Lieutenant she knew, but everyone who studied in the Union learned about places in the world like the Empire, the Republic, the Eastern lands like Hanwa and Yu and about the Empire’s neighbor, Katarre.

Katarre brought out the doomsayer in anyone who spoke of it. People called it an eternal battlefield, a hell on Aer where life had no value, a red sea of scattered ruins. Children there were born and bred for either slavery or death. Unethical sciences ran rampant in Katarre to the point that most of the population were Pelagis. It was a place where it was cheaper to tamper with eggs and sperm than to conceive children. A place where a gun was worth more than a human body.

Those who escaped from there did so with terrible scars and few prospects. All they had were their durable bodies, with whatever engineering the Katarrans did to them, and what little education they picked up along the way. In the Empire, they did dirty jobs, or became criminals and mercenaries in desperation. There were fewer Katarrans in the Union, because Katarrans wanted to build up wealth to return to their country and free their families, or start businesses.

A Katarran who decided to go the Union therefore had no use for wealth, no family. Maryam must have been like that. Running away, all alone. First from Katarre and then from the Empire’s religious cult. The more she thought about it, the more Shalikova couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Maryam looked nothing like Shalikova imagined a Katarran would look like.

She was just a sad and scared girl who had been running and hiding.

Or at least, that’s what Shalikova thought.

Maybe she was doing that thing again– where she read too much into someone else.

But she couldn’t turn away when someone was hurting. It just– It wasn’t right.

So despite her reservations, Shalikova tried to comfort Maryam.

“Hey, don’t cry. You’ll be fine now. We’re communists, we help everybody.”

Maryam wiped her hands over her eyes. She smiled. Her color started to return.

“Your eyes are so kind Shalikova. You’ll protect me, right?”

Shalikova felt Maryam’s tentacles reach out curl against her hip and shuddered suddenly at the touch.

Normally her tentacles masqueraded among her long hair, but now they were stretching out.

Her hands she kept to herself, but Maryam clearly looked like she wanted to get closer.

“I’ll– I’ll do what I can I guess–”

“You will protect me, Sonya.”

Maryam’s locked eyes with her, a bright red glow suddenly emitting from them.

At first Shalikova thought she was hallucinating it, but it was there, clear as day.

Her odd w-shaped pelagis eyes had a red, glowing ring that they did not possess before.

Shalikova almost felt like that glow was trying to consume her.

It felt so deep, like gazing through an open doorway–

And just as suddenly as it had appeared, it just vanished.

Maryam closed her eyes and smiled happily.

“You’re a very special person Sonya. God would not give your gifts to someone evil.”

“If you say so– I mean. Thanks, I guess. Sorry, I’m not good with random praise.”

Shalikova finally felt a bit of relief inside herself. She couldn’t have just laid there while a girl was bawling her eyes out just centimeters away. But what a tedious situation! She would have never predicted their VIP would be like this. What was all that about her eyes? If anything, Maryam’s eyes were far more interesting. She wondered if Maryam was like her — a bit too observant for her own good. Then again, everyone on the Brigand was a weirdo in their own way.

At least Maryam was calm and content the rest of the way. That was what mattered most.


On the busy street outside the entrance to the port, while nobody was looking, a group of people exited the back of a lorry. They easily filtered in among the crowd and crossed the bridge back into the port, now accompanying the lorry. Among those to drop unnoticed into the street was Elena von Fueller. She had regrettably already become comfortable being treated like cargo, as this happened to be one of Marina’s preferred ways of getting around unnoticed. So the ride to the port hardly caused her anxiety. In fact, she was somewhat numb to everything happening..

Nobody knew who she was with her hair dyed and her lavish dress and makeup long gone.

Having failed to come up with a cover, she was now “Elen,” a quiet Republic analyst.

Marina was the center of attention, and the real prize in anyone’s eyes. Nobody saw “Elen.”

At the entrance to the port, the communists collected the two unassuming women forming their security detail. Elena thought this, but of course, she should not have judged them so easily. After all she had been surrounded by characters like Gertrude, and then later, Victoria, and even Sawyer who apparently took everything away from her. Unassuming girls could be quite strong.

It was only Elena who was now unassuming but also weak. She was nothing but a little shrimp swept up in the great streams blowing around her. Marina told her to walk, so she walked. She told her to trust the communists, so she did. She told her to get on their ship, so she did it.

She could scream, and yell, and cry all she wanted, and she did, with great fervor.

But at that moment, she was just tired. This would be the fourth station she’d leave behind.

For what purpose? She did not even know what life she would have.

She stepped on the cargo elevator of the hauler Marina had been looking at when they arrived at Serrano. To think this was the ship of destiny Marina had been so anxiously escaping towards. This was the Brigand — the ship that would ferry her out to the Union. As she was lifted up into the bowels of the ship, she cast a glance down at the port. This was a moment that to her, should have had no meaning, like the rest. And yet, it was fateful, because she chose to do it herself.

For an instant, her tired indigo eyes locked with a pair of green eyes down on the port walkway.

A tall, handsome woman in uniform cast her own brief glance at the rising cargo elevator.

Elena could not believe it. Their eyes met and their gazes held as long as they could.

It was impossible that she had been seen and understood to be who she truly was.

Elena ignored it. She chose to believe that moment was a figment of her weary imagination.

She could not have known the tragedy that would unfold from briefly meeting those eyes.            

From briefly and fatefully giving a terrible hope to Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg.


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