“Huh. It’s really beautiful. I want to play with it.”
Through the visual sensors of a recon drone, Braya Zachikova observed a novel creature in the middle of the desolate, rocky oceans of northern Sverland. It had appeared from out of nowhere as many things in the ocean did, seen first as a blip of biological noise in the sonar before flitting in front of the cameras. In a rare fanciful mood, Zachikova felt it looked like a beautiful dancer in a red and white dress. A fuciform fish-like body pure white and mottled with red, ended in a sleek head and possessed grand and ornate fins that seemed almost silken, gently swaying in the water. On its rear, a pair of small biological hydrojets hidden behind similarly lovely curtain-like fins, like the hem of a dress, spun spiraling patterns into the ocean that indicated that this organism was not something ordinary.
Only Leviathans of various descriptions used biojet propulsion.
Large as the drone itself, which was the size of a car, this was something Zachikova should have reported as an “incident” worthy of a combat response. Instead, she found herself watching the animal idly. It was curious, closing in with gentle, elegant strokes of its fins, circling around the drone such that Zachikova had to flip a mental switch to move from camera to camera and follow it. She began to track the creature closely.
It was graceful, taking care not to bump into the silver-blue steel chassis of the drone.
Her optics made brief contact with the dancer’s bright lilac-colored eyes.
Zachikova almost thought she heard it say something.
She would have snickered, but the drone had no such faculties to convey emotions.
Her human body, connected to the drone through her antennae, snickered in her place.
“Nothing wrong with playing a little. It’s not like I’m behind on my work at all anyway.”
Perhaps uncharacteristically, Zachikova loved animals. They fascinated her.
They were like machines, built to purpose and perfection from birth.
She extended the arms of the drone, hoping for a response but not too invested in one.
Her heart swelled for a brief moment as the dancer complied with her.
Twirling in shimmering arcs around the arms as if it understood what she wanted.
A fleeting tactile sensation. Softness. Those diaphanous fins brushing on her arms.
“Beautiful!” Such emotion as Zachikova had not felt in a long time. Pure innocent joy.
It was so agile and elegant! So intelligent too– it definitely divined her intent and played along with her. It– no, she, for the dancer had to be female– she was moving deliberately. Zachikova had never seen a creature move like the dancer and had never had such an interaction with an animal before. With her mind almost entirely contained within the chassis of the drone, she almost felt like a peer to the creature. She felt a strange sense of euphoria.
Unfortunately, something interrupted her by touching her flesh and blood body.
Flipping that mental switch again, Zachikova switched from the optics of the drone to her own optics. Those two transplanted mechanical eyes which had been installed in her head due to the destruction of her own by Hartz syndrome. When she looked through them, she saw a round-faced, chubby blond girl waving at her and trying to get attention. Switching her gaze from one machine to another machine was not such an effort– but it took Zachikova quite a few seconds more to pull her self, her personhood out of the drone and to establish her center of gravity and thought in her own body. It was only then that she could talk to humans again.
I’m sorry. Please wait for me. She almost wanted to say this to the beautiful dancer.
And she really wanted to believe she had heard ‘Of course, Braya’ back from it.
That was of course entirely a fantasy.
“Semyonova.” Zachikova said, nodding her head in acknowledgment.
“Good evening Zachikova! I’m here to relieve you! You ought to go rest.”
Natalya Semyonova patted her on the shoulder with a friendly eagerness and a splendid smile.
Despite her cheerfully pushy personality, Zachikova could not make herself be rude to Semyonova.
Beautiful, smart, possessed of a powerful voice, Semyonova really had no faults.
Even Zachikova had to respect the efficiency with which she adapted to her purpose.
They were of course on the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand– Zachikova felt some of the residual chill of the deep waters on her body, part of the strange psychosomatic effects of shifting her consciousness into a machine through the use of her cybernetic implants. She started to recall that she had been working the late shift. In a seven day work-week, four or five of the late shifts were usually worked by perennial lateshifters Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa. However, Semyonova made sure they had days when they were middle shifters so they could have rest.
On those days, she always worked one of the late shifts herself.
“As the Officer’s Union Representative, I’d be remiss to avoid this responsibility!”
Those were her reasons at the time.
Zachikova usually took a late shift as well in such cases and worked as long as she could.
“I’m here for a challenge, not for the accommodations. If I can be doing something, I will.”
Those were her reasons at the time.
And those same reasons, and new ones, compelled her to shake her head at Natalya.
“I’d rather keep working, Semyonova. Without Geninov, I’m the only drone-certified officer around.”
Semyonova crossed her arms at her.
“I know you would prefer to work all day and night, but we didn’t fight a whole revolution to act like slaves now! Even someone as dedicated as you needs to rest, Zachikova! Otherwise it will definitely catch up to you one day. I’m sending you away to bed right this instant. I can keep track of everything with the sonar.” She said.
“The Captain wanted active drone surveillance whenever possible.”
“Yes, and you’ve been splendid! But tomorrow’s splendid work, starts with having good sleep today.”
She said that with a tone of voice that seemed to indicate it was a touchy subject for her.
Zachikova knew not to fight this unwanted gesture of kindness. A few days had passed since the Brigand confronted the Iron Lady, and everyone was tense and anxious. They were working nonstop in case another threat arose. Fleeing as fast as they could while trying to find a place they could hide and repair the ship.
In the meantime, the bridge was running at breakneck speed, staffed at varying capacities 24/7. After being caught off-guard once before, rapid response became paramount and there were even plans to run surprise readiness drills. Semyonova herself was running a bit ragged with all the hubbub but she didn’t complain.
As the Union rep she must have felt the responsibility to set an example.
And she was also the chief of communications, so she always processing messages.
“I’ve got piles of work, but I know there’s no point in arguing.” Zachikova droned.
In reality, what she really wanted to do was play, and perhaps her disappointment showed.
“Ahh, what’s that face? Now I feel kinda bad for pulling you off work, you know?”
Semyonova sighed and looked conflicted for a moment.
Zachikova didn’t feel guilty even though in a sense, she was sort of lying. Whether it was exploring around the Brigand with the trailing drone or a spy tentacle or writing scripts and programs to run the various hidden functions of the ship, or performing any maintenance needed on the supercomputer, there were lots of things Zachikova could be doing at any given moment. Right then she was just slacking; but it was true that she was busy. Sleeping was still inconvenient.
Back in the Special Forces she was even known as Black Bags Braya. Sleeping was an unwelcome obstacle.
Sleep was nothing but a defect in the human machine and she despised it.
But it was what it was; Zachikova made the situation easier by standing up, unplugging her antenna from the console, and walking away without further notice. She heard nothing from the Bridge and didn’t stop. Her room was not even that far from the bridge. Without a goodbye or well wishes, she simply left Semyonova. Her demeanor was not aggravated. She simply saw no need to make pleasantries. They were just on this ship for a mission after all.
Stepping through doors that closed behind her, she found her room as she had left it. She spent very little time in her room. Nothing but bunks and sheets and a big grey passcode locked case thrown in a corner. That case had all her special tools. It was Zachikova’s only personal property. Clothes or food goods, she brought no such items from home. This was the room of a girl whose brain was practically the only thing she needed to work.
“If she wants me to sleep, I guess I’ll sleep. I kinda wish I could see her again though.”
Zachikova threw herself on her unmade bed and laid on her side.
She closed her eyes.
Instead of the darkness inside her eyelids, she imagined the Ocean again.
She could see it vivid and firsthand as if through the drone optics. Except the fidelity was impossible; like a painting of what she Ocean should be. Beautiful gemstone-like greens and blues as if rather than inundated in water the landscape was coated in an aquamarine glaze over kelp, shellfish, and beautiful corals. Seeing through the muck that had become of it into the most pristine waters of what it could be in a perfect world.
Amid everything, the dancer, swimming beautifully with Zachikova’s mechanical body.
They had the whole Ocean to themselves and it was pure bliss. There were no imperfections.
We’ll meet again. I want to touch you again, Braya.
Drifting off to sleep, Zachikova thought, she really wanted to touch her and to be touched again too.
Maryam often dreamt of the Aether.
In her dreams the landscape was an indeterminate stone circle, but it swirled with brilliant color. Within a maelstrom of colors and gradients, her hair blowing as if there was a wind, Maryam stood amid everything, as if in the center of the very world and all who lived within it, and she felt the emotion carried on that wind. That current which tied every person together no matter the violence they committed to each other, that bound them into action and consequence, that made their lives matter to each other no matter the degree of physical disconnection.
She could always see the colors in her life, but for the longest time, she never understood them, save the volatile red and black of the Warlord Athena whom she served. She learned to associate this with pain and the sight of death. But there was color everywhere, around people, and in her dreams. Even in the murky red seas of Katarre she could see blue and green around contented people, yellow around the sick, purple around the proud.
Associations that she grew to make.
Euphrates of the Sunlight Foundation explained it to her.
“Aether is a current that we couldn’t see until we immersed ourselves in the currents of the Ocean. Like a current, it flows. Forward and backward through space but also through time as humans could never hope to experience it. It is unbound, flowing everywhere, going places we can’t follow. But it is only visible where it touches humans, and it warps in response to our neurological energy. To see Aether, even at its most disturbed, takes psionic talent.”
Maryam liked the idea of the Aether.
She felt that, someday, everyone would be able to see it.
And like her, they would understand everyone around them without fail.
Maybe wars would finally end if that happened.
How naïve! If humans perfectly understood each other, they would use that power for war.
She was not dreaming.
But she was not back on the UNX-001 Brigand.
Still standing in that stone circle, but hearing the voice returned control of her body to her.
Her eyes narrowed; her cheerful smile contorted with disgust.
“Don’t speak to me anymore. I don’t trust you.”
You have such vast psionic potential, and you waste over half of it containing me.
He spoke in her own voice, but the tone was distinctly his.
And upon acknowledging him, he appeared, standing across the stone circle from her.
She saw her body, dressed in her habit.
Slender figure, long purple hair, w-shaped pupils in her eyes, her tentacles stretching from the side of her head camouflaged as if long tufts of her hair. But He always wore her colorshifting skin a sandy brown tone. And he lifted her tentacles into her hair such that the pads stuck up out from under her hair, like they were Shimii ears.
“I’m not going to trust you again.” She said.
He used her slim shoulders and arms to shrug, grinning at her with her own face.
Even in the prison of her mind, He could not speak, because he had no mouth but hers.
Instead he used psionics and projected his own thoughts into their brain.
This is how you repay me for saving us?
“I didn’t need your kind of saving.”
We would’ve never made it out of that damned church otherwise.
“You just wanted to hurt people for no reason. I could’ve escaped without killing anyone.”
Suit yourself. We’ll see how you deal with the world with that stupid attitude.
“I’ve been dealing just fine.”
How is mind controlling everyone any better than what I did?
“Because they lived through it, and I even made their lives better.”
You used to be such a nice girl to me. We would play together all the time!
“Yeah and I’ve matured to know playing with a thousand year old man was weird.”
I protected you!
“I don’t need you anymore.”
Across from her, her own face contorted into sudden confusion.
Perhaps even embarrassment or shame.
And then anger.
I hope you die then, Maryam Karahailos! Maybe my next roll of dice will be better!
“If you sabotage me, then may God curse your next hundred lives Faiyad Ayari!”
Maryam was not afraid of him. She cursed him because she could control him.
But for a small instant before he vanished, she thought she saw–
Could not have been. He couldn’t make such faces. Not even using hers.
He was nothing but a monster that needed caging in her.
Wallahi, I will never hurt you. I swear that on the God that has already cursed my lives.
That was not–
Where did that voice–?
Maryam’s colors became distorted, and she fell back into the current of dreams.
Sonya Shalikova bolted upright in bed and nearly screamed.
She grabbed hold of the sheets over her chest, casting eyes about the room.
No alarm lights.
Everything was still dim, but she could see Maryam Karahailos in the other bunk.
Sleeping soundly, a big dumb smile on her face, mumbling to herself. Changing colors as she slept, like a little wave sweeping across her hair and skin. There was a soft green glow from a strip of bioluminescent skin perpendicular across the bridge of her nose and under her eyes, but the rest of her colors were dim and shadowed.
Her snoring almost sounded like–
“Sonya~hehe–!” She snorted.
Shalikova shook her head to try to rattle herself to consciousness.
She could not be hearing something that stupid.
“Nightmares.” She mumbled to herself. “It’s been nothing but nightmares since I got out to fucking sea. Nightmares and a god awful tinnitus. Maybe I should go see the doctor for once.”
There was nothing more mortifying than talking to a doctor about her feelings. Receiving some kind of practiced clinical response back. When her sister– no, her mind refused to go there. She had gone to therapy before for various reasons and not for anything conclusive, and it had been annoying. But she was clearly rattled, and it was affecting her. She was up two hours earlier than the already early schedule she set for herself.
And then there was the contents of the dreams.
Shalikova raised her hands to her face with shame.
“No way. How do I tell her I dreamt a monster was jerking me off?”
That was not the only thing she dreamt but it was the strongest image she retained.
All of the dreams had similar patterns: voices, colors, tentacles. Vulnerability, helplessness, sex—
Shalikova threw herself back onto the bed and curled up with Comrade Fuzzy beneath the sheets. When it was dark, her room felt cavernous and consuming, like she could get lost in it. Her bed was her little corner where she could be safe. Ever since the battle with the Iron Lady, the most mundane things around her felt enormous and difficult to come to grips with. When she closed her eyes, but before she dreamed, what she saw was the Ocean through the cameras of the Diver. Massive curtains of flak fire, the great roaring of guns, the clashing of sawteeth on vibroblades.
She gritted her teeth. Frustrated at herself but unable to shake off these anxieties.
It had only been a handful of days since they escaped the Iron Lady.
And most of those days Shalikova spent in her room staring at the ceiling.
Today couldn’t be another of those days. Her shame would not permit it, and also–
Maryam’s voice reverberated in her head. Before bed last night, they sealed a pact:
“Tomorrow, you’ll show me around right? And we’ll eat together! Promise?”
“She was probably trying to shake me out of my rut.” Shalikova said to herself.
Regardless, in that moment, Shalikova had promised to hang out with Maryam. It would have been terribly low of her to completely disregard that promise. Especially with how badly Maryam seemed to want to be her friend ever since they met. Shalikova was not unaware of that. She found it a bit bizarre, but she was not so cold as to categorically dismiss Maryam’s desires. Despite everything, she could try to be welcoming to Maryam.
If she just wanted to walk around the ship and eat together at the canteen, that was doable.
Shalikova tried to relax and return to sleep– but she couldn’t manage it.
After a few hours her room lights brightened.
Shalikova turned her gaze from the ceiling and looked across the room at the other bed. There she found a pair of W-shaped pupils staring at her. A gentle pink face framed by long, silky, bright purple hair hiding a pair of tentacles. Thin, soft lips spread into a broad smile as those exotic purple-and-green eyes met the indigo across the room. Peeking out through her hair from the crown of her head two silken cephalopod wing fins stood on end when she realized Shalikova was awake.
“Sonyaaaaaaa~! Good morning!”
She was so cheerful that it was almost ridiculous.
Looking at her, Shalikova put on a tiny smile. Maryam had an infectious energy.
“Good morning. Have you been wearing that habit all this time?”
“Hmm? My habit? Yes, I have!”
She covered herself in blankets, but Shalikova could see the tall collar of her black dress. It was the kind that Solceanos “sisters” or “nuns” wore even in the Union. Long sleeved, with a very modest, almost grandmotherly design. Because of how roomy it looked, Shalikova imagined Maryam as maybe much more skinny or ephemeral than she really was, wrapped in loose cloth.
“We need to get you new clothes.” Shalikova said. “I’ve got an extra Treasure Box uniform you can use. Even if you haven’t really done anything the past few days, it’s not hygienic to keep wearing the same outfit.”
Maryam raised a hand to her mouth, hiding a silly little snickering face.
“Sonya, I don’t know that your spare clothes will fit me. I’m less hydrodynamic than you.”
She sat up in bed and pressed her dress a bit tighter to her chest to accentuate the curve.
Shalikova grunted. “Shut up. Your figure is not that different, and the material is stretchy.”
“Hmm! Well, if you want to see me dress up, I won’t complain!”
In that instant, Shalikova turned her back on Maryam and tapped on the wall.
Near Maryam’s bed, a wall panel opened.
Extending a small metal arm from which the uniform hung in a plastic bag. Along with the uniform there was a container of cleansing body spray which could clean the body in place of a shower. Shalikova had that compartment prepared in case she needed to get to work in a hurry, and now it served to give everything Maryam needed to make herself fresh and presentable.
Shalikova pointedly continued to stare at the wall.
She heard a small sigh, and the shifting of blankets and sheets on the other bed. Gentle footsteps, the ripping of the plastic bag, ruffling of synthetic fabric, the sound of spray discharging from the container, and more tiny noises of exertion before there was finally a bit of silence.
“Are you done yet?” Shalikova asked.
“Sonya this is silly! We’re both girls!” Maryam said.
“Tell me when you’re done changing and I’ll turn around.”
“I am done! Gaze upon my radiant beauty!”
Shalikova turned herself over on the bed.
Maryam looked indeed radiant but mostly because she was making her skin glow brighter using her chromatophores. However, Shalikova had to admit that the teal half-jacket, tight button-down shirt, and short skirt did flatter Maryam quite a bit. She did look much more eyecatching to Shalikova than in the black grandmother’s dress.
And maybe her figure was a little fuller than Shalikova’s.
“Good. Now turn around.”
Shalikova sat up in bed.
For the past few days she had been mostly sleeping so she had been dressed only in the same tanktop and shorts she wore to bed. What she wanted most was a shower but– with Maryam around a can of body foam would do nicely. That being said, she would do none of those things until a certain girl turned her W-shaped eyes to a wall.
“I’m not going to undress in front of you. I’m not that familiar with anyone. Turn around.”
Maryam sighed and crossed her arms. “I suppose this is also a cute side of Sonya.”
She turned her back on Shalikova. Her tentacles rose and covered her eyes with their pads.
“Thanks. Stay turned around until I tell you.”
Even with Maryam turned away, it was still strange to undress with someone in a private room together. Shalikova had gotten used to it in the bathroom, but she had considered her room to be her little fortress. Nevertheless, she threw her tanktop and shorts down the laundry chute, sprayed herself down with a can of cleaning foam, and dressed in the Treasure Box corporate uniform. She had started to like wearing just the sleeveless button-down and black tie with the pants and without the teal jacket. She tied the jacket around her waist instead. She thought it looked good that way.
As an Ensign she did not have a formal cap, only a beret as part of her Union navy uniform.
She could imagine herself looking good with a cap with this outfit, but she left the beret behind.
“Let’s go get some food first and then I’ll show you the hangar.” Shalikova said.
Maryam circled on her heel and laid eyes on Shalikova, positively beaming with delight.
“Handsome as always! No wonder you are one of the ‘four princes of the Brigand’!”
Shalikova felt her heart leaping in her chest. “Wait, wait– what did you say? I’m what–?”
“Oh nothing~!” Maryam started out of the room with a spring in her step. “Let’s go Sonya! We have a wonderful day ahead of us! Eating together, visiting the most romantic spots–!”
“What romantic spots? It’s a warship?” Shalikova said but was quickly spoken over.
“–I can even tell our fortunes in a secluded nook! It’ll be the best day ever!”
Sighing heavily, Shalikova followed along behind her.
As far as Shalikova knew the current state of the Brigand was one of escalated alertness.
Outside the rooms the hall was characterized by nervous activity. There was a great awful gash cut into the flank of the Brigand that needed repair, and the sailors were doing what they could while the Brigand was in motion. She saw men and women in the hall returning half-disrobed in pressure suits, wearing heavy magnetic boots and rope pulleys that others helped them to take off. They had come back from adjoining halls deliberately flooded and drained and flooded anew and with their pressures carefully adjusted to allow safe access to the damage sites. Full repairs to the exterior could not be conducted while the Brigand was moving “ahead full,” but they could make reinforcements to the walls of the flooded sector and set up tools and safety anchors to make future work much easier.
People were coming and going, at all times there was movement and chatter. Seeing so many sailors out working so hard made Shalikova feel so small. All she had been doing was sitting around and feeling sorry for herself. There was so little a soldier could do when there wasn’t fighting. She felt useless– and yet she also did not want any battles to break out, of course. They nearly lost Murati and Sameera in their first confrontation.
Both were still in the hospital as far as Shalikova knew.
“Pilot! You were awesome out there! Whoo!”
What was even more mortifying was that the sailors in the halls would greet her and cheer.
For the Sailors, the fastest way to the breach caused by the Iron Lady, was through the access ways linked to the upper pods of the Brigand’s double-deck layout. So many sailors from belowdecks who did not normally see Shalikova every day now got to pass her on the halls, closer than ever. She even thought she recognized a few of them from that big huddle and cheer that everyone held when she returned from the last battle.
So everyone who passed by made some kind of gesture or expression at her.
She tried not to wither from the sudden attention, but it was hard to wave back.
You guys are the heroes! I’m just going to get breakfast; I’m not doing shit!
“Wow Sonya! Everyone really loves you!” Maryam said.
Shalikova wished she had a hat to pull down over her eyes.
There was one upshot to all this, which was that the sailors were so busy in they were not crowding the canteen much at all. There were always a handful of them running in and out, taking bread and thermoses full of soup, but very few were sitting down to eat. Not only was there repair work (and the work of supporting those doing the repairs) on top of the regular maintenance work, but down at the hangar, the Cheka was in an abhorrent state and the other Divers had either hull damage, damaged weapons, or internal systems damage, or all three.
Everyone was so busy, and she did not hear a single person complain or look down.
They were all motivated. Maybe just by their own survival; maybe by mutual support.
Still, the enormity of the bodies at work made Shalikova feel tiny and worthless.
Behind the kitchen counter at the canteen, Logia Minardo looked much more relaxed than normal. She had her apron and plastic work clothes and her hair up in a blue bandana. Humming while she glided from one half of the kitchen to the next, multi-tasking like it was a partner dance with the equipment. Many of the heating elements on her stovetops had pots going with mushroom and algae broths destined for a sailor’s thermos. There were sheets of stretched dough ready to be cut into cracker-y biscuits, to refill the self-serve table. Every oven was running, probably baking those biscuits. Up front, there were a few trays of hot food kept gently heated by tray warmers.
“Ohh, she’s happy!” Maryam said.
Those hot food trays contained fluffy white rice, leafy greens in garlic sauce, soy cutlets flavored with beet sugar and soy sauce, and baked pirozhki each bigger than a fist with carrots, cabbage, and mushroom for filling. Flecks of oil glistened on the surface of the syrup-brown cutlet sauce and the crust of the pirozhok had a golden sheen likely achieved with a finish of margarine or shortening. Cooking for a warship was the art of making frozen and canned ingredients appealing. Shalikova knew the artifice. She could see the bio-stitcher built into the kitchen wall already processing a block of frozen vegetable matter into more “leafy greens” in the garlic sauce.
Maryam, however, was dazzled by the presence of the fake biostitch lettuce.
“Wow! Military ships have the best food everywhere in the world huh?” Maryam said.
“Yeah, we eat like kings.” Shalikova sarcastically said, unable to deal with her optimism.
Maryam put a finger on her chin and started reminiscing.
“Sonya, you may not have heard these names and places, but I used to serve on the flagship of the warlord Athena in Eastern Katarre. At first it was tough for food, I basically ate nutrient pellets as a larva, but when I turned nine years old, I think, Athena conquered and enslaved a food producing region with three stations. Then we were eating like true conquerors, even the lowest Naftis on the flagship got to have some meat and veggies.”
“Um.” Out of everything Maryam had just spouted, one particular word stuck. “Larva?”
She imagined a little purple worm with a smile and knew that couldn’t possibly be it.
“Oh that’s what Katarran kids are called. You know how Shimii are ‘kittens’.”
“We just call them kids or babies or children or whatever. Larva’s just– it’s weird.”
“It’s not inaccurate though.” Maryam said. She looked genuinely confused.
Thankfully Minardo wasn’t alone, and this awkward episode was ultimately broken by the appearance of Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa behind the counter, the day’s designated kitchen assistant. Her blond hair was bunched up in a bandana and she was not wearing her usual array of dark purple makeup, which made her look ordinary. Shalikova did not know much about her– she saw her in the halls, and sometimes begrudgingly sharing the showers with Alexandra Geninov. Those two were known as the “perennial late shifters” and had matching schedules.
“Salutations. Peruse of the vittles, but substitutions shall not be permitted.” She said.
Her unfriendly voice and glare gave the kitchen counter a walled-off, antagonistic vibe.
“You’re supposed to serve our share.” Shalikova said pointedly.
It was not often that she criticized another worker like this. But it had its intended effect.
Fernanda rolled her eyes and began to, quite begrudgingly, fill a multi-section plate for each of them. Despite her clear lack of motivation, she did serve equal portions for both of them, along with a prepackaged condiment and utensil pack for each of them. So she did do her job right. Maryam and Shalikova took their trays away, with Fernanda’s evil gaze burning into their backs like she wanted to lay a curse on them.
“She talked funny, but I think she’s nice deep down.” Maryam said.
“You think that about everyone.” Shalikova said. “Develop a bit of malice, wouldn’t you?”
They sat in a corner of the canteen, as was Shalikova’s habit. Maryam sat next to her and got started. She withdrew her reusable utensils, made of carbon fiber, from the bag which certified they had been cleaned and inspected aboard the Brigand itself prior to issuance. She quickly split the crunchy crust of her pie to reveal the creamy mushroom and crisp vegetables inside. With her spork, she poked at the biostitched lettuce happily.
“It all looks wonderful!”
With an enormous smile on her face, Maryam took a big bite of the pie.
Chromatophores on her cheeks gave her a softly glowing flush as she chewed.
“Delicious! Oh Sonya, the crust is so buttery! And the mushrooms are so meaty!”
Shalikova blinked hard. She picked at her own pirozhok and took a bite.
“It’s pretty good I guess.” She said.
Living in the Union wasn’t always easy. One had to get well accustomed to having what one needs over what one desires. There were always shortages of something so having a favorite food that was not biscuit or soy was asking for frequent heartbreak. And outside of canteen meals, it was difficult to get fresh food. However, the degree of privation a person had to experience to be this excited over pirozhki was something else entirely. Shalikova felt her heart stir with a sense of painful sympathy for Maryam. She had been a slave aboard some evil ship, to the point that the confines of the Brigand and its comfortable but basic rations were making her head explode.
As much as she wanted to judge Maryam sometimes–
There was no way she could.
Maryam really was someone who had suffered a lot. Her optimism was not naïve to pain.
Shalikova tried her best to make lighter conversation over the meal.
“You said you could tell my fortune, right?”
Maryam’s face lit up. Less from the chromatophores this time; more just her expression.
“Indeed! After I left the church, I supported myself through soothsaying.”
“Is that stuff actually real? Or was it just tricks?”
For an instant Maryam turned pure white. She seemed to do this out of distress sometimes.
“Of course it is real! I’ll tell your fortune right now Sonya!”
“Okay, but you have to promise you won’t tease me.”
“You can’t say stuff like ‘you’ll have a future full of romance’ or whatever.”
“But what if it’s the truth?”
“Okay, okay.” Maryam’s fins drooped. “Fine, I will be completely honest.”
Shalikova didn’t believe something like fortune telling could ever be honest.
Nevertheless, she was curious to see what Maryam could do.
There was something about her– the way the colors played about her sometimes.
Those colors–? Was it just her chromatophores?
Maryam reached out and took Shalikova’s hand into both of her own.
She took a deep breath and then gazed directly into Shalikova’s eyes.
Shalikova fixed her gaze on the one being cast at her.
Around Maryam’s eyes glowing red rings appeared that made the colors swimming around her head suddenly come into striking relief. Before Shalikova could have almost ignored them, like the lights dancing inside her eyelids when she stared at a screen for too long or a trick of room LEDs but now it was like a gas that seemed to drawn to Maryam. Like pictures of nebulas from when teachers talked about what lay beyond the sky of the surface world; like the aurora said to have once existed in the far northern skies when such things were visible to humans.
For a moment, Shalikova felt something.
A tentacle or a tendril, rubbing– rubbing the back of her mind.
Not her cranium, not her brain, not the flesh– but the thoughts, the space of feeling–
There was a trickle of blood that dripped down Maryam’s nose.
“Maryam! What the hell? You’re bleeding!”
Shalikova reached out and touched Maryam’s shoulders.
Her wide-open eyes seemed to register motion again, as if she had woken from sleep.
One of her tentacles reached out to her nose and wiped some of the blood on the pad.
“Oh dear! I really went too far. Sorry Sonya, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Shalikova couldn’t believe what she had seen and heard.
Those colors around Maryam, bright blue, and a stripe of yellow and green and black–
All of it dissipated, as if it had been a daydream, a delusion.
“You can actually read fortunes?” Shalikova asked. Her own voice sounded distant.
Maryam nodded. “I said I could Sonya, and I don’t lie. I was trying to read yours.”
“But you couldn’t?” Shalikova asked. “You couldn’t and it made you bleed?”
“Ah, no, the bleeding isn’t related, that just happens sometimes.”
“Maryam, what was my fortune?”
“Ah.” Maryam shook her head. “I couldn’t read it, sorry. This must sound really dumb.”
“How do you read people’s fortunes? When you do it, do you see colors around them?”
Shalikova must have gone insane.
She thought she really had to be completely losing her mind to ask such an insane question.
But the colors, she had seen the colors before! In the hangar, around people’s heads–!
Did– did Zasha have– the colors around her when she left– was it all black–?
“Maryam, please don’t tease me or joke about this. Are your fortunes based on the colors?”
Maryam nodded her head. Innocent, straightforward, without malice.
“I was hoping to dive into your aura, yeah.” Maryam said. Her voice was so untroubled.
How could she just say such things? Aura? “My aura? Is that what you call the colors?”
“Sonya, you look really distressed. If you want, I can teach you how to do it too.”
Shalikova’s heart briefly stilled.
It was stupid, it was so completely fucking stupid to be having this conversation.
How was it that Maryam so conveniently appeared, aware of all this complete nonsense?
“Maryam, you’re not teasing me right? You would teach me what you just did?”
“Of course. Anything for you, Sonya. I know you’ll pick it up quickly, you’re very skilled.”
Again she just smiled. That broad and bright and beatific smile bereft of mockery.
For a moment, Shalikova finally realized just how elevated her breathing had become.
She heaved a deep sigh and tried to calm herself down.
“I’m sorry. I know this must sound insane. But I feel like I’ve seen those colors before.”
“Oh yes, those colors like you call them, they’re everywhere that people are.”
“Is it some kind of religious thing? Like do I need to convert to Solceanism?”
Maryam narrowed her eyes a little and wore a growing distress on her face.
“Let’s pick that back up later, okay? I still want to see the ship. I promise I’ll explain it.”
Shalikova heaved another sigh. Maryam was right. She was being completely insane.
All this stuff was just her being stressed out and broken inside.
It had to be.
There was no way she had seen any fucking colors when her sister died.
“Right. I’m sorry. I’ll relax and we’ll continue the tour. I’m just exploding with stress.”
Shalikova let out a little laugh at herself. Like pressure being released to avoid a blowout.
“It’s okay! I promise I’ll make everything better. Let’s clean our plates and go!”
Maryam reached out and touched Shalikova’s shoulder reassuringly.
It was more comforting than Shalikova wanted to let on.
After the meal, they returned their trays and utensils and got back to the halls.
Shalikova did not consider herself much of a tour guide, but she knew a few places to take Maryam in the upper compartments just so she would know where things were. She showed her to the doctor’s quarters, carefully avoiding drawing the attention of the actual doctor; to the showers, explaining the open shower plan and watching Maryam turn completely white again in response; past the rooms of several more officers; each of the elevators and bulkheads, including the emergency escape hatch and pressure suit storage, unlikely as it was they would survive sinking long enough to escape; and finally to the recreational and social area. Several game tables were set up but stood unused. Those sailors who were there on break were lounging in the couches to slow jazz music.
“Wow! Sonya, are those game tables? Let’s play!” Maryam said.
“Huh? I mean– I wasn’t really planning to–”
Maryam took her by the hand and with prodigious strength pulled her to the tables.
They stopped around an air hockey table, and Maryam took her place opposite Shalikova.
She grabbed one of the paddles and took up a combative stance, grinning confidently.
“Sonya~! If I win this game, you owe me a real date at the next city or town we go to!”
“Huh? What are you talking about–? A real date?”
Shalikova imagined herself and Maryam in a city or a town station. She had seen station dates plenty of times in romance and comedy films they played at the Academy’s many mandatory social outings. She could see it: going to little restaurants, Maryam ordering the most elaborate thing on the menu each time; walking by shops or trade kiosks, Maryam picking out clothes and candies and bobbles from each and making Shalikova carry all of them; getting approved for an animal to care for together; putting their names together in the room register–
Opposite Maryam, a driven, deadly serious Shalikova picked up her own paddle.
“Maryam, you don’t know this, but I was known as ‘the terror of the tables’ whenever we had mandatory social time at the academy. You should surrender and give up your foolish dreams.”
Her grave tone of voice underscored the degree to which everything hinged on her success.
Meanwhile, Maryam turned red as a cherry and started clapping her hands together.
“Sonya! You are so cool! Wow, your serious face is so handsome! It’s getting me excited!”
“Shut up and hit the start button!”
When Maryam dutifully hit the button the table lit up and spat out a puck on the center.
There was a digital die roll that Maryam won so the puck was sent her way.
With a big warm smile on her face, Maryam smashed the puck with a savage thrust.
Oh right, Shalikova thought in the split second she had.
She’s a Katarran Pelagis– so even though she comes off like a purple marshmallow–
Shalikova threw a parry she was sure could catch it–
There was such force behind the puck that Shalikova sent it to the wall near her goal line and it angled back into her goal all the same, giving Maryam the first point of the game. She started clapping her hands again and wiggling in place– she was so excited to have scored that it was, even for Shalikova, almost cute to look at.
Would have been cuter if she hadn’t been scored on.
“You’ve got a good arm, but have you even played before?” Shalikova said.
“Here and there.” Maryam said, putting her hands to her hips and puffing herself up.
Shalikova swung, angling her shot such it bounced off the walls diagonally as it went–
Maryam smashed it back so fast Shalikova barely moved her arm before it slipped past.
What did they put in her vat that made this softie so strong?
“No more Ms. Nice Shalikova.”
When Shalikova was given the next puck, she reared back like she was pitching a ball.
Maryam braced herself.
Maryam moved to parry–
No puck– Shalikova hit nothing! She had feinted!
In the next moment she swung back around and struck the puck while Maryam was out of position.
She could taste the 2:1 score and the powerful comeback win that would soon follow. Table masters and gamers alike referred to this hidden technique as yomi. No matter how physical she could get, Maryam was less experienced in the battlefield and its language. She did not understand the layer of mind games that surrounded a pitched combat between two foes no matter how unequal their strengths. Shalikova had her now.
Seconds later, with a clumsy circular motion that seemed like she was trying to clean the table more than hit the puck, Maryam nonetheless sent the puck flying back to Shalikova’s goal. Too caught up in her triumph, it was Shalikova who was now off-guard against the incoming attack from the opposite side of the table, and despite the relative weakness of the shot, it passed through her sloppy guard leading to ignominous defeat.
Thus the match ended with a score of 3:0.
On the table, Maryam’s side lit up with LEDs and triumphant little noises.
Shalikova’s shoulders slouched, her eyes drew wide. She was on the hook for a date now.
Maryam cheered and jumped and clapped her hands.
Her whole body strobed with colors like if a glowstick had become a person.
“Sonya~! It’s a date! Next town over!”
She put her hands behind her back and leaned forward on the table, smiling.
Shalikova sighed and resigned herself.
“Sure. Whatever. But you have to promise to behave.”
“Yippeee! Of course I’ll behave! Thank you Sonya! It’s going to be so much fun.”
Shalikova supposed it could be fun to go out with Maryam on the town.
She could call the game they just had a fun time. It was certainly distracting.
“Alright, I’ll take you down to the hangar now. Just stick close and don’t bother anyone.”
Without thinking, she offered to hold Maryam’s hand to guide her there.
Maryam of course wasted no time grabbing hold of Shalikova and squeezing her fingers.
Her face flushed, with a bubbly, fluttery smile.
Once it dawned upon Shalikova–
–well, it’s not like she could just snap her hand back immediately.
That would be rude.
And Maryam’s hand was nice and soft and warm anyway. It was just nice to hold.
So she held on to it for a bit.
But only a bit!
Shalikova showed her the way to the elevators, and they rode together down to the hangar. She almost forgot to let go of Maryam’s hand before the elevator doors opened– there were too many people, and it would have been misunderstood. Thankfully, Maryam did not seem to mind. She was immediately captivated by the scope of human activity in the hangar. Soon as they stepped out of the elevator doors there was already a crowd right in front of them. A large, dark-blue section of the Cheka had been stripped off the machine and laid on the hangar floor. It looked like a shoulder mechanism. They were installing battery cells into connectors along the shoulderblade.
That meant a crowd of several men and women all crawling on the chunk of mecha.
“Wow! There’s so many people!” Maryam said. “It’s almost a little overwhelming.”
“It is.” Shalikova raised a hand to her head, feeling a headache coming on.
She took Maryam around the hangar, showing her the workshops where various small parts were being machined for use in the repairs. Worn tools were being actively maintained in order to be quickly put back to use, and Zero Space Packaging crates that had to be disassembled to access the contents were being handled to expose extremely tightly packed spare parts and raw materials. There was so much engineering activity Shalikova felt they should hurry along, so she showed Maryam the simulator pods and dissuaded her from going in them.
“I’ll show these to you some other time; we don’t want to get in the way or distract people.”
“Aww. Well, alright. How about this, one of these nights, let’s sneak out to the hangar!”
Maryam’s eyes shone with a mischievous light.
Shalikova narrowed her own eyes at her.
“Sneak out? It’s not like there’s a curfew or anything. Do you just want us to be alone down here?”
“Yeah! I only promised to show you my special powers. It’s for your eyes only~!”
Her voice took on a playful little turn at the end. Shalikova thought about it for a second.
“Oh, so you’re thinking we’ll come down here and trade? I show you how to pilot–”
“And I’ll teach you how to gaze into the world beyond!” Maryam excitedly interrupted.
Maryam’s instincts were ultimately right.
It’d be too embarrassing to talk about fortune telling with a ton of people around, with how seriously Shalikova was intent on taking it. She was glad the canteen was empty when she was stressing before. It would be a relief to talk to Maryam about this nonsense without anyone around to see it, and finally get it out of her mind for good.
“Alright, it’s a deal then. But probably not tonight. I woke early, so I shouldn’t be up late.”
“Deal!” Maryam clapped her hands. “Sonya, show me the big robot you pilot.”
“It’s not a robot. It can’t do anything on its own. It’s a vehicle.”
“Show me the big robot!”
“You’re not even listening.”
Shalikova took Maryam to the other side of the hangar from the pods, navigating the crowds of people working on the many disassembled sections of the Cheka. Her Strelok was only lightly damaged in the battle, so it was already back on its gantry with new, unblemished armor plates swapped in and there was only one sailor at its feet, running tests on the water circulation system with a computer and a pump machine. Maryam was taken aback by the size, craning her head up to stare up at the head of the machine from up close. It was over four times their size, and it was easy for Shalikova to forget the enormity of it because she was always climbing inside.
“Amazing! It’s so bright and smooth, it’s like a shining knight armor!” Maryam said.
“I’m glad you like it, I guess. Do they have Divers in Katarre?” Shalikova asked.
Maryam’s fins wriggled as she pondered it. “When I was a larva they didn’t, but then, I think someone stole one from the Empire because I remember by the time I became pre-adult, they were kinda everywhere. You would always see Ifrit class in every cargo space they could cram one in. It was really big and rough and spiky and scary.” She shuddered briefly. “Nothing like yours, Sonya! Yours is so gallant, it fits you perfectly! I can see you fighting like a hero in it!”
“I’m not a hero. I’m just– I’m just staying alive.” Shalikova said.
“You’re a hero to me Sonya. You saved all of our lives after all.”
She hated this kind of compliment and hated this kind of conversation.
“You didn’t have to come out here on this mission right? But you’re risking your life–”
“Maryam, please, that’s enough.” Shalikova interrupted. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“Oh! Okay then. Absolutely I’ll stop. Maryam is keeping cuttlequiet for Sonya.”
Maryam ran her fingers over her lips as if sealing them– they really disappeared for a bit!
Shalikova burst out laughing. She was so affected she hardly knew where it came from.
“You really are something else sometimes!” She cried out, holding her own stomach.
“Pelagids can do really funny things.” Maryam’s voice was muffled by her sealed lips.
She ran her fingers over her lips again and they reappeared. An ordinary human girl’s face.
“Is this also ‘soothsaying’ or just slapstick?” Shalikova asked, in good nature.
“This is just the power of biology! Having been made in a can is fun sometimes.”
Maryam gave Shalikova a thumbs-up and closed a transparent grey eyelid over one eye.
Her crooked little grin– she was winking! It was as if she was winking with a fish eyelid.
Shalikova could not help it. That ridiculous sight made her start laughing again.
Laughing and goofing off in front of the Strelok. It was in this state that two of them were approached by a tall, lean, long-haired blond woman in uniform who was quite amused to see them. She paused behind them and laughed and when they finally noticed, they quickly identified her as Ulyana Korabiskaya, the Captain of the Brigand. Her uniform was always well in order, and her face was always done up lightly and professionally.
She had the sort of air of womanly confidence Shalikova couldn’t even dream of.
Their interactions were pretty limited, which only heightened the mystique around her.
“I hope I’m not interrupting.” Ulyana said. “Your laughter was so innocent, it was cute.”
“I was showing Maryam around the ship, ma’am.” Shalikova said, remembering to salute.
Ulyana waved down her saluting hand as if to say such formality was unneeded.
“That is very kind of you Ensign. I’m glad the two of you seem to have hit it off.
“Hit it off? I guess you could say that.” Shalikova said.
Maryam made a mischievous little face behind her that Ulyana laughed at.
“I’m happy for the two of you! Honestly, we’d been hoping that you would finally let her out of your room sometime soon!” Ulyana said in good cheer, winking at Shalikova who immediately frowned at the implication. “Getting serious for a moment, we have to talk to her about the information she promised us. Now more than ever, we need all the intel we can get if we are going to survive. We’ve got a staging room ready upstairs. That ok?”
“Of course. I understand.” Shalikova said. “Maryam, you’re okay going with the Captain?”
Maryam’s fins dropped a tiny bit. But she smiled at them, nonetheless.
“Of course. I’m not just here to play with Sonya after all. I’ll do my part for the ship.”
“Splendid. I’ll be taking her then; you’ll have her back before dinner, so don’t fret.”
Ulyana winked at Shalikova again. Sensing the mischief in it, Shalikova turned her cheek.
Nevertheless, as the captain led Maryam away from the hangar, Shalikova felt herself coming down from the rush of trying to keep up with the cuttlefish girl. She had to admit it felt a little bit emptier and a little bit too quiet now that Maryam wasn’t there, goofing off, pushing her to go out and eat and play. Had she been on her own Shalikova would have simply sank further into her own morbid thoughts. Maryam had been so kind to her.
In her absence, the world felt suddenly emptier, both in the hangar and in Shalikova’s heart…