Surviving An Evil Time [10.6]

This chapter contains a torture sequence with a brief moment of heightened violence.


In the context of a station, the overarching structure providing power was referred to as a Core Pylon. To further understand the Pylon, its layout could be broken down into a massive superstructure housing two critical pieces of machinery: the reactor core ring and the agarthic energy array. Agarthicite “fuel rods” were contained in the energy array with complex Osmium shields. This array was submerged within the reactor core as part of normal operation and cooling. Energy was generated in several synergistic ways.

Agarthicite as a material boasted surreal properties that were observed but understood only in a very shallow fashion in the After Descent era. Most visibly, it was known that any solid matter that agitated Agarthicite too much would be annihilated entirely by a fatal discharge from the crystal. This property was not witnessed in particulate agarthicite known as “agarthic salt” but only in cubiform agarthicite “ore.”

No form of Agarthicite “annihilated” water or gas, but it was known that in annihilation of human bodies, the water would be vaporized by the heat of the reaction. Therefore, controlled annihilation of carbons submerged in water could generate heat. While any type of solid matter could be annihilated, Carbon was common, easier to process, and its reaction was well understood. Any material could suffice, however.

Osmium was the great exception. It was the only known case of a material being antagonistic to Agarthicite, both resisting annihilation and even reducing the scope of the reaction and thus allowing some control over annihilations by subjecting the reacting agarthicite to the presence of Osmium.

Osmium tools and devices could be used to mine, shape and manipulate Agarthicite– very carefully.

An eerie and less understood property was that Agarthicite would rotate in bizarre patterns when subject to controlled electrical and magnetic charges and would generate more kinetic energy than was spent agitating them. It was this property that resulted in collapsed ship reactors physically twisting the matter of the ship before annihilating it. Thus, when the energy array was physically hooked into the core ring, the array was also connected to motors that generated additional power by allowing the array to spin in the water. This generated enough power for the operations of the Core Pylon to self-sustain.

Agarthicite could become “spent.” Spent agarthicite would lose its otherworldly purple sheen and become dull and ductile, able to be spun into alloys. In this decayed state, Agarthicite was extremely useful as a metal. Together with Osmium, it was found in all kinds of technology in the After Descent era. For example, decaying Agarthicite alloys led to the electric oscillators used in monomolecular vibroblades.

Both the eldritch rotation and the heat generation could create significant usable energy.

Reactor cores, known as “Core Rings,” were designed both to house and stabilize the energy array and to employ its eldritch properties in the generation of energy. Agarthicite reactors could power the generation of their own magnetic and electrical charges while also generating enough surplus energy to power the massive stations housing underwater inhabitants. Station reactors built in 979 A.D. would be expected to run for multiple decades before needing a replacement Energy Array. Some reactors had been running since the Age of Strife and nobody had touched their Arrays since then. It was unknown by what process their ancient agarthicite was refined to such a degree as to permanently sustain reactions.

Ultimately, very little was understood, truly understood, about Agarthicite. It was only observed.

There were people who believed Agarthicite held powers beyond the mortal ability to “observe” and “deduce.” Agarthicite study was referred to as “pseudophysics.” It had both the academic social credibility of a science and the raving mad reverence of a religion. Most “normal” people beheld Agarthicite this way, no matter how much philosophers and theoretical scientists tried to dispel its myth through logic.

To the people of the After Descent Civilization, Agarthicite reactors and the Stations they lived in had an unspoken near-sacred status. Agarthicite was the true, material God of Imbria and Cogita both, a God capable of both sustaining and destroying life. It was unthinkable to tinker with these systems, innovation in the field of Core Pylons and their constituent parts was glacial wherever it was not outright outlawed. It was known that Agarthicite powered the collapsed Surface Civilization also– but the history of the Reactors for the After Descent civilization began after the Age of Strife with the first reactors created wholly underwater, their designs drawn from studying the Origin Core Pylons of the first stations.

However, it was for this reason that a fleet of Cogitan men and women could convince themselves to attack the Core Pylon of an Imbrian station. Agarthicite was their God, but this was not their land. Imbrians were lesser people, barbarous, evil, enemies of all that was right. Cogitan racism allowed them to see the Imbrians, their stations, and their Core Pylon, as violable, or even worthy of violation.

Their God wasn’t our God. Just as they were the lesser. Anything could be done to them.


Homa left some lonac in the pot in case Leija wanted to eat before she left.

It was simple food, but then again, pulao rice was her favorite meal. She might like it.

After cursing Radu and Imani, Leija said nothing more and finally fell asleep. Since then, she had been resting peacefully on Homa’s bed. Homa had eaten, showered, and laid down on the floor to play with her phone. Leija’s words joined the massive amount of things troubling her during these dark days in which she lived. She had no reason to disbelieve what Leija said: Radu had come to visit her. Since then, she had felt apologetic toward Homa but kept it close to the chest. Did Radu visiting come before or after Imani approached Leija, trying to get connected to a Shimii helper at a dockyard for her schemes?

She mentioned both of them. Why? Why would they be connected in her drunk head?

Could it be that Radu the Marzban was helping Imani? One of the Volkisch Movement?

Imani was a Shimii– but it still made no sense to her that Radu would help her.

Homa was not an authority of what the Marzban’s agenda was.

But he was a wanderer, who lived by his own justice and hid his face from the public.

Could a bandit like that really have ties to a person like Imani Hadžić?

This was something she couldn’t reason out by herself in her room. That was the most frustrating thing– talking to herself about Radu was like ruminating on the agendas of angels or djinn. There was no way to find him, there was no way to even prove his existence anywhere outside the vessel of her own memories. She couldn’t influence him. But she still worried! She couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Because if Radu was helping Imani, the world was a little bit bleaker than she thought.

Heroes and villains would make even less sense than ever before.

She had been sure that Radu was supposed to be a hero. And Imani Hadžić was a villain.

Now, even in the fantasy that supported her life, such things began to lose their meaning.

And it bothered her– because she viewed herself as someone connected to Radu.

Even if they had not seen each other in years.

She couldn’t help it. She was not connected to very many other people.

It was just him and Leija.

If you had no one, no blood– then kin were the people who occupied one’s memories.

Shimii valued kin above all else– and maybe Homa valued Leija and him as kin.

Despite everything they had done–

Homa grit her teeth. Her emotions were so twisted up. It hurt, deep in her chest and brain.

“Maybe when Leija feels better I’ll ask her about it.” Homa said.

Her hands reflexively stroked the necklace, fingers rubbing on the rough bit of silica.

Staring up at the steel ceiling in the dark. Leija’s light snoring the only sound.

Homa stroked the necklace, slowly drifting off, the fog of sleep slowly seeping in.

Peaceful Place.

She shut her eyes and saw the colored lights bouncing behind her eyelids.

Her mind went dark, her body falling gently.

To a world of great open skies, conquered by the crowns of massive trees.

Iridescent foliage casting many-colored shadows the world beneath.

Great silver-white trunks stretched down from heaven to thick, jagged roots prism-purple.

Over soft blue dirt, she sat, her back nestled against the monumental body.

A breeze swept by billowing red algae and weepy fungi and stirred the muddy puddles.

As far as she could see to the horizon and beyond, from the ground to the heaven, it was all the trunks of trees, their crowns making up the sky, their branches making up the clouds and below them the canopy of the forest, low alginic shrubbery under and around their roots, liquid dribbling down their trunks forming channels like erosion on mountainsides, and she was alone, and her mind was mile a minute and slug-like slow– and she felt greatly at peace. Amid whispering families of trees all connected among whom the colors traveled expressing pale blue and white.

Then, amid the trees–

A pale traveler, red-haired with a black horn, white robe and tail dragging on the mud.

Looking over her shoulder, her yellow amid black eyes dilating with hatred as she saw.

Between the sonorously singing trees the colors around her became painted a deep black.

WHY THE HELL ARE YOU HERE?

Colors became tendrils that rushed toward Homa with murderous slashing violence–

“Agh!”

Homa opened her eyes. A tiny sliver of yellow light from the hall shone in her face.

She was on the floor. A metal floor in a metal place.

Holding herself, curling up in her bed. For a moment she was in the grip of something.

A vast forest; whispering trees; the surface? She had dreamed of the surface?

As the scriptures read. A surface with a vast sky and dry ground and breathable air.

There was a monster too. It was a nightmare. Fear shook its way through her body.

It took a few minutes for her wits to fully return to her. For her to realize and admit that it was only a dream and could not hurt her. But she felt something primal before that– a need to make herself small and hidden as if some enormous presence was watching her closely. Was this how ‘mice’ once felt about ‘cats’? She knew both animals and had heard this metaphor used in educational contexts.

But such depredation no longer had many places where it could happen.

Except perhaps in dreams. Dreams, like ancestral visions of what humanity had lost.

“Ugh. What kind of stupid shit is that, Homa Baumann?”

Homa chided herself for her weakness and childishness.

Anxiety must have been getting the better of her. Her mind must have been in shambles.

No wonder she had no control over her life when dreams affected her so strongly.

Gritting her teeth, she finally made herself get up and face reality again.

It was early in the morning.

Homa reached for the wall, turned on a dim light in order to see.

Leija was still asleep. Homa was almost worried, but she was breathing regularly.

Her face was eerily peaceful. Her makeup had run just a bit, lipstick lightly streaked, eyeshadow lightly smeared. Slight lines of aging showed around her eyes and at the edges of her mouth as she rested, more visible than ever, but Leija looked so content, Homa thought she looked more beautiful than ever. When she saw her at peace like this, Homa could overcome that staggering tension she otherwise felt in her presence. There were no glaring eyes and scowling lips, no striking claws. Her prone body, escaped from the world of violence from where she came and imbued with the gentleness of sleep– Homa felt a sudden heart-shudder of sympathy for her.

“I hope you’ll be okay in here.” Homa said.

It didn’t feel right.

Some part of Homa wanted to take care of Leija, but she had no choice.

She would have to go to work and leave Leija behind.

Homa sighed to herself.

Majida had said, there was no place where Shimii could have a storybook life.

Thinking about it, Homa finally put together what she wanted to say–

“I can’t forgive you for everything. I am not the only person you hurt. You hurt people every day in so many ways I can’t even describe. But I still– I do still love you, Leija. Because I know it’s this place, and the way that being here warps people– if we’d lived anywhere else, if we’d lived peacefully, maybe you could have been good to me. You wouldn’t have neglected me– and I wouldn’t have to resent you.”

In her sleep, Leija’s eyes shut a little harder, the fingers on her hands closed and opened.

This wasn’t any kind of closure, nor was it the culmination of anything significant.

It wasn’t a big moment– just Homa coping to herself, functionally alone, in her room.

That’s all it could be and that was all she could do. But she still felt like she had to say it.

Maybe it could serve as a rehearsal for when Leija woke up and they had to confront this.

Homa dressed herself, ate a bit of lonac in a cup and left for work.

Her head felt a bit heavy and foggy. As if she was fighting back tears the whole time.

She expected her day to go by as mindlessly as ever. She hoped for it to be so. She hoped for a day she could run on autopilot. Home, to the checkpoint, to the tram, to the pavilion, to B.S.W. and back home again. Once she got back home in the afternoon, she would have to deal with what happened with Leija, but the rest of the day should have been exactly the same as always.

Leaving home–

Checkpoint–

Tram–

Pavillion–

Two elevators down to her little lost corner of the world, Bertrand Shore Works.

“Homa,”

On the corridor leading to the semi-circular bulkhead into B.S.W, a blond woman awaited her. Wearing a grandiose coat over a ruffled red shirt and a long, tight black pencil skirt and ribbed tights. She smiled and waved in front of the closed bulkhead into B.S.W. Kitty McRoosevelt could not let herself in– Homa had been leaving the bulkhead unlocked for her after she came in, since Kitty was supposed to come later in the day, after Homa already clocked in. This was part of the instructions Bertrand gave clients, so they wouldn’t waste their time while the employees set up. Only employees could work the doors.

“As-Salamu Alaykum!” Kitty said cheerfully.

“You don’t have to do it in Fusha.” Homa said. She sighed internally.

This woman–! Homa had been saying that about a lot of people lately…

“Usually the bulkhead door is unlocked when I come in.” Kitty said.

“Yeah, that’s me who does that. Only employees can open stuff here, so you have to wait.”

Homa walked past Kitty and held her keycards to the door’s reader. After the keycard swipe, she stepped in front of the card reader’s touchscreen for camera authentication. There was a metallic rolling sound shortly thereafter– the Bulkhead door unlocked and could open now.

“Ahh, I see.” Kitty replied. “It has a camera, too? That’s a lot of security.”

“It’s like I told you, only an employee can open it. So don’t come here early.” Homa said.

She walked through the bulkhead door, automatically opened, and thought nothing of this.

Kitty stood off to the side and watched while Homa put on her gloves, mask, goggles and put protective sleeves over her tail and ears and returned to work on her yacht. She had stripped, repainted, and detailed the exterior, so now she had to recoat it with poison and waterproof gel. She big Kitty stand farther back than she had been the past few days and got to work as usual.

Though she was here way too early with nothing to do, Kitty had no complaints.

In fact, the blond hardly spoke to Homa at all that day.

She would have said ‘suit yourself’ to that, but Imani was counting on her.

So she tried to poke Kitty and see if there would be anything to report to Imani today.

“So, any big plans for the yacht?” Homa asked Kitty.

“Nothing special.”

It was as if she was turning the tables on Homa now. She had become the terse one.

“How has your stay in Kreuzung been so far?”

“Amenable.”

“Been to any neat places?”

“Perhaps.”

Perhaps?!

Homa felt so stupid shouting small talk over the sound of her spray gun.

Especially when she got back next to nothing.

What was going on?

“To hell with her then.” Homa sighed. There was always tomorrow.

If Kitty was grumpy today it didn’t matter at all.

Homa hardly knew what use Imani was getting out of her information anyway.

As the afternoon went on, she focused on her work and did not bother with Kitty.

And Kitty seemed quite content to just stand around in silence this time.

It irritated Homa just a bit– what a stupid turn from how chummy she was earlier!

By the end of the day, she had wandered off out of the dockyard altogether.

Homa clocked out and put it out of her mind. She had to worry about Leija and about whether there to try her luck at the shops again today. She might try to buy something for Leija in the Imbrian shops– if the dynamic pricing wasn’t too bad, a gift might help the Madame’s mood. Perhaps a cake or a sweet?

She put away her tools and walked out of B.S.W, through the bulkhead door and then up the old cargo ramp to the elevator. She tuned out her surroundings, just like she wanted to do. Her auto-pilot took her step by step, steps farther from B.S.W. and steps closer to home, mindlessly. Looking down at the grimy green steel floor of the ramp as she climbed the makeshift steps down the side of it up to the elevator shaft, she wondered how she would approach Leija after all of this.

What would she even say?

All kinds of things floated in her head, but it was such an awkward situation.

“I found you drunk wandering the halls–”

No, not, found you. Leija might twist that to mean Homa specifically grabbed her–

But if she laid the blame on Leija herself too thick that’d piss her off too.

There was no winning–!

Suddenly, Homa hit something soft and firm.

In front of her was supposed to be the elevator, but her mind had wandered off.

When she looked up, there was something in front of the elevator door.

It was like–

A case– a huge white case, with a synthetic felt covering and a steel frame.

For a tool or maybe even a musical instrument? Homa had seen things like this, but–

Someone had left it in front of the elevator door–? Why? It was taller than Homa herself.

She made to move it, more of a reflex than anything, feeling the weight of it as she tried.

Then–

Dull tap-tapping on the floor– heels?

Danger! Cried an unheeded voice in her mind–

Homa looked aside in time to see a black-gloved hand strike her with something.

She felt a brief burning sensation, her muscles seizing up, horrible nausea.

And the hands seizing her– something pricking her– burning in her veins–

Homa struggled on sheer instinct, but her strength faded extraordinarily quickly.

She tripped over her own feet and would have fallen had it not been for the black gloves.

Gripping her by her jumpsuit, unzipping the case blocking the elevator–

Her vision went dark as she caught a flash of waving blond hair in a thickening fog.

Inside the closed case, limbs going limp, Homa’s world and mind went pitch black.


“–Oh look, she’s coming to. I guess we won’t get to see my tenth straight winning hand in a row. Get the synthestitcher ready. I’ll make her smile for the camera. Then we can really get to work.”

Footsteps on water. A voice. A familiar voice.

She quivered, from the back of her neck down to her tail.

Her stomach felt hot, her nose was running. For a moment, the world was spinning.

Slowly spreading eyelids unveiled a world of intermittent, dim red light.

She felt water. Her feet splashed as she tried to move her limbs.

Homa could move her feet just a little, but not her torso, or her arms.

Mental fog cleared up just enough to begin to understand her predicament.

B.S.W, her workplace, was where her body expected to have been.

Instead, she awakened in the middle of an empty place, three times as wide and long as a room, with a bar at one end and shuttered windowpanes on the other. Judging by the bar shelves it may have once been stocked up, but there only scattered old bottles and broken shards left. There was an entrance door and a door out to the back, the former broken open and the latter barricaded with junk drawn from the rest of the venue. There were plastic restaurant chairs whole or in pieces scattered around the room.

Because the lights were malfunctioning, there was only intermittent flashes of white light, coming on with different periods of seconds in between each flash in a way that was maddening. The only consistent light came from the red emergency alarm light, and because this light was revolving, from the high center of the wall, it cast eerie shadows over the other occupants. Taken together it was like a vision from out of nightmare, nearly panic inducing, Homa wanted to keep her eyes shut and go back to sleep.

And indeed, keeping them open was difficult, they teared up.

Struggling to breathe as more of her senses returned to her; enough to realize her arms were bound behind her back, her feet were bound. Involuntarily she started to struggle, forcing her feet apart, forcing her arms, shifting her weight forward and back on the seat. Moaning with frustration when she realized how tight her bonds were, and that they were chafing skin– skin that was out and exposed, because Homa was stripped completely naked. Her entire body shivered with sudden fear. She was bound to a chair with her arms stretched and behind her back, her legs tied apart and to the chair and naked.

“H-h-elp.” She whimpered, as her voice started to return to her. “He-He-HELP!”

“Nobody will hear you. Be quiet.”

Homa heard a voice, and she heard something, like a mechanical switch being flipped.

In front of her, a figure coming into focus threw something on the ground.

She stepped on it, her heels easily crunching it under the water.

Then she closed toward Homa, heels splashing then tapping in succession on the floor.

“Are you awake now? Can you see my hand?”

Waving her black-gloved fingers in front of Homa was Kitty McRoosevelt. She bent in.

Narrowed eyes, messy blond hair, mere centimeters from Homa’s own face. She smiled softly.

“Help me–” Homa whimpered, “Kitty– Help–”

“I brought you here, Homa.”

As if to punctuate this, she ran one of her fingers down the inside of Homa’s thigh.

Homa clenched her teeth, wracked with another full-body shudder. It was so cold here!

And Kitty’s finger was pressing hard on her skin. Near somewhere sensitive–

Homa cried out. “Please let me go! Please don’t kill me!”

“Relax. I’m not going to kill you. And you’ll be freed once everything is over.”

“Everything?”

“It doesn’t concern you. Just be quiet, put your eyes forward, and smile for me.”

Homa realized Kitty wasn’t alone.

When her vision came back in full, the blurry figures farther in the distance came into focus, shifting something on wheels towards her. It reminded Homa of the cameras in the photo booth at Ballad’s Paradise, except that they were on top of a large, enclosed metal box that was itself on a wheeled stand. It was operated by a woman in a black bodysuit with intermittent black or blue plates across the surface, like armor and she looked–

slim and slightly muscular with bright fruity orange skin,

her eyes were green and w-shaped– her hair was long and red and purple, and–

and some of her hair, was positioning the camera, while her arms and legs pushed the cart,

“She needs to look straight at the camera until the datasheet compiles.”

When the Katarran noticed Homa staring at her, she winked with a mischievous smile.

“But she’s preoccupied with other things.”

“I’ll set her straight. How long does she have to stare?”

“We’ve never done this on a Shimii. It might take longer. Maybe twenty seconds?”

At the knocked-down front door, there was a burly blue man without hair, an eel-like tail coming out of his armor. There was a third person, a similar man, who was standing by near the windowpanes. All of them were armed and lightly armored, they had guns, Homa did not know the exact models but the form factor suggested assault rifles, which she knew from studying Diver models and gear.

She felt a light smack on her cheek and shut her eyes reflexively from the touch.

“Homa, stare at the camera for me for thirty seconds with a neutral expression.”

Kitty wanted her to stare at the camera– she would not! She’d avoid it at any cost!

In response Homa shut her eyes and stared straight at the ground, gritting her teeth.

“Don’t be stupid.” Kitty said. “Do this for me and you will get to go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and go about your business like none of this happened. Just open your eyes and look natural for the camera.”

”N-n-no. Let me go. Stop this and let me go.” Homa whimpered.

”I’m doing this to keep you safe, you brat. I could drag you with me back to B.S.W, force your face into every authentication camera like you’re a piece of equipment. There are ways to make that work– cruel ways. I’m being humane here, Homa. Look at the camera, now. Or I will have to make you do it.”

She needed Homa’s face to open all of Bertrand’s doors. To get into B.S.W. illegally.

There were cameras with facial recognition. Only Bertrand and his employees, who were registered with the station, could open them. They needed their work permits and to be physically present for security purposes. For the front bulkhead, but also for the cargo elevator access and for the berth authentications– it had to be a B.S.W employee holding the authentication keys and the only way for the computer to know was using imaging cameras. That was what all this was about,

and in the morning, too, when Kitty asked–!

Homa had been so stupid! Imani warned her to be careful! Kitty really was dangerous!

“Where are my clothes? Let me have my clothes and let me go!” Homa begged.

“I’ve found people are more compliant when they can’t hide. Open your eyes, Homa.”

“Fuck you! You’re not using me! You pervert!”

Homa’s insults came out choked, quivering with the rest of her body.

She heard Kitty sigh audibly. Behind her, the Katarran cuttlefish woman laughed.

“Feisty!” She said in jest.

“You know, I had a hunch you’d be difficult. This sucks. You, hold the chair.” Kitty said.

Footsteps splashed over and someone grabbed hold of the back of the chair–

In the next instant, Homa felt her stomach almost push into her spine as something struck.

She was hit in the gut, by something fast, both blunt and sharp, with brutal strength.

Vomit rose to her throat. She choked, she wanted to double over but could not.

Her gagging and gasping for breath turned to pained screams.

There was an immense pain focused upon a point in her upper abdomen.

Kitty had kicked her! She had kicked her with those heels!

Homa was in so much pain, she thought she would die.

Her eyes forced open from the shock, spinning with panic, was that blood–?

No it was just– the water and the red light–

“Next time I’m stomping on your dick.” Kitty shouted. “Stare at the fucking camera.”

Homa gasped for breath, openly sobbing. She couldn’t believe this was happening.

Her surroundings were nightmarish, and she felt the most brutal pain in her life.

Not even the worst of Leija’s beatings had been this terrifying.

Kitty was really going to any lengths. She would mutilate her. She would kill her.

Any thought of resistance had left her body instantly. She was hurt, her mind swimming, she felt so pathetic, so weak, and helpless and useless. Acid-tasting spit dribbling from her open mouth, her stomach a tight knot of unbearable pain. Shivering from the cold that transferred from the water her feet were in and the moist air collecting on her sweating bare skin. Burning tears pouring from her eyes, fluids from her nose, tasting hot bitterness rising at the back of her throat. She couldn’t fight back!

“Please–” Homa whimpered. “Please don’t kill me.”

Click.

Homa felt something cold sliding down from her lower abdomen and stopping at her groin.

Kitty with the long, suppressed barrel of a black pistol pointed at Homa’s–

“Jeez. This is brutal. And I thought it’d be cuttle-quick.” Remarked the cuttlefish woman.

“Shut up. I didn’t pay for your opinions.” Kitty said. “Homa, I’m going to wipe your face with my other hand. Stare at the camera with a neutral expression for thirty seconds and this bullshit is over. I’m on a fucking clock. I’m doing it this way for you. I don’t have to do this. You or your corpse can suffice with a little preparation– I’m trying to be kind to you. I’m trying to put you out of harms way. Stop being so fucking difficult and look at the camera. Thirty seconds. And you never have to see me again.”

As she promised, Kitty’s fingers rolled over Homa’s eyes and nose with a stiff nylon wipe.

Homa’s mind was a blank. There was no way she could resist anymore.

One kick. One kick was all it took.

Her mind was filled with admonishments. You’re so weak, so pathetic, so useless.

Nowhere near close to a hero. Just a sad little sack of tears and blood so easily broken.

Homa looked straight at the camera, keeping as composed as she could.

A thin strip of light glowed across her features. It was a laser scanner, mapping her face.

After twenty-five seconds it stopped. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Said the cuttlefish.

After the camera captured her appearance, the attached box whirred to life. Instruments inside it slid and grinded for a minute, Homa staring at it as if in a trance. Then, from the box, the Katarran extracted what looked like a partial mask, with crosshatched colors blended into its plastic exterior. It was not her entire face, it was parts of the bridge of her nose, her lips, cheekbone, ears.

“Are you sure this is correct?” Kitty asked the cuttlefish woman, staring at the mask.

“Of course. The purpose of this mask is to trick the facial recognition. So the computer scans her face and prints out what it saw. Computers like this don’t recognize your entire face, they are not humans, they don’t see like we do. They see specific unique features that distinguish faces from each other. This mask is a perfect representation of what an authentication camera computer sees when it sees this Shimii.”

With a confident smile, the cuttlefish woman lifted the mask over her own face.

“Want a demo?” She asked.

“No.”

Homa felt the barrel of Kitty’s pistol lift from her groin.

“I’m satisfied.” She said.

”So, mind telling this humble technician what happens now?”

“You stay here. I’m going out with the rest of the team to prepare. We need to be in place for my first package. We have to dock them immediately when they arrive, and we preferably want to move after B.S.W’s work hours. Thanks to sleeping beauty here, our window is tight. Speaking of which,”

Kitty turned to the dazed Homa and looked into her eyes again.

She lifted something to Homa’s sight. It was her black slate portable.

“Unlock this for me, would you?”

Mindlessly, Homa put her thumb on the on/off button when Kitty brought the portable near.

Kitty then scrolled through, making no expression as she rifled through Homa’s messages.

Her coldly inexpressive face lit by the white screen.

After a few minutes, she held the portable away from her, and put a bullet through it.

Homa had been bracing for a booming shot, but it was a sharp thwick instead.

Nevertheless, the discharge of energy was close enough to her naked body to rattle her.

“Here you go, my little snitch.” Kitty dismissively threw the phone at Homa’s lap.

“Does that alter our plan any?” asked the cuttlefish woman, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“Nope. Imani Hadžić has no idea where we are or what we’re doing.” Kitty said.

She then engaged the safety with a quick click of a finger and stowed the gun in her coat.

“You three keep an eye on her. Don’t do anything. You should only be under contract for like thirteen hours more, so just kick back and relax. If shit breaks bad, just retreat, and leave her here. Someone will find her eventually. We’re hitting up Bertrand’s tonight to avoid unnecessary issues with the staff. It’ll be tight, but we’ll make it before the packages. I’ll call you when the deed is done and you’re free to go.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“Goodbye forever, Homa Baumann. I’m sorry we had to leave on such bad terms.”

Kitty waved her fingers at Homa and promptly left the bar through the front door.

Leaving Homa naked, cold, and alone with the two burly guards and the cuttlefish woman.

As soon as Kitty left, the cuttlefish woman wandered over to the bar and looked behind it.

“It’s dry here. It’s lifted above the flood level. I’m gonna move her chair over here.”

“Whatever you say.”

None of the burly men seemed particularly interested in the cuttlefish woman’s doings.

She grabbed Homa’s chair, seemingly without minding her weight, and moved the hurting and miserably cold Shimii from the flooded floor over behind the bar before setting her down. Homa’s feet touched dry ground, and she felt just a bit of relief. It felt far better when the woman cut open a bag and withdrew Homa’s jumpsuit and tanktop from it, laying the suit over Homa’s body like a blanket, and the rest of the clothes on her lap. She smiled at Homa, seemingly satisfied with the state of things.

Homa felt a brief distress, looking down at her belongings.

Her ID was still there, but her work permit keycard was gone. Kitty must have taken it.

Without it, Homa would not be able to get through the checkpoints!

That Katarran woman did not notice the shift in Homa’s expression back to a brief panic.

“There, it’s better now, isn’t it? Don’t worry– I only do what the client pays for. Wasting time hurting or killing you is just wasting my energy, and for a Katarran, time and stamina are money.”

She returned to the bar floor and pulled up one of the knocked-over chairs and sat on it.

It really did not matter that Kitty had not shot her dick off– Homa was effectively dead.

Without her papers– her mind started spiraling at the thought. All her work was undone.

Kitty had robbed her of everything she had worked so horribly hard for.

“Now we wait. Oh, you know what? Kitty left a few of these behind. These are useful.”

On the bar, the cuttlefish-woman picked up a small black plastic bag. Tearing it open, she withdrew a little black cylinder with three needles and a trigger on the back– a punch-injector.

“Here. This will make it more peaceful for you. I’m truly sorry for all the trouble.”

Reaching over the bar, the cuttlefish woman put the cylinder to Homa’s throat.

Immediately Homa recalled the sensation of the jab as if it was burned into her memory.

Homa struggled reflexively but had nowhere to move. Her tearful eyes soon shut again.

Once more, she fell unconscious, just like when Kitty had attacked her before.


Homa’s mind went black. Falling and falling incorporeally through a void of– colors.

Be At Peace. Sleep Well. Peaceful Place.

Homa’s world of pitch black became replaced with one of stark white.

Her body felt like it was suspended in mid-air, but she was not falling, she was not flying.

She realized she was lying down and staring at a sky of silver-white and gray tree crowns. Laying down in a puddle of lukewarm water, floating just above its surface. She was surrounded by enormous tree trunks. Far in the sky, the branches at the tops of the trees made up the sky, like clouds made of rocky bark. Between the trees, the colors swirled and traveled like floating rivers.

Peaceful Place. Safe Place. We’re Sorry.

That voice reverberated across the clearing in the forest, across Homa’s puddle.

It was so kind–

Homa wanted to cry. It was the kindest, gentlest voice that had ever spoken to her.

It was their voice– all of them were speaking. To each other. To her. To everything.

We’re Sorry.

“Don’t be sorry. Thank you. I can feel how much you care.”

In the next instant, Homa lost all buoyancy.

Her body sank right into the water. It was suddenly so deep, so crushingly heavy.

She sank farther and farther until the trees were impossible to view.

No matter how much she struggled, the pull of the water was inescapable.

Until the light completely vanished in front of her eyes.

Thrown from paradise down into the black depths of the Imbrium Ocean.

Awakening came like a hammer blow to her face.

Her eyes tearful, assaulted by the repugnant colors of the bar. Her sweat-soaked body, cold under the makeshift sheet of her jumpsuit, shivered as soon as sensation returned to it. Her empty lungs demanded choppy, sucking breaths that hurt her chest. She bent forward, caught between heaving from her dry, itching throat and sucking for air for her pounding chest, shaking all over.

Danger!

For the first time, Homa noticed Kitty hadn’t taken her necklace–

“Huh? You two, the door–!”

Light flashed from outside the door, briefly illuminating the room.

Thick smoke poured into the bar. The cuttlefish Katarran yelled for her companions.

Homa could see the silhouette of one of the men running to the side of the door. Putting his back to it, assault rifle in hand. He dropped a small device that he had perhaps intended to use to spy through the door, but it was useless, the smoke was thickest there. Grunting with frustration he reached the barrel of his rifle through the door and began to open fire indiscriminately–

At which point, something slipped into the room right under the gunfire.

There was a bright glint, an arcing flash like swinging a glowstick in a dark room.

In an instant the Katarran’s arm severed at the joint.

His assault rifle fell into the water. Homa heard the blood dribbling onto the floodwaters.

The assailant kicked the weapon away and in one fluid motion leaped the second burly Katarran, moving extremely quickly despite the flooded room. Homa did not even hear a splash, it was as if the figure glided over the surface, leaped in one bound. Heedless of the status of his companion, the second Katarran gunman opened fire toward the entrance of the bar. His wounded companion was cut down by the haphazard hail of bullets, a flashing muzzle in the dark, the sound of shell casings hitting water–

Immediately after, Homa saw that same glint as before, the flash of electricity–

Vibroblade– it was a vibroblade!

Having somehow avoided the gunfire, the assailant thrust the blade through the man.

Engaged to cut, it entered the Katarran’s chest, the light dimming inside him.

Flashing again, when the assailant cut free of his ribcage, spilling his flank onto the floor.

“I surrender! I surrender! I’m just a technician!”

That cuttlefish woman raised her arms and moved away from the Katarran’s gear in the corner of the room. At this point the smoke had begun to settle. Even the damaged air circulators in this disused bar could still sense smoke intermittently and began to suck it out. Once enough of the smoke had gone Homa saw more of the gory scene on the opposite side of the bar. At the door one of the Katarrans was riddled with bullets and his arm was a bloody stump. His blood streaked the water, flowing out of the bar due to the circulators struggling to dry up the floor. Farther along the windowed front wall, the second Katarran– Homa couldn’t even look. It was– it was all coming out of him. Everything inside him.

She didn’t want to think about it or see it.

Brandishing the edge of a vibroblade along the neck of the cuttlefish woman, it was–

Orderly dark blue hair, rounded, neatly manicured cat ears, a long, thick tail–

Glasses– a beautiful, coldly inexpressive, blood-spattered face–

Wearing a black uniform, cape hanging off her shoulders with clips, arms out of the sleeves.

“Imani! Imani, you came to rescue me!”

Homa screamed at the top of her lungs. Tears burst out of her eyes.

Imani Hadžić glanced her way. Her eyes briefly lingered. “I’m sorry it took me this long.”

She glanced down at the woman begging for her mercy.

“Homa, was it Kitty McRoosevelt who abducted you? These Katarrans work for her?”

At her feet, the Katarran woman clapped her hands together as if in prayer.

“Yes! It was her, and everyone here was working for her!” She cried out.

“Homa?” Imani asked again for confirmation.

“Y-Yes. It’s like she said.” Homa said. Imani had such a focused expression it was mildly frightening.

Once Homa’s mind began connecting the dots, her body started shaking again.

She had been focusing on the familiar face, reaching out for comfort.

But this wasn’t just the troubled girl she had a sweet date with, the girl she had her first kiss with. Imani Hadžić, in that uniform, was a deadly agent of the Volkisch Movement. On the sleeves of her jacket were the black sun armband and the sword and moon armband that Homa could not place, but she was still part of the Volkisch even without their common symbols. And what the Volkisch Movement did, as far as Homa knew and understood, was killing people. Imani Hadžić had come here to kill people.

Imani had killed two armed men like it was nothing. Using a personnel-size vibroblade.

None of them could even touch a hair on her head.

And now she had her sword to the throat of a third victim.

“Did Kitty tell you what she intended to do?” Imani asked the cuttlefish woman.

“We spoke in confidential language. We are just helping her deliver packages to B.S.W.”

“I see.”

Imani lifted the blade from the woman’s neck.

Her arm pulled back– Homa could already see the swing coming and held her breath–

Then their eyes met, across the room. Imani glanced at her with a troubled expression.

She swung the blade over the head of the cuttlefish woman.

Slicing the very tips of the diaphanous fins flapping up from the woman’s head.

“Think carefully about your choice of employer next time.”

Imani lifted her foot and kicked the woman in the face and into the nearby wall.

Where she came to rest, nose broken, eyes bruised and shut, lying limply in the water.

But with her chest rising and falling. She was breathing. She wasn’t dead.

Homa let out the air she had been sucking in. Accompanied by a tiny, helpless sob.

Imani sheathed her vibroblade and glanced about the room.

“Ya Allah…” She sighed. “What a mess. Let’s get you out of those bonds.”

Nonchalantly she walked behind the bar. Once she got to see Homa up close, her eyes drew a bit wide. Homa had her shoulders up, her head down, the jumpsuit falling off her and exposing her breasts. Her face was deeply flushed and felt hot. Not just from all the crying, screaming, and near-vomiting which she had suffered. She was acutely aware that she was bound and completely naked in front of Imani.

Imani pulled the jumpsuit off her and withdrew from her uniform a small vibroknife.

She crawled around close to the bar cut Homa’s hands free, and then her feet.

Homa thought she would die of embarrassment from having Imani all over her like this.

Far more material and readily present was all the pain that she felt.

Her wrists had red marks, as did her ankles. Her belly had an awful bruise. Her whole body ached from struggling against the bonds, from being stricken by Kitty, from the punctures by the drug injectors, and from the stressful position in which she had been bound to the chair. She felt like she had not eaten in a day and her limbs were like jelly when Imani helped her stand off the chair. Unfortunately, she was not so light-headed that anything felt dream-like. Homa was cursed by a sharpness of her faculties.

“Thank you, thank you, Imani,”

Homa embraced Imani tightly, and Imani gently embraced her back.

“How did you find me?” Homa asked.

Imani briefly knelt down, causing Homa’s heart to jump anew from embarrassment.

From the floor, she grabbed Homa’s portable. It had a bullet-hole right through it.

“This was designed to track you if you failed to answer my messages within a certain time.”

She handed the broken portable to Homa, along with, surprisingly, a fresh one.

“That one’s storage is still good. Copy everything over to this one when you can.”

“Imani–”

“Don’t mention it, okay? I want to stay in touch. Money is no object for my little Ho~ma~.”

Imani walked out from behind the bar with a smile.  

Homa put her clothes back on as quickly as she could and put both portables away.

She got the hang of walking again and rushed over to the Katarran woman on the wall.

Rifling through her suit, she found a communicator.

“Here, Imani! You can use this to track Kitty!”

Homa threw the communicator at Imani, who caught it.

Her own hands lingered a bit longer on the Katarran woman’s gear–

Because– a dark series of thoughts filled her mind as she noticed how calm Imani was.

“Imani, is Kitty really going to destroy the station? You don’t seem to be in a rush.”

All of this time, Imani had been content to sit passively and let Homa report on Kitty’s goings-on. At no point had Imani stopped Kitty despite knowing where she was and suspecting her of plotting some wrongdoing. She put Homa in danger, in fact, which Homa was easily willing to forgive because Imani’s face in the chaotic light of the bar looked too beautiful to hold accountable. She had been tracking Homa, so she was prepared, to some degree, for Homa to be abducted or endangered.

It looked to Homa like Imani knew everything that was going to happen.

And that she was letting it happen. She wasn’t even going to try the communicator.

This was the final tell– how calm Imani was standing in the center of the flooded bar.

Even now that Kitty’s plan was in motion. Imani did not see it as urgent.

“I’m grateful you came to my rescue. I was so scared. They even hurt me, Imani. But you have to tell me the truth now. You are not going to stop Kitty, are you? It’s like– you just wanted to use me to find out when Kitty’s plot got underway. But you aren’t going to stop it at all? I deserve to know.”

Imani averted her gaze.

“I– I wasn’t just using you. I had fun– I’d like to have a different relationship to you.”

“Imani, we can’t have a different relationship right now.” Homa said. “Right now– please tell me the truth. You owe it to me. Is Kitty going to destroy the station? If she is, then you must be completely insane. But she is not going to right? She’s doing something else. And you’re going to sit back and watch.”

Imani smiled gently. She laughed, just a little. It was a bitter laugh.

“Will Kitty McRoosevelt destroy the station? You know, I’m actually not certain, little Ho~ma~. It depends on how she feels. Hers will be the final judgment. Will her hatred toward us allow her to kill us so easily and readily? Will we deserve the fury of her broken heart? At first, I was certain she would not. But recently, Homa, I’ve been feeling like, I wish I could allow myself to destroy everything and remake it to serve my own little heart. Perhaps Kitty will indeed kill us all, profiting nobody in the process.”

She could not meet Homa’s gaze as she spoke. She arranged some hair behind her ear.

Homa silently watched her fidget. She drew nearer as if demanding a real answer that way.

“Kitty McRoosevelt is going to engineer a Core Separation to put the station complex out of live power and into on emergency backup power. Kreuzung is not well prepared for this kind of scenario. Kitty’s aim is to bring down the automated missile and gun defenses of the station complex. This will allow her to infiltrate combat troops and commence a coup. Kitty is a foreign agent, from the Cogitum.”

Speaking those words, Imani finally met Homa’s face with an eerie smile.

“Kitty doesn’t know that the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache is secretly underway to intervene. Her forces will be utterly destroyed, and the station will come under the command of my superior. Her name is Vesna Nasser. Daughter of the late Shimii revolutionary Osir Nasser. I am a member of the Volkisch because of her, Homa. I pledged myself to her cause, to fight to create a new future for the Shimii.”

Tears drew from Imani’s eyes. Smiling and weeping as she laid herself bare.

“Knowing all this, Homa– do you hate me? I don’t care if you find it unacceptable, but–”

Homa took a step in and without thinking or warning, pulled Imani into a kiss.

She threw her reluctance aside, brought her passion forward, seizing upon Imani.

Imani complied readily. Their tear-stained eyes met until hers closed.

Letting herself be taken in by Homa’s ardor, her capturing lips and the snare of her tongue.

One hand brushing Imani’s soft hair aside between kisses, stroking her cheek.

And the second, rising suddenly–

Sticking a punch injector of Kitty’s knockout drug into Imani’s neck.

She expected Imani to fight back then, to be roaring mad, to draw her blade–

Instead, both of them were weeping gently, eyes fixed again as Imani’s senses clouded.

Imani made no move to resist. As if, perhaps, she knew, and allowed it to happen.

Staring deep into her eyes, after tasting her lips– Homa could not help but cry.

“I don’t hate you.” Homa said. “I hate the things that happened to you.”

“Was that kiss real?” Imani asked. Her words slurring. Her face starting to numb.

“Yes. It was real. It wasn’t like the theater.” Homa said. “Imani I– I–”

She couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to Imani. Even though she did– painfully, she really did.

In that moment, Homa wanted to love Imani more than anything.

She wished they could keep texting and go on dates to stupid kitschy places.

But as long as Imani wore the evil skin of that uniform, Homa could not be with her.

That damned uniform, in that moment, Homa hated nothing more than the people behind it.

“Imani– I am going to make that Vesna Nasser regret putting all this in your head!”

Smiling, Imani drifted off to sleep in Homa’s arms.

Homa set her down in the corner with the remainder of the Katarran’s gear.

She quickly applied the last punch injector to the cuttlefish woman’s neck, making sure to prolong her unconsciousness so she wouldn’t wake up first and take revenge on Imani while she slept. Then, rummaging through Imani’s own gear, she took the small vibroknife– and a small pistol. Homa did not know the caliber or model, but it was suppressed, just like Kitty’s. It might come in handy. She had never fired a gun in anger, but she knew the principles behind it. Leija had shown her how to do it once.

Leija–

Swallowing hard, Homa realized what she was embroiled in and stifled a sob.

Crying hard over the sleeping body of Imani Hadžić. She took Kitty’s communicator back.

Looking at the objects in her hands. Weapons and tactical gear– it was war.

War had really come to Kreuzung Station once again. Everything was happening too fast.

All of Homa’s senses told her it was time to knuckle down and run away from this.

She was no hero, Imani would never be her princess to save, none of this was within her power.

Homa thought she was a useless girl who was unlucky enough to be dragged into a mess.

Everything attached to her spine hurt in some way.

She had never been in a real fight. Everyone in this bar could kick her ass.

And she was completely in over her head.

Just a helpless girl crying over the wreckage of everything she ever loved.

“But I can’t just sit here. I have to do something! I can’t just watch! I’d hate myself for it!”

Reflexively, Homa grabbed hold her necklace and squeezed the little rock tight.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she felt a warm, encouraging thought.

We Believe In You.

You Are Courageous.

Taken by a sudden impetus, Homa grit her teeth, put away the gear in her jumpsuit and took off running, splashing through the floor of the flooded bar, out into an unfamiliar and even more flooded street. She saw an elevator shaft in the distance and ran for it, knowing she would at least find the current block and tier on that elevator. She ran as fast as her legs could carry her through the part-flooded streets.

“I have to stop her. I have to stop her–”

Suddenly, for a second or two, everything went dark.

Darker than it had ever been. Pitch black. Every light, every monitor, everything.

Then the lights came back on. Homa stopped in her tracks.

Revolving red alarm lights flashed from every wall and the ceiling.

On every touch-capable surface, the screens began to display the same thing.

Large red letters and a symbolic image of a pillar being lifted from within a ring.

In every direction, from every surface, as total as the darkness before.

Homa stood, her shadow spinning around her with the red lights and flashing warnings.

Transfixed with eyes drawn wide and lips quivering, in water above her ankles.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING.

WARNING. CORE SEPARATION.


“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia?”

Deep beneath the baseplate of Kreuzung’s Core Station tower were the nearly-abandoned maintenance tunnels for some of the lower-class blocks. Several had flooded, but there were just enough operable passages for the interests of its current occupants, and the flooding in the rest was pretty convenient on the whole. In a long square room, heavily ventilated but with rather poor air circulation due to mechanical failures, the smell of iron from coagulating blood and decaying flesh lingered. Maimed corpses had been lined up against the walls. Someone had put their hands together as if in macabre prayer.

Between the dead worshipers stood two figures.

One entirely pale androgynous body, short-haired, lean, in a white robe.

Another a pale, dark-haired woman in a long black dress, long-limbed, yellow-eyed.

Her face was stark white, with beautiful but vacant features like an exquisite doll.

Over her head, orbited a halo like a circle of blood, semi-solid and spinning.

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia? Tristitia fulfilled her previous purpose.”

Her hands were stained with the blood of the room’s most recent occupant.

“I keep telling you, these are only orders or tasks. A purpose shouldn’t be something as minor as killing people and collecting their bodies! Your purpose should be grand, Enforcer VIII!”

The White-Robed Figure laid their hands on the shoulders of their companion.

“What should be Tristitia’s purpose?”

“Of course, your purpose should be to worship! To become closer to God!”

“Tristitia does not understand. How would Tristitia carry out ‘worship’?”

“Oh but that is a fraught subject! Even with our vast potential, such questions elude us!”

“Tristitia does not understand. Please try to explain Tristitia’s new purpose.”

“It is fine! A fine question! I have not come unprepared! I have been thinking about this, in fact. What should be the form of worship? Why, worship should be closeness to God. But what is God? To know God we must appreciate the form of God. But then what is the form of God? God is the greatest beauty, the greatest strength, the greatest perception– but then, what is the form of greatness? Greatness is indefatigable, unstoppable, uncontrollable, uncollapsible! Therefore–”

“Tristitia does not understand.”

Tristitia’s words were no longer being heeded. Her companion was now lost in rhetoric.

“Of course, a God can only be worshiped by sentient, living beings, and as such, a God must be perceptible to them. There is only one power that can be called greatest and unstoppable, while being perceptible to sentient beings– the power of our Lord and Savior Arbitrator II, Titan of Aether! It is the Aether that is the attainable form of God to which the living must aspire!”

They threw their hands up and smiled with vibrating, sharp teeth at the steel roof.

“Endless stillness adrift! Thought flowing downstream! Without space, time, or form, only the purity of the mind released from the impetus of flesh! This is the true form of God– so why worship through hard work and dedication? When God is peace itself? No, no, no– one can only approximate the form of God through Sloth! Sloth so unmoving and grand it reverses creation! That is true worship! That is true Sloth! Our God is only reachable through the ultimate stillness! Be it death or enlightenment!”

After their screaming tirade, the creature turned to their companion with expectant eyes.

“Well? Well?” They demanded.

“Do you have an actionable purpose for Tristitia?” She replied in a dry tone of voice.

“Actionable?”

“Do you have a purpose for Tristitia, that Tristitia can actually understand.”

One deadpan voice, belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VIII, “The Despair”– or Tristitia.

And one hysterical, impassioned voice belonging to Syzygy’s Enforcer VI, “The Sloth.”

These were the only sounds reverberating from these old maintenance tunnels.

Until–

A series of alarms began to ring out from the upper floors.

When they finally made it to the maintenance tunnels, the warnings lit up the cracked screens on the walls behind the corners, creating and eerie scene dominated by the color red rather than the dim yellow-white of tunnel’s LEDs. The appearance of these warnings seemed to cheer up Enforcer VI once again, to the degree that they started cackling almost in tandem with them.

“A signal from God! Oh purposeless doll, it appears it is time for a task after all!”

Enforcer VI turned nonchalantly toward Enforcer VIII, and from the interior of their robe, procured a round lump of meat wrapped in a silvery skin. Enforcer VIII stood blankly staring while Enforce VI shoved two fingers into her mouth, forced it open, and tipped the morsel inside before shutting Enforcer VIII’s jaw forcefully, as if demonstrating to her how she should chew the blob.

“Create a combat form and depart! The Imbrians have begun the festivities!”

Enforcer VIII began to chew the fleshy fruit herself. Her eyes glowed with red circles.

Omenseeing.”

Around the room, the corpses began to stir, to soften, to melt down and slide away.

Coalescing around the blank-faced, angelic doll as a powerful shell of bone, blood, muscle.

“Your purpose is to stalk through this chaos and kill the heretics! Let the festival begin!”            

A choked voice sounded from within the roiling flesh.

“Tristitia will fulfill this purpose.”


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.1]

Depth gauge: 600m

Rain poured from the artificial sky in Schwerin Island, coming down in sheets that pooled over the synthetic earth around the palace in the center of the habitat. Gray clouds in the unmoving firmament and fields of bright red and yellow flowers surrounding the palace, joined by the great crystalline threads of the water. So much was coming down that it ran gentle rivers down the stone steps into the palace. Gate closed, windows shut but not shuttered. Inside, the residents enjoyed the scheduled spectacle.

On the stone steps into the palace, stood a girl.

Beside the stones, out of sight of the door or the windows.

Fists closed at her side. Teeth grit to keep from chattering. Soaking in the rain. Cold and quivering.

Dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, and dark brown overalls. No protection from the water.

Her skin, variously referred to as “swarthy” or “olive-colored” or “leather-tan,” was becoming grayer.

Dark, long, slightly tough hair, tied up into a braided ponytail that fell behind her back.

Tall for her age. A little tomboy out in the wilderness. Enduring the rain like a statue.

As much as she wanted to stand still as a stone she could not. She was too cold and vulnerable.

Her feet turned in place, shifted. She couldn’t help it.

But in the rain, she could not tell apart her tears from the water roaring over her body.

She wanted to scream, but not in pain. She wanted to scream with anger, with the power of violence.

Because she could not, she did not scream. She kept her voice trapped deep in herself.

Standing at the foot of the steps into the palace, in the pouring rain. Eyes shut. Teeth grit.

“Corporal punishment of this sort for a kid is rather cruel.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg opened her eyes and looked up.

In front of her was a tall man, grey uniformed, with a stiff posture and a grave face.

He was holding a small umbrella. With the grimness of his uniform and face, it almost looked silly over him. His brown eyes scanned across the stone steps and then fall back upon her. Deadly serious. This was a soldier, little Gertrude knew. A man of great gravity and dignity, peaked cap and thick boots, insignias on his coat. Gertrude knew the patches very well. He was a Lieutenant. Her own father was a Captain.

Gertrude tried to stiffen herself up also.

In return, the man knelt down in front of her, so he could look her eye to eye.

He lifted his umbrella to cover her too, just a little bit.

“My name is Einz. Einz Dreschner. What is your name?”

“Gertrude– Lichtenberg.”

Between name and surname her teeth chattered.

“Did you cause mischief?”

“I hurt someone.”

“Did the Captain send you out here?”

Gertrude could barely contain her tears thinking about it. They felt warm in her eyes and cheeks.

“No. I sent myself sir.”

Dreschner looked, very briefly, taken aback.

“This won’t make amends. You’re only hurting yourself. Come with me. I’m sure it can be sorted out.”

He extended a hand but Gertrude did not take it.

“No sir. She’s not talking to me.”

“Who isn’t?”

Gertrude sniffed hard. Fighting back sobs.

“Elena.”

Dreschner nodded. He made a serious face again. Like he grimly and fully understood.

“She’s not talking to me sir. I hurt her. So I just want to stand here and become a statue now.”

“I understand. But at least– you shouldn’t be sad and alone. Let me stand here with you.”

He closed his umbrella. Gertrude felt a shock– he must have been someone’s guest from the palace.

Dreschner took his place next to Gertrude in the pouring rain.

He did not explain. And she could not argue with him. He simply did it.

“My–” His own teeth chattered. “It is mighty cold, little soldier.”

He laughed.

Gertrude looked up at him, his smile flashing against the sheets of rain and the gray sky.

They stood, side by side in the rain like that, for a good while longer.

Perhaps Dreschner knew that in due time, the Captain would come looking for him.

And bring them both in.

And ultimately, help solve Gertrude’s little problem.

So that, then, nobody would have to stand in the rain.

Elena and Gertrude did talk again after that.

That very day even– and so soon, that Gertrude still felt soaked, even with a change of clothes.

Elena’s return to her side made her feel very warm, however.


Depth gauge: 1800m

Slowly, the rain-dewed pastures of her youth faded to the metal walls of her adulthood.

It was the year 979 After Descent.

Human life was relegated to deep beneath the surface of the Oceans on the planet Aer.

One such Ocean was the main Ocean of the western hemisphere: the Imbrium.

In this body of water, a woman once called a Knight had lost everything.

She could only dream now, of what she could have had. And what she did to let it slip from her.

Painful and unwanted dreams.

Gertrude turned in bed and almost reflexively wrapped her arms around the dark-skinned woman laying beside her. Feeling her muscled back against Gertrude’s bare breasts, holding her lean arms, burying her head in her long, slightly coarse dark hair. Her companion was still asleep. Her tail gently lifted and dropped beneath the sheets. Dog-like ears atop her head gently folded and lifted in rhythm with it.

Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong.

Even her name sounded so beautiful to Gertrude.

“Mmm. You really don’t want to let me go?”

She began to mumble. Her voice pleasantly rough.

“I’m sorry to wake you. I couldn’t help myself.” Gertrude said.

“I’m flattered. You can tug on my leash anytime, Gertrude. You and only you.” Ingrid said.

She backed into Gertrude. She was shorter than her and nestled into her chest so well.

Gertrude truly never wanted to let her go.

Now that she had known loss, such loss as she had never imagined she would ever suffer–

It had taught her that she needed to keep close, jealously close, anything that mattered to her.

Ingrid was hers to hold. Hers and hers only. No matter what happened.

Gertrude wanted to squeeze her close, to taste her, devour her–

Then a pale green light glowed over the lovers. There was an accompanying sound, radio-static.

A voice-only message from the bridge of this ship– the Irmingard-class dreadnought Iron Lady.

“M-M-ma’am!”

That squeal could have only come from the Irmingard’s mousy communications officer, Karin Schicksal. Despite her auspicious surname, she was a small and skittish woman whose voice was cracking from anxiety. After a too-long pause she continued. “Y-You did say to alert you when we got closer!” There was a nervous little laugh. “We’re approaching Kesar’s Gorge. Um. Let us know if you have any orders!”

Gertrude lifted her hand from Ingrid’s chest placed it on the wall to respond to the voice-only message.

“I’ll be in the Bridge shortly.”

Ingrid grunted a little– but not enough that Schicksal would hear her.

She always made sure to toe certain lines for Gertrude’s sake.

“Dismissed.” Gertrude said, with an exasperated sigh.

“Oh! Sorry, I forgot to cut the line! Very sorry! See you soon!”

Finally the light green glow from the wall disappeared as Schicksal’s message window closed.

“Might not get many chances to fool around for the next bit.” Gertrude said.

“I’ll live. I survived a multiple-year drought in our sex lives after all.” Ingrid laughed.

Gertrude wondered but never asked how long Ingrid had felt this strongly about her.

Her own feelings were still muddled. She loved her, but–

But she had to set these doubts aside for now.

Standing up from bed, her room closet automatically extended a hanger with her uniform.

A black coat with gold and red accents, black pants, and the tall hat of the High Inquisitor.

In a lot of ways, Gertrude was still the little tomboy from Schwerin Island.

Except she was not so little at all. She had grown very tall for an Imbrian woman, though not as tall as some. And now in addition to a swarthy tomboy, she was at times called gallant, handsome. At least physically, she fit the uniform which she had been given. Its strength, its unwavering steadfastness.

Its brutality too– perhaps her mind and spirit also, regrettably, befitted the legacy of this uniform.

“Hey,”

Gertrude felt a pat on the back as she started to dress. Behind her, Ingrid smiled.

Standing with her shirt half-open, tapping her palms on Gertrude’s back and rubbing.

“Don’t look so down. Everyone wants to have faith in you. Including me. Show us some confidence.”

Seeing her acting so supportive, Gertrude could not help but smile back.

“There’s my handsome tyrant.” Ingrid said.

“Hopefully everyone else will be as charmed about it as you.”

“Hah! Hopefully not that much!”

The pair laughed at the implication.

Though this bubble of peace which they had seized for themselves could not last, they still cherished it.

Soon both women donned their uniforms and the duties that came with them, and set out into the day.


Depth gauge: 2000m

An adult bluntnose sixgill shark descended from the surface waters, looking for the ocean floor.

Struggling briefly against the titanic wake of some massive creature it could not possibly fathom.

Avoiding the current, the sixgill shark had its reckoning of its own course briefly disturbed.

Try as it might, the sixgill had chosen its dive location poorly, and the ocean floor eluded it for a while.

Instead, beneath the sixgill’s sleek body there was only darkness and further descent.

And so, in order to avoid the gigantic being in whose wake it had been traveling, the sixgill ascended.

An uncommon encounter between humans and nature, in the reality of the After Descent era.

But one that reminded these separate worlds of each other’s presence.

Between the rocky and uneven seafloors of the southern Imperial territory of Sverland and the vast, rich silt plains of the eastern Imperial territory of Veka, there was an enormous trench known as Kesar’s Abyss or Gorge. It was a connecting point between the Khaybar mountains dividing the Empire and the Narodnaya range separating the territories of the Union from Veka and Sverland both. When viewed from the Imbrium above, the Kesar trench was nearly a kilometer across and many more long, a gaping black maw screaming at the heavens. Torn open, split jagged as if by the strength of some titantic monster.

Kesar– the place where Norn the Praetorian’s journey began. Could there be an answer here?

Approaching Kesar was Gertrude’s Inquisitorial flagship. Irmingard-class dreadnoughts all shared many traits. Most distinctive was the thick, “spoon-shaped” prow, like its namesake upside down with a beautiful curved surface above and the tapering point jutting at the fore. Between the prow and the larger main body was a “neck” containing sensor equipment. All quarters in which work and daily living were contained had been spaced into the massive main hull, a semi-cylindrical, flat-topped, beautifully curved monument, bedecked with cannon pods, sensors, and winged fins and control surfaces. Flared armor “wings” around the circumference of the ship’s stern protected enormous hydrojets fed through intakes on the sidepods and below the stern. The most powerful Agarthicite reactors ever fielded on Imbrian ships powered massive turbines that drove this beast, as well as its massive main coilgun turrets.

The Irmingard class was not only the largest and most well-armored and well-armed ships designed and fielded by the Imbrians, the sheer power of their reactors and engines made them the fastest and most enduring vessels in the world in terms of speed over long distances. While they were not necessarily sprinters, the Irmingard class could chase any vessel to the ends of the earth, indefatigably hunting its prey, creeping nearer and nearer to pressure smaller and lighter ships and never allowing escape.

Per the wishes of its commander, the Iron Lady sailed without a livery, wearing only flat gunmetal gray.

But even this behemoth found itself dwarfed by the sheer size of Kesar’s Gorge.

From the circular bridge of the Irmingard, Gertrude Lichtenberg watched the yawning abyss through the picture of the main screen, taking up most of the wall at the very front of the bridge. She approached the island in the center, surrounded by the various battlestations. At this central post was the Captain, Einz Dreschner. He was the man responsible for the direct, day to day leadership of ship operations, even though Gertrude was in charge of the vessel as a whole. She counted on him to enforce her commands.

An older man with a heavily lined and severe face, hairless in head and chin both, never without his cap.

Nevertheless, that grim expression became as much of a smile as it could when Gertrude appeared.

“Inquisitor.” He said warmly, by way of greeting.

“Captain.” Gertrude said, taking his side. “So that’s Kesar.”

“Indeed it is. Just as Norn the Praetorian described it. Vast and seemingly empty.” Dreschner said.

“Seemingly. But it was here, Captain, that the Praetorian’s legend began.” Gertrude said.

Dreschner nodded. He spoke in a lower voice. “I am a very material sort of man, Gertrude.”

Only for her ears. “Do you trust me, Einz?” She asked, whispering back.

Dreschner crossed his arms. He spoke in a measured voice, like a wise man giving oratory.

“I believe that I should support you in this adventure even if I don’t fully understand it. To me, the benefit to be gained is for your confidence to be restored, and for you to be able to make clear decisions about your future. However, a part of me believes this ship should head for Konstantinople, rather than here, trying to unearth some treasure or discover some mythical secret to the Praetorian’s rise to power.”

“Do you think the crew feels the same way?”

“No.”

Drescher reached out and surreptitiously, he patted Gertrude once, in the side of the arm.

Such that nobody noticed, but she knew he was offering reassurance.

“Sailors sail. Their compact with their ship is that they are the ones who have to worry about pipes and pressures and nuts and bolts, and leave the worrying about direction and missions to the officers. And your officers, Gertrude, have nowhere to go in the world except where you tell them. In their minds, I believe they are still trying to excel to secure their livelihoods. Ultimately, all we want is to sail, as well.”

“Let’s hope you’ve read them correctly. I wonder if any of them are getting homesick.” Gertrude said.

“Like you, Gertrude, I don’t believe they have homes to return to that are any better or brighter than the bowels of this ship.” Dreschner said. He sat back farther into his seat. “For now, this ship is their home, and it is their home because they have faith in their leader. They trust your path is the correct one.”

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll make sure to walk my path confidently then.”

Gertrude stood up on the front of the island. Putting on her most stern and confident expression, and briefly preparing her voice. She face the massive abyss on the main screen and laid out her plan, which was heard not only on the bridge, but broadcast to the sailors working in the lower tiers of the vessel.

“Look sharp, soldiers! Before you lies the Kesar Gorge. Before we return to Konstantinople, we must carry out a thorough investigation of this pit. Our objective is to fully reconnoiter this area before we attempt to rejoin the Inquisition. Kesar’s Gorge contains a buried secret of the aristocrats and warlords currently vying for the throne and we cannot rest until it has been brought to light. Uncovering the truth is the justice of the Inquisition, whether the deceit comes from royal or peasant lips! This mission is the Inquisition’s first step toward ending this era of strife and setting right the current of Imbria’s history!”

It did not matter how much of that was improvised. It was a motivation they could understand.

She surprised herself with how convincing it sounded– in reality, what Gertrude was hoping for was only to find the source of Norn’s power. Perhaps even to gain such power herself, and learn to wield it.

Her officers proudly stood at attention, saluted, and followed her words closely.

With a flourish of the hand, Gertrude pointed at the main screen as if pointing a saber at it.

“We will tackle this task in stages! First, I want an imaging buoy to be lowered into the abyss to a depth of three kilometers. Once we have a clearer idea of the geography below, we will judge a course to descend into the gorge, and reconnoiter the path using a drone. Finally, the Iron Lady will descend. While we are tackling the imaging and analysis work, I want the ship to receive a quick maintenance. Check all filters, make sure nothing is leaking, and make sure all repairs to the exterior have held firmly. We will be descending into extreme depths through Katov mass. We need to be prepared and in top condition!”

“Yes ma’am!”

As one the officers on the bridge responded.

Gertrude looked down at them, all of their faces, their cleanly gray uniforms, well manicured haircuts, perfect postures. Service on a dreadnought’s bridge crew was a huge privilege, and everyone who accepted such a competitive position had to look and act the part day in and out. She saw determination on their countenances, a steel edge in their eyes. They were ready. Gertrude did not think these were the faces of people who had given up on her at all. So she felt a weight being lifted from her shoulders.

“Sonar and LADAR crews and Electronic Warfare officers will have to split their attention between the imaging and drone work and maintaining alertness! We are on the border between Veka and Sverland, and could reasonably expect responses from either the Vekan Empire or the Union, now that it has exerted control in this region. Be aware of all possible threats! Our Diver pilots will run routine patrols, but it’s up to us be their eyes and ears to threats in the far distance. We are an Irmingard class crew! We are the Inquisition! We will bring all crimes to the fore and dispense justice! Commence the mission!”

“YES MA’AM!”

All of the bridge officers shouted in chorus, offered a final salute, and returned to their stations, conferring with one another to begin the work ahead of them. Gertrude breathed in deep and sat down beside Dreschner. He gave her a quick look filled with his approval, the tiniest bit of a smile, before he joined the chorus of chattering voices, restating orders, calling officers by name to delegate tasks.

“Captain, I will recover my breath for a moment, but then I need to inspect the hangar.”

“Of course, Inquisitor. If I may comment, it does appear you are back to your old self.”

Gertrude wished that she could truly believe that was the case.

Too much had happened, however. She could never be the same again. Not completely.

That woman who fought unflinchingly, with a single-minded focus and devotion to one purpose.

If she was a monument to order and justice, she was one with deep cracks across its surface.

That purpose was gone. If not gone completely, it was shaken, warped.

She was still hurting, still vulnerable, in some soft and sad little part of herself, buried deep.

Like stepping on a tiny nail and continuing to tread upon it.

While wearing a confident smile and speaking in a proud voice to everyone who could see her.

But there was nothing to do but to keep going forward. Not just for herself.

All of these people were entrusted to her. She owed it to them as well to do more than doubt herself.

So even if it hurt, she had to walk the path laid out before her as Gertrude Lichtenberg.

To wherever it led her. To whatever end. For them.


Gertrude sighed deeply upon entering the hangar.

She had been so caught up in herself, and between Ingrid’s legs, that she forgot the state they were in.

With Sieglinde von Castille gone, so was her Grenadier— and in its place there was now a pile of scrap that was once called a “Magellan.” They were not able to do much with this machine. They had extracted data from its computer, but there was very little diagnostic information included, likely so the machine would be harder to replicate or repair outside its origin. Without spare parts, and without data on how to service it, they would have to kitbash Jagd parts into it and then pray that it could run that way.

Looking at the remains of the machine, Gertrude could almost recall, as if a sensation on the tips of her fingers and the bottom of her feet, the ease with which that machine moved. The power that it conferred to her. She almost defeated the Pandora’s Box with that Magellan. She was certain that had she fought with greater clarity and more reliable allies she could have ripped Elena from the Pandora’s Box. Now, however, it was vaguely propped up on a gantry, kept together with steel cable and thick ribbed tape.

Norn had managed to recruit and supply more pilots, but Gertrude had gotten too complacent.

She wished she had been more conservative with the Serrano patrol fleet.

To think she lost all those lives in the fighting–

–and still didn’t get her back,

“Don’t look at it so much! I’m embarrassed with it! Stop looking at it, Commander!”

From behind Gertrude came a whiny little voice.

She turned in time to watch a short, dark-blond woman hopping up and down.

Her tail wagging furiously. Her ears lightly twitching.

Dressed in a white coat over a green and black bodysuit. Spectacles perched on her nose.

“Chief?” Gertrude replied.

“Commander. If only you could see the visions I have– you wouldn’t look at the scrap so disdainfully.”

Dreadnought crews attracted two types of officers: prim and proper careerists, and unique eccentrics.

The intense hopping, paired with the warped smile on Chief Engineer Monika Erke Tendercloud’s face as she stared at the pile of Magellan parts barely retaining a shape– put her squarely in the latter category. She was a woman barely 154 cm tall, her blond hair divided in two long tails. Her small stature besides, she had a full, rounded, mature figure, and Gertrude knew for a fact she was the more senior of the two of them. Within those wide-draw orange eyes there was an intellect of inscrutable fathoms.

“Stop staring at it as it is now– stop staring at my shame. I will inform you when it is dignified again.”

She rubbed her hands together in front of herself. Gertrude crooked an eyebrow.

“Monika, this is the first I’m hearing that you have any plans for that thing.” Gertrude said.

Monika crooked her head to one side. “Of course I’m not going to just let it take up space! Now that we lost the Grenadier, I was thinking of using the Grenadier’s spare parts and some Jagd parts and making something exciting. I just need a bit more time to perfect my vision. Until then, don’t judge it.”

Gertrude acquiesced and ceased staring at the pile of junk.

“I’m– I’m sorry about losing the Grenadier.”

“Ehhh, it’s fine!” Monika put on that strange smile again. “Wasn’t my idea anyway. Maybe I’m happy it’s gone. Maybe I think it wasn’t made right and deserved to be destroyed. Maybe I’m good with it being someone else’s problem.” She turned her crooked head back right-side-up once again, shrugging. “It’s not like I have anyone to answer to about it. Rescholdt-Kolt isn’t going to call me up anymore.”

She crossed her arms and shut her eyes. Gertrude nodded her acknowledgment.

Suppressing the urge to apologize for how she had been treated, a habit which Ingrid so disdained.

Loup scientists were pretty rare. Owing to the prevailing military culture of the Northern and Southern hosts, most Loup valued spirituality and warfighting over scientific pursuits. Of course, Gertrude knew that these norms were encouraged by the Empire. It was convenient to have the Loup as an Imperial “guest culture” that produced seasoned warriors unflinchingly obedient to the Imperial officer class.

As an outlier in this arrangement, Monika would ordinarily have few opportunities. But Gertrude accepted Monika into her ranks and even convinced the R-K industrial firm to work with her on R&D. In the Empire many scientific careers began as these partnerships between military personnel and industrial firms.

Now Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries and Monika stood on opposing sides of this civil war.

Thankfully, this did not seem to be slowing Monika down one bit.

“My vision will be sweeping and grand– I will make an armor worthy of a knight like you!”

Monika raised her hands with a big smile.

Gertrude suppressed the urge to say something like ‘Knights do not exist anymore.’

That, too, was a habit people like Ingrid found distasteful.

“I look forward to taking it out then. I wasn’t aware you wanted to make a personal craft for me.”

“I got a front row seat to your last battle from the data we extracted from the Magellan.” Monika said. “You are an amazing pilot. And since we’re low on pilots, it makes sense anyway, doesn’t it? Clostermann was never going to extract the full potential of my machine– and Ingrid has her own mecha now too.”

Ingrid’s mecha–

Opposite the pile of scrap that had become of the Magellan was a symbol of Gertrude’s folly.

Standing up on the gantry, looking almost brand new–

Was the Sunlight Foundation’s Jagdkaiser Type I. Where the Magellan was beveled and beautiful, the Jagdkaiser was angled and jagged and evil-looking. Its namesake was the second-generation Jagd type, a light and sleek and fast machine designed for close quarters attack. Over-long arms, big shoulders, a compact body. The intention with the Jagd was to have a lot of thrust with a tight center mass and fully integrated weaponry that was ready to go with very little setup on the hangar’s part. The Jagdkaiser shared many of these traits with it, but its built-in weapons were far more terrifying than any Jagd.

Particularly its left arm, which was a special agarthic weapon unique to the machine.

Because of the damage it had received, even with the spare parts they had been given, it could not be fully reassembled. One of its arms once belonged to a Volker, it was repainted and kitbashed, and allowed the machine to use standard assault rifles and vibroswords, as well as to manipulate objects. The Sunlight Foundation’s wake-jet integrated propulsion was too difficult to reproduce and service, so until Monika figured it out, they had affixed an ordinary suite of thrusters, with solid fuel verniers and backpack, shoulder and foot jets, routing the water intakes and turbines wherever they could around the chassis.

While this increased the weight and bulk, it made the machine far more usable for them.

Now–

Now it was Ingrid’s machine–

At first, Gertrude had come to believe Norn delivered the machine to them as a cruel joke.

Gertrude lost Elena by commanding this machine to attack against Norn’s orders.

A moment of great shame and evil impulse that she wanted to forget.

But–

This was Ingrid’s machine now. So Norn had said; and so Ingrid greedily accepted.

For the power to fulfill Gertrude’s wishes.

“Monika, since you’re here already, tell me about that one.” Gertrude said.

“Heh.”

Monika put on her most perverse smile yet.

“That Sunlight Foundation is a strange group of folks huh? Scary scary scary.”

She crossed her arms as if beholding a master’s work of art at a gallery.

“So this is all conjecture from me, based on what we could extract from the machine’s computer, and going over the parts we were given as well as the spares that came with the damaged chassis.”

Then she began to lay out her interpretation of the art to the awaiting student.

First by pointing out the most obviously worrying feature.

“That arm is a miniature Agarthicite reactor. Except, rather than trying to capture the energy of the annihilation reaction and converting it in order to put it to good human use, all that arm needs to do is vent the annihilating force out onto a target. So it’s bulky for weapon, but significantly more compact than ordinary reactor infrastructure. Even within that use case, I’m baffled how they miniaturized a core ring to that degree while maintaining its structural integrity– but anyway. That higher chamber in the arm catalyzes the munition cartridge, which contains agarthicite and a sheet of material to trigger a reaction when certain conditions are met in the chamber. It’s like a reactor and a gun slapped together. After the reaction is triggered and the cartridge is consumed, at that point the reaction is directed by powerful magnetic fields and osmium shields out of the claw toward the target. This happens in a flash.”

She made a gesture with her hands, closing the fingers, then spreading them, moving her hands apart.

As if, between the gesturing hands, there was an expanding circle.

An Agarthicite sphere of annihilation, consuming all in its theoretical path. Gertrude understood.

“Frankly, I am not sure about the pseudophysics behind the reaction actually being able to travel to a target and smack it. It feels like it shouldn’t be possible once the reaction exits the claw and escapes the magnetic fields. Maybe it’s because of the trace amounts of matter in the water– but anyway.”

She clapped her hands together, shut her eyes, and resumed lecturing.

“Annihilation reactions depend on the amount of agarthicite used, its quality, the type of catalyzation and the resistance of the material being annihilated. So if I put a die-sized cube of very high grade agarthicite in a football size orb of Osmium and slam the whole thing into the ground, I’m inflicting violence on the agarthicite, which generates a strong reaction. But it’s got so much osmium to eat through, I’ll never see even a hint of purple. However, Agarthicite needs material to annihilate, or it will never react and yield its true power. Now, Gertrude, pop quiz time! What material can generate a reaction while offering the least possible resistance? Can you think of anything? Agarthicite only annihilates solid matter, you know.”

Gertrude was taken aback by the sudden audience participation.

“I think reactors use special nanocarbons? They’re part of the core ring fuel assembly.” She said.

“True! But, that’s a compromise for ease of manufacture and portability. There’s other possibilities.”

“I can’t imagine what. Stitcher carbon tubes are everywhere. You just have to process it.”

Monika grinned at Gertrude with a twisted delight and a dark glint in her eyes.

“Tissue. Human tissue for the most salient example.”

Gertrude was speechless, staring with a mixture of horror and disgust.

“What? That’s a pretty macabre joke Monika.”

Monika pointed over her shoulder at the rack next to the Jagdkaiser, containing a single cartridge.

“No way.” Gertrude said. “You can’t be serious.”

“Human sacrifice is indeed always an option.” Monika said. “Not only do our bodies have a good amount of carbon, they have tons of water. That water superheats during the annihilation reaction, it isn’t annihilated specifically, but it vaporizes, creating steam, heat. Energy that can actually be put to work.”

Monika gesticulated further, but this time the Inquisitor was hardly paying attention to interpreting it.

Gertrude tried to maintain her composure, but it was a titanic task in the face of what she was hearing.

“What is in the cartridge? Tell me now. I can’t believe you didn’t report this immediately.” She demanded.

Monika shrugged, unconcerned.

“After disassembling and putting it back together, I believe it contains human bio-carbon.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “And why? Why would they do this?”

Monika bobbed her head to one side and stood on one leg. Her tail fiercely wagging.

“Carbons in particular are Agarthicite’s favorite meal. In reactors, carbon-based catalysts are introduced to an energy array to trigger a controlled reaction. It’s a good trade-off between the energy generated, the volatility of the reaction, and the cost in materials and processing. Agarthicite can ‘burn’ carbon cleanly and keep an entire civilization alive and warm almost perpetually. Human tissues are cheap and renewable however. They have just the right amount of carbon to make a violent but controllable reaction, without needing any processing. Simply put, humans burn good. It’s certainly an alternative!”

Gertrude had heard horrible legends about how, during the Age of Strife, superstitious and insane warlords fed people to reactors to try to keep them going after the collapse of civilization. She thought it must have been sensationalism– as if to say, look how ignorant and barbaric these people were, and how enlightened we are today. Look at how much progress we have made, and how much better we have it.

Now, she was staring right in the face of the most unconscionable barbarism–

“Whoever made this machine doesn’t give a wit about taboos. They’ll inflict any horror for science.”

“So– Inside that cartridge–“

Gertrude was nearly speechless at the thought. She had ordered this weapon to be fired!

And it contained–

Monika put both legs down on the ground again and stopped hopping.

“Human bio-carbon. I don’t know how they got it. It’s probably tissue cultures. That’d be the path of least resistance, and you could control the amount of carbon versus water. But it would also take a long time to grow the needed amount per cartridge. So who knows? Maybe the material was extracted from a willing donor or maybe it’s a human sacrifice. We can’t know. But that’s what we’re dealing with.”

Could Gertrude really let Ingrid pilot this evil machine?

Even if viewed only as a weapon, without moral constraints, it was exceedingly dangerous anyway.

“That machine also has a weird interface that assists in piloting it.” Monika continued her assessment. “Ingrid is not going to be able to use it completely, but it looks like it can work by pulse alongside a bio-port, like a prosthetic. I don’t know what it does and I’m hesitant to take it apart because we don’t have any spares for it. It might help Ingrid though. I talked with her and she agreed to hook herself up to the pulse-collector when piloting. It’s just little pads that attach to her wrists and temples, it should be fine.”

Selene Anahid, the previous pilot, was clearly unwell when she piloted the Jagdkaiser. She had been operating under the influence of drugs and psychological conditioning in order to enhance her synergy with the machine. Gertrude did not know all the details, only brief and vague explanations given by Norn. While Norn and Selene accepted this state of affairs, Gertrude didn’t want to subject Ingrid to that.

After what happened, and knowing what she did now, Gertrude was terrified of this machine.

Could it even be piloted safely at all?

Or did someone’s brain need to be as cooked as Selene’s to do so?

And each time that weapon fired– was it really consuming human material?

It was a weapon, it would kill people with every cartridge nonetheless, but this was still disturbing.

“Monika, will Ingrid be safe piloting this thing?” Gertrude said.

For once, Monika put on a serious face.

“Is she ever safe piloting a Diver, Commander?” She asked.

Gertrude wanted to shout at her for this brazen sophistry, but she held herself back.

Monika was just a blunt and unrestrained sort of person– and she was not wrong.

Ingrid risked her life every sortie. She was a soldier. Kill or be killed was the law that governed her duties.

“What if I put the question this way: will this machine traumatize or hurt her irreversibly?”

Gertrude sounded, for the first time, openly a bit desperate. Monika frowned at her.

“Commander, again, I have to say. Ingrid is a soldier. She is irreversibly traumatized already.”

This time Gertrude reflexively grabbed hold of Monika’s coat as if to shake her.

Her hands moved before she could stop herself, towering over the Engineer.

That sight of the smaller woman, her surprised face, and Gertrude’s powerful hand near her neck.

Once she realized what she had done, Gertrude’s expression softened, her eyes drew wide.

“I– I’m so sorry.” She whimpered.

She let go of Monika and took a step back, distraught. Her mind started spiraling.

It was barely seconds of aggression, but it caused her a staggering amount of sudden mental anguish.

Monika looked at her with a sad but understanding expression. “It’s fine, I get it. I’m sorry too.”

There wasn’t anything to get. Gertrude was an absolute, uncontrollable, evil monster–

–she had no right to judge the maker of that machine.

Not after everything she had done. And all that she was about to set out to do from here.

After all the people she hurt and was still hurting–

“I– I need to return to my quarters. Thank you, Monika. I leave the hangar to you.”

“Hey, Gertrude, please don’t–“

Without listening to Monika’s pleading, Gertrude turned and walked quickly to the elevator.

Keeping a stone face that finally broke when the elevator doors shut.


“You look glum again. C’mon, cheer up. We’ve got Pastete! If you’d let us have booze, we’d have a party!”

“We’re not having booze.”

“Okay, just for you, I’m going to throw a two-woman sober party. It’ll be lame as fuck, but it’ll be ours.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“You cracked a smile, you bitch, don’t pretend!”

Gertrude had indeed smiled. She couldn’t help it with Ingrid.

The Irmingard’s mess was its own little food court, with both cooks and vending machines. Long row tables in the center of the mess held the most people, but there were tables for four up against the walls of the mess, and Gertrude and Ingrid had taken one in a corner. For the day’s dinner, they had Bavarian Stew, broth-boiled pieces of dried beef with potatoes, pickled carrot and a touch of sweet cream. Ingrid’s eye had been caught by the side-dish, however, which consisted of margarine-buttered biscuits and pastete, a paste of boiled liver ground up with sweet onion and garnished with pickled garlic shreds.

At Ingrid’s behest, Gertrude mindlessly smeared some of the pastete on her biscuit and bit down.

To her surprise, it had a rather sweet and earthy flavor, with only a slight hint of the iron-like taste she associated with offal. Dry biscuit should have done the pastete no favors, but somehow the textural contrast worked to the point Gertrude could not imagine eating it with a softer bread or cracker. The rich, fatty paste complimented the salty, crumbly cracker-like biscuit and kept everything balanced. She understood Ingrid’s excitement, and the delight in her face as she tasted the pastete with spoon alone.

Her tail wagged so hard it was making noises. It was as if she was eating with her entire body.

“It’s better than I thought.” Gertrude said. Unable to muster that level of emotion.

Thump thump, went Ingrid’s tail. “You Imbrians don’t know how to eat. Offal is the taste of a hunt!”

She spooned more of the pastete into her mouth like a kid enjoying an ice cream or a sherbet.

“Liver gives you vigor! It makes you want to fight! It makes you want to fuck!” Ingrid cheered.

Gertrude smiled. “You could stand to have just a little less vigor, I think.”

“And an anemia patient like you should be eating this every day!” Ingrid said through a full mouth.

Both of them laughed. Gertrude tried the stew. It was a hearty blend of flavors, slightly sweet, slightly tangy, savory and rich. It had good mouthfeel, with the potatoes and carrots easily picked apart, just soft enough without becoming indistinct mush. Clearly the cooks had thought of how to try to bring some of the unctuousness that real stewing beef had, and which the dried-up beef could never possess. Sweet cream was an interesting idea, and the broth used as the base had a decent body to compliment.

Despite the disadvantages it faced, it still managed to taste like home.

Home–

Was that still Schwerin Island?

Not that she could ever go back there. Useless to even consider.

“Ingrid,”

Gertrude looked directly into Ingrid’s eyes. Her companion looked back, in the middle of eating.

“Hmm?”

“Are you really going to pilot the Jagdkaiser?”

Ingrid stared at her, while swallowing all the food she had stuffed in her cheeks.

She washed it down with some vitamin drink, and wiped her mouth.

She sighed.

“Is that what’s got you down now? You’re so fucking fragile.”

“I– What–?”

Gertrude did not imagine that particular response.

“Do you trust me?” Ingrid asked, arms crossed, pouting.

“Of course I do!” Gertrude protested.

“No you don’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t be spiraling out over this.”

“I’m not spiraling out.” Gertrude asserted. “I’m concerned. That thing is dangerous.”

“Everything we’re doing is dangerous.”

Not that type of rhetoric again. Was this just how Loup approached everything?

“I’m afraid of this machine warping you– making you not yourself.” Gertrude said.

It took a lot for her to reach into herself and pull out and expose that anxiety.

For a moment Ingrid paused. Her expression softened. Her words became less sharp.

“‘Trude, I don’t know what you went through with Norn, but you’ve known me for how many years now? Nothing is going to happen to me. Piloting a different machine won’t change me or how I feel. I promise you I will be careful. Like, fuck, I’m doing this for you. I want to be able to protect you. I saw the data, the stuff this machine can do is crazy. Even if I think Norn can go fuck herself, the Jagdkaiser is too useful.”

An impulse took over Gertrude in that moment, and she said the first thing she thought of.

“What if you didn’t have to fight? What if you could just stay here for me?”

Ingrid’s eyes drew wide. Even Gertrude, after she was done speaking, realized how scandalous it was.

It did represent her honest feelings.

She could not bear losing Ingrid.

“What the hell? That’s so cute.” Ingrid recomposed herself and grinned at her.

“I– I might’ve gone too far–“

“Nah, you’re finally being honest. Look, being the homefront housewife is not my style.”

It really wasn’t– and Gertrude knew that part of what she loved about Ingrid was her gallantry.

Ingrid was a warrior. In her own way, she really was an old-school Loup hunter.

She was determined to fight to prove her strength and gain respect, status and accolades.

Somehow the Iron Lady had ended up the village that bore witness to her deeds.

If Gertrude tried to smother that wildness out of her– then Ingrid would really not be herself.

“Sorry.” Gertrude said. “I’ve been really stupid. You’re right.”

“Talking about it is how we get it fixed. So I’m glad you finally let me know your feelings.”

She reached out and patted Gertrude’s shoulder.

“I’m going to get so strong, Gertrude, you won’t have to worry about me ever.” Ingrid said.

War wasn’t about any one person’s strength.

That meant, to protect Ingrid, Gertrude also had to become stronger. All of them did.

She would not say that to Ingrid however. It would have ruined the mood.

“I believe in you.” Gertrude said instead.

Ingrid had no snappy comeback. She smiled gently and girlishly and accepted Gertrude’s words.


Depth Gauge: 2100m

Gertrude slept alone that night.

She and Ingrid both knew they had been too boisterous lately and people were talking.

No more midnight rendezvous for a while. It would only distract from the operation.

Laying in an empty bed again, Gertrude immediately missed the feeling of a warm body beside her.

“When did I become so needy?”

Her brain responded, ever so helpfully–

Since–

Vogelheim.

When she took Elena’s virginity.

Gertrude raised her hands to her face, gritting her teeth, cringing.

“God damn it.”

She was not about to stay up all night with these thoughts. She would drive herself crazier than she was.

Reaching out to her nightstand, she withdrew a bottle of sleeping aid pills.

She took one with a cup of water she kept on her nightstand as well, and dropped back in her lavish bed.

Spreading her arms only punctuated how alone she was. So she curled up tight under the sheets.

With the help of the drugs and her environment, Gertrude’s mind went quickly dark.

Drifting into nothingness as if falling and falling, a comfortable lack of gravity, suspension.

Freed from reality, freed in the truest sense. Floating without care for course, without need of agency.

Behind her shut eyelids she saw a road of colors upon which her consciousness drifted along.

Ferried as if by a million soft little hands, downriver to a great waterfall of colors.

Splashes of light in a great welcoming dark where she was bare and free. Free in every way.

Slowly, the colors dimmed, just a little, and the shadows faded into a stark white sky.

That sky became solid– it was not sky at all but the great white crowns of hundreds of trees interlinked, their branches and leaves making up the visible firmament. Absolutely titanic trunks of white and silver stone grooved as if through erosion brought hundreds of tiny rivulets of water from the heavens to a muddy, dark earth below. Down to this forest, she drifted, upon the oft-bending streams of color that ran in the air visible like expressions of the breeze. Thick roots that glowed gently purple tore into the earth between the trees and made up most of the geography of the forest floor in grand size and complexity.

Like cave echoes, cheerful waves reverberated between the trees, their whispering, their conversation.

They were a community, and they were happy to have a visitor.

Peaceful Place. Restful Place. Sweet Dreams.

They cheered, welcomed, in their own way. Their voices spoke directly into the senses.

But they were not alone–

In the distance, in a rare clearing between all of the trees, amid tiny red algae and scuttling crabs–

Two figures stood across from each other. One figure was gray and silver-haired, while the other was starkly white, with flowing red hair and a single horn jutting out of the side of her head. Clad in an ornate white robe, in contrast with the grey and black dress on her counterpart. The yellow over black eyes of the white figure dilated with hatred for the grey one, she grit her teeth, and inky, roiling black color expanded out from her. All other colors began to gather around her feet like snakes about to bite the grey figure.

“What are you doing here? You foul, corrupted thing! Don’t pretend as if you are worthy of this place!”

Castigating words reverberated from the white figure, silencing the happy whispering of the trees.

Without word, the grey figure withdrew and brandished a blade at the white one in response.

A blade upon which the colors gathered, as if to meet the tendrils forming around the white being.

Gertrude stood in the middle of this scene, in the middle of both sides, gathered there–

Acknowledged–

And when she was seen and when she saw herself for what was–

She bolted awake.

Gasping for breath inside the metal walls of her bedroom–

“ALERT KONRAD! ALERT KONRAD!”

Red lights began to flash in her room. Karin Schicksal’s voice sounded in the room.

Alert Konrad was–

Combat.

In the next instant, as she leaped from bed to hastily don her uniform, a message from the bridge came through. Gertrude quickly acknowledged it and scanned the contents in glances while dressing.

Once she grasped the entire meaning of the message, she paused for a moment.

Warships from the Empire of Veka were approaching Kesar’s Gorge at combat speed.

One particular ship had been detected from a previous All-Navy profile: the cruiser Aranjagaan.

Flagship of Veka’s security division– a ship that Gertrude knew.

She had intelligence on a particular person for whom this ship had become her flag during this Civil War.

“No fucking way.”

Gertrude was briefly staggered by the circumstances. Her luck– and that of a certain sad little group of strays who once shared their most precious days together at the Luxembourg School For Girls–

–their luck was rotten to the very core.


“Approach at combat speed. Target only with light guns. Fire for effect, avoid direct hits. We want to take them alive. We need to determine if they know more about this facility than the mercenaries do.”

Three vessels detached from the task force to pursue the fleeing criminal, whose escape craft had risen suddenly from a secret hangar about a kilometer from the site of the operation. Led by the cruiser Aranjagaan, with two Frigates for support, the flotilla began to give chase. In the background, the Task Force’s remaining twenty ships loomed over a depression in the silt plains where an illegal bio-laboratory had been operating. Wreckage from several Divers and some Katarran mercenary ships littered the plains.

Instruments predicted the path of the escapee– that it may attempt to lose them in Kesar’s Gorge.

“We won’t allow these cretins to do what they want in Vekan territory! Go after them!”

On the bridge of the Aranjagaan, the order to pursue was reaffirmed by a chief Vekan enforcer.

This woman was a young, chestnut brown-haired Shimii named Victoria van Veka.

Little did she know that this Vekan security operation was about to get mightily more complicated for her.

Both professionally and personally.


A woman with an infernal passion burning in her chest–

A secret a million years kept, and another kept a mere thousand–

What will be discovered in the extreme, forgotten depths of the world?

We can only descend further, enduring the deepening weight of history

Even if the truth of our pain is buried ten thousand meters deep.

KNIGHT IN THE RUINS OF THE END


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.5]

For a few minutes, Homa drifted in reverent silence through the open ocean.

Outside her cockpit, through the cameras, she could see the bubbles from her exhaust trailing up, she could see the water rushing as she descended, and the bodies of the towers growing larger and farther around her. So she knew she was falling. She had a smile on her face, she could not help but be happy. Encased in metal armor, out in the water, free from the station’s confines.

When the feet of her stripped-down Volker mech touched ground, she pressed down the pedals to engage the hydrojets and accelerated toward the base of Tower 7, where her target was.

Homa’s every muscle brimmed with excitement.

When she was in the Diver, she felt bigger, stronger, freer than ever.

Everything was quieter, too. But she wasn’t just alone with her thoughts. Controlling the machine with the sticks, the pedals, the switches, and triggers, glancing across her monitors and the instrument panels, switching cameras. She was engaged the whole time, working as if with her whole body in rapid succession, but the task was peaceful, almost relaxing, as it frequently occupied all of her faculties.

“Homa– you– hear me?”

Emma’s voice was scratchy, cutting in and out, but Homa could technically still hear her.

The headphones slotted into the fluff of her cat-like ears were connected to the Volker’s acoustic and laser-channel digital communications system. Depending on which could provide the most fidelity, the computer would switch between them automatically. The audio quality going to hell meant that Homa was far enough away now from the laser router at B.S.W to switch to acoustic data transmission. This was basically decoding long-distance soundwaves as a digital signal, from sound to bits and bytes.

Transfer rates over acoustic data protocol were atrocious.

“Barely.” Homa replied.

“Oh–”

Homa knew Emma well enough to fill in her characteristic ‘oh dear’.

She was Bertrand’s secretary, but she was a licensed sonar, radio, and laser/acoustic router operator, so when Homa went out on the Diver to work in the water, Emma was always the voice in her ears. For worker safety, Emma was supposed to fill in Homa on any weather updates from the station, or on any traffic that might be headed her way. But Bertrand cheaped out on his laser router, so most of the time, Homa could barely hear Emma unless the job was at base of the Kreuzung core tower.

Today, Homa was headed out to pry open a stuck runoff gate at the base of Tower 7.

Dockyards got jobs like these from time to time, dockworkers called them ‘gigs.’

Money was money. Getting a gig like this was more marks in her pocket.

Her rent was paid, but her conviction to leave Kreuzung was still as sharp as ever.

For that, she needed money and a lot of it. No two ways about it.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! I’ll finish this and be back soon!” Homa said.

She was sure only every other word of that got through to Bertrand’s.

Between the towers Homa traveled over slushy dirt, made up of the same raining marine biomass that made up the marine fog swirling around her. There were many animals, pale or transparent, soft-bodied, abyssal fish and crustaceans and worms, congregating on the remains of larger animals from brighter waters that had drifted from above and made it into the Kreuzung sea floor.

There was no way to move in her great machine without disturbing these natural sites. Clouds of fish and krill felt water displace around the area and leaped defensively away, before returning to the carcasses in which they made their livelihoods once Homa moved far enough way from them. Out in the water, there was so much more life than anyone would ever see just staring out the sea viewing windows in the Kreuzung complex. It was easy to think the world outside was entirely dead. Walking through the Kreuzung seafloor, Homa got a firsthand view at everything they shared the crater with.

Somehow, while the people were all trapped in ships and stations, life teemed out here.

And up above, from where all the food for these beings fell continuously from the sky.

Homa peered toward heaven, and all her floodlights illuminated was more marine fog.

Brown dust suspended in dark water, and the distant, looming shadows of towers and their bridges. Allah and the promise of heaven. It was far out of her sight, infinitely beyond her reach. At the bottom of the Kreuzung crater she was 2500 meters from the surface. To think, even then, that there were human beings even deeper. Some parts of the complex, deeper underground, went as far as 4000 meters.

Nothing habitable– just old maintenance tunnels and mining shafts, Homa had heard.

Sometimes, when she piloted, she marveled at the enormity of what surrounded her.

But she also felt strangely powerful. She felt a thrill in the center of her chest.

Because she was out here, walking this forbidden land in her suit of armor.

As bad as she sometimes felt for the fish– she felt better than ever about herself.

Closer to each tower, the muddy, biomass-heavy earth was replaced with the steel base plate for the tower. Some of these rings contained massive entrances into underground spaces, but others were just there to provide anchor points and power supply inputs for heavy equipment. There were slots on the floor in places, contact points where construction modules could be attached to power huge cranes or massive underwater welding gear which could be used to repair or replace exterior plates on the tower. There were ships that could repair station towers too, truly massive ones that plugged into the baseplates, Homa had learned about them in school. That was neither here nor there though.

For Homa, at that moment, it only meant she was gliding over steel, rather than soil.

Slowly, the marine fog lifted as she closed in on the structure and she could see the varied man-made geometry of the exterior of Tower 7’s base. The runoff gate she was commissioned to pry open was dead ahead, its indentation in the tower wall visible once Homa got close enough with her Diver.

There were four handholds on the exterior of the gate in case it needed to be forced open, but it was otherwise a door that slid out when enough water was pumped through the connecting chute to force it open. This particular gate, Homa was told, was one of the places water was periodically pumped out to in order to empty the station’s desalination pipelines so they could be cleaned or replaced. When it became stuck, the pipes and tanks couldn’t be fully emptied. It was a quick and dirty job to go out in the water and get it open, so it was contracted out to any company with a Diver. That way the maintenance crews in Kreuzung would not have to keep, train, or assume liability for any Diver pilots and their gear.

“I’m at the site. I’ll just get this cracked open and be back shortly.”

Fuzzy gibberish came through in response. Homa slowed and stopped before the gate.

Technically it would have been possible for Homa to connect to Tower 7 itself and route back to Bertrand’s that way. She could have talked to Emma and had any guidance whatsoever from her; but B.S.W would have assumed the cost of the data transfers and she would have gotten yelled at for it. So instead Homa just assumed nobody would hear her if she died screaming in the open waters.

Not that anything would happen at this point.

She pushed her sticks forward, engaging the finger switches to spread and close the digits on the Diver’s hand. She grabbed hold of two of the handholds on the gate door and pulled back her control sticks to pull with just the mechanical force of the arms. This had no immediate effect, the runoff gate remained shut. Homa angled her hydrojets away and slowly ramped up the thrust, pulled up and back, feet leaving the ground as the current cycling through the machine lifted her completely off the base plate.

Despite the amount of force being applied, the gate remained firmly shut.

“Ugh, this is really stuck!”

Bertrand didn’t want her to use the solid fuel boosters if at all possible. Solid fuel was a misnomer — it was just what people came to call power generation other than agarthic batteries. In this case, the “solid fuel” was actually liquid– they could burn anything that burned, depending on the kind of boosters equipped. Bertrand filled theirs with diesel because it was cheap, but cheap wasn’t free. With a few licks of solid fuel boosting she could have had this open in an instant. She was starting to think she had no other choice, however. She had not come with any tools, just the vibromachete on the magnetic strip.

Cutting through the runoff gate was of course not an option.

“Well! I don’t have a choice! Hey, Emma, if you can hear, I’m hitting a booster.”

Her left hand moved instinctually toward a button panel in front of her, in order to flip open a plastic cap enclosing the trigger that unlocked the solid fuel boosters. On normal Divers the boosters were immediately accessible from buttons on the stick or pedals, but Bertrand installed a mechanism to lock those controls and then put a plastic box over it to really make Homa think about using fuel.

As soon as she unlocked the booster, however, she was alerted to sudden movement–

On her monitors there was a flashing red box placed by the computer over the runoff gate–

Which burst suddenly open, ejecting a cloud of salt residue and water stuck inside.

Unveiling flashing red eyes and a long, eerie shadow–

Homa rapped the buttons on her sticks that engaged solid fuel boost and thrust upward.

She felt her cockpit rattle as something lunged past and slammed into one of the feet.

This threw her off but not enough to completely lose control. She tried to get her bearings.

Glancing at one of her secondary monitors showed her one of the underside cameras. On the feed, there was the long, dark form of a creature about twice the height of her Diver in length, but slightly thinner. A bulbous main body like a huge four-part jaw that attached to a sack for the eyes and brain, tapering into a tail with yellow biological lights glowing across it. Two structures on the rear end of the sack-like portion of the body ejected water and dirt– bio-hydrojets, fed water from the enormous mouth and from four sets of gills on the sides and top of the sack. That meant this eel-like being was a Leviathan.

Twisting around, its jaws and four malicious eyes atop its sack-body suddenly faced her.

“Leviathan! Emma! Leviathan!” Homa cried out.

Jerking her control sticks, Homa faced down the creature, trying to gauge its next move.

A red targeting box drawn around it by the predictive computer, labeled the creature.

Gulp-class, a “lifeboat” level Leviathan. Fourteen meters long.

Had it been hiding in the runoff gate? For how long? How did it get in there?

It must have been holding it shut until Homa disturbed it.

Now it was clearly aggravated.

Engaging its hydrojets and the muscles on its tail, the Gulp-class lunged at Homa.

Rows and rows of vibrating silver teeth gleamed inside its enormous, distending maw.

Monomolecular edges, each one, just like her machete.

They would shred the unarmored Volker. Homa once more launched herself aside.

“Emma! Emergency! Leviathan!”

Homa repeated words, rather than phrases, hoping something would get through.

But there was nothing but static on the acoustic network or laser messaging.

The Gulp-class lunged past her, but this time it slammed its tail at her as it went.

Her entire cockpit rattled and shook, Homa clinging to her controls with a deathly grip.

Gritting her teeth, eyes racing between monitors, heart pounding.

She could connect to Tower 7, but she needed her hands and concentration on avoiding the attacks, she could not work on the computer to swap connections and ask for help. After sweeping past her, the Gulp-class seemed to have learned something from its short-ranged and sudden leaps, and instead gathered momentum by swimming away into the marine fog and doubling back.

“No, no– this is– this can’t be–”

Homa’s vision swam, her undershirt clung to her cold sweating chest.

Her limbs tensed and shook, her feet shook hard enough to tap her pedals.

Shrill screeching roars sounded the violence hurtling her away.

As the monster threw itself forward, Homa shrank away from it with her whole body.

Forward boosters threw her aside the charging, snapping jaw.

Three vibrating teeth grazed the exterior forearm of her Volker, scratching the metal.

And the body disappeared again into the fog, twisting to resume attack.

Had those teeth caught on a pushrod she would have been without an arm.

“No no no no no!”

Was this how she was going to die? All alone out in the ocean, torn out of a Diver by a screeching monster, screaming her heart out without a soul to hear? Every centimeter of her skin was brimming with anxiety, she felt her heart like bass echoing through her pores, into her roiling gut. She could not unclench her jaw and her fingers shook wildly enough on her controls to make up a drumbeat. Flooding tears stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She could not feel her tail.

If even one of those teeth dug deep enough her entire body would be extruded–

Teeth–

–dug,

“I’m– I’m not going to die here! I’m going to escape this place! I’ll escape! Damn you!”

Homa shouted herself hoarse and drew her vibromachete from the magnetic strip.

It was just large enough to hold in both hands like a short sword.

On her monitors a red box indicated the resurgence of the Gulp-class and its heading.

Homa engaged all thrust, throwing itself into the Gulp-class’ charge.

Holding her sword from the shoulder and thrusting with all her might and momentum.

Crashing into the Leviathan’s fat snout and driving the sword between its four eyes.

Its distended jaw slackened from the attack and could not close around her Volker.

Hysterical, Homa pounded her feet on her pedals, tugged her sticks. “Die! Fucking die!”

Furiously tearing across the soft palate and nostril, Homa drove her sword back out. In the wake of her cutting edge issued a geyser of red biomass. The mildly buzzing vibration of the monster’s teeth died out, its jets sputtered and clogged with gore, the mutilated body sank slowly away from the Diver. Coming to fall upon the tower base plate, where curious, wandering krill and shrimp convened.

Homa watched, heaving breath, eyes incredulous, as all the tiny creatures invisibly lost upon the surface of the tower base plate showed themselves. Visible in contrast with the dark body of the Leviathan, they started picking apart the corpse. To them, it did not matter whether it fell to the brown earth or to the metallic plate surface. It was a needed injection of life-sustaining biomass.

Something about the sight of the creature that had brought her so much fear, being so easily colonized by the bottom feeders, left Homa speechless. That feeding frenzy of dozens of creatures the size of one of her fingers, playing about below. Her tears continued to flow, but she fell back upon her chair, releasing her sticks, her feet slack on the pedals. Catching her breath, holding her necklace reflexively. She had fallen back into the habit of doing that, from when she was a kid.

This Is Life.

Homa– did not think that.

It felt like it came from the place of her thoughts but–

It was as if– she heard a voice–?

A very gentle– very soothing voice–?

“Homa! Come in! We bought laser access! Are you okay? Did you say Leviathan? Homa!”

Emma’s voice. Homa was snapped out of her reverie by a crisp call from B.S.W.

She almost wanted to shout back for Emma and Bertrand to go fuck themselves.

But she valued her job– she needed the money.

Homa needed the money to get out of this hellish place. Before it killed her.

So despite the swelling emotion rushing over her body like a shower of stress–

She politely explained what happened.

“Solceanos defend you Homa! Oh gosh! We’re so glad you’re okay!”

Homa practically heard the next words said before they were spoken and braced for them.

“We’ll talk about the fuel and all that when you get back. Be safe, okay?”

Mildly different than what she thought, but still. She grit her teeth.

With the runoff gate forced open and the Leviathan killed, the job was done.

“Bertrand should try to wring some more money out of them for the Leviathan.” She said.

“Oh he will! Don’t you worry!” Emma replied cheerfully.

Homa engaged her hydrojets again, gliding just off of the sea floor. She could have moved faster now that Emma was paying to talk to her, since she would know if there was any traffic. But out of force of habit, she took her time getting back to Bertrand’s to have a stern, frustrating chat about her use of fuel to save her own life from a violent death. Another day at the office.


After Homa left Bertrand’s office and finally found a moment’s peace, she pulled out her phone and found a few messages from Imani Hadžić. She stared at the mails in disbelief for a few minutes. Because she could see the previews in the notification bubbles, she knew only two messages, the first and last, contained nothing but black hearts. However, the other mails had actual content to them, so Homa took a bathroom break in order to read them in private and respond.

“Ho~ma~” began the most substantial message, “During your work, please keep an eye on Kitty McRoosevelt for me. Make idle conversation and try to get her to speak on current events or local politics if you can. Let her run her mouth. If she asks you for any favors, such as hiding or moving things from her yacht, comply promptly and let her use you. Report to me any such events, as well as any names, places, or times she mentions, for example, if she talks about going on dates or being indisposed on certain times. Earn her trust, be compliant to her requests, but take care of yourself. She cannot be allowed to suspect you. If she tries to harm you, do anything that you can to contact me.”

That message, too, ended with a little black heart.

Homa typed up a quick response from the bathroom.

“Will do. Are you okay?”

By the time she was back outside, she would find that this message had been responded to:

“You’re sweet.”

Homa took that to mean Imani was indeed okay.

And despite her complicated feelings toward Imani, she felt relief, nonetheless.

All of the rest of Imani’s messages were just her being needy or sending black hearts.

For all that she said she wouldn’t demand immediate answers, Imani harassed her anyway.

Her slate would have been buzzing nonstop had Homa not been out in the Diver.

Despite having that near-death experience, she still had half the workday to go.

Bertrand’s profits stopped for no one.

“Homa! Our little hero!”

On the dockyard, seated atop barrels of ship coating gel and fluid next to Kitty’s yacht, Becker and Aicher cheered Homa’s return. Becker had one of Bertrand’s portables in hand and showed Homa the footage they extracted from the Diver. Homa felt her stomach turn for a moment at the sight of herself shouting ‘Die! Fucking die!’ while butchering the Leviathan. It was too surreal.

“Crazy piloting out there Homa! Schecter could have never done this!” Becker said.

“I’m glad he didn’t go out then.” Homa sighed. Imagining an even more tragic scene.

“My time on patrol didn’t coincide with a lot of Diver stuff.” Becker said. “But even I can tell Homa, your reflexes are amazing! And that charge? You’re made of stern stuff little lady.”

“I was just freaking out. I’d have really rather not had to fight for my life at all.”

“Well, look at this way. Yes, you cost old Bertrand a little bit money short term for all the fuel, but long term, you’ve proven you’ve got skills Homa! Bertrand won’t have to worry about sending you out anymore. I bet once his fuel cost is covered up, you’ll have a promotion coming!”

Becker’s continued gushing caused Homa’s ears and tail to droop in embarrassment.

“Hell, Homa should just take off of here and join the navy. Better money there!”

Aicher was joking, but Becker quickly shot him a glare.

“No, Homa shouldn’t go near the navy, Aicher! It’s not managed right these days.”

“Didn’t think I’d ever hear that out of you old Beck. I thought you loved the navy.”

Becker’s expression darkened. “Not these days. It’s not– it’s not run right anymore.”

Homa knew what he meant. She recalled their earlier conversation.

The Volkisch Movement was in charge of the Navy now.

But Homa didn’t know that she could agree that the Navy was ever “run right.”

After talking with Imani, she didn’t know whether any part of the world was “run right.”

And after today, she knew she didn’t want to be anywhere near a fight again.

Thankfully, Becker and Aicher ran themselves out of steam on this topic pretty soon.

Soon Homa was left to begin the work on the yacht.

First she was tasked with the exterior, which would take a few days. She had to remove any old coating in order to insure that any new coating was applied evenly. That meant dousing the exterior with a thinner chemical, using a plastic wiper to peel off all the coating; shining, polishing and painting the bare metal and filling any dents or scratches; and then applying the new coating in layers, waiting for each layer to set. Each layer would take, by Emma and Bertrand’s calculations, about eight hours to set. So that meant it took half as much time in reality– but it did extend the work schedule by several more days.

Staring at the massive yacht in front of her, Homa recalled Imani’s message.

If she was supposed to be snitching on Kitty, that meant Kitty was also alive and around.

So Imani and her had not killed each other on that night in Ballad’s Paradise.

Homa internally berated herself for having such a stupid idea in the first place.

Of course these spy games were a lot more complicated than shootouts in public places.

Donning a plastic mask and putting a pair of plastic sheets over her ears, Homa popped a cap off one of the barrels and firmly affixed a hose to it. That hose she connected to her chemical sprayer, and set herself to work, hosing down the stock livery of Kitty’s yacht and with it, the old layers of coating. With a 40 meter long and 13 meter tall yacht there was a lot of hull to hose down.

Her sprayer could launch a jet of chemical as high up as the yacht’s bridge and even higher, but to do things safely and smartly, Homa had the nozzle set very tight, and instead used a personal elevator to get up higher. Standing close to the hull, she lifted her platform to the section she was working on and sprayed a cone of chemicals at a low speed, to get a thin film over the hull, enough to wear away at the old coating without wasting product or spraying it everywhere. This method also took more time, which was probably the actual reason that the company did it this way.

When she was done with most of the port-side prow section, she elevated herself almost on top of the deck, and saw over it, in time to spot the bulkhead door into B.S.W opening and admitting a woman into the path toward the main dockyard. Heels clacked on the steel floor, and the approaching woman threw her blond hair and waved at Homa when she saw her over the yacht. On that day she was dressed in a blue blouse with a deep v-neck, and a tight, ruffled yellow skirt, but still wore her distinctive coat.

Kitty McRoosevelt, all smiles, had come to pay them a visit again.

“It’s fine if I look over your shoulder, isn’t it?” She asked, shouting up at Homa.

Comply promptly.

“It’s fine! It’s your money!” Homa replied. “But put on a disposable face mask!”

Safety first. Homa was spraying chemicals everywhere after all.

And she supposed it would be bad if Kitty McRoosevelt had to go to the hospital.

For Homa at least, if not for Imani Hadžić.

Now that Kitty was physically around and watching her from below with her back to a barrel of coating thinners with a little face mask on, fully integrated into the surroundings– Homa had to think about how she was going to get her to talk. Clearly Imani was not just going to come down here and cuff her. So there must have been something Imani wanted Homa to learn from Kitty before arresting her, or something that she wanted Kitty to do. But Homa had no idea, and she was not the biggest social butterfly in the world, so she had no idea how to extract it from her.

And of course, far be it for Imani not to be frustratingly cryptic and actually tell Homa anything.

“Have you ever thought of just blasting the side of the hull from down here?” Kitty asked.

“Huh? Uh, no, that’d be super dangerous. This stuff is really toxic.” Homa said.

She pointed a finger at her chemical sprayer, and Kitty nodded her head.

“Well, I’m glad they’re thinking about your safety around here.” Kitty said.

“I mean, yours too. You should back off a bit more. You don’t have a zip-up suit like me.”

Kitty heeded Homa’s warning and backed up from the yacht– but only a few steps more.

“It’s really impressive how you’re the only woman here. It’s such a male-dominated field.”

“Ah, it’s not really that hard. My co-workers are all super old guys. They can still do it.”

Despite trying not to feel flattered, Homa’s little tail began fluttering in its protective bag.

While Homa worked, Kitty remained near the site, often asking questions about the process or about the equipment Homa was using. These would be interspersed with questions about Homa personally, every so often. “So how old are you kid?” “How long have you worked here?” “How was vocational school?” “Do you guys get lunch breaks? You’ve been at it for a while!”

Homa had curt answers. She was engaged in work, and it was a little bit annoying.

However, she did feel a bit flattered. Even though it must have been part of Kitty’s scheme.

Few people ever took so much interest in what she was doing.

By the end of her shift, she had spent hours with Kitty, and she felt exhausted as she waved the crew goodbye and shambled up the ramp toward the elevator and the journey home. It was like she had done twice as much work today as normal. She almost forgot to account for the fact that she had survived being eaten by a monster. It had been an eventful day and the first many, as Kitty would start visiting the dockworkers every single day, punctuating Homa’s blurry days of eating, sleeping, and working with an intrusive but not always unpleasant or unwelcome burst of color.

Kitty was not alone in disrupting Homa’s life, however.

That afternoon, as Homa exited into the pavilion, she saw new digital signage up on every shop window, and the coming-and-going crowds of busy people began to pool in front of shops, some with their portables out, others asking strangers if they knew or had heard anything about this. On the shops, the signs read ‘Dynamic pricing in effect’. When Homa approached a shop that had sweaters for sale on the front window, she saw, for the first time, a price tag’s number fluctuate before settling on a slightly higher price than before. That sweater’s price rose by 26 Imperial Mark right before her eyes.

It was not a big change, and it did not happen often– Homa kept looking for a few minutes but did not personally see another price change that night, but she thought, it must be happening all over the shopping center, probably with more dramatic effects.

What did it mean?

On the tram, Homa sent Imani a mail. She was part of the government, wasn’t she?

“Imani, the shops in Kreuzung have ‘Dynamic Pricing’ now. Did something happen?”

She received an answer as soon as she got off the tram.

“Yeah, something happened.”

This woman–!

Gritting her teeth by herself on the elevator, Homa sent another message.

“Can you tell me what happened, Imani?”

This one did not receive an answer. Not right away, anyway.

Homa looked around the Shimii market, but there was no ‘Dynamic Pricing’ there– yet.

She stopped by Hasim’s for some more marrow bones and another bag of cabbage.

Paying careful attention to the condition of his wares– everything looked normal.

Those beef cubes must have really been selling out a lot.

“Hasim, has it been tough to source beef lately?” Homa asked.

“Ah, looking to pry into my business secrets, miss Baumann?” Hasim joked.

That was his good-natured way of suggesting she not ask that question.

Nevertheless, she satisfied her own anxiety. The Shimii shops weren’t out of goods.

Prices hadn’t changed either. Yet.

So what was happening in the core station? Homa felt perplexed.

After she returned home she immediately tapped on the wall twice to bring up the launcher and tapped the icon for the television. She already had the news channel playing. While she took off her jumpsuit a few commercials played advertising for Volwitz Foods’ latest ready-meals, for data plans for portables, Epoch Clothiers’ new line of all-vinyl see-through clothing, and finally, the news anchor reappeared on screen. Homa sat in her underwear, on the edge of her bed, ears twitching and tail swishing freely from the back of her shorts, awaiting any pertinent news.

Finally, after a few local puff pieces and some reminders that a murder happened recently, the anchor introduced a colleague who was at a massive wholesaler warehouse. Three enormous cargo elevators were packed full to bursting, and there were a lot of people buzzing around in the background as the camera panned over. The warehouse itself, for all the people in it, looked pretty empty of actual goods. Homa had never seen a place like this, but she assumed the stuff that got brought into Kreuzung from the agrispheres and factories had to be kept somewhere–

“We’ve never seen anything like this!” the reporter said excitedly, “Volwitz’ wholesalers all over Kreuzung have been posting massive delays in returning stock, and its led to a feeding frenzy of ship suppliers rushing in with their bulk orders. In all my years of covering the shipping biz I’ve never seen a warehouse this empty–” the reporter caught sight of a dark haired woman near one of the elevators, clipboard in hand, coordinating a series of forklifts full of crated-up food. He approached her, using a handheld remote to maneuver his drone camera around the other side of her. A dirty trick to make people feel trapped into an interview. Homa saw this often in this news channel.

“Ma’am looks like you made off good before the warehouse got ransacked! What’s your name? Do you work for a ship in port around here? Did you have any idea it’d be this crazy?”

“Um.” The woman stared awkwardly into the drone camera. She was rather pretty, her lips and eyes lightly reddened with makeup. Her uniform looked familiar too. She had a motherly sort of look to her, Homa thought. “I’m– Minardo. I am a ship victualer. I had no idea it would be this busy. I suppose I got lucky? I’m just trying to do my job here.” The drone camera hovered closer and she shooed it away.

Homa thought her Low Imbrian sounded pretty weird– definitely not from the region.

“Got any wisdom for the viewers at home on what these wholesale shortages might mean?”

Again the drone camera got closer to Minardo’s face– meeting a gaze full of killing intent.

Homa thought it looked like when Madame Arabie got mad–

“Leave me alone already!”

In the next instant the drone camera was on the floor and the reporter was shouting.

“No! I have freedom of the press! I was just trying to get some man-on-the-street–!”

As soon as the video cut away to an embarrassed-looking anchor in the studio, Homa felt a buzzing transfer through her bed, across the sheets. Homa realized the only person it could be and practically dove to the other end of the bed to pick it up. It wasn’t a call, however, but a mail, from Imani Hadžić.

She had responded to Homa’s earlier inquiry in much more detail now.

“Rhineanmetalle’s consumer brands have temporarily formed a cartel with Volwitz Foods and Epoch Clothiers, colluding to reduce output sold specifically to Kreuzung core. The cartel is trying to collectively turn the public against further labor strikes and break the strike in Kreuzung through economic shock. It’s a play by the fuhrer Adam Lehner using his influence over the capitalists. Volwitz and Epoch Clothiers were both majority-owned by liberal stakeholders who have since been targeted by the Volkisch. They are in no position to refuse for now. Supplies won’t run out entirely, one hopes, but prices will go wild.”

Homa read the mail twice, trying to pick apart every word for comprehension. She mostly understood it– a bunch of the big brands were refusing to sell to Kreuzung as revenge for the Rhineanmetalle strikes so that people would be scared off from supporting the strikers. Despite this, she still wrote and sent a mail to Imani, her skin tingling with anxiety, that read– “What does that mean for us Imani?”

Her eyes remained glued to the portable for almost ten minutes.

Fingers quivering over the cold metal.

What does that mean for her? Would she be okay?

Then, finally another mail from Imani arrived.

“Together, the cartel represents 63% of all goods sold in Kreuzung. About the Shimii in Tower Eight: a few people like Leija Kladuša have the authority and ability to import goods produced by Shimii in other stations per certain agreements and will continue to make these available. But doing some quick back of the paw math, 43% of consumption by Shimii in Tower Eight is of cartelized goods. There’ll be shortages, especially in food. Volwitz products account for over half the Shimii’s food consumption. It’s only in local textiles and hygiene products that we begin to see a gap in local goods over cartelized goods.”

Leija– that was Madame Arabie’s name. Leija Kladuša. Few people knew it.

Madame Arabie brought in poppy from outside Kreuzung and refined it into drugs.

Homa knew this was the most lucrative pillar of her criminal Empire.

Rich Imbrians loved the heroin and the even stronger and less cut up opium she produced.

That drug money funded a lot of the Madame’s less pernicious pursuits.

There was another buzz, and a third mail appeared from Imani shortly thereafter.

“Without goods to buy, money is useless. Restaurants will get more expensive soon. While you still can, buy a bag of flour, a thing of vegetable oil and buy zlatla. You know what it is right? Western Shimii love the stuff. Half cup water + zlatla + a cup flour, mix dough in a bowl, oil the dough, and fry. Three a day to stay alive. If you can’t fry, put the bowl near your room heater, add a bit more water, cover with a plate, to steam a dumpling. If you have meat or vegetables, eat a little a time with your cakes to ration it.”

Homa blinked at the instructions. Her tail stood up on end as much as it could in surprise.

Was she expecting some kind of famine? This was starting to become surreal.

“Can’t you do anything about this?” Homa asked. “You’re a big-shot, right?”

“Nope~” came the reply. “I’m just a soldier. It’ll get worse if we lose Kitty. So just focus up, okay?”

Upon mention of that woman again, Homa felt her frustrations with Imani resurface.

“What can she do to this station that’s worse than this?” Homa furiously typed.

Promptly: “Destroy the whole thing. Kill everyone. You and I included.”

Homa froze. That had to be a joke right? Nobody would– nobody could destroy a station.

Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the message. So curt and simple, but– terrifying.

Those were the most terrifying words Homa had ever seen on a screen in her life.

Destroy a station? Kill everyone– including Homa? No– that couldn’t be what Kitty–

Nobody would do that. Nobody would. It was completely insane. Out of this world insane.

Another buzz. Another mail. Homa’s shaking hands, her spiraling vision–

“Trust me and stay on task. Love ya~” it said.

A black heart to punctuate it. Homa’s fingers were shaking too much to form words back.

Imani was done talking to her, Homa knew it right then. There would be no more mails.

She leaped off the bed, turned off the television and rushed to her closet.

Throwing on her one good casual pair of pants and a shirt, along with her jacket, she walked back out to Hasim’s with her hands in her pockets and her gaze turned almost exclusively on her own feet. Focusing on walking and breathing while she could feel the walls warping around her. A bag of flour, a tube of cooking oil, and a can of pickles. She could swing that. And it would feel like doing something– in a moment where Homa otherwise felt like she had no control of her life.

There were a lot of things stewing in her brain. Too many things.

Bubbling up to the surface of her anxieties, however, was one question.

Was Kitty really capable of destroying Kreuzung? Was that even possible?


“Homa, what do you think about how the Shimii live here?”

Kitty’s voice snapped Homa out of a reverie.

She opened her eyes wide, suppressed a gasp. She looked down at her hands. She was done dissolving the coating on Kitty’s yacht, so now she had to repaint it to Kitty’s wishes. Her chemical sprayer, after a thorough cleaning, was performing double duty as a spray paint gun with paint canisters. Hefting the object in her hands, the world around her became clearer. She was at work; she had been painting.

Her head had been heavy, brain swimming in a thick stew of her concerns.

In cases like this, she liked to immerse herself in work and drown out the world around her.

Now, one of those worries that swam in her head was also present beside her.

Because the paint was not toxic, Kitty felt like she could stick closer to Homa.

She had been pretending to be interested in the painting, but she really just wanted to talk.

Homa turned her head and tried not to shoot her a glare.

“What were you saying?” Homa asked. Masking her irritation as best she could.

Whenever she looked at Kitty, Imani’s mail came to mind and upset her more than she was.

For her part, Kitty either did not notice or ignored Homa’s attitude. She was bright as ever.

“The Shimii in Kreuzung seem to have it hard– I just wondered how you felt about that.”

Homa grunted. “I mean– What is there to say? Yeah– it sucks. We just live with it.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Kitty said, gesturing with her palm up.

“No? I’m just an ordinary work-a-day girl.”

“Even ordinary people can make a difference! What if you campaigned for office?”

Homa fixed Kitty a look, as if trying to physically scrutinize how she could be so ignorant.

Kitty simply smiled at her. Ignorance must have truly been bliss. She was all smiles.

“I realize it would be difficult– but not impossible.” She said, as if realizing her mistake.

“It is impossible because Shimii can’t even vote in Kreuzung elections.” Homa said.

“I see. I come from Aachen. It’s different there.” Kitty replied. It sounded like it was true.

Homa’s ears twitched with a mild interest. “How much different can it be?”

Aachen was far in the north of Rhinea, on the edges of Eisental. Its waters bordered the Great Ayre Reach to the northwest and the Palatinate to the northeast, and Khaybar’s northern range wasn’t too far. Homa did not know much about it except that there was frequent traffic between Aachen and Kreuzung, both being major cities. When she started working at B.S.W, she would routinely see customers from Aachen, just because it was a major port that issued official papers, so it was a place ships could come from.

“Aachen has a more progressive culture.” Kitty said. “It’s a border station so you have Palatine big shots, Rhinean liberals, Bosporus transplants. It’s a travel hub so all kinds of people go there. There is a big shipyard there with a strong labor culture, and a technology university. And because it’s a border town, it’s a place where there’s been significant cultural exchange across its history. I like to think melting pots breed understanding and sympathy. I guess Aachen has a stronger activist culture than Kreuzung.”

Homa furrowed her brow, skeptical. “Are there Shimii there? Can they even vote there?”

“Interested now?” Kitty chuckled. “There are Shimii. And they can vote in local elections.”

“Do they have good jobs? Can they live anywhere? Do they get to go to the university?”

Kitty’s expression darkened a tiny bit. “They do have their own habitation there–”

“So they live in a ghetto.” Homa said. “Don’t mince words about it. I’m not a dumb kid.”

Words spilled out of her. She almost regretted becoming impassioned. But not completely.

Some part of her thought she should have shouted in Kitty’s face for being so naïve.

No matter what niceties the Imbrians let Shimii have– it was always like this in the end.

“I’m sorry, Homa. I am belying my ignorance, but I do think there is always hope for change. There are places where Shimii have it better– so the Shimii in Kreuzung have models they could follow and hopes that they can have for change in their own lives here. Their struggle isn’t for nothing.” Kitty replied.

“We already live in a ghetto over here.” Homa said. “So what’s there to aspire to?”

This was stupid. She was just trying to gain Homa’s sympathy for her own purposes.

While Homa painted her boat, she was just standing there spouting empty rhetoric.

But it was also the most that an Imbrian had really shown interest in Shimii specifically.

So Homa also felt a bit taken aback, and unable to be fully aggravated with her.

And besides, Imani wanted Kitty to win Homa’s sympathy anyway.

She couldn’t be too mad– but it was still frustrating. Voting? They had bigger problems!

“Why do you care about the Shimii all of a sudden anyway?” Homa asked.

She tried to sound gentle, but it did come off extremely confrontational.

Kitty did not appear offended. She smiled. “Because you are one, maybe.”

She winked. Homa scoffed. Did she think she was being charming?

“How shallow.” (She had to admit she was the tiniest bit charmed.)

“I was joking. You could say I am something of an organizer. Maybe I see an opportunity.”

“Don’t tell Becker that. He hates workplace rabblerousers.” Homa joked.

“Duly noted!” Kitty laughed again. “You know, I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”

“Huh?”

Homa turned off the paint sprayer, pointed it at the ground and looked over her shoulder.

What was this woman about to say–?!

Kitty took a deep breath. Those seconds felt like an eternity to Homa, who had far too many wrong ideas about what Kitty intended to talk about. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of things to try to change Rhinea, and the Empire, to try to do good for its people.” Homa practically deflated like a balloon full of anxiety but tried not to show it. Kitty continued to speak– her voice sounded a tiny bit more passionate than usual. “Not only in Aachen, but across the Imbrium Ocean. I know exactly how hard you have it, Homa. And there are a lot of people who wish it wasn’t so. I can’t say more, I just hope you understand.”

“It’s tough to see it that way from in here. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa replied.

What she really wanted to say, was something like ‘their wishes don’t help me any’.

But she thought, Kitty was trying to sound nice. So Homa should accept it for now.

Their conversation did stick in Homa’s brain for a little bit that day.

How did the Shimii live in other places? Was there anywhere that they were truly free?

And in the places where they were discriminated against– who was standing up for them?

In Kreuzung, it did feel like nobody was doing anything to help them.

Madame Arabie’s kind of help ran on favors and debts and commitments. It was crooked.

Imani was a member of the Volkisch. Was she really able to do anything from there?

On the way home, she thought about Radu the Marzban too. He was a hero, a living legend.

There were a lot of tales of him saving people in shipwrecks, delivering supplies during emergencies, killing Imbrians who committed heinous crimes on Shimii. They said that he and his crew of raiders wandered the seas righting wrongs committed upon the Shimii– but with all his strength, then, why did the Shimii still have to live like this? Couldn’t Radu the Marzban take down all the villains exploiting the Shimii? He saved Homa– but he couldn’t save her mother. He was a legend, flitting in the shadows.

But even their myths and legends couldn’t change things for them fundamentally.

“Could Imani do it? With all her money? With her Volkisch clout? But she isn’t–”

“Hey. You look pretty troubled.”

Homa arrived at her room and was about to head in when she noticed someone standing in front of the next room door over. In fact, this person was leaning against the door, with a small cartridge vaporizer in hand– one of the disposable models, not like Madame Arabie’s pipe. A faint smell of cinnamon wafted from her fingers. To Homa’s surprise, it was Madiha al-Nakara, her pale hair wrapped in a little bun, wearing a garish, flowery green shirt of a similar style to the last.

“I– I’m okay– Miss–?”

Madiha blew out a bit of cinnamon smoke. “No, not miss. Just call me Maj– Madiha.”

Homa stared at her for a moment and then stared at the door– the room right next door.

“Huh? You’ve been staying next-door all this time?” Homa asked.

“Since a few days ago.” Madiha said. “Our schedules don’t intersect much I guess.”

Homa blinked hard. “Is that girl with you too? You’re both staying here?”

“Parinita? Yeah? She’s worn out, taking a nap inside.”

Wait a minute–

Recalling that night, where Homa overhead–

impassioned sounds of lovemaking–

through the room walls–

had Madiha– with that petite companion of hers–?

up so late like that, and the yelling–?!

“Why are you making a face? Did Arabie tell you something distasteful about me?”

Madiha scrutinized her, while Homa took back control of her hanging mouth.

“No! Of course not! I have nothing against you. It’s– It’s really not that.”

“You look even more skittish now. Are you really okay?”

“Well–”

“C’mon out with it already. Tell Big Sister Madiha what the matter is.”

Could Homa really ask her to keep it down at night?

Would Madiha not immediately wring Homa’s neck if those words left her mouth?

Madiha openly sighed, discarded her vaporizer in a nearby trash chute, and walked over.

She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder– she was trying to be reassuring, but her grip–!

“Look, I’ve seen that troubled urchin look before. I can at least hear you out. Okay?”

Homa nodded. “Um, Madiha– what do you think about how Shimii live here?”

Ultimately it was impossible to ask her to fuck her girlfriend more quietly.

It was the fault of the shoddy construction here anyway.

So instead another topic that had been stewing in Homa’s brain came out in its place.

Madiha nodded sagely. “Ah. You’ve got money on the brain again– can’t blame you.”

Homa wished all she had in her brain was money troubles. It’d be so much simpler.

“Homa was your name?” Madiha asked.

“Um, yeah.” Homa replied. “Homa Baumann. I’m– I’m mixed.“ She added to explain her surname.

Madiha gave her a wistful look for a moment. She looked deep in thought.

“You’re a Shimii, Homa. Your parentage doesn’t matter.“ Madiha took in a breath. Homa had never been accepted so casually and confidently. It took her aback some, until Madiha started talking again. “Homa, no matter how bad it gets for us, there will always be dancing, weddings, big pots of stew and bread. Shimii use whatever we have to try to live through the era. We survived the cataclysm and live here underwater. We’ve been through much worse than this. Our religion was nearly destroyed, our people persecuted, our homes and names stolen, but we live. Our ummah pray for better times and live their lives as best they can. So to answer your question: we all know how things are. But why are they? That’s what I ask myself. Not how people live. I know that. They live as best as they can. So ask why instead.”

Homa was surprised. It was a more in-depth answer than she thought she would get. After throwing that dumb question out, Homa imagined she would talk about the food or about parties.

That was the kind of answer Homa expected out of someone much older than Madiha looked.

She had thought of Madiha as being another gangster like Arabie was.

Maybe she was something different. That look in her eyes, it was almost tender.

Homa could almost feel her sympathy wrapping around her like warm colors–

“So if you ask me what I think about Kreuzung; the Imbrian bastards here sicken me.”

She raised an empty hand to her lips, as if so distracted she forgot discarding her vaporizer.

This seemed to make her momentarily frustrated. She closed the hand into a fist.

“Madiha–”

Homa briefly hesitated. Her head stewing again. Kitty’s words; Imani’s words–

“Madiha, can anything change what’s happening to us here?” Homa asked.

“Fighting.” Madiha responded. Quickly; as if a quietly honed reflex.

She grit her teeth. As if it bothered her to have responded so quickly.

“Fighting?” Homa asked. “But– fighting who?” The Imbrians? All of them? How?

“Bah. I’m sorry. I just said whatever. Pay it no mind.” Madiha sighed.

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Madiha. You can speak your mind.” Homa said.

She really wanted to hear what Madiha had to say. She felt like she needed to hear it.

She was so intriguing. Was there someone around here with an actual answer to things–?

Madiha grunted. “Homa, I’m not going to tell you to fight anyone personally. We’re not all fighters. But just don’t be complacent, and never say thank you for the little crumbs you get here. If someone does resort to violence, do not rush to condemn them on that fact alone.”

Those words dropped like a heavy load of ingredients into the pot boiling Homa’s brain.

“I’m just trying to understand.” Homa said. Her emotions got away with her for a second. She started to weep. “You said fighting– but fighting who? How does living get better for us? For the past few months, everything here has been going to hell. Nothing feels certain anymore. I’ve always wanted to get out of here and go out into the ocean. But lately I’m thinking– what if there’s nothing out in the Ocean for me but more of this? Even if I survived all the trouble and got out? So what am I supposed to do? If I stay here I could struggle and maybe die; and it could be the same anywhere! What do I do then?”

She raised her voice, curled her fingers into fists, turned a red weeping gaze on Madiha.

For that instant, a repressed anger she couldn’t direct at Arabie, Imani, Kitty– leaked out.

And yet, the stranger upon whom this childish injustice was done did not condemn her.

“Homa, my answer to that is pretty bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it for you.” Madiha said.

“Then just say it. Nobody around here tells me the truth.” Homa replied, bitterly.

Madiha grinned at her. She crossed her arms, locked Homa’s eyes with a red glint in hers.

“There is no place in the Imbrium Ocean where you can go and lead a happy storybook life as a Shimii. You will run into the hatred the Imbrians project onto our flesh, their hatred of our marked bodies, their hatred of our worship of Allah. But I hate them in turn, and my hatred is a prayer of fire that will consume all of their works. Allahu ackbar. If you don’t want to fight them, Homa, I will fight for you. For every life the pacifists preserve, I will take ten to assure victory. We will kill as many as it takes.”

Behind Madiha, the door to the apartment opened, and a sleepy-looking girl walked out.

Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long blue skirt, yawning.

Homa and Madiha both turned their smoldering gazes her way. She pointedly stared back.

“Ma– oh, that’s the girl from the other night? Are you troubling her Ma– Madiha?”

Madiha shrugged dismissively. “We were having a lively conversation about life.”

“Elocution is a gift from Allah to our people– and you used it to make her cry.”

“I wasn’t trying to– she just asked for my opinion, and I gave it candidly.”

Homa sighed, wiping her forearm across her face. Her brain steeping in frustration.

“No, it’s okay. I appreciated her candidness. I’m sorry for the trouble, Madiha.”

She turned quickly from them and opened her door, as fast as an escape.

“Hey, listen. If you need any help, you can come to me. But think about what I said–!”

Even if Homa did not want to, she would be thinking about it, even as the door shut Madiha out. Even as the door behind her closed, and her legs gave out, and she sat back against the door weeping. Staring up at the ceiling with hands over her face. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.


As-salamu alaykum.”

“Ah, Homa, welcome, welcome. If you’re looking for the marrow bones again–?”

“Hasim I can see it. You’re all out of them. Not even the smallest bones left?”

For days now the beef bones available had been shrinking, and less in the bag, but still–

There had to be something!

“Afraid so. It’s been tough, you know, I get these specifically from the Agrisphere in Suhar, from my Shimii cousins there, they work so hard, it’s the best quality in the whole country. Homa, when you go for quality like I do, it’s tough sometimes, sometimes you just come up empty-handed if you only get the best, but I promise you, Inshallah we’re going to restock soon, and you’ll be amazed at the quality–”

Homa was barely listening to Hasim’s little speech.

She cast disgruntled looks about the shop, taking stock of the potential soup ingredients. He was out of all the frozen vacuum bag meat he normally carried. His refrigerator and freezer were empty save for the frost. He had not done anything to cover them up, so he must have run out recently. He would probably get bony stockfish and throw them in there to look like he had something on hand. In his pantry section he had cans of stuff– there were cans of shredded chicken and ground beef. There was a can of green beans packed in water and salt. It wasn’t cabbage, but it would do. She couldn’t afford to eat restaurants, so she needed to cook with what she could get.

“Pleasure doing business as always, Homa. May Allah see you to safety.”

For want of anything to polite to say, Homa said nothing at all in response.

She walked out with a can of ground beef, a can of ground chicken and cans of green beans.

None of it was her first choice, but it would fill her belly.

She wasn’t at the level of eating fried flour with zlatla just yet.

The deteriorating quality of her lonac was not lost on her, however. It was depressing.

It was a week now since she last had beef cubes. Normally Hasim’s supply was steady.

Bone marrow lonac wasn’t bad– but Homa really wanted to have a nice meal again.

She had been working so hard! On Kitty’s boat– on snitching to Imani–

Didn’t she deserve a treat? But she couldn’t afford it. Especially with things getting worse.

For someone who had been taking care of herself like an adult for years now, she felt utterly without control of her own life. For days now, she had thought of begging Imani for the money to just eat at a restaurant without it coming out of her own pocket, so she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of doing so– but she was ashamed of asking Imani for any help. (And wary of the consequences.)

Everything felt more burdensome, more intolerable. She couldn’t just keep her head down.

As she walked through town, she looked around at the conditions of the other stores.

Imani had been right.

Epoch Clothiers, Volwitz Foods, Arleiter Tools, even Raylight Beauty–

All of the stores associated with Imbrian brands had closed early that day.

Signs on the window exhorted shoppers to subscribe to stocking alerts in their rooms.

Homa wondered if they had no supplies at all, or if they were still getting anything.

Volwitz Foods shops especially concerned her.

If they didn’t restock, all the “mom & pop” food shops would get hammered with orders.

There was an air of tension on the streets. People lingered in front of shops as if in a trance, as if uncomprehending. There were groups in the middle of the street passing around gossip and information. Homa almost wanted to tell them what Imani knew, but she had no idea whether it was public knowledge, or if it could be traced back to her and cause trouble. There were fewer smiles on people’s faces, fewer women in their best dresses going to dance, fewer lads at the pubs watching the football matches. Homa wondered how the Flowing Scarlet would look today too.

Was Madame Arabie still stocked up?

Homa trudged back home, feeling like she was dragging her own body weight.

At least she had the very last pot of bone marrow lonac to look forward to.

Her tail gave a sad little twitch in anticipation.

As soon as she rounded the corner to her own hall, her heart jumped–

“Homa!”

She hardly had time to react when a woman’s arms wrapped around her.

Pulling Homa tight into her chest.

Brown hair, emerald eyes, a brown blouse with gold-painted lines.

“Madame?” Homa yelled out in shock. “What–?”

“Homa, I’m so happy! I’ve been looking all over for you!” Madame Arabie was giddy.

Her breath– she reeked of alcohol. Her words were slurred, her eyes distant.

She was drunk!

At least she was smart enough not to be using the drugs instead–

But it was still a bad situation! Homa tried to extricate herself from Arabie’s grip.

“Madame! I’m– I’m happy to see you too! Let me go and lets– let’s relocate to my room!”

Arabie was so strong! No wonder everyone was so afraid of her!

Homa had never been trapped in a hug so difficult to get herself loose from!

“Homa~” Madame Arabie’s voice slurred. “You’re such a good little kadaif. So good to me.”

Kadaif? As in the dessert? Her brain was truly going out wasn’t it?

“Allah give me patience!” Homa cried out. “Why me? Just– please get moving this way!”

Homa began pulling Arabie’s weight step by step down the hall, over to her door.

Before any nosy neighbors stuck their heads out to watch– especially one in particular.

“Because–” Madame Arabie tried to answer Homa’s cries, which were not directed at her.

She choked up for a moment, her head leaning into Homa’s shoulder.

Her fingers caressed Homa’s dark hair.

“I don’t– I don’t have anyone else.” She mumbled.

Homa grit her teeth.

She managed to shuffle the drunk Arabie all the way into her room, through the door, which she locked behind her, and then finally cast her down onto her bed. Homa stood, breathing heavily, in front of the bed, with Arabie laying down on it. Arms spread, giggling, her chest rising up and down with steady breathing, legs hanging off the end. What was she supposed to do about this?

“Madame–”

“Call me Leija! I’m too young to be a Madame!”

Madame Arabie– Leija curled up her legs on the bed and shifted over onto her side.

Looking at Homa through cloudy eyes, making herself comfortable.

Her cheeks and eyes were red, and the pale insides of her ears were flushed too.

She was completely off the precipice from the alcohol.

Homa could only imagine the disparaging things the town aunties could concoct about this.

Hopefully not too many people saw Leija in this position. Or would see her with Homa too.

“Leija,” Homa acquiesced with a sigh. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Leija shuddered in response. Her brainlessly cheerful demeanor darkened.

“It was so stressful. So stressful Homa. I just want to hide. Can I hide from them here?”

“Them? Who is them? Is someone after you?”

The only reason Homa wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack was that Leija was so drunk she could have easily been making the whole thing up in her head. Homa had enough problems as it was without having to be caught in the crossfire of Leija’s mafia troubles, but also, nobody ever messed with Leija no matter how bad things got. So she assumed it mustn’t have been anything important.

And finally, Leija herself confirmed: “Problems. Problems are always after me.”

“Fine. It’s not use talking to a drunk. Do whatever you want. I can’t stop you.” Homa said.

“You’re so nice to me, Homa.” Leija mumbled. “So good and nice and lovely. My little kadaif.

Her words began to slur much more and to trail off much more quickly.

“Take it easy and sleep it off.” Homa said, trying to sound reassuring.

Leija did not run her own businesses, it was impossible for her to be at so many places or to make so many decisions by herself. She had managers and a chain of command, Homa knew this well from being part of her organization. Homa knew that Leija was not personally needed anywhere unless there was a dispute. She imagined the scenario in her head: Leija’s various cronies gave her the bad news about the shops and prices in Kreuzung, telling her that she would lose money and that things would be rough unless something changed. Feeling helpless about it, she drank too much to cope with it, and ran away from the Scarlet on some aimless anxiety impulse and went in search of someone familiar.

Now she was here, drunk out of her mind on Homa’s bed.

Things had never gotten this out of hand with her, but Homa never put it past her.

Though, she had once imagined that the day Madame Arabie personally came to her room, it would be to drag her out and shoot her. Not to get drunk and sleep it off on Homa’s bed. Out of those two nightmarish fantasies she did not even know which one she preferred. Once Leija came to her senses, she could still very well lose her temper at Homa over the whole thing anyway.

There was no winning with this woman.

Despite how much trouble Leija was causing, Homa didn’t want to disrupt her sleep.

She withdrew a spare gel pillow and a nylon blanket from beneath the bed and made herself a little nest on the floor to lie down on and stare at the ceiling for a while. She needed to decompress. Her stomach was growling for a bowl of lonac, but she did not want to move just yet. Life kept coming at her like hammer blows one after another. Breathing deep was all she could do to surmount it.

“Homa,”

Leija’s slurred voice sounded far less cheerful all of a sudden.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Homa.”

On the floor, Homa turned her back on the bed. Leija had not moved, but if she did, Homa did not want to look at her spouting this nonsense. She grit her teeth, and her ears folded against her head as much as they could, but of course, she could still hear the woman on her bed moaning.

“I’m sorry Homa. I never took good care of you. I even– when I saw you in the suit– I even thought it would be nice to sleep with you. I’m a rotten woman, Homa. I am destined for the fire. You are a treasure that Allah sent to me. I looked you in the eye and discarded you every time.”

“Shut up. I don’t want this from you.” Homa mumbled.

“Homa. I’ve been wanting to say sorry. Ever since he came back. I’m so sorry.”

He? Radu? What was she saying? Was it still all nonsense? Homa sat up.

On the bed, Leija Kladuša was nearly falling asleep. With the last of her strength–       

“Radu and Imani Hadžić. Those bastards– those bastards–” Her voice trailed off.


“Here you go! Everything went quite professionally, even for me!”

Deep in the Kreuzung Core station, inside a pressurized maintenance tunnel just under the rim of the baseplate. A woman dressed casually in a jacket, skirt, and tights, with orange-mottled gray skin and brown hair, handed Kitty McRoosevelt a small, handheld device, put together from parts.

An analog switch, an antennae, an electric circuit, a tiny system-on-a-chip, and the contacts for a crude little battery. When she said ‘everything went professionally’ she must have been referring to the preceding courier work to set it up, because the device itself had rather crude workmanship.

It was difficult to ascertain whether it was real in the dim, intermittent light in the tunnel.

“When you toggle this device on, you’ll have 12 hours to make sure everything is ready. I would suggest taking out the batteries right afterward– the signal is encrypted, and it will be sent to the drone faster than anyone can notice it, but if it stays on, it will keep transmitting and give you away. So just chuck it and step on it when you’re done. The drone will take an 8 hour journey to your buddies in the abyss of Masud. They are ready and awaiting the signal. Then, at full combat speed, the fleet will make it here in 4 hours. I informed them of the location of the B.S.W. dock– it’s up to you to have it secured.”

“Up to me?” Kitty McRoosevelt said. “You’re not coming?”

“Perimeter defense isn’t my thing. But I got you some big strong boys and girls for that.”

Xenia Laskaris smiled girlishly at Kitty and Marina McKennedy, their other witness.

Her dark-green, exoskeletal antennae rose slightly like arms spread in joy.

“She’s kept her word.” Marina said. “I never asked her to stand and fight with you.”

“I wouldn’t have gone this far for you if it’d ultimately lead to that. It’s just not my style.” Xenia said. “Marina will take you to meet the rest of the team. I need to start limiting my involvement because the local crews are skittish about outsider Katarrans. Apparently there’s a whole fleet from the Mycenean Military Commission stuck in Eisental, demanding mercenaries join them– it’s a whole thing.”

“But they won’t object to working for ‘Imbrians’. That is apolitical to them.” Marina said.

“Exactly. Don’t tell them you’re actually Cogitans by the way.” Xenia said.

“I never intended to. Well, I suppose if this thing doesn’t work, I’ll know who to curse.”

Kitty spoke gravely. Xenia seemed more amused by it than anything.

“Trust me, I want you to succeed. I live for this kinda shit. It’s job security for me!”

Chaos, she meant. War: destruction, killings, and upheaval.

Twelve hours away as soon as Kitty hit the button. The G.I.A.’s operation would begin.

Her fingers hovered over the switch. She did not flip it, not yet.

But now, the power to kill had been placed in her hands. Her empty heart unwavering.

She only needed one more day. Kitty would get what she needed from the Shimii girl.

“Kitty.“

Marina spoke up as they left the maintenance tunnel and Xenia Laskaris behind them.

“Think before you press that button. That’s all I ask.“ She said. With an air of grave finality.

Kitty scoffed.

“Marina. I’ve done a lot more thinking than you want to admit.“

There was a current driving Kitty McRoosevelt. The weight of ages, history itself given voice to haunt her.

Through her, through her grief, pain, ignorance and bigotry, it would conclude the inevitable tragedy.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.4]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić stood alone in a corner of Ballad’s Paradise’s model village attraction with her back to a wall, hands behind herself. From a nearby open ventilation grate, a black cable sprouted that linked up to a device in her pocket, and broadcast audio to a pair of pods tucked into her ear fluff. At the end of that black cable, dropped all the way through the ventilation one whole story down, was a wireless receiver. It was connected to a transmitter on a certain waiter.

She shut her eyes and imagined the scene, and the characters within, as she listened in.

Kitty McRoosevelt–

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”

Majida al-Khaybari–

“Are you out of your god damned mind? You think I’ll join this senseless massacre?”

(Internally she amended her view of al-Khaybari. She was not so bloodthirsty as to join Kitty in this act.)

Surprisingly, Raaya Al-Shahouh–

“There are Shimii in this station complex! You want us to kill our own people?”

“Calm down!” Kitty shouted. “We’re only using it for leverage against the core station! We’re not going to complete the process, we won’t destroy the station, we’re just going to cause a temporary shutdown.”

Majida audibly scoffed.

“Leverage? Leverage for what? Everyone in Eisental will call you shaitan after this!”

Imani smiled. Yes, go on, Kitty. Let her in on your plan, why don’t you?

“Leverage against the governor. Shut everything down, isolate him, and take control.”

“You and what army? If you do this Kitty, the hammer will come down hard.”

“I’ve got forces waiting for the go-ahead. Majida, we have this figured out!”

“I’m about to pretend I never heard any of this, Republican. You are completely insane.”

Kitty continued. Finally she began to let Majida in on the substance of her plot.

“We’re planning to infiltrate a small force into the station, sneak through the lower dock interstice, commandeer the core, and put Kreuzung temporarily out of commission. Our goal is to overturn the government of Eisental. I have a small army at my disposal that will come in once the core station’s defenses are out of order due to the Core Separation and disarm the Volkisch– but with your forces, Warlord al-Khaybari, we could practically guarantee total control of the region!”

There was a long silence. Imani could picture Kitty’s smug face.

“Control of the region– for whom? Who is running Eisental if this goes your way?”

“The Republic of Alayze.” Kitty said promptly, automatically. There, she made her biggest mistake.

She had completely misread Majida al-Khaybari. She didn’t understand her at all.

“Absolutely not. You and your Republic can go fuck yourselves with those reactor rods.”

“Wait–!” Now Imani could picture the woman’s immediate despair.

Kitty was shocked by the response. Imani could hear her palpable desperation.

“Majida, we’re only trying to do right by your people, we always have! We’ll make you a legitimate leader here! Your people will be able to come back to the stations, secure real livelihoods–!”

“The Khaybar ummah haven’t sacrificed everything just to serve a different hegemon, G.I.A.”

“Majida–! Just– take the fuel rods and think about it, okay? Free of charge.”

Raaya Al-Shahouh spoke up with a melancholy tone of voice. “We need the fuel.”

Majida grunted. “If you’re so insistent, Kitty, then we’ll take your fuel rods and regard it as Jizya. But you can forget about my troops coming here to support your plot. I’ll extend my stay here to make sure you don’t get the Shimii here killed with your stupidity. But I won’t help you clap a prettier set of chains around us. You should’ve kept things strictly business with me, G.I.A. This is our last transaction.”

Imani heard her pick up the case with the rods, and perhaps throw the one with the money.

There was an indistinct clanging sound followed by silence. The point was made. Conversation over.

Imani felt very satisfied with the situation. Khaybari would have been a formidable opponent.

Among practitioners of Sihr, Majida al-Khaybari was quite notable.

Or at least, a certain cat made boisterous note of her as a dangerous element.

Thankfully, Kitty McRoosevelt and her G.I.A. cronies were utterly out of their depth.

Where the Imbrians and the Cogitans both read Majida wrong was that they called her a pirate and a mercenary and believed that wealth was her foremost aim in her activities. They lacked the context to understand that she was actually the most extreme Shimii nationalist in the Imbrium ocean. Kitty could have limited herself to simply promising to topple the regime in Eisental, but she was a Cogitan imperialist through and through, bonafide G.I.A. She made the worst pitch possible.

Now, with Majida in the sidelines, the G.I.A would need more of their “army” to appear.

Imani could let them get far enough to gather the entire gang in the Kreuzung Complex.

And then she could eliminate them all in one blow.

She just needed to know how many, when they would appear, and to keep track of Kitty.

That way, she could interfere to shape the battlefield to her needs.

“Mysia, take off from here tomorrow and go to Aachen. Give them an update.”

“Of course ma’am. I take it I’ll collect my payment from there as well?”

“Yeah, yeah. For someone who didn’t grow up there, you’re such a fucking Katarran.”

Imani wouldn’t be able to count on Kitty’s chaste little enby any further, then.

That was fine. She had a more reliable helper now anyway.

She lifted the cable to pull the wireless receiver out of the ventilation, wrapped the cable, and stowed it along with the earpods into the white box which Mysia had given her in secret when she and Homa had breakfast. That was the end of their arrangement, and Mysia had been paid up front, so there was no need to take care of that end either. Imani had gotten her way on every single item.

For a moment, though, she remained inside the model village.

Smiling gently to herself. She could almost see herself and Homa still chatting away here.

Homa was interesting. She had potential– so much more potential than she knew.

“It’s unfortunate.” Imani said to herself. Touching her lips, where she had been kissed.

She had to give her up now– but it was fun while it lasted. Brief as it was.

In this surreal little calm before all-out war. She had gotten her taste of living.

Now she was prepared to die for Vesna Nasser’s cause once again.

“Homa. My little ho~ma~. After this is all done if we’re both still here. Maybe.”

She knew she was being stupid. What an irrational crush– love at first sight? Foolish.

But– for a girl who had never really experienced such things, it was strangely powerful.

Worth spending her time off to indulge it.

Doubt brought weakness. Satisfaction, surety, and experience, all brought strength.

That was what a certain cat taught her. A lesson learned from a life of immortality.

Leaving behind her wistful girlish feelings in the place that stoked them, Imani exited Ballad’s Paradise through the rear entrance to the visitor center. There was another fancy wooden bridge, this one abutted by a fake waterfall. There was almost no one around. She had waited a few hours before coming out just to be certain she was moving at off-peak times. A gentle breeze blew her hair– she ignored it, but it was a bit irritating to have it blown about when she spent so much time brushing it silky smooth.

Then as her heels clattered dull on the fake wood–

Her eyes blinked, red rings glowing around the iris as she tapped into her power.

There was a brief disturbance in the auras.

“You can come out. Get in the elevator with me. I’ll lock it down.”

As she approached the elevator, a dark figure surreptitiously climbed up from the side of the bridge and slipped inside alongside her. She withdrew a keycard with a Volkisch eagle upon it and thus commandeered the elevator by special decree, making sure it remained locked for her. She set a contradictory pair of tiers to guide the elevator up and down enough to have a chat.

“Does Khaybari’s presence make you as skittish as it does everyone else?” Imani asked.

“I have an adequate respect of her. She’s not my concern right now.” Said the figure.

“That’s such a characteristic response, ‘Radu the Marzban.’”

Standing at her side, never making eye contact as far as she knew. Taller than her by half a meter, a giant of a man, covered head to toe in armor, with wide shoulders and a broad chest. His helmet was completely sealed, even his Shimii ears were encased in the metal, even his tail was covered in flexible armor. His suit was powered armor of legendary Katarran design, driven by agarthic batteries. Interlocking plates like layers of an insect’s hide protected him, said to shrug off small arms up to anti-materiel rifles while enhancing the strength of the wearer through an interior carbon nanotube exoskeleton.

However, there were reflective surfaces all over the suit, LED pixel clusters.

He had a cape which had a false fur trim but was also covered in those LED clusters.

Nasser had told her that this helped his specific invocations of Sihr.

That voice which escaped his helmet was crisp, clear, human, his own. Unmistakable.

Radu the Marzban.

Imani stood casually next to him. She almost felt a bit of girlish pride in doing so.

Standing next to a figure of legend was no mean feat.

“I figured you would go off on your own. What did you turn up?” She asked casually.

“I want to ask you the same question.” He said.

“Oh, now you want to cooperate?”

“Hadžić. Why have you not stopped that G.I.A. agent? What are you plotting?”

“I stand to gain from letting her act freely for now.”

“She is going to get people killed. Our people, Imani, could be killed.”

Imani smiled. “Why didn’t you stop her then, if you know better?” She asked.

She looked up at him over her shoulder. His gauntlets closed into fists.

“Out of Vesna’s respect for you, and your loyalty to her, I am keeping my distance, despite my misgivings. But I do not trust you, Hadžić. If you don’t want me to act on my own, then tell me what you hope to gain from allowing Kitty McRoosevelt to attack the station’s reactor core and endangering its people.”

His tone was growing aggressive. Imani could see his aura warping and contorting.

All of the colors of his aura vanished under an erratic tidal wave of green and black.

He was imbuing— deliberately trying to flood her with aura, with controlled emotion.

Green, anxiety and fear; a stark matte black, the color that signified death.

Against an ordinary person, being battered by this aura would have driven them to frothing collapse.

Imani could sense the enormous power he possessed. The stories could have never described it in full.

Perhaps this man had really been a companion to Mehmed the Sorcerer.

Her knees rattled ever so slightly. It took all of her own prodigious power to resist.

This much resistance was enough to make her feel a little cocky, even.

“Is that the ‘King’s Gaze,’ Marzban? You’ve proven your point. You are as frightening as the folk tales say. I don’t want to make an enemy of the legend. Despite that, I must demand you leave the strategizing to me. If we stop Kitty now, we won’t be able to draw her organization out of hiding. I am not trying to extend the conflict. I am trying to destroy the enemy in one blow. Is that acceptable to you?”

Radu never even turned his head to face her.

She knew, however, that in his own way, he was scrutinizing her.

In the back of her mind she felt the pinpricks of intrusion.

He had ceased trying to humble her– now he wanted information, and this took a different skill.

Despite her resistance to his powers, he was reading what he could out of her.

It was possible to do this, but it usually required concentration and subtlety. He did it with brute force.

“In a vacuum that would be a sound strategy. In this case, your pragmatism will result in vicious cruelty. There are already mounting tensions in this station. Allowing a battle to play out at all will bring harm to innocents and leave scars here that may never heal. Do you only view this as collateral?”

His voice was growing irritating to Imani’s sensibilities.

She was tired of undying “legends“ like this deigning to show up only when convenient.

“Uh huh. You yourself are only here because of Nasser, right? This is what she wants.”

“I’m here to protect Vesna. I’m here for my kin’s best interest. Not just her self-interest.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” Imani said. “I’ll do things my way, and you’re welcome to help or hinder me as you so choose. I’m not going to bother to stop you. But ultimately, if you get in my way, you get in the way of Nasser’s ambition. And she won’t choose her kin over her goals. Nasser is not old school like you are, Radu the Marzban. She is a modern militant, not a noble warrior from your mythical era. Her own flesh and blood are as disposable to her as anyone else’s. You’re blind if you don’t see it.”

She gazed up at the helmet again. There was no way to see his expression.

But she did see his unrestrained, massive aura turning ever so slightly yellowed.

Disgusted with this idea, with the words that he heard, to the point he lost some measure of control.

He was so predictable. Inside herself, Imani was grinning.

“I’m stopping the elevator here. We have nothing more to say to each other.” She said.

“Hadžić.”

For the first time in their conversation, Radu turned fully around. His aura retracted, becoming an outline.

He leaned forward so as to put Imani’s eyes level with his helmet.

“If Homa Baumann and Leija Kladuša come to harm, I will avenge the wrongs done to them before I pass.”

“Oh–?”

Before she could respond, the elevator door opened to another indoor plaza.

And then Radu the Marzban disappeared as suddenly as he came, his entire body briefly glowing before the light bended around him to conceal him from view. She could hear his distant, heavy footsteps for a brief few moments before he either climbed or ducked away or weaved into the crowd somewhere else– or simply concealed the sound of them as well and continued walking using Sihr to be unnoticed.

Imani watched for a moment, until the elevator door closed again.

“Little~ Ho~ma~,” she sing-sang to herself, “she’s even more interesting than I thought.”

All of this she would have to report to Nasser as soon as she could.

With Kitty moving, and the Marzban aboard, things would be getting interesting.


On the northeastern side of the Kreuzung core station, near the tower’s base plate, was a place known as Old Iron. This was a cross-shaped street with two intersecting horizontal branches, where the largely impoverished residents of the subsidized habitats below and above Old Iron could have some nearby businesses and services, so as to keep them near Kreuzung’s base away from richer areas. That night, the brightest glow in the neighborhood, brighter than the damaged LED clusters, were the warnings on the walls to be careful because a main water pipe had broken, and the space had filled with water.

While the water had been remotely shut, the pumps were broken, and it would all need repairs.

Kitty McRoosevelt’s heels splashed in the ankle-deep water. Careful not to fall with each step.

She checked her portable to make sure she had the right place.

Surrounded by other ailing shops and small offices. “Unit 12 in Old Iron.”

There was once a bar there, “Majestic 12,” that was a cornerstone of the community.

Both the local community and the intelligence community.

Everything around her was dilapidated and dim. Those lights overhead were not simulating night, rather, they were out of order entirely, as were most of the streetlights. Aside from the flooding, there was clear wear and tear, steel panel seams on the walls splitting or bulging, automatic doors hanging ajar, the concrete layer of the street pitted and fractured. This place couldn’t be said to be “under served.”

It looked like it was entirely abandoned by the city government.

As if to punctuate the insult to its people, now that the pipe and pumps had broken, the wall had a countdown to the arrival of maintenance services– the countdown went up instead of down, however, as the estimate for when someone would be able to repair the pipe drew farther and farther into the future. When Kitty looked at it, the crew was twenty-six hours away and counting up, farther and farther away.

“People here must be fending for themselves. It’s crazy.”

Kitty had never experienced poverty in the Republic, so she was predisposed to believe that the Empire was simply inferior in this respect, a worse place to live. Republic propaganda did depict the Empire as a backwards and brutal place, so it’s not as if Kitty had no idea that places like this could exist. But experiencing it first-hand was shocking. It made sense, however. Old Iron was supposedly a place the G.I.A. mined for discontented people to make into informants and assets, once upon a time. Several terrorists had allegedly been equipped by the G.I.A. from this place. The Majestic 12 bar.

Now, however, the see-through window panels had gone opaque.

Kitty tensed.

Though she had come to Kreuzung before, she had never explored so far in the core station.

Usually she got out of here as fast as possible, never straying beyond the darker corners of some dock.

When she approached the bar and tried the door, the automatic mechanism would not respond, and the manual lever had been locked in place. She kicked the door in frustration. G.I.A. information in the Empire was a crapshoot. It felt more like hearsay and folk tales than actionable intelligence. Nobody knew what they were doing. Since the dismantlement of the cell in Palatine twenty years ago, the G.I.A. had been subject to a game of whack-a-mole. Every year agents came in and went– body bags or imperial prisons or even defectors. It was like the Empire could read the rebellion in their eyes and single them out.

Kitty herself had only been at this for a few years. Her name was older than she was.

It had been such a struggle to get here. She had to see it through to the end.

But she was stuck.

She wasn’t half the agent the old Kitty was, and yet inherited her grave responsibilities.

The current Kitty McRoosevelt had been a gun runner, making dirty money and equipping dirty people to fund G.I.A. logistics in the region and foment disorder. She had never led a military operation, she had never plotted an attack. She handed other people the means to do so– and egged them on to commit such deeds. Her hands were bloody, but they had little experience with personally drawing blood.

The “old” Kitty, the one who was really meant to be here, had a far more illustrious career.

She could have led a fleet into battle against the Volkisch. She could have done anything.

There was no point at which Kitty stopped thinking, ‘if only she was here instead of me.’

But that was why they had to strike. If they didn’t take this chance, her cell would fall apart.

They could not return to the Republic. So they had to fight, while they still had the means.

That was the only reason she was doing something as desperate and taboo as she was.

However, Kitty’s ambition to strike at the Kreuzung reactor had a key flaw.

To get her entry team into the core, she would need bodies, diversions, a multi-prong attack.

But she did not have enough firepower inside the towers themselves.

As it stood, she would have to take over a dock to let the entry team in by herself.

To avoid detection, it was only her and Mysia who had come first, and they came separately.

She had hoped to find a local force here but there was none now.

Without the support of Khaybari and her fighters and without Mysia (who was no fighter), she had to recruit somewhere else. She hoped to find some support at the “Majestic 12,” but it was not to be. Her intelligence was out of the date and the place looked completely abandoned. If there was some secret entrance somewhere, she had no idea, and would not be able to access it at the moment. She could have the labor unionists in the Rhineametalle tower take part, but they weren’t fighters.

She needed muscle.

She struck the door to the bar again and again in frustration.

“Useless. Maybe I’ll see where the Katarrans hang out around here.”

Like many Republicans, Kitty was “wary about” (racist towards) Katarrans.

But they were useful– and their infestation of the Empire’s underworld was convenient.

With access to money and Katarrans anyone could get acceptable firepower anywhere.

Kreuzung, like much of the Empire, hated the Katarran race furiously as well.

And like much of the Empire they found the Katarran underworld irresistibly convenient too.

When she could not get any G.I.A. informants, Katarran “gossip” did the job in a pinch.

When she could not get any tactical support, a few violent fish did the job.

Regardless of racist policy, you could find Katarrans and their services nearly anywhere.

Of course, their precarious existence also served Kitty well in negotiating jobs.

Much like the relationship between the Republic itself and this peculiar race of people.

“It’ll have to be that. I can’t tell them the whole story, but they’ll be enough to welcome the entry team.“

As she was making ready to leave with a feeling like she had swallowed a stone, Kitty heard footsteps splashing in the flooded street. She put her hands in her coat pockets and slouched forward, beginning to walk away while sneaking glances around herself. There hadn’t been anyone around before, and while it wasn’t inconceivable that someone might come in, she couldn’t help but be wary in such a bleak place.

“Hey, wait a second! Is this the Majestic 12 here? When is it open?”

Kitty would have walked away, but the stranger’s call piqued her interest.

“No way to know at this point!”

Putting on a cheerful facade, Kitty turned around.

Standing at the door to the dilapidated bar was a woman.

Black suit, jackets and pants and shiny shoes, of an exact make that Kitty felt she knew right away. She did not wear a tie, and her shirt was partially undone to expose a humble bit of cleavage, but also a deep, dark pink scar on her chest. She was handsome, with both soft features but a certain weathered ruggedness, her black bangs parted to cover up one eye, visible scars. She wore the rest of her hair pinned to the back of her head, messily, without much thought to it. She was older, maybe.

She had her hands in her pockets and a certain devil-may-care posture.

When she flashed her own smile back at Kitty, she could see the easy confidence in it.

It was like a–

“Women like you end up sleeping with me after a meeting like this.”

–sort of grin.

Kitty couldn’t help but grin back at her.

She pointed with her thumb at the door to the bar.

“I had been hoping there was something there too, but this place is a dump.”

The woman smiled a bit.

“It is. Even the shitty hab I used to live in can’t compare. I feel sorry for these folks.”

Kitty tossed her hair a little.

“Well, maybe we can take this party elsewhere. I’m Kitty.”

“Kitty, huh? I’m Marina.”

They shook hands, but Marina’s eyes remained fixed on Kitty, looking her up and down.

“Like what you see, darling?” Kitty asked.

“I used to know a Kitty. Kitty McRoosevelt.” Marina said.

Interesting.

“I see. What a coincidence– that is also my surname.”

Marina’s grip on her hand strengthened. Not too rough, but firmer.

“You’re not her. She was older than you.” She said.

“Of course, but I think maybe, you understand that names are easily traded in.”

“Does McClinton mean anything to you?”

Sighing with a mild exasperation, Kitty reached into her coat and withdrew her badge.

She briefly flashed it at Marina, enough to catch her eye, before putting it away.

“Let’s talk at my place. I don’t like the vibes here one bit.” Kitty said.

Marina seemed to gain even more confidence from that.

“When women invite me in, I tend to stay the night, you know.”

“It’ll take a bit more than that to convince me to sleep with a corpse.”

Marina laughed. “Ah. Damn it. I shouldn’t have let on how uncool I was.”

Kitty smiled bitterly. “My name lineage is no less tragic than yours, McClinton.”

“I’m going by McKennedy these days.”

“How fortunate of you to have lived in a manner that let you choose a name.”

That was a choice Kitty had never had.

“There’s nothing fortunate about me.” Marina McKennedy said.

Leaving Old Iron, they headed for the central-western part of the tower, close to the dock where Kitty had left her yacht, Bertrand’s. They made a paltry bit of small-talk on the way, which suited Kitty just fine at this point. Her habitat was past the shopping mall with the big pavilion and one tier up. The elevator dropped them off at a hallway upholstered with colorful synthetic carpets, painted white walls and unassuming brown doors. Nothing was actually painted, nothing was really wood, nothing was made of real cloth, it was all plastic and carbon and metal, but it made for a convincing facsimile.

“After you.” Kitty said, opening the door to her room and gesturing in.

Marina walked in and Kitty glided in behind her, moving fast.

Soon as she cleared the door threshold, while Marina was staring at the furniture–

Kitty surprised Marina and clapped a pair of cuffs on her, binding her arms behind her back.

“What–?”

And pushed her off the landing with a kick, knocking her onto the floor between the bed and desk.

“What the fuck? What are you doing?” Marina shouted, struggling on the ground.

“Just making sure.” Kitty’s speech turned rather dead in tone– she was done acting.

“Don’t touch me! Get away from me!”

Kitty kneeled down on top of Marina, using her body weight to keep the woman’s legs pinned. She rooted around Marina’s jacket and pants, while Marina struggled, thrashed, she was openly weeping with fury, throwing her shoulders, trying to snap up her head to strike Kitty and failing. Finally, Kitty found her fold-out leather badge case in her back pocket and popped it open to view the badge itself.

While Marina continued to struggle impotently, Kitty produced a pen-shaped object from her coat and fixed the end of it over the badge. Around its circumference, a series of tiny lasers scattered over the badge, and a tiny screen on the object informed her this was a genuine badge that did indeed belong to a certain Blake McClinton, once upon a time. Was it really this woman now, however?

“Don’t touch me! Get off me! I’ll fucking kill you!”

Kitty finally stood and stepped back from Marina, allowing her to thrash on the floor at random and crawl away in a panic. She was sweating, her breathing troubled. Kitty looked down at her, a dispassionate expression on her pretty face, still holding the badge. She waited until Marina had crawled all the way across the room, and hit the opposing wall, teeth grit, eyes red with tears and agitation.

“I’ll– I’ll fucking kill you– you bitch–”

Breathless, extremely invested– was this a trauma response?

“You’re getting too worked up. How did you get this badge?”

“That’s me! You fucking idiot! What do they teach you at Madison these days?”

She knew where the G.I.A headquarters used to be, at least.

“They teach the same shit; but I picked up a tiny bit of caution over time, rather than just vibes.”

Kitty threw the badge back at Marina. It landed on her lap.

“Blake McClinton was killed in a failed coup twenty years ago.” She said.

Marina kicked her feet with frustration.

“I guess the news didn’t reach this side of the Imbrium then! I was not killed, you idiot!”

“And you’re a chick now? What happened? Why would they bother to spare your life?”

“Fuck if I know! To torture me for the remainder of it! I don’t know!”

“How did you get this badge? I know for sure it’s not a fake now.”

“It’s mine! It was at the fucking jail, lady! In an evidence locker!”

“And what jail was that?”

“The Ergastulum! Where the fuck else would it be?”

Kitty was surprised. “So you were broken out in the Ergastulum Massacre?”

Marina shook her elbows, still struggling.

“Yes! The Katarrans didn’t massacre the prisoners! They just let us out!”

Sighing, Kitty threw the key to the cuffs at her and sat on the bed.

“Calm down. Relax. Undo the cuffs. I believe you. I’m sorry for touching you.” She said.

“I don’t– I don’t forgive you. You bitch–” Marina said, catching her ragged breath.

She maneuvered herself to reach for the key and undo the cuffs.

Kitty half expected her to jump up and start attacking like a wild animal.

But she just stood up at the end of the room, straightened out her jacket, dusted herself off. She was shaking. She hugged herself briefly. Kitty could not understand the intensity of this reaction.

“You’re lucky I don’t put my hands on cocky chicks like you.” She mumbled.

“Wow. How chivalrous.” Kitty said, rolling her eyes.

What an exhausting night– she really just dug up one of the G.I.A’s ancient graves.

For all the good it would do. She was becoming more convinced everything was fucked.

“Tell me what the hell the G.I.A. is doing here.” Marina demanded.

“For what? Are you back in the game? You’re lucky you’re still alive. Just run away.” Kitty said.

Marina shouted. “Shut up! Not one hair on my head is lucky! Look at yourself! You’re desperate and paranoid, wandering around looking for an old fucking safehouse. Tell me what you’re doing, and I might be able to help you. You’ve clearly got no god damn direction you’re going in right now. It can’t hurt to clue a veteran in and see what happens. If I don’t like it I’ll just stay out of your way and that’ll be that.”

Kitty couldn’t really excuse herself of any of those charges. She really was desperate.

“Fine, veteran. But pipe down. Someone might hear you.”

Kitty kicked her feet and laid back upon the bed, staring up at the ceiling.

Reminiscing about where it all went wrong.

“Two months ago– was it? Yeah, that sounds right. Over two months ago. There was a battle in the Great Ayre Reach. You know, like we always do. The Imperials won this one, but some of our warships managed to break through to Rhinea and hid in Sefar’s Gorge. Whether it started as an attempt at desertion, or a deliberate mission of the G.I.A. I never received an answer from anyone. But a flotilla of Republic ships, with Divers, ammunition, fuel, and supplies, all came to be stuck here in Rhinea as the Empire succumbed to chaos. I’d been working as a logistician and rabble rouser in Eisental for a few years now. I met with an older G.I.A. agent, Kitty McRoosevelt, and she requested my help to gather the Republic forces in the Aachen area and use them to take control of Eisental. Eisental borders the Great Ayre Reach, so we could act as a bridgehead. Unfortunately, Kitty was killed, and I barely made out alive. Now I’m having to come up with the final act of this tragicomedy with nothing but her name– or else the fleet will be helpless.”

Marina listened without reacting or responding until the end.

“So you’re thinking of occupying Kreuzung and holding here for Republic relief?” She finally said.

“That’s about it, yes.”

“How strong is this fleet?” Marina asked. “Can they actually hold Kreuzung?”

“Twelve vessels. Ten Frigates, Two Cruisers. We’ll be using ten, holding back two for recon.”

“That’s a lot of firepower. But it’s not war-winning firepower.”

“The Volkisch are in disarray. We can hold if we take Kreuzung’s stationary defenses.”

“Right, so, new question: how do you plan to capture those stationary defenses?”

Kitty rolled over on her side. She could see Marina leaning back against the wall.

She wanted to see the reaction on her face when she said it.

“I’m going to cripple Kreuzung with a Core Separation.” Kitty said, smiling.

Marina stared at her.

“You’re going to– what?”

“It’s bold, isn’t it? Marina, do you have sex with men or women or both?”

“The fuck are you asking that for? Are you out of your mind? A Core Separation?”

Kitty laughed. She felt so hollow inside– no more acting. This was her real self. Nothing.

Nothing without the characters she played.

“I never understood taboos. It’s a sound strategy, isn’t it?” She said. Her voice neutral.

“How the hell will you even pull it off?” Marina replied. Impassioned.

“We’ll get physical access. I’ve already got the route planned out.”

“Kitty, the collateral will be immense.”

“As long as we reconnect the core when we take over the station, everything will be fine.”

Marina slammed her fist against the wall behind her.

“You don’t understand the scope whatsoever! Separating the core will cause a monumental panic! Electrical systems will start going into low power modes that never get tested! People will run out into the streets, there will be rioting, looting, it will look like the fucking end of days in this station! Innocent people could die, in hospitals, in homes, on the street. That neighborhood we saw? It’ll probably flood because any power rationing plan will not include the fucking pumps there, if they work. And while this tragedy happens, you’ll be trapped! You’ll be surrounded from literally all sides by the imperials!”

“I don’t care.” Kitty said. “Marina, you don’t understand anything.” She felt like tearing up for a moment. “You’re just a lone wolf, doing whatever you want. I was put in charge of this operation. I’m responsible for giving people hope that they can win a war and go home again. I watched her die, Marina. And now a ton of people are counting on me. I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure this out. This is the only plan that works with what I’ve got right now. Because it’s chaotic, because we all have this taboo that you don’t do anything to reactors or shoot at stations– Marina. When I held her bullet-riddled body and became Kitty McRoosevelt. I realized we’re in an era where anything is fair. Even using core pylons as weapons.”

Marina grit her teeth. She closed her fists and stared at Kitty with visible frustration.

“Look at you. You suffer one setback and start spouting nihilist bullshit and killing civilians.”

“No wonder you failed.” Kitty shot back. “With your stupid sense of justice.”

“Fuck you.” Marina said. “None of you have to do this. All of you can just stop.”

Kitty rolled onto her back in the bed again, shifting her gaze from Marina back to the roof.

Empty and white.

Just like her–

“Marina. You and I are G.I.A. We voluntarily left the Republic to have adventures here. You and I can blend into this world, we know how, it’s our entire way of life. If it was just us, that would be one thing. But most of the people working for me now are soldiers. They were forced to leave the Republic, and they are trapped here. Without my assistance, they will all die here. They can’t make lives in this place. All they can do is fight. They can’t blend in. They can’t just disband. Everything they see is the enemy. Thousands of aimless people in steel coffins. That’s why I want them to fight for something. The only hope I know how to give people, is to give them targets to attack. I hope you can understand that now.”

Kitty McRoosevelt, before all this, was a senior G.I.A. operative, like Marina was.

But Missouri McFord was a just a scoundrel who gave disgruntled people guns, fuel and bombs.

It was true– everything was fucked the second the real Kitty McRoosevelt died.

“That’s still all I’m doing. You can help me or not. But it’s going to happen.”

She reached out the roof, staring at it between the five gloves fingers of her hand.

“Kitty McRoosevelt doesn’t have a future, Marina. It isn’t a living person’s name.”

“God damn it. Shut up.” Marina said.

There was silence for a few minutes. Kitty didn’t say anything more until Marina spoke.

“I won’t help you separate the reactor core. But I can assist you with logistics.”

“Thank you, Veteran. Then, maybe we can help each other. What are you doing here?”

Kitty sat up in bed. Out of habit, she was putting on a blithely false smile again.

Marina initially resisted the question, but then handed her a photo, printed on a pixel sheet.

There was a woman, a thin and long-limbed woman, wearing a white coat over a brown blouse and a black pencil skirt. She had very long purple-ish hair, tall Shimii ears with a good bit of fluff in them, a deadpan but unassumingly pretty face. Boxy glasses perched upon a small nose. Her green eyes, even through the photo, seemed to pierce through the viewer with an overwhelming directness.

“She was going by the name ‘Asan’ once upon a time. I want to know what happened to her. I’d– I’d like to reconnect with her if she’s alive.” She hesitated. “We– we have some business to finish.”

“A Shimii? You think she’s around here?” Kitty asked. Marina nodded her head.

“Once upon a time, her employer was headquartered here. A biological research group, Bio-Radiance.”

“A Shimii scientist? Here? Marina, Kreuzung is extremely racist toward Shimii.”

“That doesn’t preclude anyone from living or hiding here! Can you help or not?”

Kitty smiled. “Well, sure. Alright. I have a reliable agent that is leaving the station soon. I will tell them to dig up what they can before they go, and to leave you something at Aachen that you can find so you can continue your search. In return, I need your help rounding up some Katarran lackeys.”

Marina crossed her arms over her chest. “Why would I go to Aachen?”

“It’s the next place that makes sense for you to go, if you don’t find anything here.”

“Alright. Fine. I can get you some Katarran mercs, no problem.” Marina sighed.

“Don’t tell them about the Core Separation, of course.”

“I’m not stupid. Of course I won’t tell them. You come up with the cover story.”

“Okay. I’m counting on you.”

“I know a Katarran merc who is at loose ends. I’ll hire her, and she can help with the rest. Trust me.”

“Ah, I see. I’m glad I have someone so resourceful to count on. Sounds good then.”

“No, it’s actually dreadful, for you. Having to rely on Katarrans is never good.”

Kitty stared at Marina for a moment. She almost wanted to laugh. It was all so ridiculous.

She really didn’t look half-bad. Not as good as her Kitty but–

“Do you still want to stay the night? It’d be fun to have you.” Kitty asked.

Marina’s response was immediate.

“No. I have to leave. I’m working with some people I don’t want to find out about this.”

Kitty didn’t really care about the details of Marina’s life. She didn’t care about her at all.

That part of her, that really, truly, cared about someone– it had broken.

In that moment she just really felt like she wanted a comfort she was not going to receive.

“How did you know the old Kitty?” She asked. Just for Marina to stay a little longer.

Marina fingers opened and closed into fists at her sides.

She averted her gaze, and began to walk out. She answered only once she was past Kitty’s bed.

“She was a field agent around the time I was. But she never got caught. How did you?”

A bit of bitterness involuntarily crept into Kitty’s smile as she remembered–

“We had sex. It was comforting. She comforted me a lot. That’s how we got close.”

Marina grunted, said nothing. She ran her fingers through her hair, her movements tense.

“I kinda wish you’d stay.“ Kitty said. “We could comfort each other.“

Marina sighed.

“Of all people, I have no right to judge you. Please just try to keep living, Missouri.“

There was another long, awkward silence. Kitty did not speak, and Marina walked away.

When the door shut closed behind her– that was when Kitty finally let herself cry.

Hugging herself in bed, helpless, overwhelmed. Everything was too inexorably in motion.

She had nothing except what she was given. Weapons and a mission to complete.

Kitty McRoosevelt was a dead person’s name.

All she had left of her was a dead name worn like a fetish.


“Tch!”

Majida al-Khaybari grumbled, walking aggressively with a forward slouch, hands in her pockets, periodically kicking her feet at nothing. Making a variety of disapproving noises to air out her tensions. At her side, her partner-in-crime Raaya Al-Shahouh had an airy, free-spirited gait as they made their way back to their apartment in Tower Eight, frequently stealing glances. Majida had been livid, after leaving Kitty McRoosevelt and her insane scheme back at Ballad’s Paradise. Not just livid at that G.I.A’s freak’s insane plot– also livid that she had to find and hire a Katarran mercenary courier at the last second.

Had it been the low-grade fuel stuff, Majida could have transported it herself.

With high-grade rods she needed someone with a big ship, or the right gear to isolate them.

And nobody official or reliable would have let her transport Agarthicite fuel rods to Khaybar.

“I swear if that courier steals them– ugh! Damn Kitty McRoosevelt’s bitch of a mother!“

“Manners.” Raaya said. “Where did the goodly Warlord who reads scripture go?“

Majida averted her gaze in response. Her cheeks flushed just a little bit.

She really was ashamed. She had a fiery temper and she was the first to criticize it.

“If it means anything,” Raaya said, “I think you handled everything admirably.”

“There was no handling it. We have no choice but to stay out of that madwoman’s mess.”

“I just was afraid you were going to kill her for a second.” Raaya said, shrugging.

“Not in front of you.” Majida replied.

“You’re so considerate. But I’ve seen death too, Majida. I’m not naïve.” Raaya said.

“I’m not disrespecting you. I just– I just don’t like you seeing that side of me.”

“Just don’t treat me like a kid. You may be taller but I’m older and more mature than you.“

“Older? By a few weeks maybe. And I don’t treat you like a kid. I just esteem you highly.“

“Hmm.“

Overhead, the station lights had begun to dim. Rather than white and yellow more and more of the sun lamps shut off, and in their place gentle dark-blue LEDs began to cast the station into the darkness of night. This was part of controlling the habits of the population, but also to achieve a sense of normalcy, to allow their present state to compare to the ancient lives that humans once had in their true home.

Night created other moods as well–

Raaya put her hands behind her back, smiling sweetly. “Majida.”

“Hmm?” Majida gave her companion a brooding look.

“Our business is concluded now, right?”

Majida grunted. “I’m staying until I hear from Zahira that the rods got back. We might need to find an additional seller if not– and I’ll have to fucking kill that courier’s whole gang too. Ah, damn it that’s another thing, I need to find where we can send an acoustograph to Zahira to let her know–”

Raaya tapped Majida in the back. “Majida– our business is concluded.” She said again.

When Majida’s quizzical gaze fell over her, Raaya looked a little bit demure. Her face flushed.

“Wait– You little minx–?” Majida laughed. “Well, well, well! Fine. I’ll take care of you.”

She got up close and nuzzled her companion’s nose with her own.

Raaya laughed and immediately turned a bit bratty. “I’m glad you finally got it, you oaf.”

That little scene caused Majida’s mood to visibly lift as they made their way back from the Kreuzung Core.

It was dark, the halls were cold, the world was full of troubles, but she could smile.

Because their business was concluded. So then– only pleasure was left.

Soon after getting home, in one of the basement habitats of Tower Eight–

“Are you comfortable? Your body feels so relaxed. I could hold you like this forever.”

“It’s nice to have your arms around me. I can tell you’re excited too.”

Majida’s head rested on the girl’s shoulder. Her hands gripped pleasantly rounded hips.

Her tongue tasted the side of Raaya’s neck– the smaller woman tensed slightly.

“What are you feeling up to? I’ll only do as much as you want.” Majida cooed.

Raaya briefly hesitated. She spoke to her partner in a timid whisper.

“I’m not ready to bear your child.” She said– clearly embarrassed to have said it.

“Hmm. Understood. I’ll just fool around a little then, okay?”

Majida’s hands glided across Raaya’s ribs and over her chest, sliding on the smooth, soft skin to cup her firm, pliable breasts in her hands. She was not shy with her affections, her fingers gripped with force, lifting the soft little mounds while teasing the nipples with the tips of her index fingers. A little yelp escaped Raaya’s lips– Her slim, narrow back arched into Majida’s chest, her pelvis grazing Majida’s lap. Majida fondled Raaya’s breasts with enthusiasm, delighting in the pleasant give of the skin, its smooth softness, the heft of the flesh, and the humble shape that fit into her eager hands so exactly.

“Caught you by surprise? What a tasty little sound.”

“Majida–”

Her name drew from those lips like a ragged breath.

Majida could feel her lover’s pulse elevate through the touch of their skin, through the hands cupped over her chest. It drove her wild. Majida was up on the bed against the cold, steel wall of their rental unit, with Raaya sat on her lap and backing into her whenever Majida got rough. Or whenever Majida actively pulled her closer, easily lifting her weight, as close as she could maneuver the shorter woman into her body. In this position, she could reach anywhere she wanted on Raaya’s body, and having consented and given her oath, Raaya gave no resistance. But whenever Majida aroused her, she felt the pressure of Raaya’s weight shift into her, up against her groin– the softness of the girl’s buttocks against the length of Majida’s shaft particularly– it took some willpower not to cum from that sensation alone.

“Hmm? What was that?”

She leaned against Raaya, breathing into the nape of her neck, whispering.

Taking in the simple, earthy smell of her long, loose brown hair.

Raising her head up almost over the smaller woman, Majida bit down on the silky-soft, cartilaginous edge of her ear, kneading the flesh playfully between her teeth, causing both of Raaya’s ears to twitch–

“M-Majida–!“

“Hmm?“

Majida played dumb while continuing to tease her.

One hand retained a firm grip on her splendid little morsel of a breast, but the other began to travel.

Drumming on the flesh as she went, crawling digit by digit down her belly.

Tracing a little line in her lower abdomen with a pressing finger, as if over the womb.

Raaya’s tail curled around Majida’s thigh. Her own tail held one of Raaya’s legs.

Majida felt every shudder and shake of the woman in her grasp, transferring skin to skin.

She couldn’t see Raaya’s face, but Majida imagined her bitten lip, her eyes shut in euphoria.

It was intoxicating. Her head felt hazy.

She wanted to pin her down– but restrained herself.

Oaths were extremely important to Shimii, in business and in courtship.

Raaya whimpered, barely forming words–

“What was that? Got something to say?”

With the question came a renewed interest from Majida’s fingers, lower, near her–

“N-No– it’s nothing– keep going–”

“Thought so. Don’t keep too quiet though. Let me hear that lovely singing voice.”

She did not have to wait long or make much effort to play Raaya like a lovely instrument.

“Aah!”

From Raaya’s lips sang desperate little moans, music to Majida’s ears as her fingers teased her, entered her, finally reaching between her legs. She was softer than silk between her thighs, Majida’s roaming fingers delighting in the texture of her, in the warmth. She leaned forward, squeezing up as close as she could to Raaya without bending her over, her breasts pressing against her soft, warm back, glistening with building sweat. Majida’s lips, tongue and teeth journeyed across lean shoulder-blades to the base of the neck. Her mouth left hungry, sucking kisses and bites across Raaya, little red claiming marks of her desire.

“Nngh! Oh–!”

Raaya’s tongue lolled momentarily from her gasping mouth.

Her upper body lurched forward, while her hips backed up against Majida.

In response, Majida felt a dire need to press herself even closer, to move in rhythm with her.

Under her breath, a barely audible grunt escaped from her.

She couldn’t hold back from making a sound. Her vision briefly swam.

Raaya was grinding right on her cock– it was definitely deliberate.

And it only made her hungrier for more.

Beautiful, enrapturing, a dream-like haze of pleasure.

“I didn’t think you knew what you were doing.” Majida said in a low voice.

“I’m– ugh!” Raaya shook. Majida’s fingers– “I’m a grown woman, Majida– hngh!”

“I just didn’t think you had this kind of malice in you–”

“Shut up– and just–”

“With pleasure– my pure little Raaya.”

Majida cooed as her index finger rolled slowly and deliberately over Raaya’s clit.

A most beautiful little noise escaped from Raaya’s lips.

She lurched forward, and as one body Majida moved with her.

Bent down on her elbows, Raaya put her head down into the pillow, her shoulders rocking, her tongue lolling, her lower body shaking. Majida loomed over her, the taller woman, hugging her breast to back, her hanging cock hard as steel, kissing Raaya, reassuring her. One hand holding and stroking her abdomen while the other caused a tumultuous unceasing passion to echo through her skin, down bucking hips, through shaking moist thighs, bent knees. Raaya’s delicate hands gripped the bedsheets, she smothered her head, grit her teeth, while her body moved in a wild synchronicity with her lover.

Her tail lifted from Majida’s leg, and instead joined Majida’s own, curled together like a coil.

Incoherent, passion-slurred words half in Fusha and half in Low Imbrian escaped Raaya’s lips.

As her flesh was held by the center and played by the lower half to a thunderous climax.

Majida was relentless, her body enveloping her partner, wanting to take her closer, closer and harder. She could feel Raaya’s orgasms through her working fingers, could feel her body tensing, convulsing, the spasms of each subsequent tremor of her pleasure. It spurred her to continue, to escalate, her own breathing heavy with effort, smiling, head foggy with joy, drawn in by her partner’s song.

When Raaya was fully exhausted, Majida could feel it too. She smiled with satisfaction.

Pulling her finger from Raaya was like taking out a load-bearing rod.

In the next moment, she completely fell down onto the bed, slowly rolling on her side.

Her slim, heaving chest, her quivering thighs and legs. Beautifully spent, unwound.

Looking up at Majida, who was sitting against the wall again, with a precious little grin.

Which Majida returned by putting the fingers she had used into her mouth to taste.

“You really are special, Majida.” Raaya whispered, echoing an oft-heard sentiment.

Majida cracked a little grin. “I am special. I reside beyond the bounds.”

After resting for only a moment, Raaya suddenly made herself sit back up.

She leaned forward with a final flicker of passion–

“Oh!”

Now it was Majida’s turn to be surprised.

As Raaya, supporting herself with her arms on Majida’s hips, gave her a sucking kiss–

–right on the very tip of her cock.

“Ugh– Raaya–!”

Her tongue slipped from between the kissing lips, applying a sudden warm pressure–

Erect just from fingering and grinding with Raaya before, Majida lasted no time at all.

A trickle of thin fluid dribbled from Majida’s cock into Raaya’s awaiting tongue.

Just as soon, Raaya lifted her head, crawled back up onto Majida’s lap, and kissed her.

There was not much of the fluid for their tongues to share, but they still reveled in it.

Kissing with the last of their strength until their clumsy bodies fell together in exhaustion.

They laid beside one another, locking eyes. Sweating, breathing hard, skin aquiver.

Raaya tipping her head a bit to stare, Majida tipping down. Enjoying the difference.

Glowing. Fulfilled. Having satisfied an urge they could partake in at no other time.

“Sometimes I wish I was a little bit more– fertile.” Majida said.

Raaya laughed. She was so beautiful. “It’s the right amount of adventurous for me.”

Majida reached out and held Raaya close, stroking her fluffy ears and hair.

She wanted to hold her like that forever.

Their adventure to Kreuzung had seen them swearing a temporary marriage, rendering their rendezvous religiously permissible under Mahdist beliefs. Though it was not necessary to do so for Majida to escort Raaya out of Khaybar, it was something they both had wanted to do, and which they had done in a limited capacity before, in order to explore their relationship more intimately. Of course, they could not swear such a thing to Raaya’s mother, Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh– rather, it was an uncle of Majida’s main lieutenant Zahira. He was also a religious authority and witnessed signing the temporary marriage.

Zahira and her family, being of military bearing and very loyal to Majida, understood and encouraged the Warlord to take brides and partake in sex, but Majida did not view things in such casual terms. And she hoped that Raaya did not see it that way either. To her, these oaths were preparatory, a statement of Majida’s intent for Raaya and a presage for a true consummation of their romance and intimacy.

Mahdist Shimii put a lot of stock into contracts and oaths, as a people who survived a history of painful betrayals. Rashidun Shimii looked down upon these temporary unions as prostitution, but Majida was not treating Raaya with disrespect. She was following her oath. And someday, she wanted Raaya to be her woman, and she treated her as such. She was faithful and protective of her. She coveted her and cherished these rare moments where they could have the pleasure of each other as adults. In Khaybar, under the watchful eye of Mawla Asma– they were both not ready to talk to her about it yet.

But the few times they had a chance like this, they relished it.

“Raaya. You are the greatest treasure which God has given me.” Majida said.

“And you are my hero, Majida. I’m happy to be able to share these feelings with you.”

Holding her temporary bride there, in their temporary bed on this strange station, Majida felt suddenly that she never wanted to let Raaya go. She could do anything as long as Raaya was there, either beside her or waiting for her to come home. Raaya was Khaybar’s future, Majida’s future, God’s gift.

And now, she was here in Kreuzung with her.

In the middle of whatever tragedy was about to unfold in the station.

Allah forgive me. In my lust I’ve made a foolish decision.

She should have never brought Raaya here– had she known–

“Majida, are you okay?” Raaya asked weakly. “You’re squeezing me a bit.”

Ana asef.” Majida said. Asking for forgiveness. She let her grip slacken.

Raaya nestled herself against Majida’s chest, making herself the little spoon.

“Thank you, Majida. For taking me places. And– showing me a good time.”

Her words turned a bit sheepish. When it came to sex, she really acted like a kid sometimes.

“I’m not afraid.” Raaya said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid for me. I know what must be on your mind. It’s on mine too, that’s one reason why I wanted a bit of– distraction, for us. But I’m not afraid. God saw fit to guide us here in a time of oncoming crisis. And my father entrusted our ummah to you, Majida, before he passed. I’ve always believed in you, even when Norn first brought you to Khaybar.”

“We should honestly leave while it’s still quiet.” Majida said.

“But we won’t.” Raaya said. “Because even for a bunch of Rashidun who might curse your name if they knew, you don’t want to see our people abused and killed by the Imbrians, no matter what. So you and I are staying here. I think that’s the right thing to do. I’m here with you, I’ll give you strength.”

Majida sighed. Raaya was speechifying, she always so brave. Always too brave.

“That’s what I’m afraid of. But you’re right. I even told that Kitty I wouldn’t leave.”

“You made the right choice not to help her. And you made that choice immediately.”

“Of course. It’s insane. She’ll be hated by all right-thinking people if they knew.”

“Yes. But nonetheless– you did not choose an easy path to victory. You were righteous.”

Raaya went silent for a moment. Contemplating, perhaps, before she spoke again.

“It’s scary, to think we live in a time where Kitty’s brutal thinking is even possible.”

Majida lowered her head into Raaya’s shoulders, into her hair.

“It’s because the Imbrians and Cogitans have everything in the world. They feel emboldened to destroy it all thinking they’ll rebuild over each other’s ashes. They are godless people who don’t see us as being really alive and worth living. They toy with our people. Someday, Raaya– I’ll bring judgment to them.”

“I believe it. But for now, let that righteous fire rest, and we’ll see what happens.”

Raaya was so much wiser than Majida ever gave her credit for.

Allah protect old Asma but– Raaya would make a magnificent Mawla too, Majida thought.


In order to drown out the noisy neighbors, the television turned up to full volume.

“…in other news, Kreuzung public security has launched a murder investigation after a body was found in the maintenance tunnel for the water systems in Weiss Park this evening. Public workers discovered the body after entering the tunnel for weekly maintenance. The area was then cordoned off for investigation. KPS told reporters that they believe the murder was recent and the suspect is at large and urged citizens to report all suspicious persons to KPS station guards. The victim has not been identified at this time and the KPS has urged the public to avoid speculation as to the nature of the murder until they issue an official report. In more light-hearted news, Epoch Clothiers has announced a campaign to donate 15% of each sale of their high-end line ‘Epoch New Horizons’ to providing baby formula to needy…”

Homa Baumann began to tune out what the news reporter was saying, on the television playing across the wall opposite her bed. Her room lights were all off, so she was bathed in the glow of the television as she lay sideways on her bed, her legs half-curled, half-naked in only a pair of underwear shorts. Her long, dark, fluffy hair was loose, wildly thrown about, with the band that once tied it cast across the room.

Her tail wiggled about as much as it could as her weary eyes scanned the face of the inexpressive man delivering the news, watching him flap his mouth but beginning to lose the words. Her tail kept wiggling as she laid on her back and over it, smothering the little ball of fur. Her lips parted with a yawn.

She stretched out her arms and realized she was wearing one thing up top.

Her necklace. It was the only thing Radu recovered of her mother.

As such it carried a dual identity.

An item of the mother she could hardly remember.

A gift from the great dark figure that pried her from the grip of death.

And now,

Cherish that little life in your hands,

Homa popped open the necklace container to expose the piece of silica.

She lifted it up in front of her eyes.

It was shiny, when hit by the light from the streaming video on the wall, an opaque white and silver prism. Rough hewn, it had dozens of surfaces, without definitive shape except that it was a sliver, sheared off some anonymous rock wall. Her mind briefly pored over it. Over the idea that it had ever been alive.

Homa grunted a bit with irritation. Tired, unable to sleep, but recalling those silly words.

Her head was full of troubles. Her life was truly no good– if this little thing was alive, it had it easy.

“I am barely cherishing my own little life, you asshole.”

Homa let the necklace drop between her breasts, without closing the container.

She felt it stir from her own breathing and the beating of her heart.

“…it’s Day 5 of the Rhineanmetalle steelworkers strike, and so far, there is no deal between the workers and the company. President Achim Lehner has issued demands for the striking steelworkers to reopen the steelworks and ‘resume their patriotic duty’ while Governor Werner has said he believes that a ‘mutually advantageous position’ can be reached for all sides in the dispute. Rhineanmetalle could not be reached for an official comment. The steelworkers remain barricaded within Tower Nine despite attempts…”

She was vaguely listening to the broadcast again with her head turned from it.

“How do they get food?” Homa wondered.

Maybe they had planned everything prior to striking, or the tower already had food stocks.

Maybe someone was helping them.

Homa put on a little grin, rolling over on her side. Her vision wavered.

“Maybe Korabiskaya and Kitty are all here to make the strike worse.”

Why was that woman on her mind? Idiot.

Her tail wagged a little. She smiled to herself.

“Maybe they’re the big heroes. And Imani and I are the awful villains.”

An embittered little laugh.

Compelled by her little half-awake fantasy, Homa reached for her portable on the end of the bed. She brought it up to her face, unlocked the screen with her thumbprint and looked at the mails in the messaging app. Imani’s black hearts were the only mails that she had ever received.

And she had not sent one since their date.

Homa wondered if she should ask Imani if she was okay, but she thought better of it.

“What’s going to end up happening to me?” She said to herself, dropping the portable.

Would she ever hear from Imani Hadžić again?

When she went to work on Firstday would Kitty McRoosevelt come check on her yacht?

Would one or both of them end up on the news, as anonymous as the corpse in the park?

“I– I went to that park today– didn’t I?” She said groggily. An icy fear gripped her.

She could have died– she could have been murdered.

Somehow, it was this that seemed to seize her into pure panic.

Shaking across her body, a creeping anxiety that bid her to hug herself, teeth chattering.

Her mind seized up, in contrast with her cold flesh her head felt like a furiously boiling cauldron evaporating every piece of thought that she could possibly have had. She felt her breath grow heavy, her legs feel numb, her vision fading in and out between names and places real and imagined. She was a child, stranded amid the leaping sparks of downed and flaming wires steadily slipping into a pool of water, a dark figure approaching; she was an adult, in a chapel, holding hands with her bride Imani Hadžić; she was the Coral Knight, in armor and lance, traveling station to station to right wrongs and punish the evil forces who wished to steal the life force of the good and kind folk of the Coral Kingdom.

Half asleep anxious visions paralyzed her mind and body.

Shaking hands, quavering breath. She grabbed the necklace in the middle of the attack.

Don’t Be Afraid–

A voice, beautiful, comforting, warm, but striking thunderously through the panic.  

Homa’s breathing slowed.          

That voice cut through the waking nightmares and ushered Homa to finally fall peacefully asleep.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.3]

That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.

Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.

Once her vision settled, she could make it out.

There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.

It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.

Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.

Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.

It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.

Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.

When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.

With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.

First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.

“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”

His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.

She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.

Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.

Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.

It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.

“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.

That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.

“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”

Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.

Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.

For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.

Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?

“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.

Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–

Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.

She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.

“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”

No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?

With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.

It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.

Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.

“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”

Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.

Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.

Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.

Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.

Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.

“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”

She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.

Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.

She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.

That could very well be her soon–

In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.

“Imani?”

Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.

Another black heart from Imani. No other text.

“This woman–! Ugh–!”

While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.

All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.

Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…

Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.

“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”

While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?

Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–

“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”

Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.

On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.

And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.

From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.

Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.

There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.

Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.

No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.

So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.

On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.

She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?

From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.

There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.

Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.

“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”

As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.

“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”

When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–

–how long their tongue was,

and forked. And how–

how sharp their teeth were–

“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”

Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.

Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–

“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.

Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.

For this person not to do so was pretty strange.

“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”

Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.

“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”

At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.

This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.

There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.

But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.

They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.

“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.

Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.

“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.

Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.

She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.

Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.

Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?

“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.

Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.

“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”

She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.

Homa had enough of this.

“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”

They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.

“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”

They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.

“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.

Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”

The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.

“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”

“What–?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”

Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.

Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.

All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?

When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.

“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”

Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.

“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.

As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.

“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”

Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.

“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”

For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?

She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.

Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.

So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.

From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.

The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.

He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.

Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.

Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?

Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.

She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.

Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.

“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”

Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.

Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.

Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.

Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.

It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.

For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.

Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.


Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.

When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.

There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.

Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.

When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.

The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.

Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.

This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.

Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.

“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.

Homa looked around the room.

Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.

She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.

Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.

Homa picked up.

“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.

“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”

Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”

From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.

When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–

That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–

Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.

She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.

Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.

She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.

“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.

“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.

Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”

Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.

She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.

After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.

While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.

Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.

Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”

“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.

And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.

“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”

That question came as a shock, for no good reason.

Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–

“Um, yeah, about that–“

“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.

“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“

“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.

“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.

Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“

“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.

“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“

Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?

It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!

“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“

“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”

Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.

She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.

“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.

The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.

“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”

Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.

“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”

It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!

Lesbians?!?!

“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”

“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.

She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.

And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!

There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!

Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.

(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)

“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”

Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”

“That sounds a lot more doable.”

Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.

Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.

She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.

Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.

Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.

Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.

Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.

“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”

“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.

Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”

For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.

“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”

“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”

Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.

At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.

“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”

Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”

She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.

“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”

“Uh huh.”

When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.

The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.

“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“

Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.

“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”

Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.

Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.

Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.

Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.

“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”

Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.

This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.

“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”

Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.

It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.

She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–

–she really did look like just some girl.

Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.

Imani looked happy to see it.

After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.

“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.

“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.

“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”

“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”

Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.

“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.

Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.

Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.

After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?

“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t it?”

Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.

“Well–”

Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.

“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.

“Say it–?”

“I dressed up like this for you.”

“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.

Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!

“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”

In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.

She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.

“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.

“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”

Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.

One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.

To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.

It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.

Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.

“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”

“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”

“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”

“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”

“Uh huh.”

“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”

“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”

She put on a little grin.

Homa shuddered at the thought of it.

“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”

Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.

Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.

“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.

Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.

“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”

“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.

“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”

Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.

According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.

There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.

“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”

“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.

“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”

All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.

Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.

There was something about it that was a little painful, however.

Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?

Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?

“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”

Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.

“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”

“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.

“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”

“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”

Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.

And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.

In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.

“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.

“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”

“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”

Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.

Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.

Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.

“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”

Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”

“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”

Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.

At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.

Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.

Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–

She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!

Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”

As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.

Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.

Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.

A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.

Imani giggled as she swiped through them.

“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”

By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.

So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.

“Let’s take a few more!”

After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.

Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.

Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.

Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.

“It’s so cute!”

When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.

She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.

“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”

Homa nodded silently.

Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.

Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.

“Fancy.” Imani said.

She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.

After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.

Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.

Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.

Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.

“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”

Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.

Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.

“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.

Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.

Imani Hadžić.

They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–

In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–

Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–

Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.

“Imani, why–?”

“Hmm?”

Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.

With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.

“Um–”

Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.

Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.

“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.

There was an obvious tremble in her voice.

She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.

Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–

“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”

Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.

Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.

“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.

“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”

Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.

“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.

Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.

It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.

“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”

She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.

Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.

An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.

Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.

In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.

“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.

Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.

In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.

“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.

“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”

When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.

“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”

Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.

As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.

There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.

With that in the background, the music became frenetic.

“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”

She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.

Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–

–vicious.

“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–

“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”

Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.

Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?

“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“

She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.

Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.

Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–

“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”

Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–

–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.

With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.

About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.

And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?

But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.

After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.

Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.

And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.

“Ho~ma~“

For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.

Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.

Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.

Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.

“Ho~ma~“

When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.

Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.

Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.

Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.

But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.

Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.

“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”

Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.

The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.

Over several festive hours,

she had been nurturing affection,

for the girl Imani wished she could be.

It hurt.

“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.

Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.

“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”

Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.

If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.

Then at that moment–

Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.

Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–

–who saved the witch from her demons.


After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.

Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.

It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.

After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.

White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.

“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.

Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.

Then the dinner plates came in.

Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.

This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.

It really was like beefy butter.

Madame Arabie never stood a chance.

“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.

“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”

From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.

“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.

Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.

But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.

Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.

She had to move on.

“Thank you, Imani.”

“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”

She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.

Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.

After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.

That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.

As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.

Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.

Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.

A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.

That most brief glance–

–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.

Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.

Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.

Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.

Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.

That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?

Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.

Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.

Imani–

“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”

It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.

Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?

Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?

She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.

“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”


In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.

“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“

“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“

Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.

“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.

They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.

“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.

“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”

“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.

They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.

Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.

“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”

This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.

“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“

For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.

Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.

“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”

Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.

At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.

Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”

Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.

Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.

And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.

What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.2]

Madame Arabie casually reached for Homa’s face, taking a lock of her dark hair, and rubbing it between her fingers, feeling the texture. She looked pleased with herself, touching Homa’s hair, rubbing her cheek, as if she had been tending a garden and found bushes flowering. Her proximity and the liberties she took with Homa made the elevator ride extremely uncomfortable. But she did not feel like she could protest.

“Lovely, lovely. You’ve been taking care of yourself.” She said.

“Yes, ma’am. Skin and hair care, like you taught me.” Homa said.

When she could afford to do so, anyway. Shampoo and moisturizer was extra in the shower fees.

“Good. It’s beautiful. You do make a pretty girl, Homa. This is your mother’s hair, right?”

No. That was wrong.

“Yes. That’s right.”

It was her father’s hair color and texture.

Her father was an Imbrian; her mother was Shimii. But Madame Arabie didn’t really care.

And Homa did not want to spoil her seemingly good mood.

Looking on the bright side, she was being taken to Madame Arabie’s club and restaurant.

The Flowing Scarlet, the headquarters of Arabie’s gang and nexus of control over Tower Eight, was a grand building impossible to miss. Its home in tier four was an “open” type layer of the tower, where rather than having a high-ceiling corridor with spaces set into its walls, there was a free, cubical space with discrete buildings inside it and streets which ran through them. This allowed the Scarlet, a two-winged, three-story structure that looked like an entire hotel, to stand on its own over the smaller shops and houses surrounding it. Everything around the Scarlet looked fairly ordinary but the main thoroughfare from the elevator leading to the Scarlet was well lit and amply beautified, like a carpet into the venue.

Once upon a time, this tier had been a warehousing district, with crates stacked high. When the tower was converted from an industrial hub to a segregated habitat for the Shimii, this particularly spacious tier started to be built up by Shimii that had connections to powerful Imbrians in Eisental and beyond.

Homa had heard that this was before Arabie’s time, but that she came in like thunder afterwards, sweeping everything up and quickly climbing the Shimii underworld. She could believe it easily.

Now, this place was her temple, the symbol of her wealth and the pleasures it bought.

Homa had been to the Scarlet before, and she knew the interior well. From the front door was a dazzling lobby branching right and left. On the left wing of the building on the ground floor there was an upscale bar space, while the right wing contained the main attraction: a restaurant space with a theater and a runway that bifurcated the floorspace, surrounded by tables. Dancing girls in revealing, “exotic” clothing performed for the crowd, singing, dancing, putting on short, sexy skits, flashing skin at the men below.

Even Imbrians came into Tower Eight exclusively on the promise of a night of adventure at the Flowing Scarlet. This mystique surrounding the venue helped Madame Arabie to rake in a lot of cash.

Between her qualities as a hostess and all the heroin she traded in, the Madame had made a lot of friends.

On the higher floors of the Scarlet, Madame Arabie herself made her residence, and her close business associates came and went. Behind those beautiful, marbled halls, were nestled the spoils of bribery, extortion, and drug trafficking. Sometimes, even committed by boys and girls Madame Arabie “hosted” as a “benefactor” to lost and orphaned Shimii. This was all part of her power– and it was all tacitly supported by the Imbrians, for whom Tower Eight was a lucrative attraction as well as a ghetto.

Here, the lowlife Shimii unworthy of Imbrian grace could do everything illegal the Imbrians couldn’t.

They provided pleasures that became desirable because they were forbidden and distant.

It was for that reason, and almost that reason alone, that Tower Eight was how it was.

Homa was keenly aware of all of this, of its deepest depths. She had seen it all.

With all that said– the food was delicious. Madame Arabie had priority on goods after all.

Flowing Scarlet was the liveliest place here. Homa could at least enjoy the luxury.

Goods, talent, people’s bodies; Madame Arabie had her pick of all the best from the station’s Shimii.

They were all hers to use, whether they believed it or not.

Better to be used than discarded. Better to have a little pleasure than suffer frugally.

“If it weren’t for the girls being so sensitive, Homa, you would live with me.”

It was a promise she had heard a few times before.

Like everything else Madame Arabie said, it didn’t mean anything until she actually did it.

As soon as they stepped off the elevator, Madame Arabie removed a sash around her waist.

She wore it as a drape over her head instead, like Hijab, to conceal herself on the street.

“You’re not going through the front dressed like that. Come with me.”

Madame Arabie took Homa up the street in front of the Flowing Scarlet and then turned a sharp corner around it, taking her into an alleyway abutting a warehouse that was likely owned by the venue and its Madame as well. She swiped a keycard to open a side-door into the warehouse.

Homa’s assumption proved correct.

Inside, she found herself in a room dominated by long lines of racks from which hung dozens, maybe hundreds of costumes and uniforms for the waitstaff and the dancing girls. There were risqué strapless cut off tops with golden tassels hanging from the underwire, the cups designed to push up the girl’s breasts. There were long skirts with broad slits across the sides to bare the girl’s legs for the customer’s delight. Cut off translucent sleeves and veils added a touch of tantalizing sheer black to the costumes, which came in many colors, but all of which were glittery and filigreed in gold and silver seams.

Stereotypical “harem girl” style costumes– people went wild for these.

It was the complete opposite of what Shimii women were supposed to be like, but no one really cared.

Homa had to admit she would have gone wild for a girl wearing this too.

But about wearing it herself– she wasn’t too sure. She felt a hint of excitement, but it felt weird too.

Homa’s breasts and hips had grown quite a bit– but she probably still couldn’t pull it off.

Still– it was adventurous to think about– girl’s clothes fascinated her–

“Don’t worry, I am aware you don’t like this kind of thing, and besides, it’d only alarm people if I was seen walking around with a dancing girl, it’d be like preferential treatment. Those girls can get quite catty, you know? No, you’ll be wearing one of these instead. It’ll suit you better and draw less attention.”

She withdrew from the racks a button-down shirt, a waistcoat, and a pair of pants.

While it was much less embarrassing to wear, there was a part of Homa that was a little bit disappointed– being able to try on the dancing girls’ costumes harmlessly, without becoming Madame Arabie’s restaurant minion, might have been fun. Still, maybe the waitstaff uniform did fit her better.

Madame Arabie put Homa’s work clothes in a bag and watched her get dressed up as a waiter.

“Put this on too– you’ll be my gentlemanly guest, rather than seen as a waiter.”

Saying this, Madame Arabie handed Homa a blazer to go over the shirt and waistcoat.

“Do I get a monocle too?” Homa joked.

There was a little instant of fear– had she gotten too casual?

But Madame Arabie just giggled at her.

“Don’t get cocky. Usually it’s only people of refinement who get a date with me.”

She poked a shocked Homa in the chest.

“Be grateful and come on. You can get your stuff back from here on your way home.”

With a coquettish expression, she glided out of the warehouse.

Homa donned the blazer and followed her with utter bewilderment.

Inside, the Flowing Scarlet was as opulent as Homa remembered it.

Shiny white floors decorated with geometric, floral patterns, and the banners of the walls with Shimii heraldry, moons and stars and images of mosque architectures– these were the most authentically “Shimii” design elements of this fantasy venue. Golden chandeliers and fake wood desks and cabinets and tables, the torch-lit sensuous atmosphere of the restaurant, the dancing girls putting on their tantalizing show, all the rest of it, catered exclusively to the Imbrian imagination. Not that there weren’t plenty of Shimii enjoying it as well. Those who couldn’t afford the restaurant could go to the bar and get a glimpse of the girls every so often from afar. It was like paying for a drink and a sandwich just to get to watch a distant advertisement for the rest of Madame Arabie’s offerings. Homa couldn’t understand it.

Both halves of the venue were extremely popular, however.

Maybe because there just wasn’t anything else as lively as beautiful as this.

No other clubs, even those owned by Madame Arabie, had this atmosphere.

That mixture of high class with exotic, unabashed sexuality, existed nowhere else.

And on that night, the proprietress herself walked through the front.

As soon as they entered through the door she pulled off the covering from her face.

Madame Arabie began to embody the “madame” once more.

Swinging her hips, smoking her vaporizer pipe, walking with an entirely different cadence.

Keeping up behind her, Homa felt more like a butler than her “date.”

All eyes were on the Madame, every visitor in the lobby and everyone who could see from the bar or the restaurant out to the lobby, they were all following after her tail with their eyes, and she never once deigned to return their attention. She walked as if none of the world existed but each tile she stepped on, as if with the confidence that wherever she trod there would be a step for her.

Of course, nobody dared approach. Madame Arabie touched you if she desired you.

Raising hands to her yourself was tantamount to death. She was nobody’s plaything.

And Homa knew very well– it was not just her goons who could kill you.

If it was just that, anyone who could be Madame Arabie.

Madame Arabie gave her no instructions. Homa just followed behind her.

They got on an elevator together. She blew a puff of fig-smelling vapor in Homa’s face.

“See? You play the part excellently. That’s why I like you so much.”

What part? Boy-toy? Homa liked this situation less and less by the minute.

“Ma’am, I–”

“I’m only teasing you. If you want to me to stop, then stop reacting to it.”

“No, it’s just–”

“Shush. We’ll talk business soon. Just enjoy– not everyone gets this treatment.”

She pinched Homa’s cheek, then the elevator opened.

Homa followed her out onto the floor of what was clearly the private residence. From a small hallway they entered a luxurious living room, by itself two or three times the size of Homa’s room. A false wooden floor painted a rich brown and a pearl-white roof seemed to suggest earth and heaven, and impressionist paintings incorporating fluid geometries interwoven with Fusha calligraphy adorned the walls.

There was a trio of white couches arranged into a square on a raised island, sat around a tea table in the center of the living room, and the space branched from there into a dining area separated off by a long metal island with an overhead air circulator, and a hall likely leading to the bed and bathrooms.  

Though she couldn’t help but be bewildered by the opulence of the upper crust, there was one incongruous element in the living room that quickly caught her eyes– and Madame Arabie’s.

As soon as they walked in, there were people already in room, waiting for them.

Homa glanced at Madame Arabie.

She was grinning, but twining her own hair on one finger– fidgeting. She was agitated.

“My, my. Who let you two in?”

Ana asef. I didn’t have a reservation, so I let myself in.”

There were two seated on the bigger couch, both Shimii women judging by their figures and features.

The one speaking had her arm wrapped around the other, who in turn had her eyes closed and was gesturing apologetically with her hands. That dominant woman was taller and slender, with silver hair down to the shoulder, slightly wavy and with an unevenly cut ends. One of her ears looked like any Shimii ear, sharp with trimmed grey fur in a masculine style; the other ear however was grey and hairless and bent in an interesting angle. Her tail, too, was hairless and gray, and it forked slightly at the end. She was dressed in a gaudy, flowery shirt, and brown pants. Homa had no memory of this woman at all.

Her companion had on a sundress and hat, and was nearly a head smaller, with long brown hair. Her own ears and tail looked completely standard for a Shimii, if a bit unkempt, the fur on them slightly frizzy.

Homa realized quickly that Madame Arabie recognized these two.

“Hmph.”

Madame Arabie switched off her vaporizer and left it on an end table near the door.

“Should I introduce you, or would you prefer to do it yourself?”

“To the kid? Go ahead. But I’m going by Madiha al-Nakar right now. So use that name.”

Madame Arabie turned to Homa and gestured vaguely at the couch.

“Fine then. Homa, this is ‘Madiha,’ a Katarran mercenary playing a Mahdist Shimii activist.”

With a cruel grin on her face, she pointed out the grey-brown skinned, silver haired woman with the odd ear as if introducing an actor to a play. Upon closer inspection Homa thought she could tell– it wasn’t just the ear, but the tail, too, it was so cartilaginous and hairless. Homa had never been aware that there could even be Katarran Shimii– she barely knew anything about Katarrans generally except that they were usually violent criminals and “mercenaries,“ and they were “made in vats full of fish ovaries.“

Madiha glared at Madame Arabie with simmering displeasure.

“Pfeh. You’re lucky you’re too useful to be angry about.”

Madiha’s companion patted her lap with a hand as if to comfort her.

Madame Arabie ran a hand through her hair, thinking. Staring at Madiha’s companion.

“And the girl– I believe that’s– oh, that’s Al-Shahouh, isn’t it? You’ve grown up. How is your mother?”

“She’s fine.” The girl muttered a reply almost on instinct, then realized she did wrong.

“Call her Parinita!” Madiha shouted. “Like I said, we’re here on specific business.”

Madame Arabie sighed. “Fine. I have a date, so let’s get done quickly so you can leave.”

Again with the word ‘date’– Homa wanted to sink through to the ocean floor.

“Happy to. I’d be glad to never hear your harpy voice again, inshallah.”

Madiha stood up from the couch.

She raised her hand, and in an instant, something appeared in it, which she was suddenly holding in her fingers. It happened between a blink of Homa’s eyes, like a magic trick, and drew a sharp reaction.

Madame Arabie took a step back in response and raised a hand in front of Homa suddenly, as if protecting her from something. Homa could not understand the situation at all, but she thought Madiha’s eyes had briefly glinted red, and she had stopped approaching. There was a bar in her hands–

–a bar of metal? A sleek, shiny metal?

“Your sorcery doesn’t work on me, Katarran!” Madame Arabie hissed.

“Relax. I’m well aware and I’m not doing anything to you. Here.” Madiha grinned, bearing sharp fangs.

She stretched out her hand. What she had in it– was a bar of gold.

Or at least, it looked like pure gold, shimmering slightly orange-yellow. It was stamped.

There was a moon and a star embossed across the top of the bar, along with numerical codes.

Madame Arabie’s posture instantly softened. Her eyes drew wide at the sight of the bar.

“Mehmedist Gold? Mashallah.” She said, in awe of it.

Mashallah, indeed.” Madiha said. “This bar weighs 12 kilograms of pure gold. Not the ferrostitched bullshit they put in machines. Real, valuable gold, a king’s ransom right in my hand, from a king of our people himself. I want you to take this, and in turn, give me two million of those despicable Imbrian marks from your little gang’s war chest. I have some shopping to do and gold would raise too many eyebrows. You must be well aware of what a tidy sum that leaves you with. Aren’t I generous?”

“There must be a catch.” Madame Arabie said. Glancing between the gold and Madiha.

“Of course there isn’t, Leija–”

Leija?

“Don’t call me that, Khaybari.”

Madame Arabie’s hands closed into fists. Madiha shrugged her shoulders.

“Look, I also need papers to come and go, and that’s your deal, isn’t it ‘Arabie’? And I might need a few favors while I’m here. Favors worth a couple million marks. It’s still a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

Madame Arabie grit her teeth and narrowed her eyes.

“Two-faced Mahdist, it’s always like this with you.”

Madiha locked eyes with equal displeasure. “Look who’s talking, you Rashidist viper.”

Parinita ran from the couch and shouted, putting herself between Arabie and Madiha.

“Can we cut it with the name-calling? Please? Let’s behave like adults.” She pleaded.

Madiha looked at Parinita and sighed deeply. Her aggression subsided quickly.

Madame Arabie was far less moved but did not press any further.

Parinita relaxed and clung to Madiha’s side as if to contain her.

“I’ll be needing a lackey sometimes while I’m at Kreuzung. Why not that kid? I can pay.”

Madiha spoke up again after a few moments of silence, her tone moderated.

Homa didn’t know what she was getting into, but the word ‘pay’ was tantalizing.

However, she couldn’t speak in this situation. Not unless Madame Arabie decreed.

That thickening tension between the two of them– someone like Homa could do nothing.

In this atmosphere, she was like a chained convict.

Madame Arabie crossed her arms. “Hmph! Homa, I have some errands for you too. And I expect them to take precedence– but whatever you do with this woman, I don’t care about it, nor will I stop you. But if you take her money, I won’t be able to protect you if she retaliates against you. Be smart about it.”

She said all of this without even once looking at Homa. Madiha laughed about it.

“Look closely, ‘Homa’, at how this woman is. Anyway, whatever. Do it or not.”

Homa would definitely be after this woman’s money as soon as she could– if she could.

But in front of Madame Arabie, she would put on a façade of nonchalance about it.

Finally Madiha reached out with the gold bar again. Madame Arabie scoffed at her.

“Put it down on the table, Katarran.” She hissed.

“Whatever you say, Leija.” Madiha replied. She flicked her wrist with the bar in hand.

Madame Arabie grit her teeth at the taunt again but did not respond.

Homa hadn’t even considered– 12 kg, just casually held in one hand like it was nothing.

At least dumbbells had a grip between the weights. That was a solid bar of gold.

Was that the legendary strength attributed to Katarrans?

Madiha flicked her wrist once more and the gold bar disappeared from her hands.

Suddenly, it was on the table, without even making a sound. Again– like a magic trick.

“You fancy your wicked powers of illusion, I see.” Madame Arabie said.

“I do. Now the gold’s yours. Where do I get my money?” Madiha pressed.

From the sleeve of her dress, the Madame produced a strip of what looked like red plastic.

In the light, it shimmered with lines like a circuit board.

“Take this out of the restaurant, and across the street, to the warehouse front office. You’ll get your money from the bookie there. Don’t cause any fuss. Just have them scan this and tell them the exact amount of money you need, not a cent more. And you better not use your magic tricks to take back the gold after you collect your payment. The entire station will be after your head if you try to cheat me, understood?”

Madame Arabie extended her arm to its full length, offering Madiha the card at a distance.

Madiha’s eyes shone red again, for just a moment. Had Homa imagined it?

Then she laughed again.

“I see– so if you’re holding it, your aura is on it– because you’re resisting– interesting.”

“What are you mumbling about?”

“Nothing~” Madiha put on a mischievous little song-like voice. “Pleasure doing business~”

She snatched the little card from Madame Arabie’s fingers.

With Parinita in tow, they left the room to the same elevator as Homa and the Madame.

For a moment, Madame Arabie just stood there and quietly seethed.

Staring daggers at the gold bar. Then, her shoulders visibly relaxed. She breathed in.

“Money’s money. This will be more valuable even if the Imbrian mark inflates. Idiot majus.”

“Is everything okay, ma’am?”

For a moment after the words left Homa’s lips, she saw the briefest glimpse of the rabidly furious eyes that Madame Arabie had been giving the gold bar but turned upon her instead. Enough time in that glare for her heart to seize in her chest like a heart attack, for her soul to try flying out of her body in terror– but it was only an instant in real time. Madame Arabie softened considerably quickly– her eyes cast down at the floor, just as briefly taking on a sadness and age that Homa rarely saw in her face.

She then smiled again. She put a hand on Homa’s hair and shook it.

“Of course I will be fine. I’m the boss around here. Think about yourself instead.”

Homa could tell she was still troubled, but she was back to putting on an act.

She felt strangely compelled to sympathize– she had to very specifically pull herself out of that thinking.

“I won’t let her ruin our date. Come on, Homa.”

I wish she would stop saying that. I don’t want to think about being on a ‘date’ with her.

She and Madame Arabie had a weird relationship– but it was not that degree of weird.

Right? It wasn’t– it couldn’t be allowed to get that way!

“Sit.”

Past the living room they entered a comparatively intimate dining room, with a glasstop table that sat four at most on artsy glass chairs arrayed in a cross. Overhead hung a lamp with adjustable lighting for mood. There was a button on the table and Madame Arabie pressed it as soon as she and Homa were seated across from one another. While the button was held down, the glasstop exposed itself as a touchscreen LCD in the guise of a tabletop. Madame Arabie ordered dinner via digital menu.

“You don’t have any allergies right? You can eat anything?”

“I can eat anything ma’am.” Homa replied obediently.

“Fantastic.”

While they waited, Madame Arabie laid her hand hovering just over the table.

Homa reached her own hand out, and Madame Arabie held it, stroking the knuckles.

“How have things been, Homa? Have you gotten to pilot a Diver often?” She asked.

“Whenever Bertrand needs it. His other pilot is an old guy.” Homa said.

“Do you like the job?”

“I do ma’am. I like being around the machines. And going out in the water is exciting.”

It was impossible to say, ‘I wish the job you got me paid more’. But she wasn’t lying either.

Her job was the tiniest bit of freedom she had, so she enjoyed it.

Madame Arabie smiled, her eyes narrowing a little, keen, and bright.

“You are allowed to tell me when you are hurting, Homa. And to come to me for help.”

Homa nodded. “I didn’t want to bother you ma’am.” She wasn’t lying about that either.

“Nonsense. You can rely on me, Homa.”

But she didn’t want to.

She didn’t want to crawl back to Madame Arabie and be further in her debt.

Homa needed her own power, her independence, to escape from this rotten place–

“You’ve helped me a lot, you know? I wasn’t aware of the difficulties you were facing– but I heard that it was lean times for some of the private docks. So I wanted to compensate you, bring you back in, give you a little job. Show you that I’m still on your side and make up for any negligence.”

Madame Arabie’s slender fingers pressed down on Homa’s hand, tracing to her wrist.

That touch sent a quiver into Homa. She had to calm down.

If the Madame wanted to hurt her, she would have. She had nothing to hide from her.

For some reason– Madame Arabie needed her. So she just had to play along.

“I’m grateful ma’am.” Homa said, smiling politely. “It’s been kinda fun already.”

“Not the kind of fun I wanted, with that damned Katarran interrupting. But, anyway.”

She leaned a little on top of the table, coming closer to Homa, eyes fixed on her–

Homa trying desperately to keep her eyes up and off her breasts as they rested on glass–

Her whispering voice like a warm breeze. “Now we can continue our little date.”

She winked at Homa and drew back, laughing a little to herself.

“My, my! You’re so red, Homa! Look at you! Such a cute little thing; you can’t handle a woman at all still, can you? I’m telling you, if you keep being so fun to tease, I won’t be able to control myself.”

Homa averted her gaze and grumbled silently.

Then, finally, their food arrived, sparing Homa from more teasing.

One of the waitstaff from the restaurant below came up with a cart and deposited their plates gently on the table. Madame Arabie had ordered two plates of pulao, rice with nuts, peppers and figs layered through it, and topped with hefty slices of glossy red chicken breasts. Chicken breast had never been Homa’s favorite, but the cooks at the Flowing Scarlet never missed (or Madame Arabie would let them know it). For a chicken breast it was richly juicy, pull-apart tender, and the firm exterior of the breast had been fully coated with the spicy glaze– it was to die for, an explosion of savory flavors that made Homa’s life before it feel utterly monochromatic. Meanwhile the varying textures and tastes of the pulao, sweet and spicy, soft rice with firm green peppers and snappy chilies, it practically tasted of wealth.

Homa tried to keep her pleasures as close to the chest as possible.

Madame Arabie’s curious eyes tracked her closely, with a little smile on her red lips.

“Homa, do you think I’m being cheap with you for ordering this?”

“No ma’am! This is fantastic! Thank you for the meal!”

She wasn’t lying, but she did sort of think Madame Arabie was being cheap.

That “melt in your mouth” beef that Hasim had been advertising at his shop was something that Madame Arabie could have any day of the week. In fact, she had better, because Hasim and all the other shops that got shipments from the Imbrians had to sell the absolute best to Madame Arabie first. So for Madame Arabie to choose a chicken dish instead of the high quality beef her restaurant VIPs got–

“Pulao is my favorite dish. This is my recipe.” Madame Arabie said. “I wanted to share it with you.”

That was a surprise– it was just more teasing though. “Thanks ma’am.”

After carefully going through her own meal, eating so as not to spill anything or spoil her cosmetics, Madame Arabie had the plates taken away. Homa felt fuller than she had been in months, maybe years. However, as soon as the waiter and their cart had gone, Madame Arabie leaned against the table again, fixing her deep emerald eyes on Homa’s quickly wavering yellow gaze once again.

“Homa, I promised old man Radu that I would look out for you. I am well aware that my business is not godly, and out of this respect for my esteemed elders and of course, my affection for you, I have tried to keep you on a respectable path. I have only asked for you to run errands when necessary, and I try to keep your hands clean. But I do need your help again, Homa. I have taken every precaution to insure your safety, but it is an important task, maybe the most important I’ve ever given you.”

Homa’s ears stood on end.

Entranced by the cruel but enticing intellect and beauty of those eyes holding her tight.

Mentioning old man Radu was a cheap emotional appeal.

But it was one she very rarely played on Homa.

“Sometime in the next few days, a ship will arrive at Bertrand’s for an extensive repair. There will be a blond woman on the ship who will likely pose as a customer. She is very dangerous, Homa, and she is plotting something, but she will not suspect anything, and you must see that it remains that way.”

Madame Arabie pressed the button on the table to bring up the LCD screen layout again.

On Homa’s side, a photograph appeared of a woman in a dark blue military uniform.

That woman in the picture reminded Homa of Ulyana Korabiskaya, tall and blond standing on the edge of the docks, cutting a dashing figure in uniform, but it wasn’t her of course. Her hair was a different shade of blond, darker, and longer, and her countenance lacked some of the regal maturity that characterized Korabiskaya. She was younger, maybe, or less refined; not that Homa, who was only 21, could say anything like that for sure. Homa had never seen a uniform like hers. Imbrian soldiers had grey uniforms, and the Volkisch dressed in black, not this ocean blue color that this woman was wearing.

Maybe it was ceremonial?

“When you confirm the appearance of this woman at the dock, you will take this letter for me to Tower Twelve, the Laurentius Military Center. It sounds daunting but you don’t have to go in, just call for Standartenführer Imani Hadžić and she will come see you on the gatebridge. Give her the letter and tell her everything you saw and heard. She will likely make you into her informant at that point.”

From her shirt, Madame Arabie withdrew an actual sealed plastic envelope.

Inside, there was likely, from the weight of it, an actual rock paper letter.

Homa could imagine it. Maybe even written in real ink. Containing deadly secrets.

As much as she disdained Madame Arabie and her duplicity–

she couldn’t say,

this wasn’t,

adventurous.

All kinds of dark fantasies began spinning off in her mind.

There was something happening in Kreuzung. Something big and dark and dangerous.

Labor strikes; economic hardship; the Volkisch movement; and these strange visitors.

And Madame Arabie was connected to it? And there was a military officer involved too?

Imani Hadžić — that was a Brenic Shimii name, one of the western cultures.

–her wild leaps of thought were finally interrupted as Madame Arabie spoke up once more.

“Do this for me, Homa, see it through to the end, and if officer Hadžić is satisfied with the result, Inshallah I will make any dream of yours come true. Hell– you may even get to pilot one of your machines for the military or merchant marine, instead of a dingy little dock. Just take this offer from me, and then do what Hadžić tells you. You’ll be a real hero at the end of all of this. You’ll have cachet beyond your dreams.”

Homa– a hero? Fingers in her mind pored over those words, the texture, the color, sound.

Even beyond the grip of spiraling fantasies– the promise of payment alone–

Yes– she couldn’t just fantasize wildly! Madame Arabie was still the same liar as always!

There was some ulterior motive to this. It would be dangerous. It wouldn’t be honorable.

But this wasn’t the first time Homa had done something awful for the Madame’s favor.

She had street smarts, she knew she was she was getting into. She couldn’t escape it.

If she saw it as a gig, she could not turn it down. She wanted the money– needed it.

“Of course, Madame.” She took the envelope. There was no other choice. “Always.”

“Excellent. I would ask you to stay and celebrate, but, you have to go get ready for work, after all.” Madame Arabie winked at her. “Just come see me after everything is done. Keep the clothes.”

So much for things not getting too weird with Madame Arabie–

There was no choice if she wanted to survive. “It’d be my pleasure, madame.”


Homa saw herself out of Madame Arabie’s home, her head still turning over everything that had happened. She just barely registered that she had agreed to rat out someone to the military. She imagined it must have been a business rival of Madame Arabie’s, maybe someone trying to run in contraband or drugs from another station, or maybe someone who owed her money. It didn’t matter in the end. No matter who it was, Homa knowing or not knowing the whole truth would not change anything. If not her, someone else would do the job. Money always found its way to people.

She did not have naive expectations of herself– but some part of her really wanted to be a hero.

On the way down, she almost imagined she might see that “Madiha” character again.

But there was no fuss being made at the warehouse. That woman disappeared too.

Homa got her clothes and bags and left without being noticed by anyone.

Overhead, the artificial sky had turned dark, with only the tiniest crest of false moonlight.

She slunk home.

Homa made her way down the halls, quietly, looking at her own feet.

There was a sense of tension inside her, filling her chest and stomach like a balloon.

Restlessness, anger, worries about the future. Frustration.

Dropping her bags on the floor of the room, undressing, taking off her boots, putting the goods she bought into the cupboard and the refrigerator. Setting her pot to keep the stew barely warm through the night. She hung up her new, fancy set of clothes as well as her work clothes and paid the fee to have them misted, scented, and dried. Then she paid the fee for the shower and locked herself in the bathroom like a sardine. Water came pouring down over her head and back, her arms at her sides.

Her black hair came down over her eyes as she bowed her head, putting it to the wall.

In the shower, she was alone, and no one could see or hear her.

There was no neighbor on the shower’s side of the room.

And even if there was, the mechanisms around the shower that served and drained water and cosmetics and shampoo, the sink that came out of the panel, the toilet that could pulled in, all of those things meant the shower was surrounded by mechanisms. So she was insulated, nobody could hear.

Sealed up tight. In a place truly, completely, alone.

She flipped the lights in the shower on, and via touchpad, also turned on the mirror.

Drawing in a breath, she screamed at the top of her lungs into the mirror.

Breath ripped ragged through her lungs and neck. Her fists clenched hard enough her nails might have drawn blood had she gone any further. Her whole body had tensed. Then she spread her lips, lifting gritted teeth from each other and heaved a sigh. Looking up at her reflection.

She did feel somewhat relieved. But it was not enough.

So she screamed again.

Her tired yellow eyes and long black hair in the mirror, over her soft, smooth face, slick with the little trails of water coming down from her crown. Water trailed down the muscles of her back, across the slope of the shoulders, over her breasts. Sometimes, Homa needed to look, to remember that she wasn’t a mass of scars, that her hair wasn’t going white yet, that her back wasn’t out, and she had all her limbs.

She was very young– some people still called her a kid.

And yet, she still felt like she had lived too long and lived through too much sometimes.

What did other early twenty-somethings do? They still went to school didn’t they?

Homa looked at the sad girl in the mirror and narrow her eyes.

“Listen up. None of this is going to bow down your back.”

She told herself. And that girl in the mirror– didn’t look any less sad.

Homa banged her head against the mirror, gritting her teeth.

Thankfully, the “mirror” was only the LCD layer over the wall, projecting her face.

“Old Man Radu, huh?”

Hearing that name again after so long, it bothered her then, it infuriated her.

What did that man care how Madame Arabie treated her?

And why would Madame Arabie care what he told her either?

It was all cheap emotional manipulation!

Radu the Marzban was somewhere out there having adventures without her.

Some big hero he was supposed to be! Her mother was dead! He couldn’t save her!

And her father– who knew who that was?

All she’d ever known was Kreuzung, Tower Eight. Loneliness and Arabie’s fickle moods.

With her head up against the mirrored wall, she looked down at the water draining at her feet.

“If Kreuzung goes through something really bad– what’d be left for me, then?”

There was nowhere to go. Out there, was only the Imbrium Ocean.

Stations were only connected by ship docks. Nobody could just travel or move anywhere.

Everyone was trapped!

And ships were a luxury– or a grave danger.

“Old Man Radu. You might as well have just thrown me out of an airlock.”

She was full of trepidation– and now she was in the clutches of Madame Arabie again.

How could she ever get out?

There was no way to get out clean– without dirty work, without blood on her hands.

“I wish! I wish everything could be fucking perfect! But it’s not possible!”

At least she would have money now! She would be taken care of!

“Who cares if I’m doing some nasty thing for that bitch Arabie! What choice did I have?”

She shouted her heart out in that empty shower where no one could see or hear.

“I need money to live! Now I’m getting it! I’m not going to feel guilty or afraid!”

She continued to shout. As if a voice long suppressed needed to finally escape.

“In fact, I’m glad! I don’t have to worry about the fucking rent! No one else will help me! So nobody can blame me for this! I’ll get out of this place! I won’t die old in this ghetto! I’m glad! Thank you Madame Arabie! Yes ma’am, I’m grateful ma’am, I’ll do anything you say ma’am! Nobody else will help!”

Her mind was made up. She set her feet, straightened her chest.

She wasn’t going to change her mind.

(Not that she could– not when she gave Madame Arabie her word.)

“Fuck!”

Once more she banged her head against the wall.

Everything from her ethnicity to her womanhood to her livelihood, everything was so much trouble, nobody made it easy, nobody helped her, nobody ever let her just have anything she wanted. She was a freak to everyone in Kreuzung who thought themselves a “decent” person so all she had left was the basements, the dark corners, places unwanted. She struggled for every bit of cheer she ever had.

Whoever it was Madame Arabie wanted her to feed to the sharks– fuck them.

That was her thought. They could complain if they had a solid alternative.

“Fuck them.”

She looked up in the mirror.

Now that was a determined little grin from that once sad and downtrodden girl.

That’s what she wanted to imagine herself looking like.

“I’ll get out of this place. I’ll get out of here, whatever I have to do.”

Overhead, the stream of water shut off, having dispensed what was paid for.

Homa felt a warm breeze instead, blowing to partially dry her off.

Without waiting for it, she stormed out of the bathroom and threw herself into bed.

Nude and still a bit wet, she rolled up herself up in her blankets and closed her eyes.

Trying to lose herself to the comforting softness of the mattress and the bed’s warmth.


“Homa! If any ships come in today, you take the lead, okay?”

“You’re being awful kind, Becker.”

“Well, if you don’t get any work, Bertrand will fire you, and if he does, I’ll have to quit. If I can’t look at your little ears and tail all day, there’s just no point to coming back to this dump every day.”

Homa grumbled and thought of throwing something at Becker.

But she wouldn’t say ‘no’ to the work.

Around noon the next day, Bertrand Shore Works got a new customer approaching, and there was a great excitement about getting two ships in two days after such a drought in the work.

Unlike the Brigand, which had been an enormous Cruiser, this was a humble yacht, just 40 meters long and 13 meters tall, with a blue and white livery that was generic to the specific model, made by a company called “Tigershark.” It had an exposed bridge compartment at the top, a sleek pointed box that followed the profile of the hull, with a long, thick titanium-strutted glass roof allowing for the person at the helm to look at out into the water above them as they sailed. The rest of the hull was beautifully curved down to its keel, it looked flawless. Through and through a rich person’s toy.

“They’re coming in for a full maintenance and repair job, repainting, and a jet replacement? And they’re coming here for that? We either have God or the Devil on our side here.” Aicher said.

It was a big job, it’d be a lot of piecework on a delicate ship, a lot of expensive parts.

Everyone was surprised. Yachts usually went to subscription yacht clubs for this kind of thing. Bertrand’s usually worked with larger ships that didn’t travel to Kreuzung enough to pay for an expensive licensed space in the Seaport or didn’t want to deal with Seaport security or pay union rates for repair work. Old Bertrand would collect a premium on having a little toy taking up space he “could” be using for industrial ships — if there were any coming through, which there weren’t, but he wouldn’t tell the customer that.

He would definitely play up the opportunity cost to seem aggrieved.

So B.W.S was buzzing. Becker and Aicher were leading the crew like a battalion.

Homa meanwhile just acted surprised. She recalled the conversation with Madame Arabie.

Someone knew this ship was coming, and that someone was working through the Shimii in Tower Eight to snoop on it. Madame Arabie had warned that it was dangerous– Homa tried to act natural, but as the ship was brought into berth, and then deposited by the metal arms from the drained berth into the workshop area, beached inside the dockyard, her anxiety and trepidation grew stronger. An icy chill gripped her heart as the side of the hull opened and a ramp extended down from it.

Aicher waved Homa over to go greet the owner of the ship and get them an airstair.

And from out the bulkhead door, came the woman Homa had seen, exactly as the picture.

Rather than the uniform in Arabie’s photograph, the young, long-legged blond beauty was dressed in an extremely fancy-looking fur coat (it couldn’t have been real– it had to be synthetic) over a collared shirt and shiny leather-like pants. She wore tall black pumps for shoes and perched on her strong nose were a pair of black spectacles. Her earrings and fingers glinted with jewelry, with rings and gems.

Bonjour!” She called out with a glossy red smile, descending the airstair like a runway model.

Homa found her brain utterly arrested by the sheer aggressive beauty of this woman.

In the damp, drab environment of the B.W.S. dockyard she was like a flashbang grenade.

Aicher surreptitiously tapped Homa in the back, and she walked forward to meet the lady.

As soon as they neared each other, Homa caught a strong, sweet scent from her.

“Oh what a dear! I’m so happy I decided to berth here. I’m Kitty McRoosevelt.”

“Uh. Hello!” Homa smiled awkwardly. “Welcome! I’m Homa Baumann, I– I work here.”

She hastily extended her hand and “Kitty McRoosevelt” gave her a firm shake.

Not a common name but that didn’t matter; Homa wasn’t an expert on names.

Madame Arabie’s words rang in her head as she shook that soft, slender, but strong hand.

This woman was dangerous. She didn’t seem like it, but appearances weren’t everything.

All of this, her glamor, sweetness, energy– it could be an act.

“Pleasure to meet you. Got my papers right here.”

Kitty handed Homa her portable and Homa scanned it. Everything came up fine.

Her last port of call was Worms, which, from what Homa knew, wasn’t too far, and made sense. Worms and Mostar were the two closest stations. For a yacht, 40 meters was big, and pretty seaworthy, so she could travel it between stations. She had one item of listed cargo, which was a leisure submersible stored in a cargo hold in the prow. None of them would need to touch that. All their work would be in the back, with the hydrojets and the intakes in the rear underside, and on the bridge and the living quarters in the rear center where they were swapping some electronics. And everything was indeed registered under Kitty McRoosevelt. Her papers were stamped by the Aachen Station Authority. It was all legit.

That didn’t mean anything by itself though.

Madame Arabie could get legit papers for people who didn’t exist.

Maybe this Kitty was the Madame Arabie of Aachen Station. Homa couldn’t know.

“Checks out. You can go into the office to work out pay and a work schedule.” Homa said.

Kitty smiled at her. “Thank you dear. By any chance, will you be working on her?”

Homa blinked at her, briefly stunned at this deviation from the typical script.

“Oh, yeah!” She averted her eyes from Kitty’s own. “They’ll probably have me doing the exterior. I can help out a little with the duct work too, but I am not certified to do anything with the electronics. So uh, I guess I’ll be painting and shining and applying the anti-organic coating and stuff like that.”

“Ah! So all the stuff I care about the most. I’ll be looking over your shoulder then.”

She briefly met Kitty’s eyes out of shock, and then averted them again.

Her client patted her shoulder with a knowing smile before walking away to the office.

Becker and Aicher then, unfortunately, approached the stunned Homa at the airstair.

“Ah, damn it, the customer’s trying to steal her away– and she looks a damn sight nicer than I do.” Becker said. “I don’t have a chance. I better enjoy having Homa around while I can.”

Homa narrowed her eyes at him.

“Homa Baumann, popular with the guys and the ladies. This black cat’s got all the luck.”

Homa turned her evil, narrow-eyed gaze at Aicher instead.

There was some levity, everyone was happy to have more work and pay coming in.

As the woman disappeared into the office, and they began to assess the work that would be done to the ship, however, Homa felt that tension in her chest start to build again, constricting her breathing and heartbeat. Kitty was exactly the woman in the photos that the Madame had shown her. Come to think of it– it had skipped her mind, but she never got a name for the woman out of Madame Arabie, only the photo and her instructions. This was all deeply mysterious, but she had shown up, Kitty, the cosmetics, and fancy clothes aside, had the same face as the woman in the photograph.

After work, she would have to head to Tower Twelve.

Laurentius Military Center.

And there she would meet–

Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.

“Becker? You were in the military right? Can I ask you something?”

She and Becker were sizing up the ship using a digital laser scanner when she asked.

Becker was holding the laser, and she the cable. His wizened face looked suddenly proud.

“Ah, but I was a volunteer patrolman, not really military. Those were good days though.”

Homa interrupted. “Is Standartenführer a really high rank?” She asked.

His expression darkened suddenly. He looked at Homa with surprise. Maybe– maybe fear.

“Homa– are you in trouble?” He lifted a hand from the laser. He looked startled, worried. “Is that why you’ve been looking down lately? Listen, if it’s anything with your papers, I can vouch for you. If the Volkisch are hounding you– If you have a citizenship hearing or something– I can–”

“No, no!” Homa replied, as surprised as he was. “Becker, I’m okay. I was just curious.”

“I see. Homa, that’s a Volkisch political rank. That’s– it’s not a– it’s not normal. It’s bad news.”

Homa tried to persuade the stammering Becker that she was fine, and everything was okay, but his reaction, and that little episode with him, just made the fear gripping her heart swell tenfold.


Tower Twelve loomed like a gun to the temple of Kreuzung station.

Homa had learned a lot about it in the past months due to the ongoing imperial unrest.

Laurentius Military Center was the main garrison of the Kreuzung Complex. While there were troops also stationed in the walls of the Kreuzung crater for defense and patrol purposes, if anything happened in Kreuzung’s core station, the response would come from Tower Twelve. Eight weeks ago, the election of Achim Lehner led to an enormous crisis in the Kreuzung complex. Imbrians rioted in the core station, prompting severe lockdowns, and the troops in Laurentius picked sides within the chaos.

Some of them joined the rioters, some of them deployed to contain the riots and ended up fighting their own colleagues, and others broke into factions within Laurentius itself. Perhaps the largest group of security forces simply refused to participate in this and guarded the Kreuzung government center at the top of the core station while the violence worked itself out elsewhere. The Volkisch eventually took control of Laurentius, but nobody was successful, whether Volkisch or not, in toppling Governor Werner, who navigated the entire crisis and came out of it with both the grudging respect and cooperation of both the rioters and the Volkisch. The Shimii in Tower Eight had been distant witnesses to the violence, because their tower locked down during the chaos, preventing them from resupplying needed goods.

She hadn’t been there to see any of it, but Becker and Aicher had a lot to say about it.

Especially Becker– he followed conflict news closely and knew a lot about the military.

So he explained everything to Homa– from his perspective.

Regardless, what happened, happened. And Homa had not been hurt, except that Kreuzung locking out Tower Eight led Homa to spend extortionate amounts of money for pitiful amounts of food in the Shimii market, barely keeping herself alive. It was a shock to her, one she had not felt since she first started her gender transition– at 19, she realized that for her, being a woman required the mercy of the Gender Equality Center and their policies. And now at 21, she realized, everything, food, shelter, electricity, was at the mercy of the Kreuzung Core Station’s security and stability. Tower Eight was their hostage.

Weeks later, things settled down. Life returned to a sense of normalcy at Kreuzung.

Laurentius, however, continued to represent the threat of the Volkisch attaining complete control over the station, or at least, that’s what Becker and Aicher thought about it. If there was a crisis again, the Volkisch might have the excuse they need to not just station their black-uniformed forces in Laurentius, but to replace the Kreuzung Core Station’s police and security– and the local government.

All of this grand politicking was over Homa’s head. She only vaguely understood.

However, the idea of Laurentius as a threat felt visual when she beheld the tower itself.

Unlike the rounded, drum-like towers meant for people to live in, Laurentius looked like a weapon from afar. From the gatebridge, she could stare out the glass panels at the tower, some thirty meters separate, its shadow like a coiled cylinder made up of brutal spikes. The Gatebridge itself was like the closed maw of a beast with black iron teeth and camera eyes. Laurentius was home to warships, armed Divers, missiles and guns, and the black uniformed soldiers that made old Becker pause, unable or unwilling to fit them into his heroic myths of the gallant frontier patrolmen. It was an evil place, death at the midnight hour.

Homa had traveled through a lot of Kreuzung to make it here.

Through elevators and steel hallways and civilian checkpoints.

Now, standing in front of the armored entryway to the station, she had no idea what to do.

There was an enclosed guard post, but the glass was tinted. Was anyone actually in there?

Swallowing hard, she pushed herself to go near the box.

She raised her ID and work permit to the wall of the box to be scanned.

A red square appeared around her papers that flashed. Normally it was green.

Confused, Homa raised her card and permit off the wall of the guard post and set them back on to try to rescan them. She got the same result. There was a red box around them and it started to flash. She waited a moment for anyone to say anything, but the guard post was silent.

Mind in a fog from the stress, Homa was about to try again–

When, from the guard post, an irate voice sounded.

“Are you fucking stupid? You’re not allowed in here, Shimii! Go back to Tower Eight!”

“I’m sorry!” Homa cried out. Her ears curled against her head in fear.

Suddenly, a line of green and yellow laser light traveled over her body from the box.

“You’ve got nothing in your hands, nothing in your clothes– consider yourself lucky.”

Homa stood there, briefly speechless. Staring with wide, nearly weeping eyes at the glass.

Unable to see a person inside– at least the Tower Eight border guard were visibly there.

“Fuck off kid. Keep standing there and I’m going to read it as intent, understand?”

“I’m– I’m looking for someone! Please, it’s really important!”

There was a grumbling noise over whatever hidden sound system the guard post possessed.

“God damn it. Name and rank and you better be exact, kid. Or I’m calling this shit in.”

Homa cried out, “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić!”

Silence.

When the guard spoke again, she sensed a change in his tone.

“Um. Repeat please.” Was that a tremor in his voice?

Homa blinked. What was going on? “Standartenführer Imani Hadžić.” She repeated.

There was no further response from the guard post. For a few minutes, nothing but silence. No motion, no lasers, nothing. As the silence stretched, it scared Homa more than the shouting.

Just at the point where Homa thought she would scream with anxiety–

–without warning, the black teeth of the bridge gate began to spread open.

Then she heard a pair of sharp footsteps approaching, a tap and a clicking heel.

Looking through the open gate, Homa spied the figure and her long, confident stride.

A swishing noise– a black peaked cap twirling on one of her fingers.

Homa had been right. Imani Hadžić was a Shimii like her, with rounded off ears and a very long, thick tail perfectly manicured into an unbroken little cylinder behind her. She had long limbs and a young face, cutting an attractive silhouette, a Madame Arabie in the making, Homa thought, but she was far tidier. Her dark blue hair was shoulder-length and orderly, covering the sides and back of her head quite evenly, with perfectly arranged bangs over her forehead and a slight curl at the back. Homa couldn’t tell whether she was wearing makeup, but she had a tiny bit of a blush to her. Thin spectacles perched on her nose.

Draped over her shoulders like a cape, the empty sleeves swaying with her movements, was an all-black Volkisch coat, with two red armbands around the sleeves emblazoned with black symbols in a white circle. One was a black disc surrounded by lightning bolts, the disc itself made up of a single line, like a picture of a complicated maze; the second armband had a black moon and a black sword in the white. Neither of these were symbols that she recognized; it was a Volkisch coat, but their symbol was an eagle.

Aside from the coat and the hat twirling like a toy in her slender fingers, she had on a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with a buttoned-up collar, a black skirt, and pitch-black tights. Those sleek, sharp heels of hers lent her footsteps an almost metallic ringing on the thick concrete of the bridge. On the collar of the coat draped on her there were several pins, maybe signifying her rank or awards. Homa could not read or understand their significance, but she recalled what Becker had told her earlier.

From just looking at her, before she ever spoke a word–

That cold, cutting gaze on her pretty face– her self-confident stride–

a little grin forming on her lips as she approached–

–and the casual way she wore and played with her symbols of office.

Something, maybe her own nervousness, Becker’s words, a gut feeling, it all told her.

Imani Hadžić was the most dangerous person she had ever met.

She could almost see a black outline, like a dimension of death swirling around her.

And a red, furious glimmer in her eyes for the briefest of instants.

Was Homa hallucinating? When did she get like this?

Homa closed her fists and caught her breath. She couldn’t afford to lose her wits now.

Not in front of this woman.

As soon as Imani Hadzic crossed the bridge, Homa extended a hand in greeting.

Try to be brave now. She told herself.

As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Hadžić accepted the handshake and answered in a sickly-sweet voice.

Wa Alaykum Salamu.”

“I’m Homa Baumann. Madame Arabie sent me to deal with you–”

Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words! Poor choice of words!

“Eh– I mean–!”

“Oh? Deal with me? That’s very interesting. Then, let’s deal, Homa Baumann.”

Imani leaned into Homa and pulled her close, invading her personal space instantly.

They were almost breast-to-breast– Imani was nearly the same size as her.

Her grip was much stronger than her appearance would have suggested.

“Imani Hadžić. But you knew that already.”

Imani’s tail curled around Homa’s leg, prompting her to quiver.

Her warm breath in Homa’s cheek, and the smell coming off of her chest–

–unlike the sweet-smelling Arabie with her perfume, Hadžić smelled like chemicals.

Homa almost thought she might faint when she caught a whiff of it. She held back disgust.

“Homa Baumann. An interesting name; enchanted to meet you.”

Imani drew back, releasing Homa from her viper-like grip.

Her smile looking particularly twisted for a moment.

“So, I take it you’ve confirmed the appearance of our mutual acquaintance? And so soon, too.”

Awaiting an answer, Imani seamlessly went back to twirling her black cap on one finger.

Homa was forced back to reality. She was on the hook to complete this job.

“Yes, sorry, I did. There was a yacht in today, from Aachen, by way of Worms. Registered to Kitty McRoosevelt. She came with it too. Blond– there was a picture that Madame Arabie–”

“Indeed, this picture.”

With her free hand, Imani produced a small portable handset.

On its LCD screen was the exact photo that Madame Arabie had shown her.

The Standartenführer transitioned seamlessly to a calm, interrogative tone of voice.

She was not playing around with Homa anymore.

“So it was this woman?” Imani asked.

Homa started to feel at ease. “Yes, it was her. I’m completely certain, I talked to her.”

“What did she bring the yacht in for?”

“A lot of work. Full hull repainting and coating, hydrojets, electrical system.”

“How long will that work take you and your company?”

“We quoted her seven eight-hour days. We have a 2-day weekend this week, and next week we only get the Seventhday off, so– we’ll probably be done the week after, on that Firstday, I think.”

“Ah, the bottomless joy of the Imbrian work calendar.”

“We could have done it in a few days but we’re trying to wring money out of her.”

“You’re an honest girl. Well, don’t you worry about being too greedy. I’m positive she doesn’t care. She’s not in here to get that yacht repaired. That’s the crux of our entire dilemma, after all.“

“Madame Arabie told me to give you this letter.“

Homa withdrew the letter from the interior pocket of her jumpsuit.

Imani took the envelope and dextrously split the glued flap with her gloved fingers.

She withdrew the stone paper from inside. A single sheet, folded closed.

Her eyes scanned over the contents quickly, and then stashed the letter in her coat.

She seemed far less interested in the letter– than in Homa herself.

Slowly, that playful smile from before faded back in over her once neutral expression.

“Ho~ma~”

She said the words in a too-sweet singsong voice.

“Yes. I believe this can work Ho~ma~. Indeed, indeed.”

Was she talking to herself? Homa couldn’t tell where the conversation was going.

For a moment, Imani tilted her head toward the guard post.

“Hey, dumbass. This girl is with me. You scared the fuck out of her. Apologize now.”

From the hidden speakers on the guard’s box, Homa heard the guard’s trembling voice.

“Y-Yes ma’am. Acknowledged. Ms. Baumann– I’m terribly sorry. Won’t happen again.”

“You’d better show her outstanding customer service from now on.”

She didn’t have to say more. They all felt it. From the dreadful glare she was directing at the box, the threat was implicit. Homa almost imagined that she had said ‘I’ll kill you,’ ‘I’ll torture you,’ ‘you’re a dead man’ after each of those sentences. It seemed like the natural extension, and it felt like a form of cruelty to withhold the obvious. But Imani looked delighted with the response from the guard.

When she turned back to Homa, she was all smiles again.

“Ho~ma~ heh, what a cute name.” She leaned into Homa again, but not as close as before. Homa tried not to breathe in the smell. What was it anyway? It smelled like the inside of a hospital. “I asked Arabie,” Imani continued casually, “if she had an urchin with connections to a private dock, so we could have a firm hand in Kitty McRoosevelt’s scheming. After our arrangement, I surreptitiously worked to have her land in B.S.W to keep an eye on her. I never expected to get such an interesting specimen in return though. Yes, I’m interested in you. Homa, from now on, you’re working for me, okay? Kitty McRoosevelt is a dangerous terrorist and has done many misdeeds in Eisental. I am afraid she might be plotting her worst attack yet. With your help, however, we can save Kreuzung Station from another catastrophe.”

“Ma’am–?”

She saw it again– those red glinting eyes that stared as if right through her.

What was it that Imani Hadžić was seeing through those eyes that interested her this much?

Madame Arabie had made it sound like she would be Imani’s gopher for a bit, which was an ordinary task for Homa, but she didn’t expect Imani to get so handsy. Her entire demeanor was terrifying. Her presence was so heavy, so morbid, but Homa barely understood where those feelings were coming from. She tried to be rational, to return to her own motivations. She needed to stay good with Madame Arabie, and she wanted money, whether Hadžić’s, Arabie’s or even that Madiha character’s money–

–and even more than that, the word terrorist began ringing around in her brain.

Joining the expanse of black, mottled with colors, that had overtaken her emotions.

There really was some catastrophe brewing in the station.

And if it hit, maybe Homa wouldn’t even survive it this time.

She didn’t think Imani Hadžić was a good or heroic person at all. She was a soldier, and in Kreuzung, the soldiers had been beating and killing people weeks ago in order to “restore order” and “prevent a catastrophe.” Homa had no sympathy for that kind of wanton terror. But if she could help Imani to keep things from escalating to that point, then maybe such an action could be called heroic.

There was another voice, that Homa didn’t want to acknowledge.

Because it felt childish, and simple, the thinking of a kid when she needed to be an adult.

However– she did, distantly, think that this would be adventurous, exciting

“What do you say, Ho~ma~? Would you be willing to help me– or–?”

Imani Hadžić was not going to give her a choice, anyway.

Homa saw it written in her face. She was already Imani’s puppet, she was destined to be.

But she wasn’t going to do it for nothing.

“Ma’am, I’ve been promised a lot of payment and gotten none. I need a guarantee.”

“Oh? How bold of you. Trying to extort something upfront? My, my, my–”

Imani’s fingers suddenly darted to Homa’s cheek. She thought she would be slapped–!

Instead, however, they simply patted on the edge of her jaw and sat there, holding her.

“–You’re lucky that you’re a Shimii. Or at least, half one.”

Her disdainful, icy gaze locked on to Homa’s own.

“If I didn’t have a soft spot for you, that would have been a slap. Little~ Ho~ma~”

She drummed her fingers on Homa’s cheek. Homa remained speechless in her grasp.

“I– I need money for my rent. It’s coming up. Otherwise I’ll be kicked out.”

It took all her strength to speak despite the smothering, invisible weight around Imani.

But Homa spoke up. She tried to meet Imani’s icy gaze with determination.

For a moment, she realized Imani’s eyes were two different shades of icy blue.

Among the Shimii, this was exceedingly rare. Mismatched eyes.

As rare as Homa’s mutant tail– but viewed as beautiful rather than shameful.

Imani Hadžić was not only a full-blooded Shimii, she was an exceedingly rare kind.

“That’s it? That’s such a humble request. It’s so cute. Sure. I’ll pay your rent. Personally.”

Imani drew back, crossing her arms and giggling.

“Ma’am–?”

Personally? Why did she emphasize that?

“But maybe I’ll use your address to come bug you too~ we’ll see!”

Oh no–

Before Homa could object or respond, Imani reached into her coat and procured a second handset portable of the same model as the one she had been using before. It was a trendy new model, handheld with a slate form factor, jet black with a crisp touchscreen. If Madame Arabie was 15 years younger she might have been glued to a device like this. It fit perfectly in one’s hands, could go into any pocket, but it had the same computing potential as a normal portable terminal or room computer connected to the station’s network. Homa had seen them advertised around the pavilion shopping center.

Nonchalantly, Imani handed to Homa ten thousand marks worth of tech.

“I’ll contact you through this whenever I need you. I’m not clingy, I don’t expect you to twist into a knot to call me back or answer my mails immediately, but if I don’t hear from you within the same day, I will camp out at your apartment and get answers personally. Fair warning not to leave me hanging.”

“What? I can just have this–? Ma’am, this– this is really expensive–”

“Yeah. You’re welcome. Take good care of it. Don’t lose it– or pawn it or anything.”

“I wasn’t going to! So to be completely clear, I can just keep this, to talk to you?”

“You can use it to watch videos or play games or whatever too. I don’t care.”

Homa blinked, looking down at the handset’s black LCD with confusion.

“I’m– I guess I’ll give it a go? Um. Thanks ma’am. This is– a lot more than I expected.”

“Uh huh. Anyway. I’ll call or mail you when I need you. We’ll talk about your rent later.”

She turned sharply around, waving her hand behind herself.

Homa could still see that grin, clear as day, still right in front of her.

That was how fast, how confidently, she dismissed her.

“Take care, my~ little~ Ho~ma~,” she laughed, as the black jaws of the gate shut behind her.

Leaving Homa paralyzed for a moment, still processing the wind that had swept her up.


By the time Homa had walked all the way back to Tower Eight from Laurentius, it was night again, and she wouldn’t have time to go food shopping. However, because she had eaten with Madame Arabie yesterday, she still had beef cube lonac in the morning, and could have more of it when she returned. Then tomorrow, she could set her bone marrow lonac to cook and have it for dinner.

She did not usually meet anyone on the way back to her apartment, but coming back this late at night, two nights in a row, made her feel a bit lonelier. There was nothing to be done about it, however. Homa had no friends, a generational difference to almost all of her coworkers, and was foreign enough, weird about gender enough, and secular enough, that she didn’t feel comfortable going to the mosque, or hitting the clubs. She worked, and she ate– her only hobbies were just reading fantasy stories, which was hard to do on the walls of her room, and sports, particularly waterjet racing, which were cancelled.

From her pocket, she withdrew the slate Imani Hadžić had given her. It was nice to have a portable.

When she graduated from vocational school, they took the terminal she got loaned for studying.

And Shimii weren’t allowed to withdraw anything from Core Station lending libraries to take home.

Maybe she would spend her days off playing with this portable. Figure out the games and such.

It’d be easier to read books on it too. She could pick up reading The Coral Knight again.

As soon as she returned to her home, she threw off all her clothes on the floor and jumped into bed. She would have to get up soon to eat and shower, but she had been walking for so long and she needed to relax. That cool comfort of her room’s climate control, the LED clusters overhead, the stale scent of metal around her, it brought her relief. She was home, she was safe. No more walking. No work.

She lifted the portable in both hands, holding it over her eyes. Her mind drifted off.

Kitty McRoosevelt, the terrorist. Madame Arabie, the gangster. Imani Hadžić, the cruel and dark soldier. Homa Baumann, the noble knight, caught up in the whirlwind of events. Her exhausted mind drifted off into little fantasies of this. Her pure heart standing determined against evil; but aside from fantasy, she felt no emotions. In that moment, she was not shaking, and the stress had passed her by. She felt fear when she was in the presence of some bigshot. But in her room, everything was eerie, normal.

Out there, outside her door, there was some kind of plan in motion.

In here however– well, wasn’t that always the case?

Homa was not an esteemed knight involved in some quest. She was just some kid.

Shimii had no knights. They lived in the shadows of the Imbrians’ wars and upheavals.

Things just happened to them. They did not have the power to be involved.

“Ugh. Quit thinking about that big brain stuff. You’ll go insane, Homa Baumann.“

She rolled over on her side, toying with the portable, her tiny tail wiggling what it could.

“I’m gonna pick up the Coral Knight where I left off this instant.“

A dose of pulp heroics would do wonders for her mood–

Then as she began to feel cozy and relaxed, the portable lit up suddenly in front of her face.

She saw a portrait appear on the display and a recognized name to match the face: Imani Hadžić.

Homa fumbled with the portable, sat up, put it to her ear; heart gripped instantly in fear.

“Oh good.” Imani’s tinny voice sounding from the portable. “You’re awake, Ho~ma~”

That little drawn-out singsong rendition of her name again. “Um, officer Hadžić, ma’am–?”

“Eww, don’t call me that. Homa, you are to call me ‘Imani’ at all times from now on, okay? Anyway. We’re going on a date. Meet me in Kreuzung, G3 Block, Tier 8, tomorrow at 9 o clock sharp. The block is called ‘Ballad’s Paradise’ if that makes it any easier to find it. Wear something decent, okay?”

Homa felt like someone had taken a mallet to her chest. “A– um– uh– a date?”

“Uh huh. You ever been on one? Don’t worry. I’m the kind of girl who takes the lead if she has to. You just show up and look nice next to me, okay? It’s a really nice place I’m taking you, expensive too.”

“Um. Imani. With all due respect– why are we going on a date?”

She heard a loud and clear and extremely dismissive scoff on the line.

“It’ll be super fun and you’re gonna love it. C’mon, it’s the last day off I’m gonna have in a while.”

Homa heard a softly ringing noise as Imani suddenly disconnected.

Surprised, she lifted the slate from her ear, stared at the screen in disbelief.

A moment later, a little banner on the screen notified her of a message.

Homa flicked her finger at the banner–

And found a mail, consisting of nothing but a black heart, sent by Imani Hadžić.

She fell back down to the bed, the slate slipping out of her fingers.

Up from her chest, she lifted a hand and set it over her eyes.

Homa drew in a deep breath, filling her lungs.

In silent awe and growing exasperation of the capricious witch she was involved with.

“What have I gotten myself into? She better fucking pay my rent.”

So much for all the adventure and mystery. This really was her life now.

Of course, there was no choice. Not with this woman– not with any part of it.

She was someone who things happened to. Not someone who could do anything.

So then– now the only question was, what would Homa even wear?

To her date tomorrow. With Imani Hadžić.


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