The Moon Under The Mountain
The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.
Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.
Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.
This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.
Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.
Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Force had to overstretch themselves.
Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Royal Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.
Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.
Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.
Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.
The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.
Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.
Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.
Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.
Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.
Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.
There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea and Sverland to Bosporus. This natural barrier was known as the Khaybar Mountain Range and separated the Empire’s western and southern polities from the eastern and northern ones. What was now the “mountain” was believed to have once been a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.
Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.
The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.
Khaybar was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.
Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.
In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.
PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.
This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.
Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.
The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.
The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.
Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.
“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”
Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.
On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.
“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”
The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.
Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.
Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.
And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.
It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.
Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.
Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.
Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.
Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.
For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.
On every one of the ships, there was a mark.
A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.
“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”
Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.
It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.
One man among the Bosporans spoke up.
“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”
His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.
Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.
“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”
He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.
An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.
Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years or so.
Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?
If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.
Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.
Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.
Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.
There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.
“As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”
The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.
Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.
Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.
Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.
A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.
Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.
The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.
Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.
There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.
That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.
“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”
“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.
She laughed in response. “As you wish!”
Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.
“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”
“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”
“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”
They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.
She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.
For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.
Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarian’s symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.
Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.
One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.
Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.
Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.
“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.
Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”
Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.
“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.
Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.
“Are you a Katarran?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.
“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”
Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.
Batyrov was sure she must have been a Katarran Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.
He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.
“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”
Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.
Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.
Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.
“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”
The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.
Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.
Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.
No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.
Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.
“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”
Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.
Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.
He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.
Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.
At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.
“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.
“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”
“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”
“Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”
“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”
“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”
Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.
Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.
He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.
Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.
“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”
Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.
“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.
He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.
A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.
He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.
It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.
“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”
Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.
Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.
It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.
Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.
“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”
She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.
“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”
“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.
“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.
“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”
“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”
Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.
“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”
“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.
Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.
“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”
“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.
“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.
She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.
In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.
He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.
Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?
He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.
“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.
“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.
Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.
“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”
Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”
“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”
He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.
“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.
“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.
Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”
“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”
“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”
Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.
“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.
“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.
“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”
He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.
It did not work too well.
“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”
Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.
“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”
They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.
Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.
There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.
Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.
The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.
“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.
Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.
As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.
They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.
Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.
She smiled, and continued walking.
Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.
“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”
“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.
There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.
“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.
“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.
“Look over there.”
Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.
Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.
On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.
Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.
“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.
He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.
Majida gave him a strange look.
Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.
“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”
She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.
He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.
This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.
People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.
After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.
There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.
Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.
She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.
“Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”
The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.
By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.
Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.
Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.
When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.
In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.
Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.
“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.
“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.
“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.
“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”
Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.
“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”
“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”
From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.
Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.
“Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.
Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.
“Don’t do that.”
He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.
“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”
“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”
Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.
He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.
“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.
She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.
Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.
Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.
Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.
Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.
Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.
Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.
After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.
“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”
Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.
All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.
“Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”
Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.
“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”
The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.
“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.
“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.
Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”
“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”
“Of course.” Majida replied.
“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”
Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.
The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.
Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”
And so, the Bosporans ate.
Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.
“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.
“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.
“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.
“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”
Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”
Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.
She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.
After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.
“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”
Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.
“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.
“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.
While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.
However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.
“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”
“I understand.” Batyrov said.
Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”
“I mean– yes, of course.”
Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.
“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.
All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.
“Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”
“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”
“Good. It’s easier that way.”
Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.
“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”
She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.
“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”
Majida’s voice grew impassioned.
Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.
Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.
They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.
“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”
That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.
“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”
“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.
“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”
Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.
The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.
Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.
“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.
“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”
“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”
Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”
Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.
“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”
“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”
“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”
Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.
Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.
Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.
Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.
“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”
Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.
“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”
“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”
“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”
“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”
Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.
“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”
Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.
“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”
Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.
“That’s all?” She asked.
In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.
“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”
Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.
“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.
“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”
“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”
Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”
“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.
“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”
“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”
Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.
“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”
“Of course.” Batyrov said.
This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.
Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.
“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”
Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.
“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.
Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”
“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”
Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.
It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.
“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”
“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.
“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”
Majida looked more amused than anything.
“Batyrov, this is pointless.”
Albescu spoke up.
“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”
Shapur agreed with him as well.
Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”
Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.
“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”
“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”
“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”
Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.
Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.
Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.
“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.
“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”
“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”
“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.
This was his final plea for an understanding.
Majida was not moved in the slightest.
“For the past fifty years, a wave of hatred toward the ummah has swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”
Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.
“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”
Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.
“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”
Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.
“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”
In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.
“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”
For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.
She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.
“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”
Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.
He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.
Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.
None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.
But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!
“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”
“She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”
Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.
“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”
Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.
Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.
“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”
There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.
Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.
“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.
Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.
“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”
“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.
“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”
He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.
“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”
Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?
From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.
“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”
“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.
Majida narrowed her eyes.
“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”
“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”
A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.
To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.
“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”
“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”
An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.
“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”
When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.
On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.
She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.
Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.
He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.
Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.
“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”
Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.
Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.
“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”
Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.
Her tail curled around one of her own legs.
“Bosporan, you had your chance.”
Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.
Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.
The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.
Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.
He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out. To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.
Vapor started to escape from their throats.
Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.
Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.
Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.
“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.
That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.
In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.
Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.
His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.
“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”
He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.
He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.
Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.
Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.
Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.
“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”
“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”
She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.
“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”
Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.
Her eyes then returned to their original color.
She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”
At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.
Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.
“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”
He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.
She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.
From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.
Then, he was taken away.
He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.
All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.
Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.
“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”
From behind another mask, a male voice this time.
Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.
These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.
“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”
She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.
Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.
Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.
The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.
Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.
That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.
Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.
He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.
“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.
Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.
“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”
Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”
“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”
He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.
Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.
When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.
“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”
Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.
Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?
“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”
He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.
On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.
There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.
“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.
That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.
He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.
“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”
“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”
“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”
“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”
Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.
He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.
But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.
Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.
Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.
This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.
“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”
On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.
Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.
He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.
When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.
Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.
He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.
One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.
A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.
“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”
While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?
Could she project a laser?
Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?
As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.
“Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”
Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.
“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.
Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.
Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.
He stepped up to face the side screen.
“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”
Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.
“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”
Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.
Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.
A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.
None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.
Majida raised a fist to the camera.
For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.
“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”
Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.
While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.
Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.
“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”
Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.
On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.
“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”
He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.
Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.
Two charged at her with melee weapons.
Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.
On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.
“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”
That confusion did not last long.
Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.
The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.
Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.
“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”
Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.
“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.
Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.
That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.
Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.
And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.
In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.
Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.
“What is happening?”
All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.
Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.
On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.
Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.
“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.
He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.
Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.
Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–
A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.
They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.
She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.
Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.
When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.
At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.
Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.
“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”
From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.
While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.
The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.
Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.
She thrust suddenly toward them.
Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.
“Is that– you’re shitting me!”
On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.
Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.
Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.
Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.
Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.
As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.
Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.
Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.
Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.
While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.
At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.
“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”
The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.
That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.
With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.
And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.
At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.
Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.
The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.
Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.
All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.
He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.
If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.
Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.
He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?
Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?
Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.
Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?
He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.
The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.
To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.
“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”
Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.
Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.
There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.
Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.
She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.
Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.
There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.
Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.
It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.
She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.
A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.
With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.
What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.
After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.
“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”
Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.
“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.
When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.
“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”
Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!”
She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.
A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.
“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”
With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.
Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.
The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.
“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”
Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.
There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.
At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.
Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.
“Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.
Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.
“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”
Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.
Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.
There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.
Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.
Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.
At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.
“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”
“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.
She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.
“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”
Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.
Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.
Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.
None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.
Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.
“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”
“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”
His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”
Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.
Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.