Thieves At The Port [5.9]

This scene contains graphic sexual content.

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

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

Her tone was more playful than it was stern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing bold or glorious about it.

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

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


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

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

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

She even let out a little cat-like purr.

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

“Captain!” She cried out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? A drink? What kind of drink?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second she took and raised to eye level.

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

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

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

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

“That was amazing.” Ulyana said.

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

“Want to go for seconds?”

“Going to have to stop you there.”

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

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

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

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

When presented with an awkward situation Ulyana would always smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine to keep that schedule.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sonya,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonya’s body reacted in a primal way.

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

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

“Sonya,”

A human hand reached out and caressed her cheek.

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

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

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

“Sonya,”

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

Everything went dark.

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you looking at?” Sonya shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, yes–”

“Maryam–!”

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

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

Maryam pulled off her blankets.

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


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

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

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

“Silence, gamer.”

Fatima al-Suhar sighed under her breath.

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

Instead she hunkered down and went to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It can’t be– It just can’t–”

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

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

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

Red lights started to flash as Fatima raised the alarm.

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

Semyon was the code phrase for the combat alert.

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

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

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

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

Nor that it had brought company.



Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.5]

Without fanfare good or ill, the Brigand finally entered Imperial waters by crossing the demarcation line set at the abandoned Cascabel station. A cylindrical pillar with ribbed sections, it was like an eerie sentinel, abandoned at its post on this empty borderland, watching the Brigand cross the rocky ocean between Ferris and Sverland. A field of pallid, plankton-eating stalks had taken over the sand banks that once hid defensive torpedo pods and cannon casemates defending this border. Bubblegum coral grew from the dismal patches of sand atop rocky, uneven surfaces making up the seafloor around Cascabel station.

Disparate groups of bioluminescent fish danced in the orifices of the hulking structure like flickering, ghostly lamps. A casualty of one of the final battles of the revolution, Cascabel was deliberately flooded to deny the nascent Union a useful forward base.

On the main screen, the crew was entertained by the first landmark they’d seen in days.

“Magnificent. What a sophisticated aura!” Fernanda said.

“It’s just a creepy hunk of metal.” Alex added.

“You know, they say that when the Empire flooded Cascabel, the souls of all the men and women who died defending it were anchored to the structure and could never rise out of the Ocean.” Semyonova said suddenly. “Even to this day, they are trapped, wandering the flooded halls. Illegal scrappers from both sides of the DMZ have gone missing in the station’s depths.”

She waited with a serious expression for the response from her comrades.

“Wait? What the hell? Really?” Alex asked.

“Such foul things do transpire within abandoned stations.” Fernanda said.

“Foul things? Do you mean the ghosts or the smuggling?” Alex asked.

“Apparitions and banditry are both within the purview of ‘lost places’.”

“So you also believe in ghosts? Fucking ghosts?”  

“Hah! Do you disbelieve in the power of the great beyond? Living under the Ocean?”

Framing it that way made Alex hesitate, like there was something she missed. “I–”

Before Alex could continue, Helmsman Kamarik butted in with a groan.

“All of you need a serious brain checkup if you believe that crap.” He said.

“Another philistine discovered.” Fernanda said.

Her inflection carried a certain sadistic delight.

“I’m just being practical.” Kamarik said. “If I can’t hold it in my hands, it’s not real.”

“Aw, come on y’all.” Semyonova said. “I didn’t think y’all would take it so serious.”

“The work of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, is in all things, but this is verging on jinn talk.”

Fatima mysteriously spoke up at that point. Alex looked at her with a certain confusion.

“I feel like I didn’t understand half the things she said. No offense.”

“It’s Shimii religion.” Kamarik said. “I know a little about it. My name comes from it.”

“Are you a Shimii?” Alex asked, jokingly.

“Half.” Kamarik replied dryly.

Alex’s jaw dropped slightly. “Wait? What the hell? Really?”

“Yep.” Kamarik said mysteriously. He crossed his arms and nodded his head.

 Fatima looked suddenly mortified.

“Ah, I apologize. I did not intend to cause offense by suddenly bringing up my religion. It’s just a reflex, my father studied under a Mawla, a religious teacher of our people– ahh, I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. If you want to talk about jinn, I suppose I can try to keep out of–”

“Ahh, don’t worry Fatima! It’s not your fault, it really isn’t.” Semyonova said affably.

She reached out and patted the excessively apologetic Fatima on the shoulder.

“Jinn are evil spirits, right?” Kamarik asked. “I think I remember they’re bad.”

“Oh, yes.” Fatima said. “They are evil apparitions responsible for all dark works.”

“Well, I don’t believe in that either. All of you need to be more materialistic.”

“It’s materialist.” Alex said. “What you wanted to say is ‘materialist’, Abdul.”

“Oh dear, the gamer presumes to patronize us about language and the supernatural?”

Fernanda grinned and gently covered her mouth with the back of her hand.

From the Electronic Warfare station, Zachikova piped up suddenly.

“I believe in something I can’t hold in my hands — it’s called data.”

She grinned to herself. She looked like she must have felt incredibly clever.

Kamarik stared at her while Alex looked at him like she was trying to find something.

“Where do you keep the tail? Do you have one?”

“Huh?”

Above it all, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been put in charge of a zoo.

“What is this conversation? I feel like I’m getting dumber for having to listen to this.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara saw Ulyana with her face in her hands and reassured her.

“This kind of banter is important for a crew, Captain. It forges stronger bonds.”

She spoke just low enough for their conversation to be private.

“I feel like they’re forging some pretty stupid bonds down there.” Ulyana said.

“The Brigand’s crew is…eccentric. But sailing is sailing. You must have seen this before.”

“My old crews used their inside voices a little more in the presence of Nagavanshi.”

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled a bit. “Was the Commissar-General that frightening?”

“How can you have worked with her and ask that? She’s a demon.” Ulyana said.

 “I guess I never worked with her closely. I, personally, believe in having an open bridge.”

She looked proud, as if she had said something of great meaning just then.

Ulyana grinned. “Okay, well, do you believe in ghosts or jinn or whatever?”

“Unlike a lot of Shimii I’m a dedicated atheist. So no, I don’t believe in such things.”

Aaliyah gave the Captain a look as if she were annoyed by having the banter raised to her.

“Then how do you think all those stories Semyonova brought up attain cultural purchase?”

“Cascabel is in disrepair and dangerous. Scrappers probably just die in it because of this.”

“You know, that’s actually a very practical explanation. Nevermind this nonsense then.”

Ulyana sat back in her chair, stretching her arms. Aaliyah shook her head gently.

“Okay, so then what do you think about video games, Commissar Bashara?” Ulyana said.

 “We don’t need to reproduce their banter, Captain.” Aaliyah said with a bit of growl.

“Well, if it’s good enough for down there, isn’t it fine here too?” Ulyana winked.

Aaliyah turned a little red and glared at her. “Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean? I need it explained in strictly materialist terms.”

“Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya–” Another low growl, this time through teeth.

And now full name and rank was coming out. Ulyana staggered, sensing a sudden danger.

Thankfully, the absolute chaos that had overcome the bridge was soon interrupted.

“Captain! Sensors are picking up trace long-wave radiation — might be an E.L.F message.”

Extremely Low Frequency was one of the few forms of long distance wireless messaging available underwater.

Massive antennae buried in Solstice could send these messages through any amount of water out to extremely long ranges.

But the throughput was abysmal — it was text only, and character-limited.

Fatima shouted up to the Captain. Besides sonar, her station had access to the sensor array.

“I can confirm! I’m capturing and deciphering as we speak!” Semyonova added.

Ulyana was taken aback. She had not expected official communication this soon.

“Send it up to me when it’s done! If it’s HQ this soon, it must be urgent.” She said.

“E.L.F. message received, decrypted, and sent to your station, Captain!”

Semyona turned around and did a happy little salute. This was the first official message from HQ she had transferred as the Brigand’s chief of signals, a milestone on any maiden voyage.

Ulyana smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, turned her computer screen sideways.

Using the arm that was attached to her seat, she was able to angle it for herself and Aaliyah.

“Can you read it?” She asked her Commissar.

Aaliyah blinked. She leaned forward on her seat to look at the Captain’s screen.

“Yes, I can but– do you need my help? Are you having trouble reading it?”

“Oh, not at all. I just want you to be part of this discussion also.”

“I see.”

Aaliyah looked confused. Ulyana wondered what her previous ships must have been like.

Nagavanshi practically demanded to be shown every message. She was very hands-on.

In time, Ulyana came to see it as a resource, a form of help, rather than a hindrance.

So it made sense to let Aaliyah be part of these situations from the start.

“Alright, let’s see–”

Ulyana read the message, printed in four short lines of text.

HOSPITALITY ORDER.

VIP IN SERRANO.

DOCKMEN FRIENDLY.

WAREHOUSE 6.

“Looks like we’re being asked to dock in Serrano to pick up a passenger, who will be with us for the journey, if I’m parsing this right. I’m a little taken aback honestly.” Ulyana said. “It’s not as if we don’t have extra supplies. Sailing is all about being frugal and planning for the worst. But as far as picking up a VIP, don’t you think we’d just put them in danger, Commissar?”

Aaliyah read the message and nodded her head. “We would not be able to guarantee their return from this journey. However, if we’re being asked to do this, it must be because they have information pertaining to anti-Imperial resistance efforts. Otherwise it would be truly pointless.”

“I wonder how they contacted the Union.” Ulyana said. “What’s the time frame here?”

“Our spy networks have their ways. I think it’s realistic they could have gotten a message out and arranged for asylum; especially since the Empire has apparently been on shaky grounds for a few weeks now. Before the Emperor was dead, he was dying, and I’m sure his retreat caused the Empire’s guard to slacken.”  Aaliyah replied. “At any rate. Orders are orders. We must go to Serrano.”

“We were going there anyway. It’s a place that it makes sense to start getting information about the Empire. I know there’s tons of smuggling that happens there, some of it to the Union. I was posted at an Agri-Sphere once that got smuggled cattle from the Empire through Serrano. And if the dockworkers are ‘friendly’ it would behoove us to get in contact with them.”

Ulyana ran a hand through her blond hair and tossed it. She had worn it long that day.

She sighed and bowed her head a little.

“You seem unsettled still, Captain.” Aaliyah asked. “You can tell me what’s wrong.”

Ulyana found herself thinking “why do YOU look fine with it?” after hearing that.

“We’ve been given a pretty tough job. Not just the whole ‘organize a bunch of people who may or may not exist to topple the Empire’ business. I’m more concerned with the day to day ‘keep one step ahead of thousands of Imperial Navy ships trying to kill us’ types of business right now.”

“None of those ships know our intentions or objectives. Right now, we’re invisible.”

“Right now; but how do we stay hidden forever? We only have to blow our cover once.”

“As a Commissar, I swore to trust and support you. You must trust yourself too, Captain. Being fearful won’t keep us safe. We have to move forward bravely to complete our mission.”

“True but being too brave will put us in danger. I’m worried we won’t see that line when we cross it. Being frank, I’m worried that I won’t see it. Under the water, ships see each other as noise first. I am afraid I won’t know when we’ve made enough waves to be seen by our enemies.”

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah in the eyes, a contact the Commissar briefly held.

Seeing the Captain being so honest, the Commissar could not just respond with barbs.

Aaliyah seemed to hesitate, but then reached out a hand to Ulyana’s shoulder.

“Have faith Captain. This is not your mission or only your life to lose. You’re not alone.”

“You’re right, as usual.” Ulyana sighed yet again. “You’re right, Commissar. I know it.”

“Don’t fret too much. You have me– our whole crew.” Aaliyah corrected herself quickly.

Ulyana was not so distracted that she wouldn’t notice something like that. She smiled.

“You’re right. With a top notch Commissar like you at my side, how could I lose?”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She sat back in her chair, then pulled her hat over her face.

“Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Good advice for all my anxieties, I suppose.”

Ulyana winked, but only because the frigid Shimii beside her would not have noticed.

More and more she felt very lucky to have Aaliyah Bashara at her side.


The Brigand received its first mission and left Cascabel behind.

Now in Imperial waters, the ship navigated carefully, remaining about fifty meters above the rocky sea floor and keeping a watch for incoming vessels. Since they were masquerading as a civilian vessel, silent running would have been quite suspicious, so no policies were set in place to regulate the sound of most human activity on the ship. What did have to be regulated was Diver maintenance and training, since the noises of heavy equipment would have been suspicious too.

Since the ship left Thassal station, the navigation computer had been keeping track of their position. Speed and heading and other kinds of navigational data were used by the computer to track the Brigand’s course on a slightly outdated Imperial map. In this way, Helmsman Kamarik always knew where they were and knew the way to their destination, at first Cascabel and now Serrano. This allowed them to retain the correct course even while astray in the Ocean wilderness.

“There’s this legend that people on the surface used to navigate by looking at the sky over the Ocean. You all know what the sky is right?” Kamarik said, turning back to the Bridge crew.

“It’s the heaven that’s far above the surface of the water.” Fatima said.

“That’s one way of looking at it I guess.” Kamarik said. “Anyway, you understand what it is. It used to be, people could look past the sky and see lights. You can even still do that — there’s been drone photographs of clear sky, full of lights. If you could survive up there, you could see the lights in the sky. And people used to navigate by looking at the groups of lights. Most of the sky isn’t like that anymore though, it’s just gas now, purplish thundering agarthic gas; but yeah.”

“I think I’ll trust the navigation computer over the ‘lights in the sky.’” Alex said bluntly.

“Duh, I wasn’t saying it was better!” Kamarik laughed. “I was just spinnin’ sailor tales.”

The bridge was riotous as ever. Their talents allowed them to keep that lively atmosphere.

One particular officer made an outsize contribution to that high morale during the journey.

Fatima proved herself worthy of having ‘golden ears.’ She was able to easily discern noisy civilian traffic, identify the models to the best of her knowledge even before the predictor could see them and she sounded no false alarms. Aaliyah had been correct about the state of the patrols. There were no military ships out on the hunt for Union vessels. Even beyond the Cascabel region, the only naval vessel they ran into after coasting past Cascabel was a single Maltier-class utility ship. Like every other ship, Fatima identified it quite easily and reported it calmly and promptly.

“Remarkable.” Captain Ulyana said. “Chief Petty Officer, you truly have splendid ears.”

Fatima’s black-furred, slightly curved cat ears gave the Captain a happy little twitch.

“Ahh, thank you Captain. I’m only sorry I was distracted for a moment and did not–”

“You truly have nothing to be sorry for.”

What an apologetic girl! She must have been maybe a millisecond off her own, already freakish idea of how quickly a sonar technician should detect and categorize hydrophone noise.

Aaliyah tapped the ecstatic Captain on the shoulder with a demure look on her face.

Her own ears gave a little twitch when acknowledged. Her face was a little bit flushed.

“Captain, I understand what you were saying, but to compliment a Shimii’s ears like that, it’s a bit embarrassing. It’s not exactly proper, you know. You must take care of what you say.”

“Hmm? Is it a cultural issue? Fatima did not look bothered. Her ears even wiggled.”

“You were saved by the context, and praise is all well and good, but decency must be–”

“Ah. I understand what’s going on. Don’t worry. You have lovely ears too, Commissar.”

“Captain! It’s different than when you talk about a Volgian’s ears. I am not joking!”

“How is it different?”

“It’s different! It’s just different!”

“Okay, okay. I’ll be more careful with my words. But you know, Nagavanshi never–”

“I am not Nagavanshi. You would do well to get used to me and stop bringing her up.”

“Ah, I’m so sorry. I will do my part to recognize and praise you for your unique merits.”

“This is not about that at all. This is not one scintilla, one iota, one whit, about that!”

Even the Captain and the Commissar expressed their high morale in their own ways.

Sverland used to be one of the “colonies” that the Empire founded after the expanding from the Imbrium. Due to its proximity to the imperial heartland, Sverland became a management hub for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s production. Unlike the territories that would become the Union, Sverland boasted a handful of actual cities, and the most southern of these was Serrano station, a commercial hub through which everything coming and going through Sverland seemed to end up.

A pillar-type Station of enormous size, Serrano’s base was set into a crater 1200 meters deep beneath the Ocean, while the highest point was at the 800 meter mark. There were three port structures, one at the base, one in the middle of the pillar and an exclusive covered dock at the very top. Fatima’s golden ears were overwhelmed around Serrano. There was a lot of traffic coming and going. There were perhaps a hundred large ships and many dozens of smaller, shorter ranged craft docked, docking, or departing from the station. In such a crowded scenario, the acoustic predictor was more efficient at analyzing the discrete models of ships around them than Fatima alone.

For the first time, the Brigand saw Imperial naval vessels. Small patrol cutters covered the waters starting half a dozen kilometers from the station. They could not tell that the Brigand was a Union vessel. As far as they were concerned it was an old hauler that resembled several of the merchant vessels frequenting the waters around Serrano. So while their first brush with Imperial patrols caused the Brigand’s crew to break a sweat, the cutters merely floated by without incident.

After meeting the smallest imperial ships, they soon met the very largest.

Anchored to the same lower dock that was their destination, there was a truly massive ship.

Gunmetal grey with an elegant, spoon-shaped prow and a sweeping chassis and fins.

“Irmingard class.” Ulyana said.

“You know it?” Aaliyah asked.

“When I was Captain of–” the Captain began to reply but paused briefly as if staggered for a moment by the bitter memory she recalled. “When I was part of the Pravda project, the reason we were making such a big dreadnought was that a defector from the Empire managed to make it to us with the early plans for the Irmingard class. This was like, seven years ago. All of the Union’s current dreadnoughts are more advanced than the common Koenig class that the Empire has kept around for decades. But we have nothing against the Irmingard class. Not after the Pravda sank.”

Aaliyah seemed to be able to tell the Captain’s mood had suddenly turned a bit foul.

She put on an expression of sympathy and laid her hand on the armrest of the chair.

Not touching the Captain, but offering some proximal physical support nonetheless.

“The Brigand might not be the Pravda; but it’s no common ship you’re Captain of.”

“Don’t try to console me about the Pravda.” Ulyana said bluntly. “Just ignore me.”

That Irmingard dreadnought, like every other Imperial ship, had no reason to fight them.

They would have to ensure it remained that way. Aaliyah did not press Ulyana any further.

As they approached Serrano station, Kamarik took on the task of getting them docked properly, while Semyonova was in charge of communicating with Station Control to report in their ship and be assigned a space in the port. Owing to the indifference of a port that saw massive amounts of money going in and out every hour, the Brigand was not scheduled for a search and needed no further identification to berth. Imperial ports were famously corrupt, and the Brigand could have easily bribed its way through. And so the Brigand slipped in under a steel sky, above an ocean floor turned white by bright floodlights. The lower dock was accessed through massive openings in the base of the station, and was mostly inhabited by dismal-looking cargo haulers. The Brigand requested access via a cargo unloading berth — a massive structure into which the cruiser-size ship would be clamped, locked into place, sealed, and the berth would then drain. Finally, they would employ their cargo elevator for access.

While this was transpiring, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara left the Bridge in Semyonova’s hands and assembled the squadron who would be handling their first mission within the station itself. In the strategic planning room, Zachikova, Shalikova and Murati had been called to assemble, along with Akulantova and Ensign Van Der Smidse, a member of the security team. She was a young, bright-eyed woman with a mischievous smile, wearing her blond hair in two long braids. She had an athletic figure but was completely dwarfed by Chief Akulantova.

“Murati,” Ulyana began, “You will lead Zachikova and Shalikova into the city to recover a refugee from ‘Warehouse Six’. This team was chosen because of your practical abilities — Murati has a track record as an excellent tactician and speaker, Shalikova has sharp eyes and hands and quick reflexes, and Zachikova has unique skills with computing and reconnaissance.”

“Unless something truly unfortunate happens, the authorities won’t have their eye on you. So be cautious and don’t give anyone cause to follow you or suspect you of anything.” Aaliyah added. “Zachikova will be in contact with us through encrypted radio, and with her unique talents she’ll be able to tell if there’s any heat coming down on you by monitoring the station network. We’ll have part of the security team patrolling the docks just in case you find unwanted friends.”

Akulantova smiled. “I’m going to stay here to help the Captain and Commissar. But I’ve assembled some of my people to guard the docks. Like this young lady, Klara Van Der Smidse; and another of my team, Zhu Lian, who is preparing equipment for us. I will station these two at the entrance to the docks. They can rush into the city to help if you need a distraction or cover or anything like that. Like the Captain said though, we’re hoping you’ll keep a low profile today.”

Upon being mentioned, Van Der Smidse put on an almost smug look.

She did not say anything, but her face showed she was quite pleased with herself.

Murati showed no outward concern upon being given her mission.

She did have questions, however.

“Wouldn’t it be better for the security team to fetch and protect the refugee?”

“Have some confidence in yourself Murati.” Aaliyah said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Besides that, the reason you’re going and not the security team is that we’re not setting out to shoot anyone or extract under fire.” Ulyana said. “We assembled a team to blend in, make their way through city overlooked in crowds, and peacefully meet up with our refugee. Then assess the situation and return safely. Our Security team is better put to use guarding our perimeter here.”

“I guess I understand when you pit that way. Are we taking any gear?” Murati asked.

“You’re not getting a weapon.” Ulyana said. She had a faint, bemused smile.

“I didn’t ask for a weapon. I just want to know what’s available.” Murati said. “Beside weapons, what about armor? What about barter items in case we need to negotiate for something?”

“Murati, they don’t do much bartering in the Empire.” Aaliyah said.

“You’d be surprised. Historically, in times of war, the value of currency–”

“You’re all supposed to be civilian workers with a transport company.” Ulyana interrupted, before Murati could get too far into her history lesson. “Logistics personnel aren’t usually carrying around much on a quick trip into town. If you need to negotiate money with anyone, it’s going to be in imperial marks, not seashells and whalebone. All the gear you get is Zachikova.”

Zachikova nodded her head. Shalikova glanced sidelong at her.

“How will we find the meeting place? Warehouse Six, you said?” Murati said.

“It’s likely in the city map. I’ll download it when we get outside.” Zachikova said.

“We’ll also be making contact with the dockworkers.” Aaliyah said. “When you work with ships and cargo, you get all kinds of information. I’m hoping I can catch up on current events and see if there’s anything interesting going on in Sverland specifically. If I learn anything useful about your situation in particular, I’ll tell the Captain and she’ll inform Zachikova right away.”

“Do we know anything about the refugee? How will I know it’s them?” Murati said.

“I’m sorry to say we don’t know anything. To be honest, we’ve been assuming it’s only one person, but reading E.L.F messages can be like astrology sometimes.” Ulyana said. “That’s why I’ll be in contact. Keep me appraised of the situation.”

“We also trust your judgment, Murati.” Aaliyah said. “As the first officer, Zachikova and Shalikova will follow your orders on the field. In fact, I’d prefer you limit contact with the Captain to avoid suspicions. Only do so in an emergency.”

Ulyana sighed as if she was afraid it might come to that.

Then, for a brief moment, everyone felt a faint vibration transfer from the floor.

“We’ll be fully docked into the station soon. Is there anything else on your mind?”

Ulyana addressed Murati, and the First Officer responded by saluting.

Murati had a smile on her face. She looked at ease.

“No, I think I understand everything. This should be nice and easy.” She replied.

Shalikova crossed her arms over her chest. Zachikova stared at Murati as if knowingly.

 “Any objections, you two?”

Murati turned from the Captain and Commissar to her fellow officers and team members.

“Of course I have no objections. Orders are orders.” Shalikova said bluntly.

“All things considered, I’d rather stay on the ship, but I’ll go.” Zachikova replied.

“Wow, so lively and full of enthusiasm.” Akulantova joked.

Van Der Smidse hid a small laugh behind her delicate fingers.

Shalikova threw a nasty glare at the too-affable security team member.

“I’m glad you’re all still lively.” Aaliyah said. “Murati, depart as soon as possible.”

“Yes ma’am. Will do. Thank you for choosing me for this mission.”

“Of course. It’s our first outing in Imperial waters, but I trust in every one of you.”

Ulyana stepped forward and shook hands vigorously with each of the team members.

“Bring that refugee back safe, and we can start taking the Empire down a peg. Dismissed.”

Everyone saluted. At least, the Brigand would enter the war-torn Empire and begin its quest.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

“We are now convening the first ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ on the Brigand.”

In the planning room of the Brigand’s command pod, a small group of officers gathered.

At the head of this meeting was Ensign Braya Zachikova, the Electronic Warfare Officer aboard the ship. She had been missing during the battle against ULV-96 since she was getting acquainted with the ship supercomputer at the time. Missing out on the glory did not seem to bother her at all: her response to being asked about it was to simply say, “Leviathans have no ECM capabilities.”

Zachikova was a distant young woman with a somewhat short and skinny figure. She had tawny brown hair tied into a single tail, which looped into a long, wavy spiral that was quite fantastic. This seemed to be the only point of vanity she allowed herself. Her face was rather expressionless, she used no makeup, and she wore her uniform to code.  Two metal antennae each about the width of her wrists adorned the sides of her head.

The agenda for the meeting was on a minicomputer she carried. When she set the minicomp down on the room table, she swiped the agenda text off her screen and directly onto the table screen for everyone to see. There were three particular items that she wanted to discuss with the group. Joining her in the room was Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, First Officer Nakara and an engineer, Gunther Cohen.

At that moment, the Bridge was led by Semyonova temporarily.

“Zachikova,”

Captain Korabiskaya sighed deeply and brushed her fingers through her blond hair.

“That was a placeholder name for the project. But you still called the meetings–”

“It doesn’t really matter what they are called, does it?” Zachikova asked.

She looked at the Captain quizzically, as if she really didn’t understand the issue.

Commissar Bashara shook her head. “Don’t get distracted, Captain.”

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

“Fine then. ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ indeed. Zachikova, report your findings.”

Zachikova nodded. “First, a brief explanation for Nakara and Cohen about the project.”

Before the Brigand was handed over to its eventual crew, to prevent any leaks of its secrets, the sailors, mechanics, engineers, and officers were given very limited information about the ship in the lead-up to departure. It was understood that when the ship was underway its crew would have access to the finer details of the ship’s functions and would have a one-week shakedown period in peaceful waters. This time would be used for training, tuning and organization to make up for the secrecy and lack of onboarding.

The Captain accepted these terms. Mainly because she had no other choice.

Despite being attacked by a Leviathan almost immediately after setting off, the Brigand’s crew got underway and began to get acquainted with the ship per their schedule. Almost as soon as they started to touch things on the ship, however, they ran into numerous curiosities about the Brigand’s design.

Immediately, Helmsman Kamarik found oddities in the ship’s propulsion. Zachikova found that the ship’s supercomputer had several gaps where something was soft-deleted but the data was not zeroed out and could not be written over until it was properly reclaimed. Geninov and -de la Rosa took some mechanics to inspect the backup firing solutions on their respective weapons systems and found some strange parts in the hull armor when they dug themselves into the casemates for the guns and the guts of the torpedo tube. Supply staff found an inventory of unmarked spare parts in the cargo hold with instructions on destroying them.

The Captain halted any destruction of those parts until further notice.

Various confusing design “innovations” of this sort started to pile up.

Captain Korabiskaya tasked Zachikova with investigating as much as she could by digging into the ship’s computers and working with the engineers and technicians. As they sailed, Zachikova used drones to inspect every nook and cranny of the outer hull, gathering data on the materials and construction of the ship. She ultimately concluded that the ship had various functions that had been dummied out in the software.

“Cohen, you were part of the Cheka project, and traveled with the Brigand before. Can you shed some light on this? What do you know about the Brigand’s development?” the Captain asked.

Gunther Cohen nodded his head. “So, I will say up front, I didn’t design anything on the Brigand, and none of the guys who did were in contact with me. I know that, before the Brigand became fully seaworthy, it was a different, bigger ship. I know I heard folks talking about how they ‘chiseled’ the current Brigand out of the ‘rock’ that was the older one. I couldn’t tell you what that means, and it’s just hearsay, but this is a pretty mysterious ship. However, I’m not surprised they dummied a bunch of stuff out in the software. That’s standard procedure for Union design.”

“Standard procedure? To install a ton of extra equipment and make it inoperable?”

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

“It probably saves on R&D, doesn’t it? It’s easier than physically ripping out mechanical systems that were not properly completed, and then having to restructure the ship’s guts for it.”

“Murati has the right of it. Projects like the Cheka and the Brigand are pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff, we were dreaming big, and then we had to temper our expectations. I can imagine for a piece of machinery as complicated as a ship once you have added certain mechanical systems it’s not easy to rip them out entirely if they’re buggy or just unfinished. Those extra jets, for example, are way easier to dummy out in the software than they are to remove and redo the whole stern.”

Commissar Bashara rubbed her chin with one hand, resting the elbow on the table.

“Zachikova, could you list the equipment you were able to account for that has no available software? I would like a clear picture of the kinds of things we are talking about.” She asked.

Nodding, Zachikova read from her minicomputer. “There are two retractable devices in the prow and two above the stern that appear defensive in nature. We know they have motors, actuators and what looks like an agarthicite lattice associated with them. There’s a vertical missile tube that can fit standardized tube drones, dummies, and chaff, but Geninov can’t launch anything out of it. There are two additional small jets, but they do nothing if Kamarik tries to engage them. These are only a few of the larger objects. There may be finer systems we haven’t accounted for yet.”

“This sounds like such a massive waste of engineering.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“I can understand your perspective as a soldier, you all want to have as many options as possible, but these things were dummied out for a reason.” Cohen said. “Already the Brigand is a bit of a patchwork and it was designed as a testbed for a particular capability and purpose. I think right now, we should stick to the basics of launching Divers out of it and supporting them.”

“Sometimes equipment that is dummied out is fully operational.” Zachikova said.

“That’s true, but we can’t know that here.” Cohen said. “Everyone who designed these bits is a high-level spook, too, I’m almost sure of it. I think we should leave it well enough alone.”

Zachikova turned to the Captain with something like determination in her eyes.

“Captain, Commissar, I must admit I am fascinated by these findings.” She said suddenly.

“So are we. Cohen’s points aside, though, almost everything on this ship is digital.” Captain Korabiskaya said. “So, if we don’t have software to run it, we can’t use it. Even if we can crawl someone through the ducts to that vertical missile tube, for example, they can’t launch anything.”

“Judging by your expression, Zachikova, you have an idea.” Commissar Bashara said.

Captain Korabiskaya stared at the Commissar and then at Zachikova in confusion.

Zachikova smiled for the first time. It was a small smile, but quite self-satisfied.

“You are right, Captain, that the Brigand is a digital being and we have no analog ways of using this equipment. It is conventional wisdom that for security purposes, it is not possible to write executable code to a ship’s supercomputer, so the ship’s crew can only use the included script and software bundles to carry out their tasks and can only perform minimal customization.”

“Wait. You’re insinuating that you can crack the computer?” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“Indeed. I can potentially edit back in some of the ship’s lost functionality, with time.”

Cohen looked terrified. “Ensign Zachikova, have you read a single treatise on engineering ethics? There’s a reason, other than security, that we don’t let people just write and execute code willy-nilly on ships. We’re supposed to be guaranteeing a certified, safe environment to work in!”

Zachikova turned her cold eyes on him. “Engineer Cohen, what if I told you I was a ‘spook’ myself at one point? That I was exactly the sort of unreachable, invisible person whose intentions you feared to probe? That where my actions were concerned, the ends justified the means, far above any regulation you could name?”

“Say what? Excuse me? Did everyone just process what this woman just said?”

The engineer looked to the Captain and the Commissar for support and found none.

“Zachikova was a ship saboteur in the Union Navy special forces.” Said the Commissar, calmly.

“I guess if anyone can crack something like this, it’s her. A very lucky personnel assignment.” Captain Korabiskaya smiled, perhaps a little nervously. Zachikova puffed out her chest with pride.

Cohen looked at them as if he could not believe what he was hearing.

Murati then raised a rather soft concern, in light of the other issues.

“Wait one minute though, how can you write executable code on a ship computer?”

Cohen tried to look to her for support as well, but as a soldier, she was also not opposed to the idea of trying to rehabilitate some of the Brigand’s more eccentric features. A piece of equipment was something to be mastered and perfected, both in the realm of strategy and logistics, and in development. They were owed full control and full power over this ship. She simply did not share Gunther Cohen’s passionate sense of the sanctity of workplace regulations. At least, not aboard an experimental military ship on a black ops mission.

Zachikova, of course, had an answer to Murati’s question.

“I found an exploit that would let me install software on Union ship computers.” Zachikova says. “In order to make it work, we need to briefly cut power to the computer, causing an unexpected shutdown and recovery. Normally only thin clients specifically mated to a ship are able to connect to its supercomputer. Those clients are knocked out when the supercomputer goes down. However, I am an independent, compatible device on the ship network, so I can exploit the recovery state to take unauthorized actions. I’ll install software to guarantee us continued, privileged access to the supercomputer so we can write our own code to it.”

She pointed to the two antennae on her head and demonstrated how she could remove one to expose a tiny serial port in her head, to which one might have connected networking or data cables. This port could connect computing devices directly to the mechanical parts of her brain, which had been cybernetically augmented. Cohen stared at it speechless, while the Captain and Commissar looked quite impressed with it.

“So you’ll use yourself as a computing device through which you can access the supercomputer. Interesting.”

Commissar Bashara seemed to understand the plan. Captain Korabiskaya looked a bit lost.

“Will you be okay, Zachikova? I’m not sure of the limitations of your brain implants.”

“I appreciate the concern, Captain. I will be fine. I’ve used my status as a living machine to great effect on missions before this one. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be on this ship otherwise.”

“You’re not a living machine, you’re a person, Zachikova. But I accept your reasoning.”

Zachikova looked indifferent to the Captain’s assurances of her humanity.

As the conversation developed, Cohen grew visibly more dissatisfied. “You asked me to come here to consult. My advice is, don’t do this. There is a world of problems with this!” He crossed his arms, seemingly offended.

“We value your input, Engineer Cohen.” Commissar Bashara said. Her tail stood straight and her voice and expression both grew stern. “However, this ship is not a collective farm. You were asked to advise us and we have listened to your advice. We have a mission, and our mission is led by a dictatorship. The Captain and I appear to agree about this course of action. We need all the power we can get. Zachikova, you will prepare the cracking software. We’ll work with you on a window of time to execute it. Then we’ll explore our options with each individual customization. We will be careful with them, and we will be as responsible as we are able.”

“Those devices were removed for our own good. But you’re right; it’s your decision.”

Cohen sat back and turned his head as if he were wiping his hands clean of this business.


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara headed to the bridge to set up a window for them to cut power to the computer to crash it. All of the ship had to be informed about the shutdown and to take a break until this task was accomplished. As they walked to the lab, Zachikova worked on her minicomputer.

From her jacket she withdrew a memory stick, worn and scratched, a sticker peeled off it.

“Is that the program you need?” Murati asked.

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

“Were you issued that, or did you make it yourself?”

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

She might have taken it with her after leaving the special forces. Maybe not fully reported.

Murati did not pry any further. It would not have been fair to Zachikova.

“I wanted to thank you for your work in proposing this to the Captain.” She said.

“Well, I’m glad at least the people who matter were happy with my presentation.”

Zachikova spoke in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone without a shred of doubt or hesitation.

“It may sound sentimental, but I respect your expertise. I trust you; because of your record.”

Everyone else had made such a big deal of Zachikova’s past in the Special Forces. Had it been her, Murati would have definitely felt ostracized by those kinds of comments. Zachikova was her peer. She had kept quiet at the meeting, but she wanted Zachikova to know she had support among her peers.

For her part, however, Zachikova did not acknowledge her intentions whatsoever.

“How do you feel about the special forces, Lieutenant?”

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

She thought of what she knew about them: they handled critical missions, against external and internal threats. Asset protection, targeted liquidation, reconnaissance, sabotage, espionage. They were accountable to the internal security directorate and not formally part of the Navy. Training for the special forces was heavy, and it required a certain temperament to get approved for them. Or at least that was what Murati learned about them in her time writing papers about the military for the Academy.

She knew, basically, what they were and what they did — but how did she feel about them?

“I trust that your unit fulfilled its duty. Like all of us you worked to protect the Union.”

Even if she did not know exactly what Zachikova had done, Murati wanted to trust her.

Zachikova glanced sidelong at Murati in response. She put on a tiny little grin.

“I see. You would be really dangerous in the special forces, Murati Nakara.”

Murati waited for Zachikova to elaborate on that point, but she never did.

Zachikova stuck the memory stick into her minicomputer and connected to it via the serial cable on her left antennae. On the computer, the ordinary GUI for Union thin clients was taken over by a shell that was running a series of commands, scrolling through diagnostic text much faster than Murati could figure out. With that device plugged into her antennae, the hazy way her eyes looked while staring down at the screen, she really did look almost mechanical. When her eyes glanced sidelong at Murati once more, she briefly saw tiny digits flitting across them. They must have been cybernetic, like the antennae.

Most sufferers of Hartz syndrome needed both the antennae and the eye implants together.

She was not a machine, however. She was a person. Murati held firmly to that.

“You definitely joined this mission because you have a self-righteous streak, Murati Nakara. As for me, I just want a challenge.” Zachikova said, almost to herself. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Did I give such a bad impression? I won’t judge you. What matters is that you’re here.”

No response from the Electronic Warfare officer. She became immersed in her work.

Murati felt mildly anxious about whether Zachikova appreciated or disdained her kindness toward her.

At the meeting she had called herself a machine. Did she really believe that?

They had barely met; Murati resolved to give it some time.

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

Beyond the common areas of the ship was the Science & Observation section, closer to the tail of the ship and directly plugged into the conning tower — a ship’s “top fin” that contained a multitude of sensors, cameras, and other equipment. Through the sliding doors, the first object in Murati’s sight was the ship’s tree. Encased in a habitat and attended to using drone arms controlled from the outside, the tree was almost as tall as the room with a vast, beautiful green crown that brushed against the confines of the hermetic glass in which it was kept. Like many Union trees it was planted on a black mound — a combination of synthetic soil, heritage soil that was brought to the Union’s agrispheres by the Empire, and soil extracted from continental caves.

That tree would provide some of their fresh oxygen, but it was mainly symbolic.

Even under the Ocean, after the catastrophe, surface life continued to struggle. Humanity was part of this.

Arrayed around the tree in the center was the laboratory equipment. Each station had a different purpose that would have been better understood by a science officer. There were centrifuges, containment cells for biohazardous material, burners, dessicators, evaporators, distillation equipment, all manner of glasses; a few more mysterious devices like a “vacuum oven,” a “particle accelerator” and an “ultraviolet chamber” among others. In the rear of the room was a nondescript box about the size of a locker turned on its side, containing the supercomputer and an array of cooling racks and heat sinks that looked almost like an art station.

Along the sides of the room were the agri-units, one growing mushrooms, a second growing spinach and a third housing a bubbling vat of modified yeast, which would be turned into patties. These units could provide some of the ship’s fresh food needs. They could not feed the entire crew, but they could make sure the entire crew could have a bite or two of fresh food regularly, rather than relying entirely on their packed supplies.

“Murati! You came over! I can’t believe it took this long for my hubby to pay a visit!”

Managing of all this equipment was the task of the Science Officer, Karuniya Maharapratham.

Seeing Murati, she rushed to the entryway and threw herself into Murati’s arms.

Unprepared to have to catch her fiancé, Murati nearly fell over with her.

Karuniya nuzzled herself against Murati with a big grin on her face.

Murati held her, like Karuniya clearly desired, but let a tired sigh while doing so.

“We see each other every day. We live together!” Murati then cried out.

“You think that’s enough attention for a maiden in full bloom? What a frigid husband!”

“I don’t even know where to start with that!”

“You should start by giving me a big kiss, hubby–”

Murati turned her face away with a big grin, making a show of denying Karuniya attention.

For a moment, Karuniya put on a shocked face in response.

“In the first place, I’m a woman, I don’t know where this husband business came from–”

“Women can be husbands! And cold and mean as the river Cocytus! As you demonstrate!”

“Being called frigid and mean really puts me in the mood to indulge my needy fiancé.”

“Stop casting me as the villain. If you took better care of me, I wouldn’t be like this.”

For a moment, the pair indulged in this sort of teasing as if in their own little world.

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

Murati could not help but smile, a bit bashfully. Being a “husband” was kind of charming.

After indulging in their aura of cohabitation, the pair suddenly realized they had company.

At their side, Zachikoya briefly looked up at them from behind her minicomputer.

Just as quickly, she went back into hiding behind the screen.

“Ah, sorry Zachikova.” Murati felt her heart sink with embarrassment. “This is Karuniya Maharapratham, the Science Officer. We’re getting married, and she gets carried away a lot–”

“You were playing along too.” Karuniya said, narrowing her eyes at Murati. She reached out a hand to try to be friendly, but Zachikova was not in the mood. As soon as Karuniya reached out, she had already walked past them toward the back of the room, headed for the supercomputer.

“Let me know when the Captain authorizes the shutdown.” She said, waving her hand.

As she disappeared behind the tree, she did not even glance at them once over her shoulder.

Karuniya crossed her arms and put on a petulant expression in response to the snub.

“What’s her problem?”

Murati sighed, rubbing her temples. She was so mortified she had begun to sweat.

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

“Whatever. I don’t care.” Karuniya was clearly mad. “So, what are you here for then?”

Murati almost considered trying to tease her, but her mood was simply too oppressive.

“Zachikova is going to do some work on the supercomputer.”

“Uh huh, this isn’t surplus junk at a station plaza, you know. What can she even do to it?”

“Apparently a lot. The Captain authorized it, so don’t worry about the finer details.”

Karuniya shrugged. “I haven’t done any important work on it anyway, so go right ahead.”

“I would’ve thought you’d have more to do than me.” Murati said, commiserating.

While Murati was completely idle, being a combat soldier without any combat or training to do, Karuniya was a scientist. She had drones and sensor tentacles and other equipment at her disposal to collect samples at any point. And she had other responsibilities too: her lab housed the ship’s tree and the agri-units.

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

“We’re still in the Nectaris. Cascabel’s waters aren’t really any different from the Union’s. Once we’re deeper into Sverland and even the Imbrium, I’ll have research worth doing, samples to collect and all of that. Until then I’m just looking after the nitrogen levels on the tree and looking forward to my next meal.”

“Remind me to lend you one of my mixtapes. I can really waste away the hours to those.”

Karuniya perked up a little. She laughed gently with Murati. “I guess that’d help a little.”

On one of the monitors in the lab, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara appeared.

“Alright, we’ve given her a window! Make sure she’s okay, Murati.”

“Copy.” Murati said. Karuniya saluted alongside her.

At the appointed hour, the pair of them stood by as the supercomputer went down.

There was really nothing to see.

Zachikova sat next to the supercomputer housing, plugged into it with one antenna and her minicomputer with the other. She had a placid, glassy-eyed stare as if sleeping with her eyes open. She was like that for twenty minutes. At one point, Karuniya kneeled beside her and pressed her hand to the girl’s chest to confirm a heartbeat and breathing. She was perfectly alive and fine, but her consciousness was somewhere else.

Finally, Zachikova moved. She unplugged herself from the computer and shook her head.

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

One of the monitors in the lab graphically glitched for a second then began to display a horrid looking line of text that seemed to have been constructed out of graphical assets normally used for the UI on ship programs, like the cute swirls on the corners of the screen, and the stylized buttons, but chopped up into bits and pieces.

It read: “80085”

“Boobs?” Karuniya shouted, her jaw hanging in disbelief.            

Zachikova smiled.

“Perfect. Tell the Captain we’re in business.”


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

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

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

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

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

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

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

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

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

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

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

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

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

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

It did not work too well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

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

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

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

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

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

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

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

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

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

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

“Look over there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida gave him a strange look.

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

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

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

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

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

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t do that.”

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

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

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

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

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

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

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

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

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

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

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

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

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

“I–”

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

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

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

“Of course.” Majida replied.

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

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

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

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

And so, the Bosporans ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

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

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

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

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

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

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

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

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

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

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

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

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

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

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

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

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

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

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

Shapur agreed with him as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click.

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

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Yisim albadan.”

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

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

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

Majida narrowed her eyes.

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

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

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

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

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

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

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

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

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

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

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

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

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

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

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

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

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

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

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

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

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

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

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

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

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

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

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

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

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

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

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

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

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

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

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

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

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

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

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

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

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

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

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

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

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

Could she project a laser?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stepped up to face the side screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

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

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

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

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

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

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

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

That confusion did not last long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is happening?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

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

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.7]

“Victoria, what are you talking about?”

Elena hardly knew what to say, think or do.

Amid the trees of Vogelheim, suddenly the falsest element of her landscape had become the face of her cat-eared childhood friend, reappearing after years of absence. What did she mean it wasn’t safe for her? How could she possibly know anything after all this time? And it was absurd to think Elena would simply go with her. To where?

Was she plotting to take her back to the Duchy of Veka?

Furthermore, that surname, van Veka. It made Elena fear for what may have happened to Victoria. She had heard a lot of things about the eccentricity of Duchess von Veka, ruler of her family’s ancestral holding, the Duchy of Veka. To the heartland Imbrians of Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the Palatinate, the land of Veka was a wild frontier, and its aristocracy were often viewed as exotic foreigners in the court. Elena fell to such prejudices:  she easily believed the stories of Veka as a wild, rapacious witch. What if Victoria had been abducted? What if she was being coerced into doing this?

“You weren’t at my party last night because Gertrude would have objected to all of this.”

Victoria sighed openly at Elena’s response, as if it were the dumbest thing in the world.

She lifted a hand to Elena, but it was not in offering.

Instead, she closed her fingers as if she were trying to squeeze Elena’s head from afar.

Her eyes glowed red, with bright rings around the pupils. Normally– they were blue.

Was this all a delusion? Was Elena truly seeing such a thing transpire?

Elena felt a breeze blow by the two of them.

This was not a dream. It was really happening.

She was taken aback. She thought she felt something brush her shoulder.

What was Victoria doing?

Elena could almost see it.

A projection, a dim, translucent aura, scarcely real–

Victoria lowered her hand. She looked, for the first time, to be worried.

“You resisted it? But you came here, so you answered my suggestion.”

“Your suggestion? What are you talking about?”

Elena remembered something then. Her dream.

She had dreamt of Victoria’s parting.

Back then, had Victoria really said they would meet again?

Had that part happened?

She wracked her memory. Suddenly, she could not remember the specifics.

But it was insane to think that Victoria had made herself appear in her dreams.

What was Victoria doing?!

“Victoria, I need you to talk like a person right now, or I’m calling for help.”

She wanted to believe that Victoria was merely confused.

Her friend had always been bad at speaking. In school she used to be shy and reserved. Others would call her cold and attribute this to her being a Shimii. But Elena had seen her when she opened up. Victoria could be kind and expressive in her own way. Elena hoped she could appeal to this better nature. Maybe even help Victoria out of whatever trouble she was in.

She extended her hand.

Victoria, blue-eyed again, briefly flinched as if she expected to be struck from meters away.

But Elena simply wanted to reach out a hand for her friend to hold.

“I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but I can help you.”

Elena intended her words to carry her conviction, her sympathy.

Victoria, however, just seemed annoyed with her.

Her tail dipped low and started flicking.

“I’m here to help you. There’s nothing you can do, Elena. That’s the problem.”

Her words carried no venom. They were blunt and matter of fact, like when she was a child.

“Of course I can help you! I’m the Imperial princess!” Elena said.

Even she, however, no longer believed that mattered. And Victoria certainly didn’t.

“Times are changing.” Victoria said. “A lot has changed already, as a matter of fact.”

“Victoria, this is frustrating. You’ve always been difficult to talk to, but you’re so cryptic I can’t even understand you. Just come to the Villa and have tea with me.” Elena said, pleading.

Victoria shook her head. “I don’t require accommodations. As it is, I’m not far enough ahead of Sawyer. Look, I’m anxious too Elena! I don’t want to force you to do anything, but I will have to if you don’t make up your own mind to come with me. Gertrude will not make it back in time. Nobody is here to rescue you except this one right here. So come with me, now.”

Something in Elena’s head simply snapped the wrong way at that time.

To the princess, everything Victoria was saying was nonsense. It was sudden, it was insane, and it simply did not fit with anything Elena knew. She was not in danger. Vogelheim could not be in danger. Vogelheim was her sacred home; her brother’s home for her. Her brother had always protected her, and her brother was the strongest man in the Empire, the most respected. Nobody could target Vogelheim. Nobody would even try.

They all understood how impossible that was.

So Elena’s logic threw everything Victoria was saying right out.

She quieted a tiny screaming voice that was telling her to run, to hide, to do anything.

Instead, Elena smiled charmingly, tipped her head, put her hands behind her back.

“I know what’s up.” She said in a funny little voice. “Vicky, you still have a crush on me.”

Victoria, for a moment, put on an expression like she couldn’t believe she heard that.

Elena, however, continued to pile on what she viewed as friendly, teasing charm.

She really, for a moment, thought she had everything figured out.

That she had seen through a mild deception, and everything around her was still normal.

“You and Gertrude fought over me back in school. I kind of– I kind of realized that, but I didn’t want to believe it. You know, for a while, I had a crush on Sawyer; but Gertrude was always there for me, and I came to treasure her most. Vicky, I still love you as a friend. You don’t need to do any kind of stunts to try to get my attention. You must have gone through a lot of effort to become titled, but Gertrude isn’t, and I still hold her as my most precious person, so–”

“Elena, you’re being absolutely, frustratingly ridiculous.”

Victoria swept her hand.

At Elena’s side, the ground burst up into the air, as if something had struck.

As if a massive force had struck–

Something strong enough to make a watermelon-sized dent in the ground.

Elena screeched and drew back from the hole.

She nearly fell backwards in shock. Barely able to stay standing.

Victoria’s eyes had those red rings again.

Red glowing rings around her eyes.

Was Victoria doing this?

What was– Victoria– WHAT WAS VICTORIA DOING?

“You can resist telepathy, but I can just knock you out and take you away.”

Victoria mumbled that almost as if to herself.

Her eyes then returned to their normal blue.

“I got over my infatuation with you. I am not here for that! I am here as your friend because I don’t want to see you killed by the Volkisch, which is what will happen soon Elena!” Victoria was screaming. Elena’s mind was a blur. What was Victoria screaming about? None of what she said made sense. It was almost like Elena was hearing it through a filter. Was she going insane? Victoria saw Elena’s blank eyes and fearful, broken expression, and moderated her tone. “Elena. In all of her graciousness and wisdom, my beloved mistress, the Grand Duchess Carmilla von Veka, signed off on my mission and gave me the resources to come take you to the east. She’s very powerful, Elena; she will keep you safe even if things continue to worsen.”

Elena was not ready to hear that impassioned declaration.

“What do you think is going to happen?” Elena said. She was stammering.

“You know what Sawyer was like! She’s even more dangerous now, Elena!”

“Sawyer?”

It was unimaginable to Elena that not one, but two of her lost childhood friends could possibly return on the same day, with grand pronunciations about their newfound powers. It was so sudden that it simply felt impossible, fake, delusional. Elena would have been assured that she was dreaming, but when Victoria rent the earth next to her, a tiny peddle made a tiny cut on her legs. That cut itched, stung. It itched bad enough that it continued to drag Elena back to her flesh. She was not in a dream.

She was sweating, her head felt airy, her vision was clouded with tears.

Her entire world felt like it was collapsing right on top of her.

“Victoria, you said Sawyer right? Sawyer is coming? Why? Why does she–”

“She thinks Erich is here! Elena, please come with me. We’re out of time.”

“Gertrude will come back– I have to be here for Gertrude to–”

Elena’s mind twisted and wrenched in an entirely different direction.

“She will not make it in time.”

Victoria’s eyes turned red again.

Something grabbed hold of Elena.

She felt a strong, invisible power gripping her, pulling her forward.

Toward Victoria; she squealed and resisted and was barely able to remain standing in place.

It was like the force trying to drag her had an arm that Elena could somehow outmuscle.

Frustrated again, Victoria cried out, “How are you this gifted, and still so powerless?”

Elena finally fell to the ground. Unable to resist, or escape, but Victoria could not pull her.

She started to weep openly, to cry and to scream where she sat.

She was powerless! She could neither understand, deflect nor resist what Victoria told her.

All of Elena’s static little world had made so much sense.

It was the only form of control that she had. Understanding the falsity all around her.

Everything was happening too suddenly, too urgently. Sawyer; Victoria–

“Victoria, I can’t leave here. Gertrude is waiting for me here. Please just leave, Victoria.”

Elena managed to say this between panicked little sobs.

“I can’t leave here. Bethany is here. This is my home, Victoria. It’s safe here, it really is.”

Victoria started to walk toward her. Her eyes were blue again. No red rings.

“Elena you’ve always known this was a cage but you keep choosing to stay here! All of this was built to delude ourselves of what our world is, and now you can’t leave when you need to! But it’s not safe! Six meters beneath this soft bed of earth there is just metal. Maintenance passages for the climate control and water systems, cargo elevators for the port and warehousing, secret passages for your security detail. This place is not impregnable. I snuck in here and I can take you with me in the same way. Sawyer cares even less about this place than me. Sawyer will shoot her way in, Elena!”

She finally reached where Elena was sitting, and physically grabbed her arm.

“Come with me, now.”

“That’s no way to talk to a lady.”

From Victoria’s side came a rushing figure.

Fast enough it took Elena by surprise.

She delivered a kick right to Victoria’s gut and sent her staggering back to the ground.

Then she placed herself in front of Elena with an arm outstretched.

“Thanks for the intel. If this place is unsafe, I will be the one evacuating her highness.”

At first, Elena had a crazy thought that it was Bethany who rescued her.

But nothing matched. Her defender was taller, with a head of black hair, partially in a haphazard bun, bangs partially over one eye. Messy. She was wearing a suit, it seemed. Pants, a sportcoat or a blazer, and a grey bodysuit that was translucent in the front. When she turned briefly toward Elena, her shirt and coat and suit exposed enough of her to see a scar on her chest.

“Marina McKennedy, G.I.A. Princess, I know this will sound crazy, but I’m on your side.”

She cracked a confident smile and drew a pistol on Victoria.

Victoria slowly drew herself up, and wiped dust from her dress.

She was winded, but those red-ringed eyes turned on Marina with the fullness of her malice.

“That’s a cute look.” Marina said. “But you don’t scare me. I’ve fought 2-meter tall Pelagis who could snap my spine in half before.”

“You have no idea. Get out of my way, republican.” Victoria said.

Marine laughed. “I got here in time to catch the gist of the conversation. Let the adults handle it, little girl. If you want to keep Elena safe, all you have to do is leave her to me. But you’re not just here out of altruism, so stop pretending you have Elena’s best interests in mind.”

Elena was so speechless.

She wanted to warn Marina that Victoria had some dangerous power that Marina was likely unaware of, and had not seen, if she arrived at the events unfolding too late. But her entire body refused to move, and her tongue was as trapped in her mouth as all of them were in Vogelheim. She was unable to say anything. All she could do was weep helplessly.

Then, Victoria’s eyes flashed their deadly red again.


Lieutenant Ionu Patrosku sat on the bridge of his Cutter with great trepidation.

He was shaking but could not let anyone know. He was sure he would not get out alive.

He was in command of a Cutter. A Cutter was all a Lieutenant could command.

Cutters were torturously cramped. His command seat was only slightly raised above the gunner, helmsman and torpedo man. All communications and sonar went through his first officer on an adjacent seat. They sat as if in adjacent rows in a cramped little movie theater, but with the roof barely a meter overhead, and the screens not much farther out. It was maddening.

It was a cage. He was going to die screaming in this cage.

These were brand new model cutters too. There was no excuse. Whoever designed these ships simply wanted them to be this way. Armed with one gas gun, one 75mm light coilgun, and one torpedo tube. Barely 60 meters long in total, most of it taken up by the reactor, engines, control surfaces and weapons, carrying no amenities. They were staring down the barrel of an absolutely massive Cruiser and its 150mm heavy coilguns and all their conviction to fight was leaving them.

And yet, the strength of the merciless training they received, was such that they remained rooted in place, knowing they could not hope to win and yet could not run. It was their sacred duty to defend the Palatinate, the holiest of the Empire’s domains. Vogelheim was a backwater, and what this Sawyer character was saying was absolutely insane, but they had to stand their ground.

Patrosku, however, knew differently than most how sacred their duty was.

The Lieutenant was one of the men directly in charge of Vogelheim’s security.

He knew it was the home of Elena von Fueller.

He had been specifically tasked by Erich von Fueller with his sister’s naval defense.

Patrosku knew, more than anyone, that Erich von Fueller was not present to be arrested by these extremist nationalists. And he also knew why they might have such a suspicion. He was not a stupid man. He was putting together the details of what might be happening with Vogelheim.

And he could do nothing anyway. He could only stand his ground in defense.

Even besides the great authority such a man commanded, Patrosku knew firsthand how terrifying the wrath of Erich von Fueller was, and how far it could reach. He almost felt that the Prince would make sure he suffered in hell for failing him, so even if he died, Patrosku could not run from what was expected of him. He might even go after Patrosku’s family and friends.

His compatriots had trusted him to open communications with the Volkisch.

So he stared down their commander on his screen.

He had no choice but to appear strong.

“Heidelinde Sawyer, if you are keen on a peaceful solution then turn your fleet around.” Patrosku replied, to the brown-haired woman on the screen with fiery eyes and words. “Erich von Fueller does not reside in this station. Starting a battle here will get you no closer to him.”

“Of course you are covering for the traitor. You think my conviction is this weak?”

Patrosku braced himself for her to fire. Thankfully, the Cruiser made no moves.

Was she just giving him a chance to respond?

“We are all proud citizens of the Empire. None of us want to fight you or any of our brothers and sisters here.” He said. He thought he had tapped into a font of eloquence and felt confident. “Soon our leaders will convene. Let them render justice and trust their decisions!”

The Volkisch leader, Sawyer, looked thoroughly unamused with his answer.

“Let them render justice? You suggest we allow the tyrant Fueller to convene with the foreigner harlot Veka and all those who have made a mockery of Imbria, and parcel out our homes among themselves, to continue to exploit us and guide us down into ruin? You and I are not both proud citizens! We are the Volkisch of Rhinea, and we will make our own destinies. You can join us, or you stand against us. We have been preparing to fight, and now we are here to do so.”

At that moment, through sound-wave detection, laser imaging and other predictive methods, the computers aboard Patrosku’s Cutter began to yell about some kind of movement coming from the missile frigates. They were beyond visual range, but he did not need to be a genius to know what was happening: the hatches were opening, which meant the missiles were primed.

Sawyer cut off her laser communications abruptly. Every computer sounded alerts.

There was no avoiding it. Hesitating further would mean certain death.

“All ships to combat speed! Target the frigates first, move to isolate the Cruiser!”

Patrosku called out, and the Cutters advanced on the enemy fleet.

Single-barreled light coilguns sought targets and began to fire. Light torpedoes leaped from the tubes at the front of each cutter. Because there were twenty cutters, they managed to whip up a brilliant fusillade for their side, and hundreds of rounds hurtled across the Vogelheim plains toward the enemy. The double-barreled 20mm gas gun turret on each Cutter readied to intercept incoming enemy missiles from the Frigates.

Battle had finally been joined for Vogelheim.

Accelerating, the Cutters sliced the distance to the enemy flotilla.

Before them, the Cruiser stood unflinching as dozens of rounds shot past its flanks.

On the top deck, the main gun rose and adjusted its barrels.

One pair of 150mm coilgun rounds loosed from the gun and punched through the water.

In an instant, one of Patrosku’s allied cutters had its prow disappear in a vapor bubble.

Between the massive forward damage and the shock of the impact, all of the stricken Cutter’s electronics would have failed and it is unlikely the crew inside could survive. As the Cutters advanced, their downed ally descended miserably, trailing bubbles and bits of debris.

“Keep moving! Once we’re on top of it, it will have to surrender!”

Mobbing was the only tactic they could count on against that ship, with their light weapons.

The Cutters advanced in a snaking envelopment, like nineteen fingers trying to wrap around the enemy fleet from all directions. Each individual ship kept enough distance from each other so that no one enemy weapon could destroy multiple ships. They stayed in enough of an orbit to maintain laser communication and coordinate their attacks, while having room to maneuver.

Meanwhile the enemy frigates responded quickly with their own barrage, peppering the Cutters with light coilgun and gas gun fire. Deadly vapor bubbles erupted around the Cutters, signifying the explosions of ordnance. Even being grazed by such a blast would put incredible stress on the hull and could compound into internal damage, and even cause slow breaches.

Vogelheim’s plain took on the eerie characteristic of underwater war.

A storm of vapor bubbles and lines of displaced water formed by explosive ordnance and supercavitating munitions stirred between the opposing sides as they advanced toward each other. Due to the dimness of the ocean, it would have been impossible to see the spectacle of it from afar, but their computers could see the ocean whipped into a frenzy amid all the barrages.

Even with this horrifying chaos before them, the patrol fleet did not slow their charge.

Taking a haphazard trajectory, the speedy little ships made themselves hard to hit, a quality that only they possessed in this engagement. Cutters’ only defense was being able to move around larger ships like the insects that they were. As they advanced they pummeled the enemy with a rhythmic barrage from their little guns. One round, a swift cooldown and drain of the gun housing, a second round; the Cutters sent over a dozen rounds flying at the enemy every minute.

 While the Cruiser was cooling down, the Cutters cut the distance, to 500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters, swerving and rising and making looping trails of bubbles in the water as they avoided enemy gunfire. Then the Cruiser’s heavy coilgun emplacement was once again ready to fire. Two massive rounds erupted from the barrels; two cavitation lines linked the gun to a cutter.

Upon striking their targets, or even flying near them, the supercavitating rounds detonated.

Underwater, kinetic energy was constantly lost. Even supercavitation designs had limits.

Explosive force, however, was magnified through the medium of the ocean water.

So even the kinetic rounds were rigged with explosives and made to blow.

For a Cutter to suffer two direct hits and the two explosions that followed was unlucky.

Nothing was left of the ship but piles of bubbling slag, sheared beyond recognition.

All of this gunfire, death and mayhem had transpired in mere minutes.

Patrosku barely registered the loss from his command pod. He was gritting his teeth.

On the edges of the Volkisch formation, one of the gun frigates altered its elevation.

“Any ships that can spare a torpedo, hit that Frigate! It moved out of place!”

At his side, a pair of his allied Cutters were able to heed his command.

Two light torpedoes burst from their tubes and soared ahead of the fleet.

Guided by the torpedo gunners in each respective ship, the projectiles snaked through enemy gunfire and exploited a hole in the enemy’s interception fire that had opened when that one Frigate moved suddenly out of formation. In so doing, it had blocked a nearby Frigate’s vital covering fire from its top deck gas guns, and exposed the entire left flank of the Volkisch flotilla.

Both torpedoes swooped past the Cruiser and dove into the sides of the raised Frigate.

Two impacts blossomed into vapor bubbles that rent massive holes in the metal.

More and more plates began to peel from the Frigate’s side due to the sheer pressure.

An entire compartment disgorged crates and equipment and mangled bodies into the ocean.

It was as if the torpedo was a hand reaching into the Frigate’s gut, pulling out the viscera.

There was no more gunfire from that Frigate. It began to list, its engine firing off haphazardly and sending it on a terminal dive into the ocean floor. Around it, the Volkisch flotilla adjusted their positions quickly to avoid the stricken ship. And yet, an opportunity to rout them did not appear. Gas gun fire intensified, and the Volkisch returned to a disciplined formation.

Once more, the Cruiser at the head opened fire.

This time, the shells flew past their intended targets.

Not too far past.

Detonating right behind one of the Cutters, the vapor bubble grazed an engine.

Patrosku felt his own Cutter shake, and for an instant thought himself dead.

Such was the sheer explosive power of both shells detonating so close by.

He survived; the Cutter on his direct right lost its engines and became a sitting duck.

It was not long before the Gun-Frigates noticed.

Relentless gunfire tore the stranded Cutter apart where it stood motionless.

Patrosku thought claiming that Frigate kill would have given them momentum.

In truth, the situation remained the same. And it was about to worsen.

Within 200 meters, or two or three ship lengths of the enemy, the Cutters began to put themselves into position to sweep through the enemy formation, and come out behind them, around their flanks, and above them, ultimately enveloping the enemy. At this range, their instruments gave them a form of visibility using predictive imaging. Though they could not “see” physically farther than maybe 75 meters, their computers created a picture from other forms of sensory data.

As such, when Patrosku “saw” what was about to happen next, it was all on the computer.

And for an instant, he disbelieved it. Predictions were not flawless, and what separated a seasoned veteran of undersea warfare from a rookie was not relying on instruments but using them as a tool. So Patrosku trusted his gut that what was happening ahead of him was impossible.

He was wrong, and the computer was right, and he discovered this very quickly.

Objects began to appear as emerging from the hatches on the missile frigates.

Though the computers identified these as Volker class Divers, Patrosku felt it had to be a glitch. Volkers rising out of missile launch bays was ridiculous.

Would Volkers even fit inside them?

Obviously, those were the missiles. Missile Frigates carried slim, fast torpedoes powered by rockets that launched overhead and then arced down. They were not guided by wire, but they were fast and disruptive and provoked an answer whenever they were fired.

So Patrosku answered.

“We need a curtain of fire to intercept those missiles! Now!”

“Sir, those are Divers, the computer is saying–”

“I know what it’s saying! Curtain fire, now!”

The Cutters responded to the predicted incoming missiles — until a squadron of five Volkers swam into their formation.

Just as a Cutter was lighter and faster than any other ship, a Diver was lighter and faster than a Cutter. Dashing through the water with a grace seemingly mismatched with their rounded chassis, the Volkers suddenly skirted the rapid-fire gas guns on the Cutters and brought to bear their 37mm Sturmgewehr assault rifles at shockingly close range.

Disciplined, three-round bursts from the assault rifles punched holes the size of a fist into the armor of several of the Cutters. Alarms sounded, and exposed compartments were locked quickly, with the Cutters’ automated self-repair deploying emergency sealants to close the gaps and bind the armor together enough to resist pressure again. But Cutters were so small that these disruptions ended up disabling several systems and rendering the limping ships unable to fight.

Suddenly, the battle was hopeless again as the patrol fleet fell into complete disarray.

To think, the Volkisch contrived such a way to deploy Divers!

Patrosku watched in terror as amid the barrage from the Flotilla, several Volkers charged right past the patrol fleet and headed straight for Vogelheim. His computer calculated at least fifteen Divers deployed, maybe twenty. There was no hope of stopping them anymore.


Sturmbannführer Hiedelinde Sawyer stood on a raised platform in the middle of the bridge of the battlecruiser Greater Imbria, arms crossed, her chair empty right behind her. They had lost the Venable and who knew how many souls aboard, but the Volkisch were not deterred so easily by loss.

Once the battle was won they could mount a rescue operation.

Sawyer was confident in her plan. And she knew the leadership was behind her. Lehner had personally given his approval for her mission.

Greater Imbria and its crew, as well as the two missile frigates Gladius and Spartan, had professional staff who had been turned to the side of the national proletariat by agents of the Volkisch. They had essentially defected from the Imperial Navy to join the Volkisch. But the gun Frigates were staffed by militia and the vessels were fresh out of Rhineland Shipyards.

Sawyer knew who she could and could not rely upon.

“Order the Divers to attack! I want a squadron to defend us, another to secure the station exterior and two squadrons to enter the station. All groups be careful when firing your weapons!”

As she said this, one of the gun frigates discharged a volley of 75 mm coilgun rounds that flew straight through the enemy Cutters and past.

It was impossible to tell whether damage had been done to the station, but Sawyer grit her teeth. Telling them to stop firing was not an option, but the undisciplined gunners might do more harm than good.

She had to get a hold of the situation.

“Tell the Frigates to mind their guns! We can’t damage the station!”

“We should moderate our own fire as well.”

Her yelling attracted the attention of the First Officer, returning from doing rounds around the ship to inspect the combat stations. She put on a little grin as she arrived. Sawyer glanced over to her when the door opened and then turned back around to continue following the battle on the monitors. She hopped up onto the island in the middle of the bridge and patted Sawyer on the shoulder. “We’ve taken minor damage, mostly to the armor.”

“I knew I could count on you to move fast, but even I’m impressed.”

Sawyer had sent her to check the hangar and weapons when the battle started.

For her to have returned in a few minutes was extraordinary considering the ship’s size.

“I didn’t have to go too far. I have these, remember?”

Sawyer barely looked at her while she spoke, but that remark prompted her to glance at her first officer. Holding the rank of Untersturmführer in the Volkisch, her name was Rue Skalbeck. She was a fit young woman, blond hair decorated with red highlights, wearing a pristine, all-black uniform much like Sawyer’s. She was neither as tall, nor as strong as Sawyer but the closest physical match to her on the ship. Her most distinctive feature, however, were the cybernetics on her body, a pair of black antennae the width and length of a finger along the sides of her head.

Those implants helped correct deformities in her brain, and allowed her to interface easily with machines, as well as perform some often-forgotten tasks of electronic warfare that were usually delegated to algorithms and subroutines of the computers automatically. There were some strains of Volkisch ideology that balked at people such as Rue being allowed to serve, or even to live; but for Sawyer, military power and potential was everything, and Rue was strong enough. It was the fact that she would kill for the National Proletariat that made her a peer member of it.

Her relationship with Rue exemplified the essence of the Volkisch modus.

It was the barest simplicity in the world. There were those who deserved, or indeed, who had to be killed, and those who would kill them, for the volk to survive. Other fringe theories aside, it was this strand of thought that unified the Volkisch. At the present, they agreed on who had to be killed to protect the future of the National Proletariat, and its core in Rhinea.

Sawyer would end Erich von Fueller’s reign here.

And perhaps commence her own.

One step at a time; dialing back from that bloodthirsty series of thoughts, Sawyer merely smiled. “Sometimes I forget that you have those bits.” She said, looking Rue in the eyes.

“That’s kind of you. I knew you were sweet for me.”

Rue put on an antagonistically cheerful expression, full of mockery.

Sawyer stopped looking at her at that point.

Before joining the Volkisch Movement, Rue outranked her in the Imperial Navy.

Within the Volkisch she was the equivalent of a Leutnant due to her “physical deformity.”

Not that you could tell that cheerful, pretty girl was “deformed” without a lot of ideology.

“Did you beam the instructions over to the entry team?” She asked.

“Taken care of a long time ago. The Entry Team is already past the enemy fleet.”

“Good. Do you think those blueprints were authentic?”

“You’ve asked me this three times.”

“Answer a fourth time then, Untersturmführer.”

Rue rolled her eyes. She could do this precisely because of Sawyer’s constant tough girl act. She really wasn’t even looking at Rue and couldn’t have seen her expressions behind her.

“Yes, I fully believe in their integrity. I know you’d punch me in the face if I did things half-assed, so of course I wouldn’t show you any bullshit. As soon as I scraped the contents of the leaks off the network, I compared similar station diagrams which are public. Vogelheim is just another NewType-Castle Mod. IV station. Since the similarities are so exact, the differences must be the real deal, or else, structurally, the diagram wouldn’t make any sense in comparison.”

“I’m counting on you.” Sawyer said.

“Yes, I’m the degenerate, subhuman brain to your ubermenschen brawn.”

“Oh, shut up. You chose to be here.”

“I do it all for you, my love.”

Rue blew a kiss behind her back, but Sawyer didn’t see it.

In the stations around them, the men and women looked briefly concerned.

But it was far, far above their station to say anything.

Sawyer sighed openly but gave no response to the love-comedy Rue was putting on.

Rue took notice and sighed herself. She then changed the subject.

“At any rate, you’re overlooking the piece of information that can’t be corroborated.”

“The presence of Erich von Fueller, you mean?” Sawyer said. Rue smiled.

“According to the leaks, Vogelheim has been the home slash prison of Elena von Fueller for the past several years. She could be anywhere, so it doesn’t really matter, but Erich von Fueller’s visit coinciding with her birthday is time sensitive. For all we know, he came and went already, or he never came at all. That’s information that we are basically just gambling on.”

Sawyer hadn’t really thought of that name in a long time.

Elena von Fueller.

She remembered that bitchy elf girl from Luxembourg who drew together a band of other weirdos who fit in nowhere else. Self-absorbed, and stubborn, and sickeningly kind, never wanting to see the faults in others. And yet, she was not popular at the school. Nobody else wanted to deal with her and her baggage; everyone else was terrified of her. So she had no one in the world, but Sawyer; and her other two “friends,” Victoria and Gertrude.

Gertrude: that bitch never saw eye to eye with her.

Another nasty name to remember.

Sawyer almost felt a grim satisfaction at being able to potentially snatch something from Gertrude.

Elena was useless in and of herself but could be an asset with the nobles.

Rue shrugged, continuing to speak. “So really, this could all just be tragically pointless.”

“It’s not pointless.”

Sawyer replied brusquely. Rue took note of her tone and checked herself.

“Someone had to make the first move. We’re making an example. We can attack deep into the Palatinate’s territory. Those useless aristocrats will have to take us seriously after today and come to terms with our uprising. We will make them see that nobody can protect them anymore.”

Rue grinned at her.

“Will you break the taboo then? Take down the whole station as a show of force?”

“Of course not.”

Sawyer snapped back. Something like that was unthinkable.

Living space in the Imbrium was precious. Destroying a station was an unholy act.

For Rue to even consider it showed her utter morbidity of character.

But also why Sawyer treasured her as a companion.

Rue, ultimately, was her kind of crazy.

“We’re going to claim this station, minimize damage–”

“Then we should restrain our violence. Sawyer, the main gun–”

At that point both of them were interrupted. Both by a shouting voice and a screen.

“Heavy coilgun ready to fire again, Sturmbannführer!” shouted a gunnery officer.

“What are you waiting for then? Fire at will! Destroy those patrol cutters!”

“Sawyer, wait–”

Before Rue could explain herself further, the main operations screen displayed a prow-facing camera that briefly showed high-definition footage of the main gun firing. Two projectiles launched carving neat, symmetrical lines into the water around them. Quickly the screen switched from the camera view to a broader view which was not possible underwater with cameras: it was an algorithmic reconstruction of the battlefield, rendered to enable them to “see” the battle.

Water was displayed as a pale blue filter over a world of floating objects, and these objects were outlined within so that they were crisp and easy to perceive out to several hundred meters — if only real water was anything like that! In areas where an explosion had gone off the water was darkened or reddened, using sensor data to show the intensity of the explosion or how recently the water was disturbed in the wake of a fading blast. It was like watching the world through the eyes of a God with mastery over the ocean. Like seeing through air instead of water. Hundreds of lines split the water, representing the trajectories of the shells being exchanged. Divers rushing to destroy enemy ships at close range and enemy ships fighting them were all marked for the viewer.

They could see the terrifying fusillade raging between their fleets in all of its glory. On camera, only the closest explosions registered. You could die before you ever saw what killed you. You might see the projectile a split second before it smashes into the deck. Sawyer and Rue were both used to staring at these screens, and so was anyone who was a veteran of aquatic combat.

“Sawyer, the main gun alignment is off!” Rue finally said.

“What? How did it–?”

On the algorithmic display, the digital “camera” that was once placed so as to mimic a real camera watching the ocean from the prow of the ship, pulled out into an “overhead” view that was impossible with any cameras they had deployed. This view showed the topography, predicted trajectories of enemy and allied ships, divers, and of course, all of the ordnance travelling between.

Both the rounds fired from the main gun appeared quickly on this view.

An alert then sounded. Something had misaligned. A shot had “missed.”

One round carved into the side of an enemy Cutter and split the ship in half.

A red bubble was placed around the second round to alert Sawyer of the problem.

That second 150mm round was predicted to fly past the enemy to strike Vogelheim.

According to the computer it would climb and detonate on the station pillar’s outer layer.

A breach was predicted: sizable enough that it would need a containment response.

There would be no response. Wireless communication was short distance underwater. They could not contact their entry teams to tell them. And the entry teams would be fighting the guards and engineers at Vogelheim, preventing them from responding. It would be a disaster.

At the speeds that they were dealing with, by the time Sawyer and Rue fully viewed the alert on the screen, if the prediction was correct, the munition had already hit Vogelheim. Every second precipitated calamity.

And this time, it was not something that they could see or confirm unless they charged ahead. Until they had an entry team tapped into Vogelheim, they could not contact them in any way. All of this had happened without them seeing with no time to respond.

Silence fell upon the bridge for a moment.

Everyone felt the vibrations of an intercepted torpedo, transferring through the floor. It was that silent, silent enough that all the things their loud lives hid from them were suddenly laid bare. There were explosions going off all around them. When they were engaged in work it was easy to forget the sheer hostility that was outside the ship. And yet, now, they were all transfixed. Nobody said a word, and everyone raised their heads from their personal screens to stare at the alerts.

In that moment they had destroyed a station. It was starting to dawn on them.

“Rue, connect us to the Socrates!” Sawyer said suddenly. Socrates was their engineering ship, which had been working on battlefield communications. “If they’ve got the groundline ready, you can tap into the station network and contact the entry team! Get creative, use whatever you can! We have to tell them to check for a breach. Emergency sealant can slow it down!”

Sawyer was gripped in a passion, her eyes fiery, her words loud — but trembling.

Rue could not muster such passion. Almost bleary-eyed, she saluted.

It was an eerie, surreal feeling. To have destroyed a little world without even seeing it.

That was the nature of war under the ocean.


What did it mean when Victoria’s eyes turned red?

Elena could not figure it out.

“I’m not in the business of shooting at girls. I’d like to think of myself as a friend to all girls. So, since you care so much about Elena, just turn around and go. She’ll be safe.”

Marina continued to taunt her.

Elena wished she knew what to do to set things right.

For a moment, there was tense silence between them. Marina had her gun out but wasn’t shooting. Victoria had fully stood up from the ground but was not moving. They were sizing each other up. Marina had obviously discarded any possibility that Victoria could be a threat to anyone but the weak and panicking princess on the ground behind her. She had no weapons to threaten Marina with, while Marina had a pistol.

Victoria was clearly clever; but was she outmatched?

Then Victoria lifted her hand to Marina, who was puzzled by the reaction.

“Stop right now. I’ll shoot your fucking knee. No ballroom dancing for you anymore. I said stop it–!”

Victoria made a pulling motion with her hands, her eyes glowing bright red.

“What the–? I’m not joking you little twerp, I’ll shoot–”

Before Marina could get out another threat, the floor suddenly slipped out from under her.

Something had struck at her feet and shifted the dirt she was standing on.

Marina fell over backwards, almost on top of Elena, who scampered away in shock.

Her gun remained in her hands.

As she hit the ground she raised the weapon.

Then her finger stopped right inside the trigger guard, unable to press down.

Her hand tensed and shook. From a seated position, she had the gun trained on Victoria.

Her hand wouldn’t fire. And it was not her own trepidation.

It was if something was holding her trigger finger.

Victoria twisted her hand in mid-air.

Marina’s whole body tensed up. Her jaw clenched. She choked out words.

“Stop– Stop touching me– Stop–”

In that instant, Elena was suddenly bombarded with sensation.

She understood what Marina was feeling.

She could almost hear what Marina was thinking.

Sparks were flying just under Marina’s skin. She hated being touched; she was afraid of it. So many people had touched her in terribly wrong, terribly painful ways. That traumatic sense of danger she felt whenever someone touched her started to flare up, but nothing was touching her. Elena was not, and Victoria was nowhere near. But something was grabbing her hair, twisting her wrists, squeezing her fingers, stepping on her feet, and forcing her mouth to grit closed.

Elena could almost see it, like millions of little fingers all pressing on her at once.

All of Marina’s senses were firing, screaming.

And so, in turn, did all of Elena’s.

Elena nearly vomited. Her eyes were burning.

She was overwhelmed with empathy for Marina’s overwhelming disgust.

Her eyes started to weep. It wasn’t even her own tears.

They were Marina’s. Tears for Marina’s own unweeping eyes.

And when Elena looked at those eyes, physically, rather than mentally–

Red rings appeared around Marina’s eyes, matching those around Victoria’s.

She was shaking from the peak of her head to the tips of her fingers.

Then, suddenly, Marina’s hand started to move, irrespective of her own wishes.

Her arms and legs were used to stand her body up, despite all of her resistance.

Slowly, trembling, she removed the magazine from her pistol and discarded it.

There was one round in the chamber still.

Victoria dispassionately watched with those frightening eyes as Marina lifted the pistol up to her head, putting the barrel over one of her eyes. Her struggling jaw and tongue made whimpering, terrified noises, but she could not speak, move or resist. She was completely helpless.

Elena had to finally stand.

She could not endure anymore what was happening.

“Victoria! Stop! Please, oh my god, stop!”

Elena rushed from the floor and embraced Victoria, throwing her arms around her.

She could think of nothing else to do. Nothing that would fix what was happening.

She wept openly in Victoria’s shoulders, while the Shimii continued to glare past her.

“Stop it! Please stop! I can’t– I can’t bear to see this! Please! Please! This isn’t you!”

“You’re wrong. This is me. I have the fullness of my faculties.”

Victoria swept her hand. Elena screamed and shut her eyes.

Rather than a bang, she heard a dull thump.

Marina was lifted bodily and thrown back against a tree, where she came to feebly slump.

Victoria’s eyes turned a clear blue color again. Her voice was as cold as ever.

She shoved Elena’s arms from around her, and then grabbed her by the wrist.

“Are you finally going to do what I say?” Victoria asked.

Elena, eyes swollen with tears, her body trembling, gave a despondent nod of the head.  

“I’ll go with you. Please, just don’t hurt anyone here.”

“Fine. For you, I’ll promise I won’t.”

Elena tried to smile, but a sudden report shut out all of her senses.

She heard a discharge so loud that the noise ripped through her stomach.

Victoria’s head bobbed suddenly.

Something splashed on Elena’s chest, on her cheek.

Blood.

A streak of blood.

There was a clatter on the ground behind them.

Marina dropped her empty gun, fell to her side, and started to retch and vomit.

Victoria toppled over.

“No. Please. No. No. No! No–”

Elena sank to her knees next to Victoria’s body and tried to pick her up, to shake her. There was so much blood running down her forehead that it was impossible to see a wound, but Elena was sure she was dead.

Her fingertips could not feel anything anymore, but she was sure all the warmth was draining from Victoria as she held her.

Marina had killed her; she had killed Victoria.

Little Victoria from school who loved books and was quiet and a little cold, and nobody could get along with– except perhaps the forgotten, useless princess, the brusque school bully, and the stuck-up aspiring knight whom fate had brought together and then so suddenly torn apart.

People who had overnight disappeared from her life.

And here, maybe she had a second chance and then– and then everything happened. It was so sudden that Elena’s life had gone from the stasis of her prison in Vogelheim, to recalling the day to day shocks of her school days with her rocky little group and having to reconcile it.

Why was all of this happening? Why now?

What had gone wrong? What could she have done to avert all of this?

You’re really hard to love— had Sawyer been right?

Was all of this Elena’s fault? Her mind was racing through the horrible possibility.

Behind them, Marina was starting to stand on shaking legs.

She appeared almost as shocked at her own actions as Elena was with them.

“God damn it.” She mumbled. She grabbed hold of her own stomach.

Marina stumbled.

She dropped back to her knees, holding herself up by her hands, gagging.

Elena felt the ground shake.

She nearly fell back herself, and she was just sitting.

The quake transferred through her body, from deep in her gut to the tips of her fingers–

Victoria stirred.

Elena looked down at her, eyes drawn wide.

Fresh tears immediately followed.

“Victoria! You’re alive!”

Through the blood that had spilled over them, Victoria opened her eyes.

Staring past Elena, up into the sky overhead.

“It’s failing.” She said, breathlessly.

Again the ground rumbled.

Victoria’s cat-like ears twitched. She raised her hand toward the heavens.

Elena looked up at the sky, following Victoria’s fingers.

Bands of color began to break across the blue sky and its fake clouds.

Something formed that split the firmament. A streak, a crack of visual noise.

There was a brief flash as the sky fully lost its contours.

What was once the sun was revealed to be a complex array of mechanical lights.

All around them, the illusion of a horizon and a sky was fully torn down.

Those massive panels that once created a sky now showed what was really outside.

When the heavens came down, there was only the dim, endless blue of the Imbrium.

Elena could not identify it, but what she was seeing was an algorithmic predictive image of the ocean. That was why she saw in all its vivid horror and glory the massive Cruiser Greater Imbria approaching Vogelheim, surrounded by the shattered and shattering remains of several other vessels which had failed to protect the station and flanked by many other ships and divers.

Her mind was reeling from the sight of her little storybook world coming suddenly down.

Victoria’s voice strained. “You can’t run from this anymore, Elena.”


Unjust Depths

Series 1: The Death March To Buren

Episode 4.7: The Day [[Her Sky Shattered]]

Even if it brings the world to the brink of ruin, you must demand justice.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


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