Thieves At The Port [5.6]

Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.

It was the first step on their journey.

That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–

Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.

Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.

Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.

There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.

In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.

Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.

Alongside them were two members of the security team.

Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.

Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.

All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.

Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.

To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.

That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.           

“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.

“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.

While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”

“Acknowledged!”

For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.

Murati was filled with emotion.

Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.

Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.

Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.

After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.

In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.

“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”

At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.

“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.

She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.

“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.

She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.

Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.

“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.

“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”

“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”

Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”

Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”

“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.

Zachikova cracked a little smile.

“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”

Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.

Her mind returned to the task ahead.

Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.

On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.

Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.

For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.

Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.

On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.

While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.

Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.

People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.

She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.

However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.

Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.

All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.

“Real meat, huh?”

Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.

Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.

There was something bewildering about it for Murati.

Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.

So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.

Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of diary production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their diary in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.

It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.

Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.

Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.

He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.

“Are you hungry?” She asked.

“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”

“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”

“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.

“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.

Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.

Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.

A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.

“You little shit! Get back here!”

The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.

Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.

Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.

Murati stood speechless for a moment.

Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?

“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”

Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.

The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?

Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.

Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?

How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.

In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.

“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said.  “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”

“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.

“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”

“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.

“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.

Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.

Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.

Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.

She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.

They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.

Even in the alleys, there were people.

Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.

There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.

Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.  

Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.

To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.

But then– why was there so much tension in the air?

Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.

Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.

However, this particular statue had company.

There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.

She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.

“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”

Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.

One of the men responded with a kind voice.

“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.

Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?

“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.

“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.

How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?

“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”

Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.

“Hello? We have to keep moving.”

Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.

Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.

Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.

The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.

“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”

All of them resigned themselves.

Murati was briefly speechless.

She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.

She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!

How could they be abandoned here? Why?

“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”

“Like what, Nakara?”

Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.

“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”

“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”

Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.

“Contact the Captain for a moment.”

She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.

“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”

“Agreed.”

Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.

Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.

“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.

Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.

“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.

Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”

Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”

“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”

“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.

Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.

Again, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents.

Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”

“Ask her how much money we have available.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”

“Ask her.”

Murati stood her ground.

Zachikova sighed to herself.

“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”

Murati’s face briefly lit up.

“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”

Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.

That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.

She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.

Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.           

At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.

She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.

Murati spoke first.

“Captain–”

She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.

“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.

Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.

“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”

She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.

How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!

“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”

“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”

“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”

“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.

“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”

“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”

“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”

“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.

“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”

Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.

For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!

“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”

“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”

Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.

At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.

“Lieutenant,”

She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.

“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”

Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.

Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”

“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.

“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”

Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.

“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”

Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.

“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”

“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”

The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.

Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.

A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.

All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–

Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.

Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.

“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”

Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.

Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.            

That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.


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 [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

After several days, the hangar was finally fully prepared and every mech in the Brigand’s squadron had been assembled, charged up and assigned its gantry and equipment. Murati could finally convene and formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron. On the morning of this triumphant day, she set aside some time to look over the official roster and the files on each pilot.

That was when she spotted an oddity. She sought official confirmation from the Bridge.

“First Officer on bridge!” Commissar Bashara called as Murati stepped through the door.

Everyone in the room turned to meet her briefly. Murati felt a little overwhelmed. She was, strictly speaking, their superior and depending on the health of the Captain she might even have to command them someday, but she was not very familiar with the bridge crew. She saw Semyonova on ship broadcasts and had met Zachikova recently, but the rest she had no occasion to speak to.

“It’s really not necessary.” Murati said to the Commissar. She spoke in a low voice.

“Not necessary? As First Officer you should always demand the respect you are owed.”

At the Commissar’s side, the Captain laughed. “I also tell her it’s not necessary.”

You more than anyone need to command more respect also.” Said the Commissar.

She glared sidelong at the Captain in a way that caused her to visibly shrink for a second.

“Let me see there, Murati.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

Murati handed her the tablet with the pilot roster. Murati already had the offending page up.

“Ah, right, this situation.”

The Captain sighed as if it would be a wearying thing to explain.

On the roster, one of the reserve pilots was a young man, younger than Shalikova. Maybe the youngest person on the ship. His name was Aiden Ahwalia. Murati recognized the surname immediately. Anyone in the Union would. Elias Ahwalia had been one of the Union’s founders, and after Daksha Kansal, he was the second Premier of the nation. He was Premier for nearly nine years of the Union’s 20 year life as a state, so he certainly made an impression on the Union.

However, his term was remembered for many bitter difficulties the Union suffered.

Many people felt that after Kansal left, the Union was close to falling apart.

The Union’s recent, comparatively “prosperous” period was thanks to Bhavani Jayasankar rising to power and removing the Ahwalia family from the political sphere. Her administration dispensed with the ideals of the Ahwalian period, where the Union was steered toward fully automated, high-tech utopianism. Bhavani’s Union was more analog, thrifty, and highly militarized in comparison to Ahwalia’s, but everyone had food, everyone had education, health, and some small comforts. As a student of history, Murati could not help but find the Ahwalia surname on her roster ominous.

“I don’t need to explain to you who the Ahwalias are, right?” the Captain asked.

“No ma’am. I’m well aware. I’d like to know why Ahwalia’s youngest is on this ship.”

Commissar Bashara joined the conversation. Her tail was swaying, gentle and relaxed.

“You must think there’s some ulterior motive?” She looked up at Murati from her seat.

Murati felt like that was a trick question, coming from the Commissar.

Captain Korabiskaya was quite relaxed as well, however. They were both untroubled.

“In fact, there is an ulterior motive.” Captain Korabiskaya said plainly, shrugging her shoulders.

“That’s what I was afraid of!” Murati said. “With all due respect, I don’t want–”

“Keep him away from a Strelok and you have nothing to worry about. He’s in reserve.” Commissar Bashara said. “Aiden Ahwalia is here as a punishment on Elias Ahwalia; if you were assuming that then you are correct, Lieutenant Nakara. He’s here because Premier Bhavani and Commissar-General Nagavanshi want to apply pressure to his father through this assignment. Ahwalia will think twice about making any kind of moves if internal security has his sons.”

“His father was purged from the party. His family can’t take public office.” Murati said. “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous? Elias Ahwalia is under house arrest. I don’t see any reason for this.”

Murati felt the Commissar would be predisposed to take the side of the security arm and the intelligence arm of the government on this issue. She looked to the Captain for support, but was met with only a soft, sympathetic expression, like a mother unable to go against the father on some household disagreement. Captain Korabiskaya stood up from her chair to meet Murati’s eyes.

“You’re a really good combat soldier, Murati.” Said the Captain. “But if you want to be a ship Captain or even go to Headquarters, you have to understand politics a bit better. And I don’t just mean Mordecist theory. There are some distasteful things you have to accept. So I accepted Aiden Ahwalia’s posting to the Brigand. That decision is final. If you don’t trust him to pilot a Strelok then don’t give him one. However, as far as he knows he is here on a legitimate mission. He thinks he’s just fulfilling his military duty. So, let him think that while he sits in the reserves, or let him go out if you need him. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

Commissar Bashara nodded. “The Captain’s assessment is uncharacteristically thorough.”

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

“At any rate, Lieutenant, I believe you have work to do. Does this satisfy your inquiry?”

Murati grit her teeth. Her grip tightened around the tablet computer with her roster files.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She did not like it, but she had no choice.

Commissar Bashara turned her eyes from Murati and forward to the rest of the bridge.

“Keep on keepin’ on, Murati. You’ll be fine.” The Captain said, by way of parting.

Swallowing some nasty things she wanted to say, Murati turned and vacated the bridge.


Despite everything, Murati was pretty excited that the pilot group was so diverse.

They had a few dark-skinned North Bosporans (herself included), a few Volgians, a Pelagis and a pair of Shimii. There were three other transgender women with her, a transgender man, and even a pilot identifying as nonbinary. She shouldn’t have been surprised — there were a lot of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Union military, particularly transgender women who got to transition after the revolution. A lot of them became pilots for the respect afforded them.

Almost everyone in the Union had a military background these days, and the Union was pretty colorful.

It made sense the military reflected that.

The Union was fairly socially progressive: it was after all the place where the Empire sent many “undesirable” people to “cleanse” its internal population, so it made sense there would be a lot of their causes championed institutionally in the Union. That by itself did not stop social prejudices, but it did mean the state would protect Murati’s rights. And it also meant she could end up leading a squadron that was so varied in gender expression and sexuality. As a bit of a social activist herself Murati was a champion of workplace diversity — even if Gunther might have been disappointed in her sidelining of some other workplace ethics.

Her pilot group looked very strong. She put a lot of faith in them.

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

Some of their history was a bit more complicated than Murati would have liked.

As a leader, however, she set aside those issues.

Her goal was to lead the people she had. To lead them to safety; to lead them to victory.

At 1200 hours Murati and her pilots finally convened in the hangar.

Even wearing the same uniform, they really did seem like an eclectic group.

“Welcome, comrades! I am Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara. I apologize for the idleness of the past few days, but I am pleased to formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron! Today we begin our mission to uncover, unite, train, and equip anti-imperialist forces in the Imbrium. This was a doctrine originally envisioned by our founder and first Premier, Daksha Kansal. We’ve had many difficulties as a nation since then, but the tide of history turns in our direction and the Union Navy is finally ready to do whatever it takes to seize victory! We have finally embarked on this historic mission, and I wouldn’t have any other crew but this one at my side. Let us work together to topple imperialism in our Oceans!”

Murati had spent some time in her books researching for her little speech.

To say Kansal created this doctrine was putting a heavy coat of paint on the events. She had insinuated in her Premiership speech that she wanted the Union to serve as a beacon for other revolutions in the Empire, and on more than one occasion believed the Empire would someday be split up by revolutions. When she ultimately left the Union, it was broadly believed that she did so in order to foment unrest in the Empire using the skills she gained during the revolution.

That being said, Murati was the only military and political history expert among the pilots.

So she thought it was a good way to get them thinking positively, if they knew no better.

After all, if Kansal had thought of it, then it wasn’t some random idea thought up yesterday.

Despite her passion, however, the response to the speech was a bit muted.

A blond Shimii woman among the pilots gave her an energetic clap and a big smile.

Next to her, a second Shimii started clapping slowly when the blond woman wouldn’t stop.

Shalikova averted her gaze.

Everyone else stood eyes forward with hands behind their backs like good soldiers.

Murati moved as fluidly as she could away from the subject.

“Now, I want each of you introduce yourselves to the group. It would be pretty frustrating to operate day to day without names, so let’s all become more familiar. I will go first and then I will select the rest of you to come up one by one. I’m Murati Nakara, I’m 29 years old. I piloted at Thassalid Trench, and before that, I did every odd job you can think of in the military. I really like electronic music and I actually played in a football club, so I’m going to push for us to get some nets down here sometime.”

She smiled at everyone, and a got a few small smiles in response, except from Shalikova.

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

There was an almost audible groan from Shalikova as she walked forward to join Murati.

Stiff and unsmiling, Shalikova turned reluctantly to face the rest of the squad. Murati had seen this unfriendly face before at Thassalid Trench. Shalikova was thin and pale, with long, white hair and wonderfully indigo eyes that really popped amid her pristine skin and girlish facial features. For some reason she had stopped wearing her jacket since they embarked on their journey. With the sleeveless TBT button-down, Murati could see her arms and shoulders had a bit of wiry, athletic definition to them.

“I’m Sonya Shalikova. I’m 23 years old. I also piloted at Thassalid Trench.”

Shalikova started to walk back and Murati gently tapped her on the shoulder to stop her.

“Do you have hobbies or interests Shalikova? Anything you want to go back home to?”

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

“I like hardbass music. And I like crafts. I like– making stuff. I made a bear once.”

“That’s great. Thank you Shalikova. I can have some supplies brought to you–”

Shalikova interrupted Murati. “It’s really not necessary. I’m going back to the line now.”

She returned to the lineup with a bit of desperation in her voice.

However instead of returning to the side of the blond Shimii woman, where she had once been standing, she conspicuously walked all the way to the other end of the line and stood there next to Aiden Ahwalia. Perhaps it had been because the Shimii had been making rather energetic gestures of support throughout Shalikova’s introduction and she did not want to be near her now.

“Well, alright.” Murati suppressed a laugh. “Next up is Lieutenant Khadija al-Shajara.”

Once more, the bubbly blond Shimii clapped her hands together.

She walked to the front with a long, graceful stride and took her place beside Murati.

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

“Hello darlings! As she said, I’m Khadija al-Shajara– ah, do I really have to say my age?”

Murati blinked, surprised. “Err, I suppose it’s not really necessary.”

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

Everything about Khadija seemed to shine brightly. She had a confident, foxy appearance, and her makeup was glamorous. Dark wine-colored eyeshadow; long black lashes; well-kept, slightly thick eyebrows; a rich, dark red color on her lips. She had a sophisticated air, more like an actress or a singer than a soldier. Her figure was more rounded off than Murati’s or Shalikova’s, but still plenty fit. Her natural Shimii features were charming enough on their own too, with her long, tapering ears and fluffy tail.

“Let’s forget about my age then. Let’s just say, I’m a woman in the prime of my life. I’ve been a Diver pilot longer than anyone among us, and I would love to see how all of you keep up with me in the ocean waters. As for my hobbies, I love board and card games, so if you ever want to lose a few social credits to a very beautiful gal, we could play some mahjong or poker.”

She winked at the other pilots with her hands crossed over her breast.

Murati had her official age in the roster, forty one, and she could see the gray in that voluminous and otherwise golden ponytail, and the hint of crow’s feet mostly hidden by her makeup. Khadija definitely wore her beret, nestled between her cat-like ears, to hide some of the gray where her hair parted. Murati found her little vanities charming. She could only hope she would look like Khadija did when she herself turned forty-one years old, after decades of intensive military service.

Maybe she would ask Khadija for her secrets some other time.

“Next, I’m calling on,” Murati paused briefly to look over the entire name before saying it. It was quite a mouthful. Like the name of the bridge officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa it was a combination of the mother’s and the father’s surnames. So it ended up being long and somewhat foreign to Murati: “Senior Ensign Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.”

“Ha ha! Oh my god– please just use al-Shahouh or Raisanen, not both, and not my Loup soulname.”

From beside Khadija, the other Shimii on the team walked forward with a serene smile.

“You want me to pick?” Murati said. “I guess I’ll use al-Shahouh.”

She shrugged as if amused by the decision. “Heh, do I look more Shimii than Loup then?”

Murati simply did not know enough about Loup to answer. Certainly, Sameera had the ears and the tail that resembled those of some kind of heritage mammal. Shimii ears had all kinds of shapes, so it was hard to tell whether Sameera’s tall and bristly ears were more cat-like or dog-like. Her tail was certainly a bit different. Most Shimii swayed their tails gently, but Sameera was wagging hers fast, and the shape had slightly clublike girth — maybe more like a dog. Who could say?

 Loup were a rare sight in the Union. By the numbers among the rarest ethnicities there. Shimii were incarcerated and deported to the colonies that would become the Union by the Empire, starting thirty years ago, creating a significant population in the Nectaris ocean. Loup retained a privileged position among the minorities of the Imbrian Empire, and few were deported. Sameera’s roster entry listed her as biracial, both Loup and Shimii — a testament to the barriers that could be broken in the Union.

There was more to her than her ears and tail of course. Everything between them was quite distinctive.

With a sleek nose and a sharp jawline, a tall and lithe build and a confident, graceful demeanor, if Murati was “husband” material in women’s eyes, she felt Sameera would have been a trophy husband. With her brown hair tied in a long ponytail with messy bangs and her light, sand-brown skin completely unembellished, she had an earthy, handsome beauty that was easy on the eyes.

“I’m Sameera. Just call me Sameera or ‘Sam’ please. I’m 27 years old, and single.”

She did a cheeky little bow in front of everyone, with one arm crossed over her chest.

One of her ears did a little twitch. Her tail continued to wag excitedly.

“My previous piloting experience has actually all been Leviathan hunting. I was also the test pilot for that fancy new mech in the back there for a few months,” she pointed over her shoulder at the Cheka with a little grin on her face.

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

“As for my personal life, I like games, drinking, get-togethers, that kinda thing. I prefer being able to host a few friends, or maybe a single special someone.” She winked. Nobody reacted. “If I’m by myself, I like to do yoga actually.”

She walked back to the line of her own accord and stood between Khadija and another pilot, a colorful young Pelagis woman who briefly glared at her from the corner of her eyes. It just so happened that this was the next person Murati wanted to call.

“Thanks ‘Sam’. Maybe I’ll see you at the gym! Next, Ensign Dominika Rybolovskaya.”

Dominika wore a gloomy face as she walked to Murati’s side. That friendless expression, however, was framed with vibrant color. Her hair was a base of red with brown highlights, long and silky. There were black-striped strands of red that blended in with her hair but were actually cartilaginous pelagis fins. Her face looked soft, unblemished, and very uniformly pink, while her eyes were a bright pink with a blue limbal ring — unique and captivating. Her figure was almost as skinny as Shalikova’s. Curiously, Dominika wore the top three buttons of her shirt undone, exposing what looked like a series of tiny bumps of tissue running down her neck and presumably chest. Murati thought she saw a bit of a glow to them, but maybe it was just the lighting.

“I’m Dominika Rybolovskaya. If that’s too much of a mouthful you can call me Nika, but I’d prefer you don’t. I’m 25 years old. I was in the border troops along Campos and the ice frontier. I like target practice, archery, knife throwing. Anything with a target, I’ll be able to hit it.” She briefly and mysteriously sighed. “I guess I also like yoga– Don’t get your hopes up!”

Dominika was so quick that Sameera went from sudden elation to being put down into the ground in an instant.

“Um, thanks, Dominika.” Murati said. She opted to not acknowledge Sameera at all.

Notably, however, Dominika returned to Sameera’s side defiantly, without trying to avoid her but also without giving her any attention. She averted her gaze and Sameera stayed quiet. Khadija, to the right of both, looked between them with growing delight in her eyes. Shalikova stared dead straight at Murati, or maybe even past her, unwilling to acknowledge the rest of them.

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

There were two members of the squadron left to introduce, and one was listed as a reserve for rather dire reasons, so Murati did not have to think much about who she would call next. It was the one nonbinary member of the roster.

“Next to step forward will be Ensign Valya Lebedova. Gender neutral pronouns, correct?”

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

Valya’s voice trembled just a little as they stepped forward in front of everyone.

They pushed their glasses up the bridge of their nose and held their hands behind their back.

“I’m Valya Lebedova. I’m 26 years old. I identify as nonbinary, um, thanks to everyone for respecting this.”

They bowed their head a little bit, their bangs briefly obscuring their gentle, demure face.

Valya took a rather guarded stance as they stood up in front of the squadron, their slight, curvy frame shaking from the knees up. They had a small nose and thin lips with a gentle expression, their face framed and partially hidden by messy, neck-length salmon-colored hair. Their long, straight bangs swept to the right side of their face, with one bright green eye peeking out. From what Murati could see, it was a stylistic choice — not covering up any kind of mysterious scars or anything so stereotypical. They wore the TBT pants and half-jacket uniform, all buttoned up over a dark blue bodysuit, quite tidy, with no customization.

“I’ve only had simulator experience, but um, my performance in the simulator was used to program the Veteran level OPFOR. So you may have actually fought against me in training. I really enjoyed simulator work but I was called on to join the team here, so I couldn’t really say no! Um, for my personal life, I like computers, programming, tinkering with stuff. I know how to solder!”

Their last words escaped them like an anxious gasp. Their cheeks flushed lightly.

“Thank you, Valya; relax, you’re among friends!” Murati said.

Finally, Murati got to the last name she wanted to speak about on the roster.

Not knowing what to expect, good or bad, she drew in a breath and prepared herself.

“Last but not least, our reserve team member, the cadet Aiden Ahwalia.”

Valya, Khadija, and Dominika all turned to face Aiden when his name was spoken.

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

Murati nearly cringed. She had really hoped to avoid things like this.

Aiden looked a little annoyed, but he walked forward with his head held high. He was a thin, athletic, smooth-faced young man with long, tidy black hair, tied into a short ponytail. His bright red eyes stood out more in contrast with his dark brown skin. His expressions and movements conveyed a bit of arrogance, and it only made him look more like a kid putting on airs. Even compared to Shalikova or Valya who had somewhat similar height and figure to him, and were not much older, he looked somewhat babyfaced and far too young to be among them.

“I’m Aiden Ahwalia. You all know my family, from the looks on your faces, so I won’t need to explain it. I’m 19 years old. I completed my initial enlistment like everyone else. I scored highest in the simulator against the Valya-level program out of any cadets in my class.” He put on a little grin. “My outstanding scores and performance are why I’m here. I want to represent my family and restore our standing. You all probably hold it against it me, but to be frank I don’t believe we deserve–”

“You’re doing nothing but taking up space here, you brat.” Khadija butted in.

 Aiden’s outrage was immediate. Almost as if he had been ready to put on that face.

“Hey, nobody else got interrupted! You see what I’m talking about here?”

Aiden looked to Murati for support, but Khadija quickly continued to argument.

“I interrupted because you’re talking a load of shit. Like your god damned father–”

Khadija turned and poked her finger right into Aiden’s chest accusingly.

“Everyone, calm down!” Murati raised her voice. While she did not like Aiden’s attitude, she did not want this to escalate further. Khadija really looked ready to beat him up — and capable of it. “The Captain approved of him coming aboard, and I’m responsible for him. It won’t be a problem unless we all collectively make it a problem, so please, just treat him professionally.” 

“I have no problem with anyone but him. I’m probably not the only one.” Khadija said.

“I know where you’re coming from.” Valya replied. “But Lieutenant Nakara is right.”

“We must listen to the commander.” Dominika said, arms crossed and head down.

“I agree, let’s just relax. Why don’t I treat you later, Lieutenant al-Shajara?”

Sameera tried to sweet-talk Khadija, but the older woman was clearly not in the mood.

“I apologize, Nakara. Please continue. I would like permission to retire for the day after assignments.”

“Permission granted. Aiden, come talk to me after I finish the assignments.”

Murati looked down at Aiden at her side. She nodded, directing him to leave.

He crossed his arms and returned to the line of pilots in a huff.

Now that everyone was introduced, the final official step in establishing the squadron was the assignments. Khadija would have known that — she was a veteran who had been through several missions already. Union Divers worked in pairs, often two to three pairs per squadron. Working as a pair gave everyone in the squadron a buddy to rely upon. Pairs were more resilient than individuals and gave the squadron more flexibility. Originally the Brigand had five Divers with two reserves, but Murati successfully lobbied the Captain for Valya to become a full member.

“I’ll start giving the pair assignments. This will be short for today, but we’ll flesh out our roles and capabilities more in the coming days, when we really start training and when we will be expected to be on call 24/7 as part of the ship’s combat power.” Murati said. “First off, the flanking unit will consist of myself in the Cheka alongside Ensign Shalikova in the Strelok ‘I-bis.’”

Murati looked to Shalikova with a big, happy smile that was not returned in the slightest.

“Ok.” Not even a ‘looking forward to working with you’ or anything of the sort.

Hopefully, that withdrawn attitude was something they could work on together.

“Next, our breakthrough firepower unit will consist of Ensign al-Shahouh in the Strelok C.Q.C. ‘Cossack’ and Ensign Rybolovskaya in the Strelkannon ‘Modular Weapons Platform.’”

Sameera turned cheerfully to Dominika for acknowledgment. Dominika turned her cheek.

Clearly the assignments Murati had made on paper would need some work in practice.

“Lieutenant al-Shajara and Ensign Lebedova will pilot Streloks in our support unit.”

Khadija walked over to Valya and gave them a friendly squeeze on the shoulder that took the latter by surprise. Valya nearly jumped, and then tried to smile at Khadija to play it off. No sooner had the Shimii’s hand lifted off her assigned enby’s shoulder than Khadija took off casually toward the hangar elevator, wanting to leave the hangar as soon as possible. Murati sighed.

“Finally, Cadet Ahwalia will be in reserve. Everyone is dismissed for the day. At ease.”

As soon as they were released, the pilots wandered away. Shalikova waited for everyone else to take the elevator first; Valya headed toward their Strelok’s gantry to inspect it; Dominika found herself closely followed by Sameera who was quiet but had a cheeky expression as she quite clearly and obviously shadowed her partner but pretended to be merely going her own way.

Murati, meanwhile signaled for Aiden to come forward to talk to her. She whispered:

“I don’t care who your family is. I won’t judge you or protect you for it. Next time you get a rise out of anyone, it will be up to Akulantova to get the boots off your face, because I won’t.”

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


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

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.1]

In a dark corner of Serrano station, packed tightly between nondescript storage buildings, a young woman stood over an older man and brought her hand down to his forehead. He stared up at her with eyes wide and blank in horror, jaw hanging. He could neither move nor speak to her. She could see in the crevices of his mind that he was a Union spy. She could not see enough to form a clear picture of his deeds and capabilities, but she could feel the texture of his identity. She could reach into him and feel the fingerprints of his soul.

Molecular control.”

Small tendrils extended from her fingertips which only she could see.

Like tiny currents of air, they curled into the man’s nose and eyes.

Something called to her with a deep, mocking voice. It was not the spy’s voice.

Wow, look at you! I’m so proud! Despite your disdain, you’ve truly mastered my “evil” methods!

“Shut up!”

That voice in the back of her head quieted, though not out of respect.

She had to make a concerted effort to silence it.

Had she been less gifted, she would not have been able to both control herself, and the man prostrated in front of her. She pried from him what she wanted — a way out of Serrano. A way out of the Imbrium Empire. It was not possible to escape to the Republic, and returning East was too dangerous. The ruined state of Katarre stood in the way of any possible escape through Skarsgaard so there was only one place to run to.

She had to escape to the Union to have any kind of future.

“You will do everything in your power to get me aboard the next Union smuggling ship.”

At her feet, the man under her control nodded his head.

Blood started dribbling from her nose.

Even though this was an Apostle’s ability, and despite all the power she had, it was not enough.

She could not sustain the control for very long.

All that she could do, she found, was plant in him a way to become involved with him.

“I have information for the Union. I’m a political refugee. Get me aboard their next ship.”

“I will get you aboard their next ship. No problem, doll.”

“Contact the Union to pay the smugglers. Set everything up like a real Union job.”

“I’ve done it a million times, babe. Just relax and I’ll take care of it.”

Under her hand, the man’s lips curled into a self-satisfied smile. Her control was flagging.

As satisfied as she could be, she tore her hand away and tried to look innocent as possible.

He kept smiling as he came to his senses.

He trusted her.

She had made his memories reflect that.


There was a figure, black and white, grinning viciously. Its eyes had a red glow around them.

A hand reached out to her, its fingers going right through the bridge of her nose.

Fingers became thick tentacles. Followed by a spectacular shower of blood–

“Aaah!”

Ensign Sonya Shalikova woke suddenly, gasping for breath, struggling with her blankets.

A nightmare– then, moments after she sat up and began to breathe, her alarm sounded.

Her back shot up straight, and her head struck the hard plastic privacy cover half-closed over her bed. Falling back onto her pillow, rubbing her head furiously, images of blood and brains still rolling over in her thoughts. Tears escaped from her eyes in a tiny trickle. Everything felt the most wretched that it possibly could. She smelled sweat and the stale metallic air of the ship; everything was dark save for a strip of light through a tiny crack below her door. She was cold. She felt the movement of the air in the room on her clammy skin.

She shivered, a cold tremor running down her spine.

“Fuck.”

It was 0600 hours. She was on a ship: The Brigand, a next generation “assault carrier.”

Nothing about it felt special. It was as dismal as any other ship.

Certainly, it had nothing on the Dreadnought she had fought with at Thassalid Trench.

Shalikova stood up from the bed. She was on a ship; nothing bad had happened.

Ambling to the other side of the room, she laid down on the second bed in her room.

On this bed there was a very well cared for stuffed bear, Comrade Fuzzy.

Shalikova took Comrade Fuzzy into an embrace, laying in that empty bed in her underwear.

As a pilot, Shalikova had the luxury of an officers’ quarters all to herself.

Though the size of the accommodations was the same as that of a Sailor’s, she did not have to share it with anyone which gave her more space to work with. A space that bunked eight people was more than roomy for a single young girl with two bunks. She never really felt lonely in there: being with other people, if anything, would have been worse in her opinion. Her meals in that noisy canteen were frequently annoying.

All she needed was Comrade Fuzzy to hug when she felt too stressed.

Soon, however, a second alarm sounded at 0630 hours.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

“Sorry Comrade Fuzzy. I have to go to work.”

Not that there was any work for her to do, but she was expected to be around.

She had been sailing with the Brigand for a few days since the attack of Leviathan ULV-96, in a battle she did not participate in. Her itinerary had been empty during this time since she did not have a Diver. Her Diver was due to be set up in a day. At some point Nakara would convene the squad formally.

Until then, they were just infantry, taking up space on the ship.

Shalikova therefore had a lot more idle time to look forward to.

What did one do on a ship with that amount of time to burn?

For Shalikova, that was something she discovered day by day.

First, she really needed a shower. Her whole body felt disgusting.

Why had she sweat so much? Why was she having nightmares now?

Of course, she was no longer on a station. So, to shower, she had to go out into the hall and walk into the bathroom. Aside from the toilet stalls it was an open floor plan. For the first day, this had been a mortifying ordeal. On the second day, it had been merely stressful. She expected that today, it would only be annoying. Thankfully, everyone on the ship received a vinyl robe with their bunk that they could wear to go shower and take off and on there.

Everyone respected the code of the vinyl robe — whoever was wearing one was going to shower.

Leave them alone.

When she walked out in her robe, there were very few people out and about.

The floor was cold, even with plastic slippers. She hurried to the bathroom.

While Shalikova lived in one of the least crowded places on the ship, that never stopped her from complaining, or feeling stressed out that someone might show up. And indeed, her worst fear was confirmed as soon as she neared the sliding door into the bathroom. She could hear the shower going, and worse, someone making all kinds of noise inside. She even recognized a voice.

Sliding open the door, Shalikova peeked inside.

On the Brigand the bathroom was split into two halves. An open shower spread out right across the door so that anyone coming in was bound to get an eyeful of breasts or someone’s dick — in Shalikova’s case that morning she saw both at once. To get to the closed stall toilets or the mirrors and sinks, one had to hit a left turn from the door. Shalikova found the design completely psychotic.

Their showers amounted to little more than a slightly angled bit of the floor plan with drains and showerheads on the walls. In Stations, the showers would mist your body to conserve water so that tens of thousands of people could have enough fresh water for their daily needs. The Brigand, on the other hand, was sucking in water all of the time and could easily desalinate enough for 200 people, so it had full showerheads and amazing pressure. It was the only upside to sailing.

“Good morning! Oh! It’s you Shalikova! You’re so consistent in the mornings!”

Alexandra Geninov immediately greeted Shalikova as she entered. A tall, lean young woman with broad shoulders, of course completely uncovered in the shower. Her honey-brown skin glistening wet under a gentle spray of water; rinsing her long, silky brown hair. Shalikova had met those odd eyes in the shower before. Alex seemed to like that time before 0700 to catch a shower.

“We should all be getting up by 0700.” Shalikova said, in lieu of any explanation.

Alex was playing with the soap in her hands. Moving it from one hand to the next.

“That’s where you’re wrong! This ain’t the Academy anymore! You’re an adult now, you can make your own schedule. As long as you’re with your work group by 0900 anyway.”

Alex turned a big grin on her.

Left and then right; she passed the soap between her hands. She wasn’t thinking about it.

When she brushed the soap bar against her skin, she used her left hand preferentially.

An observation Shalikova made, quickly, unconsciously.

“If you need to be ready by 0900, you can’t put much of anything on your own schedule.”

“You can get a couple good runs of Climbing Comrades in that time!”

“Maybe you can.”

Talking to Alex further would just be stalling. Shalikova wanted to be out of the shower.

With a heavy sigh, she began to disrobe.

Alex had never stopped looking her way. She had her back to the shower and water was falling over her head, but her eyes were wide open. She kept playing with the soap– did she realize how annoying she was being? Shalikova and locked eyes with her hoping to communicate her unbridled antagonism in that moment; but the happy-go-lucky Geninov was not so easily deterred. Was she just that thick, or did she enjoy this?

“Geninov, could you turn around?”

“Huh? I thought we’d built up a rapport! Shower buddies!”

“We really have not. I don’t build a rapport with anyone by showering.”

Alex turned around, so Shalikova was now staring at her ass rather than the rest.

“Didn’t you do this kind of thing at the academy too? We all had communal showers back then. Talking in a communal shower is kinda fun, it builds trust. Don’t you think so?”

“Clearly I don’t. Trusting you wouldn’t change this situation at all for me anyway.”

“You’re so shy! You know, we’ve got the same junk, we don’t need to be ashamed–”

“Shut up and stay turned around or we’ll see who paid more attention in combat training.”

Shalikova finally discarded her robe and bra at the edge of the shower.

She walked to the wall and turned the dial to start the water jet.

Something slid across the floor and struck her softly on her foot.

A yellow bar of soap covered in foam and a bit of brown hair. Hurled by Alex’s left hand.

“Need help washing your back?” Alex said, looking over her shoulder with a smile.

Shalikova picked up the soap and started to rub it against her own skin.

“Quit teasing or I’ll hurl this back at your face.”

Alex smiled. “That’s some serious hand-eye coordination! You ever play any games?”

Shalikova gave her a violent glare. “I’ve played enough to hit your head from here easily.”

Was she really getting anything out of peeping at and teasing a skinny girl like her?

Thankfully, she really did stop teasing her when Shalikova threatened to whack her.

Done rinsing her hair, again primarily with her left hand–

And yet, Shalikova was sure she had seen her use her right hand before.

Maybe ambidextrous? Not that it mattered. Just minutia her eyes couldn’t help but pick up.

Soon, Alex was gone with a tittering goodbye, seemingly untroubled by their interactions.

Shalikova stood under the water, unmoving, in silence, until she used her allotment of shower water. At that point, there was a beep and the shower simply stopped dispensing any more water. It took around fifteen minutes. It was blissful, quiet. Nothing to see and nobody to see her.

“Whatever.”

Without fanfare, Shalikova toweled off her white hair and with her pale skin still slightly wet, she put on her vinyl robe and walked back to her room, dripping slightly on the floor. On the way back, she walked across Alex in full uniform, who waved at her. She was probably coming back from her room after having dressed. Shalikova did not wave back; she just walked past her. 

She had been correct. It had not been mortifying or stressful; it was simply annoying.

Now she could go through the rest of her morning routine.

Once she was back in her room, she pulled out a drying shelf from a nearby wall panel and hung her robe on it. A gentle, warm fan would dry it off. She pulled tube off the side of the drying shelf and blew some warm air at her hair and face. Her underwear she dropped down a chute, where a pneumatic tube would deposit it in her clothes basket in the laundry room. Before donning a new set of clothes, she kneeled in front of her bed, pulling open the personal chest beneath.

From the chest, she dug out a box of patches, simply labeled E+.

Using a cloth, she dried up a spot on her rear and applied the patch there. She then took a big yellow pill from a bottle and brought it over to the wall with the drying rack. From a panel next to the drying rack, she brought out water-dispensing arm. Taking the pill into her mouth, she bent close to the waterspout and took a drink to swallow it. She slid the arm back into the wall.

Careful that her estrogen patch remained in place, she slid into her black bodysuit.

Using a tool to reach behind her back, she zipped it up tight.

Over the bodysuit she wore the black pants and white, sleeveless button-down of her new uniform. She had no opinion on it; a uniform was just a uniform. It was not what she would wear casually, but what she would wear casually was not that much different from it. She had a couple of things to complain about, and the uniform ranked low on that list. One thing she did take some umbrage to was that “Treasure Box Transports” was such a childish-sounding fake name.

She ran her hands through her white hair. It was damp, but not dripping anywhere.

For now, she did not put on the teal jacket, and walked out of her room without it.

Her next order of business was securing some rations.

Then she would think of anything else to do.

The Canteen was big enough to sit sixty people at a time on three long tables that each had ten seats on each side. In one corner there was the kitchen counter, behind which the ship Cook whipped up meals in big batches. There was also a table that always had broth, crackers and dried veggies set out for the crew, and anyone could take some if it satisfied them, at any hour of the day. Despite the size of the crew, the Canteen ran smoothly, and was rarely filled to capacity.

Shalikova felt like an actual breakfast that morning, so she approached the counter.

 There was another woman behind the counter with the Cook. A blond, green-eyed, and olive-skinned Shimii whom Shalikova had not met before. She had foregone a hair net and had her hair tied up in a ponytail instead. Those big, tall, yellow-furred ears probably complicated wearing the net just a bit. Shalikova noticed her hair was starting to go a little gray in parts, and there were hints of crow’s feet near her eyes she had gone to some lengths to obscure with fancy red wine-colored makeup. She was holding a big plastic spoon with a grip that resembled how a pilot would hold their control sticks.

When Shalikova approached, she was unnoticed by either of the women.

“…so I did tell him that I was not interested at all! But can you imagine, the nerve?”

“Hah, that’s brazen, asking someone out two days into the trip! Only sailors would do it!”

“I was flattered, but he’s so young. Maybe if it had been a woman I would’ve been–”

Shalikova frowned and narrowed her eyes at them. “Excuse me.” She mumbled.

“Don’t let the Commissar and the Captain hear you saying things like that!”

“Oh, then you didn’t know. There’s a bit of a juicy rumor about those two.”

“Really? Do tell, do tell! I won’t be in this kitchen forever you know.”

“Well, I met with them for menu stuff the other day, and the chemistry they have–”

“Ah, I see, I see! I suppose a Captain and a Commissar is a popular romance trope!”

“Oh, this is more than just tropes. I can tell those two have some saucy history–”

Every day, a few people were “volun-told” to go help serve food to the sailor and officers. This gave them a break from their other jobs and allowed the Cook to focus on cooking. Or in the Brigand’s case, fooling around. Shalikova realized the older cat and the Cook were very immersed in their discussion. Shalikova had met the cook yesterday: Logia Minardo, a chronically energetic older woman with short dark hair and elegant red lips, dressed in a white apron over her TBT uniform and a red bodysuit. She had her sleeves rolled back showing off some strong arms.

Logia Minardo had probably been in the infantry years ago. Whenever she got distracted while chopping vegetables, Minardo briefly flipped her knife as if she were going to thrust into an enemy combatant, with a brutal reverse grip. But she corrected herself quickly, maybe so quickly she herself did not even know she had assumed a combat stance for any amount of time. Then she would chop whatever vegetables. Nobody else seemed to be paying attention to that. Someone in the Union who left basic training and went on with their life would not develop such habits.

Not that it was any of Shalikova’s business and she certainly would not have made it hers. It was solely a curious observation which she made and then filed away, never to reference. Minardo chopped vegetables routinely, however, so it was not an uncommon sight in the kitchen. That was another habit Shalikova noticed while staring at her: she composed meals very lovingly. Some cooks just threw the ingredients into a pot and made stone soup. Minardo rehydrated the dried mushrooms for the day’s meal using a bit of broth, chopped, and fried them gently in oil.

Shalikova shook her head. This was no time to write a mental dossier on this lady.

Her stomach was rumbling.

“Hello! I would like the beans please!”

Shalikova raised her voice.

She pointed her finger at the tray of white bean stew behind the counter.

Both women suddenly glanced her way and then looked terribly embarrassed.

“Oh, I’m so sorry dear! I’m such an airhead. I’ll take care of you.”

That Shimii woman was all smiles now as she served Shalikova. Having heard her earlier talk, Shalikova now viewed her chipper attitude with suspicion and maintained an unfriendly glare.

“So, you want the white bean stew; do you want any mushrooms?”

“No thank you. I’ll take the white bean stew and the pickled salad sandwich.”

“Lovely! By the way, I’m Khadija. I apologize for not noticing you.”

Every meal on a Union ship or station was composed of a protein, a vegetable or fruit, and a carb, usually a bread. Breakfast was the lightest meal of the day and usually composed of a cup of soup and a small sandwich. It was entirely replaceable by the broth, dried veggies, and biscuits Minardo and Khadija had laid out for the crew to self-serve, but there was still a cooked meal. Small triangle half-sandwiches with pickles and dressing accompanied either fried mushrooms or white bean stew. Not much of a selection, but all of it looked appetizing to Shalikova.

Whatever their faults as people, these two old women could cook.

Khadija ladled soup into a cup and set it on Shalikova’s tray with two triangle sandwiches.

She winked. “You can have an extra. Don’t tell anyone.”

Behind her, Minardo sighed. “We don’t have so much that you can give out extras.”

“Just this once!” Khadija laughed.

“Fine, fine.”

Shalikova really wanted to say this wasn’t at all necessary, but to avoid further contact with Khadija she sighed and went along with it. Yesterday, the volunteer helper was Alex Geninov, and whatever one might say about her own issues with professionalism, she at least paid attention to what she was doing and followed the rules. Shalikova held firmly to her dim estimation of Khadija as she walked away from the counter, and the two women went right back to their cheerful gossip.

Her social energy already completely exhausted for one day, Shalikova found a corner with a three-seat gap to the nearest person and sat there so as to not be disturbed and hopefully not be accompanied. She set down her plate, picked up her reusable spork, and started to eat. For a moment she felt just the slightest bit thankful to Khadija for the extra sandwich because the savory, crunchy, oily bite she took was quite excellent. The stew was rich and creamy with a hint of tomato.

People started to come in and sit down.

Shalikova watched from afar.

Everyone always had some mannerism that they did that only Shalikova seemed to notice.

Whether it was the way Alex Geninov held her hands like she had a joystick in them when she was lost in thought, or the way the cook Minardo chopped vegetables or how Khadija’s tail swung faster when she was speaking about women than men, or the way that Captain Korabiskaya rapped her fingers on the table with one hand while eating with the other– there was no end of people coming and going in this hall, and so no end of things that Shalikova saw. Sometimes it fascinated her to watch them. She also sometimes feared they were all watching her too.

No one ever looked her way. But that did not stop her from being anxious.

If she could see them to this degree, could they look back and see the same in her?

She had practically been able to measure Alex’s torpedo in the shower.

So, was Alex staring back to that degree?

What would she think?

Did everyone see Shalikova as some kind of busy-body, or a pest? Did she have some little despicable habit that made all of them miserable? She tried her best to seem as normal as possible to everyone around her, and to be sparing with her words to avoid trouble. Perhaps in doing so, she seemed unsociable or unfriendly– hell really was other people! Shalikova sighed openly.

She tried not to think of such stress-inducing things again and focused on her food.

Soon as she had finished the last of her stew and ate both her sandwiches, there was a bit of a press of bodies in front of the counter. A large workgroup of sailors showed up, all at the same time. There were so many people, it really felt like a quarter of the crew had just decided to swamp the canteen that morning. A lot of them were covered in grease and looked rather bedraggled.

Owing to their lax pace before this surge hit, the two women behind the counter were nearly out of food and between batches. Sandwiches were found in a variety of stages of completion, and the careful touch that characterized Minardo’s cooking meant there were all sorts of ingredients in pots and pans but very little out on trays for people to get. And for a crowd this big that had been working hard, biscuits and broth were not an acceptable substitute for a good breakfast.

Khadija tried her best to charm everyone, but there was a bit of unease from the crowd.

Shalikova watched for a few minutes.

Visually, it was a terrible mess.

It was impossible for her to figure out where to put her eyes.

Just an absolute mess of limbs and heads. She could make out nothing from the crowd.

Nothing except how annoyed they were and how much stress she felt.

And the line was interminable. Something had to be done.

She felt an increasing pressure looming over her, especially as grouchy people started to sit closer and closer. Either she could leave, or she could try to do something about it. What would the rest of her day be like? Without piloting duties, she just had free time. She did not even have a workgroup to show up to. Short of personally asking Murati Nakara for work to do–

“Oh god damn it.”

Shalikova stood up from her corner and walked with gritted teeth over to the counter.

She slipped between people as much as she could and made it to the side door.

“Chief! Let me in. I’ll help cook for the day.”

Screaming at herself internally, Shalikova waved her hand at Minardo.

Minardo stared at her briefly, and then beamed at her.

“Oh goodness! Our heroine has arrived. Come in! Get an apron and get the soup going!”

She opened up the side door and Shalikova stepped in with her fists at her sides.

Khadija briefly noticed her, and her eyes lit up with a sudden happiness.

Shalikova avoided her staring, picked up an apron, and set about her day’s work.

“Idiot,” she mumbled to herself, stirring a pot, “can’t ever turn a blind eye, huh Sonya?”


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