Slender fingers twined around the handle of the porcelain cup.
Warm water poured over flowers and herbs and a bit of rough raw agave.
Mixed vigorously with a steel stirring stick. Dried with a flick, put away in a drawer.
Next to the loaded pistol. Precise tools for specific problems.
She lifted the cup to her lips and absentmindedly sipped of it. A touch of agave gave the tea sweetness and a bit of unctuousness. Otherwise the taste was very mellow and grassy. She had prepared the cup purely because she wanted a warm drink. There was no caffeine, because she did not permit herself to drink caffeine. Caffeine was not healthy.
However, this made it difficult to work deep into the night as she was.
She continued to work even as her eyes grew heavier.
Not out of a sense of the value of this labor; out of obsession with the result.
And a touch of paranoia.
Next to the cup was a portable on which she was writing with a digital pen.
With her fingers, she could swipe up and down between digital workspaces.
Taking notes over them in digital ink. It helped her process the information.
On one workspace, there was a series of dossiers with detailed personal data.
Swiping left, she saw numerous faces scroll past.
On the other workspace there was a spreadsheet of locations and offices in Eisental.
Swiping left on that workspace showed her the vastness of her new realm.
These assignments were a monumental task and she would delegate them to nobody.
Everyone for whom she had a dossier was qualified to serve.
However, not everyone could be completely trusted to be loyal to her designs.
“The National Socialist Labor Unions.” She mumbled to herself as she looked over a file.
Some of the dossiers were not people she was appointing, but people she was investigating.
So far, there was little resistance from labor leaders in the core strategic industries to the prospect of joining the state-sponsored labor unions. Because the previous liberal governments had done so much to support strike-breaking and extortionary labor practices, and tacitly approved the firing of union workers and the hiring of scab labor, especially in the strategic sectors– the very idea of the government reaching out to labor at all was viewed as a ground-breaking positive step in pro-labor sentiment. Labor organizers in high-grade steel, plastics, primary and middle manufacturing of plates, missile engineering, and semiconductors, had all approached her about the N.S.L.U scheme with interest.
However, she could not take them all at their word so easily.
Therefore, she had the Sicherheitsdienst investigate several of these labor leaders.
That only added to the amount of information she had to personally sift through.
Her self-appointed task tonight was to get through the highest government positions first.
Sleep could come later. There was always time to do nothing.
It was the window to act that Destiny constantly tightened in its white-hot grip.
She had to at least be sure the Gauleiters were all people that she trusted.
Aachen’s Gau office was staffed much more quickly due to circumstances–
Everywhere else, Reichskommissar Violet Lehner wanted to be more dilligent.
In the middle of going through the potential appointments for Stralsund, which were tricky owing to the presence of the Mycenae Military Commission in the area– Violet’s thought process was interrupted by the door into the office opening and the sound of boots.
Rather than the grandiose main office once occupied by station governor Werner, Violet was working in a small meeting room in the eastern wing of the government building. Only a few people knew where she was and could interrupt her. Nasser would have been praying at this hour, and was instructed to go to sleep without her– so it must have been–
“Esteemed Reichskommissar, seeing as how you’re working late, may I report now?”
Magdalena van Treckow. A few associations immediately came to mind.
Semi-disowned twin sister of Hedwig von Treckow of the Treckow clan.
Aristocrats with a military tradition; one of the few families with recent achievements.
Once upon a time, such things mattered among aristocrats–
now, this Treckow was just a Standartenführer.
“I am always happy to host you. Would you prefer to sit or stand?” Violet asked.
“May I move as the mood strikes, your grace?”
“Very well. Continue.”
In response, the officer performed a stage bow that made something in her leg creak.
Her body bore all manner of evidence of her already brutal career.
Magdalena was very similar to her twin sister– a tall and stately woman, beautiful, gallant, lean and long-limbed, like many in her once-noble house. She had dark hair down to the shoulders and cut a handsome silhouette in uniform. Then the similarities ended.
While the Treckow family were known for their stoicism, Magdalena’s resting face was a conceited grin on glossy black lips. She had streaks of white hair, perhaps prematurely aged by her experiences in life. She bore a complex scar across her neck that looked as if she had survived a deep slitting of her throat from jaw to collarbone. Exposed owing to her style of wearing her shirts and coats quite undone near the top. One arm and one foot missing; the foot replaced by a blade in her boot that Magdalena liked to show off at times; the arm by a multi-digit replacement limb that was more in line with what Violet had seen before.
On her sleeves, she had the armbands for the Zabaniyah and the Esoteric Order, along with an armband bearing a black box with a white hooked cross inside. It was a curious object to some, as nobody else in the organization wore it. This was because it was old– the armband signified the former Aktionsgruppe IV, a fake transport flotilla that Violet used to manage in order to smuggle goods to fund and supply Zabaniyah auxiliaries, thus hiding the fact that her personal forces were larger than they seemed. Violet no longer had to hide her ambitions or the size of her total forces in Eisental. Still, Magdelana kept wearing the band.
“As you requested, I’ve been on alert. However, despite the candor of his words during your little meeting, we have no signs of incoming reprisals of any kind from Adam Lehner. His attention appears to be fully directed south. He is losing his window to act on us.”
“He is aggravated with me but he cannot afford more enemies.” Violet said.
“Not only can he not afford them– according to my information, both his physical and his political capital would fray at the seams against any attempt to bring us into line.” Magdalena said. “I have credible evidence of growing support for us within important parts of Lehner’s coalition. Rhineametalle is of course obvious– but in the political classes, several of the Gauleiters in the Rhinean heartland expressed willingness to collaborate and made public statements congratulating you on ending the strikes in Kreuzung. No sanctions from corporations; no attempts by the main command of the fleet to subordinate our forces, or even to call for inspections in Eisental; we appear to be silently tolerated. Your father has been put in check.”
As she spoke, the woman wandered side to side in front of the desk.
She would flourish her arms, make exaggerated expressions.
“I appreciate your vigilance, Magdalena. But don’t call him my father. It annoys me.”
“Duly noted, your grace. To have caused you to frown would cause me to wilt.”
Violet ignored her flattery and put down her digital pen.
She closed and opened her fists.
Everything was going her way but she could not help but feel unsettled.
“I do hate that we are at the level of divining intent from public statements.” She said.
Her intelligence inside Thurin, and in the office of the Fuhrer, had to be improved.
She wanted to know the instant that clown in the high seat blinked.
Magdalena did not look too concerned. Her wanderings brought her over the desk.
“Once we have formal contact with more of the Rhinean Gau, we won’t have to guess. It is only a matter of time, Reichskommissar. You must relax!” Magdalena leaned much closer to Violet’s face, meeting her eyes with a viper’s smile. “Everyone can already see your ascendancy. Adam Lehner is squandering his moment, he is too much of a fool– he has influence and connections, but you, Reichskommissar, have all the brains. You have done in weeks more than he has in months. It is an unequal contest you are certain to win.”
Magdalena licked her own lips after speaking.
She leaned in so close that Violet could smell the tobacco smoke from her lips.
Any further and she might have stolen a kiss.
Violet said nothing. And so the flattery continued.
“Not only that, but you are a true revolutionary. Aside from the Esoteric Order, the Libertarians and the Neotribalists are already seeing that unlike the so-called Fuhrer, you will not betray the revolution of the Volksgemeinschaft to the wealthy and the intellectuals. You are looking out for the national worker and the soldier, lifting them up! Only you have the rhetoric and organizational skill to sway all of the rightist groups to your side.”
Violet turned her cheek, offended by the reek of the tobacco.
Magdalena reared back just a little bit.
“The Libertarians and Neotribalists are unreliable bellwethers.” Violet said calmly.
Her biggest weakness outside the Esoteric Order was that she was a degenerate queer.
Within the Order, such things were secondary as long as the correct obeisances were spoken.
They cared about the mythology of nationhood and supremacy much more than the details.
Outside of the Esoterics it was much more of a minefield.
Violet was almost certain that she was mixed race, and this was only successfully hidden because it would have made the elder Lehner appear less photogenic to the extreme right-wing organizations. So on her papers, Violet was any ordinary Imbrian. They could see it, however. The Libertarians, the Blud Bund, the Neotribals, the Traditional Fatherhood Front. They could see it. It was part of the reason she focused on Nation and Service over racial polemics. Violet had to be careful to continue playing with the fire of the Volkisch fringe.
Whether or not Magdalena caught or understood the subtleties did not matter though.
Whatever Violet was now, it would all be obliterated by what she would become.
Her plan was to attain power such that her own identity could be anything and not matter.
She would simply become the sword of the inexorable Destiny of the Imbrian Nation.
All the fools who had childish ideologies failed to understand the true driver of change.
Violet had applied herself dilligently, exploited opportunities in business and law, built up her wealth, made corporate connections– because she understood the nexus of power.
Capital could buy strength; and power was crystallized through the execution of force.
She would not rely on the purely ideological support of troglodytes like the Neotribalists.
Fools like the Libertarians could take their multi-point social plans and swallow them.
Violet had already seen her own future. With Eisental in her hands, she would acquire legitimacy through stability. Crushing the dissidents, rewarding the collaborators, and exercising effective management of capital. She would fix the problems that plagued the buffoon in Thurin. And then she would build her spearhead. With the applause of the common folk, she would recruit and equip the best troops, build ships, and march.
And the Shimii would be the core of her new order, the phalanx of her Destiny.
A fierce warrior race with discipline, humility, scholarship, and a long history of grievances to fulfill. Properly prepared with Eisental’s bounty, her Zabaniyah would align all of the disparate elements of the Volkisch– by force. They would never fully accept her, but they would bow before her sheer strength. She would make them. That was ultimately the glue binding the Volkisch Movement. Adam Lehner took over power formally, he got the votes– but he executed that power to legitimize arbitrary violence, and in the terror was his real strength. Idiotic niche ideological groups only followed him because of this violence.
Rightists would cower and fall in line; leftist dissidents would be exterminated.
Soon their opinion on Violet’s lifestyle would not matter.
Endsieg was close at hand.
Violet was a slave to this future. She would not exist without that vision.
For now, however, she had to play within the rules of the game so she could break them.
“Has Imani set sail for Aachen yet, Magdalena?” Violet asked, returning to business.
Her subordinate was not so keen to step away from the desk, however.
With the way she bent, exposing so much through undone buttons– quite lascivious.
And that gaze– it almost gave Violet pause from the hunger in it.
Exuding the aura of a predator.
Sizing Violet up as if for an attack.
“Treckow, business? Now? Get a hold of yourself. I am not joking.”
Violet snapped her fingers. Magdalena grunted a bit.
Looking offput by the response.
“Hadžić just got out; it will be a while yet before the fireworks start.” She said. Her eyes wandered as if the subject bored her, but she continued to hover in the personal space of her Reichskommissar. “Sawyer’s militia was slow to muster. Apparently the main command of the militia in Bremen sent her a very large gaggle of underage soldiers as reinforcements.”
“Fine by me,” Violet replied, “I was hoping the casualties would fall as much on the militia as possible. Wiping out a generation of Blud Bund morons in the process is a bonus.”
Magdalena smiled and began to rub the fingers on one hand over the surface desk.
“The Uhlankorp’s involvement is being discussed as well. Rhineametalle is agreeing to supply everything en route. I am not sure Hadžić will sort it all out, this feels a bit messy.”
“Hadžić will indeed work it all out. She’s one of Nasser’s inner circle.” Violet said.
“And that’s all it takes for you? So easily impressed by wagging tails?” Magdalena said.
Violet fixed her eyes on Magdalena, again meeting the woman’s own cryptic gaze.
There was an ardor in that expression that Violet continually met with apathy.
“It’s too late for you to bring that sort of agenda into this. You know how I am.” She said.
“Oh, Reichskommissar, that is not it at all. Race aside– I’m simply wary of their commitment. They are unproven. I am skeptical; because I have killed a lot more for this movement.”
“I’m not skeptical and only my opinion matters. So be at ease. Shimii have done dirty work for the Lehner family for years now. I trust Nasser more than anyone.” Violet said.
“More than me? I’m hurt. I’ve done so much for you, your grace.” Magdalena whimpered.
“I’ve done quite a bit for you too. Enough that you still owe me more than I owe you.”
“How cold. You reject me so easily. If you wanted, I would protect you from anything. I would relieve you of every burden and give you any comfort you wanted. We are all alone here, nobody would have to know. As the supreme leader, you could easily have me.”
“If you are done reporting, you are dismissed.” Violet said.
Magdalena leaned even closer over the desk.
Falling over it like a misbehaving cat.
“Violet– In Bosporus I was a wild animal– it was you who gave me back a human soul.”
Suddenly, Magdalena laid her hand like a claw on Violet’s own.
Her fingers pinched Violet across three knuckles. There was an instant of pain.
Violet jerked her own hand back.
This prompted Magdalena to burst out laughing.
“Very funny, Treckow.” Violet said. “Whether or not you are sincere, you are dismissed.”
Not angry, there was no point in it; just mildly annoyed at this amorousness.
She returned to her work, expecting Magdalena to see herself out.
“I am just playing my role. This play needs a chaste heroine,” Magdalena gestured to Violet, “a courtly, heroic romance,” she gestured toward the walls, at no one in particular (Nasser), “but also a devilish rake, whose temptation might steal away a tender heart.”
Finally Magdalena gestured to herself, laying a hand on her chest and bowing slightly.
Violet finally looked up from her work again with a sudden smile.
“Treckow, you don’t understand the genre. I am not a chaste heroine– I am a Valkyrie descended to make humanity pay for its sins with blood and iron. So who are you?”
For a moment, Magdalena simply smiled. Looking entirely too satisfied with herself.
With a final, silent bow, she took her leave from the stage. Casting one last look at Violet.
Violet almost heard the applause following in her wake, before returning quietly to work.
On the upper story of the John Brown’s interior pods, the hall was wide enough for two (somewhat short, somewhat thin) people to walk abreast. Ulyana and Eithnen were almost scraping the ceiling with their heads. While the wall plates were bare metal, the floor and roof were green. There were removable panels with obvious bolts everywhere. Flanked by doors on either side, the hallway was shorter than the Brigand’s upper hallway by half.
Eithnen and Tahira led them down those crowded halls and ducked into a small room.
Ulyana and Aaliyah followed.
There was no empty space in the room that they entered.
There was a table in the center and two long booth seats made up the walls. There was a monitor on the wall opposing the door they entered through. When closed, that door formed the final wall of the room in its near totality. So they had all the amenities to hold a productive meeting, with the table itself serving as a digital pad for writing or displaying graphs and documents. But they had to do it without room to stand.
“One more is joining us. He’ll be here shortly.” Tahira said.
“Will he fit?” Ulyana asked, smiling to show she was not serious.
Eithnen grinned in response. “Beats standing out in the hall.”
“Good point– I can see why you laid the sick men in the hangar.”
“I had to! Our infirmary is like a god-damn morgue. Only room enough to die in.”
“Are all Republic frigates this tight?” Aaliyah asked.
“I’ve never served in anything smaller than a Cruiser until now.” Eithnen said.
“To be clear, the layout of the John Brown is not in itself designed as a punitive measure.” Tahira said from Eithnen’s side. “This is indeed the layout that is standard to all In-Line-2 class Frigates as designed by StanDy Innovations– it is a deliberate design. There are many advantages to it– it’s easier to run maintenance as all systems are tidy and accessible. It’s also cheaper to manufacture. But our doctrine relies on a fleet support system.”
“Like having access to a fleet hospital ship.” Eithnen said.
“In the Union it would be seen as inhumane to not have a stocked infirmary.” Ulyana said.
“Wish I’d been born on your side of the planet.” Eithnen said, smiling a bit.
At that moment the door slid open again.
Eithnen waved at the entrant while Tahira sidled up closer to Eithnen to give him room.
Owing to his height, he had to slouch. He was taller than Ulyana or Eithnen certainly, and fit too, with strong arms and a wide back. His skin was dark brown, and his black hair was tied into a multitude of long braids which themselves were collected into a ponytail with a fluffy yellow hair scrunchie. His uniform consisted of a blue jacket worn over a white shirt and long pants. He was probably older than Ulyana– more signs of aging on his face.
From the moment he sat down, he had a big smile on his face.
“Burke Zepp. G.I.A.– or, well, ex-G.I.A. I guess. Pleasure to make your acquaintances.”
He reached across the table and gave a firm handshake to both Ulyana and Aaliyah.
“Pleased to meet you as well.” Ulyana said. “I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.”
“Aaliyah Bashara.” Said the Commissar.
Ulyana noticed her infrequent glancing at Tahira. Aaliyah was wary.
“So, everyone’s here.” Eithnen said. “Let’s talk, Ulyana. I’m sure you have questions.”
“How in-depth are you ready to go, Aaliyah?” Ulyana asked.
At her side Aaliyah looked surprised by the question. “I trust your judgment, Captain.”
“In that case, I’m curious to know how you came to be in this predicament, Eithnen. I would also like to know what your status is with regard to the Republic. It will not change any of my judgments as to how we could cooperate, it will just help guide my interactions with Republic personnel– for example, if the G.I.A. could re-arrest you, I need to know.”
Tahira seemed to want to interrupt, but Eithnen noticed and prevented her from doing so.
“It’s fine Tahira. None of us are bound by the regulations anymore. We abandoned that.” Eithnen said. Tahira still looked quietly offput by the notion, but Eithnen continued speaking, meeting Ulyana’s eyes. “I’ll give you the short version Captain. Everyone here has their own story of how they were confined here. At the root of it all is that we were all convicted of felonies in our respective home regions in Alayze. If you’re a felon in Alayze, you basically have no rights even if you serve your sentence. Can’t vote; undesirable for jobs; and it’s tough to even get a bed to sleep in. In that situation, there’s only one thing you can really do: if you ‘volunteer’ to a penal unit you can get your record cleaned. That’s why we are here.”
“That is why most of us are here.” Burke said, interrupting. “Do they know about Kitty?”
Eithnen nodded. “They’re pretty well-informed. And they saw her handiwork first-hand.”
Burke nodded back. He turned to Ulyana with a conflicted expression.
“I was a G.I.A. agent in perfectly good standing, but my mission failed. I laid low for years, moving in the underworld, cautious not to attract the attention of the Imbrians– until I heard about Kitty’s operation. I was all ready to go back to fighting for my country like a fucking clown– and then for all my trouble as soon as I met Kitty she immediately cast suspicion on me as a traitor and saboteur and had me trapped here. Unfortunately for her, the bombs they strap to the reactors on these penal ships aren’t a match for my skills. So I helped Eithnen and her crew get something of their freedom back in Kreuzung.”
“Those are the nobler stories. I– I was– just was one of the jailers.” Tahira said suddenly.
Ulyana and Aaliyah both stared at her. Eithnen shook her head and sighed.
“She’s being dramatic. She has helped us immensely, we wouldn’t be alive without her.”
“Regardless– up until recently, I fully participated in their incarceration.” Tahira said.
“Tahira, stop it.” Eithnen said. “I trust you; don’t give them the wrong impression.”
“That does not change the facts of what happened Eithnen, or who I am.” Tahira said. She turned a pensive expression on their communist guests and paused for a moment before speaking. “Captain Korabiskaya, you want to know our probable standing with the Republic? Most people on this ship are criminals. I am a traitor, having aided and abetted their escape. Should the Republic catch up to us, they will take the ship, which is the valuable asset– and exterminate the rest of us. Shot and thrown out to sea like trash. We represent dissent among worthless people who should only be able to fall in line for our masters.”
“Tahira was a Republic intelligence agent before.” Burke said. “Like me, she’s better aware than most people here how the Republic operates. She’s also being way too hard on herself.”
“She is.” Eithnen said, holding a hand on Tahira’s shoulder and squeezing gently.
Tahira reached up her own hand to touch the Captain’s. She nearly broke into tears.
Ulyana had assumed a few things about the condition of the ship as they spoke.
She noticed Eithnen was fair-skinned, but most of the crew were darker-skinned like Tahira.
Imbrian racism was more complicated than that– they could hate fair-skinned Eloim and Volgians quite dearly– but this was still a signifier that Ulyana well understood. Tahira must have been someone who made it within Republic intelligence despite her ethnicity.
How unbelievably cruel to make her the boot on the necks of her kin.
Ulyana could not imagine what she was feeling.
“Ulyana Korabiskaya, this ship is still sailing, but its crew is not alive. We have no future.”
Tahira pulled down her glasses and wept into her glove.
Eithnen spoke up to try to stop her adjutant from further breaking down.
Ulyana spoke first, however.
“Tahira, this is not the Republic of Alayze. It is time you stopped thinking like it is. You are in the Imbrium Ocean, and we are officers with the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. Right now, you are speaking as if the Republic can do anything about your situation– but the Republic’s presence in this ocean has been utterly destroyed and furthermore, I would argue the Union would not want the Republic to have a strong say in what is done militarily this deep in the Imbrium. So it’s not up to Alayze to dictate your fate any longer.”
“Are you offering to give us shelter? That is unrealistic, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You are allied with the Republic. Your country will have to comply with their laws.” Tahira said.
“Not necessarily. In the future, the Union and Republic may well go to war.” Aaliyah said.
Just as Tahira had spoken suddenly, and surprised the room; now Aaliyah did the same.
“Aaliyah!” Ulyana said, more amused and surprised than she was angry or annoyed.
“It’s the obvious truth.” Aaliyah said. “Right now, we are talking as if the Union is a state with sovereignty on par with the Republic, so let us examine that scenario in detail. Should the Imbrian Civil War end in a position where the Union’s continued existence means anything at all, the Republic will demand the Union open itself to the Republic’s economic sphere, which we’ll resist. Furthermore, say that in theory the Union ultimately declares itself to be the successor state of the Imbrian Empire, and guarantees the territorial integrity of the Imbrium– then the Republic might even seek war reparations for hundreds of years of battles with the Imbrian Empire. The Republic is a capitalist state. Its ideology, just as much as that of the Imbrian Empire, assists in the extraction of wealth, nothing more than that. Eventually they will desire to have an extractive relationship to us as well.”
Ulyana did not want to enter into the topic of total war with the Cogitum ocean.
However, the topic had been opened, like the Pandora’s Box that she had come out of.
She sighed deeply and could not stop herself from putting a hand over her face.
Eithnen looked somewhat amused at the behavior of her guests.
“That’s uh, pretty grim, to consider.” Burke said. “Though, not wrong, I suppose.”
Tahira wiped her tears and readjusted her glasses.
Eithnen continued to squeeze her shoulder.
“So, Aaliyah Bashara– what you are suggesting is that, since you believe Solstice will go to war with Alayze, and that this is an inevitability, you will give us asylum as defectors to the Union. In return, we can assist in your future conflict with the Republic.”
“No ‘in the future’ is necessary. I was never going to demand that you submit to military service in perpetuity. However, you can join us in our current battle, right now.”
“Absolutely!” Ulyana interjected, finally recovering. “Help us fight the Volkisch!”
Her sudden enthusiasm seemed to bring a smile to the face of her Commissar.
Burke crossed his arms and smiled a little too. Eithnen put on a warm grin.
“Tahira might have reservations; but I have no problem saying: to hell with Alayze!”
“Then our soldiers will never see their homeland again.” Tahira said.
“From what you said, they have no future there any way.” Aaliyah replied.
“I would not have put it so bluntly– but there is truth to it.” Ulyana said.
“I understand Tahira’s concerns.” Burke said. “For some of the crew here, they did truly believe there was a chance of getting their records cleaned and seeing their families again. Even now, they might not understand that the law is rigged against them because they love their home. They might not take kindly to being told we’re all joining the commies.”
“Then that’s my responsibility as their Captain to give them all the information and the choice to leave or stay. However much of a bad joke that might sound to some of them.” Eithnen said. “I’ve let everyone else speak up, so now it’s my turn. In my eyes, the Republic betrayed me and all of the people on this ship. None of this should have happened. In a just world, none of us would be on this ship. We were abandoned! I blame that squarely on the Republic of Alayze. I am on this ship at all, because I dared to speak out against this very policy. They court martialed me on spurious grounds and then made me responsible for the lives of this crew. Ulyana– when a Captain of a penal ship refuses to serve, she goes back to jail, but the crew are almost always people with long sentences or a stay of execution. They would have been buried and never given another chance– that is why I am here now.”
Ulyana was unsurprised but only by the degree of malice the Republic employed.
It was the specifics of the malice that continued to shock her.
Not even Nagavanshi would do something like this. It was so cruel for so little gain.
“Ulyana, I want asylum to the Union.” Eithnen said. “And I will take it upon myself to talk to the crew. If enough of them want to leave, would you agree to give them the ship and let them go? They don’t stand a chance– but I can’t keep coercing them to follow me even if I think my decision is the correct one. They’ve been fighting under duress for too long.”
“I agree.” Ulyana said, near immediately.
Aaliyah glanced at her but said nothing to the contrary.
Ultimately, Aaliyah would defer to whatever decision Ulyana made.
However, from her expression– it didn’t seem like she disagreed much with Ulyana.
“We should inform Premier Erika Kairos about this.” Aaliyah said.
“I will. I think she will agree with my decision.” Ulyana said. “Eithnen is right– ethically, I refuse to press gang the people of this ship. From a practical perspective, it would be disruptive to drag them along unwilling. So I will leave it to the officers here,” she gestured toward the other side of the table, “to organize your crew, and make your decisions. However it goes, we will do our best to see you off with food and medicine.”
Ulyana and Eithnen shook hands on it, both wearing a very similarly jovial smile.
“Captain, I want to apologize to you.”
Tahira spoke up again and extended her hand toward Ulyana as well.
“I misjudged all of you. I thought communists would be more severe to us.”
“Honestly, what do they teach all of you intelligence people about us?”
Ulyana smiled and shook Tahira’s hand, accepting her apology.
“Thank you so much, Captain.” Tahira said. “I– all of us really care about the people here.”
“We’ve been through a lot together.” Burke said. “This is the first ray of light we’ve seen.”
“We’re happy to help.” Ulyana said. “Say, Burke– do you know a ‘Marina McKennedy’?”
Aaliyah glanced suddenly at Ulyana and then averted her gaze entirely.
Burke shook his head. “Never heard that one. I assume she’s G.I.A.?”
“Yes. She’s on our ship– it’s a long story, but she might like to meet you.” Ulyana said.
“Long story huh? Well, now I’m real curious.” Burke said.
“We’ll have more chances to talk. Long stories are perhaps best left to text.” Aaliyah said.
“Yes, we will get everything squared away here as soon as possible.” Tahira said. “After that we can formally sit down and develop our communications if we decide to join your group. No use starting that process right away if we might not get crew consensus in place.”
“Quite sensible. Well, I am hoping we get a chance to work with you all.”
Aaliyah reached out a hand and shook with Tahira.
Neither gave the other any further suspicious looks.
Ulyana felt satisfied with the result.
Marina swore at the walls of her cell, knowing it could have been much worse.
Knowing she was in the wrong but still wanting to resist.
That had been entire life in a nutshell, she thought. Being wrong; struggling uselessly.
“At least Elena is doing okay, I hope. I didn’t get to teach her much.”
The Union’s solitary confinement cells had a bit of gradient to their level of torment. Depending on the settings that the jailers allowed the prisoner to access, it could be made more or less stressful. It seemed the commies did not have the heart to torture Marina psychologically for weeks, so the cell bed was out and the cushioning was adjusted to actually be comfortable to sleep on. There was a small device on the wall that played a selection of Union songs– most of them annoyed Marina and at first she thought this was one of the punishment rather than comfort settings. Every song had some kind of risible commie seasoning to it. “Love like proletarians,” “the rhythm of the factory floor,” “the collective farm worker’s song,” Marina was quickly sick of it. She did find a few songs that did not have lyrics and manually put these on repeat every so often for stimulation.
Befitting its function, the cell was very small. There was room for her body on the bed, and a bit more room next to it where she could walk up and down along the bed. It made the rooms on the ship feel like luxurious suites in a Stralsund pleasure hotel. While the lights were dim by default her jailers had engaged the cell-mode that allowed Marina to select the color. This was an exercise in doing their work for them and driving herself insane– she could make the interior of the cell a dim purple, a dim green, a dim blue or have it cycle through the rainbow. She would not bother with those settings for too long.
Three meals a day were guaranteed to Marina. Each of them was some kind of reconstituted mush. Buckwheat and oatmeal porridge with apples; potato salad that was more like a vinegary mashed potato; hummus with dried tomatoes, mercifully served with a fresh soft biscuit. Out of everything the biscuit was the most healing thing– Marina had really come to enjoy Minardo’s fresh cooking despite the commie vegetarian food ethos.
A particular source of amusement for Marina was the tool she was given to eat with. All of the commies normally ate using sporks. But Marina was handed a disposable, very thin plastic scoop thing that looked like a tiny coaster. When she asked about the utensil, the Yu girl (as Marina mentally nicknamed Zhu Lian) told her it was an Absolute Safety Utensil. Marina could not cut herself with it, fashion it into a weapon, or even use it to take her own life, since it was easily swallowable by an adult. She could only eat with it.
“Kinda overkill isn’t it? I’m not trying to break out or resist or anything.” Marina said.
“We’re just following protocol.” Zhu Lian said.
Her meals came in through a slot and the plastic safety tray went out through the same slot.
So went her first day of solitary confinement.
Marina had been locked up in the Escatulum for over a decade.
She could handle this much.
Probably the commies also knew this. They just had to do something.
She did not blame them, so she complied with her punishment as much as possible.
Even if she tried anything, those two psychos Ulyana kept around would easily kill her.
Just as Marina was thinking about them, time had passed, and she requested a shower–
And at her door, appeared the autistic blond psycho with the mask, in a security bodysuit.
Along with a full-size AK-pattern assault rifle over her chest, on a shoulder sling.
Marina raised her hands. “Whoa! What the hell are you doing with that?”
Valeriya Peterburg looked down at her rifle as if it was nothing interesting.
“It’s protocol for high security prisoners.”
“Protocol?! It’s protocol that you’ll dome me if I request a shower?!” Marina shouted.
“Lower your voice.” Valeriya said.
It was impossible to gauge emotion from her voice.
She lifted the rifle to show Marina that it had a bright blue colored magazine and barrel.
Indicating that it was a rubber pellet rifle– a less lethal option.
Marina was still incensed.
“Why did they send you? I formally request the Yu girl or the Gallian girl to help me.”
“I am unsure of who you mean.”
Valeriya was nearly whispering and it drove Marina up the wall.
“The other security girls! Don’t act like you don’t know!” She shouted.
Valeriya narrowed her eyes slightly.
“I am required to perform routine security tasks now. I will take you to your shower.”
“I won’t be part of your sensitivity training! I want to talk to the Captain!”
Marina was well aware that this dead-eyed freak and that Illya were both loose cannons.
She wanted nothing to do with either of them. They were dangerous!
Valeriya audibly sighed and stepped back from the door to the cell.
Laying a hand on the underbarrel and trigger guard as prelude to a shooting stance.
“Please follow my instructions or I will have to use force to secure compliance.”
“God damn it! Fine! I will be filing a complaint!”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Valeriya walked Marina to the showers, and waited at the door while Marina doused herself in cold water and grumbled, shooting her venomous looks every so often. She had been secretly hoping she might meet Minardo or Kappel in the showers, but there were only two other occupants: a loud waifish blond girl with a purple dye job and a brown-haired mixed chick with a huge dick arguing about something incomprehensible with her.
Annoyed, Marina showered, got dressed and got out of there as fast as she could.
“I appreciate your cooperation.” Valeriya said on the walk back.
“Fuck you.” Marina replied.
Valeriya silently returned her to her cell, locked her in there and left just the same.
Marina pounded her fist on the wall in a fit of anger.
She immediately regretted doing so.
Then she sat on the bed, holding her hand, and listening to the Union anthem instrumental.
Until some indeterminate amount of time later, there was a knock on the door.
Because the food slot opened, Marina thought it was just meal time.
She sat on the bed waiting. She then saw an eye peeking in through the slot.
“Marina, it’s me, Ulyana. Is it okay to open the door?”
“You’re the boss. You open it whenever you want.” Marina said, surprised to see her.
“Alright. Sorry about Valeriya– Anyway. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
That was unexpected. Wary, Marina said nothing as she stood from her bed.
When the door opened, Ulyana was accompanied by a tall, dark-skinned man.
Someone she had not seen in decades– but across that time she still knew him instantly.
“Burke?!” Marina shouted with surprise. One of her first G.I.A. field agent partners!
“Wait– that voice? Blake McClinton? Is that really you?” Burke responded.
Marina started smiling and the tears just came out without warning.
“It’s Marina McKennedy now. But yeah.” She said. She sniffled. She couldn’t believe it.
“Oh my god! Man– I mean, girl! Holy shit!” Burke was just as taken aback.
Burke and Marina both stepped forward and embraced tightly, laughing together.
“Holy shit! I thought you were gone off the face of Aer!” Burke said.
Running his hands through Marina’s hair and squeezing her closer.
He was tearing up as much as he was laughing. Marina had the same uncontrollable joy.
She pushed herself into him with all her might. Her heart was soaring.
“I thought I was too! Look at you! You look so hard, but you’re still a big softie!”
“That was my charm! You know I can’t afford to lose it! But oh my god! You’re alive!”
They were practically jumping in place. Burke! He was alive! Marina wept profusely.
“Wow! I had no idea you two knew each other closely.” Ulyana said, laughing with them.
“This guy right here was one of the best! One of the fucking best!” Marina shouted.
“Aww come on, I don’t deserve that! God damn though– I’ll accept it!” Burke replied.
Aaliyah stepped in from outside the room, staring at the scene with the tiniest smile.
“Marina, we rescued a Republic ship from the Patrol.” Aaliyah said, into the happy cacophony of Burke and Marina’s reunion. She was barely listening at first, but gradually she and Burke stopped laughing and cheering and let Aaliyah continue speaking. “Since you two are good friends, this might go more smoothly– we are offering to transfer you to Burke’s ship.”
“That’s right.” Burke said. “After you were gone,” he paused for a second, “Marina,” and smiled at getting the name right, “I got caught up in all kinds of mess trying to survive out there. I ended up back on a Republic ship and got caught up in Kitty’s insane plan– similar to you, I hear. It’s a frigate, the ‘John Brown.’ Penal ship actually– but we’re free of that now. We could use your help, Marina. We have a good Captain over there, but she’s seen way less of the Imbrium than us. We need more people to get the crew in order.”
Marina averted her gaze. She stepped back from Burke’s arms. She was conflicted.
She did not know the whole story, but if Burke and this crew were trapped by Kitty–
That was also something Marina was partially responsible for.
After all, she had supported Kitty in doing all of this.
She never even considered that Kitty might be dragging penal ships into this fight too.
All she thought about was rushing to help a fellow G.I.A. agent, despite her lack of merits.
“Burke, I don’t know what they’ve told you.” Marina said. “But it wasn’t the same for me as it was for you. I decided to get wrapped up in Kitty’s plan. I did that, I made that choice myself, nobody coerced me. I helped her to find mercenaries, to get gear, and to refine her plan of attack– that Core Separation would not have happened without me. Or it might have happened, and then Kitty and the entry team would’ve been killed quickly. I don’t know– it’s useless to imagine worlds where I’m not culpable. I was an accomplice to Kitty.”
“Hey, Marina, it’s– I get it– I get it,” Burke said, “G.I.A business is always murky.”
Marina could not meet his eyes again. “Burke, I appreciate it, but this is more than that.”
“Marina, this is a way you can make up for becoming embroiled with Kitty.” Ulyana said.
“We’ve turned over several relevant files to Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin of the ‘John Brown’ concerning this matter.” Aaliyah said. “And we informed her briefly of what we know of your involvement so she could make her own decision. She was not against taking you on regardless. We’ll amend your sentence here in return for your involvement with the John Brown. They are understaffed, and they lack the real world experience that you have.”
Marina looked at the Captain, Commissar and at Burke. She felt strangely conflicted.
She was never going to be a communist nor agree with their worldviews completely.
Despite how much she hated the Republic for what it did to her, that hate within Marina was a hate for political ideology broadly. Anyone who was proselytizing for any cause made Marina wary. Hell– in her head there was not that much of a difference between the Volkisch Movement and the Union itself except for who was the target of the rhetoric and the resulting violence. Whether or not she was wrong, Marina had fallen into an apolitical centrism she did not want to make any effort to disabuse herself of. Rhetoric was too meaningless for her, she had no hope that any political theory would lead to peace.
Liberty; National Awakening; the Revolution of the Proletariat. It was all the same to her.
Pablum. Excuses for conflicts and power grabs. Liquidating some people, elevating others.
Nevertheless, Marina had come to develop a respect for the commies as people.
Out of everyone she had met, they seemed to actually give a damn about other people.
That core of ethicality, particularly expressed by Ulyana Korabiskaya, gave her some hope.
Whatever she thought of communism, the crew of the Brigand were good folks.
She knew she had burned a bridge with them– and knowing that hurt.
Had she not been so dismissive and truculent she could have befriended them.
There was another way to have done everything she had done– but she fucked it all up.
Nevertheless, they were still here now, offering her more than a bullet to the head.
Staying on the Brigand and ‘serving her sentence’ wouldn’t repair that between them.
However, she was also conflicted about going on a Republic ship too.
As much as she claimed to disdain the ‘commies,’ she did not miss her people much.
No matter what, it would not be easy to leave behind this dumb little ship full of dreams.
“Could I visit Elena every once in a while?” Marina asked suddenly.
“Elena can visit you, Marina.” Ulyana said. “She’s her own person, you know?”
Marina grinned and crossed her arms.
She ran the fingers of one hand through her hair.
“Heh. Right. Ah– whatever. Sure. Send me over there. I’ll straighten them out.” She said.
“Maybe they’ll straighten you out instead. I would strongly prefer that.” Aaliyah said.
Both she and the Captain were smiling in such a surprisingly friendly fashion.
“Welcome aboard, miss. We’re glad to have you. It’ll be like old times, huh?”
Burke extended a hand and he and Marina had a big shake.
Then they knocked elbows together, both grinning.
For Marina, who never believed she would get a second chance let alone a third or fourth, this was an unexpected but happy outcome. She wanted to try to make the best of it; maybe she could do everything over and do it right now on the John Brown. If Burke and his crew also saw something in these people too, then maybe it wasn’t her delusion.
Maybe the commies were actually alright.
After the battle, the first several hours were tense.
It was entirely possible that they could be detected again and pursued.
However, the response from the patrol fleet was surprisingly sluggish and noncommittal.
Once Fatima began to detect the use of active sonar pulse scanning from the enemy, it was far enough away that they could easily disguise themselves as ordinary ocean-going traffic. By forming the John Brown up between the Brigand and Rostock, and towing a camouflage sail to distort the detection picture of the John Brown, they could pretend to be a Cruiser and her support vessels and the patrol fleet was none the wiser– they never picked up the trail and the Volksarmee’s journey to Aachen therefore resumed in earnest.
They were only one day out, so the crew began to think about what they would do there.
Some of the sailors admitted they were sad to only have been sailing for a week. They preferred the rhythms of everyday work at sea and did not want to be stationary.
Most of them were excited about going to another station, however, particularly one that was not so strict as Kreuzung. Brigand sailors had heard stories about Aachen from the Volksarmee sailors on the Rostock. It was a city that had both a rich history and tradition but also had become a hub of modern and idealistic dreams. As far as they knew, Aachen had no enforced racial segregation within the station, so the Shimii, Bosporan and Katarran crew could go out and eat, enjoy the sights and be merry– within the means of their limited stipends. After the Kreuzung adventure, the Brigand was not as rich in its supplies of Imperial Marks as it once was– and Erika Kairos did not have infinite pockets.
Nevertheless, it was the next leg of an adventure that had already proven quite eventful.
“Proven quite eventful,” they could say– because the dangers had been surmounted.
There was still a chance for tragedy, in the back of everyone’s minds.
And one girl who had often been preoccupied with tragedy was Sonya Shalikova.
However, even she was starting to think about what she would do in Aachen.
She started to think she should ask Murati out for drinks or something like that.
That’s how adult coworkers socialized, right? They could go to a bar or a restaurant.
Shalikova felt that she had been silly to avoid Murati. She wanted to get more familiar.
Illya scolded her about building a confident rapport– she needed to overcome that anxiety.
Her plans depended on what the Captain needed them to do in Aachen, of course.
But if they had some free time– maybe she could get Murati alone and have a chat.
Thinking idly this way, Shalikova took the elevator back up to the upper tier. She had been in the hangar, helping to put the simulators back up. They had been uninstalled during the retrofit and they left putting them up for last. After the ship left Kreuzung, they were extremely busy integrating with the Volksarmee, running the protocol and inventory rationalizations, and in addition, the hangar was messy with additional Divers and parts.
With everything cleaned up and sorted out after the last battle, the sailors wanted to reinstall the simulators again as a token of their appreciation for the pilots. Valya and Shalikova assisted in getting the default scenarios and features set up again.
Now she was returning to her room– where there was a curious lack of cuttlefish.
“That’s weird. Maryam usually waits right here, or follows me around.”
She had not seen Maryam in a while– but she felt immediately silly about her fear.
“Oh come on. Maryam isn’t attached to me by a chain, she can go anywhere she wants.”
Wasn’t this a good sign too? Maryam could not become too dependent on Shalikova.
At any point, Shalikova could die out at sea. Maryam had to be resilient and find her own place on the Brigand in case that happened. Whatever she was doing, in her head Shalikova now completely endorsed it. Some part of her feared that Maryam was bothering people, because she heard a story about her badgering the sandwich cart guy a few times during battles– but bothering other people was all part of a healthy social life wasn’t it?
People naturally created friction right?
“Why am I so focused on this? Who cares. Maryam sleeps here. She’ll be back.”
This must have been part of being someone’s girlfriend– missing her when she’s gone.
Rationalizing away her silly fears by talking to herself at the door to her room.
And then accepting that she will return– that was what love was, wasn’t it?
“I need to lie down. I’m starting to annoy myself now. I must be more tired than I thought.”
Shalikova shook her head and walked into the room, the door shutting behind her.
Taking off her jacket and unbuttoning her shirt, she laid down on her bed.
Immediately grabbing and hugging her bear, Comrade Fuzzy, close to her chest.
She tried to empty her head, and in the course of this, she finally fell asleep.
Dreaming of nothing but raging and swirling colors of an incomprehensible nature.
For an amount of time indeterminate to her Shalikova slept, until a ‘wah!’ sound woke her.
Slowly, she opened her eyes to her gaze meeting a certain cuttlefish woman’s own.
Green W-shape pupils close to her own. A big, delighted smile.
Shalikova raised her hand blearily and poked Maryam in her nose.
“What are you doing so close? I almost jumped.”
“You just look so cute when you’re sleepy Sonya! And you didn’t jump!”
“I almost did.”
“But you didn’t– that means you’re more comfy with me now!”
Shalikova grunted and pushed herself up to a sitting position.
She hugged Comrade Fuzzy tighter.
“I guess that’s true.” Shalikova smiled, just a bit, at Maryam. “What have you been up to?”
Maryam crossed hear arms, stood up straighter and wore a smug little grin.
“Sonya, I’m very important and high in demand you know. I’m a real cuttleformant–”
“You were telling the captain what you knew about Eisental. Okay. Makes sense.”
Shalikova stared inexpressively and Maryam briefly lost her haughty façade.
“Um, I mean– yeah– but I had lots of juicy info on the Katarran hot spots here!”
“I’m glad. So what’s around here anyway?”
Maryam sat down on the bed across from Shalikova’s with a disinterested expression.
“Not a lot around here precisely, actually, but there’s Trelleborg farther north. It’s like a station made out of a bunch of ships docked together.” Maryam spread her arms wide in a gesture attempting to convey the size of Trelleborg. “To get into Trelleborg, you have to get in good with a ‘Host’ who has a bigger ship connected directly to the primary tower, the Trelleborg Bazaar. Every other ship is connected to a Host’s ship. The Hosts were there first– they’re the big movers and shakers there. The Bazaar is strictly business– nobody is allowed to control it completely. There’s strict hours of business and everyone agrees to be out of the Trelleborg Bazaar and back onto a docked ship by ‘night time’.”
“Wow, that’s pretty wild. I’m sure people violate that decree a hell of a lot don’t they?”
“Yep, they call it honor among thieves. People get sent into the Bazaar at night to lay bugs or traps or try to sabotage competitors. But if you get caught, your gang must disavow you.”
“How do you get caught if nobody’s supposed to be there? Who would be watching?”
Maryam smiled. Her head fins flapped. “The underworld has a lot of complexities, Sonya.”
Shalikova grinned. “You’re making stuff up aren’t you? You fibbed yourself into a corner.”
“Hmph! Hmph!! I do know! I’ve been there you know! It was a leg on my big journey!”
Maryam puffed her cheeks up and went red, prompting Shalikova to stop teasing her.
“Alright, of course,” Shalikova laughed, mollifying her girlfriend. “Hey, Maryam, there’s a few days still to Aachen and we’ve gone down to stable alert again– is there anything you would like to do? I don’t really have any work; might not even have any work when we get there.”
“Sonya! I do!” Maryam turned purple and her skin became brighter and shinier. “I want to watch more films! I was fascinated by the one the crew put on a few days ago! I want you to show me your favorite films! Or television! We didn’t really have any of that where I was growing up! I want to know all about the pictures that Sonya really likes!”
“Not even TV? I would have thought they would at least play some propaganda stuff.”
“Screens were primarily a military tool for Athena. Maybe there were some pictures and I never got to see any– I was pretty busy with the maps and junk, you know?”
Shalikova thought about what her favorite movies and shows were.
Her face turned a little red. Surely she could not actually say what she was thinking.
“Sonya, you’re going all blushy and bashful! Now I’m super curious!”
Maryam leaned forward with a mischievous expression.
Shalikova leaned back against the wall.
“You know I wasn’t a big movie watcher. There’s really nothing–”
“Sonya, no fibbing from you either! You have to tell me or I will keep bugging you.”
Making good on her threat, Maryam went as far as to sit beside Shalikova and poke at her.
Rubbing her soft purple cheeks against Shalikova’s face like a needy cat.
“You have to promise not to make fun of me. You have to swear on your very soul.”
Shalikova was being completely serious when she said this.
“Of course, Sonya! If it’s important to you, I will stop teasing. I promise.”
Sighing, Shalikova brought up a computer window on the opposite wall.
Side by side in bed, she and Maryam navigated through the ship’s media library. There were many search parameters that could be employed to narrow down the films and television available for the crew. Shalikova sorted by “Union State-funded,” and then “Commissariat of Education,” then “Political Programs” (propaganda) and finally, chose–
Within this category there were only a few libraries.
Maryam’s eyes lit up as Shalikova selected the library for “Comrade Company.”
“It’s a kid’s show.” Shalikova said, hiding behind Comrade Fuzzy. “It’s a kid’s show about these little animals who learn stuff about the Union. You have to promise you won’t laugh or I will never show it to you. If you laugh at me I’m going to throw stuff at you. I’m serious.”
Shalikova’s voice was practically trembling. She felt incredibly pathetic.
“No, Sonya! It’s wonderful! Please show it to me!” Maryam said.
Sighing, Shalikova played a random episode for Maryam.
Comrade Company was an eclectic mix of presentation styles– depending on the segment the Comrades could be puppets, or they could be cartoons, or they could be stop motion clay or foil papercrafts, usually in real life settings. There were three comrades– a cat, a dog, and a bird. They always went to different places in the Union and they always had a “friend” from the specific place who helped them to understand it better. When they visited the farms in Lyser, they had a hydroponics engineer with them; when they visited the Sevastopol shipyard there was a Chief Mechanic; when they visited the Academy there was a teacher.
They would sing songs, or play educational games or get quizzed on things that they learned– in such cases they would turn to the audience to ask them for assistance.
Each comrade had their own personality. Comrade Growly, the cat, was always a bit of a skeptic and know-it-all but learned valuable lessons in trusting others and being curious; Comrade Barky, the dog, had an enormous imagination and often learned about how real things differed from their exaggerated expectations; Comrade Chirpy, the bird, was usually goofing off, and learned that the work being done by the episode’s designated Friend was very important, and learned to respect the hard work they did for the country.
At the end of each episode the Comrades would be seen with a Commissar who checked up on them and made sure everything was okay and that they were happy with their adventure. Unlike the Friends who rotated in and out, the Commissar was something like the adult in their lives who was in the background taking care of them so they could have fun and learn things. They always wore an embellished Ashura uniform. A distant but loving figure, much like the parents of a lot of Union children would be. Or a facsimile of a parent, since many Union children grew up without them and did not know such a relationship.
Shalikova was one such child who had grown up without any parents.
She had her sister Zasha, and her friends Illya and Valeriya too, but they were usually busy.
In the Union, the state spent the most time with children.
Through teachers; through caretakers, pediatricians; and through storytelling.
For her and her old roommate Klob, the Comrades were invaluable friends every day.
They showed Shalikova the world and taught her to grow up to be respectful and dutiful.
“Wow! Sonya! What an amazingly cute show!” Maryam started clapping cheerfully.
Shalikova was lucky that Maryam was a bit of a kid inside still.
So she could appreciate the show even after all she had been through.
Meanwhile, Shalikova had to avert her gaze a few times as they watched the episode.
Not as much anymore because she was embarrassed to love something so cutesy.
Rather, watching something so care-free and childish hurt her adult heart a bit.
She found herself with tears in her eyes and hugging her bear ever tighter.
After all she had done with her life– was this ridiculous?
Was it a big joke for a soldier to love this cute, silly harmless thing?
“Sonya, why are you crying? I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have been so bossy!” Maryam said.
“It’s not you.” Shalikova said. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
“Oh no, is the show bringing up bad childhood memories?”
“My childhood was fine.” Shalikova said. “It’s my adulthood that kind of sucks.”
“I understand.” Maryam said. “But Sonya, as an adult, you have a lot of freedoms to do things that kids don’t. One of those freedoms is you can always choose to keep feeling like a kid. It’s okay to watch cute shows and have a stuffed bear– nobody can tell you different!”
Maryam only half-understood the pain Shalikova felt at that moment.
However, the solidarity was enough to patch up Shalikova’s broken heart just a bit more.
Enough that she could stop crying, at least.
And think a bit more clearly again.
Just like Zasha– as an adult, Shalikova had chosen to fight. She had chosen it.
So some other kids could get to grow up with her favorite cartoon.
Maybe someday she could sit down and truly enjoy it again.
“Thank you, Maryam. Do you want to see any more?” Shalikova asked.
“Not if it’s going to make you cry.” Maryam said. “I don’t want you to feel bad.”
She was so gentle– Shalikova felt like she might cry again, but because of Maryam’s love.
“No, I’ll be fine. If you want, you can even tease me for it.”
“Never! Sonya liking cute things is something I deeply respect!”
Maryam looked down at Comrade Fuzzy for a moment and then back at the screen.
“You noticed?” Shalikova said. She held up Comrade Fuzzy and offered it to Maryam.
Surprised, Maryam gently picked up Comrade Fuzzy and hugged it as Shalikova had been.
“Comrade Fuzzy was my ‘Comrade’.” Shalikova said. “I learned to sew to make him.”
“That’s so cool, Sonya.” Maryam said. “What is he like? Did you give him a story?”
“I think he’s a grumpy guts like me, and he learns to lighten up.” Shalikova said.
“I want to make my own Comrade! Can you teach me sometime, Sonya?” Maryam asked.
“Of course. I don’t know when we’ll get sewing supplies, but I’m happy to teach you.”
Maryam’s smile was like the sun that Shalikova would otherwise never see.
She raised her arms and threw them around Maryam, pulling her in close.
Perhaps they made an odd pair, and the circumstances of their romance were tenuous.
But Shalikova loved her so much. She truly loved every second of her presence.
Without Maryam, Shalikova felt that perhaps, her life would have ended in Goryk.
Selene Anahid would have crushed her, because she had not learned how to live.
Maryam helped her to see the value in her own life. She had been through so much hardship and abandoned everything she once knew– but she continued to smile and laugh.
Shalikova wanted to live, just like her.
Not as a martyr making up for her own existence– but as a person who wanted to exist.
A person who could live and be happy.
Even when it hurt.
“Maryam, if something were to happen to me– take care of Comrade Fuzzy.”
She had been wanting to say something different– but that was what came out of her lips.
Maryam seemed to get the message even in code.
Returning Shalikova’s embrace as tightly as it had been given.
“Of course, Sonya. But I know you’re much more resilient than you think.”
“Thank you Maryam. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Shalikova started weeping into Maryam’s shoulder.
While Maryam continued to smile and shower her in her kind and gentle affection.
“There we go. You’re so much more stable now!”
Homa held Kalika’s hands tightly as they walked together up and down the medbay.
Without fanfare, after a few rounds, Kalika softened her hold on Homa’s hands.
“I will let go until the wall, okay? But I’m still here, and I can still support you.”
Homa watched Kalika’s fingers slowly let go of her hands.
She did not fall and tumble forward; nor did Kalika disappear from her sight instantly.
For several paces, Homa walked unassisted.
Her gait was not the most collected and elegant, but she was stable and steady.
At the far end of the medbay, Kalika gave Homa room to walk to the wall.
Homa walked past, put her hand on the wall, and turned herself around on her own power.
She started walking by herself back to Kalika’s side.
“Are you feeling okay? No soreness in your legs? Feet don’t feel slippery?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“Want to take my hands again?”
Homa shook her head.
“Let me see if I can get to the other end.” She said.
Kalika nodded her acknowledgment and let her walk past.
Watching cautiously, shadowing Homa as she tried to walk to the opposite wall.
Step by careful step, still dealing with the slight difference in weight of her new limb.
With the wall coming closer and closer in sight, Homa felt her heart rise.
She stretched out her arm to touch the opposing wall–
and inadvertently crossed one foot with the other.
Before she could fall, a pair of hands took hold of her and kept her up.
“You’re doing amazing, Homa!” Kalika cheered, ignoring the fall.
Homa did not grumble or get depressed at the fall.
She sighed to herself and felt a little embarrassed but she recognized her own progress.
A week ago she thought she might never move under her own power again.
Now she was so close to walking by herself. Dr. Kappel and Kalika had been right.
Making progress with walking buoyed her heart, even though she still had a lot to think about. All the things she had been through felt easier to stomach if at the end of it she could still walk and feed herself and regain some kind of power over her own life.
She could eat with utensils in both hands now, or hold a drink while she had a spork in the other; when she went to shower, she could walk along with Kalika, balancing herself on the wall or holding Kalika’s hand if she got too unbalanced; and she had gotten to know a bit more of the ship. Kalika took her to the cafeteria and the social space.
Now as she sat on the edge of her bed in the medbay, everything felt closer to a resolution.
Or at least, to the next step in her journey.
Nobody forced her to do anything; but Homa felt a mounting pressure to make a choice.
A pressure she exerted upon herself. Wary of her caretakers; unsure of her future.
“Kalika, you’re a mercenary, right?” Homa asked.
“Oh? What’s this about?” Kalika looked amused. “Well. It’s more complicated than that.”
“What do you mean ‘it’s more complicated’? Are they paying you or not?”
Kalika laughed a bit. “Theoretically. Perhaps I’m more of a consultant on retainer.”
Homa frowned. “Don’t be coy with me! Is someone paying you to take care of me?”
“I feel like you’ve concocted ten different ways to ask this by now.” Kalika said. “Technically I am supposed to be paid for everything I am doing. But if I asked Erika for every pfennig she would become insolvent. Having a self-sufficient crew who looks out for each other is its own reward. As for you, I already told you a million times, I am just being nice to you.”
“I’m sorry you’re so fed up of me asking questions. Maybe I’ll stop.” Homa grumbled.
“What if I said you’ve really helped me work on my patience? Would you accept that?”
Kalika smiled. Homa averted her gaze, not appreciating the humor one bit.
“Are you afraid that if they stop paying me I’ll just ditch you immediately?” Kalika asked.
Homa continued looking the other way and did not answer her immediately.
“Haven’t I earned a little bit more trust than that?” Kalika asked again.
“Kalika, I don’t know anything about you other than you’re nice to me for no reason.”
“But I already told you my reasons so many times.”
“It’s because you’re so cute, you know?”
“Stop it. I’m being serious.”
“Alright. Let’s talk about me then. Are you curious about the mercenary life?”
Kalika moved from the wall to take a seat right beside Homa on the bed.
Homa’s small tail stood on end and her ears lifted with surprise.
She mustered the willpower not to meet Kalika’s eyes.
“Maybe I am. I don’t know what’s going to become of me with all of you scoundrels.”
“Weighing your options?”
“Maybe I am!”
“Then I can be your career counselor for the mercenary life. How about it?”
No answer from Homa.
“If you’re curious about being a Volkisch informant, I can find a counselor for that too.”
Homa snapped right around to lock eyes with Kalika in a sudden outburst.
“Kalika! I was just mad that day– I didn’t actually mean that, come on!”
Kalika poked Homa’s nose with a long index finger of her biological hand.
“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a little kid! You’re just pissing me off!”
“I’m just substantiating my claim– I’m helping you because you’re so cute.”
Perhaps knowing she was pushing her luck, Kalika allowed Homa to stew a few minutes. Homa was annoyed, but she was also experiencing a conflicting emotion. She wanted to actually believe Kalika’s teasing because she truly did not want Kalika to abandon her as soon as she job was done and Homa was able to be independent again.
Homa felt that it was stupid to feel so attached to Kalika, whom she did not know and who was assisting her on a condition of pity for her health. In the dire situation she found herself in, where she was on a fighting ship that was antagonizing the governing faction in Rhinea, Homa had to think carefully about whether to leave or stay aboard. However, even knowing this rationally, she still wanted to stay with Kalika. She was– curious– about her.
She also knew all of her fantasies would be difficult to fulfill.
Could she even keep up with Kalika at all? If she stayed, wouldn’t they still be separated?
Homa was useless in a fight and only barely an adult.
Kalika was a dashing mercenary.
She was older, more experienced, and lived for danger.
Their worlds had briefly collided– but staying on the ship did not guarantee anything.
However, leaving the ship meant leaving her behind for good.
Never seeing her again. Foreclosing on the possibility.
Not only Kalika either. Dr. Kappel, to whom she owed so much for her care.
Captain Korabiskaya too, who had taken her aboard without reservation.
And the pilots who saved her after Nasser had parried her childish retaliation so easily.
When she thought about it, she owed the entire crew so much.
Even if she had selfish reasons to stay; she also had accepted too many people’s kindness.
Homa did not believe in free things and charity– she felt pressured to repay them.
“I’m leaning toward staying aboard.” Homa said suddenly.
“Oh! I’m happy to hear that. I was worried you wouldn’t be safe by yourself.”
“I can take care of myself– I’ve always lived alone. I just want to repay all of you.”
“I understand. Look, it’s not that I don’t have faith in you. I want you to know that.” Kalika said. She looked at the wall and seemed to turn suddenly wistful. “But it’s so difficult to be turned out without a home. Especially in a tumultuous era like this. I kept thinking: could you have found a job to sustain yourself? Could you have formed a new support system so you wouldn’t be lonely and could turn to someone for help if you were hurt or exploited? Being ripped from everything you knew is terrifying. I know what that is like. But the people on this ship are good-natured. Having this community might be good for you.”
Kalika reached out and rubbed Homa’s shoulder.
“Community, huh?” Homa said, in a low voice meant mostly for herself.
“Something you can lose; but also something that spurs you to protect it.”
She sounded melancholy. Homa recalled that Kalika felt kinship with Homa’s struggles.
That she had fought for something with all her strength and lost it.
Kalika told her in the shower, when she was vulnerable. She had not forgotten it.
“Kalika, can you tell me more about yourself? How did you end up here?” Homa asked.
“I did say I would talk about myself.” Kalika said.
Then she dropped back onto the same bed as Homa, lying with her hands behind her head.
Crossing one leg over the other knee. Homa tried not to gaze in an untoward fashion.
After a few moments, Homa decided to just lay down next to Kalika too.
“You know how Katarrans come into the world, Homa? Most Katarrans are actually infertile.” Kalika began. Homa vaguely knew about this but stayed silent and let Kalika speak. “We are grown in artificial wombs. Katarran sperm and eggs are often incapable of conceiving even when collected and manipulated under the strictest conditions– but there is a technique that introduces outside material from a fertile animal, and uses chemicals to create a life in the vat. That’s how Katarrans come to be, overwhelmingly. I was no different.”
Gazing up at the ceiling as if to a place very far away.
“Kalika Loukia– was made in an Embryo Farm in Northeastern Katarre, territory of the Pythian Black Legion. Most Katarran warlord states barely have structure. They consist of armies that commandeer a region for their own benefit. Pythia was exactly that. A bunch of might-makes-right nihilists who declare their extortionism to be survival of the fittest playing out. They believe the world is drawing closer to an apocalyptic conflict between all nations and peoples, and that they must amass strength to win this battle.”
“That sounds horrifying.” Homa said. “How did you escape from there?”
“Like a lot of Katarrans in the border with the Imbrium: I was part of a raiding ship and it got knocked out in the Imbrium. I was lucky to be captured by Bureni nationalist insurgents.”
“I don’t know that I’d call sinking and being caught lucky.” Homa said.
Kalika laughed. “If I had been caught by the Imperial Navy, I would have been killed or jailed, Homa. But the Bureni insurgents were just defending one of their hideouts– they knew that Katarran youth had a hard time and did not blame the survivors for the incursion. They killed our officers and set us free. Some of the other crew joined the Bureni nationalists even. I trained there for a time, but I went my own way after that– that’s how I started my career. In the Imbrium you hear all kinds of stories abouts Katarrans who make their own way in the underworld. Amassing riches, building their own crew, and forging their legend. Even among the outcasts in Buren I could not escape the allure of the Katarran fantasy.”
She turned her head aside to try to meet Homa’s eyes, but Homa was staring at the ceiling.
When she realized it, Homa tried to suppress her embarrassment and turned to look at her.
Meeting her eyes and trying not to feel nervous as her glossy red lips moved.
“Can you predict how that went, Homa?” Kalika said.
“I assume it went fine, since you’re here?” Homa said.
“Well, I am alive, but did I forge a legend? The reality is that mercenaries don’t become legendary, Homa. A legend is just a tall tale– Katarrans just get used and abused. Whether we exploit each other, or get used by the Imbrians, it makes no difference. A mercenary doesn’t actually work for herself. She is just a vagrant with a story she tells to herself. She is a slave whose chains are invisible. We are inexorably outlawed from decent society. From town to town, job to job, all that changes is how bad the racism gets, and how developed the parallel structures of the underworld are. I learned that the hard way.”
“Kreuzung was particularly racist.” Homa said. “I barely ever saw Katarrans around.”
“Right. In Kreuzung, I could dare to walk around the same streets as Imbrians, getting dirty looks– but if a cop saw me they might ask for an ID I don’t have and can’t get, so I have to be careful. Businesses will reject my patronage arbitrarily. Sometimes a place will take my money, sometimes it won’t. I could never get a legitimate room, and I could only work a job under the table, without legal protections. If I do not relish being an undocumented migrant worker my only alternative is the underworld, in the darkest corners of a station that have not seen civil use in forever. Down there if we learn the ropes nobody will teach us, we can smuggle goods, play the black market, push drugs, or kill people. Maybe you can open a shop or a bar for other bastards to enjoy, if you can pay protection money and get goods. Most Katarrans will just die– never taught how to live, and then exploited and killed.”
A grim story, but one that made sense to Homa, once it was laid out in detail.
Homa figured that Kalika must have somehow learned how to survive in the underworld.
All the specifics she did not go into– were the things she had to do to live.
She wondered how many Katarrans fled to the Imbrium only to find this kind of life there.
And then to die without being known by anyone, or missed by anyone.
“Again, I was pretty lucky– before I could get into too much shit, I was rescued again.”
Lying on their sides on the bed, facing each other– Homa could barely meet Kalika’s eyes.
She was too embarrassed to see her smile. Kalika was just– too pretty–
“My path crossed that of a Shimii legend– Radu the Marzban.” Kalika said.
Homa tried to hide the surprise that came over her upon hearing that name.
Her heart skipped a beat. All manner of emotions began to flutter in her chest and gut.
Homa in that moment was so afraid she might have to talk about her own connection.
Had Kalika seen it in her? She did not change her expression nor how she told the story.
“I became part of a Shimii village for years. It was a Mahdist group, actually, at the bottom of one of the towers of Holstein.” Kalika continued. “I learned to do all kinds of things there– things other than killing. I also got to refine my craft as a fighter too– I picked things up here and there from every place. There are too many stories to tell from there. How do you sum it up? That place– it’s where I learned what a community was. People taking care of each other. Grocers who saw you were hungry would give you a snack. You could go to the Masjid and learn to read. They had so much hospitality even for unruly Katarran teenagers.”
Kalika shut her eyes and sighed. Her expression darkened.
“Eventually, though– well, I think you’ve heard my insinuations about it already.”
“That community was destroyed, wasn’t it? And you couldn’t save it.”
Homa said it bluntly, but she was repeating what Kalika had said in the shower.
Kalika did not look offended by it.
“That’s right.” She said. “You understand– that is why I relate to you a lot.”
Homa felt a sudden swell of shame and embarrassment and she wanted to say–
“I am not like you. You fought for something real– I was just being stupid and naive.”
But she remained quiet. She did not want to sound so pathetic in front of Kalika.
And it was Kalika’s story to tell– if she thought it sounded like Homa’s, so be it.
“Anyway, I used what I learned and became a real mercenary in Rhinea. I knew the rules and I told myself I knew how the world worked. For a while, I had no hope in anything anymore. I’d take any job, no matter how bad. I developed a reputation for being particularly professional, because I had no pretensions anymore. I was fully immersed in the life. It was a dark time for me. To this day– it still feels weird that I’m alive, after all of that. I can still feel that hopelessness and listlessness. That kind of thing will keep haunting you, I’m afraid.”
“That doesn’t sound like you. You’ve been really kind to me.” Homa said.
“You’ve been seeing a particularly nice side of me.” Kalika winked. “I can be kinda awful. I know that my crew thinks I am cynical and faithless and pretentious. I probably am.”
Kalika turned on the bed again, lying on her back once more and staring at the ceiling.
She reached her mechanical hand up and flexed her fingers, blocking out the ceiling LEDs.
“I ended up here– because I took on a contract to kill a foolish merc named Erika Kairos.”
Homa blinked. She was confused. That was the big boss everyone here worked for.
“So perhaps they have reason to be wary. But– I’m here because despite all the things I stopped believing in, I started believing that woman.” Kalika added, laughing a bit.
She then outstretched a hand and laid it on Homa’s ears, stroking them suddenly.
“Now that you know– I hope you’ll excuse my rougher edges if you see them.”
Even before hearing all that– Homa could have never stayed mad at Kalika too long.
Now that she knew though, her heart positively fluttered with admiration for her.
To have survived so much, gotten stronger and continued smiling.
Could Homa do something like that? How alike were the two of them really?
As she lay beside her in that bed, staring up at the ceiling together.
Homa wondered. Whether she could follow her.
“It’s so disgraceful how you will come all the way here to be able to drink.”
There was a voice coming from behind her that she did not want to acknowledge.
So Khadija simply lifted the can of corn beer to her lips and took a deep drink from it.
“It’s not illegal here, that’s why I came here to drink. It’s not grape wine, so who cares?”
“Yes, the selective readings of fringe scholars are very convenient to you, I know.”
“What’s one mortal man’s reading of scripture over another’s worth?”
“You become such a philosopher exclusively when it’s time to justify your vices.”
Khadija looked over her shoulder. It was impossible not to identify her accuser already.
There was a blond woman behind her, with a stern expression, and a very bushy tail.
Younger than her. Less makeup. Fluffy ears. Still pretty, in an annoying fashion.
And all the pretentious little ornaments on her uniform. Her stupid little beret.
Milana Omarova, the vozhd of the Shimii troops in the Union.
She had followed Khadija all the way from New Karach to a neighboring sub-station some thirty kilometers away, Sarai sub-station. A dock for patrol frigates, housing a search and rescue team and a few repair facilities, responsible for supporting the endurance of patrol missions on the southern border. It also had an officer’s lounge that was stocked with beer and every so often a cute younger officer would show up for her to wink at and tease.
Owing to the vozhd’s reign of moral terror in New Karach, alcohol was banned there.
However, Sarai was secular, run by nice communist Volgians who liked to drink.
Thankfully for Khadija’s vibe as the friendly, mature beauty of Sarai, the station was usually somewhat empty and so while she was sitting down at the lounge, there was nobody to see her get scolded by Milana Omarova. It was just her, the machine that spat out beer cans, and four baby-blue walls and a couple of tables. She had been hoping some sweetie would come in from a patrol frigate but instead, it was her “younger sister” Milana being a nag.
An utter waste!
“I don’t want to argue with you. What do you want?” Khadija said.
At that point, Milana sat down next to her.
Khadija did not meet her eyes. She continued drinking.
“You’re wasting your life here, elder sister, when our kin need you.” Milana said.
“I’m doing perfectly fine. I recently won a big battle even– what did you do then, hmm?”
“I did as I was ordered. You didn’t waste a second going back to drink, rather than see me.”
“Oh I wonder why that is. I wonder why I tarried in receiving my weekly scolding.”
Milana narrowed her eyes. “Come to New Karach and train my troops. I need you there.”
Khadija burst out laughing. She almost spat out her beer at her idiot sister’s face.
“Are you insane? I’d rather fight battles of Thassal for a year. No! Fuck no!”
Milana put on a more serious expression– a differently serious expression.
Even nearly drunk, Khadija could see the shift in her eyes and lips.
“Nagavanshi is summoning you back to Thassal, to send you to the Imbrium.” Milana said.
“Indeed. A glorious mission isn’t it? I’m a very important person.” Khadija said.
“You’re a big-headed person.” Milana said. “Say no. I’ll protect you. Khadija, it’s suicide.”
“Again, you must be out of your damn mind. I’d truly rather die than work for you.”
“Khadija, you’re clearly at a dead end in life and trying to destroy yourself. I can see it.”
Khadija put down the can of beer. Her chest constricted. The tips of her fingers tensed.
“You’re getting far too free with your criticisms, little sister. You should know your place.”
To Khadija she was just a bitchy little sister– she was not the vozhd of shit to her.
Despite this, Milana did not act offended at the discourtesy, like she did to her underlings.
“I’m not wrong.” Milana said. “It was a stroke of luck for you that you were even near Thassal to be deployed to our first battle in decades. Otherwise, you would have kept drinking and debasing yourself in whatever hole, doing nothing with yourself. I can’t accept that.”
“I repeat. I don’t care what you think. But I am not tolerating your disrespect any longer.”
“Come back with me.” Milana insisted. “Train our people to survive like you did! Don’t just let Nagavanshi throw you out like garbage! And don’t treat yourself like garbage either!”
Khadija practically pounced on Milana right there and then.
Both falling from their chairs, Khadija on top of Milana, squeezing the collar of her clothes.
Before she could even think of striking, however, she felt the air go out of her.
Milana struck her in the stomach, and got out from under her in a quick, fluid motion.
Now suddenly, Khadija had her face to the ground and Milana on top of her back.
There was no arm twist, no knee to her neck, no kicks– just as quickly, Milana let her go. Stepping back from her quickly, in case she retaliated, as their father trained them. Except Khadija did not keep fighting. She remained on the floor, out of breath and utterly ashamed.
“Do whatever you want.” Milana said. “On father’s birthday, I’ll visit him for you too.”
Her voice sounded so mournful. Stupid girl; if only she understood Khadija at all.
Maybe then they wouldn’t stubbornly hate each other so much despite everything–
Suddenly, the walls of the lounge stretched and warped– Milana’s voice reverberated–
Khadija opened her eyes. Light became as if particulate matter viewed through the thin film of tears that had formed between her eyelids as she slept. She wiped her eyes vigorously, casting troubled glances across her space. She was not back in the Union. She was on the Brigand. She had just been taking a nap. Her emotions were turbulent as she rose. Khadija was fed up with the past. And of all the things to remember– but she had already proven wrong Milana’s disdainful appraisal. Her story was still being written.
She was living her own way. Her life was not wasted.
Whether Milana respected that or not was her own prerogative.
Nothing to do with Khadija.
Just as she began to look around the dim room, everything lit up a sudden blue.
On the door, a picture of a soft-faced, tall woman with a lot of long, blond hair appeared.
She was requesting entry into the room, and the blue computer window was rather bright.
“Khadija, are you decent? Can I come in?” asked Sieglinde Castille.
Khadija averted her gaze. “We’re not children, just come in.”
Sieglinde walked inside, briefly looked at Khadija’s bed and quickly looked away.
Lounging in a tanktop and briefs, Khadija smiled wryly at the eros she had provoked.
“Another productive day of being a sailor?” Khadija asked.
Two meters away, Sieglinde zipped down a gray jumpsuit she had been wearing.
She pulled it off her wide shoulders and laid it on her bed.
“I’m just pushing things and picking things up. Their job is so complex, I had no idea what they go through.” Sieglinde said. She sat down on her bed, facing Khadija. For the first time since she walked in Khadija could see the smile on her face. “I don’t have any of the skills they do, but I’m glad I can do anything to help. Have you ever thought about it, Khadija? All the while, a hundred sailors are doing so much for all of us, and we barely interact with them.”
“No, I’ve never concerned myself with it. They have their role to play and I have mine.” Khadija said. “Some of them will work in the navy for years, rack up a ton of promotions, and end up running a whole supply depot or managing a shipyard team or doing all kinds of things that are more stimulating than this. And some of them do just want to fix leaks for a while, leave the army, and go do something else with the skills they picked up. They’ll work on a nice station, show up for labor union meetings, all that. None of them are just going to do manual labor on this ship forever. They’ll be fine– as for me, I have a different set of expectations. I can rest up here because I’ll be going out to die someday.”
“I suppose that’s true.” Sieglinde said. “How did you get this wise?”
“I’m not wise.” Khadija grumbled. “I’ve just been around a while.”
“I haven’t been around as long as you, but I still feel like just a stupid kid at 36.”
“Your problem is you’re a brooding wreck with zero confidence in yourself.”
“I can’t deny that. But it’s hard not to second-guess myself. I’ve made so many mistakes.”
“Quit navelgazing already. It’s so fucking boring.”
“Fine.” Sieglinde sighed.
“Do you want to become a sailor?” Khadija asked.
Sieglinde paused for a moment. “I don’t see a future for myself in that.”
“Well, what do you see in your future? Anything?”
“I’m still thinking about it.”
“I will keep it to myself for now.”
“I see. Thinking about becoming a Reform National Socialist?”
“What is that supposed to mean? Don’t even joke about that.” Sieglinde said seriously.
Khadija cracked a little grin, laid back with her hands behind her head.
“The Imbrian Empire was corrupt and oppressive, of that there is no doubt.” Sieglinde said, speaking over the silence that Khadija had left. “But the Volkisch Movement have no pretense that they even want to institute a rule of law. All they want is the power to kill with impunity. I’ve see first-hand what that unholy mob wants to do to the Imbrium.”
“I appreciate your candor, but you’re looking at a victim of slavery.” Khadija said. Sieglinde’s eyes drew wide and she went quiet. She looked immediately ashamed of herself. Khadija turned in bed, shifting her body to look at Sieglinde directly. “It was not any part of the Volkisch Movement who rounded up hundreds of thousands of Shimii to put to hard labor in the colonies. Scores of us died before we had an opportunity to rebel. Those of us who survived did so watching the sick and old fall around us. That was before the time of these Lehners that run Rhinea now. Perhaps they picked this up from somewhere?”
“I’m sorry.” Sieglinde said.
“Ugh. Stop that. I don’t want you to be sorry.”
Khadija turned around her again, this time putting her back and her tail to Sieglinde.
There was a long and awkward silence between them.
Such was its length, Khadija thought she would fall asleep again waiting.
“Khadija, I’ll tell you something about myself if you’ll allow me to ask you a question.”
“Finally you’re done moping? Sure. Whatever. Tell me about the Volkisch and you.”
“Alright.” Sieglinde said. “Six years ago, a student movement broke out in Bosporus duchy over censored works. However, a loose-cannon High Inquisitor, Brauchitsch ended up escalating the conflict. It soon spread across three stations, and outside of just students.”
“That sounds about right for Bosporus.” Khadija said, laughing a little again.
Sieglinde continued. “Brauchitsch thought he could just beat everyone into submission. For all her faults even Lichtenberg was not such a meathead as he was. He fanned the flames of the violence and then retreated like a coward, giving poor direction to the police who just continued fighting like fools. It started turning into a full-on revolt very quickly. Protestors fashioned improvised weapons and shields to defend themselves. There was bleeding and bruises and a few vehicles got torched but nobody had been killed– yet.”
Khadija turned back around, to see Sieglinde’s sullen face. She looked– haunted.
“But then– there was a sudden turn in the street violence. Within the riot, a group of the Volkisch’s militia had begun to go after activists. They were armed with military weapons and were organizing raids on places where activists took shelter. Even Brauchitsch did not sanction assassinations to deal with the mess. But the Volkisch were. They went after Južni and Eloim groups first, and then went after Vekans, and then the anarchist-leaning groups. For them the breakdown in order was an opportunity to kill undesirables.”
“Obviously I agree with you that the fascists are bastards.” Khadija said. “But have you considered how convenient that situation must have been for the police? The Volkisch volunteered to suppress the activists. Tell me– did the authorities do anything?”
“There were arrests.” Sieglinde said. “But you’re right– certainly not enough.”
“Arrests in that scenario are totally meaningless, the murders already had their effect.”
“You’re right.” Sieglinde said, a note of helplessness in her voice.
“Don’t just yield that I’m right like that–” Khadija sighed. “What was your involvement?”
“There was a change in tactics. The Inquisition was drawn back and relegated to investigative duties. Norn the Praetorian took command of a Rapid Response Force and then set up heavily armed checkpoints all over the affected stations to separate the groups and ‘choke out’ the rioting. I don’t think it worked– I just think by that point the rioters didn’t have a second wind. Anyway. I was part of the forces involved. One of the checkpoints under my management responded to a Volkisch-led massacre. This was one of the few raids of theirs fully documented, responded to in progress, and yielding arrests.”
“So you had to see them in action.” Khadija said. “You got to hate them that way.”
“Yes.” Sieglinde said. “I was a fool. I didn’t realize the actual nerve-center of Volkisch activity was Rhinea until years after. I was blind-sided that the Volkisch won the elections here. But we never went after them when we could. So they got to infest this entire place.”
“From my perspective every Imbrian has a bit of that fascism in them.” Khadija said.
Sieglinde averted her gaze with a pained expression.
“You’re not actually an Imbrian right?” Khadija said. “So I’m not talking about you.”
“I mean, I guess– but I was raised like an Imbrian. Not Campos, Eloim or Južni or Volgian. And I did plenty of evil. So I really can’t dispute about myself what you claimed about them.”
“Stop it. Look– I’m sorry about painting you with such a broad brush.” Khadija said.
Sieglinde did not respond.
Khadija immediately lost the little patience that had allowed her to apologize.
“Do I have to assuage your fucking feelings about everything? All the time?”
“No.” Sieglinde’s voice trembled a little. “I’ll ask a question. Are you really a communist?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Khadija said, arranging locks of hair away from her face.
“I’m just a bit confused. You’re a Shimii, but you drink and you don’t pray–”
“Are you my younger sister all of a sudden? C’mon I pray sometimes!”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just trying to understand you better. I’d just never met a Shimii communist. I thought Shimii communities were bound primarily on a shared religion. And I thought communists hated religion and would not tolerate such things.”
“Hah! Shimii in the Imbrium barely share a religion at all.”
“If it’s a touchy subject, I can–”
“Oh shut up. Have some spine for once. Stop needling me and then retreating.”
Sieglinde frowned and seemed to finally lose her temper. “Fine then. Khadija, where do you come from? Who even are you? I want to know on what grounds do you always judge me!”
Almost as soon as she raised her voice Sieglinde seemed to look horrified with herself.
Hearing the shouting almost in her chest was a strangely satisfying feeling for Khadija.
She smiled, utterly unoffended by this display. “That’s better. Sure. I’ll tell you.”
Leaving Sieglinde briefly perplexed as to her expression, Khadija sat up in her bed. She pulled her blankets around herself, such that her face, framed by her hair, and her unbrushed ears, were all that stuck out of the little mound of blankets. Getting comfortable.
She laid back against the wall and thought about where to start.
Or really, how to abbreviate her life enough for this fraught conversation.
“I was born in the Imbrium, just after Mehmed’s Jihad. During the Jihad, several prominent Shimii families supported Mehmed. He had accumulated enormous wealth and had prestige as an effective fighter against the Imbrians. Mahdists sided with Mehmed in far greater numbers than Rashidun. We wanted to believe he could free us all. My family, the Al-Shajara family, were prominent in Shimii ethnic politics, and staunchly backed Mehmed. After he was assassinated, the Jihad was over– his lieutenants and supporters scattered. During this time, many Mahdist clans were targeted for reprisals, as punishment for the Jihad. The Nasser family led many such reprisals; to mutual destruction. They lost elders and children, and we lost them too. Eye for an eye. It was then that the Mahdists were truly driven out– first out of Rhinea and soon out of everywhere in the Imbrium. The Imbrians came up with a much more effective solution for us than the Nasser family declaring blood feuds.”
Khadija looked over Sieglinde’s face to find her brief flicker of fury had sputtered out.
She listened quietly to what Khadija had to say and had no interjections.
“I survived a bit longer in the Imbrium though. I wasn’t old enough to understand a damn thing when my family sent me away. I was taken in by the Omarov family in Bosporus, at first. They did not become involved with Mehmed directly, but they had connections to the Mahdist families both through religion and through clandestine business. Even after the first punitive enslavements of Mahdists, the Omarov family stayed bold. The Omarovs back then were smugglers and mercenaries and just generally mafiosi. But if the Imbrians fucked with us, we fucked with them right back. My adoptive father, Mogliv Omarov was viewed one of the last heroes of the Shimii for this. Back then, if you resisted the Imbrians or committed reprisals on them, you would make a legend for yourself. We all wanted to cheer for every Imbrian we might see dead. We really thought that was making a difference.”
“Eventually, though, Mogliv Omarov started getting ideas.” Khadija continued. “He was not much of a theory reader, but he made some odd acquaintances and had some odd conversations. Daksha Kansal; Elias Ahwalia; Bhavani Jayasankar; these people started coming and going in the underworld for more than money. They were planning something big– and they all failed. Mogliv Omarov failed with them. I and everyone I knew, we were all enslaved and sent to the colonies if we were not killed. But the funny thing is– the Imbrians enslaved all the weird people, like the Bosporans and Shimii. They executed Imbrian communists– those were the people they saw as dangerous. Someone like me was a commodity, not a threat. Without an Imbrian to lead me, I could not have been dangerous to the regime right? But they were dead wrong, about everything. So here I am now. To answer your question: yes, I am a communist. I read the books my father did not, and just like him, I came to agree with their view of how the world could be better. But I will always be my father’s inferior, because he did not have to read a damn thing to have that hope.”
Khadija took in a deep breath. It almost felt good to have been able to say all of that.
Perhaps, she herself had been needing to recontextualize all of that, for her own mind.
“So that’s who I am, Sieglinde Castille. I am a Shimii communist. No, I do not follow Shimii religious doctrine to the letter. I’ve already said it before that if God pulls me down to hell for not having prayed enough after everything I’ve been through then I will accept my lot. But until then, I’ll live my life the way I want. Does that satisfy you?”
There was a creaking from the opposite bed. Its occupant had stood suddenly.
Sieglinde bowed her head deeply in response to Khadija’s story.
Tears from her eyes falling copiously onto the cold metal floor.
She did not say those hated words, ‘I’m sorry,’ that Khadija did not want to hear.
But her whole body was saying such things without her voice.
Khadija lacked the conviction to try to move her from it again.
This time she simply, quietly, accepted the apology from the once-Red Baron.
Even though Shimii did not tolerate bowing– this time, she would just let it pass.
Even though– she had some tears in her own eyes after recalling that heavy past.
On the night before their arrival at Aachen, just as Ulyana felt like she might doze off–
There arrived a message. Picked up over ultra-low frequency– a message from the Union.
“It’s been a while hasn’t it!” Semyonova said cheerfully.
She and Fatima cooperated to compile such messages and deliver them to the Captain. An enormous underground facility created these messages by sending data through shockwaves in Aer’s crust that could be picked up thousands of kilometers away. Only ships with specialized equipment could even detect that such messages were being sent. And to any ship other than the Brigand, it was impossible to make sense of them, since the messages were encrypted for software only the specific recipient would possess.
“Captain, it appears this message is intended for you and the Commissar’s eyes only.”
Semyonova folded a stone-paper printout with the message and handed it to Ulyana.
After being printed, all traces of the message were deleted automatically by the computer.
A top-secret message– it was already stressing Ulyana and she had not even read it.
“Commissar, let’s retreat to our quarters. It’s late. We can read the message in privacy.”
“Good idea. I’m reaching my limit.” Aaliyah said, stretching out her arms and tail.
“I can handle the change in shift.” Erika said, waving goodbye. “Have a good rest.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah took their leave from the bridge.
In Ulyana’s hand that piece of stone-paper folded up felt like it would take her arm down.
She felt its weight all the way down the hall. She was silent.
As if she had to concentrate on carrying it.
Nagavanshi had not messaged them in so long. Last time, it was a VIP mission.
One that led to all manner of difficulties, and resulted in an inconclusive reward.
(Except perhaps to a certain Sonya Shalikova.)
But it was not bitterness toward potential meddling that bothered Ulyana then.
Rather– the fact that this message was for her eyes and the Commissar’s only.
When Nagavanshi had something to conceal, it was never good.
“Captain, you’re looking terribly nervous.” Aaliyah said.
“You can tell?”
“Anyone can. Please relax. Whatever this is, we’ll deal with it together.”
Aaliyah reached out and squeezed the hand carrying the paper message.
With that touch, it felt like Aaliyah was single-handedly helping her lift a mountain.
Once they arrived at their room, they huddled in the center between bed and desk.
Ulyana spread open the folded paper and read the message:
REMEMBER THE YOUNG AND SIMPLE MAIDEN
LET THEM HEAR HOW SHE NOW SINGS
–SWAN, IGNORE MISSIVES WITHOUT LOVE
–BEWARE THE HERON AND HAWK
“What does this mean? Are you supposed to be the swan?” Aaliyah asked.
Ulyana was briefly speechless reading the message.
It had been so long–
“It’s full of old codes between Nagavanshi and I.” Ulyana hesitated to explain, but she needed Aaliyah to understand more than she needed to uphold the privacy between herself and Nagavanshi. “When Nagavanshi wants to send something only to me, she sends lyrics from a folk song, and refers to them as ‘missives with love’. That’s how I know it is from her and that it is not someone else. We also refer to people as birds– I’m the swan.”
Aaliyah blinked with confusion. “Then who are the Heron and Hawk?”
“Heron is Admiral Andreeva Vlasovskaya, of the 26th Fleet.”
“I can’t believe this. So there is some conspiracy within the 26th again?”
“And the Hawk is Admiral Geranium Zvereva of the 18th Fleet.”
Aaliyah raised a hand to her forehead like she had a sudden headache.
“What is this supposed to mean? How could these people contact us?”
Ulyana sighed. “I don’t know. I think Nagavanshi wants me to be aware that there is some kind of plot. I don’t think it’s something she thinks she’ll gain anything from. We’re not going to be turning around– I think she just wants me to be aware as a friend, perhaps.”
“Thinking about how the time has passed, it’s almost Bhavani Jayasankar’s reappraisal by the Council.” Aaliyah said. “Could it be the Ahwalians are going to try something then?”
Ulyana felt if she heard any more of this speculation she would explode.
“There’s nothing we can do about it but lose sleep over it.” Ulyana said. “Damn it.”
She crumpled the note in her hands, feeling helpless.
“You’re right.” Aaliyah said. “What we can do is continue our mission. That’s it.”
Ulyana sighed. “That always seems to be our only answer to any problem.”
Aaliyah reached out again and held Ulyana’s hands. She met her eyes.
“You’re not alone, Ulyana. We can deal with this together as it unfolds.” She said.
Hard as it was to breathe calmly in the face of what she could be facing–
Well, if more unexpected blows fell upon her, at least Aaliyah was on her side.
All they could do was keep fighting the war they were given, in the now.
And pray that the situation at home would not escalate.
“Final approach!” Helmsman Kamarik called out. “Take in the beautiful scenery!”
“E.T.A. 30 minutes at reduced speed! Contacting the Stockheide tower!” Semyonova said.
“We’re finally here, huh.” Ulyana said, laying back on her chair and deflating.
“It’ll only get more complicated from now on Captain.” Aaliyah reminded her.
In the distance, the station complex of Aachen finally came into view.
After over a week of travel, the Brigand had finally arrived at its next fated destination. Accompanied as before by the Rostock; and the John Brown, its crew unanimous in joining the Volksarmee against the Volkisch. In Aachen, the fleet would take part in the final deliberations of the United Front, and plot the shape of their anti-fascist campaign.
Within the fleet, there was excitement and trepidation in equal measure.
Aachen was much humbler in size than the massive Kreuzung and its enormous towers, and it had a simpler layout. However, that did not make its architecture any less striking. Aachen had a central tower with an interesting design– a central spire abutted by two supporting wings that enveloped the main tower at different heights. This made the central spire appear as if an art piece, the middle of a curling wave of metal. In addition to the central complex, there was also the Stockheide seaport, a squat and very wide tower attached to the main spire by trams. It was situated in the near southwest of the central complex. On the opposite side of Aachen was a habitation tower also connected by tram tubes.
All of this architecture was framed by the enormous underwater mount against which the Aachen complex was set. In the distant past the mountain was mined for precious minerals, and there was still some mining that transpired within, though dwarfed in volume by the richer veins of Rhein-Sieg-Kries in the central southwest. This access to precious minerals, including some rare metals and even agarthicite, made the Aachen Massif a source of early wealth for the Imbrian Empire’s historical development. It also led to the development of Aachen’s shipbuilding tradition and in turn, to the growth in influence of the Stockheide Shipbuilder’s Guild, a strong labor union within the shipyard and drydocks.
“Gloria and I have contacts in Stockheide.” Erika said, waving a hand toward the main screen on the Brigand’s bridge. “We can dock the Rostock and have its presence concealed by the Guild. The John Brown is not a problem– the Republic fleet docked in there for weeks before they rejected Gloria’s offer to join a United Front. However, the Rostock will not be able to take part in any commercial dealings or pick up any supplies, because it will have to dock in a Guild workspace and stay there in hiding. So we will depend on all of you to run some errands for us. Hopefully that will not be much of an issue. I am sorry to trouble you.”
“Of course it won’t be a problem.” Ulyana said. “We pledged to follow your orders.”
“You can leave the restocking to us– we’ll need funds, however.” Aaliyah added.
“Funds I can help with.” Erika said, smiling. “I’ll also see if Gloria might assist as well.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath.” Olga added, crossing her arms and lowering her head.
“It’s fine nevertheless. I amassed quite a tidy sum through the years.” Erika said.
Ulyana and Aaliyah smiled and sat back, watching the final approach.
Traffic to Aachen was sparser than the traffic at Kreuzung.
There were less ships coming and going from the shipyard. However, these ships were usually larger supply ships that resembled the Brigand outwardly. There was also a beautiful luxury cruise ship that began departing the main seaport and moved close to the Brigand on its exit from Stockheide. And for a moment, Semyonova and Fatima had a twinkle in their eyes as they vocally fantasized about going on a pleasure cruise together.
Moving closer to the Stockheide tower, the delineations between the hundreds of berths on the outer hull of the tower became visible. The Brigand and its flotilla coordinated with Stockheide tower to descend into the Guild’s berths on the eastern side of the seaport complex. Enormous steel doors opened to allow each ship in the fleet into a Berth just large enough for a Cruiser. The Brigand and Rostock were next to each other and the John Brown was situated one tier below. All of them could access the Guild facilities.
Docking clamps held the Brigand anchored to the berth and lifted it aloft as the water drained. A boarding chute attached the ship to the port. Past the outer steel doors and frameworks, the interior walls were made of thick glass, allowing the crew to look through the cameras and see long lines of ships to either side and even below. It was an interesting visual effect. All of the seaport facilities were deeper inside the complex– it was all berths across the exterior. So the Brigand would largely be resting within its berth while the crew took care of business with the Guild while on foot inside of the complex.
“Alright. We’ve got a lot to do.” Ulyana said. “Let’s convene a planning meeting–”
On the main screen, the predictor computer suddenly started flashing a yellow box.
That was usually painted over targets that could pose a threat, based on prediction data.
“What’s the computer’s problem?” Ulyana asked. “Did it spot some Imperial ship classes?”
Zachikova shook her head. “I reprogrammed it after the false positives on the Rostock.”
“So then what is it seeing? Pull up the camera feeds and let it complete the target paint.”
On the main screen, the camera picture of the seaport wall disappeared.
Instead, the yellow target was being painted by one of the starboard-side cameras.
On a Ritter-class– but it was triggering because this Ritter-class had been seen before.
It was not a false positive– it was a known enemy.
Ulyana blinked as the target designation appeared. “Wait– oh no. No fucking way.”
Aaliyah lifted her hands to her face and kicked her feet on her seat.
“Hmm. This might complicate things. I’ll disembark first, Captain.” Erika said.
“I’ll disembark with.” Olga said, with a deep, troubled sigh.
Everyone on the bridge watched the screen with dumbstruck horror.
Their neighboring berth was occupied by a ship known by the computer and the crew.
Long and ‘sword-shaped’, the Ritter-class Antenora— flagship of Norn the Praetorian.
Unbeknownst to either until the very last moment, their paths had crossed once again.