Innocents In The Stream [6.3]

Despite her commissioned rank, Shalikova was not a bridge officer, and she did not report to the bridge during the alert. Her place was in the hangar, awaiting orders to deploy in her Diver for battle, and that is where she went, after sternly telling Maryam to stay in her room and out of the way of the sailors and officers.

Not that she believed Maryam would have heeded her.

That Katarran really seemed used to doing whatever she wanted.

Shalikova ran down to the hangar wearing a pair of pants and her sweaty tanktop undershirt, her hair tied up into a hasty, messy ponytail. She found several of the remaining pilots and half the sailors in similar states.

Dominika was dressed in what looked like yoga pants and a sweatshirt; Sameera had her TBT uniform pants with her sleeveless button-down half done up; Khadija had thrown her jacket on over what was clearly a lacy nightshirt, with a pair of sweatpants. Out of the regular crew, Valya was the one wearing the green, brown and black pilot’s bodysuit.

“My, my, look at you,” Khadija teased them. “How did you get ready so quickly?”

“Um, I was already down here.” Valya replied. “I was tuning up some stuff in my Diver.”

“I’ve always just gone out in what they give me. How much do you gain from your tuning?”

Valya looked bashful. “Well, every microsecond counts in a fight, Ms. al-Shajara.”

“Please, please do not.” Khadija raised pair of delicate fingers to her forehead. “Khadija.”

“I’m sorry, Ms– Khadija.” Valya averted their gaze while Khadija shook her head gently.

Murati, the squad leader, was a bridge officer in addition to a pilot and had not yet reported to the hangar, so the pilots were left in the lurch at first. Shalikova looked blearily at the scenes around her, marveling at the scale.

Covering the vastness of the lower deck was a flurry of human activity. Sailors in the dozens ferried parts, power tools and ammunition and pushed weapon racks into place using forklifts, so that the mechanics and engineers would have everything they needed at hand to run the final maintenance checks on the Divers. Mechanics ran hasty final tests on the Divers, checking the joints, the batteries, the internal computers, checking every part of each available weapon on the racks, tuning up the diamond sabres and drill lances, AK rifles and Gepard SMGs. There were a dozen people on and around every gantry and maybe two dozen per gantry moving equipment to and from stations.

Within those tall grey walls, on those bare, wide open floors dotted with splashes of lubricants and oil and grase, underneath the sterile glow of white strips of light; within this enclosure of steel, the six Divers and their gantries were the most dominating presence. All of the workshops and stations around them were like islands that seemed to gravitate around these giants they had bound to the walls. And people moved about those islands like schools of fish, in an anxious panic. Shalikova felt a sensation akin to synesthesia; as if there were colors and sounds and tastes associated not with these people but the feeling of their motion, their activity. As if halos lifted off their heads–

Shalikova shook her head vigorously. She was clearly spacing out.

At that point, the Chief Mechanic, Lebedova appeared as if she had come out from under the floor, suddenly in the middle of the crowds. She raised her hands and shouted over the cacophony in a deep, commanding voice.

“We’ve gotten word from the bridge that a situation brief is coming! Keep at it!”

Though they had briefly paused to listen to her, the workers resumed with undiminished vigor. Shalikova felt stupid standing around in the middle of all this activity, but there was nothing she could do but pilot the damn things. She would just be in the way otherwise, even more so than she was just standing in the middle of the hangar with the rest of the pilots. Her whole body was brimming with anxiety. She had been in combat at Thassal, but she sailed toward the danger with a full account of what she was getting into. In this situation, her imagination was far too free.

Meanwhile her fellow pilots were all seemingly too carefree for her own liking.

“Nika, were you working out? You look good! Flexible! Glowing with strength!”

“Who said you could call me by a nickname? And stop staring at my legs!”

“I just think you have really good definition! Show me your leg routine sometime!”

“As a matter of fact, it’s high kicks. Want me to demonstrate one right now?”

Sameera tried her luck again, but Dominika was having none of it, even in yoga pants.

“To think, for once I managed to fall asleep at 20:00 sharp, and this happens.”

“Do you suffer from insomnia ma’am?”

“Truth be told, I was just bored and lacking for company, or I’d have stayed up later.”

“Oh. Well. I see. Is that so?”

Valya tried to humor Khadija, who kept complaining with a bored expression on her face.    

Shalikova wanted to scream.

It was not even just the stupid things they said, but the sheer control of their body language.

How did these sociopaths manage to maintain their composure in this kind of situation?

Before Shalikova got an opportunity to scream, their idle time was finally at an end.

Semyonova’s face appeared on the large screens around the hangar.

Everyone in the hangar received an abridged version of the officer’s discussions.

Soon, Semyonova was replaced on the screen by acoustic predictions of an enemy fleet.

There was a brief pall of silence as the sailors beheld a diagram of the Irmingard class.

However, they were far too busy with their own strict tasks to panic for very long.

Shalikova had no such luck. She felt as if her heart had stopped in her chest.

“When did I become such a coward?” She chided herself internally.

But she still couldn’t help it. And she hated herself for being afraid in this situation.

Especially when the other pilots had much more muted reactions.

Moments later, Murati Nakara arrived from the bridge dressed in parts of her TBT uniform.

“Form up! You saw the brief; we’re going into battle. It’s the real thing.” She said.

She gathered everyone near a wall monitor, which she commandeered for a demonstration. Using a minicomputer, she swiped onto the wall monitor a projection of the enemy fleet, as it was last seen and assembled by the algorithmic predictors. A tight formation, with a vanguard of cutters and two frigates leading the flagship, which was covered by a destroyer. There was a prediction that at least eight Divers would be present as well, but not fully confirmed.

It was this point, when Murati was about to discuss her plan, that Aiden Ahwalia appeared.

He had his arms crossed over his chest, and a disgruntled expression.

Unlike everyone around him but Valya, he was wearing his full pilot’s suit already.

“Lieutenant, can you really look at this sorry ensemble and tell me I’m not ready yet?”

Shalikova rolled her eyes. Khadija practically growled at his appearance.

He seemed to have missed the irony in talking like that to a half-dressed Murati, too.

“Aiden if you interrupt me again during a briefing, I’ll demote you from Pilot trainee to Sailor for a month. You’ll get your chance someday. Listen, observe and build some character, or get ready to swab the hangar.”

Murati’s tone and the disdainful eyes of the rest of the pilots cowed Aiden into silence.

Khadija cracked a little grin.

“I want everyone’s attention on this monitor. Now.” Murati withdrew a laser pointer from the pocket of her button-down shirt and aimed it at the diagram of the fleet. All the pilots turned from gawking at Aiden to the Lieutenant. “Good. Our mission will be to draw the attention of the enemy away from the Brigand, penetrate the enemy fleet formation and inflict some damage on the Irmingard class flagship. Our weapons won’t even scratch it, so we’ll need to plant demolition charges and detonate them to breach the hull. With any luck, even if we don’t sink it, we’ll break enough electronics to keep it off our backs for now. Once the charges go off, we’ll be fleeing immediately.”

Everyone looking at the board waited with eerie silence for Murati to continue.

Shalikova had never seen this rowdy bunch actually stay so still before.

Murati had a fire in her eyes; she was speaking with confidence and strictness.

She was not shouting or overcompensating. It was as if she was in her element at last.

“Captain Korabiskaya is going to parlay with the commanding officer of the Irmingard to buy us a few minutes to deploy and get moving. It’s unlikely the fleet will take initiative without the commander’s explicit say-so, since these all look like old patrol craft from Serrano. So hopefully that will give us some time without big guns in the fray. Once we’re in the water, we’ll close in and engage the enemy in close quarters battle. They’ll have to watch their friendly fire, while we’ll have carte blanche to bring everything we got to the fight. We should prioritize disabling their Divers and any enemy Flak guns, both so we can get in and plant the charges, and so we’ll have an easier time escaping.”

On the monitor, the computer overlayed patterns around the individual ships in the enemy fleet indicating the range and possible traverse of their gas guns as well as the volume of their fire. Flak, an ancient loanword of indeterminate origin, was the term given to 20 mm gunfire from gas guns which would form the primary response by the fleet against the fast-moving Divers. Each of the smaller, slender cutters had two gas gun turrets and a primary 76 mm main gun, providing a limited Flak coverage. Both of the larger frigates had four gas gun turrets to support the covering barrage. The Irmingard had several, but the real danger was the Destroyer. Sitting between Frigate and Cruiser size, the Destroyer bristled with over a dozen turrets meant to ruthlessly defend the flagship from incoming fire.

Every Diver pilot knew to properly respect Flagships, but to fear the cover of Destroyers.

“The Brigand has three 76 mm guns on the aft, but we can’t expect the Bridge’s fire support to do our jobs for us. I’ve got a plan, but it’ll depend on all of our skills for it to work.” She aimed her laser pointer in a straight line to the Cutters at the head of the fleet. “One group will attack the cutters and any Divers around them, trying to maximize damage. That will be up to Sameera and Dominika as the heavy firepower team.” She moved her pointer up in a semi-circle around the outer edge of the fleet formation. “Shalikova and I will attack from higher up on the water table, hoping to draw out the Destroyer and engage it. Valya and Khadija will engage targets of opportunity on the opposite flank. There will be three bombs, carried by Khadija, Sameera and myself. Those are our three shots at the objective.”

Murati dropped her laser pointer back into her pocket and crossed her arms.

“You’re all here because you’re pros. You’ve been around Diver operations or studied them extensively. There’s nothing I can say that will make you ready if you aren’t. Follow the plan as best as you can, trust your instincts, protect your squadmate, and if you see a shot at the objective, seize it! Above all else, make it back to this hangar. Understood?”

“Sounds good to me!” Shalikova spoke up suddenly and sharply as soon as Murati had paused.

As if trying to release all the pressure that had built up inside her, her face lightly red.

There was a brief silence before, all around her, the other pilots nodded in accent.

“Yeah, everything makes sense.” Sameera says. “You even had graphs! That’s so cool!”

“It felt quite, official.” Dominika added in a low voice, averting her gaze from Sameera.

“You’re impressed by the graphs? That’s what’s surprising?” Murati asked, taken aback.

“Oh my, who knows what these two experienced in their backwater assignments.” Khadija sighed, pointing over her shoulder at Dominika and Sameera’s general direction. Sameera seemed not to mind but Dominika was practically glaring at Khadija for the remark. “Lieutenant, it does feel like you really covered all your bases well. And here I was, wanting to tease you the first mistake you made. Maybe next time.” Khadija winked at Murati, who averted her gaze briefly. “Of course, the old adage states that even the best plans are built to fail, so we should be careful.”

Valya merely pointed their fingers in Khadija’s direction as if to silently say, “what she said!”

Shalikova sighed. She felt more and more like she was the idiot among these idiots.

Before long, the pilots dispersed across the hangar, standing in front of their machines, and waited for the cockpits to be released by their supporting engineers. Shalikova had a moment to look up at the suit of mechanized armor in front of her, standing at more than four times her size. She had gotten into and out of machines like this dozens of times now. Whether it was training with real equipment, simulations, or combat at the battle of Thassal, it was the same. This was what she had chosen to do, she told herself. With a deep breath, she tried to ready herself for battle.

Right then, no one else on that ship, but those six pilots, could protect the rest from danger.

One life on the line in one piece of machinery, to potentially save two hundred others.

No one had ever embellished to her, the promise of death that came with piloting a Diver.

Shalikova chose this path knowingly; because it was just, because it was necessary.

Opening and closing her fist, tapping her feet, she examined her weapon to center herself.

This Strelok was very slightly different than the stock models Valya and Khadija had. Perhaps standing partway between the common, simpler shapes of the Strelok and the more extreme Cheka design, all of the armor surfaces complicating the oblong body were sharper, more angular. Its rectangular head, barely more than a box for cameras on the original Strelok, was rounded and flared to disperse water. On the back, there was an additional thruster fed through a newly introduced intake atop the cockpit, the grille almost like a mouthpiece for the head.

She wondered how many milliseconds this would earn her over Valya’s “tuning.”

Moments later, the cockpit plates spread open to admit her.

Shalikova climbed inside the Strelok and strapped herself in.

It was her first time deploying in this machine, so she took some time to adjust the monitors to her preferred arrangement: one in the center, two off to one side and three off to the other. Main forward camera was right in the middle, just like if she were strapped into an actual suit of armor with a natural viewport. She then locked the controls and then tested the tactile feel of the control sticks, the click of the buttons, the pressure on the trigger. Everything was pristine. Nothing like the well-worn training machinery she had used before. Now reasonably certain of the quality of her gear, she unlocked the controls and began the startup procedure along with her engineer.

Shalikova looked with forlorn eyes at the familiar startup screen.

She saw the Union’s standard, a plow and a sword crossed over the opaque dome of an Agrisphere.

A thousand generations live on in you,” was a saying often paired with that standard.

Most of the time, she thought nothing of it. But in that particularly vulnerable state of mind–

Shalikova could not help but think: “Zasha, are you living on in me?”

Stupid, foolish, fearful sentimentality that was useful to no one, much less herself.

For everyone’s sakes, she had to be stronger. She had to be tough. She could not waver.

Or else, she would really be nothing but a burden on the world around her.

Soon the Divers were armed, released, and made the way to their deployment chutes.

On one of Shalikova’s monitors, Murati appeared in a feed from within her own cockpit.

“Thanks for the support back then, Shalikova. I was actually a bit nervous.” She said.

Shalikova scoffed. “We all were. I didn’t do anything. You– You did fine, Nakara.”

Murati nodded her head and seemed to understand Shalikova wanted no further comment.

Deep down, Shalikova truly appreciated the silence between them as they deployed.


“Can I have a sandwich?”

Outside the door to Shalikova’s room, Maryam Karahailos found a sailor pushing along a trolley full of food.

Having eaten nothing but dried vegetables, cornmeal gruel and vitamin bars in her exodus, her eyes practically shone in the presence of an enormous tray of sandwiches, slick with cheese spread, pickles and what looked like thin slices of juicy protein cutlet. Everything was as fresh as could be cooked on a ship, lovingly assembled from scratch. To her deprived eyes this was a buffet for the senses. Her surface colors turned just a little flushed with anticipation.

“Ah, sorry ma’am, you are–?”

“I’m a VIP, Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam said. She was echoing what the Captain said to refer to her.

In truth, she was not sure what the crew viewed her role as or how they intended to treat her.

Maryam sold herself as a useful informant, but that meant different things to different people. In her travels she had been a soothsayer, a priestess, a matchmaker — whatever made sense for the people she needed to get on her side. Whatever made sense to survive. She was still thinking of what she would tell the Brigands; and with the alert, she did not know when she would be able to meet with the Captain. So for the moment, she was just, vaguely, “the VIP.”

“VIP? Sorry, I wasn’t really informed– I’m just taking these down to the hangar crew.”

“Can I have one? They won’t miss one, right?”

Maryam asked purely innocently. It seemed silly to fight over one sandwich out of a pile.

“Well, we actually counted these, so they would miss one.”

His aura was starting to harden against her.

She could tell his disposition was worsening even if he didn’t show it, she was perfectly sure of it. Aura was an additional feeling that Maryam got from people, that she associated with colors, smells, tastes, and sometimes textures in their space. Like dust in the air, or a distortion of light within fog; perceptible, but hard to describe.

Turning her head briefly, Maryam found the hall mostly deserted.

She turned back to the sailor and stared deep into his eyes.

Something in her brain just clicked.

A sensation, that lay between the purely automatic, like breathing, and actions that were technically driven by choice, but that were so natural that the locomotion surrounding them was viewed as less than deliberate. Like taking a step, or having a cough, or the turning of the eyes. For a moment there was a sense of warmth felt right behind her eyes.

Molecular Control.

Maryam overcame his mind through the oxygen he was breathing.

Traveling within that tiny current, into his blood, into his nerves, into his brain. She touched what his body interpreted as sensations, facts, thoughts. She could neither see them, nor finely control them. She had not yet perfected such a technique. Instead, she felt them, and influenced them, like a gentle pluck on the cords that sang truth to him.

The ultimate expression of her god-given mastery over the Air.

“I’m really peckish. I think they won’t miss just one.” She said sweetly, compelling him.

“You’re right. I’ll just give you mine, and I’ll come back for something else.”

The Sailor quickly handed her a sandwich wrapped in a reusable polymer towelette.

“Thank you! How kind! You don’t know how much this means to me!”

“Not a problem ma’am. It was nice meeting you. You take care now, alright?”

To make it up to him, she had influenced his aura as she released her control, tinging it soft and blue.

With his morale gently lifted, the Sailor marched the trolley on its way, whistling a cheerful tune.

I’m making people happy. Myself, and others. Isn’t that the godly thing to do?

Maryam giggled and started to nibble on the sandwich. Just as she had envisioned, it was delicious. While that creamy spread was probably less milk than it was emulsified oil and yeast, it was the first “cheesy” thing she tasted in ages, savory and satisfying. With the pickles providing a tiny bit of spice and sweetness, and the pillowy, but firm bread, and the smooth, meaty flavor of the cutlet– it was delightful. That was the best meal Maryam had eaten in months.

Well worth employing her special gifts to obtain it.

“I wonder how many of them are susceptible?”

Though she found it unconscionable (and physically impossible) to use Molecular Control on everyone on the ship, it was useful to have susceptible people here and there. Maryam had not been around enough to get a sense of the potential of the crew as a whole, but there were a lot of folks who felt like they had strong resistance, some who seemed as though they had an actual seed, and very few who seemed to have with no potential whatsoever.

One particular individual fascinated her: Sonya Shalikova. From the moment she saw her.

Sonya was–

Firstly, she was very pretty. Those eyes, her soft skin, and that pure white hair–

Her long limbs, the slight curve of her chest, her long, slender fingers–

Maryam’s purple hair and light pink skin started turning starkly red.

She had to make a conscious effort to reel herself in.

Second: she was so funny! Sonya had a sharp tongue and made a lot of scrunched up faces.

Third, she was extremely, extremely dangerous! Her senses were extremely sharp, and she surveyed her environments like a predator at all times. What was she searching for? Her indigo gaze was filled with something deep and intense– was it Lust? Dominance? That manner in which she surveyed everyone and pierced them with her eyes– there was no one like Sonya. Not on this vessel and nowhere in this Ocean. Maryam was deeply taken by Sonya.

“Sonya said not to get in anyone’s way. Well, that’s fine, because no one will complain.”

Maryam happily trotted off from Sonya’s room and up the length of the habitation block.

Ships were ships. Katarrans were born in them and many lived most of their lives in them. Small or large, they were all confining and there was no difference there. While the Brigand was cozy, Maryam was not really terribly impressed. After all, she had served a Warlord at one point. She knew what a truly ostentatious, hedonistic ship could be like. Feeling that there was not much more to see after having walked a dozen meters down, Maryam paused.

It was at that point that she saw someone coming out of a room farther ahead.

“Marina McKennedy! Hello!”

Maryam waved her arms cheerfully. She made her colors a little brighter for Marina’s sake.

“Oh, it’s you. Do you know what’s happening?” Marina said, agitated.

That G.I.A. agent tagging along. A friendless person, tall, handsome, reeking of blood.

Decade’s worth of blood. Her own blood. The blood of her past victims; the blood of loved ones.

Not that Maryam knew much about that. “I think we’re under attack.” She said simply.

“Under attack?”

Despite the shock in her voice, her aura flashed brilliantly for only the briefest instant and her face returned to its neutral, reserved expression very quickly. As if she could be surprised, but then her cool rationality brought her back as a force of habit. That G.I.A. agent always had a very sorrowful aura around her. Tinged the colors of others’ auras, as if dragging their spirits with her. Whether they wanted to be with her– not that Maryam could really tell.

“I need to go talk to the Captain. Could you do me a favor, Katarran?”

Maryam made no expression but turned her colors just a bit darker in response, to bristle.

“I’d be happy to help if you call me by my actual name and say the magic words.”

Marina crossed her arms with a low grunt.

In front of her, the G.I.A agent took a step forward trying to impose on Maryam’s space.

“Don’t be fucking childish. You’re not doing shit right now, so just help me out here.”

Such an intimidation tactic would not work. Particularly from someone with such pathetic resistance and potential. What would Marina do to her? Try to shoot her? Maryam did not like to brag. But if someone tried to shoot her, she would simply dodge the bullet. Marina stood no chance. And if she tried to hit her, she’d really find out quickly.

Still, there was no sense in returning this antagonism. Maryam needed to lie a little low.

“I’ll do you a favor from a few centimeters farther than you are right now.” She said.

Marina backed off a step. Intimidation did not work. So her dull aura turned gentler.

“Fine. Look. I need someone to make sure my analyst doesn’t get anywhere she shouldn’t.”

“You mean Elen? She looks pretty grown up!” Maryam said. Careful not to let any malice into her words. “Does she really need much looking after? And can’t you just tell her to stay in her room if so? You’re her boss.”

“Look, you and I are the odd ones out among all these commies. We should start developing some mutual respect here, okay? Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours; just go stand in the hall near her room and if she comes out, stick to her for a bit. Act chummy. Given how you act toward me, it shouldn’t be too hard for you. Deal, Katarran?”

Maryam Karahailos.” Maryam spelled out her name in a slow, mocking voice.

Marina raised her hands in frustration. Her aura shifted wildly through dull colors.

Always a little muddy, like whatever color it was had been caked in blood and petrol.

“Okay, please, Maryam. I’m serious, it would trouble me if she got in anyone’s way.”

“Sure thing Marina McKennedy! I’ll take care of things back here. You hurry on along.”

“Good. Great. Harder than it needed to be, but great. I’ll remember this, Maryam.”

Without another word, Marina brushed her shoulder past her as she continued on her way.

“Jeez, what a deplorable woman.” She really did think she had everything under control.

One tiny breeze of Maryam’s miasma and she would have been completely helpless.

There was no sense in that, of course. Nothing to be gained. Maryam calmed herself.

Using the ability of the Apostle of Air in a passion never seemed to end well.

She had been impulsive with it recently. And it had been silly, very silly, and pointless, and yet–

Maryam had tried to influence Sonya.

She had really wanted Sonya’s help and affection. Or at the very, very least, to foreclose on Sonya developing any antipathy toward her. Whenever she used her ability on someone with a strong resistance or who had a seed of potential, she could feel herself being rejected, as if her limbs had hit a wall or a door had been shut in front of her. Sonya was different. When she tried to influence her, she felt nothing. No sensation whatsoever.

Clearly it hadn’t worked. Sonya was just so powerful it was beyond comprehension.

So Maryam watched her. And thought about her. And made up little scenes with her in her own head.

Never before had she been struck with such a feeling, but she had never seen a girl like Sonya.

“Katarran Warlord” was really how Maryam had started to think about her.

She just felt– superior. Superior was the only way Maryam could describe it.

Sonya was a superior being. There was no way in which Maryam measured up to her–

At that moment she remembered the words that an Old Engineer told her and felt ashamed.

Maryam raised her tentacles and clapped them together against her own cheeks, sighing.

She had to fight the hierarchical thinking that had been beaten into her in Katarre.

And yet, faced with her feelings for Sonya, it was tough to understand any other way.

“Hopefully, I’ll live long enough to sort out all this mess.” Maryam said cheerfully.

Her tentacles fell like hair from the sides of her head, thin and slender, like an extra pair of arms ending in a soft paddle. She looked at the soft little suckers at the end of it. It was easy to think of herself as just a human being, but she was a Katarran Pelagis, born in the southern reaches of Katarre amid its chaotic, decades-long civil war that had warped everything in that kingdom. She did not look like a stereotypical Katarran, due to her garb and demeanor. So the ship crew did not fear her and so far, had not avoided her like people did to stereotypical Katarran fighters.

She figured then that Marina’s analyst friend would not mind her either.

Putting Sonya out of her mind, for at least a few minutes, Maryam wandered to the far end of the habitation for the officers and found the open door that Marina had exited out from. Inside the room, a girl dressed from her neck to her ankles in only a bodystocking sat on the edge of a bed, wrapped in blankets. Dark-haired, with bright indigo eyes. Her aura was like a soft blue breeze, calm amid the storm. Her body was waifish, almost as ephemeral as that breeze.

Maryam felt a strong sense of weariness from her. Resignation, perhaps.

She poked her head inside the door. For a moment the girl was surprised but responded politely.

“Oh, hello. You’re that girl from Serrano. Maryam?”

“You got it! Did you know we’re under attack?”

“I figured that was the case. What else would prompt all of this activity?”

Elen the analyst raised a hand to gesture around her environment.

A few minutes ago, there would have been red alert lights going off.

“True! You really are an analyst huh?” Maryam said, without a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just– I was useless. Marina just drags me around.”

“Did that stuffy G.I.A. agent say that to you? She’s a really demotivating person.”

“She didn’t have to say shit for me to feel like this. Did she send you here?”

“Hmm. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think God sent me.”

Elen looked at her with narrowing, skeptical eyes, like she was crazy.

Maryam got a very special impression from Elen’s aura.

She understood intuitively that Elen was a very special and gifted person.

And like Sonya, maybe someone dangerous– albeit, nowhere near as attractive.

“Pay me no mind!” Maryam said happily. “People tell I’m a little too emotional.”

For the moment, it would indeed be worth keeping an eye on this girl too.

Once she knew enough about her to confirm her suspicions, then she could explain it to Sonya.


Elena stared skeptically at the Pelagis girl trying to make conversation.

All around them, the ship was vibrating, gently, but more perceptibly than normal. Something was happening, Elena thought. Maybe some hatches were opening, or they were speeding up, or there was actual gunfire exchanged. She did not know. And she was not important enough to anyone here to be privy to that information.

She felt so weary. She had meant what she said to Marina in their shouting match before.

It would have been fantastic to be able to sleep until this was all over: one way or another.

She wondered dimly about Gertrude.

She missed Gertrude so much.

From the news Marina had been able to gather as they escaped into Serrano, she was aware that Gertrude was alive somewhere and attending to her duties. Elena had never really seen Gertrude’s ship, and had only a foggy understanding of the realities of warfare. In her mind, Gertrude could have been dead at any moment, because she was a soldier, and there was now, suddenly, a war. She had no understanding of the intensity of the Empire’s internal conflict. Still, if Gertrude was alive, was she looking for her, thinking about her? Had she given up?

She had thought she saw her in Serrano– but that was impossible.

Elena had been tired and far away on an elevator. That woman could have been anyone.

“Your aura is looking really gloomy.” Maryam said.

“My aura?” Elena asked. “What are you talking about?” She barely even wanted an answer.

Maryam giggled. “It’s like a halo around you, but it’s also like a gentle breeze. It smells earthy and flowery and musty. You have a soft heart.” Elena narrowed her eyes further while the Pelagis continued to talk, undeterred by the clear confusion in the princess’ face. “I haven’t really told anyone, but I’m actually a soothsayer! I can read your fortune!”

Elena groaned. “No thanks. If things are only getting worse, I’d much rather not know.”

“They might get better!” Maryam said. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always hope.”

Elena stood up, wrapped a blanket around herself and walked out into the hall, sighing.

She had seen the hall had monitors showing status reports. She wanted to examine one.

Maryam followed along sticking close to her, but Elena paid her no mind.

Outside her room there was indeed a display that had a fleet diagram along with several basic safety warnings.

So, they were indeed being attacked. By whom? Elena squinted her eyes, trying to read the tiny text on the algorithmic diagrams. There were all kinds of things scrolling by, and she reached up to touch the screen and freeze the picture. Looking closely, she saw it: Inquisition Flagship “Iron Lady” on one of the ships in the diagram. An Irmingard class?

Her eyes started drawing wide as she came to understand.

Her lips trembled; her grip closed tight around the blanket held shut against her chest.

Wasn’t that ship– hadn’t she heard that name– her mind was spinning, turning, racing.            

“Gertrude.” She mumbled to herself, eyes wide and weeping. “No– oh please no. Please.”

Before her mind was finished processing the events, she took off running.

Maryam shouted after her, but Elena was no longer thinking.

Weeping profusely, her wide open eyes burning as the cold, sterile air of the Brigand’s halls swept over a gaze she could not close. Staring as if through the steel, at the bullets and missiles she could only imagine being exchanged–

No, no, no, no, no! Gertrude– they were going to kill her!


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, right, this situation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

It made sense the military reflected that.

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

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

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova averted her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

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

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

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

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

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

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zachikova,”

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

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

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

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

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

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

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s her problem?”

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

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was really nothing to see.

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

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

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

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

It read: “80085”

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

Zachikova smiled.

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


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

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

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

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

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

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

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

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

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

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

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

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

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

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

It did not work too well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

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

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

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

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

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

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

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

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

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

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

“Look over there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida gave him a strange look.

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

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

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

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

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

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t do that.”

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

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

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

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

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

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

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

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

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

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

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

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

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

“I–”

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

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

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

“Of course.” Majida replied.

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

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

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

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

And so, the Bosporans ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

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

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

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

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

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

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

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

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

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

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

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

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.6]

This chapter contains non-explicit sexual content.

Every soldier dreamed about their beloved on long, lonely voyages.

Gertrude dreamt silently of her feelings for Elena for years.

She expected nothing, knowing the impossible social positions they occupied.

And yet, despite everything, on this one insane, false nightfall in this forgotten island–

Was it actually a dream? Would she wake up in the Iron Lady, alone again?

Gertrude scolded herself internally.

No fantasy could ever measure up to the feeling of lying in bed, holding Elena in her arms, squeezing the princess’ back against her chest. Skin to skin, with nothing between them. Sweating profusely despite the best efforts of the climate control system. Shivering when touched, still tender and sensitive. Gertrude could have never imagined the Princess would have sought her out not just for emotional support but physical pleasure.

She much less imagined that the Princess would reciprocate!

It was a sight, that indigo head of hair enthusiastically exploring between Gertrude’s legs, clumsily returning the affection that Gertrude had given without expecting anything back. The memory would last her a few more years at sea, though hopefully it would not be so long. It could have never been a dream; Gertrude would not have let herself dream it.

“Gertrude.”

Agitated, a little weakened, facing away from Gertrude, the Princess’ voice rose up.

“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you? You’re not staying the night.”

Gertrude held her even tighter.

Elena felt almost diaphanous in her hands. Like she was made of silk.

She had her strengths. She didn’t see herself as weak.

But she was frail, delicate, precious.

In the times that they lived in now she was more vulnerable than ever before.

“I have to go. But I will stay until the very last second I can.”

“Just– just hold me for a bit. If you do that, I’ll last a few more years too, like you said.”

Elena giggled a little. Gertrude was surprised to hear it.

She turned around in Gertrude’s arms, locking eyes with her.

“I’m glad you were my first time.”

She craned her head and kissed Gertrude softly on the lips.

Gertrude laid a hand on Elena’s hair and pulled her head into her chest.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. You were my first too, Princess.”


“Those two remind you of yourself and Leda. That’s why you let her into Vogelheim.”

“Shut up. Don’t bring that up. The Prince made his decision, and so I made mine.”

“So then, it’s true. After all, if you wanted to, you could have stopped her–”

Bethany struck Marina’s bare back with her palm. Marina nearly jumped.

“You don’t get to be cheeky, you whimpering little spoon. Be glad I’m this kind to you.”

Marina backed into Bethany suddenly.

“Fine, fine. Be tender with me! I can’t ask this of just anyone I seduce, you know?”

“God, I feel so special right now.”

Save for a few indiscretions over the years, Bethany’s sex life was nonexistent.

So, she could not help but actually feel a bit special about Marina.

Not that she would tell the fucking spy those honest feelings.

Moreso than just sex, as good as the sex had been, Marina wanted to be held and comforted, and in a way, that comforted Bethany as well. It had been even longer since she had a lover who stayed the night, who stayed in her bed, with whom she could share a bit of warmth. A lover whose hair she could smell, whose sweat she could taste as she nuzzled her neck. In the same way that Marina could not ask this “of just anyone,” Bethany was also restricted in whom she could have this kind of affection with. This was the sort of simulacra of love that required a shared history to maintain the illusion. Anyone else whom Bethany could love like this was already dead.

Marina and Bethany had a connection: revolving around a third woman they had loved.

A colossus of a woman who was going to shake the entire world, and certainly shook theirs.

A dead woman that both of them failed in their own ways, and then abandoned.

These two women lay in a big, ornate bed together like royalty, one holding the other.

Bethany rubbed Marina’s back briefly. As she suspected, Marina had artificially hidden her scars. It felt like there were even new ones.

Her only visible scar was the one Leda put on her chest; so Bethany would recall it.

Were you tortured? What have you been doing? Why are you Marina now?

Why didn’t you return to the Republic when the plot failed?

Those were the questions she wanted to ask. But that just wasn’t their relationship.

“Might I hope for a massage tonight? Dare I dream of such luxury?”

“Maybe. You’re so pathetic that I’m considering it.”

“Do you have a smoke around?”

“No. Your lungs will thank you for it.”

“I could really go for one.”

Bethany sighed. Marina laughed a little bit.

All of this was far too nostalgic and idyllic for Bethany.

She knew that the world was a bleak place where people used and abused each other.

“Marina, why are you here? You didn’t come to Vogelheim just for me.” She said.

She felt Marina tense a little in her arms.

“I told you, completely honestly, I wanted to reconnect. It’s our last chance for that.”

Marina was not lying. Bethany knew that. But she was not telling the whole truth.

“You want to take Elena away. Tell me why.” Bethany said.

There was no other possible reason.

Had it been anyone else, she might have said ‘You want to kill Elena.’

But she knew that, even for the G.I.A., this particular spy would not do such a thing.

“She just looks so much like her mother. I can’t help myself.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Yeah, I was grossed out by myself the moment I said it. I apologize.”

“Apologize by telling me the truth.”

Bethany started to rub Marina’s back, working her way up to her stiff shoulders.

Marina was quiet for a few moments, taking in the touch.

She still quivered, every so often, when there was a new movement she was not used to.

It was obvious that she had been hurt. She had been hurt really badly.

“I’m taking Elena to the Union.”

“The Union? Are you insane?”

Bethany was quite scandalized. Even someone like her, who had been part of subversive plots in the Empire, and who held quite a few grudges against her government, still nursed the Empire’s prejudice against the vicious communists to the South. What was the G.I.A. doing?

“We’re allies. The Union and the Republic; right now, the communists are our only remaining military power in the Western oceans. We can depend on them. They’re more reliable than you think.”

“Marina, I could understand taking her to the Republic, but–”

“How? The Empire is occupying the Ayre Reach. If we take Elena to the Union she can be safe until the Republic’s counteroffensive opens a route to get her to Alayze. That’s my plan. Listen, Bethany, I got some new contacts. I have some assets I can rely on to smuggle me and Elena into the Union. This is incumbent on us moving quickly. I can have her in the Union in a week.”

Bethany sighed into Marina’s back. She squeezed her shoulders a bit harder than before.

“Hey, careful.”

“I’ve done unthinkable things for Elena’s safety. And yet, this is giving me pause.”

“Bethany, this location won’t be safe anymore. Erich leaked it for a reason. It’s his way of telling you that he will not protect Elena anymore. They are not blood related, and she has no place in his Empire. I don’t know what kind of resources you have or what sort of deal you had with him, but it’s done now. He invited a bunch of nobles to meet him here, then he stood you all up. That’s his signal. Those people are on the chopping block and so is this entire island now.”

Bethany turned Marina around to face her.

For a moment, Marina struggled. She turned a pair of blank, panicked eyes on Bethany.

“Solceanos defend, I thought you wanted to garrote me or something!”

“Garrote you?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’m running an anxiety high here.”

Marina sighed. Bethany looked into her eyes.

She was tired, weary. Spent, even. Why was she doing all of this?

“It’s incredibly lame for a spy to keep telling me how fucked up she is.”

“It’s all part of my play, darling.”

“Marina tell me what you know. Do you have information on a plot against Elena?”

Bethany looked Marina dead in eyes. Not with anger, but with hope.

Hope for some kind of cooperation. To break the barrier that made them lie to each other.

Marina looked back at her. Again, her eyes were completely weary.

“I don’t have anything on an actual plot, but I can surmise one will happen. Vogelheim’s location has made it outside the ring of nobles invited to this meeting. I know because the info was sold to me. Ever since the Web network expanded to encompass the Empire instead of individual station LANs, it’s become huge in the underworld. Elena’s location is spreading, Bethany.”

“I’m not so savvy about this interweb stuff. But I get the point. Vogelheim is not secret anymore. So you’re afraid that Elena can’t stay here because someone could possibly target her.”

Marina sighed, as if it were worse than Bethany described.

“Erich told the nobles that he invited to Vogelheim that he would be meeting them here. You know this. If one of those nobles leaked that information then they leaked his presence too.”

At that point, the real danger of the situation finally hit Bethany.

She had been so stupid! She had been so stupid about everything!

It was not just that Elena was here. It was not in fact about Elena at all.

Outside entities had information that led them to believe that Erich was in a vulnerable location. He was not among his invincible, all-conquering fleet, he was hiding in a backwater station. He had gone to Vogelheim, a place that was now known to be important, to those who sought such information, to celebrate his sister’s birthday with a coterie of close aristocrats.

To know about Vogelheim was one thing. To know Erich would be there was much more.

For all of his rivals, it would seem a perfect chance to squash him and any alliances he was hoping to build within the aristocracy. Elena and Vogelheim would just be collateral damage.

“Solceanos protect us.”

“No, I will protect her. You have to let me take her, Bethany.”

Bethany was stunned speechless.

All those years ago, she had promised Leda that she would protect Elena.

She had stood by Elena’s side through her teenage and adult life.

Under the guise of teaching her, seeing to her, being the servant every noblewoman needed to have at hand to succeed in high society. Bethany also protected her. Marina was right when she said Bethany could have refused Gertrude entrance to Vogelheim. She had that right; that power. It was not only Erich who had granted it. Bethany had prepared defenses and contingencies.

She had never prepared for Erich himself to betray Elena. It was impossible to prepare for such a thing. It was like preparing against the wrath of God. Like trying to stop heaven from falling.

“I can protect her, Bethany.”

Marina looked into her eyes again. There was suddenly conviction, behind them.

Bethany, feeling suddenly weak, embraced Marina strongly.

“Tomorrow. Please. Let her have this for tonight. Let– let me have this.”

Marina was stunned. She made no verbal response.

She returned Bethany’s embrace. Slowly; probing, as if fleetingly afraid of the touch.


The Iron Lady was the seventh ship of the Irmingard class of dreadnoughts designed in the 970s, and she was the latest to launch.

Her profile was a work of art: a rounded, “spoon”-shaped prow concealed a forward heavy coilgun battery alongside a pair of torpedo tubes and extra sensory equipment. From the “spoon,” the Iron Lady had a thick “neck” that then expanded into the bulk of the curvaceous hull, 300 meters long and bedecked with dozens of emplacements, six light coilguns and a second heavy coilgun set. It had a magnificent silhouette, unlike the utilitarian, boxy ships of the Republic. Its design signified the majesty of the Empire.

Alongside the lead ship of the class and the first to launch, Prince Erich von Fueller’s Irmingard, the Iron Lady had been specifically outfitted to carry additional divers: it could deploy four at a time and carry six. Unlike the lead ship, the Iron Lady retained a gunmetal gray factory color at the behest of its commander, instead of adopting the livery of a territory or a noble sponsor.

At the present, the Iron Lady represented something of a burden to the port of Vogelheim, which was designed at best to carry a few Frigates. It occupied two frigate-size docks and was being held in place by the leftmost docking clamps of one dock and the rightmost of another. An engineering ship had removed the middle clamps and would have to replace them. But this was a small thing to prepare at the behest of the Imperial Princess, for her best lady Lichtenberg.

Overnight, Gertrude Lichtenberg had spent as much time as she could with her lady.

Unfortunately, she could not wait until morning. As much as it pained her to have to leave.

Gertrude had not intended to stay the night. But her crew was loyal, and she had a lot of resources, so she was able to make things to work. She would have to thank Ingrid for that.

She made her needs clear to Elena in the afterglow of their encounter.

And she spent what time they had to comfort her and assure her.

For hours, she held the Princess in her arms, telling herself, that she had to leave. Soon.

Past midnight, into the waning hours, tempting the dawn.

Finally, she made herself go. Elena accepted it; they parted on wonderful terms.

Gertrude had to return to the ocean so she could make damn sure that Elena would be protected in the events that were likely about to unfold. Prince Erich’s recent behavior and movements had her worried, as well as the demeanor of the Duchess Veka and the ambitions of the Pontiff Millenia Skarsgaard II of the Solceanos church in Skarsgaard, among other characters in the ensuing drama of the Emperor’s death and the question of the royal succession. Gertrude hoped that there would be a peaceful transition of power, and the Inquisition behind her would fight for that.

So, deep into the night, she stepped back through the docking chute into her ship.

Her ship security officer came to meet her at the door and saluted her arrival.

“You look happy.” He said casually, in contrast to the stiff military pose that he had struck.

Gertrude winked at him.

“I had a good time tonight. Did the lads enjoy their brief shore leave?”

“I’m surprised more of them didn’t go. I think some of them were just caught off-guard by this whole situation. A big group did go to the orchard and to the beach. I ended up going with them, just to make sure they didn’t trouble anyone. Fresh apples taste rather strange ma’am. Nothing like the applesauce we get on the ship. To be honest, it was a huge disappointment.”

“Applesauce has a sugary syrup mixed in. Natural apples can’t really compete.”

“I suppose so. Some of the lads snuck off to try to get girls, but they ran into Ingrid. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Ingrid was also out trying to get girls too. But she wasn’t none too pleased to see the lads making passes at women in the countryside, and she let ‘em have it.”

“Oh, unfortunate for them! So Ingrid left the ship? Did she have fun, you think?”

“I dunno that anyone can yell that much at the sailors without having fun with it.”

Gertrude grinned. “I hope they don’t hate her too much for it. She has a temper.”

“Hate? No. I think they just as afraid of her as they’ve always been though.”

Chief of Security Karl Vogt was a heavyset boy, with a serious, no-nonsense face, who carried himself stiffly, as if it took a lot of effort to move those big muscles around. His blond hair was cropped short, and he wore no accoutrements he did not need. However, he had a good sort of demeanor, where he was able to talk to Gertrude like he did to anyone else.

After a day of being called “the lady,” “lady Lichtenberg,” and even “master Lichtenberg” it was refreshing.

“Well, I’m glad you had a good time yourself. Welcome back aboard, Inquisitor.”

He gestured for her to go first, and she got started through the Iron Lady’s corridors.

How comfortable an Imperial ship was depended entirely on its size. Cutters were spartan and cramped places where eight men a room slept in bags, some on top of the torpedo racks. It was miserable, but it was the path out of poverty for a lot of people. Frigates and Cruisers could feel like homes. Serving on a dreadnought, however, was for the best of the best. Either the elite, the privileged or the lucky. If a Cruiser could be a home, then a Dreadnought could be a palace. Corridors just spacious enough to avoid being oppressive. Quarters where at most three men or women shared: for the whole crew, even the sailors. Grand decorations and filigree. Portraits on the walls, music in the halls. It was a warship, and the men were engaged in their work. But their environments were not actively hostile to them, and this was highly valued by Imperial sailors.

Food and entertainment were limited, but there was a gym that could fit fifty men all working out at once and listening to music, and you would not find a gym in a Cutter or a Frigate. Gertrude had come to take this for granted, and after coming in from the open spaces of Vogelheim she could feel herself canned in, with metal all around her. She acclimated quickly, of course.

Now that she was back aboard, she had to pay an official visit to the Captain first.

Then she could visit Ingrid. Hopefully without Vogt in tow.

“I can take it from here.” Gertrude said, once they crossed the neck of the Iron Lady.

“Yes ma’am. I think I’ll hit the gym. Haven’t done anything but walk around all day.”

“Sure. Work those arms a bit.”

Vogt nodded, turned around and left the way he came.

Sighing a little, with relief at finally being alone enough with her thoughts, Gertrude moved forward to the command pod of the Iron Lady. She was the ship’s commander and led its forces, but she was an Inquisitor, and the function of the Captain was served by another officer. She had ultimate decision-making authority, but her Captain and his First Officer handled routine command of the ship. It was his role to apply her broad instructions and ensure the crew fulfilled their duties.

She found him where she expected, on the palatial bridge of the Iron Lady.

Imperial bridges were wide and cylindrical. The Captain and any VIPs and trusted assistants sat in an island in the middle of the bridge, while around there were circular layers of computer stations for all the remaining essential tasks. Closest to the Captain’s island were the communications and sensor stations as well as the helmsman, while gunners sat farther out. A grandiose throne-like seat was reserved for the ship’s ultimate authority. In this case, it was empty since Gertrude was not sitting on it. Only the Captain and his Officer were present at this hour.

“Welcome back, Lady Lichtenberg. Did you settle matters to your satisfaction?”

“You could say that! We can get underway again as soon as everyone’s ready.”

Her Captain, Einz Dreschner, was a severe-looking man with high, gaunt cheekbones and a strong jaw, his hair cut down to bare whisps that were hidden beneath his peaked cap. He wore his uniform to regulation, and somehow, he always looked he had a fresh one, as if someone were ironing his clothes as he wore them throughout the day. He was almost twice Gertrude’s age.

“How was your friend?” Dreschner asked.

Even his casual questions had a strict sort of tone to them. Gertrude smiled.

“She’s going through a rough patch, I think, but I’m happy I was able to be there for her.”

“I think, if she’s a sensible girl, she’ll appreciate the Inquisitor’s gestures of kindness.”

“Oh, she does, I’m pretty certain of it.” Gertrude laughed nervously. “She appreciated it.”

“Fear not. We will return, maybe even soon. Thirty years ago, my wife waited a decade to marry me when I deployed, first to the Western borderland, then Ayre, then for the Rebellion–”

Gertrude did not bring up that Dreschner was divorced.

She appreciated his attempts to comfort her. Like Vogt, Gertrude had something of a friendly rapport with Dreschner.

“What about you Karen, how are you doing?”

“I– I’m– I’m fine thank you!”

That stiff, instantaneous reply was characteristic of Karen Schicksal, a bespectacled girl with big glasses and mousy hair who served as Dreschner’s First Officer. She was older than Gertrude but only by a few years, still young, and due to her short stature, young-looking. Her rosy cheeks and nose were mildly pockmarked, and she had a frenetic, nervous energy to her. There was something cute about her, like a yappy little dog, so Gertrude could never be too hard on her.

“How prepared do you think we are to set off?”

“Prepared? Well.” Schicksal paused to think for a second, tapping her feet very loudly.

“Schicksal.” Dreschner said.

She instantly stopped her foot tapping. “Ah, sorry! Sorry, force of habit.”

Gertrude smiled.

“Oh right, the question!” Schicksal gesticulated wildly. “Well we only need the Helmsman and a few comms officers on the bridge for a quick departure! We can re-staff gradually– I’d say we could have her ready in twenty minutes if we can just get the Helmsman back from his room!”

The First Officer spoke with frantic energy, but everything she said was correct.

“Could you go fetch him?” Gertrude asked.

“Oh! Yes! Yes ma’am!”

Schicksal instantly bolted out of the bridge as fast as her legs could carry her.

Dreschner shook his head.

“She’s technically competent, but she has no confidence. It’ll hold her back.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Gertrude said. “You should praise her more often. Build her up.”

Dreschner turned a narrow-eyed, skeptical glare over to Gertrude.

“Perhaps.”

He was thoroughly unconvinced. Gertrude laughed gently.

“Now that we’ve gotten the crew back in motion, I will retreat to my quarters.” Gertrude said. “I know you’ll have everything under control, but don’t hesitate to call on me if needed.”

“Of course, milady, but as a friend I will err on the side of letting you rest.”

“I had a feeling you would say that.”

Dreschner cracked a tiny smile. Gertrude returned one twice as wide before departing.

She actually had one more destination before hitting the hay.

Aside from Elena, Gertrude had managed to make one other unlikely friend in the world.

Gertrude strode past the mess, where even at this hour there was a cook on duty who was boiling up some sausage and buckwheat grits for a small group of patrolmen, all of whom waved at Gertrude as she went. She waved back. Beyond the mess, she found the officer’s quarters. Opposite her own room was one door, decorated with a badge that read ‘K9’ affixed by magnet.

“Gertrude? That you staring at the door? You smell funny.”

That shouting voice brought a smile to Gertrude’s face.

“Can I come in?” She asked. “Are you decent?”

“I’m always decent.”

Gertrude slid the door open just enough to get herself inside and closed it behind her.

As she expected, Ingrid was only really “decent” by her own definition.

She was dressed in nothing more than a pair of underwear shorts and a tanktop pulled up enough that it barely concealed her breasts. Her tail wagged incessantly when she saw Gertrude, though her expression was an antagonistic smirk. She laid in bed beside a plate of sausages and pickled onion, holding open a thick comic book anthology.

‘Johannes Jager;’ stories about a ridiculous-looking vigilante.

“You look like you’re having a good time.” Gertrude said.

“You smell like you did.” Ingrid said, grinning even more broadly.

Gertrude should have imagined that was coming.

She did perfume herself before she left–

Ingrid suddenly started sniffing.

Before Gertrude could get a word in, she started to brag.

“So there’s all the perfume, that’s a cute trick, but I’m not stupid, you don’t wear that fruity kind of perfume, you wear colognes like a fucking rich boy. I’ve smelled them because you wear it for promotion ceremonies. Similarly, I know how you smell when you’re sweaty at the gym. Furthermore, from my own vast personal experience I know what fucking a girl smells like–”

Gertrude cried out in defense. “Okay! I’ll take a shower! I just wanted to see you first!”

“Such consideration! I’m no princess, you know. I’m not dainty enough for your attention.”

She made eyes at Gertrude mockingly. Gertrude took the mockery in stride.

“Yes, you’ll unfortunately always be second place in my heart.”

Ingrid looked at her for a moment, stuck in between offense, confusion, and amusement.

She then sighed openly, finally put down her comic book, and laid back in bed.

“Well I’m glad you got outside for once, lady knight.” Ingrid sighed again. She had a distant look on her face, as if it were laborious to speak. “Look, joking aside, I know you love to see her. I don’t really give a shit one way or another what happens to her, but I like it when you’re cheerful. After the last battle you’ve been crazy sullen, so I hope you’ll stop being so depressing now.”

Gertrude pulled a seat out from the wall near Ingrid’s bed and sat beside her.

She sighed deeply, trying to relax. Her shoulders felt incredibly tense.

“I’m happy you care so much. I’ll try to take better care of myself.”

“I bet you ate like a queen over there. Wish I could have some.” Ingrid said.

She picked up a wan looking piece of sausage and had a sad little bite of it.

Gertrude smiled at her. She was trying to change the subject after being too emotional.

“As a matter of fact–”

Gertrude withdrew a tiny bottle from her coat. It was bright pink, and bubbly inside.

“I couldn’t bring you soggy bread and cold meatballs. I figured you’d like this better.”

“Huh! Well, thanks, I guess. Smells like booze.”

Ingrid took the bottle and stared at it curiously. It was unlabeled; it was bottled for the villa and the servants of the villa knew what it was, but it was not ever intended that Elena or anyone important would have to read it, and it was not a commercial product. As such, the bottle itself had intricate patterns, but there were no brands, no nutritional information, nothing on it.

“I think it’s like a rose wine of some kind.” Gertrude said.

She had picked up the bottle from a table. It was one of the drinks served to guests.

Using only sheer brute force, Ingrid snapped the stopper off the bottle.

She gave it a gentle sniff, and then took a long draught.

“Awoo! This is amazing!”

She gave a cheerful little cry, her tail wagging and her ears twitching.

“I feel like I can taste the fruits. It’s so sweet. I’ve never drank booze like this.”

Ingrid stuck out the bottle for Gertrude. The lady politely refused this offering.

“I’ve had more than enough luxury tonight. This is all for you, friend.”

“You spoil me! I’ll make you regret that someday.”

Ingrid tipped her head back and tipped the bottle into her lips.

In one long gulp, she downed the entire thing.

Afterwards, she exhaled with great pleasure, shutting her eyes hard.

“Ah! It’s boozier than I thought when I tasted it. But it’s so smooth. Incredible.”

For a moment, her friend merely sat, eyes closed, tail wagging incessantly.

Ingrid then suddenly closed in on Gertrude in a swift movement and whispered.

“I wanna know about all these luxuries you’ve had. I know you fucked her.”

Gertrude nearly jumped. Both from having Ingrid at her cheek, and the question.

“From the smell, I even know it went on a while–”

“Oh my god, Ingrid–”

“I’m imagining it now, ‘Oh Gertrude, be gentle with me!’ How loud was she?”

For all that Ingrid joked about Gertrude’s boyishness, this lad talk from her was too much.

“We are not going down this path.” Gertrude laughed, turning brightly red.

“Funny you say that because I can tell a certain someone went down tonight–”

Gertrude both looked mortified but was still unable to stop laughing. “Ingrid, stop it!”

Ingrid joined her, cackling. “Do you regret not getting a muzzle for me?” She asked.

That particular joke had an edge to it that made Gertrude suddenly self-conscious.

“Ingrid of course not!” She answered earnestly. Her friend saw her worried face and sighed.

Unique among the members of the Iron Lady’s crew, Ingrid Järveläinen Kindlysong was ethnically a Loup. Most prominently, Ingrid’s large, erect brown dog ears and long, bushy-furred tail indicated her Loup blood. Like the distantly related Shimii, there was no fur anywhere but her ears and tail, and she was like any other person in every other respect. As a result of both heritage and hard work, she stood quite tall and was very physically fit, with short, messy dark hair and rich brown skin. Gertrude thought she had a distinctive beauty, but Ingrid ignored appearances entirely, save for basic hygiene. Her hair was in its natural state; no cosmetics touched her face.

Her face, with a strong, slim, attractive appearance often marred by a mocking grin.

“You’re telling me you haven’t thought about it, even a little?” Ingrid said.

“Ingrid, please stop. I told you it will never be like that between us.” Gertrude pleaded.

“Don’t take it so seriously!” Ingrid said. “You’re so dull. You know I just joke about it.”

For Gertrude, who told herself she would help Elena change the Empire, it was serious.

When it came to the Loup, and perhaps even more tragically with the Shimii, the darker side of the Empire, its elitism and ingrained cruelty, was fully on display. Gertrude, daughter of the land that she was, could not herself make the leap to the word “racism,” but it was racism that defined the Empire’s attitude to the Loup. Ingrid’s mocking face could indeed have been quieted with a muzzle: a symbol of the Empire’s attitude toward the Loup. Bite our enemies, but never bark at us; do not believe you can be equals to us. You’ll be put in your place as animals.

“Jeez, you got me out of the K-9, you know? I’d wear a fucking muzzle for you.”

“I’d never allow that! I respect you too much to see you like that.”

Loup normally served in “K-9” units that acted as a sort of vanguard or scouting role for the Imperial Navy. Loup were often packed into boarding torpedoes. They did dirty jobs. In those sorts of roles, Ingrid had achieved the rank of Sotnyk, a unique Loup officer rank. But Gertrude wanted no part in that cycle of abuse. To her, Ingrid was a full crew member, not K-9.

“You’re such a self-righteous dork. Let me worry about muzzles, ok?”

Sometimes, however, Gertrude tried far too hard.

Ingrid was too headstrong for it.

She threw herself back on the bed, groaning with exasperation.

Gertrude sighed. Sometimes it was like this between them. “I apologize.”

“Don’t walk on eggshells around me, I hate that shit. Just be normal to me.”

“I won’t patronize you. I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”

Ingrid stared at her, suddenly grinning at her again.

“So did she get you off? Did the princess go down on you?

“Stop that! That’s between her and I what happened.”

“Yeah, it’s between you, her and me. You always tell me your secrets.”

“Not this one!”

Gertrude was once again laughing.

Ingrid really knew how to change the mood.

“This conversation has been too one-sided! I believe I’ve told you enough–”

“You haven’t told me shit though!” Ingrid whined.

“–So you tell me about your adventures today.” Gertrude deflected. “You went out, right?”

Ingrid crossed her arms. “I was just stretching my legs a bit. This place sucks though. It’s just all bullshit. There’s nothing to do; nobody lives here. It’s like a movie set with no movie. So what was I gonna do anyway? I basically just took out my frustration on the corny fuckin’ sailors.”

“My sources indicate you gave them just the right amount of grief.”

“There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I ate some apples and read comic books.”

“People really hype up having sex, but you sound like you had a really nice day.”

“Ok, let’s trade then.”

“Shut up!”

Almost every time Gertrude visited Ingrid, she thought she would drop in and drop out. Instead they talked like a pair of teenagers for hours and hours in this same fashion, trading banter, insults and anecdotes, commiserating about the upcoming voyage, even as the ship got underway.


In the tumult of sleep, Elena found herself once again walking the long, lonely halls of the Luxembourg Academy for Girls. In her dream the school had none of the color it had in life, and it was as empty in her imagination as she had felt when she attended in the flesh. Her loneliness and estrangement became long shadows and vacant classrooms in the prison of her mind.

There was one scene, which she was helpless to change.

Gertrude stood in the hall facing at Elena such that the Princess could see her expression.

She was not looking at Elena. She did not even know Elena was there.

Partially obscuring her, was another young woman of their mutual acquaintance.

Her back was to Elena. So she could not see her face; nor the contents of her heart.

She could not have called it “friendship.” Not anymore and maybe even not back then.

Everyone was on the cusp of a parting. It could be felt as a tension in the air.

Words were exchanged.

Gertrude’s eyes drew open in fury, a fire burning in them.

Bigger and stronger than any of the girls, when Gertrude drew her hand and slapped Victoria across the face, the younger woman tipped over immediately, falling to the ground and staring up in helpless rage at the one who had struck her down. She struggled to get back up, shaking, teeth grit. She turned and walked away in shame, and when she did so, she took the corner where Elena had been standing, watching from afar with no ability to stop them from fighting.

“Victoria–”

Elena called her name, but it was no use. Victoria looked at her, and for the first time, Elena saw tears in the eyes of that cold, collected cat-girl who had fallen into her orbit. She never saw her again, except in dreams. Except in this scene. While the scene itself was short, to Elena it encompassed the whole of her sleep. Victoria’s face, red in the cheek where Gertrude had beaten her, tears freely flowing in a way they never had and maybe never would again. Her fists helplessly balled up into instruments still too soft to ever cause any harm to the woman Elena truly loved.

She never truly understood why Victoria and Gertrude fought that day.

She never knew why it had to be that her group of school friends shattered irreparably.

There were no answers to be found in dreams.

There was only the anxious, agonizing repetition of things half understood.

“Let’s meet again, Elena.” She said, never once turning her head to face her.

Elena stood dumbfounded. Victoria was going away. Her little group was broken up.

She did not even notice there was one more standing behind her.

“You’re really hard to love, Elena, you know that? And worse your presence, it like…it demands love. There’s no way for people spellbound by you to turn away. Until it hurts them.”

There was no need to move to know the owner of that voice.

Sawyer.

Second tallest behind Gertrude. Long brown hair, elegant but also tomboyish.

Direct. Blunt. Impassioned.

Perhaps the only one of them who had hurt Elena and remained her friend despite this.

“It’s tough. It’s been tough for all of us. We’re all too hardheaded. You most of all.”

Elena closed her hands into fists. She wanted to cry and to shut out that voice.

But Sawyer’s voice came from everywhere. There was no escape in a dream–

–In a nightmare,

“Gertrude made herself into someone who would walk on a bed of nails for you. Because that’s what you want. Victoria can’t be that and hates herself for it. As for me, I am not able to love you. You know that. I thought I could use you…maybe Victoria thought that too?”

She felt a hand patting her shoulder, in pity, in mockery.

“You’ll always have Gertrude. And maybe someday I’ll come back too. Maybe soon.”

In an instant, the shadows crept off the walls and swallowed her like ocean water.

“We’ll all meet back up, and we’ll look back on today, thinking of how stupid we were.”

Elena sat up in shock. Soaked in sweat, heart exploding, mind gripped in sudden panic.

She was awake. She was undressed, in bed. Gertrude had gone. Dawn crept up slowly.

Her dress, her mother’s beautiful dress, had been carefully folded atop the dresser.

A gentle breeze blew through the room that carried the scent of the woods.

“I need to get out of here for a bit.” Elena said to herself. “I’m going to go insane.”

She did not want to think about how Gertrude was gone for god knows how long.

Her body quivered slightly when she remembered what they had done last night.

She had finally consummated her relationship. She’d– She’d had sex! With ‘Trude!

And yet, there was something missing. Well, of course. It was ‘Trude herself.

In the moment, the act of sex had been consuming, overwhelming, incredible.

Her love for Gertrude was so intense that it hurt.

Elena had woken up scared, cold and alone with nobody to comfort her.

She felt bitter. No matter how good it felt, she only had the memory.

She was lonely.

For how much longer would things go on like this?

Why was she thinking so much about her school days too?

Victoria, Sawyer, Gertrude– maybe she felt like she was now left with nobody.

And she hated having to remember Sawyer’s last words to her.

Was she really that selfish? Was her presence that horrible?

Had she really done all those things?

Was this due to her station? Or was she just a horrible person?

Did her mother have to suffer like this too?

Elena sobbed. She had no answers to the questions flooding her head.

But it was a new day. Life had to go on somehow.

She would talk to Bethany about her mother. Maybe that strange woman from the party would visit, too. There was always some sort of thing to keep her mind occupied, she supposed. But for Gertrude to leave and Vogelheim to remain as it is, felt eerie to her. Nothing was the same.

Elena told herself she would sneak out for a walk out of the grounds.

Fresh air would do her good.

Despite the objections of her computerized dresser, she donned a simple, long-sleeved blue dress and a pair of shorts, leaving the ballroom dress where it sat. When she snuck out of the room, she found no maids around to yell at her. It was early, very early, but the sun was out. She supposed they were all working behind the scenes or simply worked too hard or partied too hard. Elena thought they all deserved the rest.

It wasn’t her choice to work them as hard as they did.

She found little resistance as she walked out the back of the villa onto the flower garden.

A strong breeze blew against her, whipping her hair behind her. She took a deep breath.

All of the flowers, despite their many beautiful colors and shapes, smelled the same.

It may well have been, that they were the same flower, with only slight differences in DNA.

Elena knew a little bit about that. Just enough to ruin the fantasy, nothing more.

Deeply sighing, she continued to walk. Negativity clung to her the whole way.

There was nothing to see in Vogelheim. There was nobody to meet.

Elena simply wandered through the flowers until she was at the edge of the forest.

For the horse it was a few minutes gallop, but it took Elena fifteen or twenty minutes.

Throughout she focused on the mechanical act of walking to empty her mind.

She took a deep breath of the forest air and sighed just as deeply.

While the scents were pleasant, it was not the same simply walking through alone.

Without anyone to accompany her, the artificiality of Vogelheim served to torment her. It was too quiet, there was no movement. Soon the silence felt oppressive. Elena realized why she barely ever went out. Everything was so beautiful but so purposeless. That fallen world, the surface far, far overhead, it had been a living place.

Vogelheim was practically a grave for that world.

It induced mourning.

“Solceanos defend. What is wrong with my head today?”

She was bitter. Too bitter. She tried to put the negativity behind her.

That required something to focus on instead, however. And she had nothing.

Whimsically, she thought she might find the clearing that she and Gertrude had sat in.

She was still at the edge of the forest, however. She had not gone far enough in.

And without the assistance of Glanz, she felt anchored to the edge of the forest.

“I can’t do anything myself. I’m such a god, damned, loser!”

Elena stamped her foot in frustration, shutting her eyes to shed a few tears.

“I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything.” She balled up her fists.

In her mind she saw her brother’s face, and she hated him.

She hated him for doing this to her, to “protect” her, and then abandoning her.

Teeth grit, eyes shut hard, foot stamping in frustration, his face shattering with each blow.

Elena felt pathetic. She felt lost. But more than that she felt angry, furious, full of hate.

“To hell with this place. I wish it would just drown in the fucking Imbrium.”

“Such a taboo thought. It ill befits the Imperial Princess.”

Elena’s eyes drew open and wide at the sound of another human voice.

A familiar voice.

When she opened her eyes the harsh grimace of her brother had been replaced with the soft, olive-skinned, inexpressive face of a young woman in an ornate, off-shoulder blue romper worn over a long-sleeved white blouse. Her chestnut brown hair was arranged into pigtails that curled slightly at the ends, a little white cap on her head resting between two fluffy, erect cat ears.

“Victoria?”

The name escaped Elena’s lips like a gasp.

The Princess could hardly believe it. She was sure that it must have been a delusion.

Her mind must have finally snapped from all the stress.

Her tail swaying gently behind her. Standing at the edge of the forest, alone.

“Happy belated birthday.” Victoria said. Her voice was as cold and detached as ever.

Elena shut her eyes hard, dumbfounded. She opened them. Victoria was still there.

She could not imagine a single logical thing to say in return.

“I apologize for not coming to your party. I wanted to avoid Lichtenberg.”

“You wanted– you wanted to avoid Gertrude?”

Elena knew this woman as Victoria Bretagne. That was her ‘Imbrian name’ that her family adopted in order to remain ennobled during the Imperial “reconciliation” of the Shimii. That was before Elena’s time, but it was something she knew from the history books. Regardless, she had never known her under any other name. This was Victoria; it was her friend Victoria in the flesh.

“I– I don’t know what to say.” Elena tried to smile. “I’m so– I’m surprised! I just, I never expected to,” she was clearly stammering, “I never thought I’d– you’re really Victoria, right?”

Victoria nodded her head. “I am Victoria van Veka now.”

For a moment, Elena’s mind unraveled in time once more. Had she said van Veka?

Victoria had been a minor noble of the house Bretagne. She was not entitled any honorific. Those words, van Veka— they meant a lot to Elena. They said a lot; they meant that Victoria’s life had certainly changed since they last met. However, they also implied something Elena did not fully understand, something a bit scandalous. Had Victoria been adopted into the Veka household she would be von Veka. For her to be van Veka; was that honorific not reserved for things like, concubines? Illegitimate couplings and wedlock? For her to have been made a van Veka it must have meant–

“Victoria, did Veka– did Veka do something to you?” Elena said, her face turning pale.

“Mistress Veka helped me see my true strength.”

Her face was cold but determined, and around her eyes shone bright, eerie red rings.

“I need you to come with me. You’re not safe here anymore.”


Vogelheim was a station of the Imbrian Palatinate, one of the Grand Duchies of the Empire. After the time of upheaval, the Palatinate became a sacred land that housed the Royal Family. So as much as Vogelheim was a backwater station, its location within the Palatinate still made it important enough to be tended by a substantial patrol fleet and various defense systems.

Whenever a ship approached Vogelheim at common depths, the Patrol fleet would know quite ahead of time, barring the invader having perfect knowledge of the security systems. So when a flotilla of eight ships was detected in the outskirts of Vogelheim, the Patrol fleet quickly dispensed with the formalities. It was clear this flotilla was not a scheduled visitor to the site.

Twenty cutters of the Patrol Fleet assembled a kilometer away from Vogelheim as a shield and awaited the approach of the fleet with their weapon systems armed for combat. Though they could not see the enemy fleet visually, algorithmic prediction based on sonar and laser imaging had been mostly accurate in the composition and line of approach. It confirmed all of the patrolmen’s worst fears. This was a heavily armed flotilla, headed to the station at full speed.

Four gun-frigates, two ten-launcher missile frigates, a cruiser and an engineering vessel made up the “enemy” fleet. They were arrayed in an arrowhead formation, with the cruiser front and center, and the standard gun frigates screening for the missile frigates and the engineering ship heading up the rear. All of the ships had been painted with a black livery and a logo: a black eagle made of simple shapes, in a white sunburst itself within a red circle. Though the men fancied their chances of defending Vogelheim from just the Frigates, it was the Cruiser that gave them pause.

This was a brand new and imposing Ritter class Cruiser. This class had an iconic sword-like profile with sleek, modern designs for its fins, conning tower and jets. Artistic as it was in aesthetics, the Cruiser also bristled with retractable weaponry, including a double-barreled heavy coilgun emplacement and multiple defensive gas gun turrets.

Armed only with light coilguns and one light torpedo tube each, the Cutters would have a tough time engaging such a ship.

When this lead ship hailed them, the Cutters were inclined to try to come to terms.

“Attention, Vogelheim Patrol Fleet! We are not here to fight you! We are giving you a chance to join the people’s justice! We are here only for the tyrant Erich von Fueller, who has betrayed the people to foreign enemies! Interfere with us, and you become the enemy of the national proletariat! We ask that you join us! Join the uprising of the national proletariat!”

At first the hail was simply voice data over the acoustic protocol, but when the patrolmen picked up laser communications, they saw a tall, strong, brown-haired young woman in a black and silver uniform bedecked with awards and medals not of naval standard. She had a severe expression that befitted her firebrand speech. It was clear she would not back down.

“My name is Heidelinde Sawyer, I hold the rank of Sturmbannführer within the Volkisch Movement. The national proletariat demands the immediate surrender of Erich von Fueller! Join us, patrol fleet, or we will open fire!”

After many years, the stage was finally set for Elena’s class reunion.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


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