Kreuzung’s Tower Two was an enormous supplemental seaport.
It was one of Kreuzung’s oldest support towers.
Even from the exterior one could tell apart the numerous seams for the closed steel doors to its berths. Originally it had been designed to accommodate a dozen cargo super-haulers that had become the Empire’s workhorse transport ships during the colonization period. Each of these vessels was almost the size of a station tier, so an entire tower was needed to accept them, unload their cargo, repair and maintain them, and send them back on their way.
Gradually, super-haulers began to disappear from the oceans around Kreuzung.
Not only because of the recent turmoil– since the Fueller dynasty took power, the Newtype Tower V station, much smaller and humbler than its predecessors, had become the leading form of architecture in the Imbrium. Any new station was a macro-stitched Newtype Tower V with an adjacent Nautilus II Separated Seaport block attached to the tower by tube trams. Sometimes a few small towers were linked to the seaport block, expanding capacity and creating a station complex. Each of these towers was roughly 2/3 the size of one of Kreuzung’s supporting towers, but depending on the interior configuration, they could squeeze almost as many people in poorer accommodations that were cheaper to maintain.
Huge stations like Kreuzung would never be built again. Perhaps in time only the rich would afford living in them, with all the poor segregated to smaller towers. At any rate: massive ships with the capacity to carry mind-boggling quantities of materials to a remote worksite were largely unneeded. This shift then led most current high-capacity seaports to convert many of their enormous berths to support the docking of multiple smaller vessels, increasing capacity for cheap to achieve greater profit on space they already had. While this came at the expense of the quality of service and safety at those berths, there was no turning back. Tower Two still hosted much of the Kreuzung Complex’s freight processing, but it was now also the most accessible seaport for private yachts and luxury cruise ships, ambulant resorts, and other kinds of pleasure vessels unwilling to deal with security in the Core Station.
On the tower’s northeastern side, a berth opened to allow a simple cylindrical vessel to exit the seaport and begin its journey. It was a workhorse private transport craft about fifty meters long and thirty wide, built for endurance and safety over looks, like a metallic-blue crate with hydrojets leaving streams of bubbles and distorted water in its wake. It climbed out of the Kreuzung crater and maintained a stable course close to the ground, over the rocky, sandy surface of the surrounding seafloor. It navigated away, bound north-west.
On its side, there was a stylized logo, depicted as if long beams and bolts of blue could be seen shining at acute angles across the cursive lettering that read: Raylight Beauty.
“Once we’re out of Kreuzung’s jurisdiction, set up an encrypted line to Aachen.”
“Use the Gladbach relay, not Kreuzung’s. Monitor the connection closely.”
Kremina Qote left the crew behind and retired to her VIP quarters in the middle of the ship. Like the ship itself, it was not anything too extravagant. But it was private; she had her own bed, a door she could lock, her own desk, her own monitor to work with. She could be reasonably certain that nobody would interfere with her affairs, and she could shut out the world outside. Nobody would hear her. There were no adjacent accommodations.
She sat down on her bed and looked down at her own shoes.
Her jaw tense. Fist opening and closing.
By all rights, she had completed the mission that she had been given.
She had been sent to Kreuzung to meet with Solarflare LLC, but upon discovering the presence of Nagavanshi’s little guerilla mission, she was instructed to send them to Aachen, to join the United Front against the Volkisch. Redirecting them away from their suicide mission to Buren was necessary and useful, and their mission profile already included helping any resistance movements they found along the way. After all, that originally had been Daksha’s desire which Nagavanshi just twisted out of shape under clauses and subclauses, as she always did. No one could judge Kremina derelict on the basic facts of her mission. Not Gloria; not Daksha herself. Kremina had secured their assistance as instructed.
However, she had failed in her own personal goal.
As soon as she heard of the Brigand, she both feared and coveted their assistance.
She was of two minds approaching them, and she tried her best to navigate it– but–
Kremina did not account for the stubborn desire of the Brigand’s officers to remain free of Daksha’s command at any cost. Then she was completely blindsided by the nature of their alliance with that upstart Erika Kairos. She was not satisfied with simply putting them on course to Aachen. Kremina had wanted to either control them or sideline them politically. After they made their intentions not to join Kansal clear, diverting them to the Rotfront should have been the end of all her problems. But now Kremina was not sure about the rigor of her previous logic anymore. The Rotfrot was perhaps more ascendant than she thought possible. They had managed not just to ally with the Brigand, but to completely annex them.
Ulyana Korabiskaya could introduce new possibilities into the ecosystem at Aachen.
Erika Kairos could become more than a junior partner in the United Front.
Daksha Kansal’s influence could be explicitly upset by the Brigand’s actions.
And in fact– it could even be Ulyana Korabiskaya’s aim to overthrow her entirely.
“Daksha– what are you thinking–?”
When Daksha left the Union in the hands of that insipid idealist Ahwalia and that utilitarian brute Jayasankar, Kremina had followed dutifully because she believed in her. She owed her life and allegiance to Daksha Kansal. Only Daksha Kansal had the correct line– only she had the vision to save these troubled seas from themselves. Leaving the Sunlight Foundation had been the right move. Leaving the Union could have been a smart play as well.
Now though– Kremina was not so sure what Daksha was trying to do anymore.
That doubt, which she was so unfamiliar with, scared her utterly.
It scared her so much, that it made Ulyana Korabiskaya’s words feel like a threat.
A threat to an edifice that should have been impregnable, indestructible.
“Kremina? I’m glad you called. I’ve been worried about you. Gloria’s been saying things.”
At the appropriate time, the crew connected their vessel via laser to the Gladbach relay. Rhinea had the most developed inter-station network in all of the duchies. In addition to direct connection to the relays, there were many relay buoys that could be used to develop stable connections to the inter-station network even while in transit. Therefore, the ship could continue to travel at a relatively breezy speed, while the picture of Daksha Kansal, speaking in real time, hardly ever shifted in quality on Kremina’s screen.
She was beautiful– the most beautiful woman Kremina had ever seen.
Her long brown hair, even as it began gently fading to white; the sharpness of her eyes, even as the crow’s feet began to form in the corners; her easy smile, the warm color of her skin, even as the wrinkles had begun to appear; the figure of an adventurer, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, yet looking professor-like in her mock turtleneck and synthetic jacket. These days she wore bell-bottomed vinyl pants and heeled shoes, perhaps the influence of the fashionista now under her wing. These weren’t visible on the call, but Kremina knew.
Daksha was always visible in her mind, and in her mind she was always perfect.
She was beautiful– but she was also aging. Another thing Kremina did not understand.
Kremina never achieved immortality. She only delayed her own aging by a feeble amount through the use of exotic chemicals she no longer had access to. She was growing old too.
Daksha Kansal did not have to grow old, like her.
Daksha Kansal was one of the Immortals, and yet, she threw it all away too.
“How are you? Gloria is not upset with you, but I’m not happy about what she’s told me.”
Kremina’s eyes snapped out of the dream-like reverie of seeing her old master once more.
“I am not here because I value Luxembourg’s esteem.” Kremina replied. “Look, Daksha, I did what you asked. Nagavanshi’s pawns are now on their course to Aachen. Whatever else– was a product of their choices. All I did was give them information and set up contacts for them.”
Daksha smiled. “You can’t pretend as if that last episode with them didn’t happen.”
“I lost my temper. It’s irrelevant. They were never going to join us anyway.”
“I was never concerned about whether or not they would join us.” Daksha said. “I’m happy if it’s just you and me and then our allies. Now I’m afraid they might have the wrong idea and think that we set out to antagonize them. That might lead to unnecessary friction later.”
“Daksha, they should join you! You should throw your weight around more!”
Kremina was in a mood– so she let slip a little more than she usually would.
“Ah. I think I see what’s going on.” Daksha said. “Kremina–”
She felt like she had been scolded and it embittered her. “I know– I know–”
“Clearly you don’t.” Daksha said. She was not mad. She was giving Kremina a fond look, like long distance lovers catching each other’s gaze. Despite this, her words were firm. “Kremina. I deeply treasure you. This is why you’re the only person who is indispensable to me and the only person I trust to represent me. But this time, you went out of line– it is my fault, for not giving you a clearer vision of my goals. But the fact remains. You cannot conquer the Ocean for Daksha Kansal by yourself, in my stead– I don’t want you to do anything like that.”
Despite the soft delivery, Kremina still felt so stung. She couldn’t understand it!
“Daksha,” she was almost tearing up, “Why– why are you choosing to die?”
Any foolish or vain action on Daksha’s part was excusable if she was immortal.
That she was aging, that her time in the world was limited, made everything more urgent.
Kremina’s conversations with Ulyana Korabiskaya finally laid bare feelings of grief and anxiety that she had been burying for so long. Ulyana dared to say she could challenge Daksha Kansal. Because Daksha was no longer as powerful and invincible as she once was.
That open wound the audacious Captain unknowingly ripped open, now bled profusely.
Onto that room on the UNX Brigand, onto this ship and onto the screen.
“So that’s what this is about then.” Daksha said.
“Of course it is. Nothing makes sense because of that.” Kremina replied.
Daksha smiled again and took the tone of a professor delivering a lecture.
Kremina was left so speechless by the sudden turn in their discussion, she did not interrupt.
“Do you really know about the Immortals, Kremina? You never were allowed to be part of the inner circle, even though you were so devoted to me. You don’t know how each of them found their own immortality. Yangtze, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Potomac, Hudson and myself, formerly, Ganges. All of us are esteemed as geniuses who defeated death, but that is entirely empty techno-utopianist rhetoric. You don’t know the truths; I’ll tell you.”
When she spoke of them, Daksha betrayed a certain fondness as if telling old war stories.
“Yangtze cheated death by combining biomechanics with the Pelagis Process, allowing her to grow backup bodies in vats which receive a digitized education in the form of her memories, implanted into the biomechanoid brain of the new body. When I saw the results, as much as I wanted to work with her– seeing a new Yangtze born– it horrified me so much.”
She averted her gaze. “Meanwhile Potomac keeps herself eternally youthful and alive through her discoveries in pluripotent stem cell therapy and surgery. She grows and discards organs as needed. I can’t fault her for it– but it did make me question things. Same with Hudson. Hudson doesn’t purge her body of unwanted organs with new ones; rather, she has replaced her entire body with immortal cybernetics. And yet, she still longs for even more.”
Kremina continued to listen, her heart shaken and reeling with the weight of those words.
“Nile is infected with a cocktail of horrific and rare diseases. She did not choose to be infected with them, but the end result has kept her body alive for over a hundred years and counting; but if they are not controlled, she is a living apocalypse waiting to happen. Being infected with one of the diseases and not all would result in excruciating death, not immortality. She knows this and is ready– to take steps– should it ever be required.”
A dire and clumsily put insinuation.
“As for Euphrates herself,” upon mentioning her, Daksha sighed openly, “Euphrates is the only really Immortal person out of all of us. But she didn’t ask to be that way, Kremina. She was never so power-hungry. She was just born with some kind of condition. People, when she was born, where she grew up– they didn’t understand it. She was a medical guinea pig. It took the collapse of the surface world for her exploitation to end. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen her really vulnerable– I saw it when she baptized me with aether– an insinuation of the things they did to her.” Daksha kept pausing every so often and kept hanging on her words. Kremina knew this was all difficult for her to say. She sat astonished by it.
“Because of what I saw, I never asked her about the surface and I never will. Meanwhile, Tigris, she was a miracle for Euphrates. She imperfectly inherited Euphrates’ disorder through a spinal fluid transfusion. Her regeneration was enough to save her life. It was also the only time I have seen Euphrates so quickly disavow her own ethics. She must have really been madly in love. I thought, back then, we needed Immortality to safeguard our goals.”
Daksha shut her eyes. “So finally, there is me. You’ve extended your life a little bit, Kremina, but never found immortality. You don’t have Potomac or Yangtze’s technology, so all you could do is make yourself a little healthier. I don’t judge you for that– we influenced you after all. I influenced you. I was an Immortal. I found a way to prolong my life.”
Kremina hung on every word, eyes drawn wide, lips shut tightly together.
“Kremina, pay attention to the wages of my sin, and my greatest shame.”
She watched Daksha Kansal raise her hand in front of the screen, palm up.
With trained precision, Kremina reacted, faster than thought.
Red rings around both their eyes, as Kremina began to see in terms of auras, vectors, and other psionic phenomena in response to Daksha’s invocation. Kremina had never achieved the second and third gifts, but she knew about psionics and knew enough to protect herself as best as she could and dissect attempts to influence her. She could see that Daksha’s palm was not barren as it would be to the eye of an untrained person.
Instead, there was a flame dancing on her palm.
White and black flame that flickered with an eerie warmth.
From multiple directions as if drawn out of the walls, the little flame coalesced in her hand.
It had a soft texture, to Kremina’s eyes, and it gave her an almost nostalgic feeling, as if it was a pitiable little thing that deserved coddling. For Daksha to hold it, she had to focus black and white aura in halves over her own palm. Manipulating these types of aura was a skill that required a lot of emotional control. Black aura was the aura of death, the despair of mortality or the desire to kill, and trying to deliberately channel it could cause the user to lose control or succumb to perverse intentions. Meanwhile, White aura was often associated with the sublime, or the eldritch, or even with pure insanity. It was a sight beyond human that very few could actually experience. Daksha was unequaled when it came to Aetherics.
As Kremina observed the little flame, she also thought that she heard–
–voices, voices that sang of memories, and a glow in which Kremina could see figures,
and Daksha’s skin, illuminated by the ghosts,
lightening, hair brightening, crow’s feet softening, appearing as herself of yesteryear
beautiful, angelic until
her palm closed snuffing out the little life
aging and weakening again before shock-wide eyes–
Kremina teared up, her voice trembled. “Daksha. That is– is that–”
“It’s human life, Kremina. I used Aetherics to steal life from others for myself.”
When Daksha’s psionics dispelled, Kremina watched as the little flame of humanity she had gathered, presumably from people outside the room she was in, from people in the halls, maybe even from Gloria somewhere in the distance– all of it dissipated and began to trail back to where it was taken. Daksha had refused to absorb it into her own aura, and therefore she aged again, and again lost the gift of immortality, those black and white traces of life.
“Do you understand now, Kremina? Do you understand my change of heart, why I had to let go of the Union, of my power? Do you understand why, for my convictions, for the things I want others to believe, it is necessary that I became mortal? That I stop pursuing the same path that Yangtze and Potomac are on? That I age and die? It is important to me, Kremina, to be humble now. To lower my head to others. I became mortal because I must die. Clinging to the world has had perverse effects on my life. I have to let go in order to let others rise up.”
Kremina laid a hand over her mouth and shut her eyes, weeping.
“I know that this is galling to you. I’m sorry that I can’t be all-powerful for you.”
She stared into the eyes of her mentor, her lover, the colossal figure of all she believed in.
“I’m sorry.” She said. She didn’t try to equivocate it. She didn’t say anything more.
She was sorry. She understood. She had been wrong. She had been completely wrong.
All this time Daksha had carried such a horrendous burden, and Kremina never knew.
“We’ll talk more when you come back.” Daksha said. “I esteem you greatly, Kremina.”
Kremina nodded silently. She felt unbearably foolish and short-sighted.
“I’ll smooth things over with Ulyana Korabiskaya and her crew, and with the Rotfront. Don’t worry about that now. Please think about what I told you and reflect.” Daksha said.
“I will. Thank you. Please take care, Daksha.”
“Of course. I will be here for you.”
Daksha disappeared from Kremina’s screen, leaving a void reflecting Kremina’s face.
She stared into her own darkened eyes, feeling like a storm had swept by her.
More than ever, she needed Kremina’s protection, even if she didn’t realize it.
She needed Kremina to be smarter; to be craftier; and to fight harder than ever before.
Daksha Kansal was mortal and vulnerable. She could never be an Immortal again.
In her finite time in the world, it was her work that had to become immortal.
Kremina had to do everything in her power for Daksha’s revolution to succeed and spread.
For now, that meant that Gloria Luxembourg’s social-democrats had to either control the United Front or be the ultimate survivors of its near-inevitable breakdown.
Those upstarts with the Rotfront and their Jayasankarist allies could not be allowed to derail everything. Daksha would disapprove of this line of thinking, but Kremina was not going to openly act against anybody. Yet. For now she would be well behaved and demure.
She just had to control her temper; bide her time; and await the opportunity to intervene.
“Oh my! Such a fantastic cup of coffee. This is starting to feel like a vacation!”
Erika Kairos raised her plastic mug and cheered. The mug was full of plain, black coffee.
“Might a lovely maiden dream of a sweetener? Perhaps even creamer?” She asked.
“Let’s not get too greedy!” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied, smiling. Erika’s eyes drew wide from behind the steam coming from her mug. “I’m joking! Of course we can get you some.”
Olga took a sip of the coffee herself and nodded her head in approval.
“It’s a sight better than the cheap stuff in our rations. The grounds were not adulterated.”
Aaliyah looked down at her own mug, the coffee having been brewed by a very standard Union Soyuzkofe machine in the cafeteria. Her furry ears twitched slightly, and she took a sip.
“I knew living in the Empire was harsh; but I’m surprised in the ways that manifests.”
Erika smiled. “Well, we have to take what we can get, you know? When it comes to food, we usually have to either steal it, or go to smugglers whose products are usually low quality, or go to cottage industries that don’t have the means to make quality products.”
“Turning over an Imperial cargo ship is practically a holiday feast for us.” Olga added.
Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed gently with Olga and Erika.
On that morning, the meeting room Ulyana and Aaliyah were working out of lately, had instead become a little conference room for their first command meeting with Erika Kairos. They had formally agreed to become part of Erika’s Nationale Volksarmee, and swore to follow her political command as their new Premier. This was something of a shield against other political influences on the crew– but it was not a game to anyone in that room. It was a serious endeavor, and it required the establishment of a solid working relationship in all of its various particulars. They weren’t playing pretend– they wanted Erika to lead them.
Ulyana thought well of Erika and envisioned they would have a good relationship, but nevertheless, they needed to lay out how both sides typically operated. How Erika hoped to rule them; what the capabilities of each side were and how they could work together when combined; and other such things. For her part, Erika was treating the whole thing very casually and breezily. Ulyana imagined it would be so. She had not met all that many Katarran mercenaries, but she felt they must have operated a few steps below military standard in formalities, in order to work at all. But at least she knew Erika took theory very seriously.
As she requested, Erika soon received a little tray with cubes of creamer and sweetener.
These had been powdered and compressed for ease of storage.
She picked up a few of each cube and dropped them into her coffee, stirred, and drank. She smiled from ear to ear, flushing, even her horns looked a little brighter than before.
“C’est magnifique!” She said, giggling a bit.
She quietly passed the coffee condiments tray forward. Ulyana and Aaliyah both partook.
Olga smiled and looked at the Premier fondly; but continued to have her coffee black.
“Alright. I greatly value the hospitality. But, back to business!” Erika said cheerfully. “I am planning to transfer my flag from the Rostock to the Brigand. I think that will help smooth out the early stages of our cooperation. Daphne, my captain on the Rostock, is well-respected and settled on that vessel, so I have no worries that she can handle everything there while I am away. I hope I can settle in here, and observe operations first-hand.”
“Understood. I have no objections. That will simplify our operational coordination a lot, actually.” Ulyana said. “I’ll have the lads stitch you a chair while they turn over the Bridge.”
“That would be lovely. Though, worse comes to worse, I can stand.” Erika said.
“Can you provide us information on your fleet and its operations?” Aaliyah asked.
“I could do so verbally, but I did not come prepared for a detailed onboarding.” Erika said. “I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting to gain a new ship. However, as soon as we get out to sea, we can connect to the Rostock and you can sync all of its data over at your convenience.”
“That sounds more efficient. We’ll talk about fleet integration at that point.” Aaliyah said.
“That can also be when you give us some of your data in return.” Olga said.
Aaliyah bristled a little, but Erika quickly dispelled those suddenly risen fears.
“We’re not after any classified information from the Union.” Erika said.
Olga crossed her arms. “We could at least use your stitcher blueprints though. Our lives would be so much easier if we didn’t have to free-stitch small parts to repair our stuff. It’s like rolling dice every time something breaks. You can help our capabilities long term.”
“Aaliyah, I want to be open with them. Do you have any specific qualms?” Ulyana said.
She looked at her Commissar, sitting beside her, compassionately but firmly.
In turn, Aaliyah briefly avoided her gaze. She composed herself quickly.
“Old habits die hard. You’re right, there isn’t really any reason not to share our data.”
“Thank you.” Erika said. “I understand, security backgrounds require caution above all.”
“We appreciate your cooperation, and we will follow all of your data security protocols. Access will be limited; we have all the hardware controls needed to insure that.” Olga said.
Aaliyah nodded her head in acquiescence.
Ulyana was glad everything was going smoothly. Olga and Erika were professionals.
“We don’t want to overturn your existing structure. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and slowly improve our doctrine together.” Erika said. “We should do the bare minimum we need to have cohesion between the existing Volksarmee forces and your own. I want to preserve the chain of command aboard the Brigand as much as possible, but only with myself at the top. I also respect that this is probably a contentious decision for you because of your extended chain of command to the Union. I do not want to imperil your relationship to your home country. So if there’s anything you need from me, please tell me.”
“I’m sure Nagavanshi will understand when she reads my report however many months or years from now after all of this is over.” Ulyana said, with a smile. “If we live that long.”
Erika laughed. “I fully intend to live that long, Captain. But of course, I understand.”
Aaliyah finally smiled a little too. “I’m quite happy with your proposal, Premier.”
“In terms of Volksarmee personnel aboard the Brigand, Olga and I require private lodging.” Erika said. Olga’s eyes popped for a moment. “I will be up front: we are lovers. It has never been a problem, and in fact has been a psychological aid for both of us. If the Brigand has an exceptionally strict rule against fraternizing, it will have to be waived for me.”
“Um, ma’am–” Olga began, but a sharp look from Erika cut her off and silenced her.
“As you can see, I still retain authority over her.” Erika smiled with forced innocence.
Ulyana grinned a little. Aaliyah glanced askance at Ulyana.
“Oh there’s probably tons of sex going on in this ship.” Ulyana said. “I won’t stop you.”
Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She raised her voice above the room–
“Strictly speaking– to the regulation– ugh, whatever.” She shrugged and gave up instantly.
Olga averted her eyes, a little bit embarrassed.
One more smiling glance from Erika got her to sigh and recompose herself.
“I’m not used to her being so forward about it, especially like this.” Olga admitted. “But like– yes, when we can die at any moment, and we’re crammed in these metal cans. You really can’t expect ship crews not to get each other off a bit, every once in a while.”
“It’s maybe more common among Katarrans than in the broader world.” Erika said.
“We’ll get you a room.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s move the conversation past this please.”
Ulyana noticed the insides of her ears had flushed a very bright red.
She tried not to smile. It would have definitely upset her charmingly uptight Commissar.
Erika was not troubled at all by the atmosphere in the room.
She had an uncanny ability to look cheerful or at least centered in any situation.
Even when Kremina had been berating her openly, she was still smiling just like this.
After Aaliyah’s request, the conversation returned to matters of organization.
“Besides Olga and I, Kalika Loukia will also remain aboard. She has many skills and is someone I know I can depend on to do almost anything. I think she is all the direct support I will need on the ship aside from Olga, and you will benefit from her as well.” Erika said. “There are a few other officers of mine whom I’m used to having at my disposal, but I think they can operate from the Rostock, maybe switching in and out as needed.”
“Alright. Kalika already helped us out quite a bit. We’ll be glad to have her.” Ulyana said.
“I believe next on the agenda we wanted to lay some groundwork on logistics.” Olga said.
“We were planning to restock at Aachen.” Aaliyah said. “Are you not also?”
“I’m afraid we can’t make use of the traditional markets for ship supply.” Erika said. “Victualing and replenishment markets are off-limits. We are forced to make use of smugglers or secondary markets, as I said. We also buy raw materials and stitch needed goods ourselves. But don’t worry about us– we want to know about your supplies.”
Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged glances, worried.
“Can you tell us more about the situation in Aachen?” Ulyana said.
“We were under the impression it would at least be neutral ground for you.” Aaliyah said.
“Aachen is quite a bit nicer to non-Imbrian persons than Kreuzung.” Erika said. “However, there are still prejudices they must abide by. There are legal prohibitions against the replenishment of ‘cartels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘privateers’. Katarrans are targeted by these laws pseudonymously. And there isn’t a Katarran ship Captain alive who can fight a legal case arguing for her innocence. Aachen follows these laws, and we’re no exception.”
“Wait– they’re following Imperial law?” Ulyana asked, rhetorically. She was baffled by this.
She had thought Aachen was open to rebellion since the United Front was convening there.
“What is Aachen’s relationship to the Volkisch movement right now?” Aaliyah asked.
“Aachen, the city, is just trying to maintain a status quo.” Erika said. “It is governed by liberals and resists the Volkisch only insofar as to maintain the liberal line. Kreuzung itself makes that sort of argument about its own rule of law– it is a purely bureaucratic argument. So you can’t take for granted that Aachen will be completely safe or revolutionary. However, Aachen’s people have a strong organized laborer movement, and it is among them that the United Front’s insurrectionists have found a sanctuary. It is a complex situation.”
“What if we purchased the goods for you? We don’t care about the law.” Aaliyah said.
Erika smiled, this time a lot brighter than before. She seemed touched by the gesture.
“I appreciate your generosity greatly, my comrades. But I must decline. The Rostock is stocked up, and the rest of our fleet is in good order as well. We shouldn’t draw suspicion at Aachen. There will be time for us to teach you the Katarran way of getting goods.” Erika said. “For now, focus on procuring your own needs. After the meeting of the United Front, we may get access to Gloria Luxembourg’s purchasing power which would solve our problems.”
“Acknowledged. I have to say, though, I’m now a bit nervous about Aachen.” Aaliyah said.
“It’s easier to lay low in Aachen than here.” Erika replied. “Right now, all of us are violating the law here in Kreuzung. If we can take measures to protect ourselves in here, by comparison Aachen is a picnic. The United Front is assembling there with confidence.”
“If you say so. I will trust your judgment, Premier.” Aaliyah said.
Ulyana could still see a shadow of her worries on her expression. She knew her too well.
“It’s not on the agenda, but since we’re on a similar subject, I want to ask about you yourself. We were not aware of an ‘Erika Kairos’ prior to our arrival here, though that is for the best overall. Can you give us more details about you?” Ulyana said, as cordially as possible.
“I’m open to it.” Erika said. She drew in a deep breath and straightend her chest. “My name is Erika Kairos, I’m 33 years old, I have heterochromia, my three sizes are 120 cm bust–”
“Premier, you can skip the ‘vital statistics’.” Aaliyah sighed.
“I suppose my request was a bit vague.” Ulyana said, smiling.
Her eyes slightly drifting to the new Premier’s chest and having to be wrung back.
“Oh! Okay. Well– I am a voracious reader! I like philosophy, and science, but I also like to read storybooks, and comics; I like films too! My favorite genre is actually hard-boiled detective mysteries! My favorite food is spanakopita. My likes and dislikes are communism and–”
“Thanks, Premier.” Ulyana said. This was so cute she almost didn’t want her to stop.
“Was that really what you were asking about, Captain?” Aaliyah replied, exasperated.
Erika looked a little bit flustered. “Huh? Is there anything you want to know specifically?”
“I guess I was more concerned with whether you’ve made any enemies?” Ulyana asked.
Olga answered in Erika’s place. “Everyone hates her. She’s an avowed communist.”
She sounded a bit frustrated by the question, as if everyone should have known this.
“Everyone?” Aaliyah asked. Erika looked flustered again.
“Saying everyone is a bit–” Erika began, and almost stuttered–
“Katarran mercs don’t like philosophers. They like to pretend they have no beliefs and will do anything for money. So they end up falling into a really conservative outlook and that’s what I mean. Mercenaries know about Erika and the majority of them dislike her for it.”
“They’ll still take my money when it’s on offer.” Erika said. She grumbled a little bit.
“As long as that holds true, I think we can accept the situation for now.” Aaliyah said.
“So no rivals or blood oaths or anything like that?” Ulyana asked, in a jovial tone of voice.
Erika crossed her arms.
“No names you would recognize. Yes, among the mercenaries in Eisental, I’ve crossed a few paths in my life. But nobody that is going to go out of their way to excoriate or attack me. Anyone with that level of animosity has already been killed by their own predilections.”
Ulyana whistled. “Has your vibrosword aided anyone’s predilections in the act?”
“We’ve had some episodes.” Olga laughing a bit. “There’s nothing to worry about there.”
“I can take care of myself and my debts, Captain. And I have.” Erika grinned.
“Fair enough. I understand. Thank you, Premier.” Ulyana said.
Erika nodded her head.
Her eyes wandered a bit– she seemed to quiet and think for a moment.
“How much do you know about the present situation in Eisental?” Erika asked.
“We’ve been keeping up with events as much as we can.” Aaliyah said. “We know there is a worker strike in one of the towers here, which is owned by the Rhineametalle corporation. The Volkisch are afraid of it spreading, so they’re manipulating the markets in Kreuzung to turn people against the strikers by blaming them for price hikes and erratic supply.”
“We thought of helping out the workers here, but when we learned of the United Front, we felt our focus could be best served there.” Ulyana said. “It’s horrible to have to pick and choose who to fight alongside, but we don’t know how the workers here would respond to communist assistance. We know the United Front is like-minded, and they’re also armed.”
“I agree with your choice.” Erika said. “You don’t have to justify it to me.” She settled back into her chair and began to explain the situation in greater detail. She sounded confident and spoke clearly and precisely. “You see, the workers in Tower Nine are trying to toe the line. They are part of the liberal current and they do not want to be seen as too radical. They fear the reprisals that the Volkisch are capable of; but they can’t bear the working conditions that have been imposed on them because of the civil war. They are trying to do something, but they can’t be seen as doing too much to a vulnerable Rhinea, so they went on strike.”
She continued promptly, never losing her pace. “But Rhineametalle has gotten a new hand of cards to play because of this situation. They don’t want the strike to be broken up too quickly. Rhineametalle is facing down the possibility of the Volkisch forcing them to produce more gear and sell it for less money to support the failing war efforts in the south. The Volkisch believe Rhineametalle’s profiteering is sabotaging their war effort. With the strike, Rhineametalle can just watch the Volkisch squirm, and remind them of who needs who. Lehner, their so-called Fuhrer, doesn’t have the ability to crack down on the workers any more than he is, without risking his influence over his own war industry if Rhineametalle reacts adversely to his actions, or the collapse of his front from diverting more troops.”
“So they’re all at a standstill right now.” Ulyana said, after a moment contemplating the Premier’s description. “Something has to give eventually, doesn’t it? The strikers do not have infinite supplies, so they won’t be able to physically hold on to their barricades forever. And with enough time, Lehner will find the troops he needs somewhere; or maybe even an innovative Volkisch commander in Kreuzung will find a weakness or undertake some daring raid that breaks through. It’s unlikely that Rhineametalle will fold to their demands too.”
“You’re right, Captain. There is only one thing that can save them, but it’s ancient history they dare not speak about. They should have prepared a ‘General Strike.’” Erika said. Ulyana nodded solemnly. That phrase meant something for someone who had been young during the mass deportations and enslavement that presaged the Revolution.
“Ironically, it’s the ghost of the ‘General Strike’ panicking the Volkisch now, isn’t it?”
“Right again Captain. It’s one powerful reason for the Volkisch to make soft moves.”
Everyone in that room knew the history. Prior to the Revolution, the most critical moment in the reign of the Fueller dynasty was the attempt, begun by Bosparan and Volgian activists, to stage a ‘General Strike’ across all productive industry in the Empire. Connections across the Empire, established by activists like the Nakaras, Daksha Kansal, Elias Ahwalia and Bhavani Jayasankar, threatened to link together and coordinate devastating work stoppages that would have ground the vulnerable machinery of the Empire to a halt at a critical juncture. Imbrian industry was overstretched in development of the colonial machine, overly dependent on slave labor conditions to make up the massive expenses that had been incurred moving civilization ever southward to the extreme ends of the hemisphere. With the incorporation of Veka being largely seen as a financial failure across the Empire, the Nectaris colonies had to be absolutely successful, ruthlessly efficient, maximally extractive.
But the General Strike never came to pass. Its actors were suppressed, one by one.
Enslavement in the colonies should have been a fate worse than death for them.
However, the failure of the General Strike led to the success of the Revolution.
And thus, ultimately, to the creation of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.
Ulyana could almost understand not wanting to casually speak those words, which were so dense with violent history. She believed Erika Kairos was correct in her assessment. The Volkisch must have been terrified of the possibility of the strikes spreading, so they had to play propaganda and not respond too brutally and too soon to the strikers. But the strikers were not planning to spread the strikes; ultimately, the Volkisch would win the standoff.
“There’s more too.” Erika said. “Eisental is a powder keg for other reasons. It’s the most productive region of Rhinea, with most of its mining, and production of primary parts and products for Rhinea’s corporations. It has a significant agricultural belt too. It is primarily a site of extraction. That also means it’s the most proletarian of Rhinea’s provinces. It has the most disenfranchised people, and the most poverty, but it has the smallest Volkisch presence. The Volkisch’s Stabswache political troops have been largely deployed to the interior and south of Rhinea to secure their power over the middle and affluent classes and to purge the intellectual and political liberals. That’s where their immediate priorities lay.”
“Interesting. I was wondering why we didn’t see more Volkisch day to day.” Aaliyah said. “They overestimated the value that the Volkisch’s ideological message would have among the poor in the industrial north. Popular opinion has not swelled massively in their favor.”
“Certainly they have their supporters in the so-called ‘National Proletariat’.” Erika said. “But Rhinea’s last election had a very low voter turnout– and this election was cast as being apocalyptic for burgeoning Rhinean democracy. Most people don’t trust in the government and are just keeping their heads down one way or another. The Volkisch miscalculated the level of local fervor in the north, so Eisental remains in tenuous liberal control.”
“That also means we will absolutely see a Volkisch military response here.” Ulyana said.
They had to be coming, and soon. Eisental wouldn’t remain an idyllic valley for long.
“I predict we will see quickly raised, ill equipped and poorly trained Volkisch militias from the south, at least at first.” Erika said. “I am hopeful we won’t see a Stabswache fleet. That would be the worst case scenario. The Stabswache are elite political troops, you see; but six of those fleets are already heavily committed, and the seventh is far from ready to mobilize.”
“Anything they raise will have to travel here too. We will have time.” Ulyana said.
“Right. And if these militias are anything like patrol fleets we can best them.” Aaliyah said.
“Volkisch militias are even less organized.” Erika said. “I sense an early advantage for us!”
“We shouldn’t toot our own horns too much.” Olga said. “Any enemy is a dangerous one.”
“But we musn’t be too careful either.” Erika said. “We can’t lose the opportunity they’re giving us to muster before their real strength can respond. It’s why the United Front has elected this time to get together and to begin our activities. It may allow us to push Eisental over the edge in a way that will destabilize all of Rhinea, before the big guns see the field.”
Aaliyah nodded her head. She seemed impressed with Erika’s casual ease with big topics.
Ulyana, meanwhile, couldn’t help but compare Olga and Erika to herself and Aaliyah.
They had a similar conversation themselves before ever setting foot in Eisental.
That thought warmed her heart– but she could not linger on those little fantasies too long.
“There is one more thing I need to touch on about Eisental– and myself.” Erika said.
Aaliyah and Ulyana nodded along in acknowledgment, interests piqued.
Erika took in and dispelled a breath. “There are two other factions in Eisental who could become involved. I’m sure you must be aware of Khaybar– a so-called mountain range so tall and winding that it splits the Imbrium. Eisental abuts Khaybar to the east. It is not well known to the public at large, but I have heard stories that there is an ancient Shimii abode within Khaybar. There have been sightings of pirate activity in the area as well. According to the mercenaries here, the pirates learned to employ the heavy Katov mass events in the area to intercept and loot Imperial cargo and convoys. The Fueller dynasty silently buried any official reports about the pirates, while also decreeing Khaybar off-limits to all commercial traffic. They hoped to starve the pirates of loot and bury them; but it didn’t work.”
“Of course it wouldn’t work. If you can cross the pass, it takes you half the time to get to Bosporus or Veka, than going around it.” Ulyana said. “Those pirates may not have as many victims, but they may still see a good business. It’s just too tempting to make that run.”
“Precisely.” Erika said. “Khaybar continues to see unregulated traffic to this day. I believe there are still fighters operating out of that mountain. I would like to reach out to Khaybar, and I think we can start by developing contacts with the Shimii communities in Eisental.”
“How do you figure the two sides are affiliated? Do they have exchange?” Aaliyah asked.
Erika smiled knowingly.
“I can’t say that conclusively, Commissar. But people that the Imbrium Empire has deemed outlaws are not always motivated by greed. This applies to you too, doesn’t it? Think about it: there are no lavish creature comforts the pirates could possibly be cultivating within their grim little mountain hideout– they are there because they are desperate, because the Empire gave them no choice. I have a hunch the ‘pirates’ are probably a Mahdist remnant. It squares with the legends people tell about Khaybar. And Mahdist Shimii are known to have very tight and lasting communal and familial bonds. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”
“I am not a Mahdist. I’m a secular Shimii. But I can see your logic now.” Aaliyah said.
“Was your family Rashidun?” Ulyana asked, suddenly curious.
“My family was secular.” Aaliyah replied sharply. Clearly this was a touchy subject.
Ulyana felt like she was leaning her foot over an industrial grinder and decided to back up.
“I apologize for my assumption.” Erika said, looking worried.
Aaliyah moderated her tone again.
“No offense taken. If I’m following your logic right, you think there must still be some Shimii out here who have contact with the Shimii in Khaybar. And it would be safer to make those contacts through them than trying to barge into Khaybar and causing a scene.”
Erika was clearly relieved to hear that ‘no offense taken.’
“Precisely. It’s nice to work with professionals. I feel afraid sometimes that I’m not being properly understood when I speak, but all of you seem to have no problem with my rhetoric.”
“We’ve had a lot of practice with rhetoric lately.” Aaliyah sighed deeply.
Ulyana smiled nervously. “So, we have Khaybar– what is the remaining faction?”
When the conversation started, Erika had led off by saying there were two factions left.
Erika’s tone turned a little more serious as she acknowledged Ulyana’s question.
“The Mycenae Military Commission.” She said. Her expression darkening.
“Wait, a Katarran warlord faction is operating in Eisental?” Aaliyah asked suddenly.
“I’m afraid so.” Erika said, solemnly. “We have Tagmata sipping tea in Stralsund.”
Ulyana felt, for the first time in the conversation, a sense of alarm.
“How did that happen? This is the first we’re hearing of this.” Ulyana said.
“The Volkisch have stopped publicizing anything about it.” Olga said.
“They were invited six months ago and arrived before the Volkisch takeover.” Erika said. “By blessing of the liberal parliament and as guests of the Rhineametalle corporation.”
“A Katarran warlord is openly purchasing Imperial arms?” Aaliyah said, scandalized.
“It’s Rhineametalle’s newest growth market.” Erika said. “Katarrans in our homeland mainly use either Republican weapons or smuggled Union weapons to fight in the warlord conflicts, but the Empire would be easier to buy from, if they started selling. Since the fall of the Palaiologoi, the Empire feared having anything to do with Katarre. But Rhinea liberalized; the all-mighty mark bill superseded the failing authority of the Fueller dynasty. With the retreat of the Emperor from politics it was only a matter of time before the Imbrians intervened.”
“There is a gargantuan amount of ocean between Mycenae and Rhinea.” Aaliyah said. “You’re telling me that all this time, the Emperor’s authority has been so weak as to allow this?”
Erika smiled. “It’s more like, the economic incentive, and Rhineametalle’s financial pull, was just that strong. Obeying the Emperor makes you zero profit, but looking the other way or assisting Rhineametalle and Myceanae directly, that confers money and favors.”
“But why invite them into Rhinea itself? It makes no sense to me.” Aaliyah asked.
“Publicity, Commissar. Rhineametalle gets to show off all their high-end gear in the hands of a foreign client, legitimating their clout as the largest corporate power and a player in the broader world. Mycenae gets legitimacy.” Erika said. “Mycenae gets to be the only warlord power ever formally invited into the Empire, and invited into their trendy, rising financial center to make big money deals for advanced weapons. It makes them out to be the only warlord state that is actually functioning as a state on a national, political scale.”
“How strong is the Mycenae Military Commission here?” Ulyana asked.
“Something like a Union fleet combat group: a few big ships and their escorts.” Erika said.
“Their few big ships are Mycenaean dreadnoughts though.” Olga said with a grim tone.
Ulyana’s heart was rushing a bit.
Aaliyah was doing most of the talking– but even she looked nervous.
The Union was well aware of the status of Katarre.
They didn’t have all the details, but the Republic, who were deeply involved in Katarre, shared a lot of their information as a sign of goodwill. Out of all the Katarran factions, the Mycenae Military Commission was one of the most fearsome. Their regulars, the Tagmata, combined the ferociousness Katarrans were known for with sound military training and even a burgeoning research and development capacity for new weapons, not just war profiteer stock. It was possible that they had even developed a second generation Diver already, to match the Empire’s own R&D pace. Ideologically, they were retrograde nationalists, calling for the revival of the old Katarran kingdom– a message that inspired not faith in any of the flash in the pan warlord states, but in Katarran reunification— a nightmare for the Republic.
Mycenae’s presence was a massive and volatile factor they had to account for now.
“How likely is it that the Tagmata will intervene if we start taking action?” Ulyana asked.
“Completely unknown.” Erika said. “I have very little intelligence on their intentions.”
“We know the Volkisch are committed racists. Diplomacy between them and Mycenae will be complicated.” Aaliyah said. “We might have an opportunity– except, I assume that Mycenae will try to contact the Katarran mercenaries in this region. So they might learn about Erika; and if the mercenaries don’t like Erika’s program, I’m sure the Tagmata like it much less.”
Olga averted her gaze.
Erika breathed out a heavy sigh.
“It does feel like a confrontation with the Tagmata is unavoidable for me.” Erika said.
For once, she looked somber and downcast.
That shift in her cheerfulness made Ulyana want to support her– to protect her feelings.
“Nothing is unavoidable.” Ulyana said. “We’ll be smart and keep our eyes out. We’ll gather intelligence and examine the situation we’re in at each juncture. If we have to fight, we’ll fight; if we have to run, we’ll run; but if there’s a chance, we make peace. That’s all we can do, but Premier, the Brigand will support you. Aaliyah and I will be here to protect you.”
Ulyana extended her hand. Erika reached out her own and gave her a soft, girlish shake.
As a Katarran, she probably had to keep her strength in check for Ulyana’s sake.
“I had high expectations, and they have been thoroughly met.” Erika said. “I can see how the Union won its revolution, if there are more officers as sharp as you in their waters.”
“I’ve come away quite pleased with your character as well, Premier.” Ulyana said.
After they shook, Erika extended her arm again, to Aaliyah, who shook it as well.
“I already said as much, but I am impressed with the Premier’s assessments. I’m sure we’ll have our disagreements in due time, but if having the Tagmata on our backs is the price we pay for your stewardship, I would fight through a thousand Katarrans for it, Erika Kairos.”
“Thank you, Commissar! Those are such high praises. I will endeavor to sustain them.”
Erika looked to be almost glowing under all of the praise she was receiving.
She looked so young; smiling with a shining light of hope and idealism.
Ulyana had been too young and too hurt in the Revolution to pay attention to people’s characters too closely. She had been surrounded by all of the titans of communism in the Imbrium, once upon a time. And she wondered whether Bhavani Jayasankar had once smiled like this. Whether Daksha Kansal had ever looked this young. Before the falling outs, the splits, the backstabbings and blood. She hoped that Erika would be able to continue smiling, with a stout but gentle heart, even as the waters around Eisental turned murkier.
Erika had the right ideas. She had a sober outlook, and she was thinking ahead.
However, that look in her eyes, when she appeared so defeated at the prospect of having to fight the Tagmata, suggested that for all her clandestine maneuvering, she had yet to be tested in the hellish nightmare of outright war. She was daunted by a powerful enemy.
Ulyana would be at her side; she hoped she wouldn’t bear witness to a tragedy.
“Illya, I need you to sign this. It’s nothing bad. Just do it, okay?”
Shalikova laid a piece of synthestitched stone paper and a scratcher on the table.
Illya Rostova looked away from a surveillance monitor with a skeptical look on her face.
She glanced down at the paper, and back up at Shalikova, who stood stiffly opposite her.
“Huh?” Illya turned fully around, looked at the paper and the scratcher with which to write.
Shalikova’s keen indigo eyes wandered, briefly breaking her disinterested façade.
The Surveillance Room was close to the Bridge, and constituted one half of the security room, with its own door. It was also where they kept the locker for the security division’s guns, but Illya and Valeriya hardly ever respected the lockup process. In the middle of the room, a three section desk surrounded two chairs, with a tiny gap allowing the occupants to exit. On each wall faced by a section of the desk, there was a large multi-section monitor with a camera feed. Valeriya and Illya, of course, sat side to side or back to back in the middle of those desks, their faces lit up in blue in the dim room by the monitors.
On Valeriya’s desk section there was a partially stripped AK assault rifle.
Every so often, between watching the monitors, twiddling her fingers, and playing with locks of Illya’s hair, Valeriya would strip or put the rifle back together, expertly reassembling the firing mechanism, affixing the barrel, pushing the receiver cover into place. Union assault rifles used a small amount of pieces to be easier to manufacture, and Valeriya’s hands looked almost mesmerizing in their quick work. She had clearly done this a million times.
When she noticed Shalikova watching, Valeriya lifted her mask over her face and stopped playing with the rifle, or Illya’s hair. She just sat sadly behind Illya with her gaze averted.
Illya, meanwhile, also had her own assault rifle out of the locker and laid on the desk.
“Nope.” Illya said. “I am not signing this for you, sorry kid.”
Shalikova rolled her eyes, grunting.
“C’mon, it took you that long to read it, and you’re saying no?”
Illya turned the paper around for her to see it, pointing at the bar code near the top.
“Form 56A, Request Authority For Shore Leave, Location Approval.” Illya said. “This form has to be signed by your direct superior. I can’t believe you’re still trying to avoid the Lieutenant. I’m not going to lie to cover up for your cowardice. By the way, the Captain will also look at this, so you know, even if I could sign this for you it isn’t a done deal by any means.”
Shalikova felt both mildly embarrassed but still wanted to resist Illya nonetheless.
“I’m an Ensign! You’re a Lieutenant-Commander! You– you outrank Murati!” She cried.
“Direct superior.” Valeriya mumbled from behind Illya.
“She’s right. Besides, I’m a Marine and you’re a Pilot, our ranks are different.” Illya said.
Annoyed, Shalikova snatched the form from Illya’s hands and looked it over again herself.
“I’m rated Chief Petty Officer.” Valeriya mumbled. “Illya is a Master Petty Officer.”
“Right. We have ratings in the ship’s chain of command, our Marine ranks don’t matter.”
In the fog of her newfound distress, Shalikova was barely listening.
Shalikova had only filled it because she wanted to take Maryam out on a date.
She had overheard some gossipy sailor girls that people were planning dates to the next nearest blocks in the Tower. This gave Shalikova the idea to try to do the same, and she asked the sailors about the proper procedure for doing so– which entailed stitching out this form or filling it digitally. Almost all of the time the latter was preferable– but Shalikova did not want a paper trail to get to Murati, so she thought of having Illya sign a physical form on the sly. Clearly that had not worked– and her carnival date with Maryam seemed impossible now.
“Quit moping around and go talk to Lieutenant Nakara already.” Illya said.
Behind Illya, Valeriya nodded her head lightly as if to back up what she was saying.
Shalikova shut her eyes and grit her teeth.
She was paralyzed with frustration and indecision.
Maryam deserved to get out of the ship and have a good time.
Shalikova really wanted to do something for her, after everything they had been through.
But– there was just something–
–something in the way of talking to Murati– it felt so difficult–
“Listen, Sonya.” Illya said. “You have to learn to confront your officers if something is wrong and you want it right. You also need to have the courage to get scolded if you are wrong and they are right. But you have to hash it out. What you’re doing right now, I called it cowardly, and I stand by it. You’ll have to talk to this woman, it is unavoidable. So go do it on your terms, or you’re going to get it done to you and you’ll have no control and no leverage.”
Shalikova’s hand closed into a fist. She still felt stubborn about the situation with Murati.
“I know. I know.” She mumbled. A shudder ran its way through her body.
Illya looked at her for a moment, bowed her head and let out a low grunt.
“I’ll go with you. Okay? Stop moping. If Murati gets out of hand I’ll deal with her.”
Valeriya stared at Illya quizzically, playing with her mask as if trying to stay out of this.
Shalikova stood bolt upright. “No, no, no. That’s– that’s the last thing I want.”
“Okay, what’s really going on?” Illya said brusquely. “Do I need to go talk to Murati?”
A disaster, an unmitigated and complete disaster! Shalikova’s eyes couldn’t meet Illya’s!
Oh my GOD I’ve made everything so much worse! So much worse!
She had really done it– she had triggered this insane woman’s motherly instincts.
“It’s really nothing. I just don’t like talking to my boss.” Shalikova said in a shaky voice.
“What is that guilty face you’ve got on?” Illya said. “Sonya, talk to me.”
“You’re projecting! Look, you’re not my mom, you don’t need–”
“I told Zasha I’d look out for you. Did Murati do something to you?” Illya asked.
Shalikova couldn’t help but notice Illya’s fingers seemed to subconsciously play over the sleek, black carbon-fiber body of the AK rifle as she was speaking. Zasha had once likened Illya to a wolf in order to describe her to Shalikova, who had been learning about animals in school and was going to meet Zasha’s dear friends for the first time.
Illya was tall and gallant and very loyal and protective, Zasha said. By then, Illya was already a star student when it came to not just civics and basic sciences, but particularly in combat. Best shooter in her class, best hand to hand fighter. She, Valeriya and Zasha, as young adults, participated in exercises with older people and defeated them. They became Nagavanshi’s own hunting hounds– and Illya led the pack. Shalikova knew this as soon as she saw Illya’s steel eyes and silver hair, the confident little smirk she always had–
–and now, the restrained bloodthirst, the territorial barking, the alertness in her body.
It wasn’t as if Shalikova didn’t love her– but she didn’t love this, this way that she acted–
“Illya, what the hell are you thinking? Stop imagining whatever gross thing you’ve got in your head!” Shalikova shouted back in Illya’s face. “You need to trust me. Zasha is gone! I’m in my twenties, I’m grown! I’m a soldier! You don’t have to threaten anyone on my behalf! If you do anything to Murati for no reason– I’m going to hate you forever!”
Illya suddenly smirked at Shalikova. All of her dark presence washed away instantly.
“Good. Then go have a nice chat with Murati yourself and have fun on your date.”
She poked the monitor next to her on the desk–
her finger covering the head of a woman using a portable computer in the social area.
“I’ll know if you didn’t.” She added. This seemed to amuse her greatly.
Shalikova had been expecting the worst, so to see Illya bring herself back down so easily, perhaps she had misjudged this woman. Maybe it was not only Shalikova who had grown but Illya, too, had matured. Hell– maybe Shalikova was still just a stupid child and Illya was really the only adult in the room. She let out a breath that had been held in her chest for so long she thought it would turn into a stone. In front of her, Illya was completely calm again.
Talking to Murati did not seem so scary after all of this nonsense.
“Fine. Fine! You’re the absolute worst.” Shalikova said.
“Uh huh. If your date gets approved, come to our quarters. I’ve got something for you.”
“Huh? Why don’t you just give it to me–?”
Illya made a ‘shoo’ motion with her hands, dismissing Shalikova without another word.
She returned her attention to the monitors with something of a little sigh.
Behind her, Valeriya started to absentmindedly strip her own AK rifle one more time.
Exasperated with them, Shalikova stormed out of the security room and slammed the door.
“BLYAT! How did Zasha put up with these bitches!” Shalikova grumbled.
It was uncharacteristic of her to swear aloud, so in order to recompose herself she waited in the other half of the security room for a few minutes so nobody would see her so annoyed in public. Thankfully, the security team medic Syracuse had been drawn away from her usual spot near the security team armor lockup. Shalikova could be alone for a few minutes.
Certainly, talking to Murati felt just a little more possible after this fiasco.
Thanks, Illya, Valeriya, Shalikova thought sarcastically.
And perhaps also– a bit sincerely, too.
Shalikova found Murati sitting down in a booth seat on the left-hand wall of the social area by herself, like she had seen in Illya’s monitor. Murati had a portable computer and looked to be flipping through pages on the touchscreen. She was quite engrossed in the activity and did not notice Shalikova approaching. Shalikova scanned her aura– green and blue.
For a few moments, Shalikova stood ghost-like at Murati’s side. She observed that the lieutenant was searching on Kreuzung’s internet for things like ‘breath-taking places for an adult date,’ ‘most romantic destinations to bring your fiancé,’ ‘popular date ideas among young women.’ None of those really felt like they would be effective search terms. For one, she was not even specifying Kreuzung and so the search kept showing her other stations like Bremen and Thuringia and even the Imperial Capital of Heitzing. Her queries were also extremely literally written which Shalikova attributed to the Lieutenant having an–
extremely stupid and literal brain—
“Lieutenant, please just search something like ‘Kreuzung date spots’.” Shalikova hissed.
Murati raised her head sharply from the portable computer’s screen.
As soon as her eyes met Shalikova’s a pair of red rings reflexively appeared around her irises.
Shalikova, in turn, also activated her psionics and nearly jumped as well from the shock.
“Oh! Ensign Shalikova! I’m sorry, you startled me!” Murati said.
“It’s fine! It’s fine!” Shalikova cried out. “Just be quiet and shove off to the side.”
For a moment people were staring.
There weren’t that many sailors, because most of them were working, but there were a handful, enough to constitute a scene– and Alex Geninov was at the pinball table with a smirk on her face, which was absolutely mortifying to witness. Thankfully, Murati slid deeper into the booth and allowed Shalikova to sit next to her, mostly out of sight.
Shalikova took in a deep breath. Murati looked completely taken by surprise.
“What the hell happened with your eyes, Lieutenant? How can I trust you now?”
Her tone came out extremely accusatory. So much so that Murati looked startled anew.
This was truly the best that Shalikova could think to say in order to breach the topic.
She thought of Illya’s demeanor on the way to talking to Murati and felt inspired.
Instead of confessing to anything, it was time to act like she was not guilty of anything.
For all she knew, Murati could have been going rogue and nobody else would know!
(Given Murati’s character, such a thing was outright impossible, but she could pretend.)
“Ensign! It’s not what you think!” Murati said. She held her hands up. “Captain Korabiskaya knows about it and trusts me. And I want to say, we both trust you too! I’m not even going to ask where you got the same ability. Really– all I want is to help and support you.”
Shalikova felt that kind of guilt she always felt talking to Murati.
Like she was being a burden to her stupidly earnest and overtly concerned Lieutenant.
“Why are you always like this? I don’t need your support.” Shalikova mumbled.
“It’s fine if you don’t. But you shouldn’t have to navigate all this alone.” Murati said.
“What’s all this? We don’t even have the same vocabulary to talk about this, do we?”
“Um,” Murati said, “Do you call it psionic powers? Or maybe omenseeing?”
“Omenseeing? Are you just making stuff up now? I don’t call it anything like that.”
It would help if she could successfully pretend she had always had psionic abilities.
And that the shock of seeing Murati had been exclusively from seeing another psionic.
“I’m sorry– I had no idea you were dealing with something like this. Look, I received this power from– Euphemia and Teresa. But you musn’t tell anyone else. Right now, its existence is on a need-to-know basis, until we can understand it better. I volunteered to be given the power, to see if we could trust Euphemia and Teresa. Once I know more about it, whether it is safe, how difficult it is to learn, how dangerous it is, I’ll debrief the other officers.”
Shalikova almost felt bad about lying to Murati. She really trusted her so fully and easily.
She had thought this conversation would be way worse. In her mind, Murati was yelling.
A version of Murati existed in her head who was so far from reality that it was shameful.
It made her feel guilty. But at least the current situation was not so volatile at all.
“What will you do with me then, Lieutenant?” Shalikova said, meeting Murati’s gaze.
She tried her best to make a pathetic sort of expression, like a cat that got kicked in the ribs.
Though she was very poorly versed in manipulating anyone, Murati was an easy mark.
Her own expression responded to Shalikova’s with an upswell of pity and reassurance.
“Ensign, it’s not just my job to correct your behavior, but also to make sure that you are okay, and that you can meet the demands of the mission.” Murati said. She reached out and patted Shalikova on the shoulder. Shalikova allowed it. “I never wanted to antagonize and drive you away. I apologize for that. I’m still new to commanding and I haven’t risen to the challenges yet, but I’m trying. I know I’ve been misreading you. I want to reassure you; you won’t have to answer to anyone. I’ll take responsibility. I’m not going to force you to do anything. I just want information on psionics– on our powers– to stay as contained as possible.”
Murati, you’re making this painful in such a different way than I thought it would be.
Shalikova would not crack and tell Murati the whole truth.
But her heart was bleeding– she really wanted to confess to her stupid, earnest Lieutenant.
I’m in the wrong here. But at least, for now, it’s a harmless lie, for Maryam’s sake.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. Are there any specific conditions I should abide by?”
Murati smiled brightly. Shalikova was taken aback by her sudden and open cheer.
“All I ask Ensign, is that you continue to use all of your abilities in defense of communism.”
Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and her brain filled with a cyclone of shapeless debris.
Idiot! You corny idiot! Don’t smile saying something so dumb! I hate you so much! UGH!
It took all of the strength in her body to lift up the corners of her lips in response to that.
“Acknowledged.” Shalikova smiled. In her mind’s eye, her smile was demented as Illya’s.
Murati continued to smile back. She looked so bright, so charmed and happy– UGH!
She let out a breath and put her hands over her heart. “I’m so glad we could fix things.”
“Uh huh. Anyway– I have stuff to do. Here, sign this for me and give it to the Captain.”
Shalikova deposited the crumpled-up Form 56A on the table and stormed off.
“Huh? Ensign? What happened to this form? Where are you going so suddenly?”
Leaving Murati behind by herself to uncrumple the paper as best she could and read it.
Murati didn’t have a writing implement but that was her problem to figure out now.
Shalikova’s face and ears were turning as tomato red as Maryam’s became sometimes.
Several hours after their meeting with Erika Kairos, Ulyana and Aaliyah found themselves burning the midnight oil in the exact same meeting room they had been so frequently occupying. They were metaphorically buried in paperwork, even though on the desk there were only two portable computers and a small stack of actual physical stone-paper forms.
“Everyone is asking for shore leave outside the block.” Ulyana said with concern.
“Maybe there is a problem on this ship.” Aaliyah said sharply.
“You know what Nagavanshi once told me about military relationships?”
Aaliyah returned a skeptical gaze. The insides of her ears were flushed again.
Ulyana smiled. She found her Commissar’s uptight attitude to be very cute.
“She told me the story of a Katarran brigade called the ‘Sacred Band’. They were organized in pairs of homosexual lovers. Their sexual and emotional bond was a prize for them, something worth protecting and fighting for. Something more than the glory and profit of the warlord who hired or enslaved them. They were apparently very effective fighters.”
Aaliyah’s eyes narrowed further.
“So you’re telling me we should encourage this behavior because codependency might increase morale. Is that seriously what you are suggesting, Captain?”
“I am not suggesting anything.” Ulyana shrugged with a delighted expression, eager and happy to be teasing her cute Commissar. “I was just telling you a story Nagavanshi told me about these sorts of situations. But think of this, if the now Commissar-General, back then, didn’t really care about enforcing this rule, then why should we go out of our way?”
“For the sake of order? To avoid unnecessary problems down the line?” Aaliyah said.
“Did you know– I’ve always suspected Nagavanshi is Premier Jayasankar’s lover.”
“What?” Aaliyah turned fiercely red. “What do you mean? How do you figure?”
Ulyana continued to smile, and a baffled Aaliyah stared at her and seemed to take the hint.
Aaliyah would have been six or seven years old during the Revolution, but Ulyana had fought alongside all of these characters and was part of their circles for some time. She would have known better than her who Nagavanshi was fucking and what attitude she had towards it. Their potential HR-level problems with sailors in love did not nearly reach the level of a problem that Nagavanshi and Jayasankar’s relationship would constitute if it was true.
But also– Nagavanshi wielded massive power with the full confidence of the Premier.
That type of loyalty perhaps arose– because perhaps she loved her, maybe even physically.
“We’re not rubberstamping these, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Aaliyah said, pulling out the full name with a venomous tone. “I refuse to approve dozens of potential sexual excursions based on your uncritical ideas. If we’re allowing this, we’re taking full responsibility for every one. We’re going to research every location, every time frame; evaluating each of the people involved, whether we trust their judgment; and approve or reject them case-by-case.”
A grim shadow settled over Ulyana’s once placid smile. “Well– It’s only right, I suppose.”
“Furthermore– I refuse to be anyone’s relationship counselor!” Aaliyah whined.
“I– I was never planning on that. Commissar, they’re adults, they can make decisions–”
“They better be able to! If their love problems interfere with their work, I’ll be quite cross!”
Ulyana stared at the almost childish consternation on display, and she wondered if there was some projection happening. Of course, she said nothing of the sort for fear of taking a hundred steps back in her own love problems with her dear Commissar. She simply kept smiling and promising to support her just as she had loyally supported her throughout.
On that night, they each grabbed a portable computer and set to work.
First they used the cameras on the back of the portables to digitize the paper forms.
Then the real work of going through each of the forms began.
“Look at this, Captain! The nerve of some of these sailors! These two want to go A-block? Imagine the Volkisch staring at two gigantic men holding hands in the middle of the most affluent district in the city! We would be all be crucified! These people have no sense!”
Ulyana could disagree with Aaliyah’s tone but not her intentions.
Looking through the forms, the sailors in particularly had very fanciful ideas of where they could be allowed to roam. Each form had a location, time frame for the leave, as well as guests that the requester would be responsible for. Because the sailors and officers did not know anyone but each other, each requester usually had one other member of the Brigand’s crew as a ‘guest’ on the forms– easily construed as their ‘date.’ Several people wanted to see the gardens at A-block, which were reserved for the affluent families that lived there.
Ulyana would never support the social hierarchy of Kreuzung, but the fact remained she had to abide by it to avoid suspicion and safeguard the mission. All requests to go to A-block were discarded outright, with messages prepared to inform the requesters they would be approved to go to the Alcor campus or Solarflare LLC and nowhere else. These were easiest requests to work through. By far the most complex were the ones that seemed reasonable.
“Alexandra Geninov wants to go to a seasonal street market on C-block.” Ulyana said.
Aaliyah looked up the venue and event online. “Seems reasonable. It’s not that far.”
“Alex is annoying sometimes, but I think she can behave herself in public.” Ulyana said.
“Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa is going to the same place.” Aaliyah said with a sigh.
“So they filed separately, but are going to the same place at the same time?” Ulyana asked.
“Yes. It’s very like them, isn’t it.” Aaliyah said. “Have they matured even a little lately?”
“Well, they’ve been living together for a few weeks without incident.” Ulyana said.
“Alright. We’ll approve them, and hopefully they won’t cause a public disturbance.”
For everyone, the forms required two signatures. First was the direct superior’s signature and then the captain’s signature for final approval. For Bridge crew, Aaliyah acted as direct superior, and the Captain then signed. For sailors, it depended on their section, but so far, it seemed that Lebedova and Cohen had signed everything without really looking at it– or maybe they were as lacking in sense as some of the requests Ulyana was seeing.
Murati was the superior officer for requests from the pilots.
“Murati commented every single form submitted by a pilot.” Aaliyah said, impressed with the work ethic. “It looks like she already took a look at the places her people were requesting. She suspects Khadija just wants to go drink alcohol even though she’s technically not supposed to; and she is afraid Aiden is requesting leave so he can run away somewhere.”
“Murati’s such a treasure.” Ulyana said, looking at the digitized version of the form for Sonya Shalikova’s leave request. It had been heavily crumpled up, but Murati had pressed it flat again. Comments on the form urged the approval of Shalikova’s request as a gesture of good will and reward for ‘coming forward about her problems.’ “I’m going to approve this one.”
About halfway through the endeavor, they began to see more complicated requests.
People with the audacity to request to stay in hotel rooms, and who wanted multi-day time frames with multiple locations involved, who requested additional Imbrian funds than their shore leave stipend for expensive requests, or other such things that warranted even closer and more involved research than previous requests. Aaliyah’s ears folded against her head with exhaustion and Ulyana had begun to yawn with increasing frequency.
Soon Ulyana was seeing double and had to put down her portable.
“We need to take a break, Commissar.” She said.
“No complaints here.” Aaliyah replied with a groan.
“Care for a drink? Alcor gifted me a bottle of liquor on my last visit there.”
“How will that make us any less sleepy?”
“It won’t, but it will be fun. I think we could use a little bit of fun.”
“I’d be lying if I said I disagree. Fine. Bring out the booze.”
Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged sympathetic gazes, and Ulyana opened a small box that she had set on a chair in a corner of the room. Inside was a bottle of beet-sugar rum, Tuzemak, called Struh in the Imbrium. She had two drinking glasses as well, though both were made of plastic. Setting them down on the table, she poured the clear reddish liquor into the glasses. She pushed one toward Aaliyah, who took it in hand. They tipped their glasses together, cheered for health and the safety of the mission, and downed a shot at the same time.
Aaliyah’s ears wiggled rapidly, and she shut her eyes briefly. It was a strong spirit.
Ulyana was untroubled. She considered herself a champ when it came to liquor.
“I’m still surprised at how sweet it is for liquor.” Aaliyah said.
“Completely trounces the potato stuff doesn’t it? Want another shot?”
“Hmm. Oh– whatever. Sure. Hit me. We’re already breaking all kinds of rules anyway.”
Two more shots; down the hatch. Aaliyah’s tail stood up briefly stiff and straight.
Ulyana sat back down with the bottle on the table.
“It’s so good. Fuck. I’m having another.” She said.
“Hit me too.” Aaliyah said.
Third shot; and there it went. Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed and relaxed on their chairs.
Smiling placidly, the Captain turned her slightly wavering vision on her Commissar.
Aaliyah was such an appealing girl. Her medium skin tone, her shiny dark hair, the natural pinkness and suppleness of her thin lips. Her jewel-like eyes and the elegant curve in the shape of her cat-like ears. Her slender tail, and the slenderness of her body too. Ulyana could not help in that moment but to think of the height gap between them too– she could have bent forward and loomed a little bit– her body would have fit so perfectly nestled with her back to Ulyana in bed– she would have been so warm and soft, such a sweet little morsel–
A sharp sound– a drinking glass striking the table.
“Ulyana, another shot. I want to feel the fire in me.” Aaliyah said suddenly.
Her eyes were looking a bit cloudy, and her cheeks were beginning to redden.
Ulyana, with a little laugh, filled Aaliyah’s glass again, as well as her own.
The Captain downed another shot; her Commissar was slowly sipping hers, however.
“It’s unfair.” Aaliyah mumbled. One of her ears was upright, but the other had folded.
“What’s unfair?” Ulyana said, her voice starting to drawl just a bit.
Without prompting, she refilled the Commissar’s glass, and they both drank again.
“We have to do all this work, and they can go out to play.” Aaliyah said.
“True, true. They don’t know how much we sacrifice for them.”
“They don’t! We just endure silently, there is no one to take care of us.”
“Right. It’s fucked. Commissar, if it weren’t for you, I would go insane.”
“Indeed, indeed, Captain. We are the only ones for each other.”
“To hell with the sailors!” Ulyana cheered, taking another shot and topping up Aaliyah.
“To hell with the sailors!” Aaliyah paused, drank. “I’m gonna– I’m gonna deny, deny, deny!”
With each ‘deny’ Aaliyah tapped her glass on the table like a gavel.
“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit! That’s that Ashura brutality we all love!” Ulyana cheered.
She refilled their glasses. Aaliyah tucked the shot in quickly this time, shutting her eyes.
They broke out into laughter together, tapping their quickly glasses on the table.
Then, topping up once more–
“We deserve a vacation too. Captain– I’m– I’m taking you out!” Aaliyah declared.
“That’s dangerous talk soldier! You really ready to ‘take out’ the Captain?” Ulyana said.
Both of them cracked up amid the slurred words.
Eighth round– Ninth Round– Tenth–
floating velvet colors– soft giggling in a gently swaying room– paradise–
“Don’t believe me? I’ll show you– Captain–”
Aaliyah stood suddenly, and made her way around the table–
However, she stumbled over one of the chairs on the table’s side and tripped.
This led her to fall on Ulyana, who had been sitting quite back on her chair. Both of them fell backwards together and ended up entangled on the floor. Ulyana had hit her flank and Aaliyah her gut, but between the shocked gasping for air after falling, they began to giggle airily at one another, embraced. They brought their faces close and rubbed noses together.
Ulyana stroked Aaliyah’s hair.
Even their legs had entwined as they laid on the floor, staring into each other’s eyes intensely with drunken euphoria. Ulyana had been right. Aaliyah was so soft– so warm–
Unfortunately for the two of them, those gazes wavered far too quickly for their intimacy.
And the most that happened was that they fell asleep in each other’s arms on the floor.
Lips just millimeters short of a kiss, sleeping gazes still held tightly together.
Overlooking them on the floor, a metaphorical pile of work on the table still undone.
All of the officers, at least, had had their forms looked through and approved.