Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.3]

[This chapter contains a discussion of suicidal thoughts.]

There was an air of tension and wicked possibility as the gathering convened.

The Brigand’s main meeting room was once again playing host to Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy on one end of the planning table and captain Ulyana Korabiskaya, and her commissar and adjutant Aaliyah Bashara on the other end. Maryam was her usual bubbly self while Marina had the same friendless look she always wore, despite having just walked out of the medbay without authorization.

Because it was convenient, Ulyana overlooked her transgression completely.

“You will get lectured by Doctor Kappel. But I’m glad you could make it, it’s a welcome surprise. You’re the woman of the hour after all, Ms. McKennedy.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms.

“Despite myself, I always seem to end up in the spotlight.” Marina grumbled.

She was taking a sarcastic tone of voice, but the matter at hand was one of life and death.

Two or three days ago, depending on one’s metric for a “day” underwater, the Brigand had encountered the enormous Inquisitorial dreadnought dubbed “the Iron Lady” alongside a fleet that was likely drawn from local policing patrols at the last minute. As a clandestine ship, it was impossible to turn the Brigand in to the Iron Lady for inspection. While on the outside the Brigand looked like a civilian vessel, as long as its weapons were retracted and soundproof sealed, this secrecy depended on the hangar and the massive amounts of military equipment within it not being exposed to the wrong eyes.

As part of their plot to escape, Ulyana personally spoke with the commander of the Iron Lady, Gertrude Lichtenberg. She had been hoping to stall and distract Lichtenberg, whom Murati surmised was going to have a hard time controlling her slapdash fleet when her personal attention was drawn away from it.

She had been correct. Gertrude was barely able to keep her fleet in line, and the tighter cohesion of the Brigand’s two-man squads picked them apart. The confrontation allowed Ulyana to gather information. How did Gertrude find them? What was it that Gertrude wanted from them? They were both obviously cagey with each other in that situation, and Ulyana perhaps had a little too much fun with the younger woman, but she gleaned some valuable insight nevertheless. Gertrude wanted a VIP aboard the Brigand. This VIP was important enough Gertrude could not risk directly attacking the Brigand with her cannons.

And there were perhaps personal stakes for Gertrude Lichtenberg, who seemed too invested in the capture of this VIP, for an Imperial Inquisitor in the far reaches of the Empire. This may have accounted for the coincidence of the Iron Lady mooring next to them at Serrano. At the time there was nothing they could do about it and Ulyana did not see it as necessarily a risk. Ships of all kinds moored next to each other. On the docks, crews were too busy with their own ship to start inspecting those of others.

However, now she felt that Gertrude may have been tracking her VIP.

Perhaps Gertrude suspected something and confirmed it with new information at Serrano.

Ulyana suspected that Marina McKennedy was the VIP.

As a G.I.A. agent on the run, this made the most sense. She owned up to her cell being compromised, and to needing a snap escort to the Union to avoid capture. Perhaps she had lied to Murati about the proximity of her tail and the degree to which she was compromised, hoping for a quick out. All of these suspicions made sense in Ulyana’s head, but there was only one person who could confirm them. Whether she told the truth to them or whether she lied, Ulyana had to see Marina’s reaction to be absolutely sure. She decided that whenever she next met Marina, she’d press her for information.

While she had not expected to do this today, it would have had to happen at some point.

Maryam being in attendance wouldn’t really change anything. This had to be done.

At Ulyana’s side, the Commissar Aaliyah Bashara sat with her arms crossed and a serious expression on her face, her tail on end and unmoving. Ulyana had told her all of her suspicions and what she hoped to do with this meeting. Aaliyah would assist in the interrogation. Shimii had sharp eyes and this particular Shimii had a decent sense of people — except perhaps when she got drunk enough.

“You were knocked out for a while, Marina. What exactly happened to you?”

Ulyana started with a personal question to ease into things. She was curious however.

“We’re doing this now?”

“We’re doing this now.” Aaliyah replied, sternly. She was backing up Ulyana.

“Fine. I was in the hall with Elen when the ship was hit by the dreadnought guns. I’m pretty sure I lost my balance and next thing I knew, I woke up in the medbay.” Marina said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember it very well. Elen was completely freaking out. It was a nightmare of a day.”

“Officers Van Der Smidse and Zhu reported a physical altercation between you two.”

Marina scoffed. “Don’t you employ corporal punishment sometime, Captain?”

“It’s not my first choice to discipline a mentally unstable subordinate.” Ulyana shot back.

Her heart felt a brief swelling of anger toward Marina she had to get under control.

“I was grabbing Elen; I wasn’t in the best place mentally myself. But I didn’t strike her.”

Marina continued to respond coolly. She always acted like she was being interrogated.

Was this how all G.I.A. agents were trained to behave?

Given her conduct, Ulyana didn’t really care to conceal that this was an actual interrogation.

“What does Gertrude Lichtenberg, commander of the Iron Lady, want with you?”

The G.I.A. agent shot a bitter look at Ulyana. She crossed her arms and lowered her head.

She sighed deeply. “Look, I know what it looks like, but I swear I wasn’t being tailed.”

Aaliyah spoke up to support Ulyana again. A note of disdain crept into otherwise polite speech.

“Directly after we rescued you, the Iron Lady took an interest in us. Whether or not you were aware of the possibility hardly matters. You yourself admitted your cell was defeated by the Empire. How can you have been completely sure you would not be tracked or traced in a major city?” She said.

“You presume far too much, Commissar. We are experienced professionals. We can be chased, but what matters is that we know how to escape from the pursuers. And all of us escaped. When the Empire threw down our doors they found nothing of us left behind there. My colleagues have all probably escaped to the Union or the Republic-occupied zone in Katarre. I was the only one unlucky to end up saved by the Union’s special toy. None of us were being followed.” Marina sharply replied.

“Without evidence of this, it will remain an open question.” Aaliyah said.

“I agree. It is useless to argue; but you need to tell us everything, Marina.” Ulyana said.

“It’s not like I’m deliberately holding back any information!” Marina said.

“Are you truly not? Again, we can’t be certain.” Ulyana said. “Until we ask you some pointed questions.”

Marina grunted, casting her eyes to the table. “Fine, of course, just say what you want to.”

Ulyana nodded. She sat back and relaxed and began to ask her questions.

“Right now, the fact is that Gertrude Lichtenberg is coming after us and if she survived our attack on the Iron Lady, she and who knows who else will know what they’re up against now. Just pretend that you did get compromised if it helps your pride. What does she want with you? What information do you know? You know who she is right? Why is this apparently personal to her? How long will she pursue?”

“Do you even think she survived? Didn’t you blast her ship to pieces?” Marina interjected.

“Irmingard-class dreadnoughts are extremely durable vessels.” Aaliyah said. “Our realistic goal was never to sink it outright, but to cause enough damage to sever important systems and cripple the ship enough to allow us to escape. Killing that Inquisitor would be better luck than we’ve had.”

Ulyana locked eyes with Marina. “Back to the subject at hand–”

Marina sighed deeply and loudly her exasperation.

“Look, I know a lot about the Fueller family. They must be trying to silence me.” She said.

“So that was the G.I.A’s operation in the Empire? Spying on the imperial royal family?”

“That was a large part of it, yes.”

“That sounds like it carried a lot of risk.” Ulyana said, pressing her for more.

That response seems to have finally crossed the threshold of the G.I.A. agent’s patience.

“No operation is perfect! You’re right, it was risky and I don’t know if I was compromised, I fundamentally can’t know that information! I did my best, but I may have fucked up somewhere. You have no idea what I’ve been through, so maybe you could just accept my apologies and regrets, and we can move on to planning for the situation at hand. Is that ok with you, Captain?” Marina shouted.

And that response crossed the threshold for the Captain.

Who did this woman think she was–?

Ulyana narrowed her eyes into a glare and crossed her arms sullenly. “No it’s not ok with me, G.I.A. I don’t know what you’ve been through because you won’t tell us a god damned thing about it! We were polite enough not to grill you the instant you got on this ship; we thought you would come clean with us. What use is it having you as an equal partner if you’ll just drop a bomb like this on us and then refuse to elaborate? Don’t you think we deserve to know if the Fueller family is hunting you?”

“I can explain everything, but it’s not pertinent!” Marina shouted. “The late Emperor’s bedtime secrets aren’t going to save us, goddamn it! If you can get me out of this alive, I promise you’ll get the full fucking story, okay? You’ll fucking wish you hadn’t heard some of the details.”

Maryam hid her face behind her tentacles in the midst of all the shouting.

Ulyana was about to continue the shouting match when a gentle hand laid on her flank.

Imperceptibly, out of the sight of their guests. It was her Commissar’s touch.

The captain knew then that she was going out of line and tried to reign herself back.

Aaliyah rubbed her hands on her forehead, her cat ears drooping. “I hate to say it, but McKennedy is right that the situation fundamentally doesn’t change if she gives up her salacious secrets to us. We don’t really have a way to use that information, so it would only affect our peace of mind. At least now we have some idea of why Gertrude Lichtenberg is after us. We should plan our escape and repairs.”

“When you put it that way, fine.” Ulyana said. “Any ideas on the current predicament, G.I.A?”

“Fleet combat isn’t my strong suit, so no, I don’t really have any brilliant ideas for escaping this situation. You guys did pretty well for yourselves already though, so, I dunno. Why not just attack that flagship and sink it? You’ve got to have the resources on hand to do it.” Marina said.

“The Brigand’s armaments are just not strong enough for us to trade shots dead-on with an Irmingard class dreadnought. We’ll be on the losing end of whatever happens. You’ve seen this already.” Ulyana paused, frustrated at her own helplessness. “We planned a huge production and we ended up with several people in the medbay, a lot of damage, and only a temporary reprieve.”

Marina turned her cheek. Ulyana felt her own cheek twitch. What a bratty reaction!

“How was this mission greenlit if you were going to run into this problem?” She said.

“It’s also your fault that we’re having to fight a flagship, you know.” Aaliyah grumbled.

“It was never part of the mission profile.” Ulyana added. “We’re supposed to be guerillas.”

“Then fight like guerillas do!” Marina said. “Find a hiding spot to attack from and wear it down!”

“That’s easier said than done!” Ulyana said. “Where are we going to hide, McKennedy?”

“I can’t just improvise a whole hideout for you! I’m an intelligence agent, not a magician!”

“If your intelligence is so useless then maybe we should just turn you over to–”

Both of them started shouting again. Aaliyah seemed helpless to calm them down this time.

“Please stop fighting! I have an idea!” Maryam shouted over all of them.

Ulyana and Marina both turned to face her at the same time.

Her tentacles were raised as if they were her shaking arms surrendering to a gun barrel.

Across her body her chromatophores were flashing to white and back to their original color.

Silence fell over the gathering. Ulyana felt momentarily very stupid.

She was stressed out, everything felt like it was going to shit, and she was helpless.

Beating up Marina would not change that. She needed to get a grip on herself.

Maryam spoke up again with a whimpering little voice. “Let’s all calm down, please.”

Marina and Ulyana turned to each other.

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. At first she didn’t care whether Marina accepted or not–

“Fuck, I was out of line too.” Marina admitted fault, much to Ulyana’s surprise. She looked conflicted, arms crossed and eyes practically staring down at her feet. Like a student in a classroom who had been shouted down — Ulyana didn’t exactly feel good about that. “I’m sorry, Captain, Commissar. In this situation I wouldn’t blame you if you did turn me in. But it probably wouldn’t help you much.”

“Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” Ulyana said. “I just lost my temper.”

“Let’s just put it behind us now. So, partners, I vote we listen to the Katarran’s idea.”

Marina pointed at Maryam with a thumb, forcing a smile as if to dispel the tension.

Maryam puffed her cheeks up. “I’ve got a name! I’m not just the katarran, you know!”

“Glad to see we’re all getting along.” Aaliyah sighed deeply, her cat-like tail stabbing at the air.

Ulyana felt ashamed of herself. Her conduct had been ridiculous. She let the stress speak.

At the moment, however, there was truly nothing to do but move on with it.

“Maryam, we’re certainly open to hearing your ideas. First though, I would like to know some background on you too. Our goal is to foment unrest in the Empire. Our agents marked you as a VIP we had to rescue. I assume you must have information that can help our mission.” Ulyana said.

Maryam looked quite nervous, but Ulyana chalked it up to her personality.

She seemed like someone who was very soft and scared. A total noncombatant.

“Background, huh. Umm. I was made in Katarre as a navigational aide for Athena Kyriaki. Around the time I became an instar, Athena attempted to raid Imperial territory in Skarsgaard, and it went– bad.” She shuddered a bit, and every other word came out with a stammer. “Our fleet was wrecked, I got captured, and any Katarrans that the Imbrians thought were female larva got sent the Solcean church in Skarsgaard, while everyone else got scattered. So I was part of the church for years, but eventually, I escaped. While on the run, I ended up working for a really shady group. I had to get really crafty to survive. I picked up a lot of information and skills. Some of it might be totally useless, like the going-abouts of imperial bureaucrats but, I learned a lot about places and installations! I wanted to go to the Union because I heard Katarrans can be free there, so I traveled to Buren, the Palatinate, down to Rhinea, and finally Sverland. I talked with the smugglers in Serrano, and they set me up with a Union agent. And that’s how I got to meet all of you. After talking with the agent, he said I’d be a very important VIP.”

Ulyana scrutinized the details of the story while it was told. She chalked up the nervousness to the kind of person Maryam was. She seemed like a very sweet girl who had been through a lot, and Ulyana felt a certain predilection to believing in her. When Ulyana herself was young she was forced to be “crafty” to survive enslavement in the colonies, so she understood Maryam’s telling of the story. There were details to surviving in harsh situations that were best left abbreviated and did not need retelling.

Ulyana wouldn’t push her to qualify every tiny blank that she had left.

Her route to Sverland had been incredibly long though. If the Union was her goal, she could have gone south through Veka and crossed through Nama Flow. Nama Flow was a landmass wall that divided the Union from Veka north-east to east. It was created by landmass collapses and rearrangements that seemed to have happened in the late Surface Era, whether directly by human action or as a result of the Surface’s catastrophes. The Union controlled both sides of Nama Flow.

It wasn’t easy making it to the Union from anywhere, so why choose the longest route?

“That’s a crazy route you took to get here.” Ulyana said. “How did that happen?

“I didn’t have a lot of choices. I was supposed to be on a mission for my bosses.”

Maryam smiled nervously and raised a hand behind her head, patting down her own hair.

“Can you tell us more about this ‘shady’ group of yours?” Ulyana said.

“They’re called–” She stammered again for a moment. “They’re called the Foundation.”

“Doesn’t really sound like a revolutionary organization.” Aaliyah said.

“They kept things pretty discrete.” Maryam said. She started getting the confidence to speak a bit candidly for a moment. “They’re not really ideological; they were out for themselves mainly and that’s what I didn’t like there. You can think of them kind of like a mafia I guess.”

“Organized crime, huh? I have to say, that’s not really what we wanted to hear.” Ulyana said, slightly disappointed with the story. However, it did make sense. Ulyana had learned that most immigrant Katarrans were ultimately forced to turn to crime in order to survive the rampant discrimination in the Empire. It must have been quite convenient for wealthy, corrupt Imperials to have a ready source of desperate clandestine labor at their bidding. Poor Maryam wouldn’t have had the choice to become some fabled socialist revolutionary in the realities of the Imbrian Empire.

Maryam’s colors shook briefly again. But she seemed to gather her courage after that.

“I wasn’t a big freedom fighter or anything, but I was made with a really good brain and memory, so I know tons of information that can help!” She put on a proud little smile. “In fact, I know a place we can go. It shouldn’t be too far, judging by the map I saw on the morning update!”

At Maryam’s prompting, Aaliyah turned on the display on the table and loaded that same map from Semyonova’s Morning Update to the crew. It was a zoomed in topographical cutout of Northern Sverland, generated by the navigational computer from its preloaded atlas. Stopping short of the Khaybar range that separated most of Sverland from Bosporus to the North, and the open border to Rhinea and the Yucatan gulf in the northwest and center-west of the region respectively.

The Brigand’s current position on the map was updated by the navigation computer.

“Here!”

Maryam pointed to the north, closer to Khaybar, running her finger along a specific area.

“See this dip here? That place is actually a big, long hole the locals called Goryk’s Gorge. There used to be a small outpost there, but I heard it’s been declining. I think it’s because travel through Khaybar dried up the past few years. It should have enough space though! We can dock the ship there for your repairs! There might not be many functioning amenities, but it’s a place that we can hide in that not a lot of people know. To be found there, the imperials would have to be searching the whole grid.”

Ulyana followed Maryam’s finger across the map. This Goryk’s Gorge wasn’t too far off.

However, the fact that Maryam was trying to correct their map bothered her.

Any standing station should have been listed already. So why was that location empty?

Who was it that set up this so-called ‘outpost’? What was it really for?

Aaliyah seemed to be on a similar wavelength to Ulyana and voiced her own doubts.

“Would this ‘outpost’ happen to have been set up by Katarran mercenaries?” She said.

Maryam rubbed her head nervously. “Historically. But they’ve probably moved on!”

There was another brief but awkward silence as Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Maryam.

“I’ll take my chances with Katarran mercs over Lichtenberg any day.” Marina interjected.

“And it’s relatively closer than Rhinea. I suppose it’s worth taking a look.” Ulyana said.

She was not too impressed with Maryam’s information quite yet.

And she felt she should have learned to temper her hopes about these things much sooner.

Regardless, at least they had a direction to go in. She didn’t think Maryam was lying. However, more and more, it felt like this entire excursion to Serrano had been a big mistake. What were the Union’s foreign agents doing and thinking? What did they actually see in Maryam? She was a sweet girl who had been through a lot, but she did not seem like a VIP asset worthy of this painful detour.

Ulyana tried to clear her head and push it out of her mind. Like Aaliyah had said before, it was pointless to hang onto topics like this. They could not simply dream up alternatives to reality.

“Alright, we’ve decided, we’ll set a course for Goryk’s Gorge. Marina and Maryam, you’ll be given formal security clearances as advisors. You’re welcome on the bridge any day.” She said.

Marina quietly nodded her head and Maryam beamed with delight, raising her arms.

And so the Brigand would change direction and head north to its next destination. Goryk’s Gorge, and the mysterious station supposedly at its edge. Ulyana could only pray that she was making the right choices in this awful situation. They adjourned the meeting, the future still unsure.

She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder as she prepared to leave the room.

Aaliyah behind her again, smiling. “Let’s talk later, just us, Captain.”

Ulyana smiled back. “Of course.”

It was a labored smile but reminding herself Aaliyah was there did wonders for her morale.


It’s her!

You’re here Braya!

Her human body was seated next to Karuniya Maharapratham in the science officer’s lab, but the signals that Braya Zachikova’s brain felt as tactile sensations and visual input were now being drawn from a drone strung on a kilometer of fiber-optic wire in the open waters. She was cold, and she felt the effort of the hydrojets behind her and the sense of her body’s increased weight and stiffness. Her drone body collected data on its status, and this feedback was given directly to Zachikova’s brain.

It was a second body, a main body while the flesh and blood stayed behind.

This curved, finned metal body two and a half meters long and two meters tall deployed from the utility tube into the murky ocean, searching, following all biological noises as Fatima picked them up and discarded them as irrelevant from the Bridge’s computer. With access to this data and everything else that the ship supercomputer was processing, Zachikova was finally able to track her beautiful dancer through the gloom of the deep ocean, following featureless rock and swimming past ghostly white plants and corals and crawling rockfish and crabs, geysers of methane that drew up slight purple sparks when their bubbling hot discharge came into contact with the agarthic salts in the water.

Marine snow fell over her in great waves — this was the thick biomass suspended in the water around them, eternally raining from the rich, living environment above. Peering through the fog of decaying matter and the minuscule beings that thrived in it, Zachikova felt her human heart shudder with surprise and warm with delight. Those beautiful fins, that graceful body, the color that shone brightly under the lights cast out by the drone, even amid the dark blue-green filter of the ocean.

She almost believed that the creature had spoken to her.

A sense of innocent wonderment and joy overcame Zachikova.

There was such relief in her heart. Her dancer hadn’t disappeared, hadn’t come to harm, and she could do her part now to protect her for good. She steadied the cameras and extended the arms so that Karuniya could capture footage of the animal playing harmlessly with the drone, its slender body bereft of any implements of destruction like biocannons, tail spikes or vibrating power-jaws. She lead a life free of worry or burden, unseen in the deeps. Zachikova felt blessed to see her.

“This is Science Officer Karuniya Maharapratham, we spotted this creature on–”

Karuniya had begun to record her audio to play over the evidence footage.

The Dancer would go on the Brigand’s record as a subject of study.

Zachikova could hear the voice, distant and muffled, through the antennae on her human body rather than the drone’s sensors. This mix of the two sometimes shook her out of controlling computerized devices, but in this case, she was so transfixed on the ravishing figure circling around the drone, that there was no way her sight would shift back to her human body. Zachikova wanted to touch her.

She laid the arms of the drone “palm”-up hoping for a touch as the dancer arced gracefully around her. When the sensation of those soft, silky fins played over her arms, her soul fluttered.

Emotion swelled in Zachikova’s breast.

Around the Dancer the Ocean became full of colors.

Bright placid blues trailed from her fins and tail and around her body that spread like a splash of paint wherever she swam, surrounding Zachikova and the cameras which could only see that majestic blue, the color that should have been the sky, she thought. Her eyes were filled the light, and she felt like she could feel colors around her own body, green and purple and blue; and around Karuniya, green and blue with a band of black around the edges; and the Brigand itself was dyed in massive colors of all kinds. Every living thing, painting a glowing tapestry in the water, Zachikova felt like she could see it all.

As the Dancer wove a circle of colors in front of her, Zachikova saw beyond the water.

“We’re going to get out of here.”

Through the clearing mist of the colors and the murk of the marine snow Zachikova saw–

Metal walls, darkness, bars, the blue glint of LEDs and a single tiny window.

Through that window, an impossible, clouded sky with purple flashes of lightning.

Within the gloom, despair-maddened eyes drawing wide illuminated with each flash.

Laughter erupted from a slim girl with copious long red hair–

–scratching at the side of her head, where a horn-like protrusion parted her skin.

“I can talk– talk to them–” She laughed and struggled to speak. “I talk to the monsters.”

Her free hand scratched on the steel floor a series of lines from bloody disfigured fingers.

“I’ll save them– You’ll be one, and I’ll be two– Then we’ll kill them all–”

Zachikova could barely make out the scene through the intrusion of the colors.

At the side of the girl that was talking, sat another girl, with bright lilac eyes, staring–

As if at her.

Inquisitive, aren’t you?

That red-lined gaze pushed Zachikova’s soul as if across the very horizon.

She felt a power squeeze her and hurl her, throw her away–

“–And that’s why I will be inducting this Leviathan as USL-0099 in our database. Positive interactions with Leviathans are few and far between and for the future we are fighting towards, we should foster an environment of understanding and progress in not only political but scientific development. Scientists work in the military to be able to explore the mysteries of the sea. It would be remiss of me, in my capacity as an advisor, to turn a blind eye to this creature and allow its needless destruction. As a subject of study, this Leviathan cannot be fired upon without my express permission.”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s voice–

Zachikova shook her head. Her human head. A breath crossed through her human throat. From the lab’s drone control terminal, she manually switched the cameras around, moving them like machines and not her own body. The Dancer was still there, but distant, coy, starting to wander away from the drone. Zachikova had the panicked thought that she had done something wrong.

“But I didn’t– I didn’t do anything–“

Her head was foggy, and she felt images slipping away from her like a dream fading from the wakeful mind. She had seen a girl, for some reason, and she knew she had seen some kind of strange color phenomenon in the water. It could’ve been signals issues, some kind of cybernetic synesthesia, she already experienced all sorts of odd things when she interfaced with machines.

Those situations never felt quite like this. Zachikova’s heart was shaken.

She was losing her cool. Emotion had never overcome her like this.

Zachikova thought she might cry, and she hardly knew what she was crying about!

Swept up in that current of colors swirling around the Dancer–

It was the most beautiful thing she had seen underwater, but her mind was–

–Mourning the image of it.

Trying to grasp hold as if a dying gasp–

“Zachikova, are you okay? Did you disconnect from the drone?”

In front of her, Karuniya Maharapratham seemed to fully reappear as if stepping in through a cloud of mist. Her soft brown skin, long dark hair, white coat. Her gentle eyes. And the stark metallic lab walls and equipment returning to the background. Zachikova felt more grounded in reality, and reality set in for her anew. She shook her head and turned back to the drone console with haste.

“I’m okay. I lost connection. I’m going to link back.”

“It looks like USL-0099 swam away.” Karuniya said, looking at the monitor.

“I want to follow it.” Zachikova said suddenly. Almost interrupting Karuniya.

“It seems to be roaming around, we’ll probably see it again.” Karuniya said.

“I’m–” Zachikova paused briefly. She hated how desperate she sounded, but she could not deny the fear that had taken hold like ice in her chest. “I’m afraid I might have scared it off. I’d like to make contact again. I won’t be out for long, and I won’t need to take up your time further.”

Karuniya scratched her hair in consternation. “No offense, but I don’t understand–”

At that moment, the sound of running footsteps nearing the door caught their attention.

Through the threshold crossed an agitated Sonya Shalikova, panting heavily.

“Maharapratham!” She shouted. “She’s awake! Murati is awake!”

Whatever Karuniya was going to say to Zachikova would hang in the air for good.

Speechless, on the verge of tears, Karuniya ran past Shalikova, who then ran after.

Zachikova remained, seated on the drone station, alone. Her antennae shifted slightly.

She suddenly and immediately reconnected the drone and began to dissociate her body.

“I have to find her again.”

I have to ask her— this thought reverberated in Zachikova’s mind as it left her human body.

What would she even ask? And how would she ask a question to an animal?

Those small insanities sank to the back of Zachikova’s mind.


“How many fingers are we holding up?”

Officers Zhu and Van Der Smidse both held up two fingers to form peace signs.

They waved these fingers in front of an awkwardly smiling patient in a medbay bed.

“Is this a trick question? Two fingers in two hands, so four fingers.”

Murati Nakara answered with as much enthusiasm as she could muster energy for.

“I guess she’s ok.” Zhu and Van Der Smidse agreed.

For Murati the transition back to consciousness was surreal.

She felt that she had not been in a deep sleep but had been sleeping and waking, finding herself first in her diver, then dragged out, in the medbay, in the ocean itself, in places unfathomable that seemed to skirt just beyond the edge of understanding. Long sandy stretches of surface land, war-torn; a great and awful tree of flesh in the middle of a romantic, gothic town; a sprawling city where people could do anything with their minds but were beset by monsters; nonsense dreams.

She had a headache, and she did not feel rested.

She was famished and had a hard time keeping her eyes wide open in the medbay.

Craning her head, she took note that she was not the only one interned in the medbay.

Sat up on her bed, Sameera seemed to have been recovering well, the mixed Shimii/Loup gently wagging her tail under the sheets, laid on three pillows and smiling placidly. Always chipper, that one. She looked like she had been awake for longer. Rather than a hospital gown, she was dressed in a long casual shirt and from one dangling leg what seemed like soft, baggy pants. However, when she tried to move, she seemed uncoordinated, as if drunk or sleepy, and ended up laying back down.

“Two days or so, if you were wondering.” Sameera said.

“Huh?”

Murati stared at her. Sameera laughed, voice deep and gentle.

“That’s how long you slept, but I think you were coming in and out. I heard you cry once.”

“You heard her cry?” Zhu Lian. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Sameera looked untroubled. “It felt like she just needed to work something out.”

“What if she was working out a heart attack?” Van Der Smidse said.

“She sounded much too contemplative for that.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu glared at her for a moment, until a pair of visitors ran in.

At the door, a pale, indigo-eyed girl escorted a familiar face, one Murati longed to see.

“Karuniya!”

Murati’s exclamation was a little weak, owing to her condition.

Despite this, it reached right to Karuniya’s heart. At the door, she gasped and stood, the rest of the assembled group parting so that she could approach the bed. She held her hands over her mouth, eyes half-shut with copious tears, shoulders shaking. When she finally rushed to the bed she was mindful of Murati’s wounds. Rather than hug Murati, she laid gentle hands on her.

Karuniya leaned in her head, and they touched their faces together. It was the most affectionate form of physical contact Murati could withstand. Feeling the warmth of Karuniya’s cheek and her soft hair falling over her, the scent of the disinfectant clinging to her lab coat mixed with the woody smell of mushroom cultures. Murati almost wished she could return a full embrace.

However, Karuniya obviously saw the condition Murati was in.

Under her hospital gown, Murati had deep bruises in her chest and flank. Though she was on pain medication which helped her breathe normally, she could feel her range of movement limited by the sense of dull stinging that triggered when she tried to shift her weight. She supposed that she had broken ribs. Her arm was also broken and in a cast, slung over her shoulder. She had a bit of foam padding around her neck that suggested it was probably bruised or injured as well.

“Mu– Mu– Mu– rati–!” Karuniya cried out, sobbing, whimpering next to Murati.

“It’s okay Karu. I’m here for you.” Murati said, smiling with genuine elation.

“Don’t try to be fucking cool when you nearly got killed! You reckless idiot!”

Karuniya lifted her hands off Murati’s shoulder and then laid them back down.

Perhaps in lieu of the soft little punches she sometimes threw to tease or scold Murati.

She laid her head over Murati’s shoulder, gently, making sure not to lean too hard.

“I was so worried, Murati. I was so worried. I thought you– I thought you had–”

“It’s ok. It’s ok. I’m ok, Karu.”

“Promise me this is the worst it’s going to be. Promise me it won’t be worse than this.”

“I promise. I really do.”

Murati understood. For it to have been “worse than this” she would’ve had to come back in pieces rather than whole. Or not have come back at all. They already understood how dangerous the mission was and that either of them could die– but even the most educated soldiers had feelings when they actually confronted death. Murati reassured her as best she could. There was no need to realistically contemplate their mortality right then. After all, Murati really wanted to keep that promise.

She would do her utmost not to break such a promise.

And if that promise had any power, then maybe there was a God after all.

Murati would pin her hopes on that.

It was eerie, having come near death. It did not feel like anything.

That absence of some grand experience was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all.

She had simply been beaten senseless, halfway to death in the middle of the ocean.

Halfway, but not fully. So here she was, alive in the arms of her precious wife.

Murati looked past Karuniya. Zhu and Van Der Smidse stood off to the side with faintly flushed cheeks, perhaps a little embarrassed at the display of affection — though with their fingers intertwined between them. Shalikova stood with the tiniest, barest hint of a smile on her lips, arms crossed as if waiting for something, or perhaps satisfied with the result of her handiwork.

“Thank you Shalikova.” Murati said. “You came to visit and then ran to get Karu, right?”

Shalikova looked briefly startled when she was addressed.

She turned her cheek, her brow creasing ever so slightly with indignation.

“Of course I went to get your wife, anyone would’ve done it. It’s really nothing.” Was that the tiniest bit of flushed cheeks on Shalikova too? Maybe Murati was just seeing things this time.

Now that other people had joined the conversation, Karuniya stepped back from Murati.

Van Der Smidse graciously brought her a seat so she could stay at her “husband’s” side.

“Thank you.” Karuniya sat down. She checked the board on Murati’s bed. “Broken ribs, broken arm– well, you’re not going to die, and you might be able to walk with crutches. Sheesh, at least you’re not going to get back in that death machine for a while. For good or ill.” She sighed and turned with an irritated expression at Zhu and Van Der Smidse. “What are you two doing? Go fetch me some broth, bread, and pickles. Murati must be dying of hunger, c’mon. I’ll feed her.”

Now it was Murati’s turn to feel her face red with embarrassment. “I really don’t need–”

“Shut up.”

Karuniya glared at her. Murati laid back and accepted this as the current state of affairs.

“Sure, we’ll leave her in your capable hands then.”

Van Der Smidse and Zhu seemed to sense the dark energy around Karuniya and complied.

After they left to get the food, Shalikova started to bid farewell– but Murati halted her.

“Shalikova, I need to talk to you for a second.”

Shalikova paused and returned to the side of the bed. “What is it?”

“Did we lose anyone?”

Thankfully, Murati did not have to feel the dread of asking that question for long.

“No. We’re all alive.” Shalikova said. Her confidence and quick response were a big relief.

While the time she had spent awake could be counted in minutes only, Murati was already back to thinking about the situation at hand. If she was alive and surrounded by familiar Union faces then they had escaped from the Iron Lady. She was in poor condition, however, so they had something quite important they had to settle so they could operate effectively in the near future.

“I have to talk to Khadija about it too, but– Shalikova, I’m making you squad leader.”

“What?” Shalikova said suddenly, taken aback.

“Oh, good idea.” Karuniya added. “Shali-Shali has fought like an ace every single time.”

“Huh?! Shali-Shali?”

Shalikova stared between Karuniya and Murati with expressions of shock and disgust.

“That’s– But– No way! I’m an Ensign and I’ve only had two real sorties!”

“I’ve only had two real sorties too.” Murati said. “Shalikova, not only do you have excellent piloting skills, but you’ve shown decisiveness and a really fantastic situational awareness. Had you not intervened when you did, I would have almost certainly been killed out there. And you held your own against that mystery pilot and their mystery diver after that. This is not just empty flattery from me.”

Sameera, lying back with her eyes closed, spoke up suddenly from her bed.

“I agree! I think the Ensign would make a very cute squad leader.” She declared.

“Shut up and go back to sleep! Nobody asked you!” Shalikova shouted. She then turned her agitation on Murati. “Pick Khadija! You said you had to talk– why decide now?” She asked. “She’s so much more experienced and skilled than I am! Why would you pick me over her?”

“You look like you don’t even want to hear the reasons she has!” Karuniya said.

Shalikova snapped toward her but seemed unable to raise her voice at Karuniya.

Murati was thankful that she could sense the evil within Karuniya and treat her gently.

“I think Khadija is our strongest pilot, and that’s exactly why she shouldn’t be the leader.” Murati said. “She has exceptional combat skills, but– let’s say skewed judgment. At any rate, a leader doesn’t need to be the strongest. After all, you’re a better pilot than me in raw skill, Shalikova.”

Of all the comments, this one really had poor Shalikova withering under the spotlight. She crossed her arms, tapped her feet, and turned her back, grumbling a little where no one could see.

“I’ll– I’ll think about it. You won’t force me to do this. I really have to consider it!”

Murati nodded her head silently, smiling at her. “Thank you. I really believe in you–”

Shalikova immediately started to walk out of the room unprompted, but she met someone at the door that she nearly bumped into. Pink skin, red and brown hair, a below-average stature.

“Oh, sorry.” Shalikova said.

“It was my fault. Don’t worry.”

The woman at the door acknowledged and walked past.

Long, thin strand-shaped fins bristling among her hair, an unfriendly look on her face, the woman walked to the side of Sameera’s bed, holding a bowl of what looked like a quick porridge made by crumbling bread and pickles in broth. She sat down, grunted, and then started to feed Sameera, who easily accepted the attention as the woman forced a spoonful through her lips. It was her squadmate, Dominika Rybolovskaya. Her presence, the indignation in her every movement, silenced the room.

Murati wondered how long this bleak scene had repeated across the days.

Compared to the evil energy exuding from that woman, Karuniya was a glowing angel.

At least it brought a bit of color to the drab medbay.

“Karu, can I ask for your help later?”

Murati gave a slightly pleading look to her wife, who smiled back.

“Oh jeez, of course.” Karuniya sighed. “Back to work already? You’re hopeless.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

It was such a contrast to Dominika and Sameera that even those two were staring at it.


Another “night” fell on the UNX-001 Brigand, denoted only by the moving of the clock and the moving of people, and by the artificial dimming of lights. During the day, each light fixture had a small ultraviolet system to help the humans within feel at home, as if working under the rays of the sun. At night, those UV systems would be turned off, the ordinary light would dim, snuffing out the underwater “sun”.

With that snuffing out of the sun, there was a commensurate snuffing out of activity.

There were always some workers at night — it was a warship, after all.

But not for the next few days.

“No night shifts for two days and reduced daytime work hours, for all sailors!”

Galina Lebedova, Chief of the Brigand’s sailors, passed down the decree from Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya to all the sailors working in the hangar. Everyone had been working hard for days, and it was clear the laborers really needed a break. Heavy duty work would resume once the Brigand made it to Goryk’s Gorge and could settle down for the final and definitive stretch of repairs.

“Prioritize maintenance, and don’t crowd the canteen and social spaces! And thank the officers!”

As such the hangar space was almost entirely empty that night.

The only sounds were the footwork and grunts of a certain Shimii, Khadija al-Shajara. It was so quiet that when she stopped moving, one could almost hear the drops of sweat striking the hangar floor, and her heart jumping as she stepped forward and back, attacking a shadow opponent. Dressed only in a pair of workout pants and a sleeveless crop top, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Her cat-like ears bristled with each burst of physical effort, tail stabbing at the air behind her betraying a sense of anxiety.

She had in each hand a thick, solid, and heavy carbon-fiber truncheon borrowed from the armory. Standing in a corner of the hangar, with the Diver gantries blocking her from the sight of the elevators and lower hall connections, she practiced striking with the truncheons. Solid one-handed blows in quick succession; coordinated attacks with both weapons at once; overhead, from the side, from left and right at once.  She was not treating them as the two clubs she had, but as a pair of swords.

Swords like the saw-bladed, motorized weapons that her Diver could employ.

Her strikes grew more belabored, her breathing tighter, and she could hear herself, louder.

“Fuck!”

Her anger reverberated across the empty hangar.

“It doesn’t matter. My body isn’t what’s on the line out there. It’s all in a fucking Diver.”

She hated how exhausted she felt. She hated the feeling that she was growing old.

Growing old; when there were other kinds of growing she still needed to do.

Her shaking fingers on the truncheons, the cold sweat of her iron grip; the explosive pain from her joints when she paused for even the briefest second, the soreness in her lithe leg muscles with each step. How she felt her shoulder nearly pop on the double overhead strikes. How hard her breathing came to her, almost as soon as she started. Khadija hated it, hated her age, hated her ailing body. She was as fit as she possibly could be, her lean, wiry muscles practiced daily, and still her strikes grew weaker.

“Fuck.”

There was a loud clatter on the hangar floor as she dropped the truncheons.

Slipping out of exhausted hands that couldn’t stop shaking.

Regardless of how sharply focused her mind had been, she could not make her body go further. Forty-two years; how was it possible that she was still alive after all of this? How had she not died back then with the Red Baron? Either in 959 or 979, whichever of the two. She doubled over, breathing ragged, hands on her knees, sweat trickling over her slim nose, her still-soft cheeks.

“Hah, man, this sucks. When did this become so much trouble for me?”

She started to think but– when was even the last time she had to train this hard?

There were always things to do. Patrols, mock battles, simulations, equipment testing, she had even done plenty of Leviathan culling alongside the Hunters. War, however, she had only practiced in a single solitary stretch, the year of absolute hell she experienced from 959 to 960. Twenty years ago, twenty whole years ago. She was treated like a senior NCO back then because she was twenty-two in an army that had a massive swell of teenage privates. What was she supposed to be now?

“Back then–” Khadija paused, still catching her breath. “I didn’t want the kids to fight.”

She still did not. And perhaps, that was the reason that, at forty-two, she was still here.

Forty-two years. No matter how much she exercised, how much makeup she wore, in this situation there was no escaping it, no embellishing. As lithe and athletic as she kept her body, as young and vibrant as she kept her face, deep down beneath skin and muscle, she was forty-two years old.

She was hurting. Even her fluffy tail felt like an old, beaten thing.

Forty-two years.

Again, she laughed, ever more bitterly.

“Someone like me would’ve already been dead if this was a film. For the kid’s stories to advance.”

Maybe she should have been killed. If she could have just taken out the Red Baron back then–

There was a distant series of dull metal steps on the hangar floor.

When Khadija turned her head she saw someone approaching across the barely lit space.

Someone on crutches.

“So this is where you went. You look like you’ve been working really hard.”

Murati Nakara, step by labored step, leaning heavily on her crutches. Smiling.

She had on her uniform, and she looked like every step was pure agony.

“Ya Allah!” Khadija exclaimed, so surprised she was. “What are you doing, you fool?”

She rushed up to a stand and hastened to Murati’s side, trying to save her some walking.

Face to face, Khadija’s sweaty, bereaved expression, barely accented with a light touch of runny makeup, could not have measured to the deathly grimace on Murati’s face, sweating, panting for breath. Khadija looked around, wondering how the hell she made it out of the medbay without anyone stopping her. She helped Murati lean against her, and regardless of what the Lieutenant intended, Khadija had in mind to drag her right back. She started to gently urge her to turn so she could guide her away.

“It’s okay Khadija, Karuniya is in the hall with a wheelchair.” Murati said.

“What? Why didn’t she cart you out here? What is wrong with you two?”

“Because I want to talk to you alone, and she respects me enough for that.”

Murati continued to labor a smile, while Khadija stared at her quizzically.

“Didn’t you just wake up today? What could possibly–?”

“Khadija, I’ll get right to the point, because I’m really exhausted and hurting and honestly, this has been distressing me a lot.” Murati’s eyes looked almost tearful, as she worked her way up to asking and finally interrupted. When Khadija met her eyes she could barely look at the expression. And when she heard the words that her squad leader finally said, her body shook with shock and shame.

“Khadija, were you trying to die out there? Did you intend to martyr yourself?”

It was like her heart was perforated with a cold needle, a sharp pinprick.

When she had fought the Red Baron– She did intend to launch a suicide attack.

How could Murati have known? Did she suspect it when she snatched the bomb away?

In hindsight, it brought her a lot of pain and shame to think about that now.

She had tried to put that experience away.

To train and fight another day and move on.

Now it crashed into her exhausted mind and nearly brought her to the floor.

Especially because of Murati’s reaction. It was so shocking to see her so hurt by it.

Murati continued to look at her, openly weeping. She raised her working arm to wipe tears.

She took Khadija’s shocked silence as a confirmation. And it seemed to distress her further.

“Khadija, please promise me that you won’t consider such a thing again. I admit, I have not been in command of teams in real combat, probably nowhere near as much as you might have had. But I truly made it my duty to insure that everyone came back alive. My plan was never for a suicide mission. It hurts– I can do everything in my power to save my comrades, but if they decide–”

Murati paused as if she could not get herself to say it out loud. She sobbed openly.

Khadija had never seen her like this. She had never imagined her looking so broken up.

“Khadija, I don’t want the story of the ‘Lion of Cascabel’ to end like that. Please.”

“Murati, I–” Khadija hardly knew what to say to that at first.

She could have been offended to be called ‘the Lion of Cascabel’, a name which brought bad memories. She could have tried to explain her reasoning at that time, not that there was any. It had been pure gut, desperation, and a lot of self-loathing that led her to that. She realized what she felt, was that she was touched Murati had such a strong reaction to the idea of her dying like that– to her making a martyr of herself. At that time, Khadija had felt, if she went through with it, no one would mourn it.

Wasn’t she just a soldier? An unmarried childless old woman sharpened to kill?

Wouldn’t the success of the mission give meaning to her death?

For a long time she really thought of herself as someone disposable.

She never realized how that flew in the face of the comrades risking their life alonside her.

How it minimized their collective hope of protecting one another and returning alive.

Khadija wondered– could she really say she wanted to live at all costs? She looked back briefly at the truncheons she had dropped in the hangar. What she had felt back in the water, that desperation and frustration– she was here, fighting to never feel it again. She was challenging herself again, and if she had no intention of living, then she would not have been aching and sweating this much.

She finally knew what to say. “Murati, you’re unbelievable sometimes. I guess I have to become even stronger in the future so you kids will finally stop worrying about me so much.” Khadija made an irritated noise. “Honestly; knock it off, Murati. Go back to the medbay. I have more training to do.”

Murati smiled at her, wiping her tears. Relief seemed to wash over her like a wave.

“Thank you. Whether or not you realize it, Khadija, you’re a real hero.” She said.

Khadija looked away from Murati in a brief fit of shame.

Honestly, what was it with this girl and the earnest compliments?

But she couldn’t hate her for it. She really wanted to believe that she was.

Not just an old failed woman but the hero of a story still to be told.


Previous ~ Next

The 1st Regimental Headquarters (37.1)

This story segment contains violence and some frightening imagery.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Red Banner Apartments

Madiha woke in the middle of the night in a bleary, dream-like haze where every angle became soft and everything except the edges of her vision was a rolling blur. Her shirt clung to her back and breast, cold and wet with a midnight sweat, and she felt a terrible headache and stomachache, borne of stress and lack of restful sleep. When she moved her fingers, hands, feet, they felt too heavy and too limp, alternating at a moment’s notice.

She heard something heavy hit the windowsill and it reverberated in her skull.

Alarmed, Madiha stumbled upright, and nearly hit her set of drawers as she made toward the open window. Her vision warped, tilted, came in and out, until it settled.

Framed in the moonlight, Kali stood guard at the windowsill, growling softly.

Half-closing her eyes, squinting to see, Madiha approached. Holding herself up by the curtains, she leaned half out of the window and scanned the street and the road.

Her eyes were aimless at first, but were then drawn in by the mask.

Across the street, the standing thing was shorter than an adult human.

It wore a fully white mask, featureless save for an inset gold face the size of a nose.

This small face on the mask had its own dull impression of a nose and tiny slitted eyes that moved haphazardly around like spinning billiard balls when stricken by the cue.

When they stopped moving they focused on her briefly. She felt their weight even from this far. Then they would roll again like a slot machine, moving inside and out of their sockets.

Everything of the creature’s face was obscured by the mask saved for a red chin and mouth, lips broken, a faint impression of white teeth. Around the edges of the mask was the black line formed by a thick hood that covered the being’s entire body save for its five long, dangling limbs that would occasionally thrash and dance like flailing noodles.

Nothing of the creature was congruous — every limb a different size, one shoulder lower than the other, one leg taller, and its visible mouth slanted to one side.

“Majini.” Madiha whispered to herself.

Her drawing of breath alerted the creature. Under its hood its thick legs stirred. It turned from the street to the window, and the little gold face on its white mask sniffed the air.

Jagged teeth burst through from between the creature’s lips in every direction.

Madiha’s recently recovered life flashed in her mind.

She felt those arms closing around her neck, a little neck, a child’s neck.

She felt the kicking and screaming, and the crunching of the mask as a brick struck the face in the middle and drew copious, filthy-smelling blood and shrieking screams.

“I killed you all.” Madiha’s jaw quivered. “I thought–”

A click-clacking, gurgling scream interrupted her.

Red spittle flew from the creature’s gnashing jaws. Hands flailing as if pulling on the air, the monsters twitched from one place to the next, hurtling toward the window. It moved like a cheetah on a full sprint, but it accelerated to a charge from a standing position in a second flat, and in an instant it tumbled from the street over the flower beds flanking the steps to the apartment building’s stairs, and slammed a pair of fists into the brick.

Its neck cracked as it craned its head to stare at the window.

Around the edges of its lips the teeth turned as if spinning on a wheel.

Madiha reached into her undershirt instinctively, but it was not her tunic, it did not have her holster. All of that was back at the foot of her bed, discarded. She drew back.

Raising a hand to her temple, she drew on the fire, the primordial fire.

Her eyes burnt, and the edges of her sight went red.

Every second the red was expanding, and smoke covered her vision.

All other Majini had perished in the heat of this ancient flame.

This one would join them.

“Kali, run!” Madiha cried out, her legs buckling as she struggled to kindle the flame.

Kali did not retreat as instructed.

It reared back on the window and drew air into its mouth.

In front of the window the creature appeared for a split second in mid-leap.

Kali breathed out the window, launching a blurring cone of barely-visible force.

Madiha could not hear the sound, but she felt it inside her head and in her gut.

Outside the window the Majini fell to the ground with a thud and let out its own cry.

At once Madiha’s concentration broke, and the flame she nursed was snuffed out.

Night’s colors returned to her surroundings, and all of the red was gone.

In its place there was only a sting and a nosebleed.

Madiha hurried to the window and found the creature’s mask shattered into bloody pieces. Its limbs were snapped and twisted by the strength of Kali’s breath, and its hood caved in at the center. Soon it began to die the Majini’s death — it disappeared slowly. As the body and cloak melted away like wax and sank through the earth itself, Madiha saw the impression of a sewn-up face flash briefly from behind the shards of white porcelain.

It was gone as if it had never existed.

Madiha gingerly reached a finger to her blood-soaked upper lip.

The pain of her own brains burning felt very real, but nothing else did.


A thin shaft of light expanded across Madiha’s window to encompass much of her room as the apartment bore the full brunt of Rangda’s dawn. At pace with the light a small, dragon-shape shadow extended across the room, the bed, and over Madiha’s face.

Madiha opened her eyes, facing the ceiling. She turned her head to face the window.

Last night felt like a dream. Some parts she could confirm, but others were ephemeral.

She touched her thin nose, and removed a pair of bloody tissue papers from it.

No more blood drew from her nostrils. And the psychic sting in her brain had passed.

She sighed. As a child she could throw several flares before feeling anything.

It seemed she would not have to start over from scratch.

As she sat up by the side of her bed, eyeing her uniform and hazily piecing back together her plans for the day, someone knocked on the door twice quickly.

The door then opened a crack, and Parinita peeked her head in cheerfully.

“I come bearing gifts!” She shouted, holding a paper bag in her hand.

Seeing Madiha sweaty and in her underwear, a little gasp escaped her glossy pink lips.

“Sorry! I shouldn’t have barged in. Should I go?”

Madiha shook her head, gently waving about her black hair, nearer to shoulder length after almost a month of new growth, and messy from her tumultuous sleep. She stood up off the bed, leaned back, raised her arms, pushed her chest forward and let out a yawn. Glistening sweat delineated the lines of lean muscle on her bare limbs, and trickled down the brown skin of her slim, toned body. She felt no hint of awkwardness.

“It’s perfectly fine.” She said, through a long exhalation. “So long as it’s just you.”

Parinita laughed, delicately covering her mouth with her hand while ogling.

“I suppose it’s alright anyway since we’re both girls–”

At the window, Kali groaned audibly and slammed its tail on the wall.

“Eep! It still doesn’t like me.” Parinita moaned, retreating further behind the door.

Madiha shot Kali a frowning look.

“It’ll have to warm up to you eventually.” She said, in the tone of a command.

Kali blew a little air from the nostrils at the edge of its beak.

Madiha shook her head at it. “Come in Parinita, don’t stay by the doorway.”

Parinita nodded. She entered, her hair pulled into a ponytail, wearing a fresh skirt and dress uniform. A light dusting of cosmetics gave her lightly bronzed skin a bit of a blush, and the reading spectacles perched on her nose made her look more a secretary than ever. She wore a skirt uniform and a pair of classy flat shoes in green to match. Though fairly fit, Parinita was slightly rounder and softer than Madiha in form, and at least ten centimeters shorter.

Examining her, Madiha felt a little thrill in her chest. She was always a lovely sight.

Closing the door behind herself, Parinita tottered up to Madiha, and put her hands on the woman’s head. Madiha felt a cooling touch seep in through her cheeks and smiled as a wonderful, relaxing feeling spread through her, touching her strained body and her too-hot heart and head. She locked eyes with her secretary as the eldritch fires invisibly dispersed.

“You are far too hot this morning, Colonel.” Parinita said, smiling faintly.

Her hands were still on Madiha’s face. Madiha reached her own hand up to touch hers.

“I’m still unsure exactly how it happened.” Madiha said. It played into the little entendre Parinita might have been setting up, but it was also true. Her memory of the past night was a fading blur. She recognized something happened, but it felt too unreal to be true.

“Just be careful with it.” Parinita said. “I might not always be around catch sight of it.”

“Someday I’m going to have to interrogate you about that.” Madiha said, smiling.

“I owe you the conversation.” Parinita replied. “But we’d need more time than we have.”

Madiha nodded. Like her, Parinita had her own illogical secrets, and she probably yearned to share them. Madiha was perhaps the only soul who could relate to the alien things Parinita must have known. But life always pulled them harshly in certain directions, and they hadn’t yet found enough peace to fully confess to one another. Each of them held pieces of the other’s puzzle; everything was strewn on the floor without interlocking.

And yet it felt like both of them could still see a lot of the picture nevertheless.

Their day would come sooner or later, but Madiha felt that they had an unspoken understanding on this matter regardless. Each was drawn to the other, sharing a kinship in and out of battle since the day they were thrust, violently, into each other’s orbit.

It was rushed, and strange, and perhaps dysfunctional. And yet it felt natural.

Had not Aer and its Moon been bound together by a cosmic disaster? That was the last science Madiha read on the subject. The two were inseparable now. It felt quite right.

Contented, Madiha replied, “I’m not worried. We’ll discuss everything when it’s right.”

Parinita nodded her head, tufts of strawberry hair bouncing just over her forehead.

In a way, Madiha felt like she already knew everything. Such was their bond now.

After lingering for several moments, their eyes, so tightly locked before, finally parted, and they set about preparing for the day. Madiha entered the adjacent bathroom to wash her face and teeth, and Parinita returned to the door, and took from a hanger outside the apartment a fresh uniform and a bundle of needed sundries that had been left for the Colonel, and set it down on the bed for her. When Madiha returned, she sat at the edge of the bed and set apart all the layers of her uniform to begin dressing up.

“What’s on the agenda today?” Madiha asked while picking out her socks. She quickly found that she had been given were women’s long stockings, which she never wore.

Sighing, she pulled them up along her long legs.

Parinita giggled at the sight. “Hopefully we can get the headquarters ready by today, I’m thinking that will take the bulk of the afternoon to do. We also need to go over our table of organization and draft some simple training programs our troops can start on soon.”

As she listened, Madiha mechanically donned a white shirt, hastily buttoned the collar, and started doing her long red tie in a simple knot; seeing this, Parinita reached suddenly down, pushed her hands aside, and finished tying it herself. Madiha was surprised.

“I know how to tie it.” She said, as her secretary’s skillful hands completed the knot.

“Think so? Give it a quick look.” Parinita cheekily said.

Madiha pulled her tie up and stared at the knot. Somehow the red and gold lines of the tie formed a complicated pattern. Parinita had managed to divide the knot into neat little quadrants. It was a much more eyecatching knot than anything Madiha knew how to do.

“Oh ho ho! You see? It’s called a lover’s knot, because it’s hard to tie it for yourself.”

Parinita stuck out her chest, satisfied with herself, while Madiha turned a little red.

Once the Colonel was fully in uniform once more, Parinita combed her hair as best as she could, and the two of them left the building side by side to get a start on the day. Parinita handed her some candied fruit and a bread roll from the bag she had brought into the room, and they ate as they went. A fuller breakfast could wait. Madiha expected to relocate to the base quickly. She started thinking about hailing a cab to take them.

Directly outside, a sleek black soft-top car with its canopy pulled back awaited them.

Behind the wheel of the car, reading a newspaper, Logia Minardo leaned back on the chair. Her uniform looked as crisp as ever, and her cheeks and lips were delicately touched with pigments, but her hair wasn’t collected into a bun. It hung down to her shoulders, a little messy, looking recently wet. Perched on her nose were a pair of shaded glasses.

The Staff Sergeant had a pen and paper in hand and was plotting out the daily crossword puzzle on the driver’s seat. When the door to the apartments opened and shut, Minardo turned her head, spotted her superiors, and waved her pen to greet them.

She pointed at the newspaper.

“Do either of you know an eight-letter word for ‘used to make instrument strings?'”

Madiha blinked hard at her, still bewildered by the vehicle, while Parinita smiled.

“Drakegut!” Parinita cheerfully replied, after less than a second’s hesitation.

At the open window to Madiha’s room, Kali shuddered violently and bowed its head.

Minardo looked down at the paper, counted the spaces, and wrote it down.

“Perfect! As a token of my gratitude, you get a free ride.” She said, winking.

Madiha tipped her head with confusion. She still could not place the car. Her companion was much more energized by the prospect. Cheering, Parinita took Madiha by the hand and led her to the vehicle, pushing her into the back seat and making a big show of sitting near her.

“We have our own chauffeur Madiha!” She chirped. “Now we’re VIPs!”

Instead of metal seats like the scout cars, this civilian model car had plush wool-stuffed seats. The back seat was especially bouncy and comfortable, with a tall, rounded backrest. A roomy interior accommodated the two passengers well, with sizable legroom. Even the floor was snazzy, softly carpeted in a gray color that complimented the shiny black exterior.

All of this was posh, but the most stunning piece on the car was the dashboard radio.

It was set into the middle of the car’s front, extending the instruments panel.

Separating the driver’s and the front passengers’ legroom was the radio’s thick box, with a printed meter and needle in a white plate on the front. A piece of paper taped to the dashboard contained a list of civilian frequencies, scribbled in Minardo’s compact and neat writing. Aware of everyone’s attention on this item, Minardo turned it up. Immediately a steady drum beat, energetic shakers and quick strings played from the large speakers.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? Very dancey!” Minardo shouted over the radio.

Parinita’s face lit up, and she clapped her hands and nodded along to the music.

“Minardo, where did you get this? How did you get this?” Madiha snapped.

Unconcerned, Minardo turned down the volume on the radio, until the drums became background noise, “It’s a M.A.W. Bijali 2030! It’s brand new, fresh out of the depots.”

She sounded quite excited, but this information only made everything more puzzling.

“That does not answer my question at all!” Madiha replied.

On the rear-view mirror, Minardo winked again. “To some people, I’m a VIP, Colonel.”

“Neither does that! What do you even mean?” Madiha demanded.

In lieu of an answer, Minardo hit the clutch, pulled the stick back, and started to gently slide out from the side of the street and onto the road. She crept little by little onto the asphalt and then corrected the nose of the car, and with the gentlest little step on the acceleration pedal, she started them forward at about fifteen kilometers per hour.

There were no other vehicles in the immediate vicinity, and few people on the streets.

Structures and pedestrians scrolled leisurely by as the car inched forward.

“Just relax, Colonel! You’re looking too high strung this morning!” Minardo said.

Madiha let go of a deep breath and dropped against the seat, defeated.

There was a bump behind them. Kali dropped onto the back of the car and laid on the rolled back canvas frame of the vehicle’s soft canopy. It yawned and purred at them.

“It better not scratch the paint!” Minardo cried out.

Kali growled lightly and made a show of retracting its claws.

Madiha said nothing.

After several minutes, Minardo finally shifted to second gear, and accelerated to a relaxing thirty kilometers per hour. They did not go the direct route to the base. Instead, Minardo seemed to delight in taking them for a very leisurely little stroll around the corner from the apartment and farther north into the urban heart of Rangda.

It felt more like riding a horse-drawn carriage than a brand new car.

“Don’t just stare ahead!” She instructed. “Give your necks some exercise! Rangda has a lot of scenery. Our ratty old base won’t go anywhere. Try to enjoy the town for a bit!”

Madiha grumbled inaudibly, annoyed at the distraction. She turned her head away.

On the adjacent street, a teenage girl, perhaps training for a dash, bolted past their car.

“Minardo, you could stand to go a little faster.” Parinita said, her enthusiasm deflated.

Up front, their driver adjusted her rearview mirror so she could see them and scowl.

“Why, I never! I’m with child! If I have an accident, what would become of my baby?”

Parinita looked puzzled, but she kept quiet, perhaps seeing as how she had already stepped on her own tongue around Minardo once before on this very subject.  She sighed.

“Well, there are better services for orphans now than ever in Ayvarta’s history.”

Madiha spoke up nonchalantly, holding her head up with a fist against her cheek and an elbow on the car door, staring at the street. She thought she sounded perfectly logical, but from the startled way that Parinita turned to stare at her, she surmised she had done wrong.

Minardo practically growled. “There wouldn’t be an orphan born at all if I was hurt badly!”

“Oh.” Madiha said. Somehow those dots had not connected fully for her before.

From her tunic, Parinita withdrew an army code booklet and tapped Madiha in the head with the book’s spine. Madiha took her scolding with as much dignity as she could muster.


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Gloom On The Shining Port (36.1)

This story segment contains brief violence.


42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean — West Ayvartan Waters

At noon, amid the deep blue of the ocean, the Heavy Cruiser Revenant launched a floatplane patrol. Near the bow of the ship, the Revenant’s two catapults were turned northward and Remora float planes hurled to begin their journey. Each would cover hundreds of kilometers of sea and return within hours, reporting via radio any contacts with enemy ships.

From the operations deck, at the fore of the massive, armored citadel of the ship’s forward superstructure, Captain-At-Sea Monashir stood with her hands behind her back, staring seriously at their operational map of the West Ayvartan Naval Sector, as they knew it in their strategic planning. Her chief concern now was the Bundesmarine of Nocht.

At her flanks, the Selkie class frigates and the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Qote were getting ready to depart and rejoin the East Ayvartan Fleet as a potential defense against Hanwa, whose role in the conflict everyone suspected, but no one knew for certain. In any conflict with Hanwa, their first strike would definitely be an assault on the nation’s Navy, and likely a first-strike against their naval command. Chayat was sure to become a target.

Admiral Qote would certainly be needed in such a situation. Not so much the Revenant.

As such it would be up to the Revenant to escort the Charybdis back to Rangda in Tambwe, while the Admiral Qote was relocated, and the Selkies covered it in transit.

Captain Monashir was used to acting alone or on limited resources. Nevertheless it paid to be cautious and use everything at her disposal. Before her support ships departed, Captain Monashir had requested enough time for a full reconnaissance patrol. The Admiral Qote had gracefully acquiesced to her request and delayed its departure a few hours.

She waited with her breath held in her chest, surrounded by radio and navigation equipment, viewing the ocean through slit windows at the front of the compartment.

Though she loved the view of the sea, it was no longer important to the crew.

In this new age of warfare, what she saw with her senses hardly mattered to the fight. A battle might be decided far before she even knew a battle was imminent. Seaplane recon was the best Monashir could hope for at the moment. The Revenant had an underwater sound detection system, and while the navy was intrigued by the ARG-2’s capabilities in Bada Aso, there was no time currently to install such a thing on the Revenant.

She watched her float monoplanes launched, and could not quite see them fly away.

Radio reports came in every fifteen minutes from both planes.

No contacts; clear seas; etc, for the first few hours.

Then a report came in: “Remora-3 has sighted a heavy cruiser. Looks like a Lubon Gloucester judging by all the big guns strapped to it ma’am. I don’t see any supporting ships, and it seems westbound. It’s far from home. I can’t imagine what it’s up to.”

That’s what it took; in this age of aircraft and signals, those words were worth more than the sharpest eyes on the deck of any ship. She had her contacts, hundreds of kilometers away.

Quickly the crew began to work on triangulation, while their aircraft shadowed the enemy. Soon they worked out a possible course for the Gloucester, as well as a potential combat area. Such an action begged the question: would they engage the Gloucester?

They couldn’t reach it on the surface. But passing this information to the Admiral Qote would allow them to deploy some of the 62 aircraft on-board. Though the Qote would have flushed at the request — 14 of its aircraft had been lost in Bada Aso, 10 to landing accidents, rendering the crew gun-shy — they might have ultimately agreed to do it.

Garuda and Roc aircraft could have attacked the Gloucester within the hour.

This would be an easy fight for them, and would eliminate a royal navy heavy-hitter. No resources would have to be diverted other than the planes and a few travel delays.

However, they were only two days out from Rangda, and the stray ship did not seem to be headed for their land. Though it had no business in these waters in war-time, and though Lubon was certainly Nocht’s crony in this war, Ayvarta and Lubon had not yet engaged in shooting. This attack would mean the Ayvartans shed first blood on the Elves.

It was all well to destroy this one ship. Captain Monashir, however, saw further risks.

“Let the Gloucester go. All Seaplanes return to base. We speed to Rangda.”

Captain Monashir knew she had lost her nerve. She had been confronted with a situation and turned her head from it. Bitterly she recalled her first impression of Madiha Nakar before her own battle — a battle the Captain had seen as reckless and unnecessary. Nakar had achieved an incredible result. But the thought of going out of her way now to destroy this Elven ship, while tempting, still felt reckless and unnecessary.

Monashir was not Nakar, and the sea was not Bada Aso.

Operations in the western Ayvartan waters were thus concluded. Admiral Qote broke off, and met new escorts. Captain Monashir sailed for Rangda. She was sure of her choice.


44th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Core Ocean, Ayvartan Waters — Heavy Cruiser Revenant, around Tambwe.

Easterly winds carried cold from the Kucha over the little dominance of Tambwe across the lower northwest coast. Under the hot noon sun blaring over the ocean, the cold turned into a fresh breeze. But much of the deck was vacant, and there were few around to savor the air. On their final approach to the city of Rangda, only several hundred kilometers from harbor, the cruiser Revenant and its crew took a deserved break for lunch belowdecks.

Floating on the opportune breeze, a certain creature found the empty deck suitable.

And weary of the ship’s confines, a certain Warrant Officer found the creature in turn.

Hidden behind one of the lifeboats on the ship starboard, Parinita Maharani peered out onto the raised prow, near the forward gun turret housing the massive 300mm double cannons, where she found this beast bathing in the sun. Her eyes drew wide open and she pushed a hand against her own lips to stifle all the little noises her mouth spontaneously generated.

This was a Drake, one of the many large, reptilian animals in Ayvarta. In the continent’s vast wilds, the Drake in its various forms was a fairly common form of solitary predator.

However, this was a most uncommon form of drake.

Slender and the size of a big cat, it was much smaller than its siblings. Instead of a snout, like other drakes, it possessed a hard, beak-like mouth with a jagged interior. Instead of scales, the creature was covered in fuzzy down, like a baby bird. Though it lacked true wings, and had quite developed front and back limbs with stubby claws and strong muscles, there were fleshy, earth-tone membranes extending between its front legs and flanks, that amassed into folds while it lay in repose. What drew Parinita’s gaze the most was the gaudy purple-and-teal coloration of the creature’s fuzz, that shifted with one’s eyes and the position of the sun’s light as though the creature were encrusted with a gradient of gems.

“A Kite Dragon!” She squealed to herself, staring at the creature from afar.

Though still a Drake, its ability to “fly” on the wind lent this creature its name.

And a legendary reputation. Parinita’s head filled with little girlish fantasies.

The Kite Dragon raised its head and stared lazily around itself, awoken. Parinita feared that it might take off, but it did not. It raised one of its front legs over its head, and with this motion it stretched taut the flap of beautifully colored skin that made up its “wing.” Bending its head it nibbled on its own skin, likely to relieve an itch, and then laid again under the sun, unconcerned with the surrounding machinery of this giant modern warship.

Such a shocking sight; the futuristic grey meeting the regal purple of the past.

Watching this living treasure, Parinita could hardly contain her excitement. She hesitated to approach it. She was awed, seeing the history of the world that she had been taught, the mythical history, a part of it at least, confirmed before her eyes. Though on the one hand she had hated her grandmother, those stories she told had become quite a part of her the past month. Those ideas that she kept alive, those things only she knew.

To see them in flesh, to interact with them, made her proud. It made her special.

In her mind, she did not even question where this being came from. It was fated to come.

But what pure maiden did it seek? Perhaps; could it be? Herself? Parinita was giddy.

“Chief Warrant Officer, I have safely removed the rat from your bed quarters–”

Parinita turned around and sharply shushed the person coming in behind her, snapping instantly out of her pleasurable reverie. It was Sergeant Agni, whom she had tasked with removing a pest from her room. It had been a hasty compact. Parinita had run screaming out of her room and found Agni outside the door by sheer coincidence. Seeing a familiar face, she hid behind Agni for several minutes and then shoved her into the room, shut the door and ran way. Informal, unspoken; as one does with these sorts of things.

Standing out in the open, Agni turned her head from Parinita and toward the deck and finally seemed to notice the Drake. There was no change in her disinterested expression upon spotting the majestic being laying on their ship. She blinked, and stared, dead-eyed. Agni never emoted, and the sight of the Kite Dragon had no visible effect on her.

“What is that?” She asked simply.

“It’s a Kite Dragon.” Parinita triumphantly said.

“What is it?” Agni reiterated with no change in tone.

“Haven’t you heard the stories?”

“No.” Agni dryly replied.

Of course she hadn’t. Barely anybody did anymore.

As a child, whenever her grandmother deigned to pay her attention, Parinita received a thorough instruction on Ayvartan mythology. Her family, she had been told, where once faith healers and spirit priests, highly valued by their people in supernatural matters. They were also keepers of the histories of tribes and ancestral, nascent nations. She knew all about Kite Dragons, and as she spoke, she carried herself quite proudly for this.

“Kite Dragons are the highest order among dragonkind that is left in the world. Drakes cannot fly, but Kite Dragons have achieved such a status, that they needn’t fly. They merely trick the wind into ferrying them, like a kite. It is said that the regal Kite Dragon moves under its own power only in the presence of pure maidens, such as princesses and saints and songstresses, whom it takes very kindly to. It is said that an ancient King once followed a Kite Dragon for days to find a beautiful bride in Dbagbo, suited for queenship.”

Parinita finished with a flourish of her hands, awaiting a response from her audience.

“What a lazy little Drake; it sounds quite ridiculous.” Agni said, touched not by the tale.

“What? Ridiculous? It’s amazing. This is an extremely rare, majestic being!”

“Can it breathe fire?”

Parinita threw her hands up. “No!”

Agni shrugged. “I’m not interested then. I’m not a pure maiden anyway.”

“You’re damn right you aren’t! Not with this attitude!” Parinita said.

Agni opened her pouch, and pulled up a black, furry thing from it.

“Here’s your rat, by the way.”

Parinita drew back.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA–”

Agni shuddered. The Kite Dragon crooked an eyebrow at the sudden screech.

Parinita bolted up the nearby lifeboat hoist, finding a strength hitherto unknown to her. In two lightning-fast hand-holds she made it onto the life raft and threw herself under its covering tarp, crying aloud. Agni must have lost her mind! That rat was at least 100 cm!

“Agni, kill it! Shoot it! Throw it in the ocean! It’s a rat! A rat!” Parinita cried.

She peered out from under the tarp and found Agni staring at her with those same blank eyes, mindlessly petting the rat’s head as its plump body dangled from her fingers. She felt a skin-tingling disgust with the little beast, it’s pink fleshy little limbs, its stringy tail. She could see it in her mind creeping around, teeny-tiny, festering in people’s garbage!

“It’s harmless.” Agni said, holding up the little fiend and shaking him dismissively.

“Rats bite you and scratch you and carry diseases!”

From under the tarp Parinita flailed her arms helplessly.

On the deck, the engineer seemed to finally realize her officer’s disgust, and nodded her head solemnly. She averted her gaze, looking almost remorseful of her current conduct.

“I’m sorry; I did not understand just how much they affected you. I shall rectify this.”

Agni withdrew her pistol from her hip and put it to the rat’s pathetic round head.

She locked eyes with the rat as Agni prepared to finish it.

Parinita groaned sharply as if deflating. “No! No! Ok! Don’t do that!”

“Should I just let it go then? There’s really nowhere else for it–”

“Fine! Fine! Let it go! You barbarian! Let it go!”

Instead of shooting, Agni nodded, put down the rat and released her hands.

Parinita watched in horror as the furry devil scurried away.

Freed, the beast flounced up the deck, crawled over a fire extinguisher box, leaped to the prow, and was then snatched in mid-air by a sudden lunge from the Kite Dragon.

Clacking its beak, the creature tossed the rat into the air and swallowed it whole. A gross bulge formed on the creature’s throat as its meal went down. Uncharismatic noises issued from its beak and nostrils; once its meal had fallen far enough, the dragon relaxed, laid back and stretched out on the deck, its belly glinting royal purple in the sunlight.

“It ate the rat.” Agni said, sounding very lightly puzzled.

“It ate the rat.” Parinita mimed in a much more anguished tone.

She climbed back down from the life rafts and set foot on the deck once more.

Seizing Agni by the shoulders, she shook up the engineer, gritting her teeth in frustration.

“I blame you! I blame you!” Parinita shouted as Agni’s head bobbed.

“Did something happen up here?”

One of the side doors from the conning tower opened, and Colonel Madiha Nakar emerged.

Tall and fit, and quite well-dressed in her black, red and gold KVW uniform, the Colonel managed quite a presence. There was a look of consternation on the normally soft features of the Colonel’s brown face, her dark eyes locked onto Parinita’s hands as the guilty secretary manhandled Sergeant Agni. Parinita withdrew her hands and fidgeted, looping some of her strawberry hair around her finger and laughing perhaps a little too girlishly.

For her part, Agni seemed unaffected by the gentle thrashing.

“That happened,” She said, pointing out onto the prow.

Madiha turned her head to look and stared at the creature, narrowing her eyes.

She raised a hand atop the gentle bridge of her nose to shield her eyes from the sun.

Her lips curled into a serious expression.

“That thing is in the way and needs to get off the deck promptly.” Madiha said.

She started toward the prow before Parinita could relate to her the myths she told Agni.

Parinita watched as the Colonel approached the Kite Dragon and started shooing it.

She was in distress, waiting for the creature to lunge angrily at the impure Colonel.

The Drake opened its double-lidded green eyes, and raised its head in consternation.

Madiha tapped her feet hard near it, and nudged it brusquely with her shoes.

Spotting her, the creature narrowed its eyes and sniffed. Parinita was ready to cry out.

Suddenly it sprang up onto Madiha’s chest and curled its tail around her in embrace.

“Parinita!” Madiha cried. “Why is this strange bird attacking me!”

Parinita’s jaw dropped in response. She wasn’t being attacked; the Kite Dragon had just acknowledged her as a pure maiden. Perhaps the purest it had ever seen judging by how it nudged its head lovingly over Madiha’s breast, and curled its tail around her waist. It seemed almost positively in love with her, hooting and clacking its beak, its down standing on end.

“I think it likes you.” Agni said dully.

“It does!” Parinita said. She made a little squeeing noise. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sight! She almost wanted to rush belowdecks and get the cameras. “It really likes you!”

Madiha stood still and stared in dismay at the gently stirring creature.

“Gross.” Madiha moaned.

Nonchalantly Madiha pushed on the Kite Dragon. It unfurled and fell back on the deck.

Like a strange cat, it bounced back against Madiha’s legs, rubbing its flank on her.

Madiha sighed. “I don’t want this.”

Parinita gasped. She was in disbelief at everyone’s sheer lack of curiosity. Even if they knew nothing, this made no sense! “Madiha, look at it! It’s beautiful! It’s such a rare, majestic–”

“It eats rats.” Agni interjected.

At once Madiha looked down again at the creature and seemed to have new eyes for it. She knelt, picked it up by its front legs, and raised it to her face. She gently spread its gliding flaps, and blinked at the colorful display of its bejeweled fuzz once exposed to sunlight. Eyes closed, contented, the creature lifted its long gradient colored tail and slipped it beneath Madiha’s neck-length hair, lifting several tufts of her messy bob.

Nonchalantly, she deposited the creature back onto the deck and walked away.

“I will reassess its utility, I suppose.” She said without affect.

Parinita raised her hands to her face, shaking her head and muttering to herself.


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The One Who Will Die (35.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.


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