Bandits Amid The Festival [11.8]

“Now, listen up, and listen well. I’m only doing this to give you a chance to repay me.”

“Of course. I have no illusions otherwise, my fair lady.”

“Okay. I am going to take your arm now. Don’t mistake it for anything serious.”

“Absolutely. I am all yours– in a non-serious, purely transactional way of course.”

“Hmph.”

Dominika clung close to Sameera’s arm while they walked.

“And I’ll have you know, I truly won’t accept being taken somewhere corny.”

“What about somewhere trendy?”

“Trendy is acceptable.”

“Phew! I almost had to turn us right back around.”

“That’s– don’t be silly. I’m just saying– after all the trouble, I expect to be treated nicely.”

Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun was all smiles, while her date Dominika Rybolovskaya had a mix of disgruntled expression and needy body language that must have confused onlookers. In fact, to everyone else, they must have looked like a strange couple.

Sameera was tall and gallant with dexterous limbs, a solid trunk and an ample bosom, a pretty face with sharp eyes and a sleek jaw, long silky brown hair tied into a ponytail; but she was difficult to place, always ambiguous. Clearly a woman, but with a style and swagger that seemed more solidly masculine; her ears and tail marking her as a Shimii or perhaps a Loup– yet never more than ‘perhaps’ either; with a city-girl style and yet a rural easiness.

Meanwhile, Dominika was clearly a Katarran, and yet shorter and more waifish than her companion. Her long, voluminous red hair had brown streaks, both colors dyed, and interspersed inside it were black-striped red strands that were actually long, thin fins coming down the sides and back of her head, rather than hair. Her skin was a flat pink color, and visible on exposed parts of her body were bumps that looked slightly inflamed — but which were actually photophores, bioluminescent structures on her skin. Her eyes were also quite striking, bright pink irises with a blue limbal ring, falling sharply upon any target of her gaze.

A Katarran was an uncommon sight, but a Katarran being so openly Katarran?

Clinging to a Shimii/Loup of some kind like lovers?

“So, what’s the big surprise?” Dominika asked.

“You’ll see soon.” Sameera said, smiling gently. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing extravagant.”

“It wouldn’t make a difference. We’ll stick out like albino fish in the school regardless.”

“Well then. I promise it won’t be corny.”

“Oh enough. I’m just trying to make you aware. I’m not so easily pleased.”

“I know that for a fact, milady. And yet, I can’t run away from a challenge.”

Both of them were wearing clothes they had brought in from the Union.

Their fits were not especially fancy and were generic enough to betray nothing of their origin, while still communicating their styles. Sameera wore a simple black tanktop that exposed a bit of her well-defined midriff, along with workout pants and a green jacket. Dominika wore a backless, sleeveless dark red dress that was rendered a bit less revealing by a long blue jacket. Her jacket had diamond cutouts on the sides and sleeves that unveiled several photophores on her skin. It was too bright in C-block for them to glow, however.

“I can almost feel the staring. If any of them linger for too long and cause a problem–”

“It’s fine. We have our IDs– and you look stunning. Anyone would look.” Sameera said.

“You’re a bit more of a showoff than I took you for.” Dominika said. “Proud of your abs?”

“What’s the point in working so hard if I can’t show off every once in a while?”

Sameera winked, and Dominika averted her gaze, a bit redder in the face than before.

“You look– worthy of my company.” She said. “I’m not embarrassed to be seen with you.”

Sameera wagged her tail and acknowledged the compliment silently.

She was a bit surprised that her invitation wasn’t turned down entirely.

An invitation to a date at a mystery location, so that the crux of the afternoon would be a pleasant surprise. To find herself with Dominika clinging to her arm and playing the needy femme, walking together flanked by two-story plastic buildings along a fake cobblestone road, under the sunlamps and grey steel sky of Kreuzung. It had been a longshot.

Thankfully, Dominika accepted the framing that it was a gift, to repay her for all the worry.

Sameera was elated. She really wanted to go out with Dominika; the hard-to-get act only made her more curious and excited about the soft underbelly of her squadmate.

Some part of her suspected, however, that Dominika really wanted to be spoiled a bit.

So she had the perfect idea of where to take the acerbic Katarran on a date.

“What do you think of this district? Oddly quaint isn’t it?” Sameera asked.

“It’s all too fake. I see the defects too clearly to appreciate the effort.” Dominika replied.

Sameera was trying to immerse herself in the little fantasy of the place– but she guessed Dominika was simply less of a romantic than she was. Not that she would ever begrudge her the difficulty. Those plastic buildings all around them were gussied up with fake brick textures and false slanted ceilings of curved tiles, the cobblestone beneath them too smooth to be real, the sky above too unconvincing with its flat and even LED cluster placements. It was trying to cultivate an old-world appeal, but the artifice was too evident.

She wondered if perhaps, a version of this that was closer to the truth existed in a more affluent place. After all, this was still only C-block, the second-largest block in the core station in terms of space, but still a middling place in terms of wealth and exclusivity. Perhaps up in A-block there was real brick, real cobblestone, a real blue sky– maybe even a captive sun, performing an ancient dance in the sky for the rich inhabitants. Who knew?

Someone like her was born inexorably barred from such sights.

“Hey, prince charming? You okay? What’s got you grimacing?”

Sameera looked down at Dominika clinging even tighter to her side. She smiled.

“Ah, I was just thinking that I prefer the kitschy fakeness of all of this.”

“Really?”

Sameera glanced up at briefly at the ceiling, shading her eyes.

Up above them, far above, was the affluent A-block of Kreuzung. She nodded towards it.      

“I think it’d be too absurd to see the real thing. I’d question why it’s even there.” She said.

Dominika blinked, in her eyes a gently dawning realization. “Huh. You’ve got a point.”

“But hey. Less socially conscious talk. We’re greedy mercs after all.”

“I’m not a greedy merc.” Dominika said. “I’m a ravishing young beauty out on the town.”

Sameera got a sense of whiplash from how quickly Dominika’s moods seemed to shift.

But that only excited her even more.

“Then I will play the part of your gentleman without fail.”

After twenty or thirty minutes of walking from the elevator that dropped them off on the block, Sameera and Dominika rounded a corner into a circular street in which there were several shops with colorful signs. All the fake old world brick gave away to trendy, minimalist storefronts with geometric color patterns and simple facades. Unlike the sparsely populated outer street, these cafes and shops were well-traveled, with their outdoor tables beginning to fill up with brunch guests as the pair arrived. While some of the pedestrians were casually dressed like Sameera and Dominika, most of the guests wore uniforms of various sorts, either the grey business suits that constituted the corporate uniform, or the coats of police, nurses, the fireproof jackets of guild unionized maintenance workers, and so forth.

Teeming with middle class clientele, the street cast a stronger contrast against them.

“Here we are, what shop do you want to go to? I was thinking the Patisserie there.”

For a moment, Dominika looked taken aback by all the people, and the cutesy vibes.

“Wow. Can we afford this? I thought we were going to a park or something.”

“I checked the prices, everything is reasonably within my Marks stipend.”

“Hmm. Well, if it’s your treat, let’s start with the Patisserie then.” Dominika said.

“Anything that my ravishing young beauty desires.” Sameera cooed.

“Hmph.”

All of the little café tables with their green umbrellas were taken up, so the young couple navigated past them and into the shop itself to take up a booth seat, turning heads all throughout. Whether it was their beauty or their ethnicities, Sameera wasn’t about to question. As long as their attention remained confined to gazing from afar, Sameera could enjoy the obvious curiosity of the Imbrians around them. They sat amid the simple and warm salmon pink interior of the shop, their booth across from several long counters with ritzy gold and glass displays filled with a rainbow of sweets, cakes, cookies and breads.

Sameera thought they would sit across from each other, but Dominika surprised her yet again by following her into the same half of the booth. She continued to cling close to her, a piece of arm candy more delectable than any of the sweets the shop had on display.

Inside the windowless shop, the lights were dimmer than outside. Pressed together in their booth seat, Sameera could see the little charming bumps on Dominika’s body glowing a gentle green. The design of her dress played well with these features, her halter plunging into a deep vee that exposed a humble bit of cleavage, and a line of evenly spaced photophores like a little arrow between her collarbones and breasts. Her jacket was starting to fall from her shoulders and did very little now to cover her bioluminescence.

Or the captivating softness of her round shoulders; the striking curve of her collarbones–

“What are you so keen on, Miss Gentleman?” Dominika met Sameera’s wandering eyes.

Her voice was a tiny bit teasing, but her expression was as surly as ever.

What kind of signals are you sending to me, milady? Much to consider, there…

Sameera laughed it off. “I’ve just never seen you glow like this. It’s appealing.”

Dominika averted her gaze, not with a sharp huff, but slowly, with a little grin.

Was she softening up, or just a different kind of harsh? Either way, it was titillating.

On their table, there were little pink and gold plastic booklets that had the menu items with pictures, and ordering was done on a touchscreen through a very spartan graphical interface that conflicted with the cheery pink aura of the shop. There were several dozen menu items.

Up front and with the largest picture in the booklet, was the shop’s special Baumkuchen, a cake composed of three circular, stacked layers of dough completely drowned in chocolate that was then allowed to set. Various colorful syrup drizzles could be ordered, and patterns could be designed around the cake to make it showier and more picturesque. There was also an entire section of the menu devoted to Bossches, large dough balls covered in chocolate that had different sweet, creamy fillings. On the simpler side, they had baked or fried dough items like Franzbrots, which were simply dusted with powdered sugar or cinnamon.

Ultimately, what caught Sameera’s attention the most was a section titled Exotic Delights.

In this section, the booklet had a layout with colorful geometric patterns that Sameera thought she recognized as Shimii in origin, or at least inspired by the Shimii’s art. She thought she saw similar patterns on the colors of the shop buildings too. At the top of a two-page spread a note let the reader know these were featured in a trendy Imbrian TV show.

Central within the spread was a multicolored array of flavored Halwas, a soft dessert with a base of sesame paste, mixed with sweeteners, fruits, other nuts and set. Rashidun halwas were often simple shapes, like crumbly squares that were topped simply. However, the shop’s centerpiece halwa, bright orange, looser in consistency, heavily garnished and spread in the shape of a crescent, was much more Mahdist in nature. There were also numerous Sahlab on offer, a creamy pudding that could also be colorfully decorated. It seemed that the colors and decorations were part of the draw of these Shimii-inspired desserts.

And part of the business plan.

These exotic desserts carried the highest prices on the menu by far.

Dubbed “Parsa’s Delight” by the shop, the Mahdist Halwa was 30 marks a serving.

Her fingers gripped the booklet tighter as she ran down the offerings and their prices.

She grit her teeth and her muscles tensed up. Her heartbeat hammered in her chest.

“So we’re not wanted here, but our food is a trendy treat.”

Looking at them made Sameera furious. She shot a nasty sidelong glance at the counter.

“Hmm? Are you looking? What are you thinking of getting?”

From her side, Sameera noticed Dominika looking at her again.

Her expression was soft and nonchalant. She looked a bit less standoffish than before.

Sameera’s muscles loosened up, her fists unclenched.

She restrained her tone of voice.

This is her day. Don’t fuck it up, gentleman.

“Still looking.” Sameera said. “They have a lot of weird little variations of fried dough.”

It was pointless to get too angry. She wanted Dominika to make some good memories.

Eyes on the prize. Let the revolutionary fervor out some other day.

“Honestly, I’m tempted to be boring and just get a coffee.” Dominika said.

“Ah, yeah, they do beverages too, don’t they?” Sameera replied.

“Coffee, milkshakes with syrups– they have these pudding things in mugs too.”

“Hmm. That alters the calculus a little bit.”

“The calculus?”

“It makes the dryer desserts more appealing if you can get a nice beverage.”

“How strategic. I thought you were a meathead that just rushed into things?”

Dominika cracked a little grin. Sameera laughed.

“You’re right! What was I thinking? Baumkuchen it is.”

“That’s a lot of cake! I’m not going to help you eat it, you know.”

“Oh you’re eating the cake, milady.”

“Huh?”

“You need to treat yourself! I demand to spoil you! We’re getting two Baumkuchens!”

“Sameera!”

“Two Baumkuchens with all kinds of syrup, and I’m spoon-feeding you too.”

“Don’t push your luck!”

“I’m going to push a slice of delicious cake past your pouty lips until you smile.”

“Hmph!”

In the end, after Sameera had satisfied herself making sport of Dominika, to the point that Dominika even ended up giggling just a tiny bit herself from the absurdity of it all.

Together, they decided on smaller but more indulgent patisserie orders than getting a giant chocolate cake. Dominika had been correct that Sameera preferred the straightforward solutions, and so she got something easy from the very first page: a simple Bismarcken donut ball filled half with chocolate and half with cream, along with a hot mug of cinnamon milk.

Dominika meanwhile ordered a bright plate of macarons in a variety of flavors, arrayed in rainbow-hued little pyramid that almost rivaled the color combinations of the booklet’s halwa spreads. Along with the macarons, she did get her coffee, and she got it Vienna-style, covered in whipped cream and with the espresso mixed with a bit of whipped cream as well.

“Here. Have a taste. There’s too many.”

Dominika lifted a little pink and red macaron from the plate and raised it to Sameera’s face.

Sameera briefly stared at the macaron before realizing it was she who was being fed.

Then, without warning, she took the entire dessert into her mouth in one bite.

Her lips briefly brushed the tips of Dominika’s fingers, who then jerked them back.

“Tasty. Really cute colors too. Almost like taking a bite out of you.”

“Hey–”

Sameera could complete the intended ‘don’t push your luck’ left in Dominika’s lips.

Accompanied by the low background noise of romantic Imbrian soft rock coming from the shop’s audio system, the two of them slowly enjoyed their treats. Sameera’s donut was soft and chewy and sweet, and because of the two-tone filling it was quite moist, even without the creamy milk. Every so often she pilfered a macaron from Dominika’s plate, which her Katarran beauty did not dispute. They were quiet at first, but gradually got to talking.

Surprisingly, Dominika brought opened conversation first.

“Sameera– you said you were a Leviathan hunter.”

Dominika leaned much closer than before and whispered.

“Where were you stationed?”

Sameera enjoyed the brief brush of their bodies together.

She whispered back. “Haryana.”

Haryana was an agri-complex in Lyser. Not a name that should be said aloud in the Empire.

“How many did you see?” Dominika asked.

She was neither whispering nor speaking aloud.

That private tone would continue throughout the rest of their conversation.

“I killed a few, but nothing that impressive.”

“But was it dangerous? I have no idea how often is too often with Leviathan sightings.”

“It wasn’t like we saw Leviathans every day. It’s just that Agrispheres are really important so they get their own hunter guard. Nothing gets left up to chance and no expense is spared to keep them safe. So most of the time I would just sortie for patrols or for training, or if a buoy picked up some life signs. I was really eager to prove myself, so I’d take like, every mission.”

“Did you get to cook your own fresh food in a big plaza surrounded by trees?”

Dominika referenced a quite old Union propaganda poster about Agri-sphere living.

“Nope. My accommodations were decidedly military.” Sameera said with a chuckle.

“Did you meet a lot of bright-eyed young farmer’s girls looking innocent of the world?”

Another old propaganda poster about Lyser. Promoting starting a family in an Agri-sphere.

Sameera responded a bit awkwardly. “That’s classified information.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Dominika grinned a little, as if satisfied at successfully poking at Sameera.

“Okay, my turn to ask about you. What was the ice frontier like?” Sameera asked.

“Cold.” Dominika said dismissively.

“Milady.” Sameera smiled dangerously. “I’m going to steal your macarons.”

“Hey! Stop! I was just kidding. Anyway. I mainly have bad memories of it, honestly.” Dominika shut her eyes and shuddered, perhaps remembering what it was like. “We were always doing maintenance and repairs, everyone was on edge, food shipments got delayed all the time so our rations kept changing. Climate control could barely keep up with the cold–”

“Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dig up bad memories.” Sameera interrupted.

“It’s fine. Nobody ever asks me about it. There’s a lot I could say, I guess.”

“If I can poke you for one more thing– why did you decide to go to the ice frontier?”

“Why did you decide to become a Leviathan Hunter?” Dominika shot back.

She sounded suddenly annoyed. That was the last thing Sameera wanted.

Sameera replied in a gentle, patient voice.

“I just kinda wanted to get out in the world and fill up an unwanted job. Do the dirty work nobody else did. I wanted to feel like I was important somewhere.” She said.

Dominika looked contrite about the turn in her attitude.

Perhaps Sameera’s honesty and earnestness had gotten through to her.

She averted her gaze, but she responded.

“I wanted to be alone. Nobody wants to work on the ice frontier. So I thought I would have a lot of space to myself, and be more self-directed. I was right; but I regretted it pretty fast.”

“Well. If you ever need a friend. You’re not alone anymore.”

From observing Dominika, Sameera thought she might draw a rebuke if she volunteered.

But she got the gist of what she wanted to say across. It was implied.

“Thanks.” Dominika whispered simply.

She reached out for a macaron and shoved it whole into her mouth.

Sameera lifted her cup of milk to her lips. That was the end of that conversation.

She liked the small talk, but it was also nice just to be able to sit beside Dominika.

Back when she had first seen her in the hangar– She was cute, and she was a little withdrawn– maybe she could use a friend? Maybe she was up for some fun? Katarrans were always less stuck up than others, or so Sameera had thought at the time. It was silly to admit it to herself, but she had a crush. If Dominika ended up hating her, at least she wanted to have some fun along the way. She was even cuter when she was all flustered. Maybe Sameera had a chance? For all her swagger– it felt like she always ended up cast aside.

Always outside the worlds of others.

But maybe this time– maybe she wouldn’t be overlooked–

maybe she would be needed

“Sameera. I have something to tell you. It’s important.”

Dominika spoke up after a long silence, and her lupine, feline prince glanced to her side.

“I’m all ears.” Sameera said. She playfully folded then raised her ears.

She was so curious. What would Dominika say?

Dominika gathered her breath after a brief pause. Shutting her eyes.

“Look–”

“Yeah?”

Dominika withered under Sameera’s gaze. She looked like she would break a sweat.

“I– I wouldn’t be here without you. I don’t know– I don’t get what compelled you to risk your life for me. It’s hard to accept that you decided to take such risks for my sake. I think– it was reckless, and stupid of you. But– I’m alive now. I’m here, thanks to you. I can’t deny that– Ugh. God damn it. I’ve been trying to think of what to say for weeks. So there you go.”

She stared down at the plate of macarons in front of her, hands balled into fists at her sides.

Elated to hear those anxious words, her prince responded with a rapturous smile.           

Sameera leaned a bit closer to Dominika and quickly laid an indulgent kiss on her cheek.

Dominika’s entire body quivered, her hair fins standing suddenly up and shining brighter.

“That’s all I needed in return. Non-seriously and transactionally, of course.”

Dominika’s hand absently reached up to rub her own cheek, her photophores strobing.

Once she regained her composure, she sighed and stuffed her mouth with another macaron.

Sameera, meanwhile, tried to hide her giddy, girlish exuberance and finish her donut.

That taste of Dominika’s cheek had been sweeter even than the offerings of the Patisserie.

“I need to tell you one more thing.” Dominika said, still rubbing her cheek.

“Always listening, milady.” Sameera replied.

“This is serious. Back then, when you collapsed in the hangar, and then when we were almost attacked by that demonic Diver, I was terrified for you. I– I really don’t want you to be so reckless again. I mean it. You can’t just– I don’t want– you to throw your life away.”

However she worded it, all Sameera heard, was that Dominika cared about her living.

For once she felt like she did not have perfectly recited words to say in response.

Her heart was hot and pounding hard in response.

“I’ll try. I guess I’ve never been too good at taking care of myself.” Sameera said.

“Well–” Dominika looked down at her plate, searching for the words–

She then leaned again, laying her head on Sameera’s shoulder. “You’re not alone either.”


In a part of C-block a few streets away from Dominika and Sameera’s sweet shop, the road curved around a small park, and there was a library building and a public school. In the park, library, school and the streets connecting them, a variety of kiosks, tents and other pop-up shops had gone up overnight. It was the seasonal market, a one-week open air festival of small batch textiles and handcrafts; rare collectibles like real, bound books; and fresh food made right on-site; and much more. It was a truly a focal point of station culture.

“Ahead lies our destiny, gamer–! I mean, Alex! Feast your eyes upon the sum of human endeavor! Treasures heretofore unseen arrayed for us to covet, and if our coin prove sufficient, we may yet lay claim to a king’s ransom of rare finery and culture goods–”

“–Thanks for calling me Alex every once in a while.”

Alexandra Geninov couldn’t help but feel blessed by this turn of events, however.

Her companion, Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa, looked so excited to be here.

Even if she wasn’t necessarily excited to be with Alex, she hadn’t refused the offer.

This was clear sign of progress. Alex only wished she could make a save file.

Out on the town, the two perennial night-shifters of the Pandora’s Box had dressed up in their best, and only, personal outfits for shore leave. Their styles clashed quite sharply.

Fernanda had dolled herself up, the shiny purple streaks going through her long, blond hair even more pronounced than before, and the purple lipstick and eyeshadow on her delicate face sparkling with a hint of glitter. Her light figure was wrapped in a black and dark purple synthetic dress, skin-tight from the neck to its long sleeves and filigreed bodice. Diamond-shaped sheer sections on the upper chest and belly whose tips met just under the breasts, added a tasteful amount of risqué flair. Those sheer sections composed of two diamonds of tight mesh fabric, meeting end to end, were also mirrored on Fernanda’s back, on her arms, as well as in the leggings that went with the dress. On the sections of the dress that were not partially see-through, silver faux-occult patterns had been laid over the fabric. These were also present in the dress’ short, flared skirt, worn over as a bottom piece.

Simply put– she was so fucking hot that it was driving Alex low-key insane.

Alex was nowhere near the level of Fernanda’s gothic chic. Nevertheless, as she walked the streets, she started to put on a bit of swagger. She liked to think she must have looked handsome, with her tall and gallant figure, wide-shouldered, long-limbed, slender; easily a head over Fernanda; as well as her mysteriously, exotically mixed race skin tone and silky brown hair, messily stuck up in the back of her head with a single claw hair clip.

Her fashion was near completely thrown together– just things that felt comfortable if she ever had to wear something other than a uniform. She had a pair of tight blue pants with a few rips on the knees and thighs, and a blue zip-up hoodie with a little 16-bit pixel art model of a ship on the back. She wore her hoodie half-unzipped and well off-shoulder; showing off some cleavage in addition by wearing an over-size, deeply plunging white v-neck underneath the hoodie, also falling off her nice shoulders and exposing tantalizing black bra straps.

“Is there anything specific you’d like to see?”

“I shall strategize once I have laid closer look to the goods. What about thine own interest?”

“Just browsing. But honestly, I just thought you’d like a place like this.”

“Oh ho! Perhaps a dew-drop of high culture has fallen upon the brows of this gamer?”

Fernanda made a smug little face and a dramatic little gesture with her hands.

At first Alex was a little repelled by Fern. She wasn’t going to lie to herself and think she always liked her. When she first saw her she thought she was a weirdo, and their first few shifts were tense. But the more she got to know her, working those long nights on the bridge, she started to think, Fern is kinda cute. Then, they started to live together, saw more of each other outside the bridge, and Alex thought, Fern is kinda hot.

Truly, Alex’s imagination had been very limited those few weeks ago.

Fernanda, as she stood on this day, was like, geothermal event levels hot.

Alex was hitting herself for fantasizing about everyone but her!

On the way to the market, in addition to trying to work up a bit of confidence in her own body language, Alex’s eyes examined the way Fern’s dress clung to her every contour and she felt like she had to say something. Everyone loved compliments, right?

And damn– Fernada was earning every second of Alex’s lascivious gaze.

As far as Alex was concerned, today her life was not a shoot-em-up or simulator, it was a storytelling game– clearly, she was locked into the “Fern” route. This event was her chance to make some moves and score some points with the roomie to turn things romantic.

She had to nut up and take the initiative. No coward strats— big dick moves only.

“Hey, Fern,”

“Uh huh?”

“You look h– I like your dress.”

Afraid of the commit, Alex cancelled into a much safer move, like a huge coward.

Fernanda looked her up and down with a neutral but appraising expression on her face.

Was it just Alex’s imagination or did Fern’s eyes just linger on her tits?

“Much appreciated– you have–” Fernanda paused. “You possess a rather easy presence.”

With twice as many words she said about as much of a compliment as Alex had.

Not much of one at all. They averted their gazes and got to walking.

Despite the awkwardness, the two of them headed into the market with smiling faces.

Fake stone paths dotted with a few synthetic trees made up the park, the turf grass easily exposed by the lack of quality lighting to maintain the illusions. None of the architecture was very impressive, despite its attempts to put on airs. False stucco on the library façade and the false colonnades fading into the walls of the school building, it all failed to impress.

It was the streets around these landmarks that now brimmed with life.

Hundreds of sellers had arrayed themselves in every open spot along the streets. Some had large tents filled with goods, others were selling out of the trunks of small electric vehicles, yet more had carts or simple plastic table-stands with their goods on offer.

There were all kinds of people selling, young and old, men and women.

All of them were Imbrian though– nobody had even as much skin tone on them as Alex.

“Gamer– I mean, Alex, prithee, accompany me first to the purveyors of textiles.”

“None of these strike me as erotic novel type stuff.” Alex said teasingly.

“I shall prove your insolence wrong in due time! But I wish to see everything on offer!”

Rather than ignore Alex’s lagging behind, Fernanda grabbed her suddenly by the arm and pulled her toward several stands and tents were shirts, carpets, sheets, and other such goods were on sale. Alex wasn’t just being surly for the sake of it: she had noticed common themes among the textiles on sale that clashed heavily with both her own sense of fashion and quite definitely with Fernanda’s fashion. It seemed the order of the day was geometric patterns, like diamond-shaped waves and squares within circles, or even fractal patterns.

All of which had either bright flat colors, or psychedelic arrays of many colors at once.

Upon looking at these tie-dye explosions up close, Fernanda barely restrained a grimace.

“Looking for a new welcome mat to lighten up your hallway? Or maybe a cute scarf or a drape to add flair to a new look?” A seller called out to them. “Our textiles all have super chic Shimii-inspired patterns! Teen girls love these nowadays! You would be on the cutting edge of the hip new styles no matter how old you are now! C’mon, take a closer look for yourself!”

Alex wasn’t sure she’d ever seen Shimii textiles with such garish colors before.

Fernanda and her both ignored the seller and continued walking.

“Dunno about you, but I’m not that interested in what teens are doing here.” Alex said.

“Concurred.” Fernanda said with a small sigh.

There was a decent amount of foot traffic along the streets and into and out of the school and library; a variety of food vendors around the street market were taking advantage of this. Alex kept an eye out for them, as she had begun to feel slightly peckish.

However, almost all of them were selling some kind of processed meat.

Hamburg steaks, chicken wings, candied bacon; there was meat to eat everywhere she turned, but nothing like Minardo’s cooking. Strictly speaking, they weren’t forbidden from eating meat, but they had been raised to find it wasteful, so it felt odd to do so.

Both of them stopped in front of a cart with a few things for sale they had never heard of.

“Pray tell, what form of comestible is ceg kofta?” Fernanda asked.

From behind the cart, the young woman scooped up a mass of red paste flecked with white and green bits and showed it to the two of them. It smelled strong and herbal, but upon seeing it, there was no denying that it was just meat. “This is raw lamb mashed with onion, garlic, green leek and spices. It’s a Shimii specialty, it’s becoming super popular. Ten marks per, want some? I’ll throw in some rose petal lemonade on the side for free!”

“Huh? It’s raw?” Alex frowned. “Won’t that just make us sick?”

The young kofta seller narrowed her eyes. “Of course not! Shimii eat this every day!”

“Then it shall be left with them, or your impression of them. Let’s depart, gam– Alex.”

Fernanda tugged Alex’s arm and led her away from the cart quickly.

She had a grossed-out look on her face.

Alex was beginning to fear the date venue had been a miscalculation on their part, but it started to turn around when she pointed out the jewelry vendors to Fernanda. Her eyes finally twinkled with delight. There were finally goods that came in purple and black and were much more her style. Hairpins shaped like raven’s feathers, necklaces with star-shaped purple gemstones of both ferristitched and slightly more authentic varieties, brooches and wristlets and earrings in sharp and wicked shapes and designs.

It was a bit more romantic than rainbow scarves and raw meat.

Fernanda drifted from seller to seller, smiling exuberantly at the pieces on display.

She looked so exceptionally beautiful when she was happy.

Alex had a corny, stupid, gay thought– she wanted to make Fern happier more often.

Maybe it’d do everyone some good to see that smile on the regular.

If I could save right here and just come back to this moment whenever I wanted.

It was time– Alex had been too passive. She needed to make a gamer move.

There was an opportunity, and she wasn’t about to let it pass unanswered.

“Hey, Fern, come look. I found something; try this on. I think it’ll suit you.”

Working up her courage, Alex picked up a little something from the table of a compliant vendor– a choker, with a lacy, partially see-through black band and a purple decoration in front that was the shape of a broken heart. As soon as she saw the piece, Alex knew she had to grab it. When Fernanda turned to look, she paused and stared, transfixed, at the object.

Alex thought she saw a bit of a blush on Fernanda’s cheek, and quietly undid the clip in the back of the choker, and presented it, as if to say, ‘want me to put it on you?’

“I’m surprised,” Fernanda said, after some hesitation. “You– You get it, gamer.”

“Hmm? I get it?” Alex grinned.

“I– I mean to suggest, you have demonstrated a refinement in taste hitherto unseen.”

A few moments’ hesitation, and she lifted her blond hair, shut her eyes and moved closer.

Alex’s heart began to thrash.

She had never seen Fernanda make herself so– vulnerable?

Basking in the unforeseen triumph, Alex neared, leaned forward, and slowly and gently wound the choker around Fernanda’s slim neck with the utmost care and tenderness and respect. She clipped the choker on the back and adjusted it. Her hands brushed against the soft skin of Fern’s shoulders and neck, felt the silky texture of her hair, and she was close enough to smell the darkly sensuous perfume that her witch had applied for the occasion.

She could have pounced on her– oh god. Dangerous thoughts. Reel them back in.

“Oh yeah. I’m buying it.” Alex said to the vendor. She handed them a few bills.

Fernanda looked she was going to scoff out of habit at this unasked for favor–

–but she caught sight of herself in the vendor’s mirror and paused to take it in.

“It– it does look– it flatters my countenance to an acceptable degree. I will wear it.”

“It’s amazing on you. You’re amazing, Fern.”

Without thinking, she had found herself saying something far more blatant than before.

For a moment Alex expected Fern to flinch and kick her shin in disgust, or something.

“Hah. Never was it in doubt. My nymph-like beauty is without equal among mortals.”

Instead, Fernanda turned a conceited smile on Alex and walked away with a haughty air.

There was a second where Alex felt kind of stupid. Like she had been tricked somehow.

Then her heart felt lighter. She was happy; she was satisfied.

She loved seeing Fern like this. It wasn’t a contest– it wasn’t a competitive game.

Fernanda was smiling. She was smiling too. It was nice– it wasn’t perfect, but it was nice.

They were having a good time, all things considered.

Three months ago, this would have been unthinkable. But they had been through a lot.

And now, Alex really felt like– she wanted Fernanda to like her– she felt that–

there was no one else she wanted to take those night shifts with than Fernanda.

Even if all they did was argue about dumb, pointless stuff. It was fine; if it was with her.

But does she like me back? She’s been acting pretty flirty if I think about it.

Maybe Alex just had to be the sexy biracial gamer chick of her dreams!

Maybe it was that easy!

Alex waved goodbye to the vendor out of sheer personal exuberance and followed along behind Fernanda with a renewed energy. She had never felt this way about anyone, and she thought she liked it. Whatever status ailment she had been inflicted with, she hoped it wouldn’t go away soon. Everything felt so easy now, and she was no longer so anxious about displeasing Fernanda. She thought a successful date was essentially already locked in.

“Do you think they have any video games here?” Alex asked, with a big, cheery smile.

Fernanda glanced over her shoulder at her. “Mayhaps you’ll find the rare handicrafted memory card of a departed old matron, boasting bespoke digital entertainments heretofore unseen, lovingly stitched pixel by pixel over a centenary of teacups and porridge bowls.”

Her voice was thick with sarcasm, and Alex loved it too. Berate me more, princess!

And what was that she saw? Was that a little smile playing on Fernada’s purple lips?

There you go! You’re winning, Alexandra Geninov! You’re finally winning!

Closer to the school and library, there were bigger tents with exactly what Fernanda was looking for. Shelves upon shelves of books– of course, none of them were real hardcover books. Instead, they had very thin screens within a smooth plastic shell containing a microcomputer wafer smaller than an ID card and similar in weight.

All it could do was display the book in its attached memory card. Single purpose reader devices were uncommon in the Union; almost all books in the Union were just library files that the station computer served to portables or room computers. In the Imbrium, however, books were bought and sold as limited, physical goods, hence the hardware.

Alex and Fernanda walked into a big tent, big enough to have a dozen shelves inside.

Each shelf was marked with the genre of books it contained, and in no time, Fernanda had shuffled over to the “Dark Romance” shelf. Because the books were so thin, there were hundreds and hundreds of them in each shelf. They were poorly labeled on the shelf itself, most of them unmarked, requiring that the book be picked up and booted up with the tiny buttons on the case, to determine what it was. Fernanda began looking through them.

“So, any steamy lesbian sex?” Alex asked, peering over Fernanda’s shoulder.

No immediate response.

And there she went– Fernanda’s eyes scanned across the lines of text one after another.

Her slender fingers swiped across the screen, turning page after page.

After a few moments, a slightly hoarse laugh escaped her lips.

Alex smiled and stood by, eventually picking up a random book herself.

Perhaps seeing her disengaging, Fernanda’s gaze lifted from her book for a brief moment.

“Gamer– Alex. You cannot reduce this literary juggernaut to such simplicity. Dark romance works are obsessed with the sadomasochistic relationships that can develop between the same sex. They are characterized by brooding protagonists, dark acts of sexuality, and bitter endings. Indeed, there is the unveiling of the sapphic flesh, but this is hardly the only appeal of these works. In the Union, these works are still largely the domain of enthusiast writing, but they appear to have been broadcast more widely in the Empire.” Fernanda said.

Indeed, after a few pages into the book Alex had picked up, there was already lesbian sex. A special agent who was infiltrating a Solceanos convent into order to sneak out the woman that she loved, who had been forced to hide there due to her political rivals; and she just couldn’t help but pause and get knuckle deep inside her girl before their escape–

Fernanda peered at Alex’s book, shut off her own reader and picked up a second sheet.

“You have come into possession of a future volume of ‘The Death of The Umbran Lilly’.” Fernanda said. “If you desire to assist me, help me collect the rest. I desire to obtain as many volumes as they have available. You’ll be pleased to hear I will allow you to carry them.”

“Uh huh. Or I guess I should say ‘as thou wisheth, o dark mistress’.”

“Hmph.”

Alex shut off the reader in her hands and started flipping through others.

Due to the lack of good labeling the two of them kept taking and putting back volumes as they looked. It was easy for Alex to think of this as some kind of mission and put her whole head into it. From what Fernanda gathered there were fifteen volumes.

“So lesbians aside, what kind of stuff do you look for in a series? Why this one?”

“Hah! To ask such a simplistic question of me. Of course, what else could I desire but to peer into the deepest depths of human desire and community? To explore the darkest and most enshadowed recesses of the spirit and expose the most turbulent angst contained therein?”

“I’m sorry but all that still sounds like you just want lesbians in it.”

“Hmph. Pray tell, what do you seek from your little video games, gamer?”

“Well, first priority is good gamefeel, like slick controls and mechanics.”

“Pah! Gamefeel. And you pretend my words mean nothing?”

Fernanda broke out into laughter. For a second Alex felt rebuked again.

But Fernanda seemed to be smiling still.

Alex started to become invested in finding all twenty-something volumes of ‘The Death of the Umbran Lilly’ in order to appease Fernanda, and quickly became absorbed in the task.

She would only tear her eyes from a book or shelf if she found one.

To the point that she did not notice a third individual making their way into the shelf.

And while being particularly dramatic with snatching a book from the shelf, elbowed them somewhere, and knocked the book they were reading right out of their hands. It felt like the noise of that book hitting ground was louder than any other sound in the entire station, overwhelmingly loud, drowning out Alex’s breathing, heartbeat, thoughts. She was immediately, completely embarrassed to have hit someone else, and crouched to pick up the book without a second to spare. Thankfully, the portable readers had padded corners.

“Agh! Oh, I’m such an oaf, I’ll get it for you–”

Crouching on the ground, picking up the portable that had fallen–

In front of a pair of thick, black boots, out of which long black tights emerged.

Alex’s eyes followed the tights up a pair of long and well-defined legs.

To black skirt and coat, worn over a black shirt. Long sleeves with red armbands.

One emblazoned with a stylized black sun, another with an eagle-like dragon.

Dark brown eyes looked down at her on the floor.

A bushy tail swung leisurely behind the figure.

Peeking out from around a beret were two tall, furry ears.

“Ah. Thank you. I was surprised too.”

She reached down a hand. Black gloves with a cuff bearing that same strange sun motif.

Alex recognized the symbols. The Commissar had made sure everyone knew them.

The Sonnenrad, a symbol of esoteric fascism; and the Reichsadler, imperial heraldry.

Judging by the armband, this woman–

–was an officer of the Volkisch Movement!

Alex had stricken a fascist officer!

I fucked up! I fucked everything up! You did it again you fucking loser Alex Geninov!

Shocked stupid, not knowing what to do, Alex took her gloved hand.

That woman easily pulled Alex back up to a stand, her grip confident and strong.

She was a Loup, Alex thought– shorter than her, with long, brown hair with neat, blunt bangs, fluffy ears and a bushy, bristly tail that wagged easily behind her. Her eyes were a dark, deep blue. She had an affable expression, but her gaze was so intense–

“I’m– I’m really sorry about all this! Really! It won’t happen again!” Alex said.

She stared straight into that cutting gaze, feeling eviscerated by its depth.

This woman, whose hand she was holding, could finish everything Alex cared about.

Her life; the mission; and– the love of her life–

“Please forgive us.” Alex mumbled.

At her side, Fernanda froze up, staring wide-eyed with her hands clutching a book.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Fellow enthusiasts of taboo literature, right?”

The Volkisch officer smiled and reached out a hand again, this time for a shake.

Alex, still dumbstruck and anxious, shook it, perhaps a bit too vigorously.

“Um. Alex.” She said, by way of introduction.

“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Alex handed her back the book that had been dropped.

It visibly shook in her nervous grip.

Aatto caught on and wagged a finger.

“Oh I’m so sorry. I understand– please don’t worry. I’m just a paper pusher, I’m not here for the ‘zeal and glory of the National Proletariat.’” She said the slogan in a deeper, mocking voice. “Just pretend like I’m anyone else here. You’ve got a bunch of ‘Umbran Lilly’ right? I can recommend it. Though I prefer stories that have kingdom-building elements.”

She reached across from Alex and picked up another book from the shelf.

It was the last volume they were looking for.

Aatto handed it to a demure Fernanda.

“Of course, there’s not much to spoil, the name of the series says it all. Nevertheless, it is a truly intriguing little tale.” Aatto says. “I think the imagination on display can excite both dabbler and connoisseur alike with its audacity. Even though our heroine must die for the sake of the morality laws– her journey takes some incredible turns. I only wish that women such as these were allowed to live out their conquests to the fullest. Anyway. Enjoy it.”

Alex and Fernanda speechlessly took the books.

Aatto meanwhile turned back to the shelf and picked up a different book to peruse.

While periodically staring at Aatto as if she would pounce if they ignored her for too long, they grabbed one of the bags left in the aisles for prospective customers, put all their books in it, and bid silent leave from the Volkisch officer. The entire time Alex was around her, she waited for the other shoe to drop. Would there be someone in one of the shelves closer to the front of the tent, ready to tackle them to the ground? Would there be a tactical team outside that would immediately fill them with lead for buying perverted books?

Outside the tent, the pair found themselves unmolested in the middle of the street.

Except by the amount of money it cost to buy 20 volumes of lesbian erotica.

They both looked back over their shoulders into the tent, to see if Aatto was watching.

Nothing. She must have still been perusing the dirty books in the back.

Fernanda and Alex heaved a sigh of relief, leaning into each other.

“We should seize the march.” Fernanda said. “Before we bequeath opportunities to fate.”

She thrust the bag of books into Alex’s chest, urging her to carry it.

They left the open air market, Alex’s breathing still troubled by the fright in the book tent. After stealing away into the wide open streets of C-block, putting several corners between them and the open-air market, the two of them slowly began to take lighter steps.

There were no snipers or barricades or armored cars.

Alex was the first one to laugh, but Fernanda soon joined her.

“She was just a paper pusher– dressed like that? What kind of department has a ‘judge, jury and executioner’ style dress code?” Alex said. “And she’s into gay porn? I can’t deal with it.”

“Envision joining a sapphic reading group only to find that in your meetings.” Fern said.

Both of them guffawed openly on the street for a moment.

“God. I’m starving. We should find a place we can actually eat at.” Alex finally said.

“I’m afraid I must concur. Without replenishment, you’ll soon have to carry me too.”

Fernanda glanced at Alex as if looking for a response– and smiled when Alex laughed.

Farther down the street, they found about the only place where they were guaranteed to get something vegetarian– a fruit bar, serving a variety of smoothies and drinks. Rather than actual fresh fruit, which would have been prohibitively expensive, the venue was dominated by several rows displaying different cartridges of stitcher material to mix together.

Fruits were processed toward the creation of flavor bases, syrups, creams, and fibers, contained in small transparent cylinders that would be fed into the smoothie machine. Guests could choose any combination, for different flavors, colors and textures.

This was a shop after Alex’s own heart.

In the Union, fresh fruit was exceedingly hard to get. Fresh food was so precious it was the main perk of farming– getting to have any fresh fruit and veggies at all was a highly desirable perk. Every unit of food grown in the Union that was bound for cafeterias, schools, workplaces and community pantries, was immediately processed into a product that would last longer and be transportable. Everything was dried, milled, pulped or pickled; only a few whole fruits were frozen for consumption in near-original form, and these were rare goods often bound for the navy or as some kind of prize or bonus for outstanding citizens.

Alex was quite used to eating stuff like this– smoothies made by stitcher machines.

It was easy to eat, pretty tasty, and it conferred a hit of sugar for a late night gaming boost.

There were some unfamiliar fruits on offer, however. One of the perks of Empire.

“What are you getting?” Alex asked Fern.

Fern grinned to herself. “I aspire to compose a drink that evokes the midnight shadow.”

“You’re getting purple stuff. Got it.”

“Hmph.”

Alex was throwing stones from a glass house, as her drink was essentially “green stuff.”

Because of all the shelves, there was no indoor seating in the fruit bar, but the establishment had put up a few tables and chairs in an adjacent alleyway for customers to leave the street. The pair sat down under a white umbrella and sipped their smoothies in disposable plastic mugs, taking in the somewhat stale air of the district and catching their breath.

Fern’s drink did look surprisingly tempting with its deep purple hue and swirl of a brighter purple syrup. Alex’s was monotonously green and somewhat fibrous, but the strongest flavor was a sweet berry syrup that had been run through the drink along with cream.

Fernanda extended her hand toward Alex, the smoothie cup in her thin fingers.

“Perchance a sip, gamer? You’ve been eyeing it constantly.”

Alex leaned forward and took a sip from the plastic straw.

This prompted an explosion of sweetness onto her tongue she was not really prepared for.

She could vaguely taste something starchy, maybe beet? And something like grapes?

“Wow.” She said. “It’s really purple.” She cocked a grin.

Fernanda retracted her hand. She looked down at her drink.

There was a brief moment of hesitation before she put her lips on the straw and continued to drink as she had been. Alex thought nothing whatsoever of this moment.

She did think, seated across from Fernanda, that they hadn’t really gotten a chance to really sit down and talk about things that were not work related. She felt really curious–

she knew all these things that Fernanda liked and did–

–but how much did she know about Fernanda herself?

“Hey, Fern, where are you from?” Alex asked. “I don’t think you’ve ever said.”

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at Alex and sipped more from her drink.

“Is it security stuff? You can answer a bit quiet can’t you? No one’s listening.” Alex said.

“It’s not that.” Fernanda put down her drink. “It is simply neither pertinent nor interesting.”

“I’m interested.” Alex said. “I mean, if you wanna talk boring, I’m just from Mt. Raja.”

Fernanda’s eyes drifted away from Alex. Her body language noticeably softened.

“Sevastopol.” She said simply. “I was raised in Sevastopol. Then I joined the navy.”

“Couldn’t find a way to make that sound fancy?” Alex said in jest.

“My life simply wasn’t fancy.” Fernanda replied seriously.

Alex noticed the shift in her behavior and tone and felt slightly alarmed by it.

It was uncharacteristic– she felt like she was fumbling the run at the last second and needed to recover to post a good score. Like before, she thought she needed to appease Fern again.

“Oh. Sorry. I mean– I don’t think you need to be self-conscious. I’m just a huge loser, you know? I wasn’t the smartest kid, my parents didn’t like me, like– if we compare childhoods, I’m probably way more embarrassing. But– I think anything you say is probably really interesting! So you don’t have to worry! I’m just a gamer after all, I won’t judge you!”

She smiled and shrugged and tried to look like she was sounding funny when she wasn’t.

She was just motor mouthing without aim and sounding pathetic. And yet she continued.

“Sevastopol is a big shipbuilding station isn’t it? Did that make you want to go Navy?”

Fernanda’s averted gaze slowly drifted back toward Alex– and softened slightly.

“I just wanted an adventure.” Fernanda said. “Sevastopol was too straightforward.”

“Yeah. I kinda wanted that too.” Alex said. “I guess more like. An escape, maybe.”

“Yes. Life could use more adventure, don’t you think? More romance; more mystery.”

“Oh, for sure, for sure. You know, you got that mysterious girl stuff down real good.”

“You think so? Well– I’m not displeased to hear it, I suppose.”

Fernanda averted her gaze again, resting her chin on the back of her hand.

Alex started drinking from her smoothie again to keep herself from talking any more.

Shit did I fumble everything like this? At the finish line?!

Both of them were silent for several minutes while their cups started to drain.

“Alex. Um.”

Fernanda broke the silence. Twiddling her fingers. Eyes avoiding contact.

She cleared her throat.

When she began speaking again, she had returned to her previous tone of voice. “You were a most amusing traveling companion on this excursion. It would not trouble me if, perhaps, were we to trod upon a new shore– if we could reprise this kind of event.”

Alex couldn’t help but beam brilliantly in response. “Of course, my mistress of the dark.”

“However, I must insist upon one oath from you.” She said.

“Um, sure,” Alex blinked, confused.

Fernanda put down her cup and looked at Alex in the eyes.

“Self-effacing ill becomes you. Making sport of you is my exclusive domain.” She said.

Alex stared, momentarily dumbfounded.

Once she understood the meaning of Fernanda’s words– she almost wanted to cry.

“Ah, yeah.” She replied, feeling bashful and stupid and elated. Everything was mixed up.

I’m being such an idiot, but– God she’s so fucking cute.

Alex thought, there was no sugar-coating it anymore.

She really was in love with Fernanda, huh?

No changing routes now, gamer– she really was seeing this one through to the end.

As anxiety-inducing and weird and kinda cringey as everything felt to her–

–it also felt amazing.


“We’re going to drink. They have plenty of beers here. Order some. I’ll cover it.”

Khadija explained the situation serious and unsmiling in their private booth.

Sieglinde Castille stared at her from across the table. She blinked several times.

“Miss– Ma’am–”

“It’s Khadija. Don’t ma’am me. And don’t dare call me the Lion of Cascabel.”

“I wasn’t going to–”

“I’m not drinking alone. I’ve drank alone enough. If I’m drinking, you’re drinking.”

“We were just going to play Mahjong?”

Khadija leaned in closer, a smile playing across her glossy, fuchsia-colored lips.

“It’s a game bar. We’re playing a game, and drinking. Order up.”

Her diction was slow and threatening, her expression belabored in spelling each word.

“One of us should remain sober.” Sieglinde said. Her voice trembled.

“I’m not letting you be more sober than me.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“You’re ridiculous. Everything about you is ridiculous. You want to talk to me? Drink.”

“Isn’t it against your religion?”

“I’m good over here. I won’t be having wine. Neither will you. Now pick a drink.”

“I’ve– I’ve been trying to remain sober.” Sieglinde said. She averted her eyes.

Khadija put on a sadistic smile. “Whatever streak you had going, it’s broken. Drink.”

Sieglinde Castille looked finally defeated.

How could she object?

How dare she even think, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’

She knew full well what she had done to deserve it. In her own mind, Khadija was sure she could heap any kind of abuse upon Sieglinde and it would be justified in the final calculus of their lives. Making her drink didn’t even rank among the punishments Khadija thought to subject the former Red Baron to for the terrors she had caused. Condemning her to be less morose for one night? Giving her a bit of liquid courage to help her discuss her sins? Hell– God forbid, maybe they might even get so fucked up as to have some fun.

Woe be upon her– she could endure this much.

“Fine. Fine.” Sieglinde sighed. “I’ll have a Katzbalger. Or– a few, I suppose.”

“What a proletarian choice! I think I’ll start with some rum punch.” Khadija said.

Ever since Sieglinde’s defection, Khadija had not known what to do with herself.

There was something deeply perverse about her old enemy switching sides.

She didn’t blame captain Korabiskaya for being merciful. If Khadija had wanted Sieglinde dead, she had her chance, and she did not take it. In the middle of battle, Khadija had decided that she did not deserve to die. On some level, that had to mean burying her grudge, but she was not able to do so. She continued to nurse an animosity toward her.

It was easy to keep carrying on as she had been.

Things that were easy to carry on doing weren’t always right, however.

There was no avoiding it forever. She wasn’t a little kid with a playground rivalry. There was no teacher who was going to sit them down and make them hash things out. Khadija needed to confront what kind of woman Sieglinde Castille had become in A.D. 979. Not twenty years ago, but now, when they were both old and Khadija had settled their affair. Sieglinde had defected, and even given opportunity, she was not using it as a pretext to escape.

She was demure and compliant. She was abundantly courteous. She seemed sincere.

Khadija had won their brawl out at sea, and she was being graceful in victory.

She would give Sieglinde something of a chance. To determine how they would live.

So– what better way to break the ice than to have a drink and play some Mahjong?

Whether in the Empire or Union, it was not hard to find bars like the one they were in.

As soon as they walked through the door, it was a long hall with individual rooms, and somewhere in the back there was a kitchen. Each room had plush booth seats and a convertible table. This particular bar encouraged guests to play games while they drank and ate light snacks– but it also probably didn’t mind them doing other things too. An inexorable part of living in a station was that most people had a very small amount of personal space, and it was difficult to be private with someone without inviting them into that personal space. Venues where two persons could be private without necessarily being personal were a necessary middle place for people like Khadija. Access to alcohol didn’t hurt either.

Aside from the red upholstery of the seats, the room was pretty spartan and sparsely decorated. Grey walls, white lights, a table with multiple folding ends. There was a touchpad on the wall that could change the color of the lights, the climate of the room, and play music. Khadija chose to play a channel of gentle acoustic guitar tracks, though every so often the computer threw in some other similar music unasked for. Under the booth seats, there were boxes that contained cards and game pieces for a variety of games.

Khadija withdrew the boxed set of pieces for mahjong, a rather deep game of colorful tiles.

“How much do you know about mahjong?” Khadija said.

“I’ve played it before. It’s from the Far East, isn’t it?” Sieglinde replied.

“Right. In the Imbrium, the game made its way to us from Hanwa, after the border wars.” Khadija said. She showed Sieglinde the pieces, which, in this Imbrian set, all had alphanumeric characters, rather than High Hanwan. “It’s an old game with many variants. Hanwa may have got it when they conquered Yu. It’s something that has been transferred, regrettably, through the violence of conquest, assimilation, and rivalry between empires.”

An uncanny prop for their dispute– but Khadija only chose it because she was bored of cards.

Khadija began to look through the tiles, checking to see if the set was actually complete.

“I learned about it in the army. I guess that figures.” Sieglinde said in a glum voice.

“Are you good at it?” Khadija asked.

Sieglinde shook her head. “Not at all.”

“Hah! Well. Of myself, I would say, I’m good enough for how I like to play.”

Low stakes gambling among drunk acquaintances, was the piece left unspoken.

While Khadija was going through the tiles, someone rapped on the door.

Through a slot, they had brought the first round of drinks. Sieglinde’s Katzbalger was a lightly decorated can of cheap beer with a cartoon of a dead cat on it, advertised as a low brow drink for salt of the earth Imbrian men. Khadija had been a little surprised that Sieglinde would order it. Meanwhile, her own can of rum punch was as bright and fruity as the contents were, garishly blue with a smiling, possibly drunk strawberry mascot.

Neither of them had dressed up for the occasion. They both wore the same teal half-jacket, and sleeveless button-down white shirt that characterized Treasure Box Transports. Sieglinde wore the uniform pants, while Khadija had a skirt and black tights. Wearing the same thing heightened the contrasts between them. Sieglinde was taller, broad-shouldered, her long mane of golden hair falling over her shoulders and back, almost down below the waist. Her sleek cheekbones and soft, slightly rounded nose gave her a slightly more traditional beauty. Khadija meanwhile was smaller, leaner, wiry, and her facial features were slightly sharper. She was perfectly manicured, lips wine-red, eyes perfectly shadowed the same color, lashes done, toner on her skin, where Sieglinde was unadorned. Khadija’s long hair was a shade of gold as well, but still different in texture and darker in tone.

And of course, Khadija’s fluffy ears, as perfectly manicured as the rest of her appearance.

Her bushy tail gently waved behind her, a sign of how calm she was.

“Here, this sheet has all the scoring rules and the hands on it.” Khadija said.

She set the sheet down off to the side of their play area, where both could reference it.

Then, she cracked open her can of rum punch, and stared expectantly at Sieglinde.

Looking glumly down at her can, Sieglinde popped the top as well. She took it in hand.

“A toast?” She proposed.

Khadija grinned. “Oh? I’d love to! You read my mind!”

They tapped their cans together, and then sipped from them.

Sieglinde took a much longer drink than Khadija, surprising the older Shimii.

When she put down her can again, the former noblewoman shut her eyes and groaned.

“What did we toast to?” Khadija asked.

Sieglinde lifted her can from the table again. “To peace.”

“Bah, childish and wishy-washy.” Khadija lifted her own can. “To struggle!”

She leaned across the table and tapped her can against Sieglinde’s a second time.

Then she downed the rest, as if to show Sieglinde how to really crush a can of liquor.

Meeting the silent challenge, the ex-baron downed the rest of her can on her next draught.

“There we go! That’s the spirit! Khoroshego!” Khadija laughed, raising her empty can.

Soon, the second round arrived, but this one was not so immediately thrown down.

“I thought Shimii were all very reserved and sober. Especially the women.” Sieglinde said.

“I’m a communist and communists can drink.” Khadija said. She watched Sieglinde’s dumbfounded expression and laughed out loud. “Look, there are many things I am supposed to avoid. But I’m not an ascetic. I’m a soldier with my vices. I still pray, I still fast. I do the things I grew up doing. And I fight like hell for others– if my soul ends up in the abyss for some drinking, I hope the many more souls I saved can live less broken lives than I.”

“I apologize for my impudent questioning. Yours a noble outlook.” Sieglinde said.

“No it isn’t. It’s not about ‘being noble.’ I’m fighting for my convictions.” Khadija said.

She felt immediately annoyed at Sieglinde’s reaction and started to shuffle tiles.

“To say you are ‘good’ or you are ‘noble’,” Khadija began, “it’s facile. You aren’t fighting for your soul. Your soul doesn’t matter to the world. Identify your enemy, call them for what they are, and fight what they do. Fascists, imperialists, they take the homes of people, starve them, and enrich themselves off their endless toil. I don’t fight them because it is ‘noble.’”

Sieglinde averted her gaze as if scolded and took another long sip of beer.

Khadija turned away from her again and started arranging the tile walls to begin.

“I don’t know what to say.” Sieglinde said. “I know what I did was evil.”

“You can start by not moralizing it.” Khadija grunted. “I don’t think you’re ‘evil’. Don’t make me stand up for you, for fuck’s sake.” She knew more than she let on. She had spied on Sieglinde weeping in the brig and knew exactly why she had been forced to fight in the war. But she couldn’t say that. “You were not evil, you were probably just young and ignorant.”

“I can’t excuse it anymore by saying I was just young and ignorant.” Sieglinde said. “I want to be better than that, Khadija. There were many times where I thought of running away, of refusing to serve, of doing anything– I never took them. I can’t see that as anything but evil. I willfully inflicted pain and furthered injustice, because it was easier than rebelling.”

“You want to be better? Why?” Khadija asked. “To save your immortal soul?”

“No!” Sieglinde cried out. “I just– I know I was doing wrong. I can’t carry on like that.”

“So it’s that simple? You realized you were ‘doing wrong,’ so now you must ‘do right’?”

“No. It’s– It’s more than that.” Sieglinde looked helpless to put it into words, however.

Khadija sighed, trying to reel back her own frustration. She was being too aggressive.

“Forget it. I’m done setting up the game. Take a sip and draw. Snacks will be here soon.”

Along with their drinks, a tray with a spartan assortment of snacks slid into the room through the same slot on the door. There was tough black bread, mixed pickled veggies and some hard cheeses. A final section had a dollop of coarse mustard and a dollop of sour cream, along with some empty space where perhaps sausages or other meat was supposed to be.

Khadija drew her hand of tiles. There was very little to work with. She was unlucky.

A mishmash of stuff. Maybe I get lucky and make a few sequences.

Neither of them spoke much as the game progressed.

Both of them were keeping dutifully closed hands, and discarding many tiles.

Khadija looked at Sieglinde between every play, but Sieglinde seemed to avoid her gaze.

Almost without interacting with each other, they came close to finishing their first hands.

“Taking it really seriously aren’t you? Relax. We haven’t even put down any bets.”

Sieglinde nodded her head with a wan expression. “Alright.”

“Poor start.” Khadija replied.

The former noblewoman reached for her latest beer and took a long drink.

She then set the can on the table with a bit of a strike.

“Khadija, what do you want from me? What can I do?” Sieglinde said, raising her voice.

“Play out this round.” Khadija replied simply, looking down at her concealed tiles.

Grunting, Sieglinde picked up her final tile and laid down her hand.

She had collected an entire hand of oak tree suit tiles, numbering one through nine.

Khadija revealed her own hand: still a mishmash of tiles that didn’t come together.

“You let me win?” Sieglinde asked.

“No. Don’t be so full of yourself. I got unlucky. It happens.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde Castille was a stupid and earnest girl with a lot of hurt in her heart. Khadija knew that already and it was evident to see, right in front of her tired old eyes. She knew Sieglinde was a 36 year old woman who had been shackled by a cruel and corrupting duty, in an evil place that never allowed her to learn otherwise, or to feel like she could possibly rebel.

But now she recognized it. There was no point in brutalizing her or punishing her.

Nothing Khadija did to Sieglinde would bring back the people she killed.

And she was already being crushed by that exact same idea herself.

In their fated clash at Goryk’s Gorge, Khadija killed Sieglinde von Castille, the Red Baron. Sieglinde Castille, the gloomy woman in front of her, was a shadow of that grand villain. She had the fight snuffed out of her, and now belonged to nowhere in the world, lost, broken and isolated. Maybe she didn’t know what she wanted; she certainly didn’t know what to do.

Khadija picked up the fifth bottle of rum punch and took a short sip.

She set it down on the table as hard as Sieglinde had set down her beer before.

“You want to know what I want from you? I’ll tell you then, but only this once! I want you to actually think about the kind of woman you want to be from now on! Not about whether you are ‘good’ or ‘evil’, whether you are doing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’! Think, concretely, about what you will do, what actions you will take, what kind of world you believe in. Believe in something and work towards that!” Khadija’s voice rose to a shout. “Stop living in the past! Neither of us can turn back the pages of what we’ve done! Start writing your story from today! If you become someone I detest, I promise I’ll strike you stone dead! But if you become someone worthy of praise, I will equally yield to it! That is what I want from you!”

Sieglinde’s eyes drew wide in front of Khadija, struck dumb by her shouted words.

Tears started to collect in those sad eyes.

Khadija grunted.

Stupid woman; act your age for once.

That was the cruel thought in her head because it was too odious to accept her simpering demands that Khadija lead her by the nose to redemption. Absolutely not, no way; make something of yourself first and impress those around you with those deeds. Impress me— that’s what Khadija wanted. Show me, how you have changed, show me that you can create a new legend for yourself. As someone who will fight rather than protect the oppressor.

Khadija wanted so strongly to believe that was possible.

She wanted to believe she had killed that Red Baron and freed Sieglinde from her.

But the directionless woman in front of her, begging for salvation– was not promising.

After a minute of silence, Khadija lifted her can of rum punch to her lips and emptied it.

She then started to shuffle the tiles again.

“Ya allah! Collect yourself. I won’t stand you winning one round and then leaving.”

Her gut was starting to burn from the booze, but she did not want things to stop just yet.

Sieglinde nodded her head and started to help with the shuffling.

“Are there any other games you know? Backgammon? Go? Poker?”

“I know a little bit of each. I’m not very good at any.” Sieglinde whimpered in reply.

“Ugh. You’re so boring. We must endeavor to change that.” Khadija replied, smiling a bit.

A shy little smile worked its way to Sieglinde’s face too.


“You’ve been scaring my customers all day. Got any good news to make up for it?”

“Heh. Yes. That last package has come and gone without incident. Off the grid.”

“Okay. Thank heavens. Past few months have been brutal. I’m glad she’s okay.”

In that same tent that Alex and Fernanda purchased a queen’s ransom of erotic lesbian literature, the nondescript older man who owned the same tent made to look at his remaining stock at the end of the first day of the market. In the back shelves, away from prying eyes, awaited Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, a Rottenfuhrer of the Sicherheitsdienst, Volkisch Intelligence. Odd was the Loup that sat behind a desk, and did not fight on the frontlines, but odd also was the Loup that did not flee to the Royal Alliance instead of remaining with Rhinea. Aatto was willing to remain behind that desk in a new uniform.

And so, Aatto stayed behind the same desk as when she was a part of the liberal Rhinean Navy, and nobody had yet to dispute this. The Volkisch needed all the specialists they could get to keep the state running, whether or not they were part of the Imbrian privileged class.

“What do the Liberals plan to do now?” Aatto asked. “Are they gearing up to fight?”

“You don’t need to know that. Thank you for your work, but– you don’t need to know.”

Even this man was terrified of her.

An informant who had helped smuggle out liberal politicians in danger of being purged by the Volkisch, and whom Aatto had assisted greatly in this endeavor. She had forged documents, faked dispatches, leaked communiques and staff orders, contacted mercenaries and faked ship inspections– but she was still despised for the uniform of a Rottenfuhrer.

She didn’t care one whit about that. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her.

But she needed to know. Was someone finally going to challenge the Volkisch?

Was the fated battle to resolve the contradictions of Rhinea finally at hand?

“If they will fight, I will gladly assist. In any capacity. Please let me know.” Aatto said.

All she wanted to know was whether the Liberals could light the Flame of History.

Whether they were strong enough to fully seize power on the pyre of their enemy’s bodies.

For a moment the man stared at her quizzically. He then turned his entire head away.

“Are you crazy? No. They can’t challenge the Volkisch. They’re just gonna lay low.”

Aatto’s eyes narrowed, her tail straightened, her ears folded, with great displeasure.

It was as if a trance, a delusion she had been under, suddenly shattered in front of her.

As if the entire weight of reality was forcing itself back through her head.

Unworthy. All of them are unworthy. The liberals, the Volkisch, the Imbrian Empire. All of them will recede into the shadow of history with nary a cry. Disgusting. Worthless. Pathetic. Where is the grand trial in which we will finally determine the course of history? Must we continue to limp along in fruitless detente? Feckless cowards watching the clock freeze from afar–

The shopkeeper caught a glimpse of the sheer hatred on her face from the side of his eyes–

But clearly, when he turned to look, she had the same little grin that she always did.

Utterly collected and calm, her expression betraying little emotion.

“Then I’m afraid that will be the end of my services. I see no point in risking my life for others any further if the opportunity will lead to nothing. We must part ways now.” She said.

“What? I mean– fine. I can’t begrudge you that. Thank you. You saved many lives, Aatto.”

Aatto grunted and shoved past him and out of the tent, gritting her teeth.

Saving lives? I couldn’t care less. I thought all of you had some god damn spine.

Where was it now? Her grand spark, her glorious conflagration? Her end of history?

Where can I find someone with the potential to create a new world?

Or even– someone who could even see the possibility of a new world before their eyes.

Her true and worthy King to set the world on its rightful course.

Would the currents lead her to the one she desired to serve?


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.7]

Kreuzung’s Tower Two was an enormous supplemental seaport.

It was one of Kreuzung’s oldest support towers.

Even from the exterior one could tell apart the numerous seams for the closed steel doors to its berths. Originally it had been designed to accommodate a dozen cargo super-haulers that had become the Empire’s workhorse transport ships during the colonization period. Each of these vessels was almost the size of a station tier, so an entire tower was needed to accept them, unload their cargo, repair and maintain them, and send them back on their way.

Gradually, super-haulers began to disappear from the oceans around Kreuzung.

Not only because of the recent turmoil– since the Fueller dynasty took power, the Newtype Tower V station, much smaller and humbler than its predecessors, had become the leading form of architecture in the Imbrium. Any new station was a macro-stitched Newtype Tower V with an adjacent Nautilus II Separated Seaport block attached to the tower by tube trams. Sometimes a few small towers were linked to the seaport block, expanding capacity and creating a station complex. Each of these towers was roughly 2/3 the size of one of Kreuzung’s supporting towers, but depending on the interior configuration, they could squeeze almost as many people in poorer accommodations that were cheaper to maintain.

Huge stations like Kreuzung would never be built again. Perhaps in time only the rich would afford living in them, with all the poor segregated to smaller towers. At any rate: massive ships with the capacity to carry mind-boggling quantities of materials to a remote worksite were largely unneeded. This shift then led most current high-capacity seaports to convert many of their enormous berths to support the docking of multiple smaller vessels, increasing capacity for cheap to achieve greater profit on space they already had. While this came at the expense of the quality of service and safety at those berths, there was no turning back. Tower Two still hosted much of the Kreuzung Complex’s freight processing, but it was now also the most accessible seaport for private yachts and luxury cruise ships, ambulant resorts, and other kinds of pleasure vessels unwilling to deal with security in the Core Station.

On the tower’s northeastern side, a berth opened to allow a simple cylindrical vessel to exit the seaport and begin its journey. It was a workhorse private transport craft about fifty meters long and thirty wide, built for endurance and safety over looks, like a metallic-blue crate with hydrojets leaving streams of bubbles and distorted water in its wake. It climbed out of the Kreuzung crater and maintained a stable course close to the ground, over the rocky, sandy surface of the surrounding seafloor. It navigated away, bound north-west.

On its side, there was a stylized logo, depicted as if long beams and bolts of blue could be seen shining at acute angles across the cursive lettering that read: Raylight Beauty.

“Once we’re out of Kreuzung’s jurisdiction, set up an encrypted line to Aachen.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Use the Gladbach relay, not Kreuzung’s. Monitor the connection closely.”

“Understood.”

Kremina Qote left the crew behind and retired to her VIP quarters in the middle of the ship. Like the ship itself, it was not anything too extravagant. But it was private; she had her own bed, a door she could lock, her own desk, her own monitor to work with. She could be reasonably certain that nobody would interfere with her affairs, and she could shut out the world outside. Nobody would hear her. There were no adjacent accommodations.

She sat down on her bed and looked down at her own shoes.

Her jaw tense. Fist opening and closing.

By all rights, she had completed the mission that she had been given.

She had been sent to Kreuzung to meet with Solarflare LLC, but upon discovering the presence of Nagavanshi’s little guerilla mission, she was instructed to send them to Aachen, to join the United Front against the Volkisch. Redirecting them away from their suicide mission to Buren was necessary and useful, and their mission profile already included helping any resistance movements they found along the way. After all, that originally had been Daksha’s desire which Nagavanshi just twisted out of shape under clauses and subclauses, as she always did. No one could judge Kremina derelict on the basic facts of her mission. Not Gloria; not Daksha herself. Kremina had secured their assistance as instructed.

However, she had failed in her own personal goal.

As soon as she heard of the Brigand, she both feared and coveted their assistance.

She was of two minds approaching them, and she tried her best to navigate it– but–

Kremina did not account for the stubborn desire of the Brigand’s officers to remain free of Daksha’s command at any cost. Then she was completely blindsided by the nature of their alliance with that upstart Erika Kairos. She was not satisfied with simply putting them on course to Aachen. Kremina had wanted to either control them or sideline them politically. After they made their intentions not to join Kansal clear, diverting them to the Rotfront should have been the end of all her problems. But now Kremina was not sure about the rigor of her previous logic anymore. The Rotfrot was perhaps more ascendant than she thought possible. They had managed not just to ally with the Brigand, but to completely annex them.

Ulyana Korabiskaya could introduce new possibilities into the ecosystem at Aachen.

Erika Kairos could become more than a junior partner in the United Front.

Daksha Kansal’s influence could be explicitly upset by the Brigand’s actions.

And in fact– it could even be Ulyana Korabiskaya’s aim to overthrow her entirely.

“Daksha– what are you thinking–?”

When Daksha left the Union in the hands of that insipid idealist Ahwalia and that utilitarian brute Jayasankar, Kremina had followed dutifully because she believed in her. She owed her life and allegiance to Daksha Kansal. Only Daksha Kansal had the correct line– only she had the vision to save these troubled seas from themselves. Leaving the Sunlight Foundation had been the right move. Leaving the Union could have been a smart play as well.

Now though– Kremina was not so sure what Daksha was trying to do anymore.

That doubt, which she was so unfamiliar with, scared her utterly.

It scared her so much, that it made Ulyana Korabiskaya’s words feel like a threat.

A threat to an edifice that should have been impregnable, indestructible.

“Kremina? I’m glad you called. I’ve been worried about you. Gloria’s been saying things.”

At the appropriate time, the crew connected their vessel via laser to the Gladbach relay. Rhinea had the most developed inter-station network in all of the duchies. In addition to direct connection to the relays, there were many relay buoys that could be used to develop stable connections to the inter-station network even while in transit. Therefore, the ship could continue to travel at a relatively breezy speed, while the picture of Daksha Kansal, speaking in real time, hardly ever shifted in quality on Kremina’s screen.

She was beautiful– the most beautiful woman Kremina had ever seen.

Her long brown hair, even as it began gently fading to white; the sharpness of her eyes, even as the crow’s feet began to form in the corners; her easy smile, the warm color of her skin, even as the wrinkles had begun to appear; the figure of an adventurer, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, yet looking professor-like in her mock turtleneck and synthetic jacket. These days she wore bell-bottomed vinyl pants and heeled shoes, perhaps the influence of the fashionista now under her wing. These weren’t visible on the call, but Kremina knew.

Daksha was always visible in her mind, and in her mind she was always perfect.

She was beautiful– but she was also aging. Another thing Kremina did not understand.

Kremina never achieved immortality. She only delayed her own aging by a feeble amount through the use of exotic chemicals she no longer had access to. She was growing old too.

Daksha Kansal did not have to grow old, like her.

Daksha Kansal was one of the Immortals, and yet, she threw it all away too.

“How are you? Gloria is not upset with you, but I’m not happy about what she’s told me.”

Kremina’s eyes snapped out of the dream-like reverie of seeing her old master once more.

“I am not here because I value Luxembourg’s esteem.” Kremina replied. “Look, Daksha, I did what you asked. Nagavanshi’s pawns are now on their course to Aachen. Whatever else– was a product of their choices. All I did was give them information and set up contacts for them.”

Daksha smiled. “You can’t pretend as if that last episode with them didn’t happen.”

“I lost my temper. It’s irrelevant. They were never going to join us anyway.”

“I was never concerned about whether or not they would join us.” Daksha said. “I’m happy if it’s just you and me and then our allies. Now I’m afraid they might have the wrong idea and think that we set out to antagonize them. That might lead to unnecessary friction later.”

“Daksha, they should join you! You should throw your weight around more!”

Kremina was in a mood– so she let slip a little more than she usually would.

“Ah. I think I see what’s going on.” Daksha said. “Kremina–”

She felt like she had been scolded and it embittered her. “I know– I know–”

“Clearly you don’t.” Daksha said. She was not mad. She was giving Kremina a fond look, like long distance lovers catching each other’s gaze. Despite this, her words were firm. “Kremina. I deeply treasure you. This is why you’re the only person who is indispensable to me and the only person I trust to represent me. But this time, you went out of line– it is my fault, for not giving you a clearer vision of my goals. But the fact remains. You cannot conquer the Ocean for Daksha Kansal by yourself, in my stead– I don’t want you to do anything like that.”

Despite the soft delivery, Kremina still felt so stung. She couldn’t understand it!

“Daksha,” she was almost tearing up, “Why– why are you choosing to die?”

Any foolish or vain action on Daksha’s part was excusable if she was immortal.

That she was aging, that her time in the world was limited, made everything more urgent.

Kremina’s conversations with Ulyana Korabiskaya finally laid bare feelings of grief and anxiety that she had been burying for so long. Ulyana dared to say she could challenge Daksha Kansal. Because Daksha was no longer as powerful and invincible as she once was.

That open wound the audacious Captain unknowingly ripped open, now bled profusely.

Onto that room on the UNX Brigand, onto this ship and onto the screen.

“So that’s what this is about then.” Daksha said.

“Of course it is. Nothing makes sense because of that.” Kremina replied.

Daksha smiled again and took the tone of a professor delivering a lecture.

Kremina was left so speechless by the sudden turn in their discussion, she did not interrupt.

“Do you really know about the Immortals, Kremina? You never were allowed to be part of the inner circle, even though you were so devoted to me. You don’t know how each of them found their own immortality. Yangtze, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Potomac, Hudson and myself, formerly, Ganges. All of us are esteemed as geniuses who defeated death, but that is entirely empty techno-utopianist rhetoric. You don’t know the truths; I’ll tell you.”

When she spoke of them, Daksha betrayed a certain fondness as if telling old war stories.

“Yangtze cheated death by combining biomechanics with the Pelagis Process, allowing her to grow backup bodies in vats which receive a digitized education in the form of her memories, implanted into the biomechanoid brain of the new body. When I saw the results, as much as I wanted to work with her– seeing a new Yangtze born– it horrified me so much.”

She averted her gaze. “Meanwhile Potomac keeps herself eternally youthful and alive through her discoveries in pluripotent stem cell therapy and surgery. She grows and discards organs as needed. I can’t fault her for it– but it did make me question things. Same with Hudson. Hudson doesn’t purge her body of unwanted organs with new ones; rather, she has replaced her entire body with immortal cybernetics. And yet, she still longs for even more.”

Kremina continued to listen, her heart shaken and reeling with the weight of those words.

“Nile is infected with a cocktail of horrific and rare diseases. She did not choose to be infected with them, but the end result has kept her body alive for over a hundred years and counting; but if they are not controlled, she is a living apocalypse waiting to happen. Being infected with one of the diseases and not all would result in excruciating death, not immortality. She knows this and is ready– to take steps– should it ever be required.”

A dire and clumsily put insinuation.

“As for Euphrates herself,” upon mentioning her, Daksha sighed openly, “Euphrates is the only really Immortal person out of all of us. But she didn’t ask to be that way, Kremina. She was never so power-hungry. She was just born with some kind of condition. People, when she was born, where she grew up– they didn’t understand it. She was a medical guinea pig. It took the collapse of the surface world for her exploitation to end. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen her really vulnerable– I saw it when she baptized me with aether– an insinuation of the things they did to her.” Daksha kept pausing every so often and kept hanging on her words. Kremina knew this was all difficult for her to say. She sat astonished by it.

“Because of what I saw, I never asked her about the surface and I never will. Meanwhile, Tigris, she was a miracle for Euphrates. She imperfectly inherited Euphrates’ disorder through a spinal fluid transfusion. Her regeneration was enough to save her life. It was also the only time I have seen Euphrates so quickly disavow her own ethics. She must have really been madly in love. I thought, back then, we needed Immortality to safeguard our goals.”

Daksha shut her eyes. “So finally, there is me. You’ve extended your life a little bit, Kremina, but never found immortality. You don’t have Potomac or Yangtze’s technology, so all you could do is make yourself a little healthier. I don’t judge you for that– we influenced you after all. I influenced you. I was an Immortal. I found a way to prolong my life.”

Kremina hung on every word, eyes drawn wide, lips shut tightly together.

“Kremina, pay attention to the wages of my sin, and my greatest shame.”

She watched Daksha Kansal raise her hand in front of the screen, palm up.

King’s Chalice.

With trained precision, Kremina reacted, faster than thought.

Oracle’s Voice.

Red rings around both their eyes, as Kremina began to see in terms of auras, vectors, and other psionic phenomena in response to Daksha’s invocation. Kremina had never achieved the second and third gifts, but she knew about psionics and knew enough to protect herself as best as she could and dissect attempts to influence her. She could see that Daksha’s palm was not barren as it would be to the eye of an untrained person.

Instead, there was a flame dancing on her palm.

White and black flame that flickered with an eerie warmth.

From multiple directions as if drawn out of the walls, the little flame coalesced in her hand.

It had a soft texture, to Kremina’s eyes, and it gave her an almost nostalgic feeling, as if it was a pitiable little thing that deserved coddling. For Daksha to hold it, she had to focus black and white aura in halves over her own palm. Manipulating these types of aura was a skill that required a lot of emotional control. Black aura was the aura of death, the despair of mortality or the desire to kill, and trying to deliberately channel it could cause the user to lose control or succumb to perverse intentions. Meanwhile, White aura was often associated with the sublime, or the eldritch, or even with pure insanity. It was a sight beyond human that very few could actually experience. Daksha was unequaled when it came to Aetherics.

As Kremina observed the little flame, she also thought that she heard–

–voices, voices that sang of memories, and a glow in which Kremina could see figures,

and Daksha’s skin, illuminated by the ghosts,

lightening, hair brightening, crow’s feet softening, appearing as herself of yesteryear

beautiful, angelic until

her palm closed snuffing out the little life

aging and weakening again before shock-wide eyes–

Kremina teared up, her voice trembled. “Daksha. That is– is that–”

“It’s human life, Kremina. I used Aetherics to steal life from others for myself.”

When Daksha’s psionics dispelled, Kremina watched as the little flame of humanity she had gathered, presumably from people outside the room she was in, from people in the halls, maybe even from Gloria somewhere in the distance– all of it dissipated and began to trail back to where it was taken. Daksha had refused to absorb it into her own aura, and therefore she aged again, and again lost the gift of immortality, those black and white traces of life.

“Do you understand now, Kremina? Do you understand my change of heart, why I had to let go of the Union, of my power? Do you understand why, for my convictions, for the things I want others to believe, it is necessary that I became mortal? That I stop pursuing the same path that Yangtze and Potomac are on? That I age and die? It is important to me, Kremina, to be humble now. To lower my head to others. I became mortal because I must die. Clinging to the world has had perverse effects on my life. I have to let go in order to let others rise up.”

Kremina laid a hand over her mouth and shut her eyes, weeping.

“I know that this is galling to you. I’m sorry that I can’t be all-powerful for you.”

“No, Daksha.”

She stared into the eyes of her mentor, her lover, the colossal figure of all she believed in.

“I’m sorry.” She said. She didn’t try to equivocate it. She didn’t say anything more.

She was sorry. She understood. She had been wrong. She had been completely wrong.

All this time Daksha had carried such a horrendous burden, and Kremina never knew.

“We’ll talk more when you come back.” Daksha said. “I esteem you greatly, Kremina.”

Kremina nodded silently. She felt unbearably foolish and short-sighted.

“I’ll smooth things over with Ulyana Korabiskaya and her crew, and with the Rotfront. Don’t worry about that now. Please think about what I told you and reflect.” Daksha said.

“I will. Thank you. Please take care, Daksha.”

“Of course. I will be here for you.”

Daksha disappeared from Kremina’s screen, leaving a void reflecting Kremina’s face.

She stared into her own darkened eyes, feeling like a storm had swept by her.

Daksha–

More than ever, she needed Kremina’s protection, even if she didn’t realize it.

She needed Kremina to be smarter; to be craftier; and to fight harder than ever before.

Daksha Kansal was mortal and vulnerable. She could never be an Immortal again.

In her finite time in the world, it was her work that had to become immortal.

Kremina had to do everything in her power for Daksha’s revolution to succeed and spread.

For now, that meant that Gloria Luxembourg’s social-democrats had to either control the United Front or be the ultimate survivors of its near-inevitable breakdown.

Those upstarts with the Rotfront and their Jayasankarist allies could not be allowed to derail everything. Daksha would disapprove of this line of thinking, but Kremina was not going to openly act against anybody. Yet. For now she would be well behaved and demure.

She just had to control her temper; bide her time; and await the opportunity to intervene.


“Oh my! Such a fantastic cup of coffee. This is starting to feel like a vacation!”

Erika Kairos raised her plastic mug and cheered. The mug was full of plain, black coffee.

“Might a lovely maiden dream of a sweetener? Perhaps even creamer?” She asked.

“Let’s not get too greedy!” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied, smiling. Erika’s eyes drew wide from behind the steam coming from her mug. “I’m joking! Of course we can get you some.”

Olga took a sip of the coffee herself and nodded her head in approval.

“It’s a sight better than the cheap stuff in our rations. The grounds were not adulterated.”

Aaliyah looked down at her own mug, the coffee having been brewed by a very standard Union Soyuzkofe machine in the cafeteria. Her furry ears twitched slightly, and she took a sip.

“I knew living in the Empire was harsh; but I’m surprised in the ways that manifests.”

Erika smiled. “Well, we have to take what we can get, you know? When it comes to food, we usually have to either steal it, or go to smugglers whose products are usually low quality, or go to cottage industries that don’t have the means to make quality products.”

“Turning over an Imperial cargo ship is practically a holiday feast for us.” Olga added.

Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed gently with Olga and Erika.

On that morning, the meeting room Ulyana and Aaliyah were working out of lately, had instead become a little conference room for their first command meeting with Erika Kairos. They had formally agreed to become part of Erika’s Nationale Volksarmee, and swore to follow her political command as their new Premier. This was something of a shield against other political influences on the crew– but it was not a game to anyone in that room. It was a serious endeavor, and it required the establishment of a solid working relationship in all of its various particulars. They weren’t playing pretend– they wanted Erika to lead them.

Ulyana thought well of Erika and envisioned they would have a good relationship, but nevertheless, they needed to lay out how both sides typically operated. How Erika hoped to rule them; what the capabilities of each side were and how they could work together when combined; and other such things. For her part, Erika was treating the whole thing very casually and breezily. Ulyana imagined it would be so. She had not met all that many Katarran mercenaries, but she felt they must have operated a few steps below military standard in formalities, in order to work at all. But at least she knew Erika took theory very seriously.

As she requested, Erika soon received a little tray with cubes of creamer and sweetener.

These had been powdered and compressed for ease of storage.

She picked up a few of each cube and dropped them into her coffee, stirred, and drank. She smiled from ear to ear, flushing, even her horns looked a little brighter than before.

C’est magnifique!” She said, giggling a bit.

She quietly passed the coffee condiments tray forward. Ulyana and Aaliyah both partook.

Olga smiled and looked at the Premier fondly; but continued to have her coffee black.

“Alright. I greatly value the hospitality. But, back to business!” Erika said cheerfully. “I am planning to transfer my flag from the Rostock to the Brigand. I think that will help smooth out the early stages of our cooperation. Daphne, my captain on the Rostock, is well-respected and settled on that vessel, so I have no worries that she can handle everything there while I am away. I hope I can settle in here, and observe operations first-hand.”

“Understood. I have no objections. That will simplify our operational coordination a lot, actually.” Ulyana said. “I’ll have the lads stitch you a chair while they turn over the Bridge.”

“That would be lovely. Though, worse comes to worse, I can stand.” Erika said.

“Can you provide us information on your fleet and its operations?” Aaliyah asked.

“I could do so verbally, but I did not come prepared for a detailed onboarding.” Erika said. “I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting to gain a new ship. However, as soon as we get out to sea, we can connect to the Rostock and you can sync all of its data over at your convenience.”

“That sounds more efficient. We’ll talk about fleet integration at that point.” Aaliyah said.

“That can also be when you give us some of your data in return.” Olga said.

Aaliyah bristled a little, but Erika quickly dispelled those suddenly risen fears.

“We’re not after any classified information from the Union.” Erika said.

Olga crossed her arms. “We could at least use your stitcher blueprints though. Our lives would be so much easier if we didn’t have to free-stitch small parts to repair our stuff. It’s like rolling dice every time something breaks. You can help our capabilities long term.”

“Aaliyah, I want to be open with them. Do you have any specific qualms?” Ulyana said.

She looked at her Commissar, sitting beside her, compassionately but firmly.

In turn, Aaliyah briefly avoided her gaze. She composed herself quickly.

“Old habits die hard. You’re right, there isn’t really any reason not to share our data.”

“Thank you.” Erika said. “I understand, security backgrounds require caution above all.”

“We appreciate your cooperation, and we will follow all of your data security protocols. Access will be limited; we have all the hardware controls needed to insure that.” Olga said.

Aaliyah nodded her head in acquiescence.

Ulyana was glad everything was going smoothly. Olga and Erika were professionals.

“We don’t want to overturn your existing structure. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and slowly improve our doctrine together.” Erika said. “We should do the bare minimum we need to have cohesion between the existing Volksarmee forces and your own. I want to preserve the chain of command aboard the Brigand as much as possible, but only with myself at the top. I also respect that this is probably a contentious decision for you because of your extended chain of command to the Union. I do not want to imperil your relationship to your home country. So if there’s anything you need from me, please tell me.”

“I’m sure Nagavanshi will understand when she reads my report however many months or years from now after all of this is over.” Ulyana said, with a smile. “If we live that long.”

Erika laughed. “I fully intend to live that long, Captain. But of course, I understand.”

Aaliyah finally smiled a little too. “I’m quite happy with your proposal, Premier.”

“In terms of Volksarmee personnel aboard the Brigand, Olga and I require private lodging.” Erika said. Olga’s eyes popped for a moment. “I will be up front: we are lovers. It has never been a problem, and in fact has been a psychological aid for both of us. If the Brigand has an exceptionally strict rule against fraternizing, it will have to be waived for me.”

“Um, ma’am–” Olga began, but a sharp look from Erika cut her off and silenced her.

“As you can see, I still retain authority over her.” Erika smiled with forced innocence.

Ulyana grinned a little. Aaliyah glanced askance at Ulyana.

“Oh there’s probably tons of sex going on in this ship.” Ulyana said. “I won’t stop you.”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She raised her voice above the room–

“Strictly speaking– to the regulation– ugh, whatever.” She shrugged and gave up instantly.

Olga averted her eyes, a little bit embarrassed.

One more smiling glance from Erika got her to sigh and recompose herself.

“I’m not used to her being so forward about it, especially like this.” Olga admitted. “But like– yes, when we can die at any moment, and we’re crammed in these metal cans. You really can’t expect ship crews not to get each other off a bit, every once in a while.”

“It’s maybe more common among Katarrans than in the broader world.” Erika said.

“We’ll get you a room.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s move the conversation past this please.”

Ulyana noticed the insides of her ears had flushed a very bright red.

She tried not to smile. It would have definitely upset her charmingly uptight Commissar.

Erika was not troubled at all by the atmosphere in the room.

She had an uncanny ability to look cheerful or at least centered in any situation.

Even when Kremina had been berating her openly, she was still smiling just like this.

After Aaliyah’s request, the conversation returned to matters of organization.

“Besides Olga and I, Kalika Loukia will also remain aboard. She has many skills and is someone I know I can depend on to do almost anything. I think she is all the direct support I will need on the ship aside from Olga, and you will benefit from her as well.” Erika said. “There are a few other officers of mine whom I’m used to having at my disposal, but I think they can operate from the Rostock, maybe switching in and out as needed.”

“Alright. Kalika already helped us out quite a bit. We’ll be glad to have her.” Ulyana said.

“I believe next on the agenda we wanted to lay some groundwork on logistics.” Olga said.

“We were planning to restock at Aachen.” Aaliyah said. “Are you not also?”

“I’m afraid we can’t make use of the traditional markets for ship supply.” Erika said. “Victualing and replenishment markets are off-limits. We are forced to make use of smugglers or secondary markets, as I said. We also buy raw materials and stitch needed goods ourselves. But don’t worry about us– we want to know about your supplies.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged glances, worried.

“Can you tell us more about the situation in Aachen?” Ulyana said.

“We were under the impression it would at least be neutral ground for you.” Aaliyah said.

“Aachen is quite a bit nicer to non-Imbrian persons than Kreuzung.” Erika said. “However, there are still prejudices they must abide by. There are legal prohibitions against the replenishment of ‘cartels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘privateers’. Katarrans are targeted by these laws pseudonymously. And there isn’t a Katarran ship Captain alive who can fight a legal case arguing for her innocence. Aachen follows these laws, and we’re no exception.”

“Wait– they’re following Imperial law?” Ulyana asked, rhetorically. She was baffled by this.

She had thought Aachen was open to rebellion since the United Front was convening there.

“What is Aachen’s relationship to the Volkisch movement right now?” Aaliyah asked.

“Aachen, the city, is just trying to maintain a status quo.” Erika said. “It is governed by liberals and resists the Volkisch only insofar as to maintain the liberal line. Kreuzung itself makes that sort of argument about its own rule of law– it is a purely bureaucratic argument. So you can’t take for granted that Aachen will be completely safe or revolutionary. However, Aachen’s people have a strong organized laborer movement, and it is among them that the United Front’s insurrectionists have found a sanctuary. It is a complex situation.”

“What if we purchased the goods for you? We don’t care about the law.” Aaliyah said.

Erika smiled, this time a lot brighter than before. She seemed touched by the gesture.

“I appreciate your generosity greatly, my comrades. But I must decline. The Rostock is stocked up, and the rest of our fleet is in good order as well. We shouldn’t draw suspicion at Aachen. There will be time for us to teach you the Katarran way of getting goods.” Erika said. “For now, focus on procuring your own needs. After the meeting of the United Front, we may get access to Gloria Luxembourg’s purchasing power which would solve our problems.”

“Acknowledged. I have to say, though, I’m now a bit nervous about Aachen.” Aaliyah said.

“It’s easier to lay low in Aachen than here.” Erika replied. “Right now, all of us are violating the law here in Kreuzung. If we can take measures to protect ourselves in here, by comparison Aachen is a picnic. The United Front is assembling there with confidence.”

“If you say so. I will trust your judgment, Premier.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana could still see a shadow of her worries on her expression. She knew her too well.

“It’s not on the agenda, but since we’re on a similar subject, I want to ask about you yourself. We were not aware of an ‘Erika Kairos’ prior to our arrival here, though that is for the best overall. Can you give us more details about you?” Ulyana said, as cordially as possible.

“I’m open to it.” Erika said. She drew in a deep breath and straightend her chest. “My name is Erika Kairos, I’m 33 years old, I have heterochromia, my three sizes are 120 cm bust–”

“Premier, you can skip the ‘vital statistics’.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I suppose my request was a bit vague.” Ulyana said, smiling.

Her eyes slightly drifting to the new Premier’s chest and having to be wrung back.

“Oh! Okay. Well– I am a voracious reader! I like philosophy, and science, but I also like to read storybooks, and comics; I like films too! My favorite genre is actually hard-boiled detective mysteries! My favorite food is spanakopita. My likes and dislikes are communism and–”

“Thanks, Premier.” Ulyana said. This was so cute she almost didn’t want her to stop.

“Was that really what you were asking about, Captain?” Aaliyah replied, exasperated.

Erika looked a little bit flustered. “Huh? Is there anything you want to know specifically?”

“I guess I was more concerned with whether you’ve made any enemies?” Ulyana asked.

Olga answered in Erika’s place. “Everyone hates her. She’s an avowed communist.”

She sounded a bit frustrated by the question, as if everyone should have known this.

“Everyone?” Aaliyah asked. Erika looked flustered again.

“Saying everyone is a bit–” Erika began, and almost stuttered–

Olga sighed.

“Katarran mercs don’t like philosophers. They like to pretend they have no beliefs and will do anything for money. So they end up falling into a really conservative outlook and that’s what I mean. Mercenaries know about Erika and the majority of them dislike her for it.”

“They’ll still take my money when it’s on offer.” Erika said. She grumbled a little bit.

“As long as that holds true, I think we can accept the situation for now.” Aaliyah said.

“So no rivals or blood oaths or anything like that?” Ulyana asked, in a jovial tone of voice.

Erika crossed her arms.

“No names you would recognize. Yes, among the mercenaries in Eisental, I’ve crossed a few paths in my life. But nobody that is going to go out of their way to excoriate or attack me. Anyone with that level of animosity has already been killed by their own predilections.”

Ulyana whistled. “Has your vibrosword aided anyone’s predilections in the act?”

“We’ve had some episodes.” Olga laughing a bit. “There’s nothing to worry about there.”

“I can take care of myself and my debts, Captain. And I have.” Erika grinned.

“Fair enough. I understand. Thank you, Premier.” Ulyana said.

Erika nodded her head.

Her eyes wandered a bit– she seemed to quiet and think for a moment.

“How much do you know about the present situation in Eisental?” Erika asked.

“We’ve been keeping up with events as much as we can.” Aaliyah said. “We know there is a worker strike in one of the towers here, which is owned by the Rhineametalle corporation. The Volkisch are afraid of it spreading, so they’re manipulating the markets in Kreuzung to turn people against the strikers by blaming them for price hikes and erratic supply.”

“We thought of helping out the workers here, but when we learned of the United Front, we felt our focus could be best served there.” Ulyana said. “It’s horrible to have to pick and choose who to fight alongside, but we don’t know how the workers here would respond to communist assistance. We know the United Front is like-minded, and they’re also armed.”

“I agree with your choice.” Erika said. “You don’t have to justify it to me.” She settled back into her chair and began to explain the situation in greater detail. She sounded confident and spoke clearly and precisely. “You see, the workers in Tower Nine are trying to toe the line. They are part of the liberal current and they do not want to be seen as too radical. They fear the reprisals that the Volkisch are capable of; but they can’t bear the working conditions that have been imposed on them because of the civil war. They are trying to do something, but they can’t be seen as doing too much to a vulnerable Rhinea, so they went on strike.”

She continued promptly, never losing her pace. “But Rhineametalle has gotten a new hand of cards to play because of this situation. They don’t want the strike to be broken up too quickly. Rhineametalle is facing down the possibility of the Volkisch forcing them to produce more gear and sell it for less money to support the failing war efforts in the south. The Volkisch believe Rhineametalle’s profiteering is sabotaging their war effort. With the strike, Rhineametalle can just watch the Volkisch squirm, and remind them of who needs who. Lehner, their so-called Fuhrer, doesn’t have the ability to crack down on the workers any more than he is, without risking his influence over his own war industry if Rhineametalle reacts adversely to his actions, or the collapse of his front from diverting more troops.”

“So they’re all at a standstill right now.” Ulyana said, after a moment contemplating the Premier’s description. “Something has to give eventually, doesn’t it? The strikers do not have infinite supplies, so they won’t be able to physically hold on to their barricades forever. And with enough time, Lehner will find the troops he needs somewhere; or maybe even an innovative Volkisch commander in Kreuzung will find a weakness or undertake some daring raid that breaks through. It’s unlikely that Rhineametalle will fold to their demands too.”

“You’re right, Captain. There is only one thing that can save them, but it’s ancient history they dare not speak about. They should have prepared a ‘General Strike.’” Erika said. Ulyana nodded solemnly. That phrase meant something for someone who had been young during the mass deportations and enslavement that presaged the Revolution.

“Ironically, it’s the ghost of the ‘General Strike’ panicking the Volkisch now, isn’t it?”

“Right again Captain. It’s one powerful reason for the Volkisch to make soft moves.”

Everyone in that room knew the history. Prior to the Revolution, the most critical moment in the reign of the Fueller dynasty was the attempt, begun by Bosparan and Volgian activists, to stage a ‘General Strike’ across all productive industry in the Empire. Connections across the Empire, established by activists like the Nakaras, Daksha Kansal, Elias Ahwalia and Bhavani Jayasankar, threatened to link together and coordinate devastating work stoppages that would have ground the vulnerable machinery of the Empire to a halt at a critical juncture. Imbrian industry was overstretched in development of the colonial machine, overly dependent on slave labor conditions to make up the massive expenses that had been incurred moving civilization ever southward to the extreme ends of the hemisphere. With the incorporation of Veka being largely seen as a financial failure across the Empire, the Nectaris colonies had to be absolutely successful, ruthlessly efficient, maximally extractive.

But the General Strike never came to pass. Its actors were suppressed, one by one.

Enslavement in the colonies should have been a fate worse than death for them.

However, the failure of the General Strike led to the success of the Revolution.

And thus, ultimately, to the creation of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.

Ulyana could almost understand not wanting to casually speak those words, which were so dense with violent history. She believed Erika Kairos was correct in her assessment. The Volkisch must have been terrified of the possibility of the strikes spreading, so they had to play propaganda and not respond too brutally and too soon to the strikers. But the strikers were not planning to spread the strikes; ultimately, the Volkisch would win the standoff.

“There’s more too.” Erika said. “Eisental is a powder keg for other reasons. It’s the most productive region of Rhinea, with most of its mining, and production of primary parts and products for Rhinea’s corporations. It has a significant agricultural belt too. It is primarily a site of extraction. That also means it’s the most proletarian of Rhinea’s provinces. It has the most disenfranchised people, and the most poverty, but it has the smallest Volkisch presence. The Volkisch’s Stabswache political troops have been largely deployed to the interior and south of Rhinea to secure their power over the middle and affluent classes and to purge the intellectual and political liberals. That’s where their immediate priorities lay.”

“Interesting. I was wondering why we didn’t see more Volkisch day to day.” Aaliyah said. “They overestimated the value that the Volkisch’s ideological message would have among the poor in the industrial north. Popular opinion has not swelled massively in their favor.”

“Certainly they have their supporters in the so-called ‘National Proletariat’.” Erika said. “But Rhinea’s last election had a very low voter turnout– and this election was cast as being apocalyptic for burgeoning Rhinean democracy. Most people don’t trust in the government and are just keeping their heads down one way or another. The Volkisch miscalculated the level of local fervor in the north, so Eisental remains in tenuous liberal control.”

“That also means we will absolutely see a Volkisch military response here.” Ulyana said.

They had to be coming, and soon. Eisental wouldn’t remain an idyllic valley for long.

“I predict we will see quickly raised, ill equipped and poorly trained Volkisch militias from the south, at least at first.” Erika said. “I am hopeful we won’t see a Stabswache fleet. That would be the worst case scenario. The Stabswache are elite political troops, you see; but six of those fleets are already heavily committed, and the seventh is far from ready to mobilize.”

“Anything they raise will have to travel here too. We will have time.” Ulyana said.

“Right. And if these militias are anything like patrol fleets we can best them.” Aaliyah said.

“Volkisch militias are even less organized.” Erika said. “I sense an early advantage for us!”

“We shouldn’t toot our own horns too much.” Olga said. “Any enemy is a dangerous one.”

“But we musn’t be too careful either.” Erika said. “We can’t lose the opportunity they’re giving us to muster before their real strength can respond. It’s why the United Front has elected this time to get together and to begin our activities. It may allow us to push Eisental over the edge in a way that will destabilize all of Rhinea, before the big guns see the field.”

Aaliyah nodded her head. She seemed impressed with Erika’s casual ease with big topics.

Ulyana, meanwhile, couldn’t help but compare Olga and Erika to herself and Aaliyah.

They had a similar conversation themselves before ever setting foot in Eisental.

That thought warmed her heart– but she could not linger on those little fantasies too long.

“There is one more thing I need to touch on about Eisental– and myself.” Erika said.

Aaliyah and Ulyana nodded along in acknowledgment, interests piqued.

Erika took in and dispelled a breath. “There are two other factions in Eisental who could become involved. I’m sure you must be aware of Khaybar– a so-called mountain range so tall and winding that it splits the Imbrium. Eisental abuts Khaybar to the east. It is not well known to the public at large, but I have heard stories that there is an ancient Shimii abode within Khaybar. There have been sightings of pirate activity in the area as well. According to the mercenaries here, the pirates learned to employ the heavy Katov mass events in the area to intercept and loot Imperial cargo and convoys. The Fueller dynasty silently buried any official reports about the pirates, while also decreeing Khaybar off-limits to all commercial traffic. They hoped to starve the pirates of loot and bury them; but it didn’t work.”

“Of course it wouldn’t work. If you can cross the pass, it takes you half the time to get to Bosporus or Veka, than going around it.” Ulyana said. “Those pirates may not have as many victims, but they may still see a good business. It’s just too tempting to make that run.”

“Precisely.” Erika said. “Khaybar continues to see unregulated traffic to this day. I believe there are still fighters operating out of that mountain. I would like to reach out to Khaybar, and I think we can start by developing contacts with the Shimii communities in Eisental.”

“How do you figure the two sides are affiliated? Do they have exchange?” Aaliyah asked.

Erika smiled knowingly.

“I can’t say that conclusively, Commissar. But people that the Imbrium Empire has deemed outlaws are not always motivated by greed. This applies to you too, doesn’t it? Think about it: there are no lavish creature comforts the pirates could possibly be cultivating within their grim little mountain hideout– they are there because they are desperate, because the Empire gave them no choice. I have a hunch the ‘pirates’ are probably a Mahdist remnant. It squares with the legends people tell about Khaybar. And Mahdist Shimii are known to have very tight and lasting communal and familial bonds. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

“I am not a Mahdist. I’m a secular Shimii. But I can see your logic now.” Aaliyah said.

“Was your family Rashidun?” Ulyana asked, suddenly curious.

“My family was secular.” Aaliyah replied sharply. Clearly this was a touchy subject.

Ulyana felt like she was leaning her foot over an industrial grinder and decided to back up.

“I apologize for my assumption.” Erika said, looking worried.

Aaliyah moderated her tone again.

“No offense taken. If I’m following your logic right, you think there must still be some Shimii out here who have contact with the Shimii in Khaybar. And it would be safer to make those contacts through them than trying to barge into Khaybar and causing a scene.”

Erika was clearly relieved to hear that ‘no offense taken.’

“Precisely. It’s nice to work with professionals. I feel afraid sometimes that I’m not being properly understood when I speak, but all of you seem to have no problem with my rhetoric.”

“We’ve had a lot of practice with rhetoric lately.” Aaliyah sighed deeply.

Ulyana smiled nervously. “So, we have Khaybar– what is the remaining faction?”

When the conversation started, Erika had led off by saying there were two factions left.

Erika’s tone turned a little more serious as she acknowledged Ulyana’s question.

“The Mycenae Military Commission.” She said. Her expression darkening.

“Wait, a Katarran warlord faction is operating in Eisental?” Aaliyah asked suddenly.

“I’m afraid so.” Erika said, solemnly. “We have Tagmata sipping tea in Stralsund.”

Ulyana felt, for the first time in the conversation, a sense of alarm.

“How did that happen? This is the first we’re hearing of this.” Ulyana said.

“The Volkisch have stopped publicizing anything about it.” Olga said.

“They were invited six months ago and arrived before the Volkisch takeover.” Erika said. “By blessing of the liberal parliament and as guests of the Rhineametalle corporation.”

“A Katarran warlord is openly purchasing Imperial arms?” Aaliyah said, scandalized.

“It’s Rhineametalle’s newest growth market.” Erika said. “Katarrans in our homeland mainly use either Republican weapons or smuggled Union weapons to fight in the warlord conflicts, but the Empire would be easier to buy from, if they started selling. Since the fall of the Palaiologoi, the Empire feared having anything to do with Katarre. But Rhinea liberalized; the all-mighty mark bill superseded the failing authority of the Fueller dynasty. With the retreat of the Emperor from politics it was only a matter of time before the Imbrians intervened.”

“There is a gargantuan amount of ocean between Mycenae and Rhinea.” Aaliyah said. “You’re telling me that all this time, the Emperor’s authority has been so weak as to allow this?”

Erika smiled. “It’s more like, the economic incentive, and Rhineametalle’s financial pull, was just that strong. Obeying the Emperor makes you zero profit, but looking the other way or assisting Rhineametalle and Myceanae directly, that confers money and favors.”

“But why invite them into Rhinea itself? It makes no sense to me.” Aaliyah asked.

Publicity, Commissar. Rhineametalle gets to show off all their high-end gear in the hands of a foreign client, legitimating their clout as the largest corporate power and a player in the broader world. Mycenae gets legitimacy.” Erika said. “Mycenae gets to be the only warlord power ever formally invited into the Empire, and invited into their trendy, rising financial center to make big money deals for advanced weapons. It makes them out to be the only warlord state that is actually functioning as a state on a national, political scale.”

“How strong is the Mycenae Military Commission here?” Ulyana asked.

“Something like a Union fleet combat group: a few big ships and their escorts.” Erika said.

“Their few big ships are Mycenaean dreadnoughts though.” Olga said with a grim tone.

Ulyana’s heart was rushing a bit.

Aaliyah was doing most of the talking– but even she looked nervous.

The Union was well aware of the status of Katarre.

They didn’t have all the details, but the Republic, who were deeply involved in Katarre, shared a lot of their information as a sign of goodwill. Out of all the Katarran factions, the Mycenae Military Commission was one of the most fearsome. Their regulars, the Tagmata, combined the ferociousness Katarrans were known for with sound military training and even a burgeoning research and development capacity for new weapons, not just war profiteer stock. It was possible that they had even developed a second generation Diver already, to match the Empire’s own R&D pace. Ideologically, they were retrograde nationalists, calling for the revival of the old Katarran kingdom– a message that inspired not faith in any of the flash in the pan warlord states, but in Katarran reunification— a nightmare for the Republic.

Mycenae’s presence was a massive and volatile factor they had to account for now.

“How likely is it that the Tagmata will intervene if we start taking action?” Ulyana asked.

“Completely unknown.” Erika said. “I have very little intelligence on their intentions.”

“We know the Volkisch are committed racists. Diplomacy between them and Mycenae will be complicated.” Aaliyah said. “We might have an opportunity– except, I assume that Mycenae will try to contact the Katarran mercenaries in this region. So they might learn about Erika; and if the mercenaries don’t like Erika’s program, I’m sure the Tagmata like it much less.”

Olga averted her gaze.

Erika breathed out a heavy sigh.

“It does feel like a confrontation with the Tagmata is unavoidable for me.” Erika said.

For once, she looked somber and downcast.

That shift in her cheerfulness made Ulyana want to support her– to protect her feelings.

“Nothing is unavoidable.” Ulyana said. “We’ll be smart and keep our eyes out. We’ll gather intelligence and examine the situation we’re in at each juncture. If we have to fight, we’ll fight; if we have to run, we’ll run; but if there’s a chance, we make peace. That’s all we can do, but Premier, the Brigand will support you. Aaliyah and I will be here to protect you.”

Ulyana extended her hand. Erika reached out her own and gave her a soft, girlish shake.

As a Katarran, she probably had to keep her strength in check for Ulyana’s sake.

“I had high expectations, and they have been thoroughly met.” Erika said. “I can see how the Union won its revolution, if there are more officers as sharp as you in their waters.”

“I’ve come away quite pleased with your character as well, Premier.” Ulyana said.

After they shook, Erika extended her arm again, to Aaliyah, who shook it as well.

“I already said as much, but I am impressed with the Premier’s assessments. I’m sure we’ll have our disagreements in due time, but if having the Tagmata on our backs is the price we pay for your stewardship, I would fight through a thousand Katarrans for it, Erika Kairos.”

“Thank you, Commissar! Those are such high praises. I will endeavor to sustain them.”

Erika looked to be almost glowing under all of the praise she was receiving.

She looked so young; smiling with a shining light of hope and idealism.

Ulyana had been too young and too hurt in the Revolution to pay attention to people’s characters too closely. She had been surrounded by all of the titans of communism in the Imbrium, once upon a time. And she wondered whether Bhavani Jayasankar had once smiled like this. Whether Daksha Kansal had ever looked this young. Before the falling outs, the splits, the backstabbings and blood. She hoped that Erika would be able to continue smiling, with a stout but gentle heart, even as the waters around Eisental turned murkier.

Erika had the right ideas. She had a sober outlook, and she was thinking ahead.

However, that look in her eyes, when she appeared so defeated at the prospect of having to fight the Tagmata, suggested that for all her clandestine maneuvering, she had yet to be tested in the hellish nightmare of outright war. She was daunted by a powerful enemy.

Ulyana would be at her side; she hoped she wouldn’t bear witness to a tragedy.


“Illya, I need you to sign this. It’s nothing bad. Just do it, okay?”

Shalikova laid a piece of synthestitched stone paper and a scratcher on the table.

Illya Rostova looked away from a surveillance monitor with a skeptical look on her face.

She glanced down at the paper, and back up at Shalikova, who stood stiffly opposite her.

“Huh?” Illya turned fully around, looked at the paper and the scratcher with which to write.

Shalikova’s keen indigo eyes wandered, briefly breaking her disinterested façade.

The Surveillance Room was close to the Bridge, and constituted one half of the security room, with its own door. It was also where they kept the locker for the security division’s guns, but Illya and Valeriya hardly ever respected the lockup process. In the middle of the room, a three section desk surrounded two chairs, with a tiny gap allowing the occupants to exit. On each wall faced by a section of the desk, there was a large multi-section monitor with a camera feed. Valeriya and Illya, of course, sat side to side or back to back in the middle of those desks, their faces lit up in blue in the dim room by the monitors.

On Valeriya’s desk section there was a partially stripped AK assault rifle.

Every so often, between watching the monitors, twiddling her fingers, and playing with locks of Illya’s hair, Valeriya would strip or put the rifle back together, expertly reassembling the firing mechanism, affixing the barrel, pushing the receiver cover into place. Union assault rifles used a small amount of pieces to be easier to manufacture, and Valeriya’s hands looked almost mesmerizing in their quick work. She had clearly done this a million times.

When she noticed Shalikova watching, Valeriya lifted her mask over her face and stopped playing with the rifle, or Illya’s hair. She just sat sadly behind Illya with her gaze averted.

Illya, meanwhile, also had her own assault rifle out of the locker and laid on the desk.

“Nope.” Illya said. “I am not signing this for you, sorry kid.”

Shalikova rolled her eyes, grunting.

“C’mon, it took you that long to read it, and you’re saying no?”

Illya turned the paper around for her to see it, pointing at the bar code near the top.

“Form 56A, Request Authority For Shore Leave, Location Approval.” Illya said. “This form has to be signed by your direct superior. I can’t believe you’re still trying to avoid the Lieutenant. I’m not going to lie to cover up for your cowardice. By the way, the Captain will also look at this, so you know, even if I could sign this for you it isn’t a done deal by any means.”

Shalikova felt both mildly embarrassed but still wanted to resist Illya nonetheless.

“I’m an Ensign! You’re a Lieutenant-Commander! You– you outrank Murati!” She cried.

Direct superior.” Valeriya mumbled from behind Illya.

“She’s right. Besides, I’m a Marine and you’re a Pilot, our ranks are different.” Illya said.

Annoyed, Shalikova snatched the form from Illya’s hands and looked it over again herself.

“I’m rated Chief Petty Officer.” Valeriya mumbled. “Illya is a Master Petty Officer.”

“Right. We have ratings in the ship’s chain of command, our Marine ranks don’t matter.”

In the fog of her newfound distress, Shalikova was barely listening.

Form 56whatever–

Shalikova had only filled it because she wanted to take Maryam out on a date.

She had overheard some gossipy sailor girls that people were planning dates to the next nearest blocks in the Tower. This gave Shalikova the idea to try to do the same, and she asked the sailors about the proper procedure for doing so– which entailed stitching out this form or filling it digitally. Almost all of the time the latter was preferable– but Shalikova did not want a paper trail to get to Murati, so she thought of having Illya sign a physical form on the sly. Clearly that had not worked– and her carnival date with Maryam seemed impossible now.

“Quit moping around and go talk to Lieutenant Nakara already.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, Valeriya nodded her head lightly as if to back up what she was saying.

Shalikova shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

She was paralyzed with frustration and indecision.

Maryam deserved to get out of the ship and have a good time.

Shalikova really wanted to do something for her, after everything they had been through.

But– there was just something–

–something in the way of talking to Murati– it felt so difficult–

“Listen, Sonya.” Illya said. “You have to learn to confront your officers if something is wrong and you want it right. You also need to have the courage to get scolded if you are wrong and they are right. But you have to hash it out. What you’re doing right now, I called it cowardly, and I stand by it. You’ll have to talk to this woman, it is unavoidable. So go do it on your terms, or you’re going to get it done to you and you’ll have no control and no leverage.”

Shalikova’s hand closed into a fist. She still felt stubborn about the situation with Murati.

“I know. I know.” She mumbled. A shudder ran its way through her body.

Illya looked at her for a moment, bowed her head and let out a low grunt.

“I’ll go with you. Okay? Stop moping. If Murati gets out of hand I’ll deal with her.”

Valeriya stared at Illya quizzically, playing with her mask as if trying to stay out of this.

Shalikova stood bolt upright. “No, no, no. That’s– that’s the last thing I want.”

“Okay, what’s really going on?” Illya said brusquely. “Do I need to go talk to Murati?”

A disaster, an unmitigated and complete disaster! Shalikova’s eyes couldn’t meet Illya’s!

Oh my GOD I’ve made everything so much worse! So much worse!

She had really done it– she had triggered this insane woman’s motherly instincts.

“It’s really nothing. I just don’t like talking to my boss.” Shalikova said in a shaky voice.

“What is that guilty face you’ve got on?” Illya said. “Sonya, talk to me.”

“You’re projecting! Look, you’re not my mom, you don’t need–”

“I told Zasha I’d look out for you. Did Murati do something to you?” Illya asked.

Shalikova couldn’t help but notice Illya’s fingers seemed to subconsciously play over the sleek, black carbon-fiber body of the AK rifle as she was speaking. Zasha had once likened Illya to a wolf in order to describe her to Shalikova, who had been learning about animals in school and was going to meet Zasha’s dear friends for the first time.

Illya was tall and gallant and very loyal and protective, Zasha said. By then, Illya was already a star student when it came to not just civics and basic sciences, but particularly in combat. Best shooter in her class, best hand to hand fighter. She, Valeriya and Zasha, as young adults, participated in exercises with older people and defeated them. They became Nagavanshi’s own hunting hounds– and Illya led the pack. Shalikova knew this as soon as she saw Illya’s steel eyes and silver hair, the confident little smirk she always had–

–and now, the restrained bloodthirst, the territorial barking, the alertness in her body.

It wasn’t as if Shalikova didn’t love her– but she didn’t love this, this way that she acted–

“Illya, what the hell are you thinking? Stop imagining whatever gross thing you’ve got in your head!” Shalikova shouted back in Illya’s face. “You need to trust me. Zasha is gone! I’m in my twenties, I’m grown! I’m a soldier! You don’t have to threaten anyone on my behalf! If you do anything to Murati for no reason– I’m going to hate you forever!”

Illya suddenly smirked at Shalikova. All of her dark presence washed away instantly.

“Good. Then go have a nice chat with Murati yourself and have fun on your date.”

She poked the monitor next to her on the desk–

her finger covering the head of a woman using a portable computer in the social area.

“I’ll know if you didn’t.” She added. This seemed to amuse her greatly.

Shalikova had been expecting the worst, so to see Illya bring herself back down so easily, perhaps she had misjudged this woman. Maybe it was not only Shalikova who had grown but Illya, too, had matured. Hell– maybe Shalikova was still just a stupid child and Illya was really the only adult in the room. She let out a breath that had been held in her chest for so long she thought it would turn into a stone. In front of her, Illya was completely calm again.

Talking to Murati did not seem so scary after all of this nonsense.

“Fine. Fine! You’re the absolute worst.” Shalikova said.

“Uh huh. If your date gets approved, come to our quarters. I’ve got something for you.”

“Huh? Why don’t you just give it to me–?”

Illya made a ‘shoo’ motion with her hands, dismissing Shalikova without another word.

She returned her attention to the monitors with something of a little sigh.

Behind her, Valeriya started to absentmindedly strip her own AK rifle one more time.

Exasperated with them, Shalikova stormed out of the security room and slammed the door.

“BLYAT! How did Zasha put up with these bitches!” Shalikova grumbled.

It was uncharacteristic of her to swear aloud, so in order to recompose herself she waited in the other half of the security room for a few minutes so nobody would see her so annoyed in public. Thankfully, the security team medic Syracuse had been drawn away from her usual spot near the security team armor lockup. Shalikova could be alone for a few minutes.

Certainly, talking to Murati felt just a little more possible after this fiasco.

Thanks, Illya, Valeriya, Shalikova thought sarcastically.

And perhaps also– a bit sincerely, too.

Shalikova found Murati sitting down in a booth seat on the left-hand wall of the social area by herself, like she had seen in Illya’s monitor. Murati had a portable computer and looked to be flipping through pages on the touchscreen. She was quite engrossed in the activity and did not notice Shalikova approaching. Shalikova scanned her aura– green and blue.

For a few moments, Shalikova stood ghost-like at Murati’s side. She observed that the lieutenant was searching on Kreuzung’s internet for things like ‘breath-taking places for an adult date,’ ‘most romantic destinations to bring your fiancé,’ ‘popular date ideas among young women.’ None of those really felt like they would be effective search terms. For one, she was not even specifying Kreuzung and so the search kept showing her other stations like Bremen and Thuringia and even the Imperial Capital of Heitzing. Her queries were also extremely literally written which Shalikova attributed to the Lieutenant having an–

extremely stupid and literal brain

“Lieutenant, please just search something like ‘Kreuzung date spots’.” Shalikova hissed.

Murati raised her head sharply from the portable computer’s screen.

As soon as her eyes met Shalikova’s a pair of red rings reflexively appeared around her irises.

Shalikova, in turn, also activated her psionics and nearly jumped as well from the shock.

“Oh! Ensign Shalikova! I’m sorry, you startled me!” Murati said.

“It’s fine! It’s fine!” Shalikova cried out. “Just be quiet and shove off to the side.”

For a moment people were staring.

There weren’t that many sailors, because most of them were working, but there were a handful, enough to constitute a scene– and Alex Geninov was at the pinball table with a smirk on her face, which was absolutely mortifying to witness. Thankfully, Murati slid deeper into the booth and allowed Shalikova to sit next to her, mostly out of sight.

Shalikova took in a deep breath. Murati looked completely taken by surprise.

“What the hell happened with your eyes, Lieutenant? How can I trust you now?”

Her tone came out extremely accusatory. So much so that Murati looked startled anew.

This was truly the best that Shalikova could think to say in order to breach the topic.

She thought of Illya’s demeanor on the way to talking to Murati and felt inspired.

Instead of confessing to anything, it was time to act like she was not guilty of anything.

For all she knew, Murati could have been going rogue and nobody else would know!

(Given Murati’s character, such a thing was outright impossible, but she could pretend.)

“Ensign! It’s not what you think!” Murati said. She held her hands up. “Captain Korabiskaya knows about it and trusts me. And I want to say, we both trust you too! I’m not even going to ask where you got the same ability. Really– all I want is to help and support you.”

Shalikova felt that kind of guilt she always felt talking to Murati.

Like she was being a burden to her stupidly earnest and overtly concerned Lieutenant.

“Why are you always like this? I don’t need your support.” Shalikova mumbled.

“It’s fine if you don’t. But you shouldn’t have to navigate all this alone.” Murati said.

“What’s all this? We don’t even have the same vocabulary to talk about this, do we?”

“Um,” Murati said, “Do you call it psionic powers? Or maybe omenseeing?”

“Omenseeing? Are you just making stuff up now? I don’t call it anything like that.”

It would help if she could successfully pretend she had always had psionic abilities.

And that the shock of seeing Murati had been exclusively from seeing another psionic.

Murati blinked.

“I’m sorry– I had no idea you were dealing with something like this. Look, I received this power from– Euphemia and Teresa. But you musn’t tell anyone else. Right now, its existence is on a need-to-know basis, until we can understand it better. I volunteered to be given the power, to see if we could trust Euphemia and Teresa. Once I know more about it, whether it is safe, how difficult it is to learn, how dangerous it is, I’ll debrief the other officers.”

Shalikova almost felt bad about lying to Murati. She really trusted her so fully and easily.

She had thought this conversation would be way worse. In her mind, Murati was yelling.

A version of Murati existed in her head who was so far from reality that it was shameful.

It made her feel guilty. But at least the current situation was not so volatile at all.

“What will you do with me then, Lieutenant?” Shalikova said, meeting Murati’s gaze.

She tried her best to make a pathetic sort of expression, like a cat that got kicked in the ribs.

Though she was very poorly versed in manipulating anyone, Murati was an easy mark.

Her own expression responded to Shalikova’s with an upswell of pity and reassurance.

“Ensign, it’s not just my job to correct your behavior, but also to make sure that you are okay, and that you can meet the demands of the mission.” Murati said. She reached out and patted Shalikova on the shoulder. Shalikova allowed it. “I never wanted to antagonize and drive you away. I apologize for that. I’m still new to commanding and I haven’t risen to the challenges yet, but I’m trying. I know I’ve been misreading you. I want to reassure you; you won’t have to answer to anyone. I’ll take responsibility. I’m not going to force you to do anything. I just want information on psionics– on our powers– to stay as contained as possible.”

Murati, you’re making this painful in such a different way than I thought it would be.

Shalikova would not crack and tell Murati the whole truth.

Not yet.

But her heart was bleeding– she really wanted to confess to her stupid, earnest Lieutenant.

I’m in the wrong here. But at least, for now, it’s a harmless lie, for Maryam’s sake.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Are there any specific conditions I should abide by?”

Murati smiled brightly. Shalikova was taken aback by her sudden and open cheer.

“All I ask Ensign, is that you continue to use all of your abilities in defense of communism.”

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and her brain filled with a cyclone of shapeless debris.

Idiot! You corny idiot! Don’t smile saying something so dumb! I hate you so much! UGH!

It took all of the strength in her body to lift up the corners of her lips in response to that.

“Acknowledged.” Shalikova smiled. In her mind’s eye, her smile was demented as Illya’s.

Murati continued to smile back. She looked so bright, so charmed and happy– UGH!

She let out a breath and put her hands over her heart. “I’m so glad we could fix things.”

“Uh huh. Anyway– I have stuff to do. Here, sign this for me and give it to the Captain.”

Shalikova deposited the crumpled-up Form 56A on the table and stormed off.

“Huh? Ensign? What happened to this form? Where are you going so suddenly?”

Leaving Murati behind by herself to uncrumple the paper as best she could and read it.

Murati didn’t have a writing implement but that was her problem to figure out now.

Shalikova’s face and ears were turning as tomato red as Maryam’s became sometimes.


Several hours after their meeting with Erika Kairos, Ulyana and Aaliyah found themselves burning the midnight oil in the exact same meeting room they had been so frequently occupying. They were metaphorically buried in paperwork, even though on the desk there were only two portable computers and a small stack of actual physical stone-paper forms.

“Everyone is asking for shore leave outside the block.” Ulyana said with concern.

“Maybe there is a problem on this ship.” Aaliyah said sharply.

“You know what Nagavanshi once told me about military relationships?”

Aaliyah returned a skeptical gaze. The insides of her ears were flushed again.

Ulyana smiled. She found her Commissar’s uptight attitude to be very cute.

“She told me the story of a Katarran brigade called the ‘Sacred Band’. They were organized in pairs of homosexual lovers. Their sexual and emotional bond was a prize for them, something worth protecting and fighting for. Something more than the glory and profit of the warlord who hired or enslaved them. They were apparently very effective fighters.”

Aaliyah’s eyes narrowed further.

“So you’re telling me we should encourage this behavior because codependency might increase morale. Is that seriously what you are suggesting, Captain?”

“I am not suggesting anything.” Ulyana shrugged with a delighted expression, eager and happy to be teasing her cute Commissar. “I was just telling you a story Nagavanshi told me about these sorts of situations. But think of this, if the now Commissar-General, back then, didn’t really care about enforcing this rule, then why should we go out of our way?”

“For the sake of order? To avoid unnecessary problems down the line?” Aaliyah said.

“Did you know– I’ve always suspected Nagavanshi is Premier Jayasankar’s lover.”

“What?” Aaliyah turned fiercely red. “What do you mean? How do you figure?”

Ulyana continued to smile, and a baffled Aaliyah stared at her and seemed to take the hint.

Aaliyah would have been six or seven years old during the Revolution, but Ulyana had fought alongside all of these characters and was part of their circles for some time. She would have known better than her who Nagavanshi was fucking and what attitude she had towards it. Their potential HR-level problems with sailors in love did not nearly reach the level of a problem that Nagavanshi and Jayasankar’s relationship would constitute if it was true.

But also– Nagavanshi wielded massive power with the full confidence of the Premier.

That type of loyalty perhaps arose– because perhaps she loved her, maybe even physically.

“We’re not rubberstamping these, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Aaliyah said, pulling out the full name with a venomous tone. “I refuse to approve dozens of potential sexual excursions based on your uncritical ideas. If we’re allowing this, we’re taking full responsibility for every one. We’re going to research every location, every time frame; evaluating each of the people involved, whether we trust their judgment; and approve or reject them case-by-case.”

A grim shadow settled over Ulyana’s once placid smile. “Well– It’s only right, I suppose.”

“Furthermore– I refuse to be anyone’s relationship counselor!” Aaliyah whined.

“I– I was never planning on that. Commissar, they’re adults, they can make decisions–”

“They better be able to! If their love problems interfere with their work, I’ll be quite cross!”

Ulyana stared at the almost childish consternation on display, and she wondered if there was some projection happening. Of course, she said nothing of the sort for fear of taking a hundred steps back in her own love problems with her dear Commissar. She simply kept smiling and promising to support her just as she had loyally supported her throughout.

On that night, they each grabbed a portable computer and set to work.

First they used the cameras on the back of the portables to digitize the paper forms.

Then the real work of going through each of the forms began.

“Look at this, Captain! The nerve of some of these sailors! These two want to go A-block? Imagine the Volkisch staring at two gigantic men holding hands in the middle of the most affluent district in the city! We would be all be crucified! These people have no sense!”

Ulyana could disagree with Aaliyah’s tone but not her intentions.

Looking through the forms, the sailors in particularly had very fanciful ideas of where they could be allowed to roam. Each form had a location, time frame for the leave, as well as guests that the requester would be responsible for. Because the sailors and officers did not know anyone but each other, each requester usually had one other member of the Brigand’s crew as a ‘guest’ on the forms– easily construed as their ‘date.’ Several people wanted to see the gardens at A-block, which were reserved for the affluent families that lived there.

Ulyana would never support the social hierarchy of Kreuzung, but the fact remained she had to abide by it to avoid suspicion and safeguard the mission. All requests to go to A-block were discarded outright, with messages prepared to inform the requesters they would be approved to go to the Alcor campus or Solarflare LLC and nowhere else. These were easiest requests to work through. By far the most complex were the ones that seemed reasonable.

“Alexandra Geninov wants to go to a seasonal street market on C-block.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah looked up the venue and event online. “Seems reasonable. It’s not that far.”

“Alex is annoying sometimes, but I think she can behave herself in public.” Ulyana said.

“Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa is going to the same place.” Aaliyah said with a sigh.

“So they filed separately, but are going to the same place at the same time?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes. It’s very like them, isn’t it.” Aaliyah said. “Have they matured even a little lately?”

“Well, they’ve been living together for a few weeks without incident.” Ulyana said.

“Alright. We’ll approve them, and hopefully they won’t cause a public disturbance.”

For everyone, the forms required two signatures. First was the direct superior’s signature and then the captain’s signature for final approval. For Bridge crew, Aaliyah acted as direct superior, and the Captain then signed. For sailors, it depended on their section, but so far, it seemed that Lebedova and Cohen had signed everything without really looking at it– or maybe they were as lacking in sense as some of the requests Ulyana was seeing.

Murati was the superior officer for requests from the pilots.

“Murati commented every single form submitted by a pilot.” Aaliyah said, impressed with the work ethic. “It looks like she already took a look at the places her people were requesting. She suspects Khadija just wants to go drink alcohol even though she’s technically not supposed to; and she is afraid Aiden is requesting leave so he can run away somewhere.”

“Murati’s such a treasure.” Ulyana said, looking at the digitized version of the form for Sonya Shalikova’s leave request. It had been heavily crumpled up, but Murati had pressed it flat again. Comments on the form urged the approval of Shalikova’s request as a gesture of good will and reward for ‘coming forward about her problems.’ “I’m going to approve this one.”

About halfway through the endeavor, they began to see more complicated requests.

People with the audacity to request to stay in hotel rooms, and who wanted multi-day time frames with multiple locations involved, who requested additional Imbrian funds than their shore leave stipend for expensive requests, or other such things that warranted even closer and more involved research than previous requests. Aaliyah’s ears folded against her head with exhaustion and Ulyana had begun to yawn with increasing frequency.

Soon Ulyana was seeing double and had to put down her portable.

“We need to take a break, Commissar.” She said.

“No complaints here.” Aaliyah replied with a groan.

“Care for a drink? Alcor gifted me a bottle of liquor on my last visit there.”

“How will that make us any less sleepy?”

“It won’t, but it will be fun. I think we could use a little bit of fun.”

“I’d be lying if I said I disagree. Fine. Bring out the booze.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged sympathetic gazes, and Ulyana opened a small box that she had set on a chair in a corner of the room. Inside was a bottle of beet-sugar rum, Tuzemak, called Struh in the Imbrium. She had two drinking glasses as well, though both were made of plastic. Setting them down on the table, she poured the clear reddish liquor into the glasses. She pushed one toward Aaliyah, who took it in hand. They tipped their glasses together, cheered for health and the safety of the mission, and downed a shot at the same time.

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled rapidly, and she shut her eyes briefly. It was a strong spirit.

Ulyana was untroubled. She considered herself a champ when it came to liquor.

“I’m still surprised at how sweet it is for liquor.” Aaliyah said.

“Completely trounces the potato stuff doesn’t it? Want another shot?”

“Hmm. Oh– whatever. Sure. Hit me. We’re already breaking all kinds of rules anyway.”

Two more shots; down the hatch. Aaliyah’s tail stood up briefly stiff and straight.

Ulyana sat back down with the bottle on the table.

“It’s so good. Fuck. I’m having another.” She said.

“Hit me too.” Aaliyah said.

Third shot; and there it went. Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed and relaxed on their chairs.

Smiling placidly, the Captain turned her slightly wavering vision on her Commissar.

Aaliyah was such an appealing girl. Her medium skin tone, her shiny dark hair, the natural pinkness and suppleness of her thin lips. Her jewel-like eyes and the elegant curve in the shape of her cat-like ears. Her slender tail, and the slenderness of her body too. Ulyana could not help in that moment but to think of the height gap between them too– she could have bent forward and loomed a little bit– her body would have fit so perfectly nestled with her back to Ulyana in bed– she would have been so warm and soft, such a sweet little morsel–

A sharp sound– a drinking glass striking the table.

“Ulyana, another shot. I want to feel the fire in me.” Aaliyah said suddenly.

Her eyes were looking a bit cloudy, and her cheeks were beginning to redden.

Ulyana, with a little laugh, filled Aaliyah’s glass again, as well as her own.

The Captain downed another shot; her Commissar was slowly sipping hers, however.

“It’s unfair.” Aaliyah mumbled. One of her ears was upright, but the other had folded.

“What’s unfair?” Ulyana said, her voice starting to drawl just a bit.

Without prompting, she refilled the Commissar’s glass, and they both drank again.

Fifth round!

“We have to do all this work, and they can go out to play.” Aaliyah said.

“True, true. They don’t know how much we sacrifice for them.”

“They don’t! We just endure silently, there is no one to take care of us.”

“Right. It’s fucked. Commissar, if it weren’t for you, I would go insane.”

“Indeed, indeed, Captain. We are the only ones for each other.”

“To hell with the sailors!” Ulyana cheered, taking another shot and topping up Aaliyah.

Sixth round!

“To hell with the sailors!” Aaliyah paused, drank. “I’m gonna– I’m gonna deny, deny, deny!”

With each ‘deny’ Aaliyah tapped her glass on the table like a gavel.

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit! That’s that Ashura brutality we all love!” Ulyana cheered.

She refilled their glasses. Aaliyah tucked the shot in quickly this time, shutting her eyes.

They broke out into laughter together, tapping their quickly glasses on the table.

Then, topping up once more–

Seventh round!

“We deserve a vacation too. Captain– I’m– I’m taking you out!” Aaliyah declared.

“That’s dangerous talk soldier! You really ready to ‘take out’ the Captain?” Ulyana said.

Both of them cracked up amid the slurred words.

Eighth round– Ninth Round– Tenth–

floating velvet colors– soft giggling in a gently swaying room– paradise–

“Don’t believe me? I’ll show you– Captain–”

Aaliyah stood suddenly, and made her way around the table–

However, she stumbled over one of the chairs on the table’s side and tripped.

This led her to fall on Ulyana, who had been sitting quite back on her chair. Both of them fell backwards together and ended up entangled on the floor. Ulyana had hit her flank and Aaliyah her gut, but between the shocked gasping for air after falling, they began to giggle airily at one another, embraced. They brought their faces close and rubbed noses together.

Ulyana stroked Aaliyah’s hair.

Even their legs had entwined as they laid on the floor, staring into each other’s eyes intensely with drunken euphoria. Ulyana had been right. Aaliyah was so soft– so warm–

Unfortunately for the two of them, those gazes wavered far too quickly for their intimacy.

And the most that happened was that they fell asleep in each other’s arms on the floor.

Lips just millimeters short of a kiss, sleeping gazes still held tightly together.

Overlooking them on the floor, a metaphorical pile of work on the table still undone.

All of the officers, at least, had had their forms looked through and approved.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.5]

This chapter contains sexual content.

“Hey, Olga,”

Several hundred meters below the baseplate of Kreuzung’s core station, the subversive Katarran group known as the Rotfront made a little base of operations. It wasn’t in the initial plan; but now most of the group’s officers had taken up temporary residence in the twisting maintenance tunnels that once served the central construction shaft. After a short meeting to explain the purpose of their visit to Kreuzung and the expectations of the next day, their leader Erika bid farewell and walked out of the room Kalika, Dimmitra and Chloe were sharing prior to the visit from their superior officers.

Olga Athanasiou quietly followed behind Erika after her bombastic declarations.

And Kalika Loukia followed behind Olga, getting her attention.

While Erika walked cheerfully away and around an elbow in the deep pipes ahead.

“Oh, sorry–” Kalika interrupted herself and sighed. “Maybe you should catch up.”

“You underestimate her.” Olga said. “She’ll be fine. Talk to me.”

“I suppose you will say ‘you are underestimating her’ again.” Kalika said. “But is it really okay for her to be gallivanting all throughout the underground? She should have left this delegated to her officers. I or Dimmitra, one of us was going to handle the negotiating, weren’t we? Or even Chloe could– there was no need for her to come personally.”

“She really wants to.” Olga said gently. “It’s not my place to disabuse her of her desires.”

She and Kalika were a bit of a study in contrasts.

Kalika was a tall and colorful woman, somewhat like their commander. She was well-made up in the face, her hair was artfully cared for, her clothes, even in the underground, had a luster to them. Kalika oozed style and confidence. Olga, meanwhile, was a very neutral woman. She was dressed in long beige pants and a black hooded jacket hiding a nanomail shirt. Her pure white hair had a few wide streaks of black running through it, some in her bangs, some in her simple, mid-length ponytail. Olga was short, and not broad or curvy enough to make up the difference in mass to Kalika overall.

Despite this, Olga was second-in-command, and Erika’s personal bodyguard.

When she spoke, Kalika responded with respect and deference.

“You have a say also, and she would listen to you. She’d be safer waiting on the Rostock.”

Olga shook her head. “My duty and pride is in keeping her safe, not confined.”

“Sometimes, confinement is the safest option. Look– Erika has all the vision, you know?”

“I understand your concerns. But please trust me; and trust her.” Olga said, gentle but firm.

“Let me accompany you to the negotiation.” Kalika said. “Not out of disrespect to you as her security chief. You know I trust you in a fight. But just to assuage my fears of foul play.”

“We were already planning to take someone else. So that’s no problem.” Olga said calmly.

Kalika nodded her head, sighing with a bit of relief.

Her bright gaze then seemed to fall upon the pocket of Olga’s hoodie.

“Are you bringing a gun up there?” Kalika asked. “It’s not wise.”

She did indeed have a pistol in her pocket. Olga always carried a firearm.

“It’s very small and made of pure carbon, it won’t trigger anything.” Olga said. “I’ve got my fists too, but I’d rather not draw too much blood. It’s– It’s a problem for me if I get too crazy.”

Kalika nodded her head. She understood, without asking further questions about it.

Or– she thought she understood.

Katarrans had different biologies and psychologies, different modus operandi and creeds.

There were some for whom a prolonged fight might trigger a mental episode.

Others for whom chopping bodies might excite their physical senses too much.

Kalika assumed it was a case like that. She was a Katarran so she understood this implicitly.

Olga was not actually a Katarran, however.

So Kalika did not actually understand her ‘special case’. And it would remain that way.

“Olga, I believe in the future Erika wants to build. I just want you to know that. That’s why we all need her.” Kalika said. “It’s why we all worry about her. It’s why she needs to be careful. I know that she is personally strong. But assassins and plots can overcome great personal strength.”

Olga smiled. “I should like to see them try anything with her.”

She turned around and waved goodbye behind herself, leaving Kalika in the middle of the tunnel with a befuddled expression. She heard the door into the little room open and shut and made her way around the corner Erika had taken. As she suspected, she found their esteemed commander waiting just around that corner, with her arms crossed, and her back to the wall, smiling.

“Kalika cares a lot about you. Or, at least, about your vision.” Olga said casually.

Erika beamed innocently, looking almost girlish. “A testament to my grand charisma.”

“I wonder how they would react if they knew what you were really capable of.” Olga said.

“Someday, I’ll own up. But if Kalika’s sensed nothing, let’s leave it that way.” Erika said.

“Your Saint’s Skin is powerful. I doubt she can tell what’s going on with your aura.”

“Mine is parlor trick compared to how much you’ve bucked suspicion.” Erika said.

They resumed walking a few lengths of pipe farther down, to the next relatively intact side room. Kalika’s hall had a few other doors, but none of them had operable doors. Olga wanted Erika to sleep in a place where they could lock themselves in and have relative safety for the night.

Neither of them wanted the possibility of interruption tonight.

They had something intimate that they needed to take care of.

Once they found a suitable room, with a door they could lock and minimally intrusive equipment inside, Erika put down a long canvas bag they had retrieved from Dimmitra. Inside was an LED lamp, some blankets, a large canteen of water, individually packed ration bars, and other necessities. While the halls were dim, the room with its door closed was completely dark without their own LED lamp, so they set it in the middle of the room and switched it on. It was like their own tame digital pyre.

Olga sat with her back to a long and broad pipe on the wall.

“I could nod off right now.” Olga moaned. “You really had me up all day today.”

In the middle of the room, after rummaging through the bag, Erika took off her coat.

She looked partially over her shoulder, smiling. “I can’t help it! There was so much to do. Every corner I turned, I saw a new face crying out for help. I knew this place was bad but hearing about it and seeing it myself was completely different. I couldn’t just walk away from all of it.”

“You’ll help by overturning the system responsible for this.”

“Olga, people are still hungry and cold in the meantime. If I have supplies to spare, I can’t look the other way.”

Staring at those subtly red lips, Olga could not possibly have been upset with Erika.

“You’re always like this; I think the crew wants you to focus up.” She said.

“Kalika complained, of course.” Erika said.

“She told me you should remain on the Rostock and let the rest of us work.” Olga said.

Her voice had a subtle tone of mischief–

Erika’s response was expected.

“Hmph! If she’s so worried, she should patrol or gather more intelligence! Secure more allies among the townsfolk! Her job is supposed to be operational enablement isn’t it? She should enable me! My ambition is not so easily deterred nor contained.”

Olga smiled broadly. “You have to cool it a bit– she thinks I’m your worst enabler now.”

“Well– I would only consider limiting my involvement if you denied me your company.”

She followed her words with a haughty laugh. Olga continued smiling as she watched her.

“Yes, and I’d never do that. I’d hate to miss a second of your annoying, manic energy.”

“I’ll make sure to continue having a full schedule for the two of us then, darling.”

Despite her irrepressible attitude, as Kalika put it, Erika was Olga’s treasure.

Olga would not dare change her. That flame in Erika’s breast made the rest of her shine bright.

Like Kalika, Erika was a colorful woman. Her long hair had a complex, dark blue hue, and her pink face was done up almost professionally with makeup. Her horns were polished to an almost mirror sheen. Her red greatcoat and hat over her shirt and pencil skirt made her appear a cross between mafia boss and corpo chick. She dressed like the job she wanted– a leftist usurper.

Olga felt her face warm, her pale features flush, gazing upon Erika in the lamplight.

Erika’s coat fell gently to the ground, slipping from her arms.

She undid her tie and several buttons on her shirt, pulling it off one shoulder, then the other, and laying it down on her coat. Unclipping the lacy black bra supporting her breasts, rising and falling with gentle breaths. Visibly shivering as her skirt came off. All of it joined the pile of clothes. Erika peeled off all of her clothes except for a pair of lightly bulging panties.

Her disrobing was meticulous and efficient. She was not trying to be titillating.

But Olga could not help the effect it had on her, for several reasons, and watched with rapt attention.

Erika was beautiful, exciting– but she was also meat. She was tonight’s meat for Olga’s hunger.

“You’ve been needing this, haven’t you? I’m sorry we haven’t had a chance until now.”

“I’ve been keeping under control.” Olga said. Her chest tightened just a little bit. Her breathing agitated, and she licked her lips, which felt suddenly dry as her eyes followed the curves of Erika’s body. “But I won’t deny– I want it.”

“We don’t want to make a mess of our clothes.”

Erika pointed a slender index at Olga.

Without taking her eyes off the radiant figure of her Premier, glistening in the lamplight, Olga began to disrobe as well. She pulled her hoodie off her slender frame, along with the plain white t-shirt to which her nanomail padding was affixed. She did her belt and slid her pants and undershorts off. She threw the clothes into a pile and pushed them away.

Not once did she and Erika break eye contact.

Smiling, Erika strode a few long steps and sat skin to skin with Olga.

Leaning her bare shoulder and her lean back close to her bodyguard’s chest.

“I’m sorry.” Olga said preemptively, as her hands laid upon Erika, pressing tentatively as if judging the give of her supple skin.

An exploration that presaged the secret and shameful desire she harbored.

“Don’t be silly. Haven’t we done this more than enough?” Erika said.

“It’s never been fair to you. It’s never been okay.”

“We’ve been through this. Do what you need to do, Olga.”

Olga’s alien heart skipped a beat as she looked down at the gentle, vulnerable curve of Erika’s shoulder, at the lean, tempting collarbone, at the soft shoulderblade. Her mouth watered even as she spoke, and she could not get her eyes to fix on anything but the flesh, beneath which flowed bountiful blood. Erika was so close, she could smell her. For Olga’s nose only, it was the salty hit of sweat and hormones that dominated– she could not smell the floral shampoo almost at all.

Moving her arms, closing in on Erika, careful like a lover’s first time.

Deliberate efforts to remain gentle, to remain calm, to control her strength, to gauge Erika’s response.

Olga wrapped her arms around her commander, and lover–

One over her lower belly, one over her breasts, cradling her–

Her lips closed between shoulder and neck, feeling the palpitations of Erika’s heart through to her mouth. A kiss, first chaste, then a second, sucking on skin, longing, hungry. Leaving a red mark that laid the target for an incisive but tender bite. She felt Erika’s body shudder in her grip. Olga’s teeth breached skin, drawing surface blood in tiny trickles before splitting deeper vessels open. She feared as she fed, as she began to taste fluid iron-sweet. As blood flowed into her mouth, as skin further tore, as her tongue lapped whatever her lips had not claimed, she feared, but she could not speak. She feared losing control of herself.

Erika’s taste was divine. That redemptive manna which she gifted to the monster in Olga.

“Oh my. You were really pent up. I’m the one who should be sorry.” Erika cooed.

In this state her words were heard distant, muffled, and yet so beautiful and comforting.

Those words kept her human as she savored the flowing human flesh drawing from the wounds.

“Keep going. Take as much as you need.” Erika said.

Olga’s fingers closed tightly around one of Erika’s breasts, squeezing supple flesh.

Her other hand massaged Erika’s lower abdomen, kneading there to relieve her own stress.

Behind Erika, Olga’s hips bucked, the tips of her breasts felt hot and astir with an electric feeling. Her soft penis twitched as it closed against Erika’s rear, Olga too involved in feeding to muster an erection yet consumed in an erotic sensation. Desires intertwined, the taste of blood and the urge to mate, primal feelings she held toward Erika that were excited at once in the middle of this act. Olga’s vision was a haze, her senses dulled, but she felt through her skin. She was skin, was touch, was the warmth and friction of claws on flesh, teeth into sinew, the throb of another’s heart racing across her self like a shockwave.

While her dripping fangs depressed then returned to the wound, precise, carefully inching deeper.

Threatening to tear out the shoulder and chew–

and never once doing so, only drawing just a little more to feed–

Olga still had control. She had control over Erika’s body, but also over her own.

Quivering hands settled over Olga’s own. She felt Erika shaking slightly in her grip.

That feeling of reciprocity slowly began to bring Olga from the animal stupor she was in.

“I’m sorry.” Olga mumbled, licking her lips and lapping miserably at Erika’s back.

Blood streaked down from the wound. Olga’s tongue glided slick over Erika’s shoulderblade.

Erika spoke calmly, comfortingly, holding the hands by which Olga seized her.

“There, there. Have as much as you need. I’m the only one strong enough for this.”

“Erika.” Olga’s lips hung open, holding back another bite. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Olga.”

Olga. She felt so reassured when Erika spoke that name.

Olga.

Olga Athanasiou.

“You are Olga Athanasiou. My dearest friend. My greatest protector. My passionate love.”

Erika knew exactly what to say to lift her spirits, even as pathetic as she felt.

She was a human, a person, Olga Athanasiou of the Rotfront. She had made herself human.

No longer the ‘the Hunter of Pactea’. And not ‘Hunter One’ in a maniac leviathan cult.

She alone made herself human, and she alone decided she would be among the hominin.

“I wish I didn’t have to hurt you.” Olga said. Her mouth streaked red-brown.

“My word; we always go through this. Just relax. I trust you. I’m doing this for you.”

Olga’s face sank against Erika’s bloody shoulder and back. Hugging Erika tightly.

“Your pulse is slowing down, darling. Are you done? Can you bandage me up?”

“Y-Yes, ma’am.”

“Good girl.”

Calm washed over Olga.

Her jittering, the heat in her sinews, the spring-load of instinct to kill and fuck like a beast–

it was gone as Erika’s blood flowed through her.

“Goodness. That was exciting.” Erika leaned back against Olga, her voice slightly trembling. “If I wasn’t so tired I’d try to get you hard and do something more. Next time we’re on the Rostock, though– I’m absolutely in the mood.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” Olga said. Her ordinary, confident tone of voice returned.

Erika sated her hunger for human flesh. For now; for as long as her willpower held out.

Eating meat, avoiding vicious bloodletting in combat, and meditating, all helped to keep her centered.

Eventually, however, she needed human flesh to remain sane. Erika’s blood sufficed.

For Olga, who had sworn not to eat humans again, it was shameful– but it was the only way to retain her self.

Erika understood. Erika was an angel. Olga would have been a monster without her.

“Goodness.” Erika mumbled, her heart clearly still racing from the act.

They shifted positions, with Erika now seated in front and Olga kneeling behind her.

Olga produced a roll of plastic gauze wrap from their bag, and carefully, beginning from the wound, she began to tie the blue bandage around Erika’s shoulder, under her arm, around her back, making sure everything was fully supported and covered. This was how she wished it could always be with Erika. Olga’s touch was tender, careful and caring, brushing on silk-soft skin, and she relished the peace, the gentle breathing from an Erika who was not sustaining an attack. That feeling of a soft and steady pulse transferred through skin, through the bandage, to Olga’s fingertips. Olga relished caring for Erika.

She would do anything Erika wished. All she wanted was for Erika to feel good.

“Olga,”

“Yeah?”

“You’ve never been a monster to me. Not even when you bite.”

“Erika–”

She reached backward and patted Olga’s head, stroking her hair where she could reach.

“Ssh– I’ll only accept praise for my Olga here. No denigration. Premier’s orders.”

Olga smiled. She held back a few tears. “Acknowledged.”

She continued to wrap up Erika’s wound slowly and gently. Savoring that little moment.

Erika opened a wrapper from the bag, unveiling a bar of pemmican, crumbled meat mixed with its own fat as well as nuts. It was high in protein and iron, especially this specific Volwitz brand, which was for the gym and not survivalists, and so was made with molasses inside. Erika always ate a few bars right after Olga drank from her. She handed a bar to Olga as well, who took a bite every so often while she worked and while they talked. With her hunger stated, hominin food regained its flavor to her.

Sitting around, eating, conversing like this– it was nice.

“I’ve never met communists from the Union. I’m excited to talk to them.” Erika said.

“I’m sure they’ll love you. You’re their biggest fan.” Olga teased.

“It’s more than being a ‘fan’! We share the correct ideological line.” Erika said.

In her mind Olga could already see the stars in Erika’s heterochromatic eyes.

“Of course, of course.” Olga said. She wanted to encourage Erika to speak.

“I have so many things I want to say to them. I’m running them over in my head.”

“Maybe you can practice with me.”

“Oh Olga, you’ve heard my rants hundreds of times.”

“I’m always happy to hear Erika Kairos’ hundredth-and-one rant.”

Erika laughed, which caused Olga to allow herself a chuckle as well.

“Fine then; you asked.” Erika said. “So, in the Imbrium, the key contradiction is–”

And so they spent the night together before the fateful meeting.

Olga bandaged Erika; they curled up together in warm blankets, eating their pemmican; and Erika speechified all throughout.


“Um. Hey. Yo. You’re with this ship, right?”

“Huh? What do you mean ‘yo’? Who are you that you’re acting so casually here?”

“Orlan. Orlan Aries. Sorry to bother you. There’s a bit of a situation.”

Murati Nakara narrowed her eyes at the man who had approached out of nowhere.

Unremarkable with his messy hair, anonymously-plain face, ordinary suit. Who did he think he was?

It was the middle of the day, and with the Captain and Commissar gone, Murati had been recalled to the Brigand from her meeting with Tigris and Euphrates in order to have an officer in charge of the work site. Murati gladly accepted the responsibility, hurried back with a determined smile and parked herself on the blacktop floor of the space Alcor had leased them. Nobody asked her to remain outside, and she was not necessarily supervising, since she did not really know the work that needed to be done nor who to delegate it to– that had all been decided in prior planning. Still, she took this task deadly serious.

This was a chance to prove she had the mettle and discernment of a Captain.

So she stood guard, on the hunt for threats to operational security, with keen-eyed justice.

This, she believed, was the ultimate duty of the officer in charge.

“I’m not expecting anybody. You better explain yourself quickly, or I’ll call security.”

“Whoa! Hey! Isn’t that a bit harsh to leap to so instantly?”

Orlan made a pathetic expression and Murati delivered words swift and sharp as knives.

“Not another word out of you that isn’t an explanation, you swindler.”

“Now I’m a swindler?!”

Murati stepped forward into Orlan’s space. Menacingly. With authority and security.

They were similar in size, but Murati still seemed like she had all the power in the exchange.

Orlan quickly shrank back a step in the face of her imperious approach.

“Call your Captain.” Orlan said slowly. “Please call your Captain. She can explain.”

“How do you know I’m not the captain, hmm?” Murati said.

“She’s a blond– with– killer shoulders and legs. She– she was with a Shimii–” Orlan stammered.

Murati stepped forward again and Orlan bolted back a step, holding up his hands.

“Killer shoulders and legs? Hmph! Maybe you’re a stalker?” She said dangerously.

“Can you PLEASE call her?” Orlan begged.

It was clear that he was describing Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara.

Since he saw them together, and could’ve only seen them together outside, today–

That narrowed his possible roles in the mystery of why he and Murati were speaking at all.

Prompted by Orlan’s begging, Murati finally contacted Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara over the Brigand’s encrypted line, routed to the portable in her hands. They were waiting for their next meeting, having long since completed their chat with Gloria Luxembourg and her aide– who just happened to now be standing right in front of Murati.

She quickly learned that Orlan Aries was a social democrat, which she thought was a hopeless line–

But also that he was an erstwhile ally and that she should treat him respectfully.

Despite his weird attitude and demonstrable lack of ideological rigor.

Learning these things did not especially endear Murati toward him any further.

However, an officer also had to be a good representative of their crew to military allies.

Therefore, Murati cooled off and reached out a hand to shake with Orlan.

“Murati Nakara. Lieutenant and First Officer.” She said, by way of introduction.

She was not going to apologize nor admit she might have been a bit of a hair trigger.

“Nakara?” Orlan asked, tentatively reaching out his own hand and returning the shake.

“Hmm? Something wrong?”

She felt a sudden spike of anxiety. He had reacted to her surname. Did he know–?

“Oh, it’s an uncommon one. An uncommon surname.” Orlan said. “Around these parts.”

She sighed. “Well, as you must know already, I’m not from around these parts.”

“Right. True. I just motormouth sometimes when things get dicey.”

Murati held back the comments she had brewing about that particular behavior.

“So, Orlan, you concluded your meeting with my superiors. What are you here for?”

Orlan sighed. He was clutching a fancy-looking portable against his chest with one arm, while every so often absentmindedly running the fingers of his free hand across his hair. He had a glum expression. He was clearly stressed out. When he spoke again, Murati thought he was just barely keeping it together, sounding both at the end of his rope and perhaps embarrassed about it.

“You might have to call your Captain again. I’m looking for a ride out of Kreuzung. I had plans with a group of Katarrans to smuggle me out to Aachen to avoid personally checking in or out at the ports. But all mercenaries I’d been dealing with got bought out of their jobs for twice my offer. So now I’m in a bit of a jam, and I can’t even contact Gloria for more money.”

He looked like he was ready to be turned down, averting his gaze from Murati as he spoke.

Murati meanwhile tried to smile a bit. “I don’t think I’ll need to call that in with the Captain. We’re heading for the same place, and we’re not enemies. I don’t think the captain would turn you down if she was in my shoes now. As long as you keep quiet and out of the way, we can find a place for you aboard our ship.”

“Oh! Thank you! Wow, that’s– finally, all my worries are gone!” Orlan smiled brightly.

He looked like a changed man almost instantly, a boyish beaming face having eclipsed the bedraggled shell he had been broadcasting to the world previously. He reached out his hands suddenly and shook Murati’s again, staring her right in the eyes. She was so confused by the gesture she actually shook his hands for a solid thirty seconds before snapping them away.

“Ah, sorry. It’s been nothing but lows and lower lows lately.” Orlan said.

“Well, I’m glad I can help.” Murati said with a cautious tone.

“Now I can even kick back and relax for a few days. God, I’ve needed this kind of break.”

She didn’t know how to deal with how cheerful he had become.

“The days go by, lives get spent like lighter fluid, but there’s still good people in the world.”

From his pocket, he withdrew a cigarette and a lighter, lit a fire, and took a care-free drag.

He looked over to the Brigand. He whistled, as if for the first time noticing its size.

Smoke escaped from his lips in a clumsy cloud blowing Murati’s way.

She grimaced.

“She’s not a looker, but she seems solid as all hell.” He said of the ship, blissfully unaware.

Murati waited for him to raise the cigarette up again before she took it from him.

“No smoking.” She said. She dropped it on the ground and stepped on it.

Even this could not put down his indefatigable good mood.

“Of course, of course. Your house, your rules, ma’am Murati.”

Orlan handed her the pack of cigarettes. Murati would have to dispose it later.

“Say, are you by any chance related to Karthik Nakara?” He asked casually.

Murati’s eyes fixed him with a sudden glare, burning with immediate power.

In a sudden panic, she triggered her psionic power and looked at his aura.

Calm blue and green, nothing out of the ordinary. A slick texture, pliable, like a gel, with a smokey scent. She could not sense any evil intentions from him, no violence, no skepticism. He seemed entirely benign and casual in intention.

“Ah, sorry for the sudden personal question, but I’m only curious because my parents were oceanographers too. That’s why I recognized the surname before, actually. All of your parent’s work is officially discredited, but my parents always cared more about the right theories than the correct ones. So I heard your surname a bunch– they wanted me to go into oceanography too. I just ended up being too much of a meathead for it, I suppose. Are we perhaps alike in that regard?”

He shot Murati another cheerful smile after his long explanation. Murati sighed deeply in return, visibly unsettled.

“Karthik Nakara was my father. But I don’t know anything about oceanography.” She replied.

Orlan nodded. “I knew it. We’re alike then! You were kinda scary at first, but I felt like we could hit it off!”

Murati tensed up. This chipper mood of his was really going to be a problem, wasn’t it?


Kremina Qote had communicated to Erika and Olga that they should arrive in the afternoon since the Pandora’s Box was meeting with Gloria Luxembourg first, earlier in the morning. Erika was a little fatigued in the morning, and Olga welcomed being able to cuddle up with her for a few more hours in the blankets. Erika’s back was turned to Olga, the latter holding her tightly, lightly nuzzling Erika’s good shoulder. She still felt ashamed of what she did, even as Erika’s warm, human (hominin) blood flowed inside her. She wanted to coddle Erika for the wound that she inflicted, to make her feel good any way she could.

“I’m fine, Olga. You’re underestimating me just like Kalika and the rest.” Erika said.

“I don’t underestimate you– but this is different–” Olga said, searching for words.

“It’s not. I trust you, I know you won’t get out of hand with me. You haven’t yet.”

“But I don’t trust myself. I can’t– not when it comes to the hunger– I’ll never be–”

“Jeez! Then at least trust me to be able to protect myself, even if you lost your senses!”

“You would have to kill me.”

“That’s enough, Olga. Please. Just take the advice you give the others– and trust me.”

Olga bit down on the blankets over them, her arms still curled around Erika’s bare body.

She knew Erika was right, in principle. She knew she had to and could only trust her.

But this wasn’t just ‘trusting her to protect herself from mercs or cops’.

This was tied up in Olga’s most vicious trauma and shame– her hunger for human flesh.

That hunger which was the curse laid upon the Omenseers since the dawn of their species.

While Olga brooded, Erika suddenly turned around in their makeshift bed, releasing herself from Olga’s grip. Instead Erika wrapped her arms around Olga rather than the other way around. Olga was a head shorter, and when Erika shifted, she held her against her breasts and stroked her hair almost like she was holding a pet. Olga could feel Erika’s cheek against her own.

She was smiling. And as soon as she had tightly caught Olga in her vice, she started to giggle.

“No more worrying about me today! Worry about securing alliance with the Union folk!”

“It’s not like I can do anything to influence that!”

Olga sighed, but then nestled herself back against Erika’s chest. She found herself smiling too.

Erika never thought of her as a monster– so maybe she needed to stop doing so as well.

“I promise, Olga. When I take power, you’ll never have to fear again, for anything.”

Her voice was not so giggly when she said things like that.

She was serious– she was the commander of the Rotfront when she spoke in that voice.

Olga held her own hands over Erika’s, and against her own chest. “I believe in you.”

Soon, they were both upright, dressed, cleaned up, and out the door once again.

Erika in her button-down and coat, the uniform of the woman who sought power.

And rather than a hoodie, Olga now wore a suit and pants, playing the bodyguard properly.

Her old clothes she stashed away in the bag. Dimmitra would take them. So it was important they were clean.

Kalika and Dimmitra would have absolutely made a fuss about the blood if they didn’t take care.

“How’s my tail, by the way?” Erika whispered before they left.

“Hasn’t grown back since the last time I ate it.” Olga said. “It’s scarred over.”

Erika smiled. “Good. We don’t want any inappropriate questions.”

Olga nodded. Both of them had origins that were best kept under wraps.

Once they returned to the room where their subordinates had been resting, they found Kalika standing out in the hall, arms crossed, back to the wall. Impeccably dressed as always in her fancy coat, button-down skirt, tights. Olga wondered how she did her makeup and hair so perfectly in this damp old tunnel. Alongside her was a smaller woman, shorter than Olga, though not by much, but also somewhat thinner. She had silver-grey hair streaked with black, grey skin, and golden eyes. She had a hooded cape with holes for her horns, and wore the hood partially up, but not entirely covering her face and hair. She had on a cut-off top, short pants and a long sheer bodystocking that was cut off just over her breasts.

“Oh! Premier!”

She had a soft, almost childish voice for an adult woman.

Before Erika and Olga could reach Kalika and the door to the room, Chloe had already dashed to them and met them halfway. She had her eyes drawn wide open and mouth half as wide, like she had words right on the tip of her tongue. This was Chloe Kouri, the smallest, youngest and most eager member of the Rotfront, but up to the par of everyone else in terms of capabilities.

“Premier, ma’am! I got some really interesting intelligence!” Chloe said.

“Let’s hear it. We’ve still got some time before we need to go up.” Erika said, smiling.

As soon as Chloe started speaking, Olga could see the big shadow of Dimmitra at the door behind Kalika, who was still standing there brooding. Everyone else found the way those two were attached at the hip very cute and endearing, but Olga was sometimes irritated at Dimmitra’s sense of protectiveness over the little gurnard. But– everyone but Kalika was guilty of fraternization and none more than Olga, who was regularly involved with the boss– so she wouldn’t say anything.

“Apparently, someone suddenly rode up this morning and bought up a ton of the named mercs currently in Kreuzung! They knew all the places to hit up in the lower levels and picked up a bunch of crews. It happened real early too. By breakfast time every rando Katarran was trying to get in on it!” Chloe said. “There were rumors that they got bought out at twice the going rate! Screwed over a bunch of other jobs that were going on in Eisental! It was so shocking that the gossip has been going around at light speed down here! There’s probably something real big about to go down somewhere!”

Olga and Erika exchanged worried glances and looked back at Chloe.

There was an ecosystem of Katarran mercs in every station that was large enough to have a criminal underworld– and even in those with small criminal underworlds. It was loose and chaotic but it had observable patterns.

Most Katarrans in the Imbrian ocean were nomads, running from place to place. Very few Katarrans ever got a chance at steady and stable work and therefore living situations. Almost every Katarran who thought they could settle down would eventually have a run-in with the law or the underworld and have to skip town; jumping on whatever transport they could get, accepting hard and poorly paying temporary labor on whatever ship or place would have them, but dreaming big. There were always Katarran bodies in circulation, almost by design, and driven largely by racist neglect and statelessness.

Then there were named Katarrans, what the average Imbrian would think of as a real mercenary.

Named mercs were people you could know if you were savvy or had an ear for gossip. Every station had names. Names had their own gear, they had experience, they had decided what their body was for, and it was never anything wholesome. Names were not desperate– they had been around and knew how to survive. Most of all, names were made by their reputation. They often attracted lower tier mercs, either by their social power, clout or even through threats, into forming crews.

These were folks that could get in trouble with the Imbrians and maybe get away with it.

It was possible for any unscrupulous idiot to buy the labor of random desperate Katarrans anywhere.

There were always the bodies of their people around to be used. Olga and Erika knew this all too well.

For someone to gather up named mercs, though, it meant something bad was in the works.

For the Rotfront, it was tantamount to someone waving money in Erika’s face that she could not possibly resist. It would bring Olga, Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe into service with her, along with the Rostock (and Erika was someone with a few ships and hundreds of soldiers). Names built crews. Buying up a named merc usually got the financier at least five or six other tag-alongs at least, always a nice and tidy squad. Enough elites working together could bring out an army.

“Chloe, was it the Mycenae Military Commission?” Erika asked. Her tone was serious.

Chloe shook her head. “I don’t know. There’s more fact than fiction about the financier.”

Olga shifted uneasily in her shoes, hands in her blazer pockets. She grunted.

“It’ll be really bad if Labrys Agamemnon has finally made her move. We aren’t ready.”

“It can’t be Agamemnon.” Kalika said from the door. She had been listening to Chloe’s boisterous conversation from a few meters away. “All of the named mercs here were resisting the Mycenae’s summons just a few days ago. Nobody wants to die for their ‘Golden age’ rhetoric. I doubt that situation could change so quickly and dramatically.”

“If anyone can buy out contracts at twice the rate, it’d be Mycenae, though.” Olga said.

“Labrys is too proud. In her head she’s still dealing with disposable larva from embryo farms.” Kalika said.

“It’s possible a few named mercs got desperate enough to take Labrys’ offers. Anything can happen.”

Erika spoke. That chipper mood her crew constantly saw had been considerably dampened.

Kalika shook her head. “Erika, the Tagmata’s money wasn’t good enough before. We shouldn’t panic.”

“No one’s panicking.” Erika said. She smiled. “But we need to be careful, and we seriously need this connection to the Union to work out now. We’ll need them if the Mycenae Military Commission starts throwing their weight around.”

They all knew a confrontation with Mycenae was likely. It was a bitter history engraved on their flesh.

Over a hundred years ago, Katarre had been torn apart in a civil war still raging unabated.

Everything preceding the war was called “the Golden Age” of the House of Palaiologos.

Now competing warlords divided this vast and incredibly rich country among themselves.

Every Warlord had their own ideas about the collapse. Doubtless, Labrys Agamemnon did too. How it happened was merely academic. In the present, it simply was what happened. Since the collapse, Katarre had been ruled by warlord states each with a potentially massive amount of military power and resources, but fractious in nature, kept in flux by the systems and circumstance, by outside intrusion and internal intrigue, all of it grinding replaceable Katarran bodies for the land’s bounty.

Mycenae was the first name for the old kingdom, and the most resonant.

“The Golden Age” was the legendary name of the era where Katarre was united.

Tagmata, Numeroi, Cataphracts and Hoplites– these were all terms harkening back to that ancient time.

By adopting them, the Mycenae Military Commission wore their ambition on their sleeve.

In name, rhetoric, aesthetics and iconography– it was obvious to any Katarran who they intended to succeed.

Worst of all, they had accrued the professional and brutal military power to match those aspirations.

It was hard for Katarrans to be nationalist, but they could be nationalists like no one else.

Someone like Erika Kairos, peddling the hopes of a revolutionary future–

There was no greater enemy to the new Mycenae, who clung to the despair of the past.

“We should be cautious, but not paranoid.” Kalika said. “Erika, you can’t just focus on the Mycenean fleet’s status alone. Liberal Rhinea liked Mycenae’s money enough to invite them here on behalf of Rhineametalle, but the Volkisch has none of those relationships built. They might not be so keen to have a bunch of foreign dreadnoughts around. It’s unlucky they have ended up stuck on our turf when we started poking our heads out of our holes, but it can also be an opportunity.”

“I’m not unaware. But if we’re not ready, they’ll send us back to our holes.” Erika said.

“As long as we’re still alive after we retreat, there’s always hope.” Kalika said.

Erika shook her head. She smiled. “Yes, but Kalika, I’m here to stake it all on this.”

She kept saying that– not even Olga truly knew what the limits of that ambition were.

One thing was readable, in Erika’s grin and the firmness of her voice.

She was determined not to turn back now, no matter what.

Kalika sighed. “Well, sure. You’re the boss.” She said.

“Yeah, she’s the boss. So you shut the fuck up, Loukia, and just fucking follow orders.”

From the door, Dimmitra seemed to have finally had enough and walked out.

She was a tall and burly woman, dressed only enough to accentuate her personality and muscle.

Chloe left Erika’s side and rushed back to Dimmitra, looking up at her with big eyes.

“Don’t be mean, Itra! Kalika is a comrade too.” Chloe said gently.

Faced with Chloe’s soft gaze, the larger woman’s incisiveness immediately diminished.

“She’s a comrade who talks back too much.” Dimmitra mumbled.

Kalika seemed unthreatened by Dimmitra’s approach.

Erika spoke up suddenly, raising her voice above all of them.

Olga saw her aura briefly flare up.

“That’s enough.” Said their Premier. “I appreciate Kalika’s outspokenness, and I appreciate your loyalty as well, Dimmitra. At the end of the day, I need no protection from someone’s ideas. I know without a shadow of a doubt that Kalika trusts me enough to follow me to the bitter end. She wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that– it would only be then that I’d want to shut her up.”

Kalika shrugged. Olga saw red rings around her eyes very briefly.

She caught sight of Erika’s aura. Kalika knew Erika had power– but not how much.

“I’d just prefer our ends to not be so bitter, even for someone as blunt as you, Dimmitra.”

“Hmph. Whatever.”

Dimmitra went back into the room and Chloe followed, trying to cheer her up.

Olga grumbled. “Thanks, Kalika. What a mood to set for our big meeting.”

Kalika shrugged again and started walking out ahead of the rest of them.

Erika and Olga said their farewell-for-nows to Chloe and Dimmitra then followed along.

“She cares about us a lot.” Erika said to Olga. “Even if she keeps it to herself.”

“I know. Dimmitra has her read all wrong. But Kalika can be annoying in her own way.”

“That’s the case with every living person, I’m afraid. Present company excluded.”

Olga got along well with Erika and had something to say about everyone else.

In her mind, that was part of being someone’s bodyguard– and her closest confidante.

But she wasn’t unrealistic in her criticism. She thought Erika must have appreciated that.

So with that said, and with the thought of the Mycenae Military Commission having gone in and out of their heads, the Rotfront’s delegation ascended Kreuzung’s underworld, and made their way as instructed to the fifth tower, and the beautiful campus belonging to Solarflare LLC. There was a sky, a few trees, even a professionally-kept litter of birds trained to fly over the main street, and chirp. People on the street gave them looks, but mainly kept to themselves. It was a busy technology sector.

Kalika whistled upon exiting the tram and seeing the open sky in Solarflare’s tier.

And that distant central spire belonging to their eventual destination.

“Ritzy as hell.” Kalika said. “Are these really communists we’re meeting?”

“The Union made allies with an industrial scientific company, Solarflare LLC.” Erika said. “We are being hosted in their main building to allay suspicion, since many characters come in and out of Solarflare LLC, on sleepy days and on busy days. We won’t look out of place there because it’s such a cosmopolitan company. And they have rabid lawyers and lobbyists.”

“That’s all it takes for the Volkisch to get off them?” Kalika asked.

“I think the Volkisch haven’t begun looking. Or don’t even think to look there.” Erika said. “After all, it’s a for-profit technology company. The Volkisch have to make such people happy in order to secure their existence in the long term, so they must tread lightly. To capitalism, the Volkisch are replaceable with any other enabler and protector of private accumulation.”

Kalika looked skeptical but turned her eyes from the campus’ grand spire back to the road.

“Well, I suppose this says good things about the Pandora’s Box’s ability to make friends.” She said.

“Let’s hope they want to be friends with us.” Olga replied, speaking up.

They made their way into the main building and spoke with the receptionist.

As Kremina Qote had said, the receptionists pointed them to the right meeting room.

It was not so long a walk later, that they finally met face to face with the communists.

Erika’s lips curled into an enormous, girlishly giddy smile upon seeing them.

There were two– a fair blond who was made up almost as glamorously and fastidiously as their Kalika, along with a slightly more rustic but still comely Shimii with darker features and hair. Both were dressed in button-down sleeveless shirts, skirts, and teal half-jackets, which the blond wore off the shoulder like she was showing off, and the Shimii wore buttoned-up in a fussy way. They were seated behind a table in a small meeting room with some monitors and portable computers.

“What do we think of Levi Mordecai in this room?” Erika asked, grinning happily.

That made the blond chuckle. “You’re in the right place. Erika Kairos, correct?”

Erika put her hands behind her back and leaned forward with a mischievous face.

“Indeed. Erika Kairos, political Premier and military Commander-In-Chief of the Nationale Volksarmee.”

Oh right, Olga thought, that’s our new name. We’re not just the Rotfront now.

This wasn’t the first name change either– she would have to get used to it.

“These are my associates, Olga Athanasiou and Kalika Loukia. Here to provide security.”

“Understandable.” Said the Shimii woman. “I’m Aaliyah Bashara, adjutant and second-in-command; this is Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the Pandora’s Box. We’re all communists here, and we can speak openly.”

Erika smiled, stepped forward and sat in the chair in front of Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Kalika remained outside, at the door.

Olga stood inside, her back to the wall just behind Erika.

“It’s good to meet you, comrade.” Ulyana said. “We are talking with everyone involved in the United Front in Aachen, in the hopes of becoming involved in the action ourselves. We are hoping to caucus at the United Front with one of the main factions. We have heard from Kremina Qote that you espoused similar politics to the Union’s system, is that true?”

“I have a strong affinity for the politics of the Union. I believe it is the correct line.” Erika said. “The Union system overthrew industrial slavery and safeguards their revolution from the Empire to this day. They are the successful model.”

“Certainly, I can only agree with that. Now, materially speaking. We have combat equipment and training that we want to distribute to the United Front.” Aaliyah said, taking her turn after Ulyana. “But we have heard also that your group is pretty well equipped. Can you tell us more about your organization, in terms of its current resources?”

“Of course.” Erika said. She spoke calmly, proudly, professionally. There was still a bit of girlish tittering to her voice, but she was all business. “I command three ships, two Frigates and a Cruiser, and have connections to three willing mercenary Frigates who will take my money if I need them. In total I have about 500 loyal and professional personnel, who are fully provisioned with rations and munitions. I have six Divers, and my flagship, the Rostock, has missile capability.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Do you have former combat experience?” Ulyana asked.

“All of my crew members are Katarrans with mercenary pasts. Some short, some long.”

“Are your crew members ideologically aligned?” Aaliyah asked.

Erika smiled. “I know that communist Katarrans are rare, but I’ve made political education a priority for those working with me. In the ships under my personal command, I only take aboard people who are fed up with the system to a degree that mark bills can’t distract them from. It would be endangering myself to entrust my operation to dilettantes.”

Aaliyah smiled a little herself. “I believe you may have read me wrong, Erika Kairos. Communist Katarrans are not that rare– there are actually many of them in the Union. No disrespect was intended from me, comrade.”

“Ah, but it is a question that must be asked and answered nevertheless.” Erika said.

“In that case, I am curious about your own ideological development.” Ulyana asked.

Olga sat back and watched. Erika was in her element.

She was entirely genuine in her excitement. Olga could see it in her.

Erika loved to talk about communism. She really, truly, believed in all of it.

And maybe some of her crew did not– but all of them believed in her and thus her vision.

Dimmitra was not really a communist. But she followed her warlord, to the absolute end.

Chloe did not really know the theories well at all. But she wanted a kinder and more peaceful world.

Kalika was pretty booksmart, but she was also quite jaded. But she cared about the group’s safety.

None of them worked strictly for money.

They had a Katarran-from-Katarre level of belief in Erika, through thick and thin.

Having been asked to talk about communism, Erika now had the brightest face in the room.

“When I was very young, I first heard of revolution, from news about the Empire losing its colonies. At the time I was destined to become a tool in a Warlord’s arsenal. In Katarre, people are treated as tools, and rarely taught anything outside of the core of knowledge they will use repeatedly, forever, until death. But everyone hears some words they were not meant to. Concepts like change, hope, a future, and the ability to make oneself, are inescapable. They are a core of humanity that nothing can stamp out. For me, since I heard the word revolution, one thing led me to another– I escaped my country, I fought as a mercenary, but all throughout, I was fascinated by the slaves who shook off their shackles and killed their masters. Much of the world holds a grudge against you to this day. In that sense, you are very Katarran, and it is part of why I admire you.”

“How did you come to read Mordecai?” Ulyana said. “I’m ignorant of mercenary culture.”

Olga felt that Ulyana was genuinely curious about Erika. She seemed interested in what Erika had to say and looked more openly engaged. Aaliyah, meanwhile, resembled Kalika or Olga herself. She was watching, scrutinizing, maybe thinking about the direction of the conversation a few steps ahead of the two speakers clearly charmed with each other.

They all had their roles to play in this friendly little war of words.

Erika continued to answer the questions with the same restrained joviality.

“Mercenary culture is illegality in itself. Anything that the Empire singles out with hate and fear and criminalization, you hear about and can get your hands on. You’d be surprised the number of mercenaries who read banned books and have taboo ideas, but at the end of the day, most only do it to pass the time or act quirky. It’s easy to read Mordecai; harder to believe in it.”

Olga spoke up for the first time.

“Mercenaries who work for long enough start getting ideas about changing things.” She said.

“Thank you, Olga.” Erika said. “She’s correct. I got around enough, with all those ideas in my head, that I started noticing patterns about the world I could not let go. Fundamentally, I felt that not only did Mordecai understand how the world worked; he showed me that it could change. And not only had I worked for long enough; I’d seen too much tragedy to keep going as I was.”

“It was the same in the Union. Hard to go any lower than being enslaved.” Ulyana said.

“All too true.” Erika replied. “Radical ideas grow in urgency as things fall apart.”

“Erika Kairos,” Aaliyah spoke up, “what is your goal in Rhinea? What would you have the United Front do?”

Erika did not have to think twice about it. Olga grinned, knowing what she would say.

“Nothing less than the complete defeat and destruction of the Volkisch Movement.”

“Quick and satisfying answer.” Aaliyah replied. “How do you hope to achieve this?”

Erika crossed her arms and sat back on her chair, looking confident. Here came her speech:

“In Rhinea, the key contradiction is not the treatment of Imbrian workers by the bourgeoise, but rather the pitting of Imbrian workers against racialized populations.” Erika said confidently. Her eyes then fixed on Aaliyah specifically, in a way that got her ears to twitch. “Katarrans are treated in an abominable fashion throughout the Imbrium, but Rhinea has a specific relationship with the Shimii people alone. Shimii are segregated and criminalized very specifically. If Katarran bodies are forced into a state of anarchy, Shimii are subject to complete, invasive control. The Shimii’s existence is a form of discipline on the Imbrian persons in many different ways. They are competing workers, they are racial others, they are security threats, and they are also captives.”

Erika fixed Ulyana and Aaliyah with a powerful gaze.

Both were now staring directly at her with much greater interest than ever before.

“Eisental is absolutely crucial to Rhinea and the Volkisch. Without the rest of the Empire to feed their industries, they must count on Eisental for raw materials and primary processing that allows finished goods to be made everywhere else. Eisental is both crucial to Rhinea and also its soft underbelly, being incredibly vast with many terrains. But Eisental is also the site of an ancient Shimii state that was crushed and subjugated by the Imbrians. These contradictions of Eisental’s identity are the key to victory. If the Shimii rose up in their masses, Eisental would collapse, and with it, Rhinean capitalism and its current Volkisch stewards would also topple over. The Shimii, in the agrispheres, in the segregated sweatshops of the corporations, in the ghetto of Tower Seven, they are the sleeping, suffering masses whose plight we must heed if we want to stir a revolution.”

After a pause at the end of Erika’s speech, Ulyana spoke up, now smiling wide too.

“You’ve really thought about this very thoroughly!” Ulyana said.

“What about Katarrans?” Aaliyah asked bluntly. “Don’t you want to liberate your people?”

“Of course I want to liberate them ma’am Bashara. I would be heartless otherwise. But it will come when it comes; Eisental hangs in the balance of a Shimii’s tail.” Erika said. Crucially she was still excited and not offended by the question. She was engaged in discourse. “Trust me that I am thinking of factors for Katarran revolution as well, but such a thing supersedes Eisental. In the conditions of Eisental, we have our best chance for revolution by focusing on the Shimii.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah gazed at one another as if silently gauging each other’s responses.

In the midst of this, the Premier of the Rotfront would suddenly make her heartfelt plea.

Erika reached out a hand on the table, symbolically extending for a shake not demanded.

“Comrades, the United Front is just a steppingstone for me. Whether or not anything comes of that discussion in Aachen. I wish you to join me in this endeavor. I ask that you evaluate for yourselves what Eisental’s revolution needs, and you will understand that I am correct. If you ally with me, slowly but surely, a new dawn will come to Rhinea. I will work tirelessly for this. I will work with Gloria Luxembourg, or the Three Arrows– but I want to work with you, comrades.”

“I hope you’ll take this well.” Ulyana said. “But you remind me of Bhavani Jayasankar.”

Erika’s mouth briefly hung open and then she closed it, and then opened it, and laughed.

“Quite a high compliment! I will never refuse such a comparison!” She said.

Her tone of voice was fully out of control now, increasingly giddy and girlish.

“We will evaluate everyone who speaks to us, and let you know of our final decision.”

Aaliyah spoke up, as if to reign in Ulyana who was clearly taken with Erika’s enthusiasm.

Olga was confident, however, that Erika had achieved some success with these Union folk.

Nobody could have heard that woman say such things and not be taken in by it.

She had such audacity, but also, such a clarity of purpose. Erika had heavily reasoned ideas.

She could be foolish and reckless and authoritarian sometimes, but she was irrepressible.

Flawlessly dependable, hopelessly dedicated, a shining beacon for Katarrans in her care.

“Erika, I have a final question.” Aaliyah asked. “What would Rhinea look like afterward?”

Olga thought the adjutant’s tone of voice suggested she was trying to keep Ulyana from speaking further.

But again, there was no hesitation on Erika’s part. She had always been thinking about this.

“My vision of Rhinea would have it become a one-party communist state with regional soviets, including a majority-Shimii Eisental Soviet operating as an autonomous zone. Similar to the Union system.” She said.

“Right, but what about you?” Aaliyah asked. “Where are you in your vision of the future?”

“Oh, of course, I do see myself as something of a political architect. Like a Daksha Kansal.”

Erika smiled completely placidly. Aaliyah nodded her head.

“So you’d be in charge.” Aaliyah said. “You would have a strong leadership role.”

“Someone must be; and I am better prepared in all aspects than most.” Erika said.

“She is our Premier.” Olga spoke up. “We obviously have expectations of her to lead.”

Was that a question trying to trip her up? That Shimii sure was a tricky one. Ulyana seemed to be swayed, but even after hearing about the liberation of her people, that Aaliyah was pressing Erika harder with every question she asked. And her face was unreadable most of the time too. Olga would have thought she would have been elated to hear Erika’s idea for a Shimii autonomous region, but she seemed to be concealing her emotions well despite Erika’s sincerity and kindness.

“Thank you for answering our questions honestly.” Aaliyah said.

She fixed Ulyana a critical look, and Ulyana looked back at her a bit helplessly.

Olga sighed. Was that not what they wanted to hear?

Erika, however, was still entirely calm, and her usual charming self.

“Anything else you desire to know?” She asked.

Ulyana looked like she was about to speak but Aaliyah answered first.

“No, I am satisfied. You have means and ambition and are clearly formidable. I can see why you are a core pillar of the United Front. Regardless of any decisions we make, we look forward to your participation in Aachen.” Aaliyah replied.

She had gone completely neutral on them. Olga felt unnerved. Did Erika mess it up?

“Of course. Likewise. We shall meet again, comrades. Thank you for your time.”

Erika, calmly and politely, began to stand up, as did Aaliyah–

“Actually–”

Ulyana spoke up, and this time in such a tone as Aaliyah could not try to repress her.

Olga glanced at Aaliyah, and found the Shimii just as surprised as the rest.

“Erika, I do have a curiosity.” Ulyana said. Her face showed determination that was similar to Erika’s own and the adjutant at her side did not try to interrupt it. “Gloria Luxembourg did not meet us in person, and we are well aware that the most connected or influential anarchists will not show themselves openly. Isn’t it dangerous for you to come all the way here?”

At this, Erika smiled again. It wasn’t a soft, girlish smile like the rest.

Olga could feel the fierceness in her, the danger.

She was smiling like a Warlord smiled.

“It is dangerous– but I am staking everything here, comrades. I am done hiding.” She said.

Outside the door, Olga could hear Kalika grumble to herself.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me. Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.”

Erika turned around and left the room, followed by Olga. Kalika then started after them.

“Oh, Kalika!”

In the hallway, Erika looked over her shoulder and met Kalika’s gaze suddenly, stopping her in her tracks.

With that same determined smile as before, but her arms girlishly linked behind her back.

“Please stay with our friends– I want you to act as my liaison to the Pandora’s Box.”

“What? Excuse me? Ugh!”

Erika bobbed her head to one side a little bit without changing expression.

Kalika gritted her teeth and closed her fists.

Olga fixed her own gaze on Kalika, but she also knew the woman would sigh and say–

“Of course, Premier. Please take care on the way back.”

Erika drew back. “Is that really how you feel?” She asked, in a mischievous voice.

“You’re a bitch.” Kalika said. “But you’re the only bitch here with her head on right.”

Without another word, Kalika turned around and obediently returned to the meeting room.


Erika and Olga turned and left the meeting room and Kalika behind.

Walking side by side down the hall out to main lobby of Solarflare LLC’s campus.

Their mood was complicated but not somber. They were both poring over their previous encounter.

“How do you think it went?” Erika asked.

“I think they would be fools not to join your fleet.” Olga replied.

It wasn’t directly addressing the question, but it was her honest feelings.

She thought to say more– but something distracted her in the hall–

Coming from the opposite direction, crossing paths with them.

Two women walking past carried a distinctive presence that made Olga freeze in place. One was taller than the other, well-endowned, her suit and hair color giving her a monochromatic appearance, while beside her was a slighter girl in a dress all done up in lace, her long hair slick and shining as if treated in oil. At the sight of these sophisticated-looking women–

Olga’s eyes dilated, her skin crawled.

She felt a sudden shock run through her nerves, almost similar to the frenzy that the hunger for human flesh inspired in her, at its worst. Erika noticed a few steps ahead and stopped and looked. Her gaze traveled from Olga to the two women.

“Erika,” Olga said. “Please wait there.”

“Of course.” Erika said. She watched from where she stood.

Olga turned fully around, and her aura flared up.

From her body, a black and red wind swept toward the two women, a few meters away.

They stopped walking, and themselves also turned partially to see who was behind.

In the desolate metal hallway full of meeting rooms behind doors.

Syzygy Enforcers I and III smiled as they met the confrontation from Olga and Erika.

“Well, well! Fancy meeting you here, Hunter I.” Enforcer I, Avaritia, grinned at them.

Her strange eyes formed cross-hairs that locked on to Olga with vicious interest.


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.6]

In a very dark and silent room, sounded a shutter, its report as loud as a gun.

On the middle of the far wall a circle of white light shone suddenly.

With the shadows just barely parted, five ascending rows of ten seats each became visible.

There was nobody alive sitting down in them; but every other seat was occupied by a stuffed animal.

Some were proud collectibles and limited editions in pristine conditions; others were patched up with much love and attention, having seen many hugs and absorbed many tears in their best days. It was these stuffies that gave off a tiny wisp of colors from their bodies, green and blue and the tiniest hint of black. It was these stuffies that could almost feel human in their aged dignity, in the visible scars of experience.

Below that circle of light on far wall, there was a small stage.

Footsteps; a woman climbed up on stage and briefly stood in the light to wave at the audience.

Of course, none of the stuffies waved back.

“Hello, hello!” She greeted. “My name is Polaris, super cute girl and genius wunderkind of the Shooting Stars! I need little introduction right? I joined the United Research Department of the Aer Federation at 13 years old! I’m a well-known prodigy who has written many papers!”

Polaris certainly no longer looked 13 years old.

She was a grown woman, pale, with her brown hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore a white coat which was full of custom-printed pins, each of which gave off the same feeling of humanity as the stuffies in attendance. The aura wafting from her pins curled over her left shoulder like a fleetingly visible rainbow half-cape. Her turtleneck and skirt had tiny coffee stains and were going slightly ratty. She had a flushed and girlish countenance; a slight roundness to her cheeks and nose.

She was still young– but worn. Her eyes had deep bags under them, and the fingers with which she operated the projector’s clicker and her laser pointed were bruised black and purple and red.

Her voice trembled very slightly as the audience of stuffed animals gave no response, and she resumed:

“Today, we are going to learn about the Aer Federation’s Threat Classification System. This simple system was designed as a way to categorize threats to public order in a way that their OS, the Aerscape system, can parse, assess and respond to– in theory, delivering contingency plans directly to STEM-equipped personnel in the form of detailed tactical, strategic and logistical info within minutes.”

Polaris fiddled nervously with the laser pointed in her fingers.

“Of course, that was– is, the theory. The implementation was flawed.” She mumbled to herself. “I think it will help illustrate the situation that the Aer Federation was– is–” she paused, “the situation it is in.”

There was another loud report from the shutter on the projector– an image appeared in the white light.

That image was a young man with a hoodie, hands in his pockets, avoiding eye contact.

“Contagio Civilis.” Polaris said. “Social plague’– but these titles were more than their literal meaning.”

A crowd of people all wearing the same t-shirt. Seemingly nothing else out of the ordinary.

“For the Aer Federation, this was also ‘civil contact.’ To watch for any organizing or group thought. It was– it is– currently– before–” Polaris paused and raised a hand over her mouth briefly then smiled and continued speaking. “It is a model called ‘zero trust society.'”

There were a few more reports of the shutter.

Images of thieves, graffiti artists on hoverboards, doomsayers on the street–

–a shadowy, tall man surreptitiously in an alleyway on a dark night,

a misshapen shadow in a suburban backyard, looming over a child with eldritch violence,

a woman putting up flyers,

“Contagio Civilis.”

She waved the laser pointed at each of the images.

“These were individual threats to highly localized areas. Next set of slides please.”

There were images of tornadoes, monsoon winds, black bloc anarchists, labor unions on strike,

a shadowy figure of flesh in a dark forest, maw studded with teeth, legs as thick as an adult’s torso–

a single bolt of purple lightning and a half-charred corpse disfigured with hexagonal missing flesh,

“Clades Regionem.”

A map of a coastal region appeared, red overlayed on a long strip of land containing many cities.

“I added that one slide– the purple stuff. But– that sort of thing was never officially acknowledged by the Aer Federation. Anyway. This is one level of threat over. Clades Regionem. It can be read as both ‘localized disaster’ and ‘regional conflict’. Clades Regionem were threats that affected a particular locale in the Federation. At first, national disasters were the main focus of this category, but over time, they came to encompass political movements and organizing efforts at city and state levels. Clades Regionem were threats that called for suppression, but response stopped short of total elimination. Next slides.”

Loud shutter report;

Dark computer monitors with white sigil text that read “Q – The Question.”

People staring at those monitors in rapt attention while a countdown played beneath the Q sigil.

Another shutter–

Young men and women with small arms, dressed in old-school Ayvartan communist uniforms.

“Continere Ruina.”

MRAP vehicles opening fire with machine guns and wire-guided missiles on a colossal, gangly red creature in a forested area, its long snout closing over a similar vehicle which was being crushed in its jaw and eaten. Under its shadow, pale human figures gathered. When the slide turned, it was a similar picture, except coast guard boats firing autocannons and torpedoes at a massive, serpentine beast out at sea.

Polaris looked upon the flashing images with what seemed like a growing sorrow.

“Continere Ruina. To the Aer Federation it means ‘continental devastation’ but it can also be taken to mean ‘contains ruin’ or ‘contains calamity.’ The obvious thing to draw from it, is that it’s a scale of threat that can affect an entire continent. But there were other interpretations: ideas that ‘contain ruin’ such as, in the Aer Federation’s eyes, ‘authoritarian communism’ were labeled as Continere Ruina level threats. This is because it’s an idea that can spread far and cause unrest. Even something like the ‘Question Conspiracy’, climbed in threat level as it spread across the internet and caused civil unrest globally. Threats of this nature were often required long-term, clandestine methods in order to oppose them. They had to be destroyed, but the level of damage also had to be hidden from the public as much as possible.”

Polaris’ laser pointed hovered over an image of an enormous, armored, snake-like being emerging from a cave, black exhaust seeping from jets along its side– clearly taken by someone’s trembling hand.

There was another shutter slide, another slide; a group of nine individuals, one of whom was Polaris.

There were Shimii, Loup, Nochtish, Nobilean, and Ayvartan members, all together in one place.

The Shooting Stars.

“Continere Ruina level threats were the first threats that called for elimination to be strongly considered over suppression. Elimination entailed hunting down the organization, or the organization’s assets, all equipment involved, and so on, with the goal of not just suppressing individual actors, but permanently uprooting all elements. These purges were expensive and time consuming. So, as the Federation weakened, it became possible to continue operations when marked at this level– if you were careful. Or if you were connected– the Federation was also– is also– notoriously corrupt and nepotistic.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the faces of the group in the picture. Her eyes watered just a little.

She grit her teeth and ran her arm over her face. “Next slides please.”

There was a picture of what looked like an advertisement.

It depicted:

A dog-like figure and a human-like figure; x-rays of them showed bizarre internal anatomies.

It read:

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

BIOMECHANICS ARE A THREAT TO HUMANITY. BIOMECHANICS ARE AGAINST THE LAW.

“Excorium Humanitas. Literally ‘to peel the skin off a person.'” Polaris said. “Excorium Humanitas level threats could harm people and society globally. Threats to ‘all humans’ such as the Great Ravages– pandemics that caused billions in loss of life taken together, and trillions in economic damages. Global Climate Change– but only the part where the planet was warming, not– all the other things–“

Polaris’ hands shook.

Her laser pointed briefly flitted across a picture of a massive purple storm cloud.

“But it was also understood to include, ‘threats that can change the nature of humanity itself.'”

New slides. A short, pale girl standing at the edge of a rural road at night, with a passing car stopping to offer her help; and then a slide of the inhabitants slaughtered, the girl eating them. A symbol of an eclipsed sun; a city under a barrage of purple lightning, tearing through buildings and streets, while at the edge of the storm a horde of dark, animalistic, monstrous figures were tearing into a crowd of riot police.

“Biomechanics conglomerates exploited the tensions between the Federation’s constituent states to gain funding from all sides to pour into dangerous projects. After a series of high-profile incidents, and the spread of hostile biomechanoids, the Federation responded sharply. After being declared Excorium Humanitas, it became impossible to buy even a clone of your deceased dog or a vita-stitched cleaning servitor. Even cybernetics started becoming Excorium Humanitas bit by bit. Alternatives to STEM-integrated implants or STEM-capable cybernetic augmentation controllers, particularly in the latter-day Federation, became targets. Even things like stitcher machines and biomedical organ growing began to be curtailed due to this ongoing backlash. There was even a move in conservative parts of the Federation to label ‘transgender ideology’ as Excorium Humanitas, but these were not successful, thankfully.”

Shutter; shot.

On the screen, a picture of herself, on a poster. Polaris. Margery Balyaeva. Nationality, age, gender, sex.

“No attempt to fully eliminate biomechanoids and biomechanics was ever successful. I strongly believe the Aer Federation’s ongoing– collapse– troubles– they’re not a result of just biomechanics in itself.”

It was visibly difficult for her to speak of this.

That sorrowful looking photograph of hers was surrounded by a circle of repeating text,

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS

and below the picture,

ALL MEASURES VALID. PROTECTING THE FEDERATION IS A CIVIC DUTY.

That said it all. Margery Balyaeva or “Polaris” no longer had rights as a subject of the Aer Federation.

“This is for my– I guess you could say, my current actions. Not that it means anything anymore.”

Polaris smiled at the audience suddenly. She pointed at herself glibly, digging fingers into her cheeks.

“Polaris, Excorium Humanitas, speaking. But it’s okay; you won’t have to pursue this evil villain to safeguard your falling world any longer. I’m sorry I can’t continue to provide a distraction.”

An involuntary sob; she sucked in air and steadied herself. “Next slide. Please.”

Shutter–

A woman huddling on a bed, flesh glistening as if fluid, pustules that seemed to writhe covering her skin.

“Raphtha, the plague of burning. The last and most horrific of the Three Great Ravages. Upgraded first to Continere Ruina, then Excorium Humanitas, and finally Aerae Nullius, when it caused the total collapse of Hispalis and Brittania.” Polaris said. “If only they would have responded strongly from the start.”

Shutter–

A wide shot of an island landscape and port infrastructure, a dark sky overhead, waves of people panicking and fleeing. A colossal serpentine monstrosity, nine eyes along its snout focusing seemingly on the picture camera with a cruel intellect. Gunfire seemed to fly at the islanders from protrusions along its length. From its mouth, an enormous gust of annihilating purple breath cut apart the land itself.

“The Horror of Dys, a biomechanoid that destroyed the Aer Federation’s man-made continent in the central Imbrium, ending their ambition to relocate their headquarters to ‘the center of the world.’ It is still at large, somewhere in the depths of the ocean. Hell– I might end up meeting it soon if I’m unlucky.”

Shutter–

A woman, her orange eyes hidden behind dark glasses, wearing a turtleneck and pants with her hands inside of a long coat. Her purple eyeshadow and lipstick added a splash of color to her monochromatic aesthetics. Long dark hair, and a regal expression, made her appear mature and queen-like in nature.

“Zabik, fellow Shooting Star. A major figure in STEM technology; and avid defender of biomechanics. I did my very best to protect her. But– Hmm. Actually I think she would say ‘I’m still here.’ I think she would.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the picture of this woman. She reached out as if to touch her– then drew back.

“We’ll still be here in our STEM data. We’ll be in the aether– and Zabik, you’ll always be with me.”

She pulled herself away from the woman’s picture and back to the task which she had given herself.

Shutter–

A bloodlessly pale red headed woman with a horn, dressed in a robe that almost seemed like a pair of demonic wings folded over herself, a spiked tail swinging behind her. Lit by a bolt of purple lightning, she laughed raucously with furiously red eyes. An image like– the last thing the camera ever saw–

In the distant horizon, the thick, raging sky blocked the sun like a total eclipse–

“All of these images represent the same thing.”

Shutter–

A picture of an Aer Federation flag, the globe surrounded by six hexagons in a hexagon pattern.

And a bloody X scrawled over that flag.

“Aerae Nullius. A threat rating that is rarely acknowledged. We can draw from the name that these were threats to ‘Aer.’ But how is that different from Excorium Humanitas? In truth, these were threats that could bring about the fall of the Aer Federation specifically, not to the planet Aer. For example, and this one is so perversely horrid: the Shimii and their religious conflicts were ultimately labeled Aerae Nullius.”

Polaris pointed her laser at a picture of a group of cat-eared and cat-tailed militants in hoods.

“None of us will ever know the degree of effort that went into preserving the Aer Federation. How many trillions of Ecos were spent in asserting Aerean sovereignty in the face of growing social conflicts? In controlling a planet ravaged by climate instability and historical pandemics? All of it while trillion eco conglomerates reaped vast profits!” Polaris’ fingers clutched her laser pointer more sharply than before.

“Excorium Humanitas.” She mumbled to herself. “All I wanted– was to preserve humanity. To save us.”

Her eyes glistened. She began to weep, to sob, her shoulders shaking. Ugly noises escaped her lips.

“Zabik– I’m– I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I failed; I failed everyone. Now– now there’s no going back–“

Throughout this display of pathos all of the audience was silent– including–

Gertrude Lichtenberg.

Frozen with her eyes wide, shaking, taking the place of a stuffed toy in the higher seats.

And at her side–

Red hair, a horn, a pale, grinning face, a tail so long it lounged over several rows of seats,

“Interesting. So this is where she fled to. Well– good riddance. Just another hypocritical hominin. You belong in this underwater prison. You deserve even worse. For what you did to us– to me–“

Arbitrator II suddenly lifted her hand to Gertrude’s face, covering her eyes,

and caused her body to burst like a smashed watermelon, ejecting colors from hundreds of wounds–


“Master? Are you with me? Hold my hand.”

Gertrude felt a warm touch, fingers gently squeezing the palm of her hand.

A wall of colors parted before her eyes to reveal a world that felt more substantial–

yet still airy around the edges.

Dim sights through fatigued eyes, half awake and half in dream.

She was standing in the middle of the Island-3 entrance, with that damnable STEM-locked door.

At her side stood–

Azazil An-Nur.

Gertrude was immediately stricken by her bewitching beauty, and the otherworldly presence she felt from the woman. She felt like these dreams felt, like the silver trees felt (what trees?), like the horned woman felt (horned woman?). She felt like the promise of sublimity that Gertrude only found in her delusions.

Pale and long-limbed with deep, dark orange eyes mottled with yellow, cybernetic perhaps.

For someone who called her ‘master’ so frequently, she looked strikingly regal, purple lips subtly smiling, her purple-shadowed eyes delivering a penetrating gaze. Her dress and half-cape, hugging her slender but curved figure, made her out akin to a noblewoman, lustrous silver hair fastidiously kept. Atop her head, she had two black animal-like ears, thin and tall and fuzzy. Was she a Shimii or a Loup?

“Master, how do you feel?” She asked.

Gertrude spoke perhaps the most honest words she had allowed herself to say in this entire expedition.

“I feel like I don’t know what is real and what isn’t.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled at her.

“What would be different, if this was a mere delusion? How would that change your position?”

Gertrude’s jaw trembled.

“I’m– I’m staking my future here–“

“Can a future not be built on emotions? Are emotions not real?”

“Emotions are not material.” Gertrude said. “I feel– I feel insane. I need to know this is real.”

Azazil turned to face the STEM-locked door to Island-3’s spire once more.

“Human emotions have left a mark on this place. I am merely helping you to experience these emotions. Perhaps the mechanism can be likened to a dream; but the feelings are true. They were felt here.”

In the next instant, shadows became visible all around the entrance to Island-3. These shadows were like negatives of a person, visible as the person-shaped empty space that stood between shimmering colors, blue and green, yellow and red, purple, black. These shadows moved naturally, gestured to each other, maybe even spoke, though not in a way Gertrude could understand. They never acknowledged her.

Tall and short, male and female (or at least, gertrude’s interpretation of gender markers).

They examined the door– one even burnt their hand exactly the same way as Gertrude.

Then– they cut out the panel and began to examine the interior of the wall.

“You can see it.” Azazil said. “Their feelings, traveling the path they wore through the aether.”

Gertrude recalled the feeling left in the tunnel. Norn’s world-scarring fury.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked.

“I am a humble servant who was created to take care of humans.” Azazil replied.

“You have power. Like Norn.” Gertrude said.

Everything felt so dream-like that it took a lot of effort just to speak.

Her thoughts felt so airy that she had to seize a firm hold of them to prevent herself from wandering aimlessly between all the different things she felt and wanted to say. Speaking itself was almost an act of rebellion, as deliberate and kinetic as throwing a punch. Speaking asserted a specific place, a point in time, an anchor in the middle of the maelstrom. That was how muddled and difficult her surroundings and her mind had become. Azazil felt like the only concrete thing, another lighthouse in this sea of fog.

“You have it too. You have a wandering heart, carried by the currents, longing to connect.” Azazil said.

Island-3’s main entryway disappeared around them, its colors blending back into fog.

Gertrude was startled, and took a few steps back.

Then she found a wall had appeared behind her. She was now in the interior of Island-3.

Around her the surroundings filled in like a sudden splash of paint on a canvas.

Shadows crossed the lobby and toyed with the finery and furniture that had been left there.

They climbed farther up into the living quarters, their experienced engineers methodically weaving a path through the ancient station. They brought their own crates of supplies, but found a gigantic, existing supply of food with the markings of a polity they did not know. They were surprised to discover the food in these crates was still good if rehydrated. They could hole up inside this place for a while– Gertrude began to understand these feelings the shadows had as concrete desires elucidating on their situation.

Then, Gertrude spotted a few of the shadows bringing up someone into the habitat.

Escorting her through the halls, showing her their findings as a worker would to a superior.

Unlike the shadows, this figure was distinctly a person, with the fullness of her shape. She was dressed richly, in a purple dress embroidered with gold and a silver tiara resembling a laurel wreath with gemstones ensnared in the branches. Her gaze was distant, confused, hazy. She was short and small, skinny even, with a long tail that trailed behind her. She was a child, grey-skinned and pale-haired.

Even in this clearly distressed state, there was still an air of regal dignity that Gertrude recognized.

“They’re Katarrans?” Gertrude said. Her eyes drew wide. “That– That’s Norn? Is it really?”

Her aura, even at this point in her life, when she must’ve been a child– it was so remarkably similar.

It felt like Norn felt, and the band of red that slithered weakly along its edge, it felt familiar.

Like a prelude to the fury that would characterize the grown woman this larva would become.

“There is a figure who is not just a shadow in the aether?” Azazil said. “Then it is as I suspected. I felt you had a deep emotional connection to this aura. Unlike you, I can’t see anything but shadows.”

“Norn was Katarran royalty?” Gertrude said. She could hardly hear Azazil now, her focus too narrow.

She wanted to see more, to understand more, and the aetheric visions seemed to oblige her.

Drawing her further into the station, and out of it– into the tunnel.

Shadows excavated the tunnel, created security measures–

“The Vizier wants Her Majesty to be safe here.”

“No harm will come to her here. She will be able to return someday.”

“Someday she will return the glory of House Palaiologos.”

“Someday. We will all return someday. She will take us back to Katarre.”

Not speech, but the thoughts contained in the feelings representing these shadows.

They worked hard and diligently to create what was almost assuredly a prison.

All the while saying to themselves that it was for Norn’s benefit.

But also for their own. That this little creature they were bricking up would return their glory.

Gertrude’s heart began to pound with growing dread.

She watched as they left her at the very end of the paths they had cut. Oxygen-pumping equipment and air purifiers and moisteners were affixed on the walls which were noisy and eerie but would keep her alive. Hers was the filthy room at the very end, that Gertrude had seen, where she had found Azazil trapped. It accumulated wrappers and food containers and other such things that nobody picked up, becoming like a nest of trash. In the middle of it, the little girl was fed once a day, only rarely seeing light.

At first she was fed the rations that the Katarrans brought with them, as well as rations from Island-3, like packaged freeze-dried goods of the defunct Aer Federation that somehow survived to this day, as well as algae and fungus from the aquaculture farms. However, this would change as the Katarrans began to forage, and Norn began to fed instead mostly on fresh-caught abyssal worms and bony yet gelatinous deep trench fish. Her meals had already been largely tasteless, but now they became actively disgusting.

Despite this, she was at the mercy of her retainers, so she kept her head down, ate, and waited.

Waited– but for what? Years passed without change.

In those conditions, her aura became– grey. A dismal fog that barely clung to her clammy skin.

Azazil’s fingers squeezed into a fist.

“They stripped her of all humanity. She forgot, for some time, what it was like to feel emotions.”

Gertrude watched the girl, growing into puberty and maturity and beyond, within this hole.

Slumped against a pile of plastic containers, her once beautiful dress now rags.

Her tail grown longer than her body, her hair overlong, lacking the energy to do anything.

Receiving only enough care to retain the shape of a human, but no more.

“Why? Why would they do this to her? She was important to them, wasn’t she?” Gertrude cried out.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her heart thrashed in her chest. She couldn’t understand it. She wanted to know everything, but the fullness of the situation was not making itself clear to her. She could only extract the stultified emotions of the little Norn wasting away in this hole. When another shadow would wonder in to feed her, it, too, had no emotions and could not be read or understood. Gertrude hands started shaking.

“They must have lost their own humanity as well.” Azazil said gravely.

“You were in the same room!” Gertrude shouted at her. “You must know why this happened!”

Azazil shook her head calmly.

“These events happened before my stay here. You can see more than I ever could.”

Gertrude turned from Azazil back to Norn and felt a heartache so strong it stifled her breathing.

“Norn– What did you want me to see here? Was it this? Did you know I would see this?”

Her voice began to tremble.

She tried to wipe her eyes but the tears would resume whenever she laid eyes on the little creature.

For how long had Norn suffered in this place? Why had she been confined here?

“Was it the end of the Katarran golden age? But then Norn would be over a hundred years old.”

Could Norn truly have been the remains of the house of the Palaiologoi in the old Katarran Kingdom?

Gertrude’s state of mind was still difficult to get a hold of. It helped to ask herself questions.

Anything she said felt more concrete than any of her surroundings. It grounded her in reality.

She felt like she was convincing herself of a narrative she could believe–

Then, suddenly– Norn locked eyes with her. For an instant, Gertrude felt fear like she never had before.

Can she see me? Can she tell I’m watching? Can she tell I squandered the power she gave me?

Far behind Gertrude and Azazil, the doors into the tunnel opened again. Someone walked into the tunnel.

Norn was not looking at the two observers. She was in her own time, staring at the intruder coming in.

“Oh, this is awful– but I suppose it’s safe, at least.”

Light shone in from the open door into Norn’s tiny quarters.

Gertrude had expected a shadow, but the woman facing Norn was rendered in the recollection as faithfully as Norn herself. Norn was a grown woman during this encounter, but her expression was as bewildered as a child confronted with something grander and vaster than they had ever seen. Drawn-wide eyes, tearing up from the light, fell upon the brown-haired woman at the entrance to the chamber.

She had professor-like presence that reminded Gertrude of Nile. Turtleneck sweater, white lab coat, and a pair of rugged pants that hugged her mature figure. Like Nile, she was quite comely; an inquisitive face with a gentle nose, red lips curled in a sad and worried smile, a pair of red glasses with thick frames perched in front of dark eyes. Her slightly wavy hair was worn long, her gait confident and casual.

“Greetings, little one. You can call me Ganges. I came from very far away. I wanted to see you.” She said. “I think you are very special indeed, aren’t you? Are you truly Astra Palaiologos?”

Norn blinked at her. She was no longer so little a thing as before. Gertrude could see the beginnings of that lean and strong body she had grown to fear, long-limbed and almost elegant, but in this moment, she was ill proportioned due to her mistreatment. Curled almost into a ball in her dark room.

She was a woman, but a woman with the mind of an abandoned child.

She spoke as if any word might rip her throat open.

N-Ναί.”

Norn barely squeaked out a little sound. It was an affirmation, in High Katarran, sounding like “nee.”

Her jaw trembled, teeth chattering. She could form only one more word.

Αστρα…”

Shaking fingers pointed at herself. Astra.

In response, Ganges reached into her coat and produced a plastic-wrapped object.

Norn drew back in fear, but then rebounded toward Ganges upon seeing the offering, suddenly curious.

Kneeling to Norn’s level, Ganges handed Norn the item, partially unwrapping to reveal a piece of bread.

“For you, your majesty.”

Norn snatched it from Ganges’ fingers and began taking tiny nibbles of the bread.

As if she did not want it to be gone so soon– but she still relished the taste.

While she ate, Ganges patted her head softly.

This was not done purely out of casual kindness. Gertrude could see colors drifting from her fingers.

Norn’s aura was growing redder and redder. The more she ate, the angrier she seemed to become.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was so helpless, and so angry, so incredibly angry.

She had rediscovered emotion seemingly so she could hate the world.

And through the hand she was using to comfort her, Ganges could feel the shift.

Ganges sighed as she watched her. “I’m in a real bind. I think I did find our Apostle– and she’s in terrible conditions. But she’s safe and unmolested by the outside world. Ugh. Maybe this was all a mistake.”

Gertrude held a hand up to her chest, gritting her teeth.

“God damn it. I can’t even ask myself what Euphrates would do.” Ganges said. “I know too well.”

“Take her away from there. Don’t leave her.” Gertrude mumbled to herself, lips trembling.

“Was that what happened, Master? Is this figure freeing her?” Azazil asked her.

But Gertrude felt in that moment, that this wasn’t the case. That it wouldn’t be.

All of the emotions confined in this room told her a different story.

Ganges would ultimately leave Norn in her captivity for several more years.

Before the currents of tragedy and war would drag the world back to the cage of Astra Palaiologos.

Gertrude turned her head from the sight of the skinny, abused Norn eating the bread.

She couldn’t take it– she couldn’t imagine being subjected to that kind of pain.

Growing up a child incarcerated and made to disappear by all of the adults meant to protect her.

Those were her retainers, weren’t they? She was royalty– but more than that, she was just a child.

If they saved her from the collapse of the Katarran Kingdom, why did this have to happen to her?

Why did they hate her so much to do this to her? Why didn’t they just kill her then?

They could have left her to be killed by the burgeoning Warlords and it’d have been a kinder fate!

And why– why was Gertrude seeing something this horrible–

“Why did this happen to you? Why did they do this to you?” Gertrude set her jaw, closed her fists.

She had no answer to this; no answer was forthcoming.

It was just one of those unthought-of evils of the world. Children could know suffering too.

“God damn it. God damn it! GOD DAMN IT!”

Gertrude screamed her lungs out and struck the wall, her fist taking on the evil red color too.

Around her and Azazil, the colors twisted and turned once again, bringing them to a new scene.


Gertrude’s tears fell like yellow and green and black color into the floor below.

When next the aperture into Norn’s prison opened, Gertrude’s head snapped toward it.

She briefly saw red on the walls in the interior of Island-3, but it was not aura.

Blood and spatters of bodies had smeared over the pristine steel.

An enormous figure walked through the open door. Tall, burly, with a confident gait.

Covered head to toe in power armor, of legendary Katarran make.

Save for his helmet, which bore two cat-like ears– it was made for a Shimii.

It was the biggest Shimii Gertrude had ever seen, taking step by thundering step toward Norn.

As soon as Norn first saw the intruder and her tired eyes adjusted to the light, she scurried back.

Crawling on the floor– but stopping at the wall formed by the trash behind her.

As if some part of her knew it was filth, not to be touched by someone– she still had– dignity–

Gertrude covered her own mouth, her chest pounding and shaking.

Norn’s fear overcame her anger and the room suddenly became greener and darker.

Her overwhelming aura infected Gertrude with the monumental fear of death that Norn had felt.

Even Azazil’s hands began to shake– she linked them behind her back to hide it.

“Astra Palaiologos.” said the man, approaching. He was so large. Norn was like a larva next to him.

Suddenly, the man knelt, keeping his head raised but his knees bent like a knight before a liege.

“Your majesty. Blessings of the Prophet who is most worthy, and the Caliph who is the appointed successor of his excellence, be upon you. I am called, by His Excellency, Radu the Magnificent.”

His voice was soft and sonorous. He was still enormous. Still casting a deep shadow over the girl curled up in the corner. She stared up at him with eyes rendered large and cloudy from the fear that overcame her. She did not understand his overtures. But whenever the man spoke, he was so immensely obsequious, his voice so beautiful and his cadence so poetic. These elements made her feel something.

“Your majesty; I sought you like a pearl in the sand of humanity’s streaming aether, and I am overjoyed that my divinations finally bore fruit. The Imam of Imams himself, our Caliph, his excellency Mehmed the Great, wishes to extend to you an invitation. He greatly desires to meet you. You shall be treated as an honored sister, and protected from your enemies; taken from this heinous captivity and given the respect which is your birthright. You have a God-given power, Astra Palaiologos, which will sweep away all that has wronged you, and Mehmed the Great will lead you, hand in hand, to its utmost realization.”

Astra shuddered, as the armored man reached out his thick, gloved hand, its digits extended.

That metal claw could have ripped her skinny arms right out of their sockets.

She was like a little doll made of rags compared to the titan that had come to seek her.

And she didn’t understand; she didn’t understand almost anything he meant.

Just the mere fact of hearing words, so many words, difficult words; it terrified her utterly.

His voice was beautiful but everything he was saying was ugly, so ugly, in her mind.

All she could do when faced with that hand was shake and shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

“Princess; your condition is truly evil. But all of your oppressors have paid in blood. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will judge them now. They will never hurt you again. Come with me, Astra Palaiologos.”

She understood the sentiment behind those words. She must have seen it in his aura.

He had killed all of her retainers. Even the briefest thought of such violence drove her to tears.

He waited patiently with his hand outstretched, while Norn shrank from him in terror.

“Can’t you see you’re terrifying her, you bloated fool?”

Radu’s head snapped over his shoulder and he stood quickly, Norn crawling back in his shadow.

He faced the aperture from where he had come and found Ganges standing there.

Unchanged by the years.

She had a companion; wavy blue hair to her shoulders, wearing a jacket, vest, shirt and tie, long pants.

A young-looking face with a sharp gaze that seemed to have a presence beyond her years too.

This woman briefly surveyed the room and Gertrude could sense her disgust with what she saw.

“This is horrific.” said Euphrates, Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

Gertrude was certain that was her name– Norn’s emotions in this room coalesced powerfully around her.

“Well.” Ganges added. “I know what you would have said about it at the time.”

“No, you don’t. But we’ll talk about this later.” Euphrates glared at Radu.

In return, Radu reached over his shoulder.

The handle of a weapon snapped from his back to his hand. He drew it in front of him, and it unfolded into a polearm with an axe-like bladed head which began to gently buzz with microscopic vibrations.

Euphrates crossed her arms. “I don’t care what Mehmed is intent on calling himself now. This woman’s life is not his to toy with. I won’t let her become another tool for his schemes. Understood, Radu Yilmaz?”

Radu scoffed through this mask upon hearing his name spoken so casually.

“I should like to see how you intend to take her from me.” He replied simply.

Ganges sighed. “I guess I’m up, huh?”

“You’re responsible, aren’t you?” Euphrates replied calmly.

“Oh, so that’s what we’re doing? Fine then. You’re impossible.”

Ganges took two steps in front of Euphrates and put her fists up.

Radu stared at her. His face was unreadable due to the rigid snout-like shape of the mask.

There was something like a low chuckle coming through his respirator.

Ganges grinned at him. “I’m afraid that difficult bitch back there never fights her own battles, so you won’t get the satisfaction of beating her to a pulp and watching her pathetically demand more.”

Euphrates grumbled. “Ganges, this is nothing but slander–“

“Whichever of you gets cut in half first, it changes nothing.” Radu said, cutting Euphrates’ response off.

“Enough talking? Okay then. Madam Astra, please stand back from the bad man.”

Norn was now fearful enough to crawl back so far she wedged into cover amid the trash.

Gertrude almost wanted to run to her aid– but none of this was real– it couldn’t be real–

“Master, these emotions are real.” Azazil said. “Steady yourself and see it through to the end.”

Azazil reached out and held Gertrude’s hand. Holding it, Gertrude’s panic quelled.

She fixed her eyes on the combatants–

In time to watch Radu raised his halberd up with both hands.

Swirling black miasma crawling up his arms and along the length of the shaft, concentrating on the blade.

Spiraling around it until the halberd was engulfed in what looked like black heat-less flames.

Radu towered over Ganges like a demon and swung his weapon in a brutal overhead smash.

In response, the Immortal charged him with a grin on her face.

Rushing headlong, Ganges raised her fist over her head to collide with the immense axe blow.

Cutting head met bare knuckles, furious black aura colliding with that lazy candle-flicker of blue–

“Got you.” She shouted.

As the blade crossed the hazy blue color the blow softened to the point it slid across Ganges’ skin.

“What?” Radu cried out.

Ganges turned away the cutting edge and Radu’s arms pushed back as if his attack had bounced

Leaving his chest open and exposed to Ganges’ fist.

Her knuckles connected with his armor and a pulse of red expanded out from the impact.

Radu staggered back as if hit by a battering ram, smashing into the wall behind him.

Ganges reared back up to a full stand from her striking stance.

One fist glowing blue and the other red, in the same way as Radu’s weapon had been colored black.

Beneath the aura of both fists, however, was a rushing rivulet of dark red blood.

Ganges winced, still grinning, but clearly in pain.

“Damn. What do they make that armor out of?” She said, shutting one eye.

Euphrates frowned. “We’re not used to having enemies near our level.”

“Near?”

From the wall, Radu stood back up. His armor had a banged-in dent on the chest.

His arms steadied around his weapon once more.

“Near? You underestimate me at your peril, old engineers. I am a disciple of Mehmed the Great!”

Radu leaped forward, his halberd slicing the air in a brutal swing tracing a trail of black and red–

“She said near.”

Ganges’ fists both turned blue and collided with the blade.

Between the combatants, red and black and blue colors burst like sparks.

Ganges swinging her fists and meeting the vibro-halberd as if her hands were made of steel.

Radu swinging overhand, horizontally, diagonally, raining furious sequential hacking blows.

Then, from a horizontal slice, Radu pulled back his blade, threw his weight forward and lunged.

Thrusting the vibrating spike atop the halberd head toward Ganges’ torso with all his might.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment!

In the instant between Radu drawing back and charging forward, Ganges was engulfed in blue aura.

Closing her eyes, she stepped forward into Radu’s swing,

turned her chest aside, as if a dance move,

and with an open palm, turned away the blade from its flat.

“You’re no Mehmed the Great.”

Ganges opened her eyes, stepped, as Radu fell forward, unbalanced.

With her free hand she seemed to twirl his aura out of his person like ribbons.

And with the same open palm that struck away his blade, she struck his face.

Delivering her aura and his own back to him in a blow that despite its apparent physical softness–

–rang out like a cannon.

King’s Gaze: Dominion.

Radu was bodily lifted from the ground and thrown on his back, his weapon falling at Ganges’ feet.

All of this happened as slowly as a droplet falling from a high ceiling.

And as fast as a bolt of electricity.

Gertrude watched the brawl unfold in disbelief.

“What the hell is that hand-to-hand technique?” Gertrude muttered to herself.

“I said near for a reason.” Euphrates replied. “You have a lot of aura to throw around and mastered some complicated concepts, but you are just using it to butcher people. We’re more advanced than that.”

Ganges scoffed, standing in the some position she was left after the blow.

Breathing heavily, blood dribbling down her hands– and some out of one eye.

“I’d like to see you pull off what I just did, Euphrates.” Ganges complained.

“Part of good management is delegation.” Euphrates replied.

“Go fuck yourself.”

Quiet.”

Ganges’ eyes narrowed, and Euphrates’ shot back to the cave wall.

Slowly, but surely, Radu was standing back up to his feet.

Part of his mask had been broken by the force of Ganges’ strike.

Revealing an eye and a bit of boyish cheek, hinting at a young countenance.

Short messy hair, and a single exposed Shimii ear with hex-shaped scarring.

His shoulders were shaking under his armor. He was having trouble standing at full height.

Despite this and his heavy breathing, he recalled his weapon from Ganges’ feet.

Catching the handle in one hand, spinning the weapon partially, and catching it in the other.

He held the weapon in front of him, grit his face and screamed.

His roar pushed black aura across the room in overwhelming amounts.

“Be quiet. Don’t speak as if you’ve felled me, you worm-begotten whores. I will never fail my Caliph. I am his fortress and his sentinel; your fancy footwork can topple me a thousand times and I shall rise a thousand times. This blade will taste all the blood it needs to realize His ideals! Don’t mock me!”

His endurance surprised the two Immortals, and his growing determination was fearsome to behold.

Then, just as Ganges and Euphrates made ready to withstand a renewed assault–

Across the room, a wave of red suddenly overwhelmed the black aura that Radu had spread.

Euphrates and Ganges both turned their heads in surprise.

At the fourth person in the room whom they had all forgotten.

Even Gertrude had lost track of her while observing the battle.

At the back of the room, standing out of the trash in her discolored, ragged dress.

Norn walked forward, completely wreathed in the deepest, darkest red Gertrude had ever seen.

Παύση.”

She shouted with such force that Radu began to shake.

Red trails flew from Norn’s body like arrowheads on snaking bodies.

Aiming directly for Radu and piercing his body in a dozen places. Leaving no blood, no wounds.

Nevertheless communicating as much rage and hatred as a hundred of Radu’s strokes.

Subject to such power, Radu’s exposed eye went dark, his body slumped.

Radu the Magnificent dropped his weapon, fell to his knees, and collapsed with a sudden finality.

Παύση…”

Norn started to collapse as well, but Ganges rushed forward and caught her in her arms.

Euphrates finally moved from the entrance, quickly examining Norn.

And further examining the mess all around them.

“He’s not dead.” She said of Radu.

“Pity.” Ganges replied. “Well, he’s lucky I’m not as kill-crazy as he is. We need to go.”

Euphrates sighed. “Mehmed will keep coming after her. Violently. This is a mess.”

“There’s seven of us and one of him. Well– there’s six of us willing to do anything.”

Ganges cracked a grin. Euphrates put a hand over her own face.

“Please quit it. I– I’ll convene a discussion about Mehmed. Okay? But we need more information.”

“Fine. But what this one needs is to see Nile. Right away.”

“Agreed. Even under Nile’s care it will be a while before she recovers. Poor girl.”

Euphrates and Ganges both looked at the utterly exhausted Norn with great pity.

“She’s so light.” Ganges said. “This is too terrible. Damn it. I should’ve just taken her before.”

They carried her out and the colors swept after them, while Gertrude and Azazil watched.


Gertrude awoke with a start, lifting her head suddenly from Azazil’s lap.

Her breathing was heavy, and the world was spinning. She felt vomit rising to her throat.

She hugged herself, sweating, skin clammy under her armor.

Scanning her surroundings in desperation she found herself in the tunnel, in Norn’s old prison.

Gertrude recalled when she first ran into this place it felt like an endless maze.

Now there was only the large room, and a short hallway to the entry door.

It was dim and still filthy with plastic trash, but it didn’t feel so oppressive now.

Slowly, Gertrude’s breathing relaxed.

Behind her, Azazil gently wrapped her arms around Gertrude’s shoulders.

She could feel the warmth and softness of Azazil’s chest pressing behind her.

It titillated her just a little bit, and she did not want to acknowledge that fact.

“Master, do you understand better now?”

On the walls and floor, Gertrude could plainly see the damage from Ganges’ fight with Radu.

It was real. So she came to understand, or at least, she had a narrative in her head.

Norn had been a princess of the Palaiologoi, rulers of the old Katarran Kingdom in the Golden Age.

To escape the Warlords, she must have been taken here. They were lucky to find Island-3’s spire.

Then Norn was betrayed by her retainers, by the entire world she knew. Isolated for endless decades.

Terrorized and dragged out into the world during Mehmed’s Jihad, and ending up with a grudge against the Sunlight Foundation. She would ultimately become the Norn von Fueller that Gertrude knew.

Host to an incredible, world-consuming wrath; and an immeasurable pain.

Gertrude started to weep.

“What was the point of seeing that? If I can’t change it? If I can’t ever help her?”

Azazil clung more tightly to the back of the fallen night.

“Master, the emotions left in this place were entrusted to you.” She said into Gertrude’s ear.

Gertrude threw her shoulder forward to shake off Azazil’s embrace.

That ever-polite stranger behind her made no comment on this brutish reaction.

“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Gertrude asked brusquely.

“I’m Azazil An-Nur.” She said calmly. “I was created to take care of humans.”

“You keep saying that. Are you a human?”

Azazil smiled pleasantly, purple lipstick glistening in the dim light of the instruments around the room.

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She said easily.

“What? Debate by whom?”

Gertrude shook her head. She felt insane. Everything was completely insane and nonsensical.

“Forget it. Don’t answer that. How did you end up here? You arrived after Norn already left, right?”

“Correct. I never met the woman whose emotions marked this place. I had a purpose to come here.” Azazil said. “Unfortunately, the spire’s mainframe captured me by registering my STEM as a servitor and rewrote my purpose, so I have been tidying up here for a long time. I was forced to rid myself of my transport by the system in order to leave room for guests to arrive, so I became trapped in here.”

Gertrude looked over her shoulder and stared at her.

How did a computer capture a person? How did they– rewrite– a person?

But when Gertrude first saw her– she was in grave distress and asking for help.

And there was all that buzzing in her brain about– STEM reformatting.

It was a horrific thought, that she had become enslaved here. By a computer that could do such a thing.

Could she really have been telling the truth?

“Is that why I found you the way I did?” Gertrude asked.

Azazil nodded. “This Island-3 module is suffering system malfunctions after it was visited by a group of biomechanoids. As one of its servitors I began to malfunction as well. When I sensed the presence of guests, I called out in the hopes that I could reformat my command authorizations to become subordinate to you instead of to Island-3’s service fleet. As you can see, I was successful.”

“What the hell?” Gertrude cried out in frustration. “Are you or are you not a human being?”

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She replied again, still smiling gently.

“Are you a machine?”

“I am completely biological.” She reached out a hand. “I am soft and warm, aren’t I?”

She was– Gertrude knew that better than anyone now. Azazil felt like a woman.

“Then what the hell are command authorizations? How does a computer capture you?”

Azazil continued to speak easily and with frightening clarity.

“Via STEM, which was installed in me when I was created.”

“How? Explain how. What the hell even is STEM? The door had it– and you do too?”

“System for Token Execution and Management.” Azazil said.

“More than that! God damn it!” Gertrude choked down a desire to yell.

“STEM is a DNA-based storage and execution layer that hosts data Blocks as well as nanobiological instruction sets called Tokens. It is depicted as a helical chain of blocks in computationally important hierarchies called a stemchain.” Azazil said, still looking rather tranquil.

Gertrude felt a knot in her stomach. “That’s– that’s insane. DNA? So that was how– how you were–?”

Azazil continued. “To explain my situation further, the station installed a token at the top of my stemchain to control me. However, humans hold special permissions over my body as a safety measure, overriding any Autonomous Device. So you are the Master of this body now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“How–” She wasn’t going to even touch the body stuff. “How do you know my name?”

“I learned it at the time you became registered as my Master.” Azazil said, smiling.

That made no sense– or perhaps Gertrude didn’t want to make sense of it.

“Who– who did this to you? Who created you?”

Gertrude was just barraging her with aimless questions now.

She knew it was all useless, but she was angry and lost and increasingly hopeless.

In response Azazil furrowed her brows. Her eyes narrowed. Her gaze wandered.

“Not gonna answer that one, huh?” Gertrude said in a petulant voice.

“One moment Master. I am resolving blocks deep into my chain.” Azazil said.

Her tone of voice was completely unperturbed despite repeated questioning.

“It just looks like you’re stalling!” Gertrude shouted. “This is all made-up isn’t it?”

In the next instant, Azazil smiled again.

“I was designed by Margery Balyaeva.” She said.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide.

That name–

She had heard that name– she had seen it–

in a dream.

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

Those words rang out in her head again. Had that– had all of that been real?

Then– had that horned woman really eviscerated her body–?

Gertrude felt like throwing up as she was flooded by reminiscence.

Nothing made sense. She was torn between so many different visions and worlds.

“Master? Are you unwell? There are still medicines in Island-3 I can access.”

None of that was going to help her. She needed something concrete to focus on.

She needed the next link in her own long and tormented chain of experiences.

“No.” Gertrude grunted and forced herself to a stand. “Forget it. I’ll be fine. We need to find–“

What this one needs is to see Nile

Her emotions were all over the place, but one thing came to mind that felt certain.

Nile must have known something she wasn’t saying.

Azazil claimed her stay in Island-3 did not coincide with Norn’s. But Nile had met Norn.

It was time to ask her about this whole situation, and the mysterious Sunlight Foundation.

That would be her next step– find Nile, make her own up, even if it took brute force–

Then, Gertrude felt something stirring in a pocket of her clothes that distracted her again.

She reached into it and produced the trinket Nile had given her.

Stirring gently in her hand, vibrating with an otherworldly presence.

On its surface, the fluids formed a blue hexagon, its lines scratchy and irregular with vibration.

Gertrude thought she heard noises coming from it.

Brief bursts of garbled choppy audio that began to coalesce into brief gasping, wailing, moaning.

Suddenly, Azazil rushed to stand in front of her.

“Master, stay behind me. They mean you harm.” She said.

From her upper back, hidden under her cape, she withdrew an extendible riot baton.

She wielded it in one hand while extending her arm to cover Gertrude behind her.

“They?” Gertrude’s voice trembled. The room felt suddenly, bitingly cold.

And her vision swam, through a wave of fatigue worse than any she had previously felt.

For a moment, she thought she would collapse, but steadied herself on Azazil’s back.

And saw, over the woman’s shoulder, a figure moving in from the door.

From the door that had never once opened to admit anyone inside since Gertrude awakened.

“What is that– please– no– oh no– oh god–“

One of the most primal fears was the fear of conception in itself.

An ability to view an object with an inability to place its context within reality.

Shadows peering around corners only enough to be noticed. Distant, distorted figures coming into view. Person-shapes before the instant of recognition. Amorphousness, miscibility into the background. To allow for an instant, the existence of something before the mind could place it in the natural order of things. There was nothing there; the lens resolution was too low; the blob becomes a person in time.

In the instant before acknowledgment, there existed the possibility of the unknown.

When something was peered at by human for long enough without producing understanding.

Such a thing was called a monster. Excorium Humanitas.

Such a thing now stood in front of them. And even in full focus, it was impossible to believe.

“Master, I will protect you. Please leave these aberrations to me.”

Facing Azazil and slowly approaching, was a creature that was tall and seemingly thin, covered head to invisible feet in a long, raggedy blue robe or hood. Its face was covered by a mask, leaving no gap between the hole in the hood and the white of the mask. On that mask, moving like facial features but also etched as if cut right into the material, were two eyes like thick black lines and a jagged smile like the silhouette cut by a pumpkin with a candle inside. Its strange expression looked like a sleepy smile.

One arm was fully covered by blue cloth save for long bony claws specked with mold.

Mold also grew in patches around its worn robe and gave off bright blue spores.

Behind itself, the creature dragged an elongated, swollen arm with papery blue-black flesh growing even more mold. This arm and much of the creature’s body was tied in chains that seemed to fix its robes in place, but did not impede its movement, which itself was bizarre. It twitched from position to position, its motion blurring, its body elongating and shortening and sometimes even splitting in half or twisting into a knot as if Gertrude was viewing mismatched frames of animation rather than a real creature.

The same wailing, choppy noises that came from the aetherometer issued from the creatures as if they were living outputs for some deranged radio station. They didn’t have to visibly move to make noise.

Then like a static-torn message from a radio at the edge of its distance, Gertrude heard words.

This…first stone…my church…

There was a voice, a human voice, a

discernible, distinct,

familiar,

voice,

“M-Monika?” Gertrude said. Suddenly piecing together the speaker. “Monika’s voice? Why?”

One of the creatures, of which there were several, then made it close enough–

To lift its claw and swing with violence, its sleepy carved expression unchanging.

Blue color shone from its sharp white digits as it brought them to bear on Azazil.

Without hesitation, she swung her baton in return, purple color collecting around the shaft.

A sound like bone snapping– she battered away the claw as if it weighed nothing.

Instantly the creature in front of her disappeared in a cloud of spreading blue aura.

“Keep hold of yourself Master. Steel your emotions and do not fall asleep.” Azazil said.

Two more creatures slowly twitched into view, coming closer.

They clicked their silhouetted mouths, making impossible noises as they neared.

“I won’t let them touch you.” Azazil said. She looked briefly back at Gertrude.

Her orange eyes had bright red rings around the iris. Her aura thickened and flared.

Gertrude huddled behind her, speechless, eyes watering, feeling tired down to her bones.

For all she knew, she was already asleep. Because so far, nothing resembled reality.

Just as she got used to having her feet on land, she was suspended again in an instant of lunacy.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.5]

In the middle of the endless white forest, there was a tree with a trunk that reflected light like glass.

Images upon its length began as static, but cohered into something as the tree awaited a visitor.

Raised over an ankle-deep puddle, surrounded by its rising and falling roots that were like gnarled bodies half-interred and half-dug back up. She saw it in the distance, and she ambled toward it like an animal in an endlessly dark cave, as if her senses only allowed her to perceive and follow its light. Step by slow, plodding step, her mind a fog, while the trees sang around her, their colors drifting in the air like a sky full of ribbons. Cheering for her, encouraging her, warming her, lavishing her with their endless affection.

She stepped into that puddle and looked up at the reflection on the trunk of the tree.

There was a familiar environment. A window into a world of metal.

There was a woman, hair tied up in a brown ponytail, wearing a long shirt and pencil skirt and tights, and a long lab coat. She had a pin on her lapel, depicting a globe beneath a rainbow of falling stars, and a second pin beside it, at times clutched in her shaking hand, with a logotype: “Shooting Stars.” These tokens looked almost childish, and the way she was clutching them nervously even more so. It made her look too young, too new, particularly in the indistinct violence of her surroundings. Metal, dark and jagged and industrial, pipes and mechanisms, tubes, fluid, fuels, gases. She stood on a platform deep in the midst of a gargantuan mechanism, staring helplessly as it unfolded before her, loomed over her.

Staring as it seemed to menace her; as it seemed like it grew endlessly outside of her grasp.

And up above, emblazoned in the center of everything, a flag.

Linked purple hexagons around a tiny blue globe, accompanied by a logotype: “Aer Federation.”

That mystery woman in the reflection contemplated the flag, then turned her head over shoulder–

–and smiled, an expression so tragic that blood should have come out of her eyes as tears.

As if staring out of the picture in the tree; as if she could see the lost soul in the endless forest.

Across time, maybe even across dimensions–

Filled with an agony and mourning of incomprehensible proportion.

“I’m sorry. I know that this will trouble you greatly, but I have made my decision.” She said. She was not speaking into the forest, not speaking to the woman in the puddle, but to the owner of the memory. “I’ve failed Nobilis, I’ve failed Nocht, I’ve failed Ayvarta; I’ve failed all of humankind, every hand that gave me third and fourth and fifth chances.” Tears drew from her eyes and though she continued to smile it was clear that her heart was broken. “If there’s anyone left to remember me, it will only be as a dismal failure; but the thing I regret most is how I failed you. We’re the only two left; and I can’t make this decision for you. But I made it for myself. I– You’ll probably think I’m such a coward. But I can’t– I can’t keep–“

Suddenly, at the side of the woman in the puddle, who had been watching the memory–

–there was a second one.

Red-haired, horned– lavish white robe– a disdainful look in her yellow on black eyes.

“Interesting finding. Somehow, this graveyard keeps opening its holes for you subhuman scum. I wonder– who is she talking to? Maybe I will let you explore and see if you turn up more.”

She raised her hand, and the colors collected around it like tendrils–

“But not for this; not right now.”

–and the tendrils lashed out at Gertrude Lichtenberg and tore her entirely to pieces–

“There’s nothing I want to be reminded of less– than of that spineless bitch Polaris.”


Depth Gauge: 3503 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)

Gertrude Lichtenberg awoke with a start and ran her hands over her body in a panic.

Breathing heavy, checking that she had arms, legs, a torso, shoulders, breasts–

With the source of her panic rapidly fading, unable to piece together what she had experienced, Gertrude was overcome with exhaustion once again. She threw herself back on her back, kicked her legs, sighed.

Despite the nap Gertrude felt very little relief from her previous exhaustion. It felt like lying down in her bed only caused time to move forward and did nothing for her body otherwise. There was a thought that swam vaguely in her mind and started to drift farther and farther away in wakefulness and it infuriated her. Something she had to do? Something she had to be worried about? She grunted with anger.

“This is really starting to get to me. I’ll– I’ll talk to Nile again. After I come back.”

They should already be at the same depth as the suspected habitat in the rock wall.

She could not stop now. She had to see this thing through to the end– or to its next step.

Gertrude slipped out of bed, fixed her clothes and left the room.

She took with her the gadget that Nile had given her, lying on her bed, stowing it in a pocket.

She did not look at it.

Since she did not understand it anyway, she was not curious whether anything had changed.

She made her way to the Iron Lady’s bridge. At the door, she was immediately met by Karen Schicksal, who handed her a vitamin jelly pouch without saying anything. She looked more disarranged than ever before, with her hair uncombed and dark bags under her glassy eyes. As soon as Gertrude accepted the vitamin drink, Karen withdrew another such drink from her jacket and began to drink it. They were starting to go through these quicker than Gertrude could have imagined– everyone looked exhausted.

In addition to Karen, Nile was standing with her back a corner of the room, and Victoria was standing beside Dreschner near the central throne. Gertrude sucked her vitamin jelly while making her way to her own chair, nodding her head at Nile and Victoria along the way, both of whom nodded back. They both appeared about as haggard as everyone else, but standing a little more alert than some of the crew.

“High Inquisitor,” Dreschner said, by way of acknowledgment. He yawned, pointing at the main screen.

On the main screen, their next destination loomed in front of them, enormous in its scale.

Its size easily outmatched the enormity of the Iron Lady herself.

“What is this supposed to be?” Victoria mumbled to herself.

In front of them, the structure that had been partially embedded into the rock wall appeared like an enormous, metallic stack of four plates where each pair was stacked well to well, so there was a thinner “neck” between the two main structures. It was absolutely massive, at least 300 meters tall. Some of the outer armor showed signs of damage, like shearing and gaps in the plates, but miraculously, there was no wear from the saltwater. Certainly this structure could not have been new as it was the size of a larger substation and nobody could have built it in such a precipitous location, so one would have expected an array of creatures to have accumulated over it over time, and for the elements to have worn its surface.

“It fits much too snugly into the rock wall.” Nile said. “I’m no engineer, but this looks deliberate.”

She appeared beside Dreschner’s seat, standing in conference with the rest of them.

“Not one of yours, I take it?” Victoria asked, her voice exhibiting a hint of derision.

“I would have ditched all of you and gotten myself a nice can of espresso if it was my lab.” Nile said.

“Don’t get started, you two.” Gertrude grumbled.

“I have something of an idea regarding its provenance.”

Dreschner raised his voice to match the women beginning to argue. Everyone looked his way.

“Lady Lichtenberg,” he continued, “do you remember your father well?”

Gertrude shook her head. This was a topic on which she had no strong feelings.

She remembered Dreschner from her childhood more than she remembered her own father.

“He was a very busy man, and the years of my childhood which are still clear in my memory did not feature him prominently. Not to sound callous– that’s just how it is.” Gertrude replied.

Dreschner nodded. “I would never accuse you of being anything less than filial. At any rate: the reason your father was first employed by Leda Lettiere was not as a guard, much less as guard captain. He secured those positions due to his bravery in a clandestine effort. He participated in an abyssal expedition to recover an ancient technology. A surface-era technology. I never learned what it was, but your father told me of the existence of such ruins. There are allegedly even some under Heitzing. It’s not well known.”

Gertrude was not aware of this history, but in her somewhat addled state, she simply could not muster a lot of emotion about her father. However, there was one tantalizing bit of information there–

“Wait a minute– surface era? As in, over a thousand years ago, before– the Ocean?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly.

“Maybe even before the corruption.” Nile said suddenly. “He’s not wrong– such things exist.”

Gertrude and Dreschner’s eyes turned sharply to stare at Nile, who crossed her arms.

She looked as tired as everyone else there.

“They do– I bet your organization has unjustly pilfered many of them.” Victoria hissed.

“No more than you biofascist brutes have destroyed unknowingly in your pointless wars.” Nile snapped.

“Stop it already!” Gertrude shouted. “Don’t speak another word to each other. Dreschner– how do you know this structure is related to the surface? What did my father tell you about such structures?”

“That they did not decay, and they never lost power.” Dreschner said. “We have confirmed both. While this station has received seemingly random acts of violence, there are undamaged plates that look brand new. No wear, not even saltwater corrosion. Furthermore, we probed around the area with a spy tentacle and found that there is a lower intake which is still sucking in water. This structure has electric power.”

“Can we signal it with the laser? Do we get anything back?” Gertrude asked.

Karen raised her voice, having stood in the periphery of the discussion. “We attempted to connect to the exposed laser array near the top of the structure, but we kept receiving incompatible protocol errors. I even had the computer attempt a Free Interface Generation process just to see if we got something, but the Iron Lady’s learning computer could not figure out how to communicate with this system at all.”

“It might be designed not to respond even when passive.” Victoria said.

“It’s unsafe to make a system like that! If the human operators were all incapacitated, there would be no way to determine the status of the station and respond to emergencies!” Karen said, sounding helpless.

“That’s our safety standard, but not necessarily theirs.” Gertrude said. “Nile, how much do you know?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t much.” Nile said. “Our resident deep-divers were a pair of ladies by the names Euphrates and Tigris. I was not as much a woman of action. I preferred to stay behind and work in lab or clinic settings, not run around. That being said, we had friendly chatter about it. So I can confirm that the most peculiar characteristics of old era structures are their continuing access to power, pristine condition, and the difficulty in extracting anything from them. Euphrates never successfully recovered old era data from any of the structures she uncovered. I doubt we will be able to do any better ourselves.”

“We may want to consider turning back, Gertrude.” Victoria said, her ears folding slightly.

Gertrude wasn’t about that to heed that advise. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her or even insinuate that this had been fruitless. In fact, if this was a Surface Era facility, then Gertrude’s journey may even have become more important than ever before. She felt a sudden attack of grandiosity– Norn wanted her to see this thing. Norn wanted her to discover it. That meant there was a way inside, or there was something to see inside. There was something she had to uncover, something that she had to understand.

There was no force on Aer that would have made her turn back now.

That inferno, raging where her heart should have been, dispelled some of the exhaustion she felt.

“We’re not ascending.” She told Victoria. “And you’re coming with me. We’re going into that thing and we’re going to see what we find in it.” She then told Nile bluntly. Nile did not seem surprised, and simply hid her hands in her coat pockets. “Have we found an entry? Can we connect a chute anywhere?”

She was raising her voice. She did not intend to sound so angry, but she was– impassioned.

“I know we’re all exhausted and we’ve been working nonstop. We’ll have a break as soon as I return from that structure. But I don’t want to hear talk of turning back. We are not returning to Konstantinople empty-handed. I am grateful for your continuing effort. Now, remain alert!” Gertrude declared.

This time loud enough for the entire bridge to hear.

Dreschner averted his gaze. Karen shrank back.

Across the bridge, there were a few half-hearted nods and salutes.

“Let’s start working on a way in there. The boarding party is already decided.” Gertrude said.

Everyone on the bridge resumed their duties, and so, with a sigh, the expedition continued.


The Iron Lady neared the structure and extended its boarding chute, holding onto the surface around the suspected entryway via its magnetic clamps. A similar process to the entry into the Cutter was undertaken, but ultimately found to be unnecessary. The engineers brought a wheeled scanning array to attempt to predict the structure of the door, which would have subsequently told the engineers where to drill. However, as soon as the first few seconds of laser and sonar scanning commenced, the door simply opened, as if it detected the sound and light waves and responded solely to that level of activity.

Behind the door was a brightly lit corridor at the end of which there was another door.

This one, the engineers did not probe. They tested the environment for habitability and turned back.

There was oxygen, everything was lit up and temperate. They had power, heating– and a big door.

“The door seems to have an LCD panel for interaction. We figured you would want to look at it first.”

The engineers were clearly tired, and anxious about the structure, but holding back any criticism.

While Gertrude found the situation unnerving, it was not nearly enough to get her to back down.

At this point, nothing would be– perhaps not even certain death.

She tried to keep her crew in mind– but they slowly fell by the wayside of her obsession.

“As long as there’s breathable air, I’m going. I can delve inside on my own if that’s what it takes.”

Victoria sighed openly at Gertrude’s behavior– or maybe out of personal exhaustion too.

“I swore that I would protect you. Quit being so pig-headed. I’ll follow you in.” She said.

With the help of some of the girls from the security team, Gertrude and Victoria once again donned their armor and flip-up bulletproof glass visors. Gertrude had her club and vibroknife and pistol, but in addition, she had a trio of portable door-breaching charges clipped to her belt. These would do nothing to a bulkhead, but could punch through an interior sliding door’s locking mechanism and thereby force the door to slide open. She even convinced Victoria to carry an additional two on her own person.

Victoria and Gertrude were a given, but there was a third member of this particular sortie.

Her face was again covered by her special muzzle, but that and her collar, glowing green, were the only pieces of apparel that Nile had in common with her previous appearance. She had been forced to leave behind her turtleneck and coat in favor of a durable, long-sleeved blue shirt like Gertrude’s– along with a suit of K9 skirmishing armor. This resembled Imbrian composite riot armor, but it was lighter, and made up of more individual plate segments that could bend together with the natural curve of her body to allow greater flexibility and freedom of movement. K9 armor units also included a tail and ear section, as well as Loup-scale vibroclaws retractable into the gauntlets. It suited her height and physique perfectly.

Like Gertrude, her long hair was tied up to keep it out of the way. That detail, the long pants and boots, and her distant eyes, gave Nile a very rugged look in the armor. Gertrude thought it was quite attractive.

She was the picture of K9 excellence, armored, deadly, swift on her feet, and proud-looking.

And as a nod to Nile’s particular status, her armor had the badge of a K9 medic, and a medicine bag.

“You look handsome, doctor.” Gertrude said. “How do you feel? How’s the fitting?”

Nile shut her eyes and sighed. “Never in my life did I imagine myself wearing this kind of thing again.”

“Again?” Victoria asked, narrowing her eyes. Nile ignored her completely.

Gertrude chose to let the remark go.

“Might as well use stuff we have that we know fits and works. Gets around the issue Victoria had.”

“I’m not objecting. It’s just surreal. If you’re expecting me to sic on command, you’re delusional.”

Gertrude grumbled. “I’m protecting you! I outfitted you so you won’t die if you get shot or stabbed. I have no expectations of you as a fighter. You’re here because I need your brain, and I need it safe.”

“Here’s hoping there’s nobody around in there to shoot or stab me.” Nile said.

She made to put her hands in her coat pockets, and found herself wearing no coat.

Sighing again, she hid them behind her back, interlocking the fingers.

Meanwhile, near a Jagdkaiser with its cockpit open, Ingrid stood with her arms crossed, staring from afar.

Before setting off, Gertrude drew nearer to her, drawing her lover’s full attention.

“Ingrid, I really want to thank you for doing your job so diligently.” She said.

Ingrid raised a hand to hover in front of her mouth while she yawned loudly.

Her tail started wagging, just a bit.

“When don’t I, huh? I’ve always been your loyal dog that gets shit done.”

“I promise, after all this, I’ll make some time specifically for you again, okay?” Gertrude said.

Ingrid averted her gaze and grunted.

“I’m not a puppy, I don’t need you to placate me. I’m fine over here. I have nothing against what’s going on and I completely trust and believe in you. So just go, so that this whole mess can be over.”

Her tone was not agitated in the slightest, even though she looked slightly annoyed.

She was being so much more mature about all of this than Gertrude previously imagined.

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said again.

She was so strong. If only Gertrude could have a quarter of her strength– or loyalty.

God damn it. It’s not like I’m cheating– I haven’t done anything.

And the two of us aren’t even– god damn it. God damn it, Gertrude Lichtenberg.

You’re a real bastard.

Her inner voice berated her terribly.

She closed her hands into fists and walked away. Feeling terribly guilty for a moment.

Personal issues had to be set far aside, however.

She had to make ready to tackle the supposed old era structure.

For everyone’s sakes. It wouldn’t matter what she and Ingrid were or felt, if she was still powerless.

That prospect of “old era technology” that might grant her an advantage was far too tempting.

Without some kind of forward progress, Gertrude was convinced she would lose everything again.

So she took her resolute and desperate and half-mad steps, one foot in front of the other.

Crossing the bridge suspended in the middle of the ocean, into the walls encasing the unknown.

Past the threshold from the Iron Lady’s boarding chute, the interior of the structure was exactly as simple as the engineers described. Plain steel walls that were nonetheless polished and unblemished, a wide lobby bereft of anything save for a single shut door with an LCD panel beside it. As soon as they crossed the the threshold, Nile turned around and looked at the ceiling over the door-frame.

“There are vents up there. If there’s vents, there’s potentially pumps. That might explain why this room is barren and has nothing but another bulkhead.” Nile said. “This room opens to the exterior, possibly when it detects radiation, admitting people inside. It’s not necessarily meant to be a secure bulkhead.”

“Why would anyone design it like that?” Victoria asked.

“It might be their safety regulations.” Gertrude said.

“Is that euphemism meant to mean ancient surface humans? Because I’m not convinced.” Victoria said.

“Skepticism is healthy.” Nile said. “Fearless leader, go interact with that door, and we can confirm.”

“I know. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.” Gertrude replied, grumpy at the teasing.

Gertrude approached the door with Victoria at her side and Nile following a few steps behind.

Up close, the door looked remarkably thick and solid. It almost appeared seamless with the surrounding walls, with only the thick doorframe belying its true nature. The LCD panel was crisp and almost clear enough to be a mirror, completely unblemished. It was about the size of a human head. Gertrude approached and laid her hand on the panel, because its size reminded her of a palm scanner.

Blue light filled the screen and began to display a picture in response.

White text on a blue background, a bit difficult to see.

“What is this? It’s all in High Imbrian?” Victoria said. “Then we can safely say it’s from this era, no?”

Nile shook her head. “It isn’t exactly the same grammar as High Imbrian.”

Gertrude stared at the letters, speechless.

Across the Imbrian Empire, the common language was “Low Imbrian.” Low Imbrian was a somewhat universal language in the Imbrium and its surroundings. Cogitan captives understood Low Imbrian to an extent; and their Imbrian captors, following another pointless battle for the Ayre Reach, could mostly understand their common tongue, Republic Common Speech. The Union spoke and wrote Low Imbrian as “Union Communication Standard.” Katarrans called it “Street Talk.” Hanwans understood it and spoke a frighteningly similar language they called “the Public Tongue.” This language must have had an ancestor that was common to all races and cultures of Aer, and its inter-legibility survived stalwartly to this day.

High Imbrian was not like this. High Imbrian was a highly rigid and formal language with a completely different structure to Low Imbrian (though Low Imbrian was littered with High Imbrian loanwords). High Imbrian was not spoken in conversation, but was often learned and used as an academic status symbol. Doctors like Nile would know quite a bit of High Imbrian; an Inquisitor like Gertrude was supposed to learn it rigorously because large parts of the legal code were written in it. There were other prestigious languages of this sort. The Shimii boasted a dying tongue called “Fusha” that their surviving religious scripture was written in. The Union used a lot of High Volgian and High Bosporan in the same way Imbrians employed High Imbrian. Hanwans spoke a tongue that Imbrians called “High Altaic.”

These were niche languages that had largely died in their cultures save for loanwords in whatever dialect of the common tongue was actually spoken by the masses. It was widely believed that the High languages belonged to specific ethnic groups from the surface and slowly faded, while the common tongue was evidence of a global network of cultural exchange that necessitated a lingua franca.

It was in this context that Gertrude experienced shock when she only somewhat understood what she was seeing on the screen, but understood enough to tell it was High Imbrian. She could not hold a very vivid conversation in High Imbrian, but she should have been able to read it. And she could, mostly, but there were some grammar stumbles, it was just different enough that it read stilted and wrong in her mind.

“My High Imbrian is deeply rusty.” Nile said. “But I think it is asking for a ‘signal’?”

“No, it’s asking for a ‘Token’.” Gertrude corrected. In her own mind, making some best guesses, it said:

Welcome! We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Only authorized personnel can access the Island-3 crown spire. If you are here by mistake, assistance has been dispatched for. If you possess a valid authorization token, please lay the flesh of your hand on the panel and we will scan for evidence of STEM activity.

More or less that was what Gertrude understood. It was just a little bit off, but probably not too much.

Gertrude took off her glove. Victoria shot her a sharp glare.

“What are you doing?” Victoria asked. “You don’t know what will happen.”

“It just wants to scan my hand.”

Gertrude laid her hand on the screen once more, the bare flesh of her hand against the cold panel.

In the next instant, she felt a burning pain and jerked her hand back on pure, naked instinct.

Crying out in pain, shaking it, as if trying to cool it off. But the pain was localized too.

It was not “burning” but something like thousands of hot needles pricking her hand.

Her heart raced as she held her palm up in front of her eyes, looking for blood.

“What happened?” Victoria shouted. “Gertrude!” She snapped toward Nile. “Take a look at her!”

Nile had been staring with surprise at the panel, and Victoria jolted her back to reality.

“Gertrude! Let me tend to it! Stop shaking it!” Nile stepped forward.

“It stings, god damn it!” Gertrude cried out.

But there was no blood, there were no wounds, not even the needle pricks she felt.

Nile gently took Gertrude’s wrist and looked over her hand. Her eyes narrowed, she was puzzled.

From her belt pouch, she withdrew a plastic pack inside of which was a soaked cloth.

“This has an analgesic and mild sedative solution. It will relieve the pain and clean– the area.”

She could not say wound– there was no visible wound, no blood, no damage to the skin.

Gertrude grabbed hold of the little cloth in her affected hand, squeezing all the healing moisture from it with a sudden desperation. Soothing cool sensations flooded over the hot needles that had once invisibly scored her flesh, leading to relief, both from the pain and the sense of panic. She grit her teeth, breathed deeply but in a controlled rhythm, slowly regaining her center under Nile’s comforting ministration.

On the door panel, the text had updated to read:

INVALID. TOKEN NOT FOUND.

INSTALL STEM AND A VALID AUTHORIZATION TOKEN AND TRY AGAIN.

“HURENSOHN!” Gertrude screamed at it in High Imbrian, as if the panel understood–

Please refrain from vulgar language or verbal commands will be disabled.

“Huh, it accepts speech? That said speech, right?” Nile said.

She was gently stroking the back of Gertrude’s “wounded” hand to try to soothe the Inquisitor.

Gertrude, meanwhile, was growing ever more irritated as the pain in her hand lessened.

“It said ‘verbal commands’.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Interesting. Was that option previously available?” Nile asked.

“We haven’t been talking in High Imbrian until Gertrude called it a son of a horse or whatever it was– so maybe that activated it.” Victoria said. “Can one of you two talk to it about how to get in?”

“We know how to get in!” Gertrude replied brusquely. “We need some fucking, token or whatever.”

Nile sighed through her respirator. “Calm down, Gertrude.”

She turned her sight on the panel.

“Well, lets hope it understands me through my mask.”

Nile called out to the panel in somewhat tormented High Imbrian, inquiring about “STEM.”

Almost instantly, before Nile was even done talking, the text on the panel updated once more.

STEM stands for System for Token Execution and Management.

STEM is the ground-breaking technology back-end supporting the advanced endurance, comfort and security that have made the Island-series a leader in colonization solutions for extreme environments.

“What the hell? Say more than that! Elaborate!” That last word Gertrude shouted in High Imbrian.

On command, the panel spat out a longer and more complicated explanation.

STEM is a zero-trust secmodel installed at a mechanical root operating layer or in a neurological subject cortex that allows the reading and execution of “rich data blocks” or the storing of permissions and contracts into “tokens”. A STEM token or block can be tied to biological identity with strict permissions, a model that insures only authorized personnel are able to employ the access and execute the code associated with that token or block. STEM and tokens bridge the gap between analog and digital by imprinting cutting-edge smart contract tokens and encrypted data-rich blocks onto both electronics and the personnel that use them.

“What the hell does this gibberish even mean?” Gertrude shouted. She just barely understood it.

“I’m having a truly difficult time parsing it. What is– what is a Sicherheistmodelle?” Nile asked.

“You’re supposed to be the genius scientist!” Gertrude continued shouting.

Nile stared at her dead in the eyes. Her ears erect, her tail straightened out.

Gertrude felt a chill from the directness of that gaze, the tightness of that body language.

Her fingers, which had been stroking the furious Gertrude’s hand, stopped moving over her flesh.

They pressed down, without causing pain, but the grip became firmer, less comforting and warm.

“This childish conduct ill befits you.” Nile said. “I am a doctor, and I am a doctor who talks to patients and reads books and writes papers in a language people actually speak.” Despite the muzzle, Gertrude could tell that Nile was setting her jaw. She was agitated. “I am doing my best. I will continue to do so. Now, if the two of you want to get through the door, you will ask it where you can get a ‘STEM’. From what I can parse, a STEM is necessary to be able to hold the “signal” or “token” to open the door. Clear?”

“Yes.” Gertrude said simply and promptly as a scolded schoolchild. “Sorry.”

Victoria grunted, averted her gaze and said nothing.

Nile’s fingers began to move over Gertrude’s afflicted hand once more, as gently as before.

“I know you’re upset.” Nile said, her voice returning to its soft register. “But from what I’m seeing, it’s unlikely the door meant you harm, and it is even less likely that any lasting harm will result. Your hand will be fine. I’m here to support you, Inquisitor. Keep your wits about you, or the little lady here will worry.”

“Hmph. I’m not going to worry over her.” Victoria replied. “But you’re right. Gertrude, please calm down.”

“You could stand to be at least a little bit gentler with me.” Gertrude mumbled.

“What was that? You need to speak up for the door to hear you. It’s not updating.” Victoria replied.

Did she really not hear, or was she just being a bitch?!

Gertrude sighed. They were right– she was being stupid and losing her temper at a computer.

But they had essentially confirmed it now. This place, Island-3, was not built by Imbrians.

While the door recognized a variant of High Imbrian, Gertrude had never heard of a “STEM.”

Whatever cybernetic system this was, it was used to delegate access controls.

Imbrians used biometrics like fingerprints and eye-scanners, but they didn’t call that “STEM.”

They also didn’t describe those systems in the same way, even factoring translation errors.

Gertrude caught enough strange words in the description of “STEM” to think it must have been quite different from standard biometrics. It wasn’t just making a key based on Gertrude’s retina or fingerprint. Maybe it was storing the key itself onto her. That might have been why it fried her hand– it needed to sample her skin or blood or something else, biological, to know Gertrude had a STEM inside her.

This was equal parts surreal, arresting, but also, exciting.

Had Norn explored this structure? If so, how had she gotten past the door?

And what was behind this barrier that was worth such a complicated security system?

“How to install STEM in myself?” Gertrude asked the computer in High Imbrian as she knew it.

Parsing request.

“Don’t get mad at it.” Nile said. She must have noticed the tension in Gertrude’s arm.

A few minutes later, the text updated again.

A STEM architectural administration location has been found near you!

Suddenly a garbled, glitchy-looking and unreadable map appeared along with a series of coordinates.

“That map is bunk, but the coordinates may be correct. That Z axis is 5000 meters deeper than we are right now. It might somehow know that there’s another ancient installation in the abyss.” Nile said.

“Five thousand meters?” Gertrude cried out. “So, what, we leave with nothing and dive deeper?”

In another fit of passion, Gertrude lost control of herself and kicked her steel-lined boot against the wall.

“Gertrude!” Nile scolded again.

Gertrude grit her teeth, ignored her doctor’s reprimand and readied to kick the wall again–

“Huh?” Victoria’s ears stood up, and her tail curled. “Over there. Something shook.”

Everyone turned to face the wall running alongside the door.

At the edge, the seam between the corner and the wall was beginning to widen.

“That panel might be loose.”

The trio gathered at the corner and found that the seem between the panels was indeed widening.

“This wall can’t be that thin?” Gertrude said.

“There might be electronics hidden behind this panel.” Nile said. “I don’t know why it would be so flimsy.”

“Gertrude, you believed Norn was hiding something in here, didn’t you?” Victoria said, crossing her arms. “If so, a brute like her probably has no idea what that STEM thing is either, but she may have forced her way in violently. We need to move this panel and see if there’s a crawl space or a gap behind it.”

Don’t insult Norn.” Gertrude said with a sudden sharpness. “But yes, we should try to move this.”

Victoria looked surprised by the sudden scolding.

Gertrude made to leave to get equipment, but stopped when Nile touched her shoulder.

“Leave it to me. I want to limit how many people we involve in this.” She said.

“Why?” Gertrude replied.

“Just be quiet, trust me, and get back from the wall.” Nile said.

Victoria stared at her with narrowed eyes, but took a few steps back.

Gertrude almost feared she would reach for her sword. She stepped back from Nile as well.

Nile turned to the wall. She let her arms hang at her sides, loosened up, moved her fingers.

“It’s been a while since I did this. I would beg Allah for forgiveness– but I’m beyond forgiving anyway.”

In the next instant, Gertrude saw Nile’s eyes acquire red rings around the irises.

She drew in a breath, and delivered a punch to the wall–

–that Gertrude realized stopped just short of striking.

Victoria’s eyes turned red as well– she must have been seeing it.

There was a brief flash of green across the panel, and it shook and fell loose from the wall entirely.

Nile casually reached out her hand and caught the panel before it collapsed on top of her.

“Help me move this aside.” She said calmly.

Victoria stood in place, wary, while Gertrude stepped forward with a troubled look on her face.

She had felt it, that hair-raising invisible pressure; this was the power Norn possessed.

When she beat Gertrude back on the Antenora, when she attacked so quickly it was as if time slowed.

That beating was replete with the colors and presence that Gertrude now felt again.

Wary, she helped Nile to move the panel aside.

Revealing, behind it, several electronics that had been rearranged away from a very narrow path.

At the end of which Gertrude could see a distant metal wall– was that the interior?

“We found our entryway. And perhaps also Cocytus’, if what you believe is actually true.” Nile said.

She looked at Gertrude, and found herself holding a narrow and serious gaze from the Inquisitor.

“Nile, explain what you just did. I want to trust you, but I need to know.” Gertrude said.

From a few meters away, Victoria lifted her hand from the butt of her sword and sighed.

Nile shrugged and began to recite in a professor-like voice:

“Loup call it Volshebstvo and its practitioners Zirnitra. They have a belief that these are knacks which can be obtained by feats of strength or the whimsy of spirits. Khedivate Loup and Shimii hold these arts to be forbidden by God, calling them Sihr. Practitioners are called Majus, which is a highly pejorative term for Shimiists of all sorts as it implies godlessness and idolatry. To them, these abilities are provided by Jinn, evil spirits or demons that bend light to create illusions that deceive and lure people away from God. Khanate Vekans believe that Bayatars attain these powers from taking in the blood of their monarch’s horse, or having sex with the monarch– they call it Id Shid and call its practitioners the Mergid.”

She cast a glance at Victoria as she spoke the last sentence, and Gertrude cast a glance over to her too.

“What are you trying to say?” Gertrude replied. “That you’re some kind of folkloric legend?”

“No. I am saying you have nothing to fear. People with this ability have always existed.” Nile replied. “It’s neither unattainable nor inherently evil. In fact, I could show you how to do it– provided we had time.”

“She’s correct.” Victoria said. “And, Gertrude, if she wanted to kill us, she had many chances to do it.”

It was surprising to see Victoria agreeing with Nile on anything, and that surprised lent additional tension.

“Taking her side now?” Gertrude snapped. She realized, immediately, how stupid that sounded.

Nevertheless, she had said it, and let it hang in the air, awaiting the crash–

“I’m on the side of being logical and not lashing out at people for no reason. Unlike you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt pure shame down to her bones with the way Victoria and Nile were both looking at her.

Nevertheless, there was also a rebellious little part of her that didn’t want to have to apologize.

“Whatever.” She mumbled. “Let’s just carry on. I’ll go through the opening first.”

Nile and Victoria stared briefly at each other, then at Gertrude, with defeated looks on their faces.


Gertrude, Victoria and Nile ventured deeper into the facility.

Crawling through the narrow gap in the wall that had been concealed behind the loose panel, they found themselves in a hall behind the STEM-locked door. Following that hall, the space opened up into a lounge that was two stories tall. A pair of staircases along the sides of the space led to a narrow walkway connecting a few doors, but most of the space was taken up by untouched furniture that looked like it was made of glass, but must have been some kind of carbon or plastic. There were tables, chairs, what seemed like a couch lacking any kind of soft padding, completely empty vending machines. A bar with a counter, housing machines for preparing food that were also too clean to have seen any recent use.

The entire room had a hyper-modern style, featuring many abstract shapes, swirls, curves, everything from the railings on the staircases to the hanging LED lamps, the handles on the doors and the armrests and legs on the chairs, it all seemed like an objet d’art more than a functional set of furnishings. Gertrude was silent and serious as she looked over the pieces. The trio tried a few of the doors; several were locked via STEM tokens, while the ones that weren’t appeared to be empty storage rooms or backrooms.

That the supposed people of the ancient era lived so much like the people now, did not once enter into Gertrude’s mind. Her archeological curiosity was purely self-centered and power-driven. She had no interest in this time capsule, even though she was now sure that it was such a thing. Rather, what mattered was the treasure at the end; and therefore, finding the road that led to the end.

“Someone picked this place to the bones.” Victoria said. “No food, no drinks, not even napkins or hand soap. The bar has nothing, the vending machines have nothing, even the furnishing looks like it should have padding or cushions but no longer does. But they also left it superbly clean. It’s surreal.”

“It doesn’t matter. There must be a way through here. I’m going to blow one of these doors.”

Gertrude reached for one of her breaching charges, but Nile bid her to calm down.

“Those panels are probably just blocking off executive offices.” Nile said. “This place looks like a corporate lobby. Those offices probably just have devices and computers with STEM interfaces. Let’s check upstairs and try to find a connection to a different area. We may have more luck if we can get farther up.”

“We should also keep an eye out for more damage.” Victoria said. “Our mysterious infiltrator may have made their own functional path through the structure. I’m positive they did not have a STEM.”

“That gap they made in the first room was meticulous. None of the electronics were damaged.” Nile said.

Gertrude did not have as much of a low opinion as Victoria did of Norn– but she was beginning to think it may not have been Norn who first discovered this place. It had to have some connection to her, or else Norn would not bother sending her to Kesar. Either Norn visited this place, or perhaps she was taken here, or found it in a classified file or something like that– but she might not have been responsible for it. That move with the hidden panel was not Norn’s style. She would have blown a hole through.

Norn was not surreptitious. She was direct. She had no motivation to lie; she had the power not to.

So this place had to mean something or she would not have sent Gertrude there.

But, perhaps she also didn’t make the paths herself either. She was not meticulous.

“Ugh. What a situation– fine, let’s check upstairs.” Gertrude brusquely replied.

Climbing the staircases, they found more locked doors, with panels as verbose as the one before all asking for STEM tokens– but of a slightly different type. These doors asked for “verification” tokens rather than “authorization” tokens. Gertrude knew enough about machines to know such a distinction was significant, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t about to let the door sting her again, she knew she did not have a STEM and therefore, it was fruitless to play around with the panels for too long.

There was a plant pot in each corner of the upstairs hall, next to one of the locked doors.

They had short, thick green trunks and long fronds, like “tropical-style” plant decorations.

Gertrude, on a whim, rubbed her fingers on one of the fronds and nearly jumped.

“This– this doesn’t feel like plastic!” She called out.

Victoria dipped a finger into the soil in the pot. She withdrew it and shook it, with wide-eyed surprise.

“It’s moist.” She said simply.

Nile crossed her arms. “Someone has been here recently, and they’re taking care of this place.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “They won’t communicate with anyone, but they’ll water the plants?”

“Maybe they can’t actually operate the main computer; they’re not able to pay attention to a security system or acknowledge intrusion remotely.” Nile said. “They have no administrative ability, but can get around somehow and are trying to keep the spaces inhabitable as much as they can. So they are unable to respond to contacts from outside and can’t operate these locked STEM doors but they keep what they can reach clean, and have wound their way through the facility over time without causing damage.”

Gertrude couldn’t imagine this scenario, it was too farfetched.

“That’s insane, they would still need food and water. For what end would they stay trapped here?”

Nile shrugged. “I’m just guessing. I have no idea. But these are real plants, and someone watered them.”

“Whoever it is, they are fastidious. Everything is impeccably clean, it looks brand new, and it can’t just be because the materials are durable. It does fit a potential profile of our mystery infiltrator.” Victoria said. “There may be sources of food and water deeper in. I hate to say it, but it’s not so implausible.”

“Fine. That gets me no closer to anything.” Gertrude complained. “We need to find another path.”

Nile and Victoria stared at her again, but this time Gertrude did not stay put long enough to see it.

Though she felt their gazes in the back of her head. They simply vanished in the flame of her passion.

They looked over the lounge and bar area, as well as the upper story, a second time.

“Wait, I know.”

Gertrude had an idea. The front door panel had called this placed the “Island 3 Crown Spire.”

That did suggest verticality was important– it was like Nile said. They had to find a way further up.

Going up–

Maybe one of these doors had an elevator or a staircase but everything was locked by STEM and it was impossible to tell which doors were important and which weren’t. They couldn’t blow up everything for fear of damaging something important. It was likely the person or persons who infiltrated the front door ran into the same obstacle. They were on a landing though– so they must have tried going up.

Gertrude had been checking the doors and walls and the floor, on both the first and second stories–

“Nile, can you use your ability to try to disturb the ceiling panels?” Gertrude asked.

Higher up the spire from this “lobby”– to get higher up, maybe–

Nile nodded her head. She glanced at the roof.

Her eyes briefly lit up and red, and suddenly there was a series of loud knocks, dozens of them.

“Ugh! Be careful!” Victoria shouted, folding her ears down against her head with her hands.

Reverberating across the ceiling, Gertrude thought she could almost see the strikes on each panel.

Like waves of vague color rippling out from a center point in each panel.

Nile had not moved a muscle other than to give the ceiling a look.

Was her power even more impressive than Norn’s? That simply couldn’t be–

In the midst of her awe, however, Gertrude saw one of the panels shake and drop.

Along with a carbon-fiber rope ladder that stretched into the ceiling.

“There! God damn, we finally found it!” Gertrude cried out with joy. “Nile, you’re amazing.”

Nile shut her eyes and looked down at the floor but was clearly smiling behind her mask.

Victoria huffed. “I’m choosing to trust you for now, criminal, but I’m watching you. Every thing I learn about you makes you seem more dangerous, and Gertrude doesn’t understand it at all.”

“At least you’re choosing to trust me, that’s all I care about.” Nile replied.

“Hey. I understand perfectly what I’m doing. Quit your bickering. We can go up! Onward!”

Gertrude called out to the two, and ran to the ladder, which had come down in front of a second story doorway. She began to climb up into a crawlspace that separated the lobby from whatever was above. It was, like the interior of the wall hidden behind that loose panel, full of cables and vents and pipes, that had been carefully rerouted away from a tight path, at the end of which was a light coming down. It was another loose panel that had been completely pulled away, allowing exit up into a new hallway.

As before, the space was fastidiously clean. But it also answered a lot of questions.

After Victoria and Nile had made their way up to the new hall, which was a pristine blue steel like the other ones, they wound their way through several habitations and habitation-supporting facilities. Here, there was noticeable damage. STEM panels had been messily removed, and doors hung open with their sliding locks sticking out like limbs half-amputated. Aside from the door damage, everything was pristine, without a speck of dust. There was an area with bunks, dozens of them; a bathroom with showers; another lounge, with empty and open offices that also had their STEM locks disgorged; and an algae and mushroom cultivation room that was overgrown but tended, still producing food that must have been regularly consumed. There was a wall full of crates of material for both the algaea and the mushrooms.

Gertrude was amazed at the the size of the grow operation and the sheer amount of supplies in it.

“There’s decades worth of food in here. There must be a hundred crates of preserved material.”

“Some of these crates have Imbrian and Katarran national symbols.” Victoria said. “But there’s one in the corner that’s just blocking off a vent that has an entirely different symbol. I’ve never seen this one.”

That last crate was made of plastic slightly yellowed and had seen a lot of use. That symbol on its lid was barely legible, but appeared to be six hexagons, arrayed in a hexagon pattern, around a globe.

“Is that an old Republic symbol or something? What polity is that?” Gertrude asked.

Nile’s eyes were shut. She took in a deep breath. “I’m afraid it’s much older than that.”

“You know something, so just come out with it. We’ll believe any crazy thing at this point.” Victoria said.

Nile nodded. “It’s an ancient polity that spanned the surface. The Aer Federation.”

“Aer like the planet?” Gertrude asked, in mild disbelief despite Victoria’s assertion.

“Yes. In the Sunlight Foundation’s research on abyssal locations and recoverable old era technology, which has borne little fruit, I must add–” Nile sighed. “This symbol came up a bit. It’s on broken pieces of ancient vehicles that Yangtze and Euphrates studied. On old cargo crates, ancient debris, shipwrecks.”

“I thought you said old era things were untouched by time.” Gertrude replied.

“Structures, yes. They are made of an extremely dense and high quality form of agarthic alloy that we have no capability to reproduce. The amount of heat, material and time that must have taken to produce a structure like this Island-3 would be mind boggling to us, infinitely too expensive and we simply don’t have the facilities and logistics to do it. But even the surface dwellers could not make everything out of this material, so they left behind debris. Things like ancient shuttles or transport ships, maybe even cargo pods and escape craft, that were ultimately destroyed long before our time and lost in the depths.”

“And your people just happened to turn up their bits and pieces in your expeditions.” Gertrude said.

“Why is that the part you’re skeptical about? You just don’t understand the time scale the Sunlight Foundation operates on.” Nile replied. Her eyes looked suddenly wistful. “For us, it’s as if time stops, and we have infinity itself to accomplish our goals. With that outlook, scouring every centimeter of a deep ocean trench or a gorge or overturning every grain of sand in a Reach is not daunting at all.”

She looked at Gertrude in the eyes. “It’s only recently, that I’ve felt like my time is moving again.”

Despite her ardor and desperation– Gertrude recognized the humanity in those eyes, in that look.

She stopped questioning Nile. She began to feel like she just wanted to embrace her.

And she had to choke down some of that unneeded empathy. To keep going; to keep the fire.

“Let’s keep looking around then. We might be able to find someone– or readable records.”

Nile nodded her head in response. Victoria put down the box back where she found it.

If there were Katarran and Imbrian supplies stockpiled here, then there had been an intruder.

It was just as they thought– someone had gotten to this old era structure before them.

Norn? Perhaps with assistance?

What do you want me to see here? What do you want me to experience?

Gertrude’s obsession with the purpose of coming here– made her lose sight of other things.

She barely acknowledged the magnificence of what she had found– what she had learned.

Knowledge and experience in itself was useless to her. Unless it was actionable as power.

So she kept wandering through this grave of an unknown ambition.

With a weary mind and a hungry, reckless heart–

Please help me.

“Hmm?”

Gertrude looked around.

She thought she heard a voice.

They were just walking down another corridor with more empty rooms–

Please. I’m trapped. Please help me.

“Do you hear anything?”

That voice had such pathos to it– it really sounded like somebody was hurt or distressed.

There was a growing alarm in Gertrude’s heart at the voice. Nile and Victoria stared at her.

“Hear what? There’s just a bit of whirring, probably the vents.” Victoria said.

I can’t get out. I need to leave. I’m trapped in here. Please. You have to save me.

“How can you not hear it?” Gertrude asked.

Nile looked at the Inquisitor, quizzical at first, but then her eyes drew wide with alarm.

“Victoria, grab her–!”

Victoria had been far too late to realize and then to respond–

Gertrude had already taken off running down the corridor. She was convinced that there was somebody deeper inside the facility that was desperately crying for help and it awakened every bound-up and coiled tense muscle in her body to sudden action. That voice, which was filled with so much emotion, it reminded her of something that she felt suddenly responsible for, and it made her despondent and desperate. She ran and her eyes teared up and her chest hurt and everything began to change–

rippling mirrored images of emotional colors
walls warped into half-remembered vistas of dreams
moaning forests full of silver trees
puddles reflected ribbons of flying sensation
sky as crowns of world-spanning white branches
reflecting past present future roots digging through–

a woman surrounded by evil machines–

and the one whom she had been truly speaking to–

and what she had left behind–


There was loud slamming sound as an automatic bulkhead shut itself behind Gertrude.

When she came to her senses, she was in a dark, cavernous place with a damp floor.

No longer surrounded by metal walls, Gertrude panicked and clutched her chest and neck–

but she could breathe.

Her breathing was ragged, moaning, exhausted, but she could breathe.

She was outside Island-3. When she looked back, she saw a closed bulkhead, but everything around her, in front of her, over her, was rock that had been carved into some kind of tunnel. It was dark, but there were a few LED strips on the walls glowing dimly and intermittently on failing batteries. There was air in this tunnel– she even thought she could still hear the whirring of a pump somewhere. She was not cast out at sea and the pressure was not going to tear her apart. She was inside the gorge wall somehow.

Looking back over her shoulder.

How far had she gone?

Where were Nile and Victoria?

And where was the voice that had led her to run so desperately?

She was so shocked, she felt numb, utterly confused, so she walked forward, there was nowhere else.

“What happened to me?”

Soon as she stepped farther into the tunnel ahead, that pathetic whimpering returned–

Please help me. Please anyone help me.

Gertrude was also hearing something else– a static-filled and broken, horrifying voice–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

There was buzzing noise inside Gertrude’s head like she was a radio for some dismal frequency–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

“I don’t have a STEM. That computer said it.” Gertrude mumbled to herself.

It couldn’t be her STEM that was breaking down– she had none–

These weren’t her thoughts– they couldn’t be– they didn’t have her–

–texture.

Gertrude was certain she was hearing someone else’s internal voice, but inside herself.

“It doesn’t feel like Nile, or like Victoria, or like Norn–“

It wasn’t like any of those powerful presences she had felt in the past, but it had the same–

–texture.

Every time she heard it, booming inside her skull, it made her panic ever worse.

Please help me– Please, I’m trapped– I can’t take it anymore–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Gertrude grit her teeth, going from a brisk walk back to a headlong run.

Her own ragged breathing began to overpower the voices in her head as she sprinted into the darkness.

In front of her the shadows parted to reveal ever more and deeper shadows.

She ran and ran in the mounting and encroaching dark, her chest muscles tightening, her legs burning.

Indistinct rock sliding past her, the same flat shadow in front of her tears-warped vision.

She felt the walls enclose, the world tighten around her like black shackles, why couldn’t she advance?

Her chest tightened and expanded and every action was pain.

But she kept running, kept tearing at the indistinct shadow in front of her–

Until something broke up the once-changing sights.

Gertrude brought herself to a sudden halt, gasping with surprise.

In the middle of a circular room littered with debris. Ripped plastic and cardboard, wrappers, fish bones.

All surrounding a woman in a long, black dress, standing with her head bowed, arms hugging herself.

She twitched; a convulsion wracked through her body–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Her lips spread gently and she whispered. “Please help me. Please, anyone.”

Gertrude stepped forward. That voice was so soft, gentle, needful–

She reached out a trembling hand and touched the woman on the shoulder–

and felt a jolt of something hot and quickly-spreading, like electricity through her veins.

Her eyes immediately began to weep, blistering hot like they were melting.

Around her everything broke down and blurred away in copious tears.

In between blinking eyes, flitting in and out of focus before her she saw–

Oceans. Mountains. Skies. Trees (not silver, but reaching high). Roads. Buildings.

(A purple glow that flashed and burned.)

Metal hallways. Depth. Darkness. Pale bodies by their hundreds.

(A clicking sound like thrown dice. A feeling like an equation resolved.)

Duty. Order. Repetition. The same halls, the same tasks.

(A rising pillar, ambition, an eagle on a flag.)

A monstrous metal landscape that glowed and throbbed with sinew and bone as if alive.

“I’m sorry.”

Polaris.

“I made my decision.”

How could you abandon everything?

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING–

SUCCESS!

Welcome to STEM R12.2. Isolating corrupted blocks until bad block check resolves–

BAD BLOCK CHECK CANCELLED– WILL NOT RETRY.

Eyes with glowing blue hexagons around orange irises deep and bright as pools of fire,

swallowed Gertrude whole.

She was right in front of her–

grinning.

And when her fingers touched Gertrude’s head, it felt like her skull split open.


Her body was in a different position and there was now a dim light in her eyes.

Directly in front of her– no, she was supine, so it was the ceiling above–

It was all dark brown and black rock.

She was not lying on the rock. Her head was lifted a little bit, and rested on something soft.

Her vision was still swimming. Something slowly started to come into focus.

On the periphery of her vision; black, a long black sleeveless dress, a black cape; slim pale arms;

A pale woman with a soft and beautiful countenance, a mature and gentle expression, regal even;

long silver-gray hair; an ample, gently rising bosom; two tall, fluffy, black ears;

silk-sleek hands stroking Gertrude’s hair and shoulder, around her neck;

Fingers crawling into her shirt and massaging her neck and collarbone in a sensual way.

Her head was resting on this woman’s thighs.

Bright eyes colored a deep orange locked onto Gertrude’s own.

She felt comfort. She felt rest for the first time in a while. She felt, strangely, safe.

“Are you awake now, master?” The woman asked. She shut her eyes and smiled gently.

Her voice was very attractive– deep, sonorous, worldly.

“Where am I?” Gertrude asked.

“You are in the Island-3 Crown Spire, the VIP module of the Island-3 colonization project.”

“What does that mean? Island-3?” Gertrude mumbled, still recovering her senses.

“Island-3 was a project to explore the deep ocean trenches and expand humanity’s reach into the place known as ‘Agartha’ in search of energy sources. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve uncovered. Most importantly, master, what you are now is safe. Your body is so worn, and you are full of anxiety. Let me help.”

Her lips were painted a very slight violet. With her every word, they moved so tantalizingly.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked. Her tense body started to loosen up.

“I am a humble caretaker of humans– of people. You can call me–”

She paused and looked up for a moment as if in deep thought.

“–it looks like you can call me Azazil An-Nur. I am Azazil An-Nur. I am here to serve, master.”

The woman looked around the room. She seemed puzzled by her own surroundings.

“Well– I suppose it cannot be said that you are in Island-3 anymore. Years and years ago, someone carved this tunnel, and trapped a girl here in the dark. They loved her because they had been born to love her– but their hearts resented her and wanted her shut away from sight. They were both ashamed and disdainful, grateful and proud; such is the dual nature of Duty. Those powerful feelings still linger in this place. They have become more important than Island-3’s original purpose. Do you feel it, master?”

Gertrude felt it. She could feel the entire room, beating, like it had a pulse, a pulse of long-lost voices.

There was a familiar texture that once felt so distant, but was now so plain, so obvious.

She could feel it so strongly that it was as if the colors in the room brought the woman to them–

Norn.

Norn had been here before. This entire room felt like her– abandoned, confused, angry.

So, extremely, horrifically, angry–

“Master, are you curious what happened here? I can show you– if you open your mind to it.”

Gertrude’s head still felt hazy, and there were a million alarms buzzing in back of her mind.

Despite this it only took her a few seconds to respond.

“Show me.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled gently again.

“It shall be done, master. Hold on tightly to your sense of self– I’ll hold on to it too.”

Around Gertrude, the colors that were previously dancing in their dimmest hues exploded with brilliance.

Azazil’s eyes glowed with red rings, and a whirlwind of emotion swept Gertrude away.

To the time of Mehmed’s Jihad– and before.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.3]

For the overall majority of the population of Kreuzung, the world outside of their rooms was mostly a long series of hallways and elevators. Long lines of identical doors, fake carpeting, beige walls. A pretense of warmth that hid cold metal. Hypocrisies large and small that had to be endured in order to live.

How did the people of Kreuzung live?

The ordinary people with no other recourse but to keep living?

Those who worked in the service industry, if they worked for a strong brand, would leave this world of halls once a day to go to a mall or food court, where they would find another enclosed space that would occupy most of their day. Those who served “local” shops in the lower districts would trade one hallway for another, or if they were lucky, trade a street without a sky, flanked by identical squat plastic buildings, for a hall flanked by plastic or metal doors. Since those older “street” modules often had defects that led to accidents or flooding, this was not a particularly good trade in terms of their well-being.

Some people did not leave their rooms at all to work– even when they wished they could.

All of this toil was presided over by the vastness of the Imbrium Ocean. Deeper and darker.     

Kreuzung was home to millions of people– who lived largely below the tower’s centerpoint.

“Upward mobility” was not as such literally. For someone close to the bottom of the tower and compressed into a block that had dozens of modules each with several hallways, all of it cramped into the tightest livable space– if they even completed their education or achieved some certifications in a field they were competent in, there was no guarantee of a job. And in addition, virtually no guarantee of actually ever moving out of the comparatively cheaper and smaller rooms in the lower part of the tower to the slightly better habitats in the core’s upper reaches. It was impossible to ever believe someone like that would ever work or live in A or B block at the top of the Kreuzung Core. Certainly, a few people did do so– but collectively, it felt like it took a miracle. Most people would never climb from those depths.

In Kreuzung, a large majority of people did not “have a job” in the sense of a stable position in a company. Instead, most people were “contractors.” Contractors technically worked for an agency that connected them to jobs in exchange for a fraction of the pay. These agencies arose from the distrust between the highly stratified classes in the Empire and were a common feature in most imperial stations– an Agency could guarantee that the people it hired were not lowborn scum of the earth, but humble and servile folk with good skills; if they were not they could be easily discarded and replaced.

That was an agency’s promise to the employers; employees were promised nothing but a wage.

All service work was contract work where Agencies vetted candidates that would not harm the upper and middle class sensibilities of those shopping and dining in the middle to upper tier of businesses.

Heavy industry had a culture of “tradesmanship” where workers traditionally formed guilds or unions and had access to better pay, benefits and a slightly better lifestyle than contractors, even as collective power began to be eroded. The tradeoff was in difficult certification requirements, as well as the possibility of losing life or worse, limb. Guild and union health benefits were good, but cybernetics were still expensive. Even with the best possible healthcare plan, this would ultimately saddle the worker with medical debt and a period of recovery that would wipe out some of those other good benefits like the paid time off and vacations. Regardless, this was seen as one of the only ways “up” (relatively) for a lower class worker.

The most on-demand jobs in Kreuzung beside customer-facing services were behind-the-scenes hardware jobs, particularly in monitoring, reporting on and responding to system events. A lot of Kreuzung systems administration had been privatized to the agencies, particularly the grunt work of keeping eyes on sensors and pressure valves and other such things. Contractors did these dull tasks from their homes, until something broke, at which point they would have to go out on the field and assume risk for much less money than a trade union worker did– which was ultimately the point of privatization.

Nevertheless, there were some parts of station administration and customer-facing services that did manage to remain trade-union owned, and there were also good jobs that were not agency-controlled. Dockworkers, for example, had a union, and non-union private dock workers at least didn’t have to go through an agency and could keep all their pay. And it was always possible, even if somewhat unlikely, for a very poor person to excel and become a journalist or a teacher or a nurse or some other “legit” career outside Contracting. These were the elites, comparatively, of lower class labor in Imbria.

One could also always join the Navy.

In Rhinea, in 979 A.D. during the Pandora’s Box’s stay in Kreuzung, joining the Navy meant becoming a National Socialist and participating in the Volkisch Movement’s conflicts– this was less attractive even than contracting. But for some people the food and shelter was enough incentive. Adding insult to injury, however, was that the Volkisch wouldn’t take all comers. No shirt, no shoes– no military service for you. In reality, the Volkisch remained a solidly volunteer army, more than a poor and desperate one.

Middle class labor entailed direct career work in the major corporations or public groups. These jobs were highly class stratified– someone with a parent that was a university teacher, would be able to go into higher education and would be much more likely to also become a teacher. For the children of contractors and service workers, it would be unlikely though not impossible to attain the needed licensing and higher education due to the difficult development environment for the child.

Working directly at a corporate office was the common hallmark of middle class work. Successful corporations and major brands had data, premises and equipment that they did not trust agency contractors to handle. Interviewing was deliberately difficult– people could be weeded out as soon as the recruiter saw their address. Technically, however, the jobs were open for anyone to interview for.

Some people dreamed of making it big by working seemingly outside “the system.” Trying out for roles in films, writing hot novels, creating innovative software, or even putting on personal shows to become influential in the burgeoning network culture– but these things already favored people with existing money and connections, so an “outsider hit” was unlikely as the hits were already being dictated by what could only be considered to be “the system” itself. Just enough “miracles” happened to keep people dreaming, but overall, the structure remained stable and firm. Class was ossified in the Imbrium.

All of this was Imbrian society as it was seen and accepted by the public at large.

There was a tier below Imbrian society, however, below even the most miserable parts.

In Kreuzung, it existed literally below the baseplate of the tower.

In the unkempt, spiraling viscera of the tower’s ancient history, dating back to its construction. Some of the uppermost of the maintenance tunnels still saw a good bit of official use, particularly by very unlucky contractors maintaining and repairing the interstice of the bottom rung of society just a hair above the baseplate itself. Deeper below, there were tunnels that had not been visited by an official contact of the station in decades or more. Most of them had become a sprawling nest of society’s most unfortunate.

Because the tunnels connected back to the ancient construction shafts, which had oxygen systems, they became homes for the dispossessed and unfortunate. Groups both openly criminal and secretly so, took advantage of these lost and invisible places as well to build and hide their own enterprises.

It was in this space below and between “the system” of Kreuzung and Imbria itself, that there existed the parallel society home to myths and legends: such as that of the fearsome “Katarran mercenaries.”


“Hmm? ‘Tarot Chocolate’? What are you giving me this for?”

“It’s dark stuff. It’s too sophisticated-like. It suits you better.”

“Hmm. This is a bit fancy. Where did you get it?”

“There was a boy selling them out of a box. Maybe he stole it– but who cares.”

“As long as the box is real, and these aren’t full of meth or razors.”

“None of that would kill you anyway. Quit being so prissy and take it.”

“I’m just confused as to why you’re giving me anything, even if it suited me.”

“We’re all comrades aren’t we? God damn– look, I got it for Chloe. But she hates dark chocolate. And I don’t eat this kind of shit at all. So there you go. Happy, detective? Just take it already.”

With finality Dimmitra threw the chocolate bar she had been showing off and left the room.

It landed in the hammock beside Kalika. She picked it up, turning it over in her long fingers.

Tarot Chocolate had the logo of Atelier Paradis, a premium brand in talks to join Volwitz Foods. Kalika always thought about those sorts of things, turning over goods in her hands. That fancy font on the Atelier logo, the royal purple mineral paper wrapper around the chocolate. This was a product worth thirty marks with competitors that sold for ten marks. But businesses had hierarchies just like the people around her. She was branded for being a Katarran, for not having any opportunity for some Imbrian desk job; no matter how she dressed or the airs she put on, she was always lesser-than and had to use her body in illegitimate ways to survive. In the same way that a Premium Brand like Atelier Paradis which made high-class and expensive products– was still lesser to a Major Corporation like Volwitz Foods.

She was holding in her hands a symbol of all the things that she fought against.

A story of inequality and alienation starting from the harvest to the final setting of prices.

At each link in the chain, the company that sold this item had stolen from somebody to do so.

Slowly, almost mindlessly, she unwrapped the paper around the dark chocolate squares.

Inside the packaging, she found another little piece of mineral paper.

It was a fortune that read: today you will meet the person who will change your life.

“So this is the sort of malarkey that turns 3 marks of chocolate into a 30 marks bar.”

Kalika sighed and took a bite of it. The complex taste that coated her tongue gave her some pause. Not just the dance of bitterness and sweetness, but the accompanying fruity notes and the glossy texture that seemed to hold its shape only until it met the warmth of her mouth, and then delicately melted. Perhaps this was actually eight or nine marks worth of chocolate in raw material. This was– the good stuff.

“It tastes premium, I must admit. I wouldn’t mind having another one.”

She was speaking only to herself at this point. Dimmitra had already left.

“Maybe I’ll keep my eye out for the little hawker with the box on my way out.”

Kalika slid her legs over the side of the plastic hammock she had been sleeping in. She had strung it up between two pipes on opposite walls in a 3 by 5 meter room. She and her comrades had claimed the space, in one of the many abandoned maintenance tunnels beneath the baseplate and dug around the old construction shaft above which Kreuzung’s baseplate and lower floors were ultimately built.

The Katarran’s room had once upon a time been a pressure monitoring room of some sort, from before the station was completely built. Valves and dials stared at her from every wall, completely motionless. Everything above the baseplate had sensors that were read by computers, so rooms like this were useless. Now it was nothing but pipes and an abused electrical panel in an otherwise empty room.

There were hundreds of places like this. But the locals did not particularly like the rooms farthest afield of the central construction shaft. There were rumors that people went missing in them– one of the tamer superstitions was that there was a syndicate of organ harvesters in the vicinity of the very room Kalika was standing in. It wasn’t too farfetched, but she had not yet seen any. More than likely, one too many opportunists robbed or killed someone here and imagination did the rest to create this myth.

Her own organs were perfectly safe. Even with one arm, she liked her chances in that fight.

“My arm–”

Kalika ran the fingers of her biological left arm over the bicep of her mechanical right arm.

Underneath the sleeve of her shirt, she felt the frayed metal and the torn syntheskin.

She tried to move the arm. Extending it felt alright. However, trying to bend the arm toward her, as if to flex her bicep, resulted in a shot of pain through the nerve bundles that remained of her original limb, which had been affixed to the prosthetic’s transmission couplers. She winced, and she could hear the metal scraping in a way that it should not. There was no way she could trust that arm to swing a vibrosword or even throw a punch. She had to get it fixed before anything went down.

“Hey,”

Through the crack in the door, Dimmitra peeked back into the room.

“You’re gonna go up, right?” She asked.      

“I have to. Nobody down here is going to be able to fix this.” Kalika said.

She gestured to her arm. Dimmitra nodded her head.

“The Premier shouldn’t need us today.” Dimmitra said. “You should be clear.”

“I’m just worried I won’t find anyone who will treat a Katarran.” Kalika said.

“If you don’t, you don’t. Nothin’ you can do. We can have you taken care of at Aachen.”

“We should teach Chloe how to run maintenance on prosthetics.” Kalika smiled.

“She’s fine.” Dimmitra said. Her voice took on a slightly more serious tone.

“I didn’t say otherwise.” Kalika replied. “Thank you for the chocolate.”

Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe were all Katarrans. “Pelagis” was the race– Katarre was a nation.

But most Pelagis came from Katarre, and in the Imbrian imagination, all Pelagis were Katarrans.

Being Katarre-born Katarrans, real-deal Pelagids born in vats by the dozens and destined to die, they had deliberate genetic embellishments. All of them had been created using the DNA of armored gurnards, small fish with mortifyingly ugly appearances that thankfully did not transfer in almost any way. This was most evident in the pair of roughly rectangular and thin horn-like structures which grew from the back of their heads. In Kalika’s case, her horns framed her ponytail. These resembled a gurnard’s snout. Like a lot of Katarrans in her natural state her skin would have been grey, and her hair would have been white, but aside from their strength, durability and the few signs of embellishment, they were human.

Two legs, two arms; a head and neck; shoulders, breasts, hips. She was just a woman.

Kalika used cheap pigment treatments to alter her skin and hair and appear at least a little bit more presentable and less monochromatic. Imbrians disliked the cheaper cosmetics because it made the skin unnatural colors– it was tough to get that Imbrian pinkish-white fairness using the cheap skin pigments. That usually required a second skin to get just right. For Kalika, it sufficed to make her skin go from grey to a stark pink flush. It made Imbrians less nervous of her, and in her eyes, it made her look prettier.

Raylight Beauty’s budget products sufficed to keep up this appearance.

Her hair, meanwhile, she dyed a shiny grape-purple color and tied into a long ponytail.

For Katarrans, even mercenaries, such preening was not uncommon nor beneath them.

It was all part of coping with the warped relationship they had to their bodies.

Every Katarran mercenary in the Imbrium was more than likely someone who escaped from Katarre itself and service under a Warlord. It only made sense for anyone with that kind of repressive background to assert their individuality. Kalika had an ideal of her own body and her own sexuality which she expressed for her own comfort. She wore wine-colored lipstick and a similar type of eyeshadow, she wore toner on her face, she dressed in the nicest shirts she could afford and even owned a brand jacket from Lanzknecht, Epoch Clothiers’ edgy line of streetwear itself inspired by Katarrans. It was “steel-silver” colored and cut sharply, with see-through sleeves. She loved that jacket– it felt like skin.

Tights and a pencil skirt accentuated her long legs and figure. Heels made her feel more sophisticated (and feminine– for a woman who punched people’s heads open sometimes, this was more vital than it might have seemed). She even wore perfume sometimes. It was all part of the product she sold to the world– a Katarran’s body, born to kill and ready to die. (And look good doing it.) It showed to the discerning eye that she cared about herself, had a sophisticated personality, spent money on herself.

In this way, Katarrans survived, trying to retain the soul of human living despite all the abuse they suffered– and despite the extremist Solceanist belief that Katarrans did not actually have souls.

Dimmitra was a bit more spartan in her own style, but even she had one. Her grey trench-coat had beads sewn into it by Chloe. Her pain black shirt had the midriff quite literally ripped from the rest to expose her toned belly. Her black boots were stained and left as such. She had fingerless gloves. Her hair was dark, which meant she dyed it, but she cut it short and manageable. Like many mercenaries she communicated, ‘I am tough, and I can kill you– or whoever you pay me to kill’ but she also demonstrated self-care.

“Where is Chloe anyway?” Kalika asked.

“She’s visiting Platform Town.” Dimmitra said. “She wants to grab a souvenir.”

“She can be such a kid sometimes.” Kalika replied.

“So what? That’s good. You want her to be a nihilist?” Dimmitra said.

“Relax.” Kalika said. “I am just making observations. I am not criticizing her.”

“Hmph.”

Dimmitra walked to the other edge of the room, where her own hammock was strung.

“I’m staying here. Waiting for Chloe to come back.” She said.

“Figured. Don’t worry too much about her.”

“I’m not.”

She was clearly on edge, but Kalika did not push it any further.

She liked those two– they were cute together. They felt like they had a future ahead.

Kalika picked up a false leather bookbag from a corner of the room and slung it over her shoulder. There was a vibroblade inside, and she had a vibroknife hidden in an arm harness under the sleeve of her clip-down shirt. No guns– it was too easy to make a ruckus and get caught that way. Guns had to be a weapon of last resort when there were unfriendly eyes and ears everywhere.

Or a weapon for the final stages of an operation. Never at the beginning.

For now, nobody knew they were any different than any other Katarrans in Kreuzung.

From the metal door into the room, Kalika exited out into a long, circular tunnel, two meters tall. There were a few doors down from the hallway and an obviously riveted elbow piece on the corner. These tunnels were built out of a standardized series of ferristitched sewer tunnel sections that were used for water treatment, waste management and pressurization. Kalika nonchalantly walked the halls in her heels. There was a massive maze of these kinds of tunnels all around them.

From what Kalika understood, the process for building Kreuzung required a huge hole be drilled at the bottom of the crater and a substation to be buried under the baseplate. This building was known as the central construction shaft. It doubled as part of the foundation, as well as housing the construction equipment, elevators and supplies to begin the building process. The workers extended out supports in weak parts of the ground and built out infrastructure for themselves within these tunnels, since they could not live comfortably in the substation. Materials were partially mined out of the surrounding crater, but also brought in from the rest of the Imbrium along with the rations for the workers. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the suffering of those workers was still evident in the suffering way that people still lived below the baseplate. They were forgotten; much in the same way the old workers were.

Those workers were never counted among the heroes and glories of Kreuzung.

And the people of Platform Town wouldn’t either; unless something dramatically changed.

“Maybe Erika would say ‘we are the change’– but I don’t hold such presumptions.”

Kalika traveled through several similar-looking tunnels, ambling confidently in her high heels without missing a step. She knew where she was going even though the path was dim, lonely and so identical it could have easily confused someone into thinking they were going in circles. Another reason a lot of the locals avoided these less-traveled outer tunnels. Eventually, however, Kalika found an old and out of service bulkhead into a pressurization room, and there was a woman and her daughter sleeping inside.

Out the other door, and she was in a hall with a small crowd.

While there was a stereotype of homeless or impoverished people as being filthy or nasty, you would not see it from the platform town residents. They kept their clothes clean, nobody smelled, the hall was dusty and there were some wrappers and bags about because it was simply not possible to keep dozens of metal halls completely clean without vacuum drones or formal staff. Almost everyone she passed had a hoodie or a jacket and a good pair of pants. Sturdy, comfortable clothes that they could sleep in and keep warm that also held up to walking daily. Shoes were the sore spot for many of them, because the tunnels and the platforms were rough on cheap plastic sneakers. Because they washed with saltwater that was let in from partially dismantled desalinators, there was a bit of wear and graining on their mainly plastic clothes, but nobody was living in filth. Everyone did their best to keep the place livable.

There was a lot of hustling in the corridors. Mainly people selling or trading in miscellaneous goods they kept in boxes or blankets, always something easily portable and commonly in need like snacks or tray dinners, first aid supplies (and illegal drugs), shoes, sundries; provenance unknown and priced suspiciously. While hawking was much more profitable (relatively speaking) above the baseplate, there were people selling or bartering things around Platform Town nonetheless. Maybe because they had heat up above and were hiding; maybe because they were trying to flip NGO aid supplies or stolen goods.

Nobody tried to hawk anything to Kalika. They could tell immediately she was strange.

Platform Town and its residents had dignity. No amount of poverty would prevent them from having it. People tried their best to live whole and healthy lives. They tried to keep things as clean as possible. They maintained a quiet peace. What was palpable, however, was caution and distrust among the residents. Kalika definitely stuck out among them, and there were a lot of idle eyes thrown her way, but it wasn’t in here that she needed to blend in– it was up above. Nobody could blame them for staring at a Katarran who was vain enough to wear makeup and tights and heels down here among the desperate folk. Her relationship to the space was fundamentally different and she knew she must have looked like a voyeur. She didn’t have to live here, like them; she was just passing through here on a mission.

She would leave here– go on to the next thing. Until she lost her life to the violence.

Like a lot of other underworld travelers that hid in places like this from the public eye.

That she had supposedly loftier goals didn’t help her feel like any less of a parasite.

Kalika strolled by one of the entrances out into Platform Town itself, which was built by parking all the cargo elevators on the same level within the construction shaft in the center of the ancient substation infrastructure, creating a sort of “town square” for the entire underground town. Platform Town’s elevating mechanisms were then struck in place so it could not be plunged down the shaft. It resided about 100 meters below the baseplate, separating it from the tunnels that still saw some use farther above, but keeping it accessible to the underground dwellers. This was done out of necessity and safety. Keeping out of the way kept them relatively safer from the authorities.

Platform Town had been raided before. But it was a difficult and ugly sight for the people above, so it was mainly forgotten, its own world separated by 100 meters of empty vertical space and several more of winding old tunnels. For a station that was less than two kilometers tall and a few more wide, Kreuzung was vast inside of its own walls. One could give as many objective measurements of space and distance as one wanted– but the reality was, in terms of class, Kreuzung contained within it several entire worlds that may as well have been measured in hundreds of kilometers of distance apart from one another.

Kalika traversed one and now she had to leave to another.

At the end of the hall, there was a smaller personnel elevator. There were some things that did not get core power down here, and people improvised portable battery-pack devices to power them. But the elevator was always powered from the core above. However, it was also always guarded by someone. On that day it was an older man with a red face and a heavily white beard. He had on a brown jacket and a flat cap, and his hands were in his pockets. He had boots, unlike a lot of people here.

“I’m going up.” Kalika said. He was standing in the way of the elevator door.

“You are, are you?” He asked.

Kalika tried not to roll her eyes. It was always something like this.

“We already talked to the Watchman.” She said.

The guard’s bloodshot eyes locked with her black on yellow eyes.

They had done more than talk, too. Erika — the Premier — had sent a crate of supplies.

“Okay. Watchman isn’t here. Maybe nothing you gave the Watchman got to me?”

“How much do you want?”

“Maybe it ain’t bribes? What if I just don’t like you fish fuckers?”

What if I rip your fucking head off? What if I kill your entire family?

She recalled, in Erika’s cheery voice, before delivering what was a routine threat–

It’s not their fault; their attitudes are a result of abuse and exploitation; we must be kind.

Exercise the fortune you have that allows you to simply walk away, Erika would say.

Sighing internally, Kalika lifted her hand from her bag, and therefore from her sword–

“That would be pretty unfortunate, but my life would go on. And my journey, too.”

“Your journey– pfeh– fancy bitch aren’t you?”

Begrudgingly, he stepped aside just enough for her to walk past.

Kalika made no more eye contact, no aggressive gestures and kept a neutral expression.

Erika was right– there was no point in upsetting or fighting these people.

It wasn’t their fault they had been cast into the deepest darkness of the world to rot.

Into the elevator she went and up and out of the world below the world.

Platform Town’s elevators could take someone to the tunnels directly under the baseplate, and from there, the safest way up without anyone knowing you had been in the underground was to take an emergency ladder up above. It was common knowledge passed around the inhabitants of the underground which ladders had their panels ripped off already and were easily accessible, and these took the would-be trespasser into discrete places out of sight from crowded thoroughfares.

In this fashion, Kalika climbed a ladder in a dark room, opened a hatch, and stepped out of the dim alleyway next to an automatic desalination plant on the lowest tier, rejoining the above-ground world on a street in one of the lower modules of Kreuzung. The ceiling was low, and there were squat plastic buildings with scratched-up unpainted metal streets between them. The sunlamps were maybe half-working. But compared to how people lived in Platform Town, it was downright luxurious. There were shops, eateries, there were small crowds of people with merry expressions, and there was an unimpeded way up higher. Kalika pulled out a portable from her jacket, checked her route, and got moving.

She had to find someone to repair her arm– before she needed to use it seriously again.

Her first thought was to go to the medical NGOs that served the lower level folks.

Not because she was lacking in funds– but because they might actually agree to see her.

Traversing several of the tight halls that adjoined the street module where she had entered the station, she finally found herself two or three street modules away in front of a large, temporary plastic building which bore the logo of Khumeia Pharmaceuticals, one of Rhinea’s major medical manufacturing corporations. Despite the logo, there was a line of people, and signs calling out free healthcare services, including biostitching, which could take care of lacerations and broken bones by itself.

It felt promising, so Kalika stood in line. Maybe they could ferristitch her arm joint.

She was in line for almost an hour, about thirty minutes of which she spent staring straight at a desk with a nurse behind it, who would take people’s information and then point them to a room inside the building itself for procedure. Soon as Kalika walked up, the nurse raised her hands.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t help you here, ma’am. Our grant specifies primary care services to Imbrians. We are beholden to the terms of our grant, so we can’t see any Katarrans.”

Rotten luck– not even charities in the lowest rungs would look at Katarrans!

“Incredible. So I stood in line for nothing? You couldn’t have just shooed me out?”

“I recommend looking for a private practice to assist you. Have a nice day.”

Grumbling, Kalika walked out, clutching the sling on her bookbag tightly.

There were very few private medical practices in the lower levels of the station. They were mostly run by samaritans who could shoulder the unique pressure of existing in places with higher levels of poverty, and therefore, desperation. Those few that existed were booked out months in advance because there was high demand for any kind of healthcare. That piece of advice from that wretched nurse would not help. Kalika took another elevator, though she was loathed to climb further as she knew that Imbrian racism only got worse the more affluent the population became. Her hopes began to dim.

From her next elevator, she exited onto a beautiful park full of white flowers.

She had looked up a cybernetic augmentation prosthetics service center that had a walk-in storefront near the park. They took walk-ins because they essentially took someone’s entire arm off them, repaired it, and then called them back a few hours later to reinstall it, it was all very process-driven. This process and the specialization of their service meant they could easily treat the dozen or two dozen people who would coincidentally all have broken cybernetic arms or legs the same day. Kalika was hopeful as she walked in through the sliding glass doors of the ritzy “Capua Limb Service Center.”

There was nobody inside, so she could walk right up to the gentleman behind the counter.

Hallo,” Kalika said, waving the hand of her prosthetic arm with a little difficulty. “I’m having a bit of trouble with this one. I think it’s the joint– it got bashed hard in an accident.”

“Can I have your name, sex and date of birth ma’am?”

She sighed.

“Name is Kalika Loukia. Date of birth is tough. Sex– Look, I’m a Katarran, you know–?”

The man at the counter seemed to make up his mind quite quickly hearing her name.

“Unfortunately ma’am, we only service prosthetics we installed. You’re not on the list.”

“What?” She held up her portable. “But I read that you’re a walk-in service center.”

“We are, but we can’t work on just anything, we don’t know your specific needs.”

“Is that how it is? Then how am I supposed to get this thing to looked at?”

“We might be able to see it with a referral from your doctor. We can look them up.”

“Thank you. Please give it a try. Her name is Hilana Tarik.”

“A Shimii?” Again the receptionist immediately gave her a skeptical look. He did not even attempt to search that name. “You might have better luck asking around Tower Eight then.”

Kalika closed the fist on her biological arm and shut her eyes with frustration.

“She was a Khedivate Loup actually– but I get the picture. I’ll see myself out.”

She stormed out of the building, clicking her heels as hard as they would take.

Her next idea was to look up prosthetic sales shops– places with actual manufacturing.

Since she could not get the thing she was wearing serviced, she would get a new one.

While her arm was special, she could live with an inferior model that just worked.

So she made her way to a small workshop tucked into a corner of a business block–

“Sorry, but we don’t service existing hardware in here ma’am. We can take your measures and build a new arm for you, but we’ll need to see a prescription from the doctor who installed that one, so we know what kind of work’s been done on your biological arm’s remains. Do you have a prescription?”

Surrounded by models of arms all in cases on the walls. Kalika was briefly speechless.

Not even in a place that just sold arms could she actually purchase a new arm?

“I don’t– I haven’t seen the doctor who installed this in years.”

“Then I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t help you with that. It’s the regulations.”

“So let me get this straight. You only replace someone’s broken prosthetic if you get an okay from the original doctor? What happens if they died or went missing? I’m in pain right now!”

“It’s unfortunate ma’am but the rules are the rules. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

This particular receptionist was much less patient with her than even the last.

Feeling a knot in her chest of anger and shame, she left the shop and wandered aimlessly.

At first, she had been merely annoyed.

Then she spent so much of the day so awful fruitlessly.

Now, she was actually afraid. Now she felt helpless. She felt the weight of her prosthetic, she felt acutely every defect that it possessed, she heard the scraping of the metal like it was being broadcast through a booming speaker, felt the roughness where the synthskin had broken like the texture of sandpaper, and the pain felt like it was worsening. There was nothing she could do to make herself better, to return to normal, and every step felt more troubled than the last she took. Her arm was heavier, clunkier, less mobile, it felt like it would pull her through the floor and into the water itself to drown.

Useless, with only one arm, she would fail to defend the people she loved again–

“Agh!”

She had not been paying attention. Walking mindlessly around a corner–

Kalika bumped directly into another person, and both fell to the floor.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I made you drop your bag! I’ll get it!”

A girl had bumped into her.

Fallen right off her heels and on her rear, her bag off her shoulders.

Thankfully nothing spilled and nothing broke.

She laid eyes on the person she had bumped into– and her gaze lingered for a moment.

Collecting her bag– was a Shimii, a young woman with long, dark hair, short, fluffy ears and a little fluffy stub of a tail that was comically short.  She had a brown jacket that was clearly a bit worn-in, over a very fine button-down shirt and a pair of pants and shiny shoes. Dark-eyed, with sleek features, handsome. But with a soft, pretty smile, clearly nervous. Kalika was a little bit speechless looking up at her.

Having recovered more quickly, the Shimii girl extended a hand to help her.

“I’m sorry for bumping into you! I wasn’t paying any attention. Let me help you up.”

Kalika took her hand– warm, firm. She was a bit lean, strong. An active kind of girl.

Good upper body. She worked those shoulders. Legs a little less so, but still solid.

With her assistance, Kalika stood up and dusted herself off. The girl handed over her bag.

“Thank you. It’s not a problem. No need to be nervous.” Kalika said, smiling.

“Ah– well, I’m glad then. I hope you have a nice day ma’am–”

“Wait.”

Kalika stretched out a hand.

“Kalika Loukia.”

“Um. Homa Baumann.”

They shook briefly. Kalika locked eyes with the younger woman.

“Homa, you live in Tower Eight, don’t you? Are there any Shimii medical device shops?”

“Medical devices? Um.”

“My prosthetic arm is broken. None of the Imbrians around will see me.”

“A prosthetic arm, huh–?”

Homa looked slightly bewildered. Kalika should have known it was a long shot–

Then, from their shared handshake, Homa pulled Kalika’s hand forward.

“I think I know a place. Follow me. Tower Eight’s not very far from here.”

“Oh! Well, thank you! Can Katarrans actually–?”

“I’m sure you can! I’ll raise a stink otherwise! Imbrian bastards are always allowed in!”

Homa pulled Kalika along by the hand at a quick clip– she was surprised by the girl’s initiative.

They strolled by the park from before, through a few elevators, down a crowded mall with a high pavilion and to a tram station. Homa badged her way through the tram station gate, and still holding Kalika’s hand, led her through. The guards did not express any interest or concern over Kalika. She and Homa rode the tram together, crossed another gate. They were both quiet. Homa stared out into space during the elevator rides and in the tram, her expression a little dark– she seemed to notice this eventually.

“Ah– sorry. I’m not ignoring you. I have something on my mind.” She mumbled.

“It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded.

“I’ll take you to a place– you can get back. You’re not a Shimii, they won’t stop you.”

“Thank you. Will you be alright? I didn’t bump into you too hard, did I?”

“I just want to go home– and kinda forget everything today. I– I’ll be okay.”

“I get it. I also want to put today’s nightmares away before receiving tomorrow’s.”

They crossed another guard gate at the other end of the tram. No questions asked.

Down another elevator, and Homa again took Kalika’s hand firmly and led her around.

And– strangely enough, she always seemed to grab the artificial hand too.

Her tug on it was just a little bit painful due to the arm’s condition– but Kalika did not mind.

Such nonchalant attention made her feel just a little bit girlish, she had to admit.

They arrived at a colorful street full of plastic buildings from which Shimii sold goods, services, food. There were so many ears and tails about, hijabs worn, beautiful Fusha calligraphy, the sound of song-like prayer and the smell of spices — it brought back certain memories. Homa took her down the street, past a few grocers, turning a corner on a flat-topped mosque filled with folk and animated conversation, decorated with a series of banners advertising the day’s philosophical topics for open discussion.

“I thought there was–there!”

Homa animatedly called out and pointed farther up the street–

And in the next instant, her ears dropped, and her tiny tail sagged.

“Aww, man.”

They stopped in front of a two-story plastic building. It had exterior windows facing the street, but they were all shut and colorful curtains drawn over them. The front door was locked, the doormat in front dusty and forlorn. There was an old sign which read “Fahrooz Orthetics” with the logo of the Imbrian Khumeia Pharmaceuticals to show they were affiliated. But the building was clearly disused. The sign was fading, and the plastic had not been treated for sunlamp exposure for a good bit and was beginning to discolor. The only thing which had been kept was the bubble bush in front of it– because that was community managed and not actually the property of the building owner in any way.

Homa grunted. She let go of Kalika’s hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so useless, dear god.”

She raised a hand to cover her face in shame. She was taking it so much harder.

“It’s completely fine. Thank you. It was lovely of you to try.” Kalika said.

Homa made another frustrated little sound. “Will you be okay?” She said.

“Yes. I will be fine. Run along home, Homa Baumann. Have some rest.”

“Thank you– again, I’m really sorry for the trouble.”

“Don’t be. And furthermore,”

Kalika put a hand on Homa’s shoulder and smiled directly at her.

“It’s her loss if she turned down such a handsome and courteous young lady as you.”

Homa’s ears stood back up. Her face flushed red. She nodded and walked away.

Kalika could see her tail swishing as she left. Awkward girl; so cute when she was flustered.

Her intuition must have been right. Homa must have really come back from a bad date. Poor girl; it was worth it to follow her along, even if it didn’t turn up anything for her search.

At least Kalika felt more stable now. She had almost had a meltdown over her arm.

“Ah– the glow of youth. Or, you know– I’d say that if I was that much older than her.”

Kalika sighed. She felt just a bit foolish herself. She looked at the building again.

She lifted her arm. It was a bit sore– Homa could not have known but with the bad elbow the arm’s balance was all wrong and it was starting to hurt the remains of her flesh. She was having even more trouble bending it than before. There was an awkward feeling, as if her brain expected the arm to have already bent at a certain angle, but the mechanical arm was not all the way there.

I guess I’ll sit this one out. I’ll get transferred to the Rostock and wait for everyone

“Oh ho? Interested in this old clinic, are you? Is there perhaps an emergency?”

From behind Kalika, a Shimii woman approached.

Her features were mostly concealed by a green and white hoodie, but through the holes in the hood exposing her ears, Kalika could see that the color of her fur was honey-yellow, therefore the woman was a blond. Aside from the hoodie she had long pants, with a voluminously fluffy yellow tail swaying behind herself. Her stature was fairly small, her figure short, wide and round, but her mannerisms had such a confident and easy presence that her stature did not matter. She exerted a certain pressure.

Kalika could tell her aura was particularly dense despite her emotions appearing ordinary.

She was suspicious, but at the same time, if she could get her arm repaired–

“I’m looking for a cybernetic prosthetic repair. My arm was damaged in an accident.”

The hoodie wearing Shimii nodded her head in acknowledgment, her face barely visible.

“Unfortunately, that clinic closed down over a year ago. However, you’re in luck. I happen to have been the one who leased the place to its former occupants, and I taught them everything they knew about the practice too. I came here for nostalgia’s sake, but I can see you just this once. Just don’t tell anyone– it would inconvenience me and the folks here if people mistook this for the reopening of the clinic.”

It’s a bullshit-sounding story, but I don’t have a choice but to try my luck.

Erika and the Rotfront needed her. She couldn’t afford to be out of action if something happened. She couldn’t afford to be dead weight. None of them would ever say that to her– because they were all too nice. But Kalika would not forgive herself if she stood around helplessly while they died–

She had to get this fixed and return to her post. Had to; today. She was dead set on it.

“I can’t turn down such rare courtesy.” Kalika said.

She saw the golden eyes beneath the hood for a brief instant.

“Lovely. Follow me, then. You can call me ‘Hudson’. But I must stress– please don’t tell anyone.”

“I’m Kalika Loukia. On my pride as a Katarran, my lips are sealed.”

Hudson walked around the side of the building, between it and the next one there was about two meter gap. Behind the building was the wall of the module, and Kalika had assumed the buildings were flush together with it. However, there was also about a meter gap between the buildings and the back wall of the module. Probably for access to electrical paneling or something like that. Hudson led her to a rear door that opened with a keycard, and into the interior of the building itself.

“Watch your step. We’re going upstairs. Follow me closely.”

It was pitch black inside the building. There were blackout curtains on the windows, and the lights weren’t on inside. The only illumination was a tiny green LED on a wall panel indicating that the building still had electricity. Everything must have still been up to date and paid for, and the interior was not really dusty or unkempt. Human activity must have been utterly nil since it closed down, and yet, it was maintained.

Kalika could track Hudson fairly well through the interior of the structure. From the back door they hooked a right through a tight room, and then another left to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Hudson led her down a short hall to a room in the front corner of the building’s second story.

Inside that room she finally switched on a light by placing her hand on the wall touchpad. A largely undecorated room became visible around them, white walls, an air circulator unit on the ceiling, a storage unit with multiple drawers. In the middle of the room there was a table with a stitcher.

It was this machine that caught Kalika’s eye. “Nanostitching machines” were ubiquitous in manufacturing and in mechanical repair, but also in medicine. Biostitchers, Ferristitchers, Synthistitchers, and others, were all conceptually this same type of machine. They were equipped with cartridges of material which was manipulated and used by extruder arms to build something nanometer by nanometer.

In a kitchen, a biostitcher could be loaded with mulched up vegetable matter, a flavoring cartridge and a vitamin solution to create edible, aesthetically pleasing “fresh” veggies; in a medical setting, that same machine with minor modifications to the extrusion arms could be loaded with body-compatible materials to sew up wounds or even fill in the gaps in broken bones or lacerated flesh. Ferristitchers melted down metal in tiny amounts to “stitch” together steel parts and plates bit by bit. For someone working on human cybernetics, the weapon of choice would likely be a combination of all of these machines.

“Okay! I’m going to need you to pull your sleeve back up or something.” Hudson said.

She pulled down her hood. Her face was unremarkable– pretty, but certainly with nothing to hide, one would think. Golden eyes, a round jaw and tall fluffy ears. Long, flowing blond hair styled in a way that it exposed her forehead and fell around her shoulders. She looked like she could have been any other Brennic or Volgian Shimii, though there were also blond Shimii of other heritage. Her skin was a sandy pink color. She truly looked like any other bystander could have. An ordinary Shimii woman.

Kalika obliged. She took off her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt most of the way and slipped her arm out of the sleeve and out of the shirt entirely. On most of it, the synthetic skin shredded and peeled. While it was affixed tight to the outer sleeve of the prosthetic, it could be dyed to look like the rest of Kalika’s skin, but when it was coming off, it turned completely white and unnatural. Where the arm had been struck, close to the elbow, there were jagged bits of material as the surface sleeve and a bit of the internal ligaments had been shorn. She was surprised it wasn’t more broken, as she had blocked a vibrobaton strike in a snap reaction without heeding the consequences. Hudson examined the extent of the damage.

When Kalika tried to bend the arm, working the joint, there was visible friction between the broken parts of the forearm and the parts that moved the joint, creating a creaking metal sound that seemed to be getting worse the more that Kalika moved the arm. Hudson raised a hand as if to tell her to stop.

“I recognize this model. You’re in luck. Full fix coming right up.”

She approached, and with Kalika’s consent, she used a tool to separate the prosthetic arm from the ring that had been installed farther up the arm. When Kalika had lost the arm, all she had was a little bit of flesh and muscle close to the shoulder. That flesh was melded into a ring cap that hosted the couplers, to which her prosthetic attached. Because she lost most of her arm, the prosthetic needed to have its own elbow joint. From what she understood, that was much more complicated than just a forearm would have been. Without the prosthetic, the coupler array hung loose and exposed that ring of metal and screws and a lot of bloodshot veins and visible nerves where it met Kalika’s flesh. When she tried to move her arm now, only the stray coupler-links wiggled uselessly like steel worms. Her nerves were sewn into the coupler and thus into them. Their only purpose was to translate between the flesh and metal.

“Technology is wonderful, isn’t it? But– it’s still a pity, to lose a limb. Especially for you!”

Kalika said nothing. She stood with her back to the wall and averted her gaze.

“Katarrans’ natural bodies are already stronger and more durable than an ordinary Imbrian body, so it’s extra tragic for them to lose a limb. You can get away with losing a leg, but they call Katarrans who lose their arms, ¾ of a Katarran, don’t they? It’s seen as such as a tragic shame among your kind!”

Hudson tittered while tenderly stroking Kalika’s prosthetic, and taking it to the table.

“So that is why,” she continued, hooking one finger into the orifice resulting from the damage near the elbow, “only something I made would suffice for a Katarran warrior who retains her pride.”

Kalika’s eyes narrowed. She hated being spoken about in the abstract like this.

Those words piqued her interest, however. “So you’re affiliated with that Loup doctor?”

“Oh! So Nile installed this for you? That makes sense– that woman is such a good samaritan.”

Years ago– Kalika had been riding with an entirely different crew altogether.

She risked her life for them, and her limb. Then she left them behind.

That was when she had the fortune to meet that doctor. Hilana Tarik– or “Nile.”

“Do you know where she is now? It’s so much harder than I thought to get this serviced.”

Hudson shook her head. “I’m afraid she and I don’t have much contact these days.”

Kalika was not going to pry into it any further then. She felt it was pointless to push it.

While Kalika watched, Hudson opened the glass hatch at the top of the ferristitcher. Most of the operating table was taken up by the machine. She set the arm down in the center of the table and closed the hatch. As soon as she powered it on, lasers scanned the prosthetic and on an attached LCD screen a highly detailed wireframe model appear. Extruder arms and manipulator arms from the floor and walls of the ferristitcher box arrayed themselves around the prosthetic in preparation for the operation.

Hudson took a look at the LCD screen attached to the stitcher machine. She used the touchscreen to zoom in on the minute details, swished her finger over it. She made corrections to the default plan that the machine had drafted after scanning the arm and she gave new instructions to the machine. Once she was satisfied with her work, she turned back to Kalika briefly, her golden eyes cheerfully wide.

“We’ll spot-melt some of the imperfections and then spot-fill them.” Hudson said. She sounded almost like she was talking to herself even though she was addressing Kalika. “Once the structure is repaired, I’ll pull out the old elbow tensioner and the broken ligament, ferristitch new ones, and then ferristitch them into the arm.” Her eyes fixed on Kalika’s shoulder, twitching one ear. “As far as repairs are concerned, I’d be happy to fix it for you if it breaks again. Get in touch with Sunspot Health Cooperative and someone will help you. Failing that, you can ask Theresa Faraday from Solarflare LLC, based in Kreuzung.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. How much will I owe you?” Kalika asked.

“Owe me? Nothing. Don’t mention payment– I find it gauche, you know? I’m an artist.”

Kalika crooked one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t trust that you’re doing this for free.”

“Well, start trusting. I categorically refuse your money.”

Inside the ferristitcher, the arrayed arms began to work.

It looked almost like a swarm of rigid metal crab legs dancing all over her arm.

Barely visible sparks appeared, the contacts being made at such a minute level it was hard to imagine.

“Nothing in Imbria is given without an ulterior motive.” Kalika said.

Erika would have hated her for saying such a thing– but it was her natural reaction.

Charity — with a few exceptions — was a two-faced strategy, a conspiracy, however gentle.

In response to her skepticism, Hudson chuckled.

So far, for as long as Kalika had seen her face, she had a placid little smile.

Now she put on a grin as she gave her answer. Swinging her arms open in a grandiose fashion.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing this for you because I care about you as a person. Anything I built, I maintain. There is a legacy, woven into the metal crafted under my watchful eyes. It is my DNA, my seed, my egg! You are gravid with my legacy, Kalika Loukia, and I would be remiss to be bias against you and allow the work which you have been blessed with to rot and become useless. That would invite others to say my craftsmanship was less than legendary– and I will never accept that. On my pride as well.”

Something about being gravid with anyone’s legacy made Kalika feel sick to her stomach.

Having to depend on people like this was so rotten. Everyone had some awful ideology.

At least this pervert was fixing her arm for free.

“Suit yourself then.” Kalika said. She averted her eyes, staring at the wall.

Hudson continued to grin to herself with satisfaction as the machines did her bidding.

“These tensioners are based on the same materials as the housing for vibroblade oscillators. One of my cleverer ideas. It’s lightweight but tough and can endure a lot of force being put into it. It supports depleted agarthicite nanowire muscles to achieve Katarran levels of biomechanical labor output. This is the only model of prosthetic that will suit a Katarran mercenary. You are quite lucky indeed.”

For a few minutes, Hudson ran her mouth about the prosthetic.

Until the ferristitcher stopped halfway through.

“Oh! Hand me a cartridge please. Use the one labeled Mixture III.”

Hudson pointed to a drawer just over Kalika’s shoulder.

She turned around, opened it with her good arm and pulled out the one cylinder left.

It was just a little annoying, not being able to use a second arm to pick the object up.

Having to pull out the drawer, stop, and then use the same arm– it was a little frustrating.

Missing an arm– was frustrating. That was how effective her prosthetic had been.

She was drawn back to the time shortly after losing her arm, trying to go without.

She hated it. It triggered feelings of anxious self-loathing she had not felt in a while.

Without a warning, she lobbed the cartridge across the room into Hudson’s awaiting hands.

Judging by the materials she was working with, Hudson really didn’t care about money.

“You said that has depleted agarthicite in it? You’d leave something that expensive here?”

“What’s the worst that can happen? Someone breaks in here, is not stopped by any locals or by Arabie’s enforcers, and makes away with nothing but a ferristitcher cartridge? It doesn’t matter to me. Plus I do think you overestimate how criminal the people around here are, nobody would bother.”

Hudson opened a hatch on the side of the table and pushed the cartridge into the underside of the table, where the spot-smelter was located that softened up the material so it could be piped to the arms. Once the machine was reloaded with material, it resumed ferristitching automatically, and within minutes, it had completely repaired the sunken-in part of her arm and the frayed metal near the elbow. Then, the manipulator arms separated the elbow mechanism and one ligament from the structure, setting them aside. Hudson opened the hatch into the main workspace, pushing the prosthetic arm out of the way of the manipulators and extruders. She then began to swipe and swish her finger on the ferristitcher’s computer using the touchpad, issuing updated instructions the machine began to follow.

Pecking and spinning and slicing across an axis– they were building something now.

“Do you ever feel dysmorphia for the body you used to have?” Hudson asked.

Kalika grumbled. “I don’t view myself as having lost my body.”

“But do you feel a phantom pain? Like now, with your arm nothing but couplers.”

“No.” It was a lie. Kalika felt terribly uncomfortable and eerie with a missing arm and the hanging couplers coming out of the remains of her arm. She could not help but ‘move her arm’, it was something unconscious and automatic, especially because of how restless Hudson made her.

Each time her brain and nerves sent that command, it just made the couplers shudder.

Whenever that happened it did unnerve her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Did you know– once you become fully biomechanical, that feeling goes away. You are set to right; you reach an apotheosis.” Hudson said suddenly. Kalika narrowed her eyes at her.

Her aura shifted– her intentions– “Have you reached an Apotheosis, Kalika Loukia?”

Hudson absentmindedly raised her arm–

One of her hands suddenly launched from the wrist as if launched by a jet anchor.

It all happened so fast–!

Kalika dropped her good arm, releasing the knife hidden in her sleeve, catching it and swinging up.

One fluid motion– was it fast enough–?

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

Hudson’s hand, glowing yellow with a sickly aura,

met Kalika’s knife, burning red with furious conviction and deflected it,

sending the object to the floor in an instant.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Kalika shouted as the hand fell to the floor.

She had the knife in hand, held out in defense.

“Sorry, sorry! I just couldn’t help but check you out. I’ll stop now!” Hudson cried out, folding her ears.

There was a whirring noise, and Hudson’s hand was pulled by the cable back into its wrist.

She raised her fingers to her eyes, removing two lenses that had been covering them up.

Rather than gold, their actual color was a metallic, ice grey, with dozens of tiny digits and symbols visibly playing about the surface of the clearly mechanical orbs. When she smiled bright and wide, Kalika noticed, for the first time, the presence of the tiny seams around her cheeks like surreptitious plate joins. Her wrist, having fired its hand, now had a visible seam between the hand and forearm. And as if to further demonstrate the illusions of her body, that big bushy tail split into several mechanical, sharp-tipped implements, which quickly rejoined back into the original form of a bushy cat’s tail.

Kalika had never seen anything like it. Was her whole body robotic?

No– her body seemed soft on the outside. It was not just mechanical– it was biomechanical.

Just like a prosthetic– a full-body prosthetic.

“You used Saint’s Skin. Do you have the other two gifts too?” Hudson asked innocently.

“Fuck you.” Kalika said. “I’m not just going to forget you tried to attack me.”

“Then, how about you attack me, and we’ll call it even? I’ll resist only as much as you.”

“Give me back my arm. I’m leaving.” Kalika shouted.

Hudson’s expression darkened. Her eyes narrowed.

“No! Not until it’s repaired!”

Her cry boomed across the room and not just because she had shouted it.

Kalika hesitated to agitate her further but kept her guard up.

That punch she threw had been clearly imbued with yellow aura.

Saint’s Skin was not able to force that aether directly into someone else, but the addition of aether passively empowered any ordinary blow, necessitating aether to deflect it. Employing Saint’s Skin could change the ambient auras for the worse, slowly poisoning Kalika with its intentions and causing her emotions to shift unless she controlled them; but if it was King’s Gaze, being struck by the punch would have instantly made her feel sick. She may have devolved into a vomiting fit from just touching it.

Such was its awful power. The ability to force one’s aura, one’s emotions, directly into someone else.

Those who had the King’s Gaze had every other Gift by necessity.

She had not been paying attention and Hudson had concealed her intentions well. Without having prepared with Oracle’s Voice, she could not tell whether Hudson had used Saint’s Skin or King’s Gaze. Fighting someone with the King’s Gaze was incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. So she had to hold off for now in case that was a possibility and assess the nature of the situation.

Hudson’s aura was powerful. She was practiced in not just psionics but aetherics too.

When Kalika mentioned taking her prosthetic and leaving, Hudson’s aura flared.

That provocation triggered a band of undisguised, hateful-feeling black aura.

Nothing else the Shimii attempted had been done with killing intention behind it.

Kalika relaxed and laid back against the wall again, sighing deeply. No use in pushing it.

As if realizing she was being seen in a different light, the Shimii’s aura softened.

“Offer still stands, by the way.” Hudson said. “Give me a good hit and let’s be friends.”

“I’ll never be your fucking friend, you freak. Just hurry up over there.” Kalika said.

“That’s too bad.” Hudson smiled. “Maybe I can befriend that cute girl you were with–”

Snap. Inside Kalika’s self a taut and fraying string holding her back burst utterly.

In the next instant, a red flash; a swing of the arm; an error noise; the ferristitcher paused;

From across the room, a wave of force blew past that stirred the ferristitcher instruments.

Its wake a shining bloody red trail that started in a furious swing of Kalika’s vibroknife–

–and connected with Hudson’s cheek, splitting the artificial skin over the side of her face.

Kalika’s eyes flashed as furiously red as the harmful aura which she had hurled at Hudson.

Her brain screamed with pain that she ignored. Shaking, teeth bared in unremitting fury.

Struck by the red aura, and visibly wounded, Hudson’s aura started to take on Kalika’s anger.

Kalika realized what she had done and drew back. Stupid. Stupid move. God damn it.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.” In a second, the polluting red completely disappeared.

Hudson took direct command over her aura, preventing Kalika’s anger influencing her.

She sighed heavily, with one hand over her injured cheek. She then smiled again.

Her aura normalized completely. Blue and green, the colors of humanity. No red or black.

“So you do have the King’s Gaze! It really was so serendipitous that we met!” She cheered.

Absentmindedly, she restarted the ferristitcher. It completed the parts it was building.

Without paying Kalika further heed, Hudson opened the ferristitcher’s hatch and set the arm back on the center of the workspace. A manipulator arm took the elbow piece, and another took the new ligaments and the machine set about quickly reassembling these parts into the arm to make it complete. Kalika was speechless. She thought she would have provoked a horrific response from that attack.

Hudson’s joking threat had gotten the absolute worst rise out of her.

It had been stupid– but she could not have stood by for that Homa girl to be victimized.

Not on a whim– not on anyone’s whim. Kalika would not tolerate an innocent to be hurt.

But Hudson cleansed her own aura of Kalika’s infused anger so quickly and easily.

She was back to her unbothered self. It really was all nothing but a joke to her?

King’s Gaze is extremely rare. Mahdist Shimii once saw it as a sign of a divine right to rulership, without knowing what it really was and what it meant. And yet, a few people with this ability are on this Station right now. Who knows– maybe even somebody you met on the street today could possess great power. Kreuzung has become a place of destiny; I can feel it brimming in the aether itself.”

From the ferristitcher, Hudson withdrew Kalika’s arm and took it in her hands. While the synthetic skin was all gone, the carbon-fiber sleeve was a sleek shiny black, and all of the damage had been fully repaired. It looked brand new. In fact, it looked even better than when Kalika first received it.

“It’s fixed. Let me install it.” Hudson said. “Can I come closer?”

“Yes. Fine. I don’t want to spend another second here.” Kalika grunted.

She was so vulnerable. In an untrustworthy person’s “care.” It pissed her off.

To be treated like this– just because of what happened to her body.

When she should have been allowed to rest, instead she had to keep fighting.

“You better not try anything.” Kalika said.

“Okey-dokey. I don’t want to hurt you. Please trust me for a moment.”

Hudson ambled over to the other side of her room.

She gently gathered the couplers and led them into the associated ports in the arm. She pushed until the prosthetic locked into the steel ring bolted on the remains of Kalika’s old arm. Then she turned the upper arm ring until it locked the prosthetic tightly into place. Kalika could feel the couplers attached to the correct synthetic nerve bundles. When Hudson pulled back a step, Kalika could move her arm.

Once the deed was done, she slipped her arm back into her shirt and clipped it back up, closing it over the lacy purple brassiere she had to partially expose throughout in order to let her arm out.

She donned her jacket anew and put away her knife back into its trick sleeve.

Hudson smiled at her, with her synthetic skin broken, partially exposing the soft carbon-fiber muscle that formed part of her face. Kalika fixed eyes on her. This individual was extremely dangerous, no doubt about it. However, she did not seem intent on killing or causing injury, for the moment.

“You keep acting like this is all a big joke. What is your agenda?” Kalika asked.

“I’m building the greatest machine in the world. My greatest work of art.” Hudson said.

Kalika grunted. And yet, there was no sense that Hudson was actually lying about this.

“Hey c’mon I was just messing with you! I helped, didn’t I?” Hudson cheerfully cried out.

“Whatever. Go to hell. I’m not thanking you for any of this.” Kalika grumbled.

She started on her way out but stopped into the door to Hudson’s operating room.

Without turning around to look at her again, Kalika warned:

“Touch a hair on Homa Baumman’s tail, and I’ll rip your entire fucking head off.”

“Sensitive to the plight of innocents?” Hudson asked jokingly. “I have no interest in her.”

“That better remain the case. Or you’ll make an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.”

“Whether enemy or friend– just remember, to take care of that arm for me, okay?”

Kalika hissed and continued on her way, leaving Hudson behind with finality.

Stepping back out into the street, thoroughly aggravated by what had transpired.

After spending the entire day, and being socially, verbally and physically manhandled, she finally had a working arm back. She could resume her duties with the Rotfront now, but everything was upside down. They knew other militants might be operating here; but enemy psychics too?

She would tell Erika that the Rotfront had some rival conspirators aboard the station.

Not that there was anything they could do about it quite yet. Their hands were tied for now.

They could not afford to cause a ruckus until their meeting with Kremina Qote concluded.

For all her big talk, Kalika herself was no great defender of the innocent anyway.

She had been helpless to do so even under the guidance of the “hero” Radu the Marzban

–and now, she felt just as helpless anyway with the naïve idealists of the Rotfront.

Staring at her arm in her sleeve, opening and closing her black, segmented hand.

There was always so much Ocean, deeper and darker and more mysterious, out there.

On any given day, she could meet with something too powerful to deal with herself.

Even with all the mysteries she had been inducted into, she could become a victim too.

“We have to get stronger. I have to– I can’t let the same thing happen again.”

Visions of beautiful memories forever burned in the pyre of violence and hatred.

Any moment, any wrong decision, and it could all happen again. She could lose everything.

She could not afford to be lackadaisical at all. Fighting until death was the Katarran way.

Thinking of it as a fruitless struggle that could meet an insurmountable wall and just end–

–was too cruel to consider.


Kalika made her way from Tower Eight back to the baseplate of Kreuzung core.

Homa had been right. The guards at Tower Eight did not care whether Imbrians, Katarrans or other races went in or out of Tower Eight as long as the Shimii’s movement was being monitored and controlled. She thought Katarrans had it bad– these conditions must have been so dehumanizing for the Shimii.

With that bleak thought in her brain, she located one of the hatches to the tunnels below the baseplate and took another elevator back down to Platform Town. It was about 22:00 in the evening by the time she got to the underground, so the surly guard at the door had been replaced by an indifferent-looking young woman with a hoodie. She gave Kalika a brief glance before proceeding to take her eyes off her again, briefly rubbing the butt of a vibrobaton clipped to her pants while leaning on a wall.

“Watchman told me to tell you that your ‘Premier’ is expecting you.” She said.

“What? She came down here?” Kalika asked.

“Yeah. Erika, right? She gave everyone stuff. She’s kinda alright.”

“Jeez. Thank you for telling me.”

“Just doin’ what the boss says ma’am.”

Kalika hurried into the ancillary tunnels and out into the exterior ones.

Hurriedly crossing the labyrinth to make it back to the room where she had left Dimmitra.

She saw yellow light coming from the door. Torchlight. So they were in there.

Kalika rushed into the room, and immediately heaved an exasperated sigh.

“Why are you down here? Do you have something against your own personal safety?”

In the middle of the room, between Dimittra, Chloe and her own bodyguard Olga–

A woman in a red greatcoat and hat, with long, smoke-blue hair down to her waist. Black horns protruding from the back of her head curled up, just a bit more rounded than Kalika’s rectangular horns. When she turned with a gently pink grin on her face and with a flourish of her slender arms, locking her mismatched eyes, blue and green, on Kalika’s own with such confidence. Beneath the coat, she had a skirt with a high waistband and a button-down shirt tucked into it, worn with tights and heels.

Soon as Kalika acknowledged eye contact, she tossed her hair.

And winked one perfectly shadowed eye. Incorrigible, stupid, reckless girl

Erika Kairos, Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the militant communist band Rotfront.

Whose name she recently declared was instead the Nationale Volksarmee.

“I’m staking it all on this, Kalika! I already said so! Hiding away ill befits a leader!”

“Getting killed ill befits a leader too!” Kalika grumbled.

“I’m stronger than that. Don’t worry about me. But now that you’re here, you can be on-hand for tomorrow, if you’re so worried.” Erika crossed her arms, smiling. “I’ve secured us an audience with some real hardcore communists, Kalika– I’ll be meeting with actual Union special operatives!”

Kalika blinked, briefly left speechless. If she heard that correctly– what was going on?


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