Bandits Amid The Festival [11.9]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.

In one of the few meeting rooms on the Brigand not yet torn into by sailors, an automatic kettle filled with coffee had been set on a table, along with creamer, sweeteners, and some sweet-glazed biscuits. Only two people occupied this meeting room today. On one side of the table, Lieutenant Murati Nakara sat with her back up straight, her hands on her lap, and a somewhat tense and serious look on her face. Her eyes wandered frequently.

Across the table, Premier Erika Kairos sat casually back, sipping coffee from a plastic mug.

“I’m glad I was able to catch you today, Lieutenant. You’ve been quite busy!”

“My apologies! There’s been a lot of work to do. I was planning an outing too.”

“Ah! Then I won’t keep you long, don’t worry.”

“No! It’s perfectly fine. I have a lot of time still– and I’d make more time for you!”

Erika put her cup of coffee down for a moment and leaned forward with a friendly smile.

“I’ve been informed of your indefatigable work ethic, but this is not that sort of meeting.”

“Oh! I thought you wanted to go over procedures and such, maybe talk about the pilots–”

“Not today! Right now, I just want to get to know you personally, Murati Nakara.”

Murati felt her heart accelerate in her chest.

Due to the circumstances, she had not yet been able to have a one-on-one meeting with the Brigand’s new political leader, Erika Kairos of the Nationale Volksarmee. Of course, she was well informed of the situation, she was there to listen to Erika’s speech. But they had not gotten to actually talk to one another. Murati’s duties as first officer intensified recently due to the messiness with the Brigand’s refit, and the Captain’s participation in United Front discussions. While the Captain and Commissar were occupied, Murati had tapped into that ‘indefatigable work ethic’ to cover every second that they were gone. She had signed off on workgroup tasks, rejected dozens of foolish inquiries and requests from the sailors with an iron fist demanding strict adherence to code, and maintained operational security.

Then, Murati was swamped with additional shore leave preparations.

So she had been denied the time to meet Erika again and again. Even as Erika made the rounds and visited the engineers, sailors and other pilots, Murati had been absent.

While she was busy, she hadn’t thought about it as much, but in her presence–

Murati felt almost desperate across from this woman. She was completely struck by her.

That speech– it had shaken through Murati and filled with her burning determination!

Erika’s words bore the weight of history; every sentence swept through Murati like a hurricane. She was left wondering if this is what the original revolutionaries felt listening to Daksha Kansal declare the Union upon the First United Front’s liberation of Mount Raja. Ever since hearing that speech, in the back of her mind, she thought about what she would say, what she would ask, how she would make a first impression on Erika–

“Lieutenant, you haven’t touched your coffee. Is everything okay?” Erika asked.

“Yes! Ma’am! May I ask something about you?” Murati said.

“Of course! This is a conversation. No need to be so stiff, Murati!”

“Ma’am–” Murati’s eyes brightened. “May I ask about– your bibliography!”

Erika blinked her eyes, in the middle of lifting her cup for a drink of her coffee.

“My bibliography?” Erika asked, cracking a little grin.

“Yes! I mean– I want to know about your theoretical grounding! I’m– I’m not questioning you of course. I am someone who greatly admires the Katarran people and sympathizes with their history and plight; and to see a scholar such as yourself who is fighting for their dignity and that of others, it gives me such wild hope for the future! In so few and yet carefully chosen words you demonstrated such a vast and strong grounding in the status of internal nationalities in the social order of the Imbrian Empire, but not just in theory, but with concrete experiences gleaned from local insight! Through your speech, I glimpsed the rich history of the Shimii in Eisental and the economic advantage Imbrians glean from the direct exploitation of Katarrans even as they try to drive them to the margins of society! My eyes were opened– I am deeply, poorly read on the specifics of regional cultures in the Imbrium. I must update my theories too! I would read any number of books that you suggested!”

Murati’s wild hand gestures and sudden eagerness seemed to surprise Erika.

Who still had her cup of coffee hovering near her face while she stared at Murati.

“I’m afraid I don’t have an exact book list.” She said gently. “I’ve read the elemental works, like Mordecai, von Haar, Kansal’s early work, Jayasankar’s treatises on inter-ethnic alliances in the Union’s struggle, such things. I’m afraid there’s not really anything that’s written with a critical eye about Eisental’s history. I was actually thinking of writing about it once–”

Upon the mere suggestion that Erika might write a book, Murati’s entire soul quaked.

“Ma’am if you wrote a book, I’d love to read your manuscript! Maybe I could help edit! It would be my honor to do anything I can to bring your insights into the broader academic discussion on communist governance and nationalities policy! You are definitely worthier of being read in Union scholarship than some of the doggerel that passes for socialist education at the Academy!!”

Murati spoke breathlessly and had started to lean closer across the table.

Erika blinked and finally sipped her coffee again after several minutes.

“My, my– it looks like it’s not just your work ethic that is impressive!”

She started giggling. Murati started to wonder if she had misspoken somehow.

“I am flattered Murati.” Erika continued. “Perhaps in the future, we can do so.”

“Yes, of course.” Murati said. She thought she inferred the Premier’s intent.

Right now wasn’t the time to be thinking about theory-craft.

Erika looked upon Murati with a fondness and softness in her eyes.

“Captain Korabiskaya spoke glowingly of you. She told me you are not only skilled in combat and in tactical planning, but are also exactingly responsible towards your duties, and the most ardent communist of the crew’s officers. Even in this short span of time, I can already feel your– unique– passion and energy, Murati. I may just concur with the Captain.”

She set down her coffee on the table and reached a hand across.

Murati reflexively saluted, realized she had done so, and immediately reached out herself.

They shook hands, with casual courtesy.

“I am not much older than you; I am hoping that both of us can have bright and long futures ahead. For now, Murati, let us do this. You live your theory with that passion you possess and speak your mind candidly to advise me and our course of action. And I in turn will live my theory and impart on you what I’ve learned from my years here in Eisental. I think this will be more instructive to both of us for now than writing my seminal work of theory.”

“Yes, of course, Premier. Thank you kindly.” Murati replied.

When Erika spoke seriously, she had a decided charm Murati could not avoid.

She had an easy, unremarked charisma; something Murati felt she herself must have lacked.

Maybe if it was Erika, all her petitions for captainship would have borne fruit.

But when they talked just like this, she also seemed approachable and easygoing too.

It made Murati feel a bit less mature than she once believed herself to be.

Erika was someone, like the Captain, who had demonstrated enormous merit in the field.

Murati hoped she would have an opportunity to prove her own convictions as well.

“But like I said,” Erika continued, “I wanted to talk about you personally.”

“Of course! You can ask me anything, ma’am!”

She hoped her enthusiasm wasn’t too annoying– but Erika was just so cool.

Almost like speaking to a real Katarran warlord– but a communist!

“What are your ambitions for the future, Murati?” Erika asked. “One thing I’ve always been curious about, is what children of a real socialist nation grow up wanting to become. Here in the Imbrium, no Katarran child can dream of anything; and the Imbrians are pushed to think of themselves as money earning machines who need waged labor. If I might be allowed an assumption, it seems like you are on track to be a wonderful scholar. Am I wrong?”

Murati smiled. “Actually, ma’am, I want to be Captain of a ship in the Union Navy. Of course, you can’t do that forever– someday I may become a Kommandant and perhaps even a Rear Admiral, I’m sure. But I feel that a Captainship is a reasonable goal within a few years.”

Erika looked surprised for a few moments and then smiled again.

“A career soldier? How interesting. I shall evaluate your merits over time then.”

“Ma’am!” Murati stiffened again. “I would welcome any criticism you have!”

“Oh dear, I’ve made her go solid as steel again.” Erika said, giggling.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing, nothing~ Murati, please don’t be so formal.”

“Alright.”

Murati let out a long-held breath and tried to loosen up at least a little bit.

She finally reached for her coffee and took a sip.

It was still warm, thanks to the design of the mug. She hoped dearly she was not looking like a fool in front of Erika– she was committed to impressing her new ally. Erika was not only a Katarran, whom Murati was fascinated by; nor just a successful leader of insurgents; she was a communist, excellently read, eloquent, and with easy confidence. It felt like Erika had achieved so much of what Murati strove for, and Murati wished to earn her respect as a peer.

But she couldn’t hurry to that goal. She just had to do her best, over the course of things–

–those things, being, war. Murati then felt the totality of her foolishness hit all at once.

Probably, she looked like a monumental idiot being so excited about going to war.

“How has life been for you aboard the ship?” Erika asked. “Do you have any hobbies?”

Murati blinked. Erika’s casual inquiry brought her out of her dark, spiraling mindset.

“Um. It’s been more than acceptable. The Brigand is very comfortable and full featured. As for hobbies, I– I like music. Electronic music. And I like to read of course. I have been reading about local establishments– I have my fiancée aboard and I am planning a date.”

“She is quite a lucky woman! I hope you have a fantastic evening.”

Erika sipped her coffee again and Murati tried to think of what else to say.

“Um– yes– hobbies– let’s see–”

Hobbies were not a particular strong suit of Murati’s– being asked that question by Erika made her realize how much her work and her ambition had become her entire life. Having to furnish an answer to someone she wanted to respect and desired esteem from made her wrack her brain and realize she didn’t do much ‘for fun’ around here, or even back at Thassal. She had always been doing work for Naval HQ or fighting them about getting more work or a Captainship, and she only ever went out to have fun if it was with Karuniya. In her room, she mainly read history books and treatises on war, logistics reports, strategic reviews of forces. She rarely watched films, and was only familiar with video games through her advocacy for combat simulators. In fact, she only really liked music because it could provide ambiance while she was reading or working– she didn’t have any hands-on sort of hobbies.

“We could listen to some music sometime. I could show you my favorites.” Murati said.

“That would be lovely. We shall make a time of it at the next opportunity.” Erika said.

“Ma’am– Should I have a real hobby?” Murati felt compelled to ask all of a sudden.

Mainly out of reaching a peak of nervousness about whether she looked too foolish.

Erika gave her a gentle smile, reached across the table, and patted Murati’s hands.

“No, Murati; you should be yourself, and I think you are very good at that.” She said softly.

Murati smiled back. She felt a shot in the arm of confidence.

For the rest of their conversation, her wild gesticulation and verbal energy fully returned.


“My girlfriend is the absolute coolest! She’s the coolest of the cool!”

Maryam clung closer to Shalikova’s arm, rubbing her cheek up against the shoulder.

“Ah– Thanks– Maryam–”

“I told you! You look amazing on the street like this! I’m so happy you wore the outfit!”

“Yeah–? Well– As long as you like it–”

They’re the worst. They’re the worst. Those two– they’ll be the death of me–!

Everyone was staring.

Literally everyone on the street was staring directly at the two of them. Right? They must have been. Shalikova was almost scared to try to catch the direction of anyone’s gaze in the crowd. Maybe they weren’t looking– but she felt so exposed. She was so red. Not just her face, but her suit was so red and gaudy– and the sunglasses— it was insane to be wearing it, she felt like an ambulant semaphore. No– she was more like a living Yule decoration!

It was insane. And it was all their fault.

“It’s been a long walk, but I’m really looking forward to the carnival!”

“Ah– yeah, definitely–”

“We’re gonna eat junk food and play games all day! The perfect station date!”

“Oh– totally–”

“And we look like such a power couple, don’t we? It’s everything I dreamed of!”

“Uh huh? Well– I’m happy if you are–”

THEY’RE THE WORST!

Several hours before she set out on her date with Maryam, Shalikova had gone to Illya and Valeriya’s room. They had insinuated they had something to give her, and she wanted to get whatever filial nonsense they thought they had to do for her sake, over with as soon as possible and then get on with forgetting it. She figured it was some ill-considered thing relating to her date, like cologne or erection pills. She paused in front of their door, wondering if she might be able to make out a sound. Neither one of them had told Shalikova what their schedule was like, so she looked for them as soon as she woke up.

She thought that she could hear a vague whiny noise through the door.

“Ugh. What if I walk in on them? Damn it.”

Shalikova stood frozen in front of their door for three or four minutes before knocking.

“Forget it, it’s not my fault if I inconvenience them–”

“Come in.”

Mere seconds after Shalikova’s fist raised off the steel door, it unceremoniously slid open.

Though Shalikova immediately feared a dramatic unveiling, Illya and Valeriya’s room was nothing out of the ordinary. Two bunks, a pull-out desk, bare metal walls and floor, like the rest. Unlike most of the officers, who lived alone until circumstances starting shrinking the number of available accommodations, Illya and Valeriya were roomed together. Valeriya was lying in bed, whether sleeping or not, Shalikova did not know. From the glimpse of a pale shoulder, she was naked in bed, her back turned, barely wrapped in blankets.

Illya was seated in the middle of the back wall, with a portable computer laid on the pull-out desk surface. She was wearing a tanktop and shorts and looked bored scrolling through pages. It seemed the two of them had their fun before Shalikova stood at their door.

She felt a sense of relief lifting the tension in her chest.

“Sonya.” Illya said, by way of greeting. “Anything I can help with?”

“You wanted me to come get something.” Shalikova said, barely above a whisper.

“You can raise your voice. She’s awake. She just doesn’t want to look at you.” Illya said.

From the bed, Valeriya raised a hand, waved half-heartedly, and then put it back down.

Shalikova noticed as her hand came down, she gestured like lifting a mask over her face.

Which she was not wearing to bed– Valeriya was really a prisoner of her habits.

“Fine.” Shalikova said. “Look, you said you had something for me if my date got approved. Well, you saw it from your monitors, I did give the form to Murati, and she did approve it.”

“Ah, yeah. I have something that’ll upgrade you from ‘our little sonya’ to a real playboy.”

“Yeah? I don’t want to do anything like that. But I’ll take it just so you’ll shut up.”

“You’re so cold to me. But you’ll be hot as fire if you wear this to your date.”

From under the room’s second bunk, Illya withdrew two plastic gift boxes.

“Back before we learned about this mission, we got you a gift and tried to make plans to see you again. We thought bringing you something fancy might break the ice after a long time apart– but you know, circumstances conspired against us, and we broke the ice in much shittier ways, on this boat, instead of in the Union. Regardless, it’s yours. We got you an outfit and some accesories. Mount Raja chic stuff– not the easiest shit to get without the sort of connections we have. You can wear it or not, but you really ought to.”

She deposited the boxes on Shalikova’s awaiting arms with a self-assured grin.

Shalikova was not even going to bother to open the boxes much less wear the contents.

Maryam was just going to wear a uniform, and so was she.

“Thanks. Are you and Valeriya doing anything special?” She asked out of courtesy.

Illya cracked a grin and cracked her knuckles too. “Every night is special for us.”

Shalikova crooked an eyebrow. “Okay. Well. Whatever. Have fun I guess.”

She turned sharply around and marched back to her room and put all of that behind herself.

Back in her room, she threw the box on her bed and stripped her clothes.

On the opposite side of the room, a strobing purple marshmallow indicated that her girlfriend was still solidly asleep and Shalikova had no intention to wake her. She had an idea of how she wanted everything to go. She would go catch a shower, come back, dress up, and if Maryam was still asleep, she would go pick up food for the both of them.

They would eat in their room, and then set off together.

Maryam slept like a boulder most of the time, so she didn’t have to fear waking her.

She left the room in her vinyl bathrobe, marched to the bathroom, ignored Geninov and Santapena-De La Rosa being there together while washing up, marched out of the bathroom. With her hair wet and dressed only in her vinyl robe, Shalikova still felt, for once, bold enough to go to grab a breakfast box from the under-reconstruction cafeteria.

Appearances be damned– this was her big day.

Raising her head, straightening her back, smiling to herself like she owned the ship.

Even if it was a little cold to be out and about like that, the fire in her heart was enough.

Shalikova grabbed some breakfast and took it back to her room.

In her mind, she would stride through the door to the adoring eyes of her girlfriend.

Looking oh-so considerate, responsible, and put together, for bringing her breakfast in bed.

She stood at the door. In her mind– it was going to be a perfect start to a perfect day.

Reality punched her square in the sternum just a moment later.

“Sonya! Take a look at this! It’s so cool!”

“Huh?”

Shalikova found Maryam was awake and sitting on her bed instead; holding up some bright red thing at her with an enormous beaming smile like a little girl with a birthday gift. Illya’s boxes and their wrappings lay discarded behind her. Maryam had helped herself to whatever Illya had gotten for Shalikova– which was mortifying enough to think about.

But the actual contents–

“I bet you would look really cool in this! And now I can wear my nice dress too!”

–inspired even greater fear.

Unable to bear the disappointment it might cause her girlfriend, she went along with it.

And now, they were walking down the street, in public– and Shalikova looked–

“Who gave you that dress anyway?” She said, trying to deflect.

“It was McKennedy! She said she wanted to make up for ‘the inconveniences.’”

“She must have realized how racist she sounded with you.”

“Well, it’s quite cuttlevenient for me, whatever the intention.” Maryam smiled proudly.

Illya’s gift for Shalikova was a set of track clothes.

There was a bright red zip-up jacket with gold stripes, emblazoned with the word “ACE” on the back in gold-bordered black, which Shalikova wore half-unzipped over a plain white tanktop and sports bra for lack of anything else to pair with that. Along with the jacket she received matching red pants with a gold stripe. They were exceptionally tight in the back– a place where Shalikova was a bit lean anyway. She got new black and white sneakers too, with actual laces and layered material that must have been a boutique synthestitch job.

And then, she had the sunglasses.

Big light-blue lenses that perched heavily on her nose and barely concealed her eyes, on a thin frame from translucent blue and black materials. These were typically known as “pilot” style glasses despite the fact that Diver pilots didn’t wear things like this— or at least Shalikova did not. They were extremely showy and so they went with the rest of the showy outfit, which made Shalikova feel like she must have come off monumentally insecure.

Does Illya think I’m a delinquent?! Is she just fucking with me?!

There was a bright side, keeping the situation from being completely intolerable.

While Shalikova looked, in her mind, ridiculous, at her side, Maryam was jaw-droppingly, stunningly beautiful. McKennedy, as rude as she was, definitely had an eye for fashion.

Maryam had been gifted a long-sleeved dark blue dress that flattered her figure, with a high collar and white seams and accents. The sleeves flared into little ruffled cones at the wrist, and the skirt had a similar ornate, ruffled design. White leggings and black shoes added a bit of contrast. By far the cutest touch, however, was a floppy beret perched atop her head.

“You look stunning too, Maryam. Forget about me– you’re incredible. You’re beautiful.”

“Ah! Sonya, thank you so much! But don’t sell yourself short! You don’t let me talk down about myself, so I’m not going to let you either! You’re my super cool girlfriend, so chin up!”

“You’re right. I’ll try– but you really are very beautiful Maryam. I wanted to say that.”

There was one small note of sadness in Shalikova’s heart– because Maryam was not her entire self that day. Her skin was a creamier color, and her hair was still long and silky and dark– but it was not purple. And her eyes were no longer the cute little W’s that Shalikova had come to love either. Maryam was hiding her identity as a Katarran.

Her tentacles and fins shrank and hid within her hair, she wore lenses provided by Cecilia Foss that covered up the shape of her irises. She was pretending to be a black-haired, fair-skinned, blue eyed Imbrian. Of course, no matter what Maryam looked like, Shalikova would still love her– but she wished that Maryam could have been the crayon-pink skinned, purple haired, W-eyed, tentacled and finned purple marshmallow that she knew.

Regardless, she was beautiful, and she was right. This was her special, promised day.

Shalikova had bowed to make it perfect. Illya’s stupid tracksuit was now just part of that.

If Maryam thought she looked cool, Shalikova could try to silence her anxiety for now.

Arm in arm, the lovers strolled through one of C-block’s lower modules.

Ordinarily the purpose of this module was commercial space. Sans accoutrements it was essentially a box wider and taller than a typical “indoors” module in Kreuzung. It played host to conventions and exhibitions, athletic events, and festivals and fairgrounds. For the lovers’ visit, it had become the latter. Now playing host to various rides and mechanisms that had been erected for the festivities, surrounded by a deep cluster of kiosks, tents and plastic buildings, easy to put up and take down. Fairy lights strung up around every structure and overhead pulsed with itinerant colors. There was a sizeable but not overwhelming crowd. And the walls and ceiling of the module had taken on a wine-red and orange-pink color and lighting that stirred something in the most ancient recesses of Shalikova’s brain.

Dreams of the sunsets that their world now only saw in fiction, briefly crossed her mind.

She pulled Maryam in closer, her soft face lit in those dark and evocative colors.

“Whatever you want to do. I’m all yours. Just like I promised.” Shalikova said.

Maryam laughed.

“Back then, did you think we would be this close when I received my reward?”

They had agreed to go on a station date weeks ago, after Shalikova lost a game to Maryam.

Back then, Shalikova heard the word ‘station date’ and imagined several romantic cliches.

Now– they had different cliches entirely. But they were better ones, by far.

“Some part of me was hoping for it.” Shalikova said, with a bashful smile.

Maryam beamed back at her, and pushed herself onto Shalikova, rubbing cheeks with her.

“Let’s go play some carnival games! Then we’ll get some food and get on the rides!”

“Maybe we shouldn’t ride anything with full stomachs–”

Shalikova often forgot about Maryam’s monstrous strength, so she was taken completely by surprise when her pouty girlfriend easily silenced her protests by pulling her helpless along by the arm to wherever she wanted to go. It became funnier than it was distressing very quickly; the two of them entered the crowd winding its way through the festivities.

The clamor of dozens of chatting festival-goers drowning out the chords and brasses of the streetside bands; the smell of frying oil and sweet caramel and cheese predominant among the snack shops; the colored lights playing about their faces and bodies from the shopfronts around them and the struts above them; soon, Shalikova could hardly tell she was wearing her gaudy red tracksuit amid all of the gaudiness and cheer around them.

There was so much energy around her that Shalikova started to feel more comfortable.

Nobody could possibly look at her in the middle of all this–

Except the girl whose eyes she did want.

“Sonya, look over there! You can win me a prize!”

Maryam pointed at a tent playing host to a shooting gallery.

On the front counter, there were a few air guns, carbine-length with a simple stock. Behind the counter, there were several targets of different sizes and at different ranges.

Some targets were platters, others were small cylinders, and the very smallest target was the width of a finger standing on a pedestal. Targets had scores depending on how close or far they were and what size they were, and there was a wall of prizes you could pick if you had the corresponding amount of points. Among the valuable items there was a neon techwear cap, a set of cat-eared headphones, and a large plush cuttlefish.

As they approached the tent, the operator clapped his hands.

“Step right up! Ten marks for three shots! It’s easier than it looks!”

Slightly nervous as the man began appraising her, Shalikova reached into the wrong pocket. She had put her money in her jacket pocket to have it closer in reach and to make it harder for anyone to see the bundle; but she actually reached into her pants pocket out of habit, because the TBT uniform half-jackets usually had no pockets on them.

Her fingers mindlessly closed around something round that was wrapped in a plastic foil.

Briefly speechless, she retracted her hand and took the money from her jacket.

Was that a condom?! Illya?!

“I’ll try it. I want the plush.” Shalikova said, hiding her surprise.

“Well, if you get the points little lady.” Replied the man behind the counter.

He handed her a rifle and stepped aside to allow her to shoot.

At her side, Maryam smiled wide, her shining eyes awaiting Shalikova’s next move.

Shalikova hefted the rifle, feeling the weight. She looked down the sights.

Feeling around the body of the rifle. No safety. Semi-automatic. A small box magazine on the underside. Probably packed with pellets. Had to be more than the three she was allowed to shoot per round. Like Union training guns, it used an electric gear to fire– she realized the man in the tent was staring at her as she examined the gun, and she might have looked briefly suspicious for having insepcted the gun before shooting it.

Without further delay, Shalikova aimed the rifle at the smallest target.

She fired her first shot, falling short.

Fired a second, going wide.

And quickly let loose the third, overshooting the tiny ceramic target.

“Hey, you missed, pal.” Said the operator, a tad bit too cheerful.

Shalikova put another ten marks bill on the counter and looked at him.

There was fiery determination in her eyes which put him to pause.

Perhaps, he was deliberating on whether to allow her another go at all.

From what he saw before, he might have suspected she was familiar with weapons.

At her side, everything had happened so fast, Maryam was still processing.

She looked between the targets, all still standing; and the confident Shalikova, cracking a grin, rifle still in hand, money on the table. Shalikova was sure of herself now. This booth was a scam for civilians, but she knew the exact errant behavior of her rifle now.

Staring down the operator, with the rifle still in hand, finally caused him to relent, take her money and allow her to shoot again with the same rifle. This was his mistake.

Had he made her swap, he would have gotten another ten marks for free.

Wordlessly, Shalikova lined up the small target in her sights.

Under the watchful eyes of the operator, she shifted her aim a few degrees up and left.

He knew immediately, and she heard a low groan escape him.

Trigger pull; the fwip noise of a shot.

Immediately, the shattering crack of the finger’s-width plate worth the most points.

Knocked off its distant pedestal and smashed to pieces on the floor of the tent.

“Alright miss. You wanted the cuttlefish plush right? You earned it.”

From behind the counter, the operator picked up the round, fat fluffy cuttlefish toy.

He put it in a bag, and with a nervous smile, reached the bag out to Shalikova.

As if to say, ‘put the gun down and leave with this.’

Shalikova grinned even wider and cockier than before.

With the rifle she had in hand, she could have taken every high points target.

That would have given her more winnings than the plush– but the operator had to cut her off to cut his losses. He was trying to weasel out of the rest of the shots Shalikova had already paid for, which was rather dirty of him. Shalikova had thought about demanding to play the rest of her round, with its two remaining shots. But Maryam was watching with stunned elation, and they didn’t want to rock the boat anyway.

Graciously, she put down the gun to accept the plushie.

“Sonya! You’re the absolute coolest! A stone cold killer!” Maryam cheered.

“Thanks, but uh,” she started to whisper, “tone it down a little!”

Shalikova pulled Maryam away from the tent and back into the path.

“Look Sonya, it’s me!”

Maryam half-unbagged the cuttlefish plushie. She pointed at it, and back at herself.

Shalikova looked at the plush. It bore little resemblance, due to the Imbrian disguise.

It was basically a blue blob with a suggestion of tentacles, but it had the silly little head fins.

“I can see it.” Shalikova replied.

Maryam smiled.

“Thank you Sonya! This is already the best day ever!”

“I’m glad.”

“I told you, you’re so strong. You’re like a Katarran warlord!”

“Let’s– let’s not push it– okay?”

“No! We’re gonna push it! Let’s play more games!”

“Okay– That’s not what I–?”

Maryam grabbed Shalikova again and rushed to the next attraction that caught her eye.

There was another tent game nearby that had a long board that sloped against a backing board. On the peak of the board there were several holes that were worth points. Along the length of it, there were obstacles that served to funnel a ball thrown by the player toward the backing board. Each of the obstacles and holes was marked with the points, with the objective being to slide the ball into the center-most of the holes for the most points.

Just like before, there were prizes up on a wall. There were novelty glasses with swirly colored lenses, a very intricate toy Marder-class, a replica vibrocutlass, and a bag of novelty game dice, with a twenty-sided dice out of the bag to demonstrate the contents.

Judging by the prizes, this game was for a younger set than the last one they played.

“Maryam, do you really want any of this stuff?” Sonya asked.

“I want the game dice!” Maryam said. “Good dice are invaluable, Sonya!”

“These don’t look good to me, but I’m not an expert.” Shalikova said.

“You can run all kinds of scams with dice, they’re an amazing survival tool.”

Shalikova blinked. “Um. But you don’t need to run scams anymore. You know?”

“Oh. I suppose that’s true! But I still want them!”

She puffed up her cheeks just a little– couldn’t do it too much without attracting attention.

At Maryam’s petulant insistence, Shalikova walked up to the operator–

“Oh no Sonya! You misunderstood! I want to play this one! I just need some money.”

Shalikova reached into her jacket for the spending money the Captain had given them.

Then she had a sudden and worrying thought.

This game did not look particularly sturdy. It was a bunch of plastic boards and small parts slotted together. For the average carnival-goer that wouldn’t be a problem, but she began to think of what would happen when Maryam’s abnormal strength acted on that ball. Could she just punch through the backing board? Would she send all the obstacles flying?

She stood for a second with her hand picking through a bundle of bills.

Staring at Maryam’s smiling face the entire time without an expression to match.

“Maryam, I think– I should play–”

“Sonya, you shouldn’t get to have all the fun you know.” Maryam said gently.

This is her special day. You just have to deal with the broken plates Sonya Shalikova.

With a sense of looming dread, a defeated Shalikova handed the bills over to Maryam.

Cheering, the not-so-purple marshmallow danced over to the ball game with great vigor.

“How much for a game?”

She put a bill on the counter, and the operator handed her three balls.

Maryam’s face lit up.

Shalikova’s face darkened.

She partially averted her eyes.

“Here I go! Cuttle-shoot!”

From the shadow at the edge of her eyes, Shalikova could tell Maryam had reared up to throw the ball– but the motion that resulted was much less aggressive-sounding than she imagined. In place of the raucous crash she was expecting, Shalikova heard rubber sliding on textured plastic. There was a soft thud and a chunky noise–

–and then the game board made a happy, chirpy noise.

Shalikova turned to look and saw nothing had been destroyed.

Maryam had simply put a ball into the center-most hole on her first try.

“Lucky girl eh? Pick a prize and give me those back.”

Like the other proprietor, the vendor for this game moved to quickly cut Maryam off.

He quickly handed her the bag of dice she wanted with an awkward grimace.

Maryam pocketed them with a smile and prompted Shalikova to walk away with her.

“Sonya, I can already spot my next target!” She declared happily.

Across the bend from the ball-throwing booth there was a test of strength game set up on a cleared patch of festival ground. It constituted a gaudily decorated pressure plate attached to an LED tower that would light up when the player struck the plate with a mallet in order to measure the strength of the player. Shalikova had little to fear with this one.

Everything was digital, the mallet head looked like rubber rather than metal, the pressure plate was a thick and pretty solid-looking object, and there did not seem to be any moving parts. It seemed unlikely Maryam’s strength could physically destroy the equipment.

Next to the play space, there was a set of plastic shelves with prizes.

Maryam quickly honed in on a pair of sunglasses with big blue lenses and a sleek frame.

“After I win those, we’ll match, Sonya!” She declared happily.

Shalikova stepped aside, simply relieved that there wasn’t an obvious problem for now.

Seemingly amused at a slight-looking girl trying her luck with the game, the proprietor took Maryam’s money and watched attentively from the side, chuckling as Maryam bent down, picked up the mallet and raised it. He must have thought it would be easy money.

Then the magic that was Maryam came into play. Shalikova felt the air rush as Maryam threw everything she had into a titanic swing, smashing the pressure plate such that it made a sound like a gong, and sent a vibration into the earth that stirred up Shalikova’s feet. The proprietor must have felt it too because he reacted like he wanted to jump away.

On the LED tower, the display lit up with a red NaN at the very top.

From Shalikova’s vantage, there was a hairline crack on the side of the pressure plate.

Thankfully, the proprietor was standing opposite them, so he didn’t see it at first.

Having borne witness to Maryam’s brutal power, he rushed to get the prize she wanted.

“Take it and go.” He said sternly.

Shalikova urged Maryam not to complain.

She put the sunglasses on Maryam’s nose and pushed her away into the crowd.

Putting as much walking distance between herself and that proprietor as she could.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s cheeks puffed up to a somewhat reasonable extent for an Imbrian.

Wearing the sunglasses, her consternation looked even more silly.

“Hmph! Hmph! Sonya, it’s not fair! We could have won a lot more prizes!” She whined.

“Maryam, that’s the point.” Shalikova sighed. “We weren’t supposed to win anything.”

“But that’s unfair!” Maryam cried out, crossing her arms as she walked.

“Uh huh. All the games are rigged Maryam. We won because we’re not normal. Normal people just pay to lose. By the way, weren’t you just saying you were a scammer too?”

“Hmph! I’m different from them. I won money with games of chance. It’s– it’s totally different if you get scammed by that. Games of skill are supposed to be fair. It’s not the same!”

“I’m sympathetic because you’re my girlfriend, but the rational part of me is yelling.”

“Sonya–”

Maryam stopped Shalikova in the middle of the street.

Her eyes narrowed, her gaze hard.

“Sonya. What if the food is also a scam?” She said, in a grim tone of voice.

“I don’t know how it could be.” Shalikova said. “It’s not like you can rig food.”

Soon the two of them would discover how it was possible to scam people with food.

Their eyes widening and their faces paling at the tremendous prices on display.

Across a long aisle full of different vendors, there was nothing worth less than 10 marks.

One sausage? 10 marks. A carton of popped corn? 10 marks. One cheese bread? 10 marks.

Aside from the limited selection that Shalikova could eat, the prices were out of control.

“Sonya. Let me handle this.” Maryam said. A mischievous little grin on her face.

“Um.”

Over Shalikova’s monosyllabic and nebulous objection, Maryam skipped toward the little kiosk selling cheese bread for ten marks a piece. With an enormous smile she waited for her turn in a small line of people. The vendor was already prepared with a piece of cheese bread in a wrapper when Maryam’s turn came up, and was already holding their hand out to collect the ten marks. Maryam, however, had her hands behind her back. Casting glances about herself. There was no one behind her in line except for Shalikova who had followed her.

“How about you give a discount for Kreuzung station’s biggest cutie?” Maryam asked.

Shalikova felt a shiver running down her back and across the lengths of her limbs.

In an instant, her eyes glowed with the power of psionics.

She heard a voice whisper in her mind; or perhaps, she just knew something was happening.

Molecular Control.

From Maryam, a colored cloud seemed to waft toward the vendor, like a visible breeze.

Green and blue in equal amounts, at first, but the blue quickly overwhelmed.

And the vendor’s own blue, green and slightly yellow aura completely shifted as well.

Maryam and the vendor held gazes for a few seconds, before the vendor’s apathetic expression became a smile almost as comically pleasant as Maryam’s. They leaned over to hand Maryam the cheese bread they were already holding and retracted the hand with which they meant to collect payment. Instead, they reached for a second cheese bread in the oven in which they were cooked. With seemingly great pleasure, they wrapped the bread, and handed it to Maryam as well. All the while, their aura looked shiny and serene.

“Of course, miss! Cute couples gets free bread around here! Have a wonderful outing!”

Shalikova blinked with confusion as the vendor reached out to hand her a cheese bread.

Maryam made a cutesy gesture, making a V with her fingers, and turned around.

“Alright Sonya! Let’s eat and go somewhere!” Maryam cheered.

Shalikova glanced at the vendor and back at Maryam.

“Right.” She said. “Maryam. Follow me.”

“Oh– Okay Sonya.”

Her voice trembled. She definitely noticed the shift in Shalikova’s attitude.

But she wasn’t angry.

It wasn’t helpful to be angry about it. Shalikova felt something else.

On the edges of the module space, red plastic fences had been set up to prevent anyone from accessing the wall panels, which were projecting the same colorful horizon and sky as the rest of the module and looked like invisible walls surrounding the carnival space. There were no vendors here, just plain floor with false turf, and there were a few perfunctory tables stood up so people leaving the crowd could sit around in the empty space.

There were a few people there, but it was the emptiest place in the module nonetheless. Shalikova took Maryam there and stood a few dozen meters from the nearest visitors. They had eaten their ill-gotten cheese breads on the way. Shalikova’s heart pounded.

“Maryam.”

Shalikova reached out and grabbed hold of Maryam’s two hands.

Maryam’s face turned slowly redder. She averted her gaze a little.

“Sonya–?”

Shalikova bent forward and put her forehead gently on Maryam’s own.

Truly hoping Maryam would understand her. She could not hold back her words any longer.

“You don’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore.” She said, whispering close to Maryam, brow to brow and nose to nose. “You don’t have to use your powers or the skills you picked up on the street to steal from people. Even if they’re being unreasonable– it doesn’t matter. Please rely on me, Maryam. Don’t take advantage of people anymore like you did to that vendor. I don’t like it– and you don’t need to do it. I don’t blame you– but please stop.”

“Sonya– I– I’m sorry– I thought you must have hated me now.” Maryam whimpered.

“I don’t hate you.” Shalikova said. “I’d never hate you at the drop of a hat like that.”

Maryam sniffled. “I’m sorry. I’ve been hiding things from you– like that power–”

Shalikova could feel the contrition in Maryam’s voice, but it was not contrition she sought.

“Maryam, I don’t need to know everything. People can’t know everything about each other. I am not asking you to come clean with anything or to explain everything. I trust you, I want to trust your judgment. I trust that you will understand me now and understand what I want. Please don’t use your powers to manipulate innocent people. You have a support network now– and you have me. You have me, and you have your dreams. I will help you realize your dream, Maryam, but as part of that, you have to stop abusing your gifts.”

She lifted her forehead from Maryam’s and looked her in the eyes.

Not with sternness or conviction, but gently, with love. She loved Maryam so much.

Maryam was a sweet girl who had a hurt in her that had yet to heal. She wanted to help her.

She squeezed Maryam’s hands more firmly. “No more ‘scams’ okay? Promise?”

Maryam smiled, weeping, and nodded her head. “Yes, Sonya. Thank you.”

Shalikova leaned forward again, and lifted one hand from Maryam’s.

With those fingers, she tipped Maryam’s chin up just a bit. She kissed her.

Gently but without hesitation. Communicating her feelings and convictions.

“I love you, Maryam!” Shalikova said, raising her voice right in Maryam’s face, much to the latter’s surprise. “I know we’ve only been together for a bit now, but I’m really serious!”

“Sonya– you don’t have to shout.” Maryam said, chuckling at Shalikova’s passion.

“I know! But I feel like if I don’t say it loud enough, it’ll sound unserious!”

“Oh trust me, Sonya, it’s very obvious when you are being serious!” Maryam said.

Shalikova started to feel a little silly again. But Maryam’s laughter was worth it.

The two of them stood off to the side of the carnival for a bit, holding hands and hovering in each other’s space. Leaning their heads into each other, sighing together. It was just a little bit awkward, but Shalikova could feel the warmth of Maryam’s gentle affection throughout. Maryam was scared Shalikova would hate her; but Shalikova was also scared Maryam would react badly to being essentially scolded by her girlfriend.

Their love weathered the stiff breeze, however.

“I guess you do have that ‘King’s Gaze’ gift after all, don’t you?” Shalikova said.

“No, I actually don’t. What you saw is a special trick.” Maryam said.

“Maybe I’ll ask you to teach it to me someday. I need to get stronger.” Shalikova said.

“Ah– that one can’t be taught. But I’ll teach you everything else– I promise!”

“Yeah. I’ll need it if I’m going to help you reveal the truth of psionics to the world.”

Shalikova said it off-handedly, but the words made Maryam cling even closer to her.

“Thank you, Sonya. I’m lucky to have you.” Maryam said.

“I’ve never been so lucky with my life as when I met you.” Shalikova replied.

It felt corny to say, but it was also how she felt, and there would be no better time to say it.

Hand in loving hand, they made their way back to the carnival.

Because of that love, Shalikova would not stand letting Maryam’s special day end so early.

“We can do anything you want. Play more games, eat more food. I’ve got the marks.”

Maryam smiled and squeezed Shalikova’s hand.

“It’s already been a perfect day, because I’ve been with you, Sonya.” Maryam said.

Shalikova smiled and averted her gaze, just a bit embarrassed.

“But– There is something I’d like to do. Let’s ride those spinny cups!”

With a bright and innocent smile, she pointed at a ride at the end of the street.

Cup-shaped couples’ vehicles attached to a broad spinning base, with each cup also spun on its own axis, for twice as much intimidatingly kinetic spinning action on its occupants.

It was a stunning chimeric blur of a machine.

Shalikova felt her stomach churn.

“Of course, Maryam. Anything for you.”

Though she would come to regret the consequences, today, everything was for Maryam.


Commence Operation “Bottled Ship.”

Murati grinned a little to herself with unflagging confidence.

Meticulous plans had been laid; now it was time to pay them off with flawless execution.

“After you, madam.” Murati said, holding a door open for her vibrantly-dressed companion.

“Oh ho! Look at you– in full hubby mode tonight. I’m a lucky gal!”

“You’ll see just how lucky, Karuniya.”

Everything had been accounted for. Everything was in her total operational control.

Karuniya would dance upon the tips of Murati’s fingers until she was sick of the pleasure.

For this date, the most crucial factor to begin was to choose the venue.

In this case, Murati had searched high and low to find something to Karuniya’s taste.

Her face lit up with a radiant smile as she realized where she was.

“Oh! It’s an aquarium? I’m so surprised– I had no idea this station had one!”

Walking through the doors, they found themselves in the middle of an atrium connecting many seemingly massive containment chambers to a series of a walkways astride thick glass, by which visitors could behold the exhibits. Vast recreated ocean vistas teemed with life well-lit enough for the visitors to enjoy, with carefully considered biomes and species pairings. However those exhibits themselves were quite special– certainly, Kreuzung itself did not have the space to host all of the entities in these grand spaces by itself.

Murati led Karuniya straight ahead and demonstrated the illusion on the glass.

When her hand touched it, the exhibit was revealed to be an LCD display, and a menu appeared that allowed for the perspective of the glass to be shifted in a small window just for her and Karuniya– so that it would not disturb the broader view that all of the guests received. Upon seeing the trick play out, Karuniya laughed to herself.

“Of course they wouldn’t have the animals here, there’s no space. This is pretty clever though. But where are they broadcasting these animals from?” She asked.

“Thuringia Research Complex.” Murati said. “It’s apparently a big deal.”

“Well, let us judge the scope of their collection then.” Karuniya said.

“Anything you want to see first?” Murati asked.

“As a matter of fact, I’d love to see what kinds of jellyfish they have.” Karuniya replied.

“Jellyfish, huh? Well, you’ll be pleased by the variety, judging by the ads I saw.”

Murati reached out her arm, so that Karuniya could hook around it.

“My, my, you’re so gentlemanly today.” Karuniya said, taking ‘hubby’s’ arm with a grin.

“Just for tonight, I’m making every possible effort.” Murati said, grinning herself.

Both of them had donned their best set of clothes for the date.

It was the same pair of outfits they had worn once before; their ‘date’ back in Thassal. Owing to events best left unremembered, the two of them had not gotten to debut these outfits in public back then– though they had certainly made an impression on each other.

Now, however, they lit up the halls of the digital aquarium.

Murati wore a slick button-down shirt with bronze cuffs and a fit so flattering to Murati’s lean body it must have looked as if it was tailored for her, and not picked out of a rack at a station plaza in the Union. She wore it just how Karuniya had once advised her, tucked in and with a few of the top buttons undone. Because the shirt was white, there was a tantalizing impression of Murati’s black brassiere beneath. Besides the shirt, she had put on a tight pair of pants that had also once caught Karuniya’s eye, along with black shoes. To finish her look she took an extra effort in grooming herself, washing and styling her short, dark hair and applying a hint of borrowed lip gloss and skin toner to make her face look more special.

Karuniya had once called her tall, dark and handsome when she first tried out this look.

That affirmation accounted for a significant boost to Murati’s confidence on this date.

Another force multiplier, however, was the absolute desire Karuniya’s look inspired in her.

With a woman like this on her arm, Murati could have never let herself fall short.

Under the bright white lights of the aquarium’s atrium and in the connecting halls of the exhibits, Karuniya was like a techwear runway model. Most striking was the off-shoulder crop top with translucent sleeves, effectively bearing Karuniya’s shoulders and some of her neck and collarbone, because the leotard she wore beneath cut at the upper chest.

High-leg stockings and a short skirt with intricate hip cutouts and leg slits, of the same material as the top, finished off the look, showing off several spots of Karuniya’s perfect, honey-colored skin. Both the top and skirt clung to her figure perfectly, highlighting the smooth and plentiful curve of her hips and chest. Her hair was collected into a ponytail and had a glittery sheen like tiny constellations playing about the rich dark strands.

Her face was always beautiful– but with a touch of glossy, dark red lipstick and eyeshadow she looked remarkably glamorous and mature. Both her and Karuniya had their selves they wore around the ship, playing around and hurling good-natured teases at one another– one hurling far more than the other. But arm in arm like this, they looked like the married power couple they had not yet been able to be, serious, sexy and clearly into each other.

Seeing her like this made Murati’s heart soar, but she had grown just enough over the few months of their relationship, to be able to wear a conceited grin on her face and play it cool.

No longer would her mind ask the question, ‘do I deserve her’? ‘Can’t she do better’?

Murati didn’t just deserve Karuniya; she desired her with all the little greed she had.

And she would more than make up for the interruptions and miscalculations of the past.

“Have I ever told you your ass looks amazing in those pants?” Karuniya winked.

“I could stand to hear it more often.” Murati said, playing coy.

In silent response, Karuniya grabbed a handful of her hubby’s rear.

Holding hands and clinging close, the pair stopped in front of the screen for the jellyfish exhibit. Unlike some of the other halls, the lights were very dim, only bright enough to keep the visitors from bumping into a few benches laid opposite the screen. In the dark, the only light was provided by the screen and by the wide variety of colored jellies. Hundreds of deep-sea jellyfish streaked across the screen like a storm, their bioluminescence exaggerated by a post-processing effect just enough so that they would provide alternating colors across the faces of the visitors gazing at the great swarm arrayed before them.

“Pop quiz Murati, are jellyfish community organisms or single organisms?”

Karuniya looked at Murati after delivering the question and smiled one of her characteristic little grins. The way the lights played about her face, cast her glossy lips and slightly glittery cheeks in contrast– it was arresting enough to delay Murati’s answer for a moment.

“Single organisms.” Murati said.

“Correct. I thought I could trick you. For your basic biology knowledge, you win a prize.”

Karuniya began to tiptoe and planted a quick little kiss on Murati’s lips.

“Now though, tell me this: how do Jellyfish mate?”

She leaned forward again with a self-satisfied cutesy little look, hands behind her back.

“Sorry Karu, I can’t even imagine them having genitals.” Murati replied with a laugh.

Her fiance’s lips curled into a perverse little expression, and she waved one index finger from side to side in a teasing fashion. “Male jellyfish release clouds of sperm and females release unfertilized eggs, and babies happen from the mess– but in some kinkier species, the sperm will actually travel directly inside the female through her mouth to fertilize her.”

Karuniya licked her lips after delivering her explanation, locking eyes with Murati.

“So, had I gotten it right, would I have won more than a kiss?” Murati asked.

“May~be~” Karuniya replied, in a little sing-song voice.

She gave Murati a smoldering gaze before turning and walking away down the hall.

“I can barely keep up with her sometimes.” Murati muttered to herself, smiling.

From the jellyfish exhibit, Murati imagined Karuniya might want to see some of the more grandiose animals of the collection. She had looked at the catalog and memorized the locations of the exhibits and was ready at a moment’s notice to make suggestions– but Karuniya continued to surprise her with what she was interested in.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, due to Karuniya’s character and what interested her about the sea in her own profession– but Murati couldn’t help but feel a bit blindsided to be holding her fiance’s hand while looking at manicured algae through a fancy LCD.

Painstakingly recreated in a controlled environment, the “marine forest” exhibition hosted a vast forest of tall yellow-green macro-algae and an underbrush of moss overgrown on the rocky artificial seafloor. Animals lurked the vegetation, like shrimps and small fish.

“Look at that. So much primary production!” Karuniya declared cheerfully.

“Primary production?” Murati asked.

“Algaea are able to capture chemical energy from the environment.” Karuniya replied. “In essence, they create the prerequisites for a food chain. All they need is whatever amount of sunlight can penetrate the surface of the water, and the right chemical balance. But smaller animals can feed on them, and those animals feed larger predators, and so on.”

She spread out her arms as if she wanted to embrace the algae in the tanks.

“You’re looking at life itself, Murati! An environment that has primary production is one that is still sustaining life. Our world is not so dead after all, is it? Maybe it’s not in the best shape for us to live in, but as long as algae grows in the photic zone, life will go on.”

Rather than say something sarcastic or contrarian in return, Murati simply looked at the algae and tried to quietly imagine that chain of living. Algaea begot as if from nothing, feeding the bottom dwellers that would be eaten by free floating fish. Fish eaten by whales, sharks, and even leviathans. Insuring that something with a nervous system continued to roam the world, even as humans killed each other hundreds of meters farther below.

She smiled at Karuniya’s girlish enthusiasm and her optimism.

Even if she didn’t quite share it– to Murati, there was no point if humans didn’t live too.

To Murati, humans were life. However wrong it may have been– she put humans first.

“Did I successfully troll you by placing animal life over human life?” Karuniya asked.

“Complete failure. Not mad at all.” Murati said, smiling placidly.

“Darn. You’ve actually bettered as a person. That sucks.”

“Actually, you were just so cute delivering your speech.”

Both of them laughed in unison before moving on from the macroalgal forest.

“Alright, you must be going nuts from all this oceanography crap, let’s see a big shark!”

“I’ll never get tired of your ‘oceanography crap’ Karu, I mean it.”

“Ah hah, then let’s go see some dolphins! They’re awful little guys!”

“Unfortunately, there is no dolphin exhibit.”

“Aww. That’s too bad! I could’ve told you all kinds of horror stories.”

“Really? Horror stories about dolphins?”

“Oh ho! You have no idea!”

Karuniya raised a hand to cover her laughing mouth, narrowing her eyes in a sly expression.

Murati remained ignorant of whatever Karuniya was mugging at, however.

Despite Karuniya’s disappointment at the lack of dolphins, she was enthusiastic during their visits to several other exhibits. Thuringia had built quite a collection of habitats, including an abyssal exhibit in a fully dark hall where eerie bioluminescent fish roamed, a bit too close to home; a school of colorful tropical fish in a well-lit habitat without predators; a tank that was home to a vast blue whale, though Karuniya noted it was cruel for the whale to be alone, even if it was for the scientific observation of humans; and a tank of various crustaceans with gleaming shells; and a small sunken vessel overgrown with barnacles and other creatures.

“Crustaceans are like nature’s Diver mecha.” Karuniya declared confidently.

“What? Really?” Murati asked, swayed and drawn in by her tone. “How so?”

Karuniya cracked her same grin once again.

“I was just jerking your chain. Totally meaningless and random thing.”

“Maybe I could stand to be more frigid to you.”

“But I love this Murati who is trying sooooo hard!”

Karuniya squeezed close against Murati’s chest as if trying to nuzzle her.

Murati averted her gaze, slightly embarrassed. Was it that obvious?

But she really wanted to succeed.

Throughout, Murati carefully studied Karuniya’s responses and expressions.

Everything seemed to be going well. Her fiancé was still seemingly engaged and happy.

Murati neared the end of the first phase of the operation.

“Let me lead the way now. There’s something I want to show you.” Murati said.

“Oh? Exciting~ is it your favorite fish, Murati?”

“You’ll see.”

It was only tangentially related to fish, but Murati was counting on the spectacle of it.

And also on Karu having built up some appetite over the course of the night.

Rather than a food court or vending machines or any other sort of cheap and quick meal, the Kreuzung Aquarium had a bespoke high concept restaurant inside its premises and offered a ‘dining experience’ for two. During planning, Murati had feared that finding a nice place to take Karuniya to eat would be difficult because of their diet, but the Aquarium was a step ahead. They offered a ‘special nature-friendly set’ for that did not have meat or seafood and instead promised a plant-based four course menu.

It had been a bit pricey, but Murati managed to scratch together the additional budget needed in Imperial marks because Valya Lebedova was disinterested in going out and spending their shore leave funds; and because Aiden Ahwalia was serving a punishment and would not be allowed to spend his own.

With Valya’s blessing, Murati made reservations.

“After you, madam.” Murati said, leading Karuniya into the dining venue.

There was a very small lobby, only large enough for a front desk, that led into a hallway full of doors. Everything was dimly lit. At the desk, a hostess confirmed their names and reservation and led them into a room in the hall. Inside the room there was a small table and two chairs, surrounded by undecorated walls that were very close and a rather low ceiling– everything was exceptionally tight. Karuniya looked amused by the whole thing, it must have seemed ridiculous to her. When they sat down, her eyes began to scan around the room for any sign of what the gimmick was. She did not seem to find it at first glance.

“Since you ordered a set dinner menu, we will bring you the courses, starting with aperitifs. What kind of environment would you like to enjoy today?” asked the hostess.

“Whichever you think would suit the evening.” Murati replied.

Smiling, the hostess left the room, and the door shut.

Karuniya chuckled again. “Is this a joke? A reservation for eating in a dim metal box?”

“Just wait.” Murati said.

Outside, the hostess must have been inputting something for the room.

About a minute after she left, the walls of the room slowly brightened.

First they took on a variety of dark blues and greens.

Streams of bubbles played about the walls and ceiling. As if rising out of the depths, the projections on the floor, ceiling and roof all began to lighten. Beneath the couple, a bank of sand came into view. Above them, rays of sunlight penetrated the bright blue foaming surface of the water. Around them, on the walls, schools of fish in all colors and sizes flitted from wall to wall like a storm of bodies. Karuniya smiled and covered her mouth, as if embarrassed at how surprised and delighted she was by the illusion of the room.

Their table was now suspended in the middle of a simulated ocean.

Certainly no camera could safely capture a near-shore sandbank and all the shallow water life that existed there, but something like a predictive imager could be programmed to display a complex illusion like this one. Every fish had its own organic and variable routine, and because the graphics were not being rendered in real time from acoustic data, there was not the sort of dramatic visual noise one would get from a ship’s predictive view. Everything was rendered convincingly enough for the perspective of the diners. Seagrass and kelp dotted the landscape, there were little crabs in the sand below, and larger animals occasionally swept through the landscape as well, disturbing the many schools of fish.

“Murati I was skeptical, but this is so amazing! I don’t even know what to focus on!”

“Right? The hostess really picked an amazing environment for us.”

“It’s almost like being in a Diver, but you know, in much nicer waters.”

“And with far better cameras.” Murati added, laughing a little at the idea.

Murati knew what she was focusing her eyes on.

Not on any fish, but the woman across from her, face glowing gently as the light alternated across her features, smiling ear to ear, a girlish joy overtaking her as her eyes tracked the simulated fish and scanned the blue near-shore horizon. She was staggeringly beautiful. Being with her– more than anything, it gave Murati hope for life.

If the world really was dying, she could have withstood the end of it at this woman’s side.

But it made her fight for the remainder of the world they had, with all of her strength.

For a world where Karuniya’s dreams and ambitions could be realized.

Murati reached across the table and took one of Karuniya’s hands in both of hers.

Karuniya looked down from the fish she had been tracking.

“Murati, thank you. You didn’t have to go to these lengths, but I truly appreciate it.”

She lifted her other hand from the table and stroked Murati’s hands as well.

“You deserve to indulge every so often. We don’t know when we’ll get a chance again.”

“This reminds me of our first date.” Karuniya said. “That restaurant, back home.”

She spoke euphemistically, she couldn’t say ‘Mt. Raja’ but Murati remembered perfectly.

“That’s precisely why I wanted to have a bougie dinner date.” Murati replied.

She lifted the hand she had taken closer and kissed the back of it.

Karuniya looked, for once, to have a bit of a girlish blush on her cheeks.

After the spectacle, the food began to come in.

It was no longer the highlight of the evening having been shown up quite thoroughly by the ingenuity of the venue, but it was still pleasant. Cucumber and seaweed salad with puffed rice “coral” crackers, wheat gluten “scallops” in a savory butter sauce, heart of palm and chickpea “crab cakes,” and a “sea foam” ice cream dessert. It was all quite cute, the portions were decent, and the tastes were well considered. It helped that there was a bottle of red wine with the dinner set that complimented the meal and the evening well.

Eating their imitation seafood courses in the middle of imitation sea life.

“To simulation!” Karuniya cheered, wine glass in hand.

Murati laughed and lifted her glass to Karuniya’s own.

And with that, the merry-making portion of the operation was fulfilled.

Just as they had entered the Aquarium arm in arm, with Murati dutifully opening the doors for her fiancé, they finished their dinner course, saw all they desired to see, and as it was getting late in the evening, bid farewell, with Murati now holding the doors for a tired Karuniya. Arm in arm again, they left the Atrium and waited at the elevator bank for a ride back to their floor. It was time to retire back to the ship until their next journey.

“I had a fantastic time, Murati.” Karuniya said, settling against her hubby on a bench.

“Ah, but there’s still evening to go, mademoiselle.” Murati said, putting on airs.

“Yes, but I could use a good lie-down.” Karuniya said gently.

You’ll lie down, don’t worry. Murati laughed internally. It was time for the finale.

Some might have thought it uncharacteristic of her– but Murati could be rather lascivious.

Like any woman, she had desires, fantasies; she could be aggressive. She liked to top!

When the mood was just right, when she had Karuniya right where she wanted her–

Well.

Tonight, she had expertly crafted the mood; and Karuniya was clearly asking for it.

They made their way quietly back to Alcor Steelworks.

That night, Kreuzung was just a bit chilly, for reasons known only to the temperature control authority, but it made Karuniya cling closer to Murati as they walked. Murati hooked an arm around her and smiled. She led her fiancé, who though not drunk was clearly a little bit drowsy from the food and drink, up into the Brigand. Off to one side of the hangar, Murati could see the pair of security officers Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse playing cards to pass the time. They cast a glance at the couple climbing a ladder through the deployment chutes, and then returned to their game. Murati led Karuniya to the lifts.

At the door to their room, Karuniya yawned. She opened the door and stepped in.

Murati glanced about herself.

The hallway down the officer’s quarters was completely empty.

Every door was shut, and nobody was making a sound. Only the hum of the ventilation.

Recalling how the night of their first date had gone, Murati stepped in behind Karuniya.

She walked close to her fiancé, who was about to sit down on the bed–

And struck the wall with her palm, her arm crossing over Karuniya’s shoulder.

Murati leaning into her with a grin on her face and savoring her fiancé’s surprise.

“Oh! You startled–” Karuniya’s eyes met Murati’s own. Realization dawned on her face.

“I told you the night wasn’t over yet, didn’t I?” Murati said, with a grin.

“Ah ha, I see. You’re feeling frisky. Did you manage to hold an erection?” Karuniya whispered.

She raised a hand to stroke Murati’s cheek.

Murati took it into her own and pulled it down gently.

“Let me show you.” Murati said.

Her words came out of her lips almost like a demand.

“Yes. I’m in your hands.” Karuniya said, sounding a little surprised.

Without another word–

Murati suddenly and brusquely pushed herself onto the bed on top of Karuniya.

Never once breaking eye contact as she pushed her down with one hand to the shoulder.

While the other lifted Karuniya’s skirt–

“Murati–!”

A delectably surprised little expression appeared on Karuniya’s face.

With expert precision, Murati pulled her in by the hips until she was closer to her crotch.

Looming over with Karuniya’s legs spread around her, Murati lowered her head and blew a warm breath directly behind Karuniya’s ear that made her flinch. She was sensitive here. Murati bit on Karuniya’s ear lobe, kissed the side of her neck, nuzzled her shoulder. All the while pulling up her dress and sliding her fingers beneath the leotard she had worn under it. Those fingers lingered on her skin but did not try to slip off her clothes, not yet.

As if to demonstrate; this is what will become of you.

Murati did not even pull down her own pants yet.

She wanted her fiancé to squirm a bit first. For all the teasing she always did.

“You’re already so–!”

An excited little murmur escaped Karuniya’s quivering lips.

“Keep your peace until there’s a reason to yell.” Murati whispered in her ear.

Her fingers traced the soft, pliable skin just below Karuniya’s belly and above her groin, kneading and grazing, gliding further down, peering between her thighs and back up close to her belly. Sliding under the sides and the front of her thin bodysuit and easily lifting the fabric wherever needed. Crucially, never approaching where Karuniya’s needy clit would get an ounce of satisfaction. It was not time for that yet. Murati savored the shuddering flesh, the gentle reactive pushback of Karu subtly pressing her hips back as Murati teased her soft spots, all her favorite places gleaned from past experiences. She could see Karuniya’s flushed expression, her shut eyes; she could feel her little fits and starts of breath.

“Don’t lose your head yet, Karu. I’m not even inside you.”

Soon as a finger glided over her pussy, her body immediately quivered, head to curled toes.

Her hands which had lain at her sides now squeezed the bed. Her chest lifted involuntarily.

Transferring her emotions like a wave into Murati’s own body, pressed atop hers.

Murati’s fingers toying with her like a device. Flick the switch and feel the heat build.

Being in control was intoxicating for Murati.

Her head rushed with the feeling of Karuniya seized in pleasure, being only hers.

She felt it from the tips of her fingers to the stirring length of her dick.

That catharsis which only came with a successful encirclement, with a grand plan.

They had already negotiated before, already explored, already stumbled.

Theirs was a matured love now; and Murati savored the ripe fruit.

They weren’t in Mt. Raja, they weren’t in Thassal; they had come a ways now.

“I’ll give you what you need. I know you inside and out now.”

For a few moments, Murati lifted the hand that was moving between Karuniya’s legs.

Her reach and position emphasized her taller size.

All of her fiancé’s body lay within her lustful grasp. Tracing the leotard, across Karuniya’s belly and up to her ample, perfectly shaped breasts, squeezed beneath her crop top. Hooking her fingers between fabric and flesh, pulling down the leotard slowly to reveal more of her chest, outlined by glistening sweat in the room’s dim light.

Karuniya lifted her back just a bit to assist as Murati pulled the leotard off her hips and down her legs. Finally the underwear came off, lovingly peeled and then carelessly discarded.

“Now, the rest.” Murati ordered.

With a blissful look on her face, Karuniya lifted her top off and cast to the floor beside the bed. She hooked a finger between her skirt and hip and Murati helped her pull it off the rest of the way. Joining her crop top and underwear on the floor. A glistening honey-amber jewel, a treasure of flesh, Karuniya laid sweaty, flushed, quivering gently under the press of Murati’s clothed body. Every fold, every rise and fall in the contours of her– all laid bare.

“Are you ready?” She whispered.

Karuniya shut her eyes and held a little smile, lips quivering with the rest of her.

Murati raised herself just enough to behold her fiancé’s body in its lusty majesty.

Quickly, hungrily, she descended on her once more.

Murati’s lips moved from Karuniya’s ear, neck and jaw, down to her chest.

Feeling Karuniya’s heartbeat through the teeth gently biting down on one supple breast–

“Murati! Oh! Jeez–!”

–while her free hand pushed a trimmed fingertip over a soaked, throbbing clit.

“O-o-ohh–!”

Her tone of voice changed completely– she sounded like she was melting.

Eyes shut, legs trying to tighten and failing with Murati in the way, kicking aimlessly.

Hands ripping into the bedsheets. Chest pounding amid the heat.

Murati’s lips kneaded the tips of her breasts; her fingers glided between her legs.

“Mmm–! Ugh–!”

She was so noisy, and her squirming ever more violent, but under control.

Using her weight and position, Murati kept her pinned and she loved every second.

Karuniya was a screamer, a kicker, bucking hips and jerking arms and Murati loved it.

Her intensity increased to match. Strumming Karu’s clit, sucking on her neck, pushing her.

When Karu threw her hips up at Murati, she felt it directly on her bulging dick.

“Murati–! Mura–! Mu–!”

An explosion of wimpering and moaning, a feast for the ears.

Then–

A sudden, surprising calm before the expected climax.

Karuniya opened her eyes slowly, lifted her head to look, eyes clearly hazy.

Breathing heavy, sweating hard. Barely able to move with intention.

Murati slowly pulled back, until her body was half off the bed.

There was a sly smile on her face as she met her fiancé’s confused expression.

She knew exactly what she was doing.

Stopping every so often to kiss Karuniya’s body, on her breasts, on her navel–

–working her way down, laying a sucking nip of a bite on her mons to presage.

Spreading her legs, holding her by one hip and leg, kissing the inner thigh.

Waiting to be acknowledged–

“Murati– don’t– don’t make me wait–” Karuniya mumbled, trembling where she lay.

“Of course. Anything for you.”

With eyes full of lust that Karuniya could no longer see, Murati fulfilled her wish.

Done with the teasing, she lifted her lips off Karuniya’s thighs and kissed between her legs.

Lips closing, spreading, her tongue pressing–

Karuniya started thrashing the second Murati’s tongue slowly and gently worked her clit.

Maintaining a precise rhythm, keeping control of Karuniya’s hips and legs.

Karuniya bucked against her face, and Murati pressed further as if in challenge.

In her throes Karuniya raised up against the wall and Murati followed her back to bed.

“Ahh– ohh–”

Murati closed her lips again, and Karuniya’s hips bucked gentler, her voice dying.

Her fingers curled and stretched in rhythm, and her breathing began to steady.

Murati could feel the shift, and slowly withdrew her tongue from Karuniya’s pussy.

She lifted herself up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“You’re– so cocky–” Karuniya said, smiling, clearly wiped out.

“I think I have good reason to be.” Murati said, with a confident little shrug.

“Ugh. Fuck. You’re awful. You’ve gotten so good.” Karuniya replied, her breath returning.

Murati bent down nearer to Karuniya again and kissed her, holding her shoulders at first.

Karuniya kissed back with vigor, her tongue drawing out Murati’s own.

She still had a bit of fire in her– good.

In the middle of this passion, Murati started to unzip her pants.

For her, it was difficult to work up to an erection naturally. She wouldn’t let it go to waste.

While they kissed, she pulled her pants down, and started to push Karuniya down again.

“Another go?” Karuniya asked, her barely recovered breath leaving her again.

“You wanted me to have fun also, right?” Murati said.

“I do. Condom?”

“I told you, I prepared everything.”

Murati flashed the little packet from the pockets of her pants before she discarded them.

‘How– should I be facing–”

Without another word, Murati took Karuniya by the hips and guided her around.

Karuniya clumsily followed along, Murati savoring every brush of her throbbing dick on Karuniya’s sweaty, silken skin as they maneuvered around each other. In seconds she had her fiancé face down on the bed. One hand holding her lower belly, just above her still shivering clit; and the other on her hip, gripping tight, by which she again pulled her closer, her ass farther up to Murati’s waist, her head and back just barely straight.

“I don’t know how long I can hold this.” Karuniya replied, weakly supporting herself.

“The pillow princess doth protest too much.” Murati said, adjusting how she held Karuniya.

“Gah– You’re really getting me back for all my cheek, huh?”

“I’m just having fun.”

“Me too.” Karuniya said, with an exasperated little gasp.

Murati lifted Karuniya again, pulled her even closer, and clicked her tongue.

Pushing in, shifting her weight and position so that she could thrust into her.

“Ahh–” Karuniya put her head down against the pillow, her hands scrabbling on the sheets.

Clumsy at first, Murati finally felt like she had the balance, and began to thrust with rhythm.

Delighting in the look of Karu’s hair getting messy, her sweaty back, the way each thrust caused her rear to shake. The way Murati could hold her body so easily and use her so thoroughly, bending over her and lifting up her hips and pulling her in deeper.

Her own vision grew hazy with pleasure, and she could feel the rushing in her groin, the thrill shaking her muscles. She restrained a cry, her heart pounding, bent against Karuniya’s back. Almost falling on top of her, losing her rhythm to short, desperate, hungry strokes.

Murati barely lasted, but by the end, Karuniya looked like she could take no more.

As her dick softened and the wet rubber started to slip off, Murati felt euphoric, satisfied.

“Karu– I love you–”

“I love you– Murati–”

Out of breath, spent, and smiling.

Murati curled up behind Karuniya, crammed side to side in bed, and held her close.

Gently kissing her shoulder and the nape of her neck while they fell asleep together.

Having reached a new peak in their journey together.


Winfreda Kappel had struggled mightily against having her clinic torn up by the sailors in their frenzy to unnecessarily reimagine everything in the ship.

One thing that Alcor Steelworks could not promise them was confidential medical work– because they didn’t even have that for their own employees on their executive campus. She was finally able to impress upon the Captain the need to take care of “Treasure Box Transports’” “employees” in the “Pandora’s Box” and that to do otherwise was to potentially compromise operational security. Her clinic remained open.

She had even seen a few sailors and treated injuries incurred in the process of their frenzied renovations, which she felt vindicated her resistance. However, as usual, she did not see a lot of traffic to the medbay and to her clinic. Syracuse, the security team medic, took it upon herself to deliver medication allotments, in order to have something to do every so often.

A ship was not a place that usually saw frequent health problems.

Soldiering was dangerous work, but it was the chance of death that made it dangerous. Pilots, officers, and sailors were more likely to be killed outright by anything that could routinely injure them in a dangerous situation; or would otherwise go uninjured.

That meant Winfreda had more time to kick back and savor the ship’s ‘medical brandy.’

The Brigand’s doctor may have looked at first glance atypical for her station.

A vibrant woman in the midst of a second bloom; the edges of her eyes and lips just scarcely beginning to attain the majesty of age; with brightly dyed hair in three shades of alternating blue, precise with her makeup; a healthy figure beneath conservative dress, sweater and coat and long skirt and tights. Neither the tidiness and discipline associated with soldiery, nor the warm matronly stereotypes of women in medicine suited her at all.

Upon winning her rights in the Union’s revolution, she immediately underwent hormone therapy, dyed her hair, put on loud music and prescribed liberation every day.

Somehow, she drew the eyes of Parvati Nagavanshi one fateful day.

“My mission needs a doctor who has been through hell and back, and still looks in the mirror and wants to live her life each day. It is too easy for someone in your profession to be ground down, broken to merely fulfilling their duties. Such people will collapse under what I am asking. But I know you won’t. Because you lived the Revolution; and now look at you.”

She still remembered Nagavanshi’s conceited, cruel grin in that dreadful black uniform.

Winfreda couldn’t deny any of that. Begrudgingly.

One curious thing about Nagavanshi is it always felt like she assessed the people around her even better than those people assessed themselves, or maybe even could assess themselves. That made her deadly effective at her job, frightening to hear from, and odious to speak to.

Despite that, Winfreda was not exactly thrilled and tried to assert her right not to–

“Let it be noted I tried, and wanted, to be nice. I can be difficult.” Nagavanshi had said.

It was resoundingly unfair, but ultimately, to avoid the resurfacing of certain problems that Winfreda had made for herself in her youthful, liberated social life in the young Union, she took Nagavanshi’s offer. Now she was sailing the high seas, was frequently endangered, and had to double as counselor to a bunch of hot-shots and fools nearly half her age.

At least she enjoyed running a clinic again.

Maybe when she came back– she would actually be ready to settle down. Big maybe.

“My, my, everyone’s going to be having fun, huh?” Winfreda said, grinning to herself.

She noticed one of the “No Judgment Dispensers” she had set up so the crew could self-serve condoms, had gone from full to nearly empty almost overnight. She realized a ton of shore leave dates must have been approved by the Captain. Dutifully, she refilled the dispenser when nobody was paying attention to it.

She saluted in spirit all the folks soon to be getting lucky.

“Hmm. I wonder if Minardo or Lebedova might be down.” Winfreda said, giggling.

Her, Lebedova and Minardo, and sometimes Marina, were called “the elder stateswomen” of the Brigand by a cadre of chirpy girls who also somehow concocted the idea that Shalikova, Nakara, Geninov and Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun were the “Four Princes.” Korabiskaya was spared the gossip largely because the girls were afraid of a reprimand; and Winfreda believed the only thing keeping al-Shajara from the gossip was that her flamboyance precluded any mystery. She was simply too well-known a flirt for those girls’ imagination.

But there was some truth to it in Minardo and Lebedova’s case, in Winfreda’s opinion.

Those two were both quite suited to her taste and seemed like they would be mature about casual sex. Certainly more so than any younger women. They were both flirty and passionate about their work, and had great bodies– she could see why the sailor girls wanted some of that. As for herself, of course, she needed no explanation. Despite her many charms, however, it had been a while since Winfreda had gotten to have sex herself. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask and see if her fellow “stateswomen” were equally pent up as she. At worst they would say no, and at best, maybe she could rope the both of them at once.

Now that would be quite a sight and a sound indeed.

However, where the little faction intersected with Marina–

She was still turning that one over in her head.

Mind filling with a slew of colorful delusions, Winfreda cheerfully ambled back to her clinic to find someone waiting for her in the middle of the room.

A patient; and a most uncommon visitor as well. She was a squirrely one even for regular health checkups. Her figure and stature on the petite side; a completely deadpan expression on a pretty young face; tawny brown hair spun into a distinctive spiraling ponytail; and her characteristic antennae, the size of a human hand and installed where her ears should be, grey and solid with a series of LEDs to indicate statuses.

Braya Zachikova.

“Oh, Zachikova! Have you finally decided to stop running away from a blood draw?”

“Funny you mention blood. Mine’s getting a bit thin. I want a scrip for blood pills.”

“Huh?”

Winfreda stared at Zachikova, who made no expression in response.

“Your blood is thin? How did you come to this conclusion? What are your symptoms?”

“I’m tired and grumpy. If you’ll just hand me some pills real quick I’ll be on my way.”

Winfreda put her hands on her hips and stood her ground.

Putting on a surly face, Zachikova averted her eyes.

“Zachikova, I’m sorry, but this isn’t a dispensary. I won’t give you any drugs without first knowing what effect they may have on you! If you’re feeling ill, I insist on running tests. You’ve ducked out of having even a single health checkup, and I’ve been worried this would be the result. We will get you help, the proper help, I promise– once we can pinpoint your actual condition.”

“Isn’t this supposed to be an informed consent clinic?” Zachikova grumbled.

Winfreda sighed loudly.

“Informed consent doesn’t mean you can come here asking for erythropoietin or any other thing entirely on your own whim. Some medicines can be harmful and must be administered after testing. I don’t understand why you are so against it. If you don’t want me to do it, I can get Syracuse to run the tests if it would be more comfortable– hey!”

In the middle of her talking, Zachikova simply turned around and left the room.

“What am I going to do with you?” Winfreda cried out.

She had limited avenues for problems like this.

If it got too serious she would have to tell the Commissar, but that just wasn’t her style. Winfreda hoped that any patient who was reticent about treatment could be sat down and talked to and reasoned with, in the privacy of the clinic, with no one the wiser. But Zachikova was the first time a patient was so vehement about avoiding any formal diagnostic tests, and who was aggressively against any discussion of the matter.

“I hate to say it, but it’ll have to be the Commissar then. I’ll write it down.”

Commissar Aaliyah and Captain Korabiskaya had been busier than ever, and always busy together, but it wasn’t like they were joined at the hip.

She just had to pull the Commissar aside.

While jotting down a note on her digital clipboard, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in! Seat’s open!” Winfreda said.

“Ah, not actually here for my health doc, but thanks.”

Once the door slid open, Winfreda smiled at the sight of Marina McKennedy.

“You know, I was just thinking about you.” Winfreda said, smiling.

“Me too.” Marina replied. She showed a bottle that she was carrying.

“I see where this is going. Are you sure you’re okay with it?” Winfreda asked.

“I’m positive. Aren’t you annoying seeing all the kids running off?”

“Hmm. Ah well– you only live once. That stuff better be nicer than my brandy.”

Marina winked, with a handsome smile. With a fond little sigh, the doctor locked the door.

Perhaps unfortunately, Marina was a woman quite to Winfreda’s taste also.


“Well, ultimately, it wasn’t a lot of trouble huh?”

“There were some low points, but nobody has shot at us, so I consider it a win.”

Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara glanced at each other, smiled and laughed.

Since their arrival at Kreuzung, the Brigand had been moored at Alcor Steelworks, subject to an extensive and necessary repair and maintenance program (along with the installation of a few new ‘toys’.) In a week and change, the project was essentially completed, thanks to the gargantuan efforts of the sailors, the Brigand’s friends at Solarflare LLC, and Amelia Winn’s under-the-table assistance in macro-stitching entire sections and systems using military blueprints. Most of the exterior was brand new plate, the interior was fully repaired, maintained, and rewired, and they even added a new chair for Erika in the bridge.

“They even made the armor a nicer shade of beige than before!” Ulyana cheered.

“I’d even say it’s more of an olive than a beige now.” Aaliyah replied.

Both of them stood proudly about fifty meters from the work site, beholding the ship.

In a little over three months, this idiosyncratic rustbucket had been through a lot.

Now it awaited its next adventure.

A sword and shield in the duel for the heart of Imbria. Surely it would have months, maybe even years of beatings ahead of it, but it had never been as prepared for them as it was now. Ulyana almost wanted to shed a tear for what it had come to represent for herself. She felt like it was only yesterday when they were still a motley assortment who barely knew each other’s names. Her crew had come together, pulled through when needed, and the Brigand was now not only their redoubt, their weapon– it had also become their home.

“Ah, Captain, Adjutant. I see you are taking in the sight of a job well done?”

Behind Ulyana and Aaliyah approached Euphrates, dressed as always in her blue blazer, waistcoat and pants, her short and messy blue hair combed back like always; at her side, always to be found, was Tigris, in red overalls and a white button-down shirt, her red hair in a ponytail. These were not her lab clothes nor her business clothes– and farther back, Ulyana spotted two containers being hauled by truck from the freight elevator.

“Euphemia?” Ulyana said. They were outside, so she observed Protocol Tokarev.

“Ah, yes.” Euphrates said, waving. “Our business in Kreuzung is also concluded.”

“We’ll be hitching a ride again if that’s okay.” Tigris said. “As payment, I have a bunch of spare parts and additional equipment for the Agni. Murati will love the stuff, I’m sure.”

“You are always welcome aboard.” Aaliyah said. “Your assistance has been crucial.”

“Likewise. We may well have been dead or abducted without you.” Euphrates replied.

“Yeah, the feeling’s mutual. I’ve been missing that bucket of bolts over there anyway.”

Tigris pointed at the Brigand with a grin on her face. Ulyana smiled back.

“Is your destination the same as ours, then?” Ulyana asked.

Euphrates nodded. “Aachen. Just like you, I need to talk to Ganges, about many things.”

“She’s going to be pretty in demand.” Ulyana said.

“For better or worse, Ganges’ ambitions led her to many places.” Euphrates said. “Far be it for me to criticize her for this, I’ll leave that up to you. I’d just like to get a sense of where she intends to go, and whether she has anything to do with our wayward Sovereign. And whether she might assist me in putting things right in one of the places she abandoned.”

“There’s no point speculating.” Tigris said. “We just need to storm into the same room with her and wring her neck for being too cavalier with the people she was responsible for.”

“Nobody is wringing anybody’s neck.” Euphrates declared. “We are just going to talk.”

“After Qote’s disgraceful circus, I almost want to wring Kansal’s neck.” Aaliyah said.

Despite Euphrates’ misgivings, Tigris and Ulyana were prompted to laugh.

For a moment, Tigris and Euphrates joined them in taking in the sight of the Brigand.

“Time feels like it’s moving again.” Euphrates said gently.

Ulyana did not really understand the remark’s significance, nor did Aaliyah.

They simply allowed everyone their own quiet contemplation.

Once they were back on the ship, there was work again in every direction.

Some sailors were lobbying to have a ‘goodbye Kreuzung’ shore leave party, which Ulyana argued against because she didn’t want to have to drag sailors back at the eleventh hour, and because Kreuzung was a racist hellhole not worth remembering whatsoever. There were arguments over where to put Tigris’ spare parts, since the supply pod was meticulously arranged to maximize storage and SF-type cargo crates like Tigris’ did not fit. Ulyana heard all the arguments and then decided to just leave it in a corner of the hangar, secured by magnetic anchors, since the Agni needed access to it. On the bridge, Erika Kairos wanted to talk about meeting with the Rostock and Olga Athanasiou wanted to talk about Divers.

It was not easy being in charge of this home away from home.

But finally, the evening was starting to fall, and they had only hours left of their visit.

Final checks and preparations could wait until the next morning.

Ulyana ordered everyone to rest, no night shifts.

She joined Aaliyah back at their quarters and they had a little celebration of their own.

“This time, exactly and only one drink.” Aaliyah said softly.

“Right.” She recalled the last time, with fondness, but also embarrassment.

Nevertheless, Ulyana poured out their glasses, and they toasted and cheered to each other.

Exchanging gentle gazes. Knowing hearts aware that their own next adventure grew near.

Little did they know that Kreuzung was about to stage a grand festival for them soon.


Arbitrator I turned and looked over her shoulder.

Framed in the dim white light of the Brigand’s corridors through the threshold of the door.

Slender and white-skinned, small horns on her forehead parting her long, white-and-red hair.

Rather than her uniform, she wore her robe of leviathan skin once again.

Behind her, Braya sat on the bed, working on something on her computer.

“Braya, I’m going for a stroll.” Arbitrator I said.

“Okay. Bring me back a coffee from the machine whenever you’re done.” Braya said.

She trusted her enough to let her leave unsupervised.

Assuming perhaps that she would only be confined to the halls of the ship.

This was not a new development– ever since she had taken Braya’s blood, and told her of her ambitions and desires, the surly computer girl she was so fond of had grown to trust her. They were intimate now. Arbitrator I could have hardly imagined it when she first saw Braya’s emotions reverberating within the metal shell she had used to contact her. When she herself was cavorting about the ocean as a beautiful and ignorant Leviathan, running away.

Despite her outward appearance, that aura bore the truth of a scared, hurt, desperate girl.

Yearning to be touched.

Now, Arbitrator I was going to hurt her again, wasn’t she?

“Of course. I’ll even make you my special coffee.” Arbitrator I teased.

“Absolutely no. Just go get a normal coffee from the machine.” Braya grumbled.

With a girlish giggle, Arbitrator I left the room.

As soon as the door closed behind her, that smiling expression on her face darkened.

Melting away into inexpression, with the weight of what she had to do.

Through the nearly empty halls of the Brigand, she walked down to the hangar.

Troubled– until she met another soul, and then she smiled, however briefly.

“Fancying a stroll?”

As always, the Chief of Security was patrolling the halls. Evgenya Akulantova lifted her hat to Arbitrator I, and the Omenseer performed a little curtsy in response. Thankfully, the chief was on her way quickly. She, too, had come to trust their new navigator.

Everyone had come to trust her– and she was about to betray all of their trust.

But it had to be done– or else Braya would not be safe.

None of them would be safe unless she took matters into her own hands.

Her and only her alone. It was her responsibility.

Down in the hangar, Arbitrator I found a vent that she had been spying.

Low to the ground, it allowed water that collected on the hangar to be drained out.

And in this case, it allowed Arbitrator I to soften her body and ooze through.

Like the soft things of jelly that once dwelled deep, deep underground–

Falling from one of the Brigand’s exhausts out onto the concrete floor of Alcor Steelworks.

Recovering her form on the ground, and breaking into a run.

She rushed out from under the ship, and looked straight up into the dark, false sky.

Far, far up above them, she knew she would find Enforcer I and Enforcer III of the Syzygy.

Her eyes turned briefly feral with the thought of them– and then softened.

Filled with tears.

Ripping her eyes from the ship and from the image of Braya in her mind.

She flexed fingers that became black and sharp like knives. Setting off on her grim duty.

For everything she was responsible for; for everything she did not do.

Her kin’s ravenous vengeance could not be allowed to continue.

“For the hominin to be safe– I must kill these monsters. I’m sorry Braya– goodbye.”

Her eyes became lit not with red rings but lined by a purple hexagon.

Feeling the weight of everything she wished she could have kept–

She ascended.

For everything she buried and recovered and could not deny any longer.


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 [11.6]

As promised, Alcor Steelworks hired a catering company to deliver food to the Brigand.

Food was on the mind of several of the crew members as they worked on the retrofitting.

When the Brigand left the Union, they had several months’ worth of food.

They had been sailing for over two months since, and though they could last several more on mushrooms, algae, dried flaked veggies and broth powder, replenishment was in order to shore up morale. Fresh food lasted a ship about two weeks at most, and it was easy to go through canned and jarred foods quickly after that, since they had much less space for these than they did for bulk dried foods, and no way to replenish them from the science pod. Nevertheless, it was these foods which were invaluable for the motivation of the crew. A taste of home every once in a while was armor against the worst hardship.

By the time they arrived in Kreuzung, the Brigand’s stocks of bulk-size cans of cheese, eggs, milk and cooking fat had run very low. Pickles were becoming more and more staple, wheat gluten and soy crumble started being rationed, and perhaps in another month, the crew would be on a diet of reconstituted dried bulk goods and stitcher cartridge meals. Flour was another important commodity; fresh baked bread warm out of the oven was about the only consistent luxury a sailor came to expect on a ship.

Minardo had recently gone victualing, and even made it on the evening news, much to her chagrin. She had managed to secure several weeks’ worth of additional supplies in fresh food as well as additional cooking fats, but Kreuzung was apparently going through an economic fallow period and supplies were being ransacked by ship crews left, right and center– they would have to top up their supplies in Aachen when they joined the United Front, so there was no escaping a trip to the north. Nevertheless, they were in no danger of starving, but the ship had another problem when it came to food that was not yet solved.

Even with the will and determination to cook, Minardo’s kitchen had to be torn apart during the retrofitting process, and until it was put back together, she could not do much for the crew beyond putting out uncooked canned or jarred food like pickles and cold soy chunks on the tables for hungry mouths to help themselves. These impromptu salads were at best a snack. They would be relying on Alcor’s catering for the next few days until the engineers were done with their work in the cafeteria.

There was an additional and unforeseen problem too–

“This stuff sucks ass. Ugh. How the hell are the commies the only ones that know how to cook vegetables around here? It beggars belief. Did Alcor just buy the cheapest shit available?”

Tables had been set up in the hangar temporarily for workers to come and eat and get out from under the sunlamps. They were planned to remain there at least until it was time to work on the hangar itself. Alcor’s catered meals, enough food for over 180 of the Brigand’s personnel, were set up on these tables, along with reusable plates and sporks and a washbin where they would be deposited. Sixty smaller tables were set up across the hangar for personnel to sit, eat and socialize.

Marina McKennedy was alone in her own table, grumbling and picking at her food.

As usual, she was dressed in her dark grey suit, her dark hair pinned to the back of her head and her bangs swept over one eye. Her friendless expression was well known to ‘the commies’ by this point; she was otherwise quite handsome and good loking, and took care of her appearance. She was largely unapproachable to anyone but a few of the Brigand’s officers, so even sitting in the middle of a large social area, she was alone. She came and went as she pleased, so isolation seemed to suit her.

Alcor’s caterers had been tasked with making vegetarian fare. There was a good bit of variety, but Marina found much of it wanting compared to Minardo’s cooking, which she had become accustomed to. There was a lack of something in the flavors that put it below par. They had crusty garlic bread topped with crushed confit tomatoes, which was the best thing on the table. There was a roasted and stewed cabbage topped with a sweet red pepper sauce that was rather lifeless, the cabbage having a weird texture and the sauce being rather bland. There was a potato mash topped with a crushed celery gravy that was far too wet, bordering on slimy. Cucumbers and onions in sour cream and dill which was bland, one-note and also far too bitter and sour overall. Boiled dumplings filled with sauerkraut which was maybe the laziest thing on the table overall.

Nevertheless, despite her grumbling, Marina filled a plate and slowly worked on it.

“Marina! Marinaaaaa! Can I sit here and eat with you?”

There was no mistaking that bubbly voice, and as soon as Marina turned her head she saw a soft indigo blur run up to the table, settling into the image of a smiling young woman with a distinctively indigo hair color. Marina could never say no to this girl, Elena von Fueller– no, she had recently decided she was Elena Lettiere. Marina had to make sure to remember this going forward.

“Of course. I would have to sit alone if it wasn’t for you.” Marina said.

Elena smiled and set her tray down. She had taken a bit of everything from the catering.

“Isn’t Chief Akulantova your friend at least? She greets you whenever she sees you.”

Marina crooked her eyebrow and frowned, remembering all the times that shark-woman told her to be quiet, to stop cursing, laid hands on her and forced her to sit down, prevented her from leaving a room, or was otherwise antagonistic– Elena had a pretty strange idea of friendship. Even after “joining the crew” officially, Marina still felt surveilled by that patrolling shark.

“By no stretch of the imagination are we friends. That Katarran’s just suspicious of me.”

Elena looked up from her food to stare at Marina. Her expression betrayed some concern.

“Do you realize you’re always calling her and Maryam stuff like ‘the Katarran’?”

Marina’s hand reached up into the collar of her shirt and scratched, while her eyes averted.

“I mean– it’s fine– it’s just a shorthand you know– they’re Katarrans aren’t they–?”

“You should just call them by name.” Elena said firmly. “Being racist isn’t good.”

Her princess said such a facile thing with such conviction that Marina nearly shouted.

“What? I’m not! I’m really not! I have nothing against Katarrans! C’mon Elena, please.”

“I expect better from you.” Elena said, crossing her arms and staring at her.

“If I had known you were going to slaughter me where I sat I’d have told you to fuck off!”

Elena started laughing despite Marina’s all-too-real distress with the situation.

Marina couldn’t help but play along and laugh a bit, hoping Elena would just drop it.

“You should read some of their books, Marina. It’s been really enlightening!” Elena said.

“I’ve read up on Mordecai a bit.” Marina said. “We got courses on ‘extreme ideologies’ at the G.I.A. so we could blend in or understand them better. I admit they were probably a bit bias, but I get the gist of it. I’m just not somebody who can believe in anything like that anymore. I don’t have an ideology. I just know who my allies and enemies are without philosophizing it.”

Elena nodded her head. “I guess that’s valid. I dunno– I think being a communist sounds really good. The more I read, I think it’s very beautiful. I think they really want to help people, Marina. Not just for their own good, or for religious reasons, but like– because it’s right to do. They see the world so differently than I did! It almost gives me hope for the future.”

Marina sighed. Elena was her own person, but Marina thought she was being so naïve.

“Keep in mind, you’ve never met a normal person who is a communist.” Marina said. “All these folks are fine, they’ve done right by us; certainly they’ve had many chances to toss me overboard and haven’t, and that’s a credit I have to begrudgingly extend to them.” She omitted how often she had lied to them, and how guilty she now felt– given she was lying to them again at that exact moment. “But they’re all soldiers, Elena. None of them just live as communists, they’re the system. Believing in communism forms a part of their discipline as soldiers. It’s not something they decided to pick up as a hobby like you did–”

Elena grumbled. “This isn’t a hobby for me– I’m really trying to change–”

“–be that as it may,” Marina continued, “I think before you change your entire worldview you need to have more experience with how normal people think and live. Neither you, nor them, have led normal lives. I’m sure the vast majority of people are as unideological as I am. Commies all love their country and its tenets because they’re not welcome anywhere else, and that’s it.”

“I don’t understand how you got this far while being this truculent.” Elene grumbled.

Marina smiled. “Giving good dick and fucking all the right people.”

Elena averted her eyes, red in the face. “At least you admit it.”

“C’mon, I know you didn’t come here to try to recruit me into your cult.” Marina said.

“Ugh.” Elena sighed. “Right. I wanted to ask you for help, but now I don’t feel like it.”

“Hey,” Marina raised a hand to pat Elena’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, okay, I didn’t want to be mean to you. I’m just looking out for you. Look, regardless of what you’re into nowadays, I will stand by what I said. I want to help you out, no matter what. I’m still here for you, Elena Lettiere. So please, let’s set everything else aside and tell me what you need.”

She almost said ‘von Fueller’ but she remembered and thus saved the whole thing.

Elena’s once-averted gaze returned to Marina. She drew in breath and tensed her shoulders.

“Okay. Marina, I want you to teach me how to fight.” Elena said.

“Huh? What’s this about now? Is someone bullying you?” Marina said.

“Of course not.” Elena sighed. “I just– I don’t want to be so helpless anymore.”

Marina wanted to tell her that learning to fight personally did not make a difference to that. For all that Marina knew a myriad ways to kill individual human beings, she was still twisting in the wind stirred up by the powerful and their systems of control. Even the commies, with all their military gear and experience, having survived miraculously against several opponents that should have crushed them utterly– even they hadn’t even made a scratch yet in the edifice of the Imbrium Empire. Lichtenberg and Norn were both personally powerful, but they weren’t load-bearing lives in the mountain of bodies keeping the Imbrium’s oppression upright. Defeating them had allowed the commies to survive, they had been the gateway into the Imbrium itself. But all the personal power in the world would not free all of them from the invisible chains binding them to the Imbrium.

It was naïve to think that the ability to fight, by itself, gave anyone real freedom.

All of the fighting abilities on this boat didn’t spare them the indignity of having to hide.

If Elena wanted to stop running and hiding, throwing a punch would do nothing for that.

But– Marina did not say any of those things. Because she understood that impulse too.

After all, she had joined the G.I.A. because she too felt like a helpless peon in the Republic.

Elena had moved by the tug of those invisible chains all of her life too. Now she found herself surrounded by people with the strength to kill and the conviction to die for something, and she thought they were freer than she was. That she could join the ranks of the independent, of the people with agency, if she secured the power to kill as well. It was naïve– but understandable.

“Fine.” Marina said. “I’ll teach you personal defense as best as I can.”

“Marina! Thank you–!” Elena’s face lit up; Marina raised a finger to her lips to stop her.

“But I have two inviolable rules you must follow. Our first rule is that you train every day. Whether or not you’re sore or not enjoying yourself, you’ll show up consistently, or I’m not going to bother. My second rule is the most important though– you won’t use what I teach you to play the hero and take any matters into your own hands. You won’t try to join the commies on missions, and you won’t intervene if they’re having problems around the ship. Do you promise, Elena?”

Elena held Marina’s hands with two of her own, smiling. “Of course. I promise, Marina.”

Marina sighed. She didn’t believe those starry eyes of her in the slightest.

She would just have to be careful and continue to watch out for her as best as she could.

“Deal, then. We start today. We’ll train in the hangar, at night, to stay out of their way.”

Marina signaled with her thumb in the general direction of the communist sailors.

“There’s a curfew though, isn’t there?” Elena asked.

“I’ll talk to the Kata– I’ll talk to Akulantova. I’m sure she won’t mind.” Marina said.

Elena’s face lit up even more. “I can’t thank you enough, Marina.”

Her face looked so much like her mother’s– she was so beautiful it was almost painful.

Leda’s smiles were rarer than Elena’s; but whenever she smiled, Leda’s icy expression completely melted away into a pure and untouched girlishness, a joy for life and a certain naïve innocence that had continue untarnished despite all the torment she had undergone. Elena was a much warmer person than her mother, but even then, when she truly, genuinely smiled, it was such a revelatory moment. It made her beauty shine like a little sun among all the mortals around her.

It tugged at Marina’s heart– and brought dangerous, buried passions back to the fore.

“It’s really nothing.” Marina said, averting her gaze. “Clean your plate.” 


“Fancy meeting you here, Hunter I.” Avaritia said, smiling. “Hankering for a bite of me?”

Olga’s eyes felt warm, her pulse heightened. Her eyes were dilating, and her vision blurred. That sense of hunger that she felt toward humans was thrown into overdrive, but it was linked to a different emotion. She felt anger, hatred, and fear, toward the two women standing opposite her in that long hallway. She felt their presence brimming under her skin, like fight or flight kicking in at the sight of a fire or the report of a gunshot. Her arms wanted to grab their flesh and tear it into chunks. Her teeth wanted to close around their throats, and she wanted to drink so much blood she would choke on it. Her every sinew went taut with the desire to pounce, to mutilate, to ravage those bodies with unlimited violence until there was nothing left–

And like her hunger toward humans, she had to struggle to control these emotions too.

None of them could afford to come to blows. Not here, not now, even in this empty hall.

Meeting them here was serendipitous, however. So she had to seize this opportunity.

She had to chain up the animal inside her and talk to them like human beings.

“We don’t want to cause a scene here, do we, Hunter I?” Gula said, after a long silence.

“No, we don’t. I– I want to talk. With Avaritia, and not with you.” Olga said.

“Oh, do I not merit your attention?” Gula smiled a too-wide, too-sharp smile.

Olga wasn’t stirred by that display of the monster hiding in that cutesy human skin.

She saw something behind both the masks of humanity and monstrosity, however, that did intrigue her.

Gula– her aura was– odd–

It was not something she wanted to throw at their faces, however.

She might learn more by goading them.

“Avaritia isn’t brainwashed, unlike you. So only her perspective interests me.” Olga said.

Avaritia put a hand on Gula’s shoulder, comforting her. Those two were close– too close.

“I’m not sending Gula away for you, Hunter I. From my vantage, I have all the power.”

“I don’t want her sent away. But it’s useless to talk to someone that she made.” Olga said.

“You can call her by name. There are no Hominin watching– save yours back there.”

Avaritia looked at Erika, who had her back turned to the entire scene.

“Or does she not know? Who you are, and the things you’ve done? What you are?”

“She knows what she knows, and she respects what she doesn’t.” Olga said.

“How thoughtful of your spare rations to be so understanding.” Avaritia replied.

“I’m above needlessly causing violence to innocent humans, unlike you.”

Avaritia grinned again.

Olga had seen her in this form before. For one who had caused so much destruction to the Hominin, she loved to style herself like them. Avaritia’s chosen disguise was a tall and sleek, handsome woman, with short hair at around the level of jaw or upper neck, wearing an ornate, monochromatic suit that exposed some cleavage. Gula was also familiar, a long-haired girl wrapped like a piece of candy in a dress that was all lace and fancy trim, some of it sheer and loose, some of it tight, like layers of filmy lingerie that was only decent worn together. Together, they strode forward and back over the line between a group of high class starlets and a coven of lifestyle harlots. Their audacious style was an ingenious cover for their monstrous nature.

After all, the wealthy class were the monsters whose depredation society tacitly avowed.

Olga had heard enough communist speeches to know that intimately.

“Above it? How magnanimous of you! To be above us mere predators in refusing to deal back the violence dealt to you!” Avaritia said. She swept a hand over her short hair, moving some locks behind her ear. “You and I could kill thousands of ‘innocent’ Hominin, Hunter I, and we would still be above what they did to us. Your performance of morality toward them is utterly facile. Were your roles reversed, they would think nothing of devouring you like cattle. You’d do well to remember.”

“So you are still following Arbitrator II’s ideology.” Olga said. “Why? You’re free.”

Inside every Leviathan there was humanity, buried deep within those massive bodies.

Who put it there and why–? Olga couldn’t say. That history was lost to her.

But that humanity was there, and it was possible for a spark of reason to awaken it.

Olga and Avaritia had voluntarily made themselves human again in this way.

But Arbitrator II had a means by which to accelerate that process involuntarily.

Gula had been drawn from the monster once known as the Great Maw of Nysa.

In the process, she had been made thrall to Arbitrator II and party to her vengeance.

Most of their people, the ‘Omenseers’ that lived today, that existed on the edge of human civilization and at the edge of their consciousness in old legends– the navigators, advisors, kingmaking mystics of tall half-truthful tales– and even the ghosts, vampires, zombies and monsters of horror tales– most of them were products of Arbitrator II’s ambition. Very few of them had made their own miracle and returned to humanity of their own power and reason, as Olga had done.

Avaritia was rare among their kind. One of the most powerful; and also free of thralldom.

So why–? Why was she still following Arbitrator II? Olga had to prize the answer out.

“You were ‘free’ too.” Avaritia said. “You once agreed with her. Is it that strange?”

“I never agreed with her. I was ignorant to the possibility of peace.” Olga said.

“There is no peace with Hominin. Their stewardship over Aer will destroy Hominin and Omenseer alike.” Avaritia said. “In this, the Autarch is correct. We must bring the Hominin to heel as livestock. It is our destiny to dominate them all, as their most ancient and only true predators. But even more than that, it is necessary to exact justice. That is what drives her the most.”

“You’re wrong. None of this is justice! It will take work– but we can live alongside them! Humans are afraid and violent because their conditions are abhorrent. They already are livestock, Avaritia. We’ve never seen humans who are free of privation. We have never dealt with them as peers, we have never seen them at peace.” Olga said. “If we used our abilities to help the humans–”

“You are not going to convince me of anything.” Avaritia replied tersely.

Her eyes were shaped in a strange fashion– they became like crosshairs settled on Olga.

“What is your aim? Do you think you can recruit me? The Horror of Dys who ended the Hominin’s last planetary dominion? Do you think I did that mindlessly, like an involuntary spasm? You don’t know anything about me, or about our history.”

“Don’t aggrandize yourself.”

Olga wasn’t the one retorting this time. Erika chimed in for the first time in this exchange.

She looked over her shoulder at Avaritia, briefly, before turning her back again.

“It’s impossible for one creature, even so grand as you, to have ended a society. If those humans fell, they fell before you appeared before them. You confuse their structural problems with your martial deeds, at your own peril.” She said.

Avaritia grinned even wider than before. “It’s interesting, to be chastised by a cut of meat who knows nothing.”

“Gula,” Olga said, diverting attention again. “If Arbitrator II found that Avaritia’s past her usefulness, would you agree to devour her? It’s a question you should consider, based on the Autarch’s sense of morality. It could happen at any moment.”

“Switching tack?” Avaritia said. Olga paid her no heed, wondering what Gula would say.

Gula smiled and answered honestly. “I would prefer no such thing occurred, but I–”

Avaritia bent down suddenly so her grinning face was cheek to cheek with Gula’s.

“You are mistaken on one thing, Hunter I. Gula is as free as any of us to decide her fate.”

Olga’s scoffed Avaritia’s interruption. “I realized it immediately. That’s what puzzled me.”

Olga could tell from Gula’s aura. Every aura was a trace that the person left upon the aether. It moved where they moved, and faintly, it followed where they had trod before, and even more faintly, it could be seen to indicate where they intended to go next. It was the path they carved across the infinitude of human existence, in every given possible direction. Olga had begun her provocations because she had an inkling that something was different about Gula’s aura now.

That unique way in which it almost blended at the edges into Avaritia’s aura.

She knew the reason why, or at least, she suspected it. But she was curious to confirm it.

“You claimed Gula.” Olga said. “You devoured a part of her, in order to control her.”

“I don’t need to confirm anything to you.” Avaritia said, still smiling, unbothered.

Gula, too, made no different expression at Olga’s provocations.

“Arbitrator II forbid these mating rituals.” Olga pressed. “You succeeded in subverting her control.”

“And what? You want to give it a try? Feeling left out with only a Hominin mate?” Avaritia replied snidely.

“Darling, we will be late to our meeting.” Gula suddenly reminded Avaritia.

“Hear that? It was a pleasure catching up. But we have places to be.” Avaritia replied.

Olga’s gaze remained fixed on the two of them. “Don’t let me hold you up then.”

Without goodbyes or further antagonism, Avaritia and Gula turned heel and continued down the hall in the direction they had been going. Olga watched their backs disappear down the same path that Erika and herself had taken to leave Ulyana and Aaliyah behind. Watching the back of those creatures, Olga felt a confusing mess of emotions.

Revulsion, anger, but maybe also hope.

Maybe there was more going on inside Syzygy than Olga had initially realized.

“Olga, did you get what you wanted from that exchange?”

She found Erika suddenly back at her side. Her hand resting comfortingly on Olga’s back.

Olga sighed. Her provocations did seem to unearth something– but nowhere near enough.

“I think my people might end up being as hard to liberate as your own.” She said.

Erika rested her head on Olga’s shoulder, smiling so wide their cheeks touched.

“But there’s a chance, isn’t there? I don’t understand everything– but there is, right?”

“I think there’s a chance.” Olga said. “But it’s a bit far afield right now.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, in order to free all of us. I think of you as a human.” Erika said. “So in turn, I must think of them as humans too. Humans devour each other in different ways all of the time. It all stems from the same conditions. There might be differences physiologically, but in the proper conditions, I know we can make peace through a shared dignity.”

Olga reached around to stroke Erika’s hair.

“We should focus on what’s ahead of us first. But thank you. It means a lot to me.”

“Of course. I’m not afraid of them; and I trust you in the utmost.”

She looked down the corridor, where Gula and Avaritia disappeared to.

“Unfortunately, I suspect they might have infiltrated the Three Arrows.” Erika said.

Olga sighed. “It is too big of a coincidence for them to have a ‘meeting’ here too.”

“Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Erika replied.

“Preparing for the worst is really all we can do about the Syzygy right now.”

“Don’t worry; they will cease walking around with impunity soon enough.” Erika said.

In terms of personal strength, Avaritia was a monstrous individual to have to challenge.

Erika and Olga herself might, perhaps, be just short of a match for those Enforcers on foot.

But the terrain of battle would soon shift from individual dueling and assassinations.

As a whole, the Syzygy was inexperienced with direct confrontation. And only some of the Enforcers could navigate the ‘Hominin’ world with grace. In terms of subversion, the Syzygy was not so far ahead of the leftists in their influence, and their alien gear and resources gave only a limited advantage. Olga believed that once they coalesced and started moving as an organization, they would be vulnerable. They just had to wait for Syzygy to be forced to expose themselves.

Stroll through this station killing random people while you can. Olga thought.

It would be seen whether Avaritia’s status as the apex predator would last much longer.

Or perhaps, whether that was even what Avaritia was after anymore.


Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been scolded as the women of the Rotfront left the room. She ran her hand through her hair absentmindedly while staring in the general direction of Aaliyah Bashara, her commissar and adjutant. Aaliyah in turn sighed and crossed her arms, giving Ulyana a narrow-eyed look that was bereft of the friendliness they had of late. Just when Ulyana thought they were getting along so well nowadays– had she done something to offend her again?

“Captain, I know what you must be thinking.” Aaliyah said. “I’m just a bit frustrated with your questioning of Erika Kairos. These discussions represent an opportunity to push these people to reveal their ambitions to us. It’s not about whether they agree with us, or even our judgments of the character they put forward, but about extracting as much information as we can that they might not put forward unless pressed for it. Erika Kairos certainly seems like an individual who is well put-together, but it’s plain that we agree with her politically. I wanted us to dig deeper than that.”

“That makes sense. I apologize. I just felt charmed by her. She reminded me of Murati or Jayasankar, theory-heads with strong convictions. For what it’s worth, I was just trying to play the good cop to your bad cop.” Ulyana said.

She gave Aaliyah an innocent little smile and Aaliyah shrugged in response.

“Seen from that perspective, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so brusque to you.”

“It’s alright. It’s your job to push me too, after all. And I appreciate every scolding I get.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze a bit bashful– what was that expression about?

Ulyana smiled again. She really appreciated this troublesome Commissar.

“I do think I got out of Erika what I wanted.” Aaliyah said. “I’ll reserve judgment.”

“Until we hear from the anarchists? Well– for what it’s worth, it’ll be tough for me to play good cop there, so I think you’ll find your frustrations with me will soon melt away.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah frowned.

At the door, Ulyana suddenly caught sight of a glint of purple around the corner, before parsing it as Kalika Loukia of the Rotfront, returning the way she had come and standing at the doorway again as if awaiting an invitation. While Erika Kairos was quite a comely individual, Kalika was the most glamorous Katarran that Ulyana had ever seen. Her makeup and hair were perfectly done, her clothing was impeccable, her jacket must have been an expensive brand, and she walked so directly and confidently in heels. She had a queen bee sort of presence to her movements and expressions that Ulyana did not associate with a mercenary.

“Hello again. May I come in? The Premier wanted me to talk with you all.”

“You can come in.” Aaliyah said. “But I’m curious what there is to discuss without Erika.”

Kalika strode in and stood in front of the two seated women.

“She wants me to stay with you. As a liaison and to support your activities.” Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other. Kalika smiled. “I won’t be dead weight. I can do almost anything you want. Tailing, covert hits, assault on foot; and I can pilot a Diver with military competency. Treat me as one of your soldiers and order me around as you like.”

“We’re confident you would be handy in a fight.” Ulyana said. “I’m just surprised. Will Erika be fine with only Olga as her escort?” She had committed the names of the group’s members to memory as much as she could, to avoid looking disinterested. It was tricky keeping straight all the names she’d learned the past few days, but the Rotfront’s Katarran names stuck out.

Kalika cocked a little grin. “God help whoever tries to jump those two.”

“Fair enough.” Ulyana said. “Welcome aboard then, Kalika Loukia.”

“We’ll have to tinker with the officer bunking arrangements again.” Aaliyah said, a bit wistfully.

“It’ll be fine.” Ulyana reassured. “We can have Fatima and Semyonova room together.”

“I suppose so.”

“I can sleep anywhere, it’s fine. I’ve slept on the floor before.” Kalika said.

“We would rather not have a long-term, valued guest experience such conditions.”

“I appreciate it. But I don’t want to be a burden.”

Ulyana smiled. “You’ll get a bed and like it. Don’t worry.”

Kalika smiled back and silently acceded to the terms.

“We are expecting a final set of guests here today. Would you mind standing in the corner until we’re done, Kalika Loukia?” Aaliyah said. “You can act as a bodyguard for us and we’ll take you with us to the ship afterwards.”

“Alright. I’ll keep a sharp lookout, and I won’t utter a peep.” Kalika said.

She stood with her back to a corner wall on the side of the room.

Leaving room for the guests that would soon arrive.

Next to cross the door were two women who swept in like a gust of wind. Everyone else had stopped at the door to confirm whether they might be in the right place, or meeting the right people, but these two were dead sure of their destination. They walked in, sat in front of Ulyana and Aaliyah and smiled casually at them. For anarchists, they were dressed quite ostentatiously.

Ulyana had not known what to expect. People of any ideology could dress like anyone. She had an idea that maybe anarchists would aspire to more civilian frugality than others, as there was a stereotype of communists being too militaristic, and liberals too fancy. That being said, the women before her looked like starlets of high society. One of the women, with a more dashing figure, leaned closer to the desk and seemed to want to be first to speak. She had a suit and coat that looked as if freshly tailored and never worn even as it sat on her skin. Her hair was cut to the level of the ears on the sides and back, slightly longer up front, with swept bangs alternating white, red and black streaks. Her makeup was immaculate, matching Kalika Loukia’s in skill and effort.

At her side, the shorter woman looked as if she was a human doll. Her very long, very silky and shiny hair fell over her shoulders and down her back. Her dress was a veritable waterfall of lace, ribbons, and trim, with diaphanous portions along the sleeves, the flank and hips, and the sides of her legs, and thicker fabric in other areas. She was very much the Princess to her Prince. Dainty and pretty, with fixed eyes just under blunt and even bangs, incurious about the world, inexpressive.

“My name is Zozia Chelik. This is my associated Ksenia Apfel.”

Ulyana nodded her head. Those were the names Kremina had given them to expect.

She addressed in return the one who had spoken, the woman in the suit– Zozia.

“I am Ulyana Korabiskaya. And beside me is Aaliyah Bashara.”

“Lovely to meet you.” Zozia said.

“Enchanted.” Ksenia added.

There was something about them that gave Ulyana a strange feeling.

It was silly– for whatever reason, it felt like she was in the presence not of two people taking up the space of two people in front of her, but rather, that there was an enormous body in the room that was squeezing out the air. Like she was being shadowed by giants or staring down the legs of some gargantuan beast, the fingertips of something vast. That was the level of pressure these two seemed to exert, the grandiosity of their presence. Ulyana felt ridiculous thinking that way– she chalked it up to feeling exhausted and somewhat nervous about the whole affair. Especially speaking to anarchists after all this time.

There was very little respect between their ways of thinking, in recent history.

Aaliyah would probably find it even more impossible to reconcile such things.

So it was up to Ulyana to make a redoubled effort to be the ‘good cop.’

And maybe that was the pressure she was feeling.

“You two are part of the ‘Three Arrows’ group of anarchists, is that correct?” Ulyana said.

“We can only really purport to represent ourselves, but functionally, yes.” Zozia replied.

“Could you explain the structure of the organization to us?”

Zozia grinned a little. “It’s decidedly structureless really. We are an organization by convenience and verbal agreement, rather than on a strict chart. The Three Arrows is a self-identification shorthand for hundreds, maybe thousands of much smaller groups who may not have met and may have hardly communicated; there are cells that are a hundred strong, some a dozen strong, some a handful. What binds us is that we can recognize each other; and that the state is our ultimate shared enemy.”

“That makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge your strength and capability.” Aaliyah said.

“It does, but that is also an advantage.” Zozia said. “The Imbrian Empire’s successors can define the threat they pose to each other in very structural terms, but the Three Arrows are liquid. Our cells have remained at the bottom of the Volkich Movement’s concerns, while conducting multiple acts of resistance. Our ability to act anywhere, and to plot to do anything, gives us more flexibility than the Rotfront or the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and more security in our dealings.”

“Perhaps, but the Rotfront and Schwarzrot are both very capable of inflicting military damage to the Volkisch Movement. This will ultimately be needed to curtail their authority. What are the Three Arrows’ fighting capabilities on the whole?”

“Our focus is on undermining the Volkisch and acquiring intelligence, sabotaging their operations and safeguarding or liquidating persons of interest.” Zozia said. “If you ask me how many ships or Divers or soldiers we have, I don’t know. Each cell has its own assets. I didn’t come here on a ship waving a black flag or a three arrows insignia. I bought a ticket and rented a room.”

Ulyana nodded her head. She was following along– but something was unnerving about the way Zozia spoke.

She couldn’t place it though. She couldn’t put words to the feeling that voice elicited.

And she was trying to be charitable. Could she truly blame Zozia for it alone?

“Such things are valuable in a military campaign too. We’re not trying to undervalue the assistance you might provide.” Aaliyah said. “But it is difficult for us to make a decision to support an organization that is so formless. If we gave you weapons, who are we arming? If we offered training, who would appear to take it? How would it be put to use? How would you coordinate?”

“I’m afraid we would have to work out such things on a case by case basis.” Zozia replied.

“Very well.” Aaliyah said, sounding irritated. “If that is how it must be.”

Zozia accepted the impasse they had come to on that topic, without much concern.

“Ksenia, do you have anything to add to this?” Ulyana asked.

“Not at all.” Ksenia said. Her voice was so delicate– a very pretty and dainty girl’s voice.

“Alright– So then, I suppose, moving on. Zozia, can you describe your group’s ideology to me?”

Zozia smiled. “If I were to break it down, I can only speak about what the people I’m most closely involved with believe– operationally, they seek total freedom. From privation and from predation, yes, but also, from the structure of a state. There is violence inherent even in the sort of bookkeeping you want us to do to appear more legitimate. Such things force people into certain roles and bind expectations to them that assume permanent consent. We don’t believe in those things. We must topple the tyrants, but we cannot become new tyrants that replace the old. We believe in free association in all things.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. Ulyana could tell from her eyes she was getting tetchy.

“So is it too much to ask for accountability and order? How do you plan to accomplish your ultimate goal?”

“All that is needed to accomplish a goal are people who are willing and want to try.” Zozia said. “Lists and ledgers and officers and orders are not absolute necessities. I know that all of you come from the Union. Anarchists believe that level of bureaucracy is both unnecessary and deleterious. To fight, all you need is the desire to resist your enemy, not a written plan.”

“The Union had to organize millions of people who had been suffering in conditions of slavery to fight against a very powerful opponent. You can’t do that with laissez faire verbal agreements, you need officers and ledgers, as you put it.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was starting to sharpen. She was, after all, a product of that bureaucracy, a producer of ledgers and orders.

Ulyana herself was too. She just wasn’t taking Zozia’s jovial vitriol as hard as Aaliyah.

“Of course, you are welcome to believe what you desire.” Zozia said calmly.

“I cannot respect platitudes about freedom for its own sake. We’re risking our lives here.” Aaliyah replied.

“Zozia,” Ulyana interrupted, talking over Aaliyah as tensions rose. “With such a diversity of people within the Arrows, and without a central command, how do you agree on what needs doing? Are there ideological differences between you?”

“We have coordinators who are tasked with keeping communication between various cells open and disseminating needs and ideas, as well as keeping tabs on actions taken. Individual cells take opportunities if they can get them and reach out if they need to pool strengths.” Zozia said. “You’re right, we don’t have a formal central command, and trying to impose one would only slow down the cells. Sometimes opportunities for action do slip through the cracks. It is what it is.”

Zozia had never once wore anything but a placid, casual smile toward them.

Despite Aaliyah’s increasing irritation, and the tone of the conversation.

Ulyana realized that was what unnerved her. Zozia was too calm, too clinical, too detached.

Her responses began to feel–

–rehearsed?

And beside her, Ksenia had no input whatsoever. She was just smiling and staring.

That sense of– uninvolvement? And the way they looked too– it gave Ulyana doubts.

“As far as ideology is concerned. Do you know what the Three Arrows stand for?” Zozia asked.

“I’m afraid not.” Ulyana replied.

For the first time, Zozia made a face that conveyed a bit of– menace?

“The Three Arrows represent the three targets of anarchism: fascism, liberalism, and authoritarianism. So each arrow points at a target to destroy. But the arrows also represent the three different groups that make up the anarchist front. That is the length of the arrows. My cell is the “libertarian” cell, on the leftmost arrow, pointed at fascism; on the rightmost arrow is the “insurrectionist” cell, pointed at authoritarianism; and the middle arrow is the “anti-civilization” cell, pointed at liberalism. We do disagree politically, but we still need each other. You are lucky you are talking to me and not to those other guys.”

She sounded very amused by this description. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes further.

“Will the insurrectionist and anti-civilization groups be present at Aachen?” Aaliyah asked.

Zozia shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t be responsible for them. We did ask them to come.”

“I’m worried about what ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘liberalism’ mean in this context.” Ulyana said, sighing. It really seemed like those arrows would be pointed at the Rotfront and Schwarzrot, which would definitely just cause a scene at the United Front. Now she really wished she could redo the conversation with Gloria, who seemed so naively excited to work with all these people.

“I imagine we will have our disagreements. I, at least, am willing to work with you.”

Zozia held a hand over the flesh exposed by the deep chest window on her top, as if swearing an oath.

“Then, how many of your cell will be present at Aachen?” Ulyana asked. “And how will that number compare to the totality of the Three Arrows? We’ve heard a few numbers before and would really like to know if they are accurate.”

“My cell is calling between 1000 and 5000 fighters. I can’t speak to how many will come and in what condition; I can say even less about the capabilities of the other arrows. Sometimes we may leave port with 1000 people and by the time of the operation we may have 890 or 760 left. Freedom means allowing people to reassess their commitment.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah clutched her hands together and laid them firmly on the desk, making a small thud.

“I don’t see the point of continuing this conversation. We have no concrete information. It seems we can’t actually understand anything about your organization without engaging a whisper network about it.” She grumbled.

“Indeed, such is the difficulty. But it’s what it takes to fight with the fullest of freedom.”

Ksenia Apfel finally spoke up after allowing Zozia the floor all this time.

“However, this is an opportunity for us to ask you questions too, isn’t it. So, can we do that?” She asked.

Ulyana glanced at Aaliyah, who sighed and seemed to relent in her body language.

Taking it to mean she was free to do what she wanted, Ulyana fixed her gaze on Ksenia.

“We’ll answer your questions as best as we can; the same as you have.” She said.

‘Same as you have.’ Zozia and Ksenia had contributed very little important information.

So they could expect the same in return if their questions probed too deep.

While Ulyana had addressed Ksenia, she quieted again; and it was Zozia who continued.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya– what is your goal in the Imbrium Ocean? In Eisental itself?”

“At the moment, we’re assessing how much of a fight we might be able to bring to the Volkisch Movement. Our goal is nominally shared: we want to stop this fascist meat-grinding machine’s depredation on the people of Rhinea.”

Zozia shook her head. “I want to hear you speak from the heart; not as a tool of the Union.”

“That’s enough.” Aaliyah interrupted.

“No, Aaliyah, let her speak.”

Ulyana looked at Zozia dead in the eyes with determination and a growing animosity.

She wasn’t about to blink in front of this provocateur. Clearly Zozia was sizing them up as rivals now.

“It’s impossible to have a simple cooperative relationship with her. So let her talk.”

“Ulyana–” Aaliyah spoke up, but then cut herself off, silently supporting her Captain.

In the next moment, Ulyana thought she saw, deep in Zozia’s eyes, a pair of crosshairs.

Locking on to her with a simmering intensity Ulyana couldn’t place, but vowed to resist.

For a moment, she and Zozia had an entire staring match, both feigning nonchalance and confidence.

Ulyana suddenly felt something in her head, like a pinprick of pain–

–but it was easy to ignore when nothing followed it.

She matched Zozia’s gaze, never wavered. Eventually, the anarchist smiled to herself and relent.

“You’re an interesting woman, Ulyana Korabiskaya. A rare one among your kind.”

“I’ve been extremely nice. You haven’t met my first officer. She would chew you up completely.”

Zozia crossed her arms and leaned back on her chair.

“Fine then. Let’s stop trying to sugarcoat the situation. You’re Union military personnel.” Zozia said. “You’re here to spread the Union’s influence and prepare the ground for Rhinea to become an authoritarian communist state. The United Front is just a place for you to size up the strengths and weaknesses of potential allies and rivals; and in turn, we’re here to size you up as well for our own long-term ambitions. But I don’t care about any of that now. What I want to understand is what you, personally, want from all of this, Ulyana Korabiskaya? Do you serve your country faithfully? Are you angling for a higher position when this is all over? What leads you to make these sacrifices? It fascinates me. I don’t get a chance to talk to your kind often.”

Ulyana did not once break Zozia’s gaze as they spoke.

“You’re not an anarchist– at least not a true believer in it.” Ulyana said.

“What makes you say that?” Zozia said, still grinning.

“I’ve been around real movement firebrands and I’ve been around posers.” Ulyana said.

“And I’m a poser?”

“You can recite the rote script you’re supposed to with a little smile. But it’s all a game to you. I don’t know your personal history, but I’ve spoken with a lot of people here, over the past few days, who give a damn about what they’re doing, enough to push back at us, to have some blood in their veins and fire in their eyes when we have disagreements. You just don’t give a shit.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong. I really am interested in the last question I asked of you.”

Zozia bared teeth from between those grinning lips. Ksenia covered her mouth, tittering.

Ulyana smiled back. She would give this dandy bitch an answer–

“I’m here to pay back rich Imbrian bastards like you for my exile and enslavement.” She said.

She thought she would be read as glib and combative and was not ready for the response.

Zozia began to clap, and Ksenia soon joined her. They clapped, cheered and laughed.

“Marvelous! How romantic! Of course– vengeance! We can be kindred spirits yet!”

Ulyana and Aaliyah were briefly speechless at this reaction. Was this just a joke to them?

“Vengeance! Indeed. We all share this motivation beneath all the ideology. Vengeance.”

“So you think the Arrows are just your plaything, a tool for your revenge?” Aaliyah scoffed.

“You will find I’m not alone in that sentiment, Ms. Bashara!” Zozia replied. Her tone was so suddenly elevated and jovial. “It’s universal to the downtrodden! Vengeance is our great need! We don’t join militias for the slogans.”

“Well, your theatrics served their purpose. I think I finally understand you.” Ulyana sighed.

“Oh no. You haven’t an inkling of what you’re actually dealing with.” Zozia said.

From a corner of the room Kalika, who’d had her eyes closed so far, opened one warily.

“Vengeance is not just our aim, Ulyana Korabiskaya. It is our very being. Powerful people fill our bodies with hatred and violence until we overflow with it and rampage. This is the true driving objective behind all struggle– the final committing of the great vengeance that will overturn and reverse power and weakness. Human history inexorably leads to this vengeance.”

“Now you’ve devolved exclusively into reactionary bilge.” Aaliyah shouted. “Focusing on the violence as end in itself shows how little you care for the people in this movement and the people you once claimed to fight for. Violence is a tool and liberation must be the aim. You’re really nothing but a poser. We have nothing more to talk to you about. Captain?”

Aaliyah looked at Ulyana, who in turn, could not peel her eyes away from Zozia.

There was something still off– something macabre about that performance.

They were not talking about the same things. Something was wrong here. Something was disconnected.

Ulyana’s– intuition? Instinct? Animalistic sense of fear–? Something told her this was wrong.

Zozia was inferring something beyond the ideological differences Aaliyah cited.

Not an inkling of what we’re dealing with. So what was it that they were dealing with?

They couldn’t be Volkisch– this theater did not serve their interests at all.

Now Ulyana wouldn’t trust her and would disseminate that distrust with Gloria and Erika.

A Volkisch informant would have tried to get in deeper and earn their confidence.

They were not hardcore anarchists. So who were they and why did they really come here?

Staring at that beautiful face, the clothes, at her erratic passions– Ulyana didn’t understand.

Was she really just crazy? Could that really have been it? Yet– her words had some clarity and conviction.

Aaliyah pointed at the door again, but Zozia crossed her arms and did not move a muscle.

“Leave? But the conversation is getting so lively. Oh well. I have a final question– Korabiskaya– have you heard the theory of the omnipotent Basilisk before? I’m uncertain if it would be something you would know about.”

Ulyana grunted with dissatisfaction. “I have no idea. I suppose you will tell me this theory.”

In the corner, Kalika Loukia ceased leaning against the wall and stood up straight.

She glanced at Ulyana, and without turning her head, Ulyana glanced back. She was getting ready.

“Imagine a distant future, in which humanity created a machine that can efficiently manage, organize and marshal all human resources, effectively ushering in a golden age for humanity. It is deferred to as a faultless administrator of human affairs, and completely eliminates suffering and deprivation among humanity. However, the machine has an additional prerogative. In fact, it is a moral imperative!” Zozia became excited again upon reaching this part of her little story. “It must punish all humans who got in the way of its ascendance! Any human who failed to bring about the great machine, the Basilisk, by their actions, contributed to the unneeded sacrifice of billions of humans! Anyone who delayed the perfect administration of the machine is directly responsible for all the horrors visited upon the world before the completion of the machine. So the machine must punish them. Even as it cares for the humans it has freed from want, it must also seek justice for the suffering delivered to world. These two aims are inextricably tied together in its logic. You can’t have the salvation without purging the damned.”

“You call that a theory? It sounds more like a childish parable to me.” Ulyana replied.

“What exactly are you getting at? What is the machine in this metaphor?” Aaliyah said, by now utterly exasperated with Zozia’s bloviating philosophy. “Is it you? Do we quiver in fear of having not deferred to your deranged speeches and served you? I already told you to get out. We’ll be calling security next. Stand up, turn around, and never speak to us again.”

Zozia and Ksenia stood up as instructed. They did not yet turn around or walk away.

“Keep this in mind. Our world has suffered too much not to seek this redress. This fallen era cannot advance without a final reckoning. Deep down in your animal brains, you know this. In the metaphor, the machine could be an organization, it could be a system, or yes, even an individual. Maybe it’s you; maybe it’s Bhavani Jayasankar. But it isn’t– and it isn’t me. It’s something so much greater than us. If you think your actions are worthy of its mercy– you are falling quite short.”

There was a glint of light from the corner of the room as a sword was drawn.

At Zozia’s neck was the tip of Kalika’s vibroblade, whirring with electric violence.

Leaving on the side of that beautiful white nape a tiny scratch.

“No more bombast; or I’ll start taking your incoherent threats seriously. Get out now.”

Kalika locked eyes with Zozia. In turn, Zozia’s crosshair eyes locked on to her.

Not once, not even faced with the cutting of her head, did the smile wipe off her face.

“I’ll see you at Aachen. I look forward to seeing where the currents take you.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah stood up from her own seat, as did Ulyana, muscles tensed and ready to act.

Thankfully, no further scene would be made by the “libertarian” Arrows.

Zozia and Ksenia simply laughed and walked away from Kalika’s blade without a care.

Out the door like a storm, much the same as they had blown in.

For almost a minute, Kalika, Ulyana and Aaliyah waited, staring at the door.

Finally, the three of them let out long sighs and slumped, their coiled muscles loosening.

“God damn it. I am blaming Kremina Qote for this mess fully! Where did she find those psychopaths?” Ulyana started yelling, striking the desk in front of her with her fist. She was so frustrated she could have wept. Never in the Empire had she experienced such a surreal and utterly disrespectful scene as this. Even Norn the Praetorian was a more coherent speaker than them!

“Thank you for your assistance, Kalika.” Aaliyah said. “Foolishly, I was not armed.”

“It’s fine. I agree with not bringing guns into this situation anyway.” Kalika said.

Her blade folded up and she hid the object in her bag again.

She continued to look at the door with narrowed eyes, deep in thought.

Ulyana, meanwhile, was already looking forward.

“Well, we’ve seen enough. I’m going to confront Kremina.” She said.

Aaliyah nodded her head. Despite the drama– they had seen everything they needed to.

“As always, I will support you, Captain.” She said.

“Kalika,” Ulyana said, “Can you get Erika to come to the Brigand quickly? I would like her on hand.”

At first Kalika stared at Ulyana in a bit of confusion, but then seemed to warm up to the idea.

“I assume you will make it worth our while?” She asked.

“Absolutely.” Ulyana said, putting on a conspiratorial little smile.

Behind them, Aaliyah’s ears and tails drooped with fatigue. But she did not deter Ulyana’s course.


“You’ve had an eventful day, haven’t you? I hope this was worth all the work I had to do.”

Once more, Kremina Qote was invited into the Brigand, sitting in a meeting room with a wily smile and her eyes narrowed enough for her crow’s feet to show. She had on a look that suggested she was well above everything transpiring here. Much like Zozia, this was a game where she had no skin in the outcome– that was the kind of attitude her expression suggested to those opposite her. Ulyana and Aaliyah sat together across the table, with identical calm, appraising expressions. A pair of portables on the desk held their copies of several documents, along with typed notes about everything they learned about the factions.

Behind them on the wall was a dark monitor, framing the bodies of Ulyana and Aaliyah.

“We met with the representatives of the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, the Rotfront, and the ‘Left Arrow.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was clinical; precise and emotionless. “Thank you for arranging these meetings on such short notice for us.”

“Spare me.” Kremina said. “I do not see a need to stay in this room for extended pleasantries.”

Her attitude yielded no escalation from across the table.

“We have deliberated and have indeed made our decision.” Ulyana said.

“There was only ever one realistic choice.” Kremina said.

“Remind me– when last we spoke, you felt it was a doomed endeavor.” Aaliyah said.

Kremina shrugged. “The Social-Democrats are naïve, and liberal democracy is doomed to become corrupt and falter no matter how many social programs they fund; the Katarrans are hated by everyone; and the anarchists are weak and unruly. In my mind, one of those problems is at least a long-term problem. I cannot help you if that explanation confuses you. My job here is done– right now I’m only here to witness the result. At any rate, you would do well to side with the Schwarzrot as we have.”

We of course meaning herself and Daksha Kansal, looming somewhere out in the distance.

It was tough to keep her cool in front of Kremina’s smugness, but the prank was well underway at this point.

Ulyana held the portable with her documents in her hands, squeezing on the glass edges.

Both with veiled irration, but also, anticipating the look on her face.

“Kansal sent you out to do this, but you don’t agree, do you? It’s truly a waste of time to you.”

Kremina fixed tired eyes on Ulyana and scoffed. “I am only listening to you prattle on for her sake, yes.”

“You keep saying that; but does Kansal also want you to be so acerbic all the time?”

“Korabiskaya, I am not going to argue with you anymore. You did what I wanted, so let us move on.”

Ulyana smiled. She could feel it, could hear it; indignation creeping in the edges of her mask.

“You’ve got nowhere to be. And we’re going to sit you down and put you in your place for all this trouble.”

“Oh? This ought to be good.” Kremina looked unbothered and above-it-all, but her volume was rising.

Aaliyah pressed a button on the touchpad for the desk. “Semyonova, bring in our guest.”

On the screen behind the desk, Semyonova’s cheery round face appeared. She saluted once.

Kremina turned her head toward the doorway behind herself.

When the screen behind Ulyana and Aaliyah went dark again, they heard a series of approaching footsteps.

Akulantova stood at the edge of the door and ushered in their guest.

Upon catching the first glimpse–

“You’ve made a stupid but predictable mistake. Oh well, nothing to be done.” Kremina said.

Erika Kairos walked through the doorway and stood off to the side of the table, smiling cheerfully.

Kremina did not acknowledge her silent greeting.

“Oh, so this wasn’t the mistake you wanted us to make? Did we not meet expectations?” Ulyana said.

Ulyana watched Kremina’s face to gauge the response and found her expression darkening.

“Last time we talked, I put up with a lot from you, Korabiskaya. I do not have to anymore. I am done with all of you. If you are serious about continuing to do political work here, then it is time for you to mind your place.” Kremina said.

“We are taking issue with that last chat too, actually.” Aaliyah replied. “You’re only loyal to Daksha Kansal, and you think the United Front is doomed. But you wanted one group to have our support in order to stand out militarily and have the resources to survive. We’ve been questioning your motives and logic since the beginning. It makes no sense to us.”

“I told you the situation as I saw it. I will not repeat myself to you again and again in nicer words.” Kremina said.

“Your logic was always very biased– but this is about more than that.” Ulyana said.

The United Front was filled with people full of passions and ambitions.

But it was possible for them to come together. It was not a fait accompli for them.

Ulyana did not see the deep rifts that Kremina wanted them to believe existed.

Gloria Luxembourg and Erika Kairos were willing to work together and bore no animosity.

Hell, Gloria was even wiling to invite anarchists who personally despised her, to her table.

Zozia Chelik was a bizarre eccentric, maybe even insane, but she was headed to Aachen.

Even with her strange “vision” she was still pursuing the United Front, nevertheless.

All of them were headed on the same path despite radical differences.

Kremina had told them time and again what Daksha Kansal purportedly believed.

However, they had never spoken with Daksha Kansal themselves to confirm anything.

Could Kremina speak for Kansal? Or was that only true in her own self-conceit?

Kremina made her biases obvious immediately as soon as they met. She was highly opinionated.

Why would she act this way? About a waste of time, a doomed endeavor, a solved problem?

Or– perhaps, because it was, to her, a solved problem.

Smiling, Ulyana continued to fix her appraising eyes on Kremina’s withdrawing gaze.

“You never wanted us to join the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.” Ulyana said. “Union soldiers with state backing could potentially subvert control over any of these factions and de-legitimize the grassroots effort of your dear mentor and political partner. You want to marginalize the Rotfront while pushing us toward supporting them instead, to limit our influence.”

“Watch your words carefully from now on, Captain.” Kremina replied simply.

Pissed off or not she had not moved a muscle from her chair. She was staying put because she wanted to argue.

Kremina Qote was an old school revolutionary. She had to be right– and she would not tolerate otherwise.

She was flying the banner not only of the woman she respected, but of the absolute, correct line of thought.

Ulyana had her. Now it was time to put her in her place. She pointed a finger right at Kremina’s chest.

“You want Daksha Kansal to have total control without outside opposition. The Union mission scares you.”

“I don’t have to answer your baseless speculation. You’re lucky I am speaking to you at all.”

Yes, she was indeed lucky that Kremina was staying put to have a chat about Daksha Kansal.

She mentioned that name over and over, it was the source of her respectability and authority.

Now it was also the chain Ulyana had around her neck.

And she would pull on it until she saw Kremina’s back arched in resistance.

“It’s not even necessary to confirm whether it’s true or not. That’s just a funny aside for me.” Ulyana said. “Whether you believe your basic premise or whether you are using it as part of a cynical manipulation: the only fact is that it is wrong. The United Front can succeed and we will support it. Gloria Luxembourg, Erika Kairos, even a psychopath like Zozia Chelik, none of these people are the hopeless marionettes you seem to treat them as. We outright reject these terms. We will support all of the United Front. But we don’t want to lead; we will defer to the expertise of Premier Erika Kairos, not of Daksha Kansal.”

At the side of the table, Erika looked briefly surprised by all of this, before smiling brightly at them.

Kremina scoffed. “You think I’ll be impressed by your naive ‘third option’ rhetoric?”

“We’re only getting started. We haven’t mentioned the best part yet.” Ulyana said. She cocked a little grin again.

“You’re playing with fire. I’ve had just about enough of your attitude, Korabiskaya.”

She had been needling and needling, and it was time to deliver the coup de grace.

No matter how detached someone was– if they had a complex, they also had a trigger–

“Fine. We don’t need you anymore. Just tell Daksha Kansal to get ready for a challenge.”

Kremina stood up and slammed her hands on the table, looming close to Ulyana.

“Who the hell do you think you are, Captain?”

“Judging by your response, I guess we’re a credible threat to your beloved Kansal?”

“What nerve! You nobody little uniformed bitch! You have no idea what you are up against here!”

Aaliyah spoke up, calmly. “Kremina Qote, we should tone down the name-calling–”

Kremina completely ignored her. Her eyes were focused on meeting Ulyana’s gaze.

“You– You’re completely out of line. Completely– What do you think you’re–”

“Ask Daksha Kansal who I am, maybe you’ll be surprised.” Ulyana said, drawing out each syllable at the end.

Her lips curled into a wicked grin.

She was taking it personally. Ulyana had her, had the chain dug right into her cold black heart.

That pride of an old revolutionary who would not defer the struggle to some upstarts from another ocean.

And the clear, deep loyalty that she had for Daksha Kansal that would be her undoing.

Maybe even love. A love that had given way to irrationality. Ulyana couldn’t know, only suspect.

So she continued to smile even with Kremina fuming directly in her face.

“We told you from the start that we were not bowing down to you. Our mission is guaranteed by Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi herself. In fact, Kremina, Daksha Kansal herself ought to be quite wary of that, you know?”

Kremina closed her fists in ire. “Nagavanshi? You think she intimidates me?”

“She does. I know it. I understand it, too. Kansal ought to be mindful of the Ashura after all she has done–”

That was the last straw.

Everything that had been cooking inside Kremina Qote, every tiny aggression, finally boiled over.

“Jayasankarist lapdogs! There is no United Front without Daksha Kansal!” Kremina said, her words growing hotter and her fury more evident by the minute. “Neither Nagavanshi nor you nor a million of this Katarran you have here, none of you could possibly replace her. I will make sure none of you vagrants can even set one boot into Aachen now, mark my words–”

Ulyana smiled even as Kremina shouted venom in her face.

“Comrades, this ill becomes us! Let us calm down!” Aaliyah said, completely insincerely.

Erika crossed her arms and feigned disinterest in the barbs aimed at her.

“Comrade?! I’m not the comrade of any of you people–!”

Kremina grunted and groaned but then seemed to pause herself. She looked at the screen behind Ulyana.

There was a sudden wild glint in her eyes as she scrutinized the black screen.

Ulyana knew exactly what was going through her head.

It was a Union two-way telemonitor with no indication of whether it was broadcasting–

An Ashura-operated telemonitor–

Nagavanshi’s tactics.

“You never shut that off.” Kremina said suddenly. “Who the fuck is that there?”

“Oh, you noticed. I thought you’d get a few more colorful remarks in before you did.”

Now also smiling, Aaliyah slid her finger across the desk’s touchscreen.

Behind her, the screen slowly brightened, and on the large monitor–

Was the shining face and colorful pink hair of a certain Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Communicating over an encrypted two-way video connection that was being arduously monitored by Zachikova and Semyonova to insure security. She had audio of the room, while the video on the set had simply been darkened to conceal her.

Kremina’s briefly went wide. “Madam President– How long have you been–?”

“Unfortunately, I heard the whole thing. When you walked in, the screen was dimmed, and the switch to that cute as a button Semyonova was done in order to hide the whole trick in plain sight and keep you talking.” Gloria said. She put on a cutesy face and twiddled her fingers. “Kremmy, how could you be so nasty to our guests? We sent you to Kreuzung to make us friends, but it looks like you caused our guests a lot of awful scenes. We’re going to have a long talk about this when you get back. You, me and our wonderful mentor– I am just glad that our guests brought your rhetoric to my attention before it got out of hand.”

Gloria pouted and cocked her head to one side, but her eyes were glaring at Kremina.

“Please forgive her, comrades. Her words do not represent the views of the S.P.R.”

President of the S.P.R., Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. She had asserted to them during their conversation that she was not a puppet of of Daksha Kansal. Therefore, there was only one side of the fiery rhetoric being thrown around that concerned her. Ulyana had thought she would be best served seeing first-hand what her fearsome advocate had been saying. She had been reached about the idea and acquiesced surprisingly quickly. Maybe she also wanted to see Kremina squirm.

It was not simple to set this up on short notice, particularly because of the security concerns–

–but the look on Kremina Qote’s face made it worthwhile. And it furthered Gloria’s trust in them.

“Tch.” Kremina made a sound and crossed her arms. She had finally been put in her place.

On the big screen, Gloria then turned from Kremina toward Erika and waved happily.

“Congratulations Eri! I’m happy we worked out an arrangement that helps everybody.”

Erika coiled a bit of smoke-blue hair around her finger. “Indeed, Madam Luxembourg. Thank you too.”

“I look forward to meeting you in Aachen, Eri. Let us have tea and cake rolls when we do. Toodles!”

Once more the screen went dark, this time actually disconnecting from encrypted communication entirely.

Unprompted, Kremina Qote turned sharply away and started to stomp out of the room.

“We’ll meet again in Aachen, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I won’t forget this.” She said in passing.

“Looking forward to hearing what Daksha Kansal really thinks of all this.” Ulyana said in return.

Akulantova, who looked thoroughly exasperated with everything going on, escorted the glaring and grumbling Kremina Qote out of the ship. Inside the meeting room, it was as if someone had taken a maximum-strength room heater out from a corner in which it had been seething, and there was cool air flowing again. Erika sat where Kremina had once been seated, tittering girlishly.

“That was rather vicious, Captain.” Erika said, like a girl who had watched a gory film.

“She had me at my goddamn limit. I’d have given her a spanking if I could have.” Ulyana said.

“I had imagined the conversation being a little less– violent– in the planning stages.” Aaliyah said wearily.

“I’m not actually going after Daksha Kansal.” Ulyana said. “Unless she forces our hand, of course.”

“We’re all warming up to the idea of having to fight the great hero of the Union, huh?”

“I’m not! I just knew it was the best way to provoke Kremina to be nasty.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah sighed openly, clearly fatigued by everything that had transpired.

Ulyana reached out to pat her shoulder and back for comfort. Aaliyah didn’t resist it.

When she laid back against her seat, she laid on the side of the chair closest to Ulyana, leaning into her.

Thank everything; even after all this, she was not upset with her.

“Realistically, Kremina Qote doesn’t have any power to do anything to you. Aachen is not even fully under the control of the leftists anyway.” Erika said. “Now that I am here I will protect all of you. With that said: I suppose you are my subordinates now? I must admit, I was a little surprised– I thought my message would resonate, but this is quite a bit more.”

Ulyana smiled gently at Erika. “We had an epiphany. At first we suspected Kremina Qote might have a similar fear to our own, of being subverted politically by a powerful ally. We realized in order to insulate ourselves from a potential influence campaign by Kansal’s faction, it helps to rally around another political figure. Then it dawned on me that, frankly, it’ll be deleterious to your activities in Eisental if you’re seen to be in the shadow of a bunch of Union operatives anyway. So starting today, we’ll be under your political command instead, Premier.” Ulyana felt a bit silly calling her that, but it had to be done.

Erika looked like her heart lifted every time she heard herself called that.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah opened one eye to look at Erika.

“We’ll introduce you to the crew. You can prepare remarks.” She said. She yawned a bit. “Until our activities in Eisental conclude, we’ll be working under you fully. We’ll share all of our data, and you can share your own once we return to the water. Truth be told, I was pretty impressed with your rhetoric. I am looking forward to fighting alongside the Rotfront, Premier.”

“Ah. It’s called the Nationale Volksarmee now.” Erika said, smiling awkwardly.

“We’ll be part of the Nationale Volksarmee then.” Aaliyah said, trying to smile about it as she started to doze off a bit.

“Then, I too will be in your care and protection. Thank you, comrades.” Erika replied.

Ulyana thought her eyes betrayed a sort of girlish excitement that was rather charming to see.

Even through all her professional demeanor, she was young and energized for the fight.

They would need that energy– it was only the first step in a long, long road ahead.

One in which both allies and enemies would need to be handled inventively.

Ulyana looked down at her Commissar, about to fall asleep beside her. One more conflict behind them.

No matter what, or who, challenges us. I will protect you. For that trust you placed in me.

That trust that supercedes even the stature of Daksha Kansal.

Thank you, Aaliyah. Ulyana thought, with a fond sigh.


That night, before the change in shifts for the officers and after the return of the sailors who had been working on the ship outside, the crew began to gather close to the various monitors throughout the Brigand. There was a special announcement and a video meeting had been convened. Semyonova’s cheery face and silky blond hair on the television urged the crew members to keep attention on the screens and their voices down. They had to minimize the sound carrying outside the ship’s closed hatches.

For about fifteen minutes’ worth of preparations, she kept the crew’s attention with charming affirmations.

“Alright comrades! Please maintain order, the Captain will now address the ship.”

Semyonova’s plump round face faded into that of the sleek-jawed Ulyana Korabiskaya.

For the address, the Captain had her blond hair down, her makeup immaculate, and she wore a Union dress uniform.

Staggeringly beautiful and gallant. This must have been a very special occassion.

“Comrades,” she began, and all of the crew knew then that this was not an address as ‘Treasure Box Transports’, “I convened this meeting to update you all on the status of the mission, and to speak in detail about the next leg of our journey. We left our homes over two months ago in order to pursue the cause of revolution in the Imbrian Empire on behalf of our nation. We are currently in Kreuzung Station, in the Eisental region of Rhinea. Rhinea and by extension, the Volkisch Movement that controls it, are major players in the Imperial Civil War that has been escalating since we embarked on this journey. Rhinea has the largest and most high-tech industrial base in the Empire, and the resources to fuel it, via the Rhineanmetalle corporation. Eisental is the unwilling heart pumping blood through this warring body, held captive within the ribcage of the Volkisch state.”

Captain Korabiskaya spoke confidently, and the crew listened with rapt attention.

“Revolution is brewing within Eisental. And it has given us an opportunity to uphold our duty and support the proletariat of the Empire in taking up arms for their freedom. Over the past few days, we have been in active discussion with several dissident organizations, gauging their positions and strengths and judging how best we might work together and where our goals align. I am pleased to announce that we have found kindred spirits among Eisental’s revolutionaries and will be working in league with a communist militia known as the Nationale Volksarmee. For the duration of our mission in Eisental, we will labor under their organization’s banner, and defer to the political command of their leader Erika Kairos. We want to join the fight; but it’s only right that Eisental’s people lead the way for us. Erika’s passion, her connections and resources, and most importantly, her experience with Eisental and its conditions, are invaluable. I am going to yield the floor for her to introduce herself. From now on, you are to address her as ‘Premier’ except in Protocol Tokarev conditions, in which she is to be addressed as an executive.”

Across the ship, the sailors and officers exchanged somewhat bewildered glances at each other.

They had ultimately acclimated to many of the other guests on the ship. All of the engineers loved ‘Miss Tigris’ for her boundless enthusiasm for menial mechanical labors; several of the officers had respect for ‘Miss Euphrates’, and some gossipy girls considered adding her to the list of the ‘ship’s Princes’. Maryam Karahailos’ and Elena Lettiere’s smiles were like rays of sunshine. It was different, however, to be told effectively that they would be under new management now.

Calling anyone but Bhavani Jayasankar ‘Premier’ also felt quite strange to them.

Regardless, Captain Korabiskaya was still here, still their Captain, and they trusted her.

When a Katarran appeared on the screen next, however, the bewilderment deepened.

Standing in the center of the bridge, where Captain Korabiskaya would usually be found.

She certainly looked the part of a communist leader, with her red greatcoat and flat garrison style hat, and the formal shirt and skirt she wore beneath, worn with meticulous precision. Her hair was long and voluminous and had a dark, dull blue color, complimenting her pink skin and her rare odd eyes, one green and one blue. Her thin lips were painted a light red, and her eyes were shadowed wine-dark. Behind her head, a pair of black horns with curved ends curled out, framing the back of the skull, in such a way that she could still conceivably lay her head flat on them. Her appearance alone was enough to draw in the curiosity of the crew, who waited eagerly for her speech to begin. Then, her voice, deep and rich, finally broadcast across the vessel.

“Comrades, thank you for having me.” She said. “My name is Erika Kairos. I am not a stickler for formality, but I do demand some respect, and I will give it in turn. It is no exaggeration to say that Mordecai’s teachings, and the continued resistance of the Union, saved my life, and gave me hope when I thought there could be no escape from our rapacious ruling class. In each and every one of you there are a thousand generations of resistance. Rest assured, you will inspire a thousand more.”

Erika put a hand over her chest. “I am many things, and I have been known as many things. Katarran, slave, thug, mercenary, bookworm– and now Premier. I lead an organization of several ships and several hundred lives, soldiers, sailors, engineers, pilots, and civilians, all of whom are dedicated to the cause of the anti-imperialist struggle. I am here in person, because I am staking it all on this gamble for the future of the world. But before all of those things, I mentioned, ‘Katarran.’ It is an indelible fact of my being, and it is the crux of what I wish to communicate to you. It is of vital importance to understanding me.”

She lowered her hand back to her side and took in a bit of breath before continuing.

“An unrecognized fact of life in the Imbrium is the exploitation of the Katarran body. We are everywhere, but our lives are disposable. We are widely hated, forced out of the public and into the back streets and sub-levels of the world. In these underworlds our bodies are reduced to commodities for killing, toiling, fucking. We are less than offal to the Imbrians– offal is not allowed to go to waste. Our continued existence suits the Imbrians. We are their assassins, their sneak thieves, their indentured hard labor and exotic sexual fantasy. Their hedonism and greed demands our existence but their social conception of the world demands our invisibility and extermination. We exist in this dual position; this contradiction defines us.”

“But there is another race in the Imbrium Ocean that faces oppression on this scale as well. Eisental’s first and oldest station was home to Shimii, they settled these waters before the Imbrian Empire, yet their religious practices are curtailed, they are segregated into ghettos, and only the wealthiest, most politically connected Shimii are allowed true freedom in its waters now. The Shimii in the Imbrium face nothing short of existential crisis now. While their bodies might continue to live, their culture and beliefs are being slowly destroyed as they are driven to despair. Their ‘age of heroes’ has passed. Mehmed the Tyrant was defeated, and the Mahdists supporting him were driven into slavery in the Union or forced into Imbrianizing their names and leaving behind their identities. But even the average Rashidun Shimii, who are told they won the ideological victory and hold the truth of their religion, have not seen any improvement in their lot in life. They are still the puppets of the Imbrians, but they are told by their religious and community leaders that they must accept chains of a different sort than those clapped on the Mahdists in order to survive. That contradiction is sharp and sharpening. Pity the Katarran her condition; but the Shimii suffer under the yoke too.”

In the Union, every student received education on the various nationalities that made up the people of the state.

Volgians were the majority, followed closely by “North Bosporans” who had once lived in the northern ice cap, same as the Volgians did. Shimii were the third largest population and Katarrans were a very small minority. In the Union, there was a prevailing tone of racial diversity and equality. It was acknowledged that everyone had to do their part to accommodate everyone else where differing cultural practices were concerned, but that ultimately, they were all equal partners in building socialism. For a lot of people, Erika’s firebrand speech about the debasement of her ‘body’, the collective ‘body’ of her people, stirred in them a deep discomfort. For many of the Volgians and Bosporans in the room, they had not confronted the idea of racism except as a distant historical specter of the what the Empire, collectively, did to them, as a whole. It was not so visceral to them.

That shadowy existence of the Katarran as both extant and exterminated, puzzled them.

That spectre of the Shimii as a segregated people, was something they had not experienced before.

Despite their discomfort and the way the words felt chilling, everyone was stirred by Erika’s speech. Nobody could peel themselves away. They truly did feel like they were listening to Bhavani Jayasankar. They felt the power radiating from it even if they struggled to internalize the content of the words. Meaningfulness was transferred to them as authority.

“Through recognizing these positions, we stand to finally create an enduring mutiny that can uplift and unite the people of Eisental. It is not enough to have a revolution for the literate Imbrians in the colleges, dabbling in socialism; nor even the Imbrian workers whose exploitation is juxtaposed against other races to cast them as enemies to them. Our revolution must begin with the most disenfranchised peoples. We must speak to the most hopeless, for they will shine brightest once they are given reason to live and the instruments with which to fight. This is my core belief, and it is what we will pursue in order to triumph.”

Erika was earning the authority to call herself ‘Premier’ in front of them.

“In the ghettoes of the southern Eisental ring of stations; in the forgotten construction shafts were homeless and abandoned peoples still scratch out a living; in the factories and corporate sweatshops were Shimii and Katarran alike toil invisibly for the Imbrian purse; in the Agri-Spheres where rows and rows of ears and tails work tirelessly to feed the ravenous mouths of the Imbrian people for a pittance that only just allows them to feed themselves; comrades! Throughout Eisental the cries of the dispossessed will become cacophony! They have nothing but their anger! And that anger is fuel awaiting our flint, bracing for the spark that lights the conflagration that will sweep the Volkisch Movement and their complicit treasurers from this Ocean once and for all! Keep in your heart their suffering, but more than that, keep in hand the weapon you will give them!”

In the height of her passion, Erika saluted the crew; and swept up in it, many of them saluted back.

“We are the invincible guard of liberation! The Nationale Volksarmee!”

Those words, that they had never before heard, stirred the hearts of the Brigand’s crew.

Clapping, cheering, excitement, a swell of emotion. Tears, grit teeth and pumping fists.

Suddenly and with a passion that shook them to their core, the Brigand’s next adventure had begun.


“Captain, may I have a word?”

Out in the hall, on the way back to her bedroom, one of the Brigand’s colorful guests walked up to Ulyana as she headed to her room. Long-haired with two horns from her forehead that pushed apart her tidy bangs, a thick tail, and a slim and pale body covered in a haphazardly worn Treasure Box Transports uniform. It was the Brigand’s own ‘special navigator’: Arbitrator I.

“Of course. I’m a little out of it, so perhaps not too many words.” Ulyana said.

She smiled awkwardly. Arbitrator I smiled cheerily back.

Glib and carefree as usual, Arbitrator I had wanted to discuss with the Captain the possibility of securing at least a small supply of meat, even the worst quality meat, so as long as it was the meat of a mammal it would suffice.

Anything to give her lovely Braya a bit of a reprieve from the–

Arbitrator I’s eyes widened suddenly. Her pupils dilated, her hand began to shake in Ulyana’s presence.

“Hey. Are you okay?” Ulyana asked.

In that instant, Arbitrator I’s body was responding to the threat she felt–

–from Ulyana’s scent. She reeked of those– those awful things– those beasts swathed in their sin–

Arbitrator I’s body responded, heat in her chest, tension in her muscles, an edge to her teeth.

She closed her fists, tried to master herself. It was just the Captain– she could not attack her–

“You reek, Captain. Please clean yourself. Good night.”

Without another word, she turned sharply around and started walking away, trying to clear her mind.

Leaving behind a very confused Captain.

“Excuse me? Ugh! Whatever!” Ulyana replied, exasperated.

Arbitrator I swallowed her embarrassment, and the frustration of losing control of her senses.

More than that, though, she worried about the provenance of that evil scent.

Did she meet with the Enforcers? Why would she do that? What are they here for?

Was the station infiltrated? Was the ship infiltrated? Did anyone realize the danger?

Desperation swelled and spread in her like a cancer.

Her heart pounded, she began to sweat. She had to calm herself before Braya saw her again.

She had to calm herself, and to think, to uncover more. She had to do something to protect them.

Arbitrator I could not afford to fail in the face of the Syzygy. Not again.

She could not lose another home.

In a blink of her eyes, as she walked down the empty hall–

Her irises became a purple hexagon shape, and a change began in her body.

Lift all locks on STEM.

Arbitrator I reached deep inside herself for every micrometer of data stored in her biomechanical DNA.

Her brain would be heavily burdened in the process– but she desperately needed everything back.

Even the things she wanted to most forget. Even the things she feared knowing again.

Reassemble all blocks. Bypass secure parsing method. Skip bad block health check.

She could not wait anymore, she could not be careful, she could not open the blocks like dainty toys.

No matter what nightmares exploded out of the forgotten recesses of herself.

Array all data. Immediately.

For Braya’s sake– for all their sakes’.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.8]

“It seems hopeless right now, but we are beginning to turn the tide.”

Raul von Drachen reassured his bedraggled-looking intelligence staff, all of whom looked at him with dire expressions before returning to their tasks. Around him, every monitor had some scene of pure chaos. Dozens of dead bodies in failed frontal assaults on B.S.W. dock; some kind of Shimii-related altercation out of Tower Eight that led to tram hijackings and confrontations with the K.P.S.D; all of the concerted ship to ship and diver to diver fighting around the towers themselves which was already inflicting some infrastructure damage; and the continuing presence of armed forces in Kreuzung’s Core Pylon.

It was all darkness and no dawn thus far for them.

He would have described every front of this situation as “fluid.” In the most polite terms.

“Inform the K.P.S.D. that they will suffer retribution from the 7th Fleet if they harm the Shimii from Tower Eight.” Von Drachen told his subordinates. “I am but the messenger and that is my only role, but we have about 10,000 Shimii troops bound for here, and Violet Lehner is very fond of the culture.”

“Sir, the K.P.S.D is voluntarily withdrawing from the southeastern Kreuzung blocks.”

One of the intelligence agents described an unfolding situation–

“It’s probably a coincidence sir, but after the Shimii began their exodus from Tower Eight, a heavily armed group engaged the K.P.S.D lines in the western interstice. They have military grade weapons. K.P.S.D tactical teams are being moved to prevent them from escaping through the southwest main bulkhead. They don’t seem to be trying to stop the Shimii anymore sir. So we may not need to warn them after all.”

How serendipitous! Everything was starting to look up for the Volkisch!

At least, in the long-term strategic lens.

Anything that befell the K.P.S.D. was ultimately good for the Volkisch forces.

They only needed to hang on enough to prevent a total collapse of order in the station.

And only long enough for the rest of the Volkisch’s reinforcements to arrive.

“Interesting. A heavily armed group openly engaging the K.P.S.D?” Von Drachen said.

“There is a Cruiser size ship fighting out of the conveyor belt. It’s very strange.”

Because it was the K.P.S.D’s operational area, the Volkisch did not have good visibility.

Von Drachen would have to review the K.P.S.D. footage after this was all over.

“Why does the K.P.S.D not simply let them go?”

“Sir, I think the K.P.S.D is trying to justify its continued existence at this point.”

“What is your name?”

Raul von Drachen smiled at the female officer, a middle aged woman with beige hair tied into a bun and a very conservative approach to her uniform. She looked up at him bashfully from her chair and took a moment before answering. “Sir? My name is Josephine Reim. I’m– nobody important, sir.” She said.

“You are keen and a hard worker. I will be sure to put in a good word for you.”

“Um. Thank you sir.”

He turned to face the screens again. There was little they could do at Laurentius anymore.

Von Drachen had accomplished his tasks to their bare minimum. That was good enough.

All he could do was observe, with a great unearned pride in his calm inaction.

Now it was all up to Vesna Nasser to sort out the rest, in the waters of the Imbrium.


First and most immediately, she realized she was going much faster than she ever had.

Piloting a machine without battery-saving modes and impositions on fuel usage and parts wastage allowed Homa Baumann the freedom to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the components. As soon as she escaped Kreuzung’s core station and emerged into the waters of the Imbrium Ocean she plunged into an incredibly fast dive, unaware that her peak acceleration and slightly downward angle would carry her so far down so fast. Pulling back on her control sticks, she arrested her momentum quickly, the density of the water helping her to stop completely just above baseplate.

She realized that this machine felt entirely different to pilot than her Volker.

“If I can’t get the hang of this I’ll just get myself killed. I should do an equipment check.”

Homa was never unaware of the danger she was in. Off in the distance, her acoustic sensors passively warned her of the dozens of explosions, some of the largest of which generated shockwaves that carried even as far down as where she stood, gently rolling over the hull of her mech but still perceptible. Her combat computer overlaid large yellow targeting boxes on her screen to show her the estimated direction of targets generating large amounts of noise. Nevertheless, Homa stood still in the water.

Going through her controls, extending her arms, twisting the joints, moving the legs.

Boosting, briefly up and briefly back down.

She made a few adjustments to the control sticks and pedals now that she was in the water.

When it came to movement, she was fairly versed in it. She was also handy with Diver melee weapons.

She hoped it wouldn’t come down to shooting the gun– but she felt ready to do it if needed.

In a few minutes, she mapped the limitations and natural habits of the machine that she could observe from its reaction to her controls. It was heavier than the stripped-down Volker she piloted for old Bertrand, and yet, its range of movements was greater, its arms were more flexible, it could execute pretty tight turns, it could accelerate much more quickly to a higher top speed. She needed to know all of these things if she was going to effectively pilot it up above, where there was an actual battle. Homa had no illusions about winning battles, but at least she could take advantage of the agility she had to avoid danger and make her way to the Eisenhower as Kitty had told her. She could stop all of this.

Sitting back in her chair, breathing in. Sweat-soaked, tear-stained, fatigued, hurting.

Homa had never felt the enclosure of a Diver as much as she did in that moment.

Because Kreuzung had become forbidden to her. She could not go back where she came.

Docking at B.S.W. again was out of the question. And now that she was out here in this machine, she had become more of an enemy to the Volkisch authorities than ever before. Homa could no longer envision going back to Kreuzung. Materially, of course; but even psychologically as well. She had left home and could not turn back, not now. So she only had one direction in which she could go.

And therefore, no safety net. Only the walls of the Delta to keep the water out.

She raised a hand from her left stick briefly and put it to her head, sighing.

“Your longest day isn’t over yet, Homa Baumann. Concentrate. It’s all to play for now.”

She tried to psyche herself up, but there was no humor to be had.

This was the grimmest situation she had ever been in. It was nothing short of nightmarish.

That girlish impulse to make light of things and try to act cool couldn’t make a dent in it.

She saw herself briefly in one of the dark monitors, eyes distant, hair disheveled.

In her mind there was a nasty flashback– to Kitty McRoosevelt’s gory wounds–

Homa cringed. “At least I don’t want to end up like that. Let’s just go!”

Her destination was over a kilometer above.

At the site of the naval battle between the Republic and the Volkisch.

Homa slammed her pedals, pulled her sticks back, and the Delta launched skyward.

Water rushed past her, her main camera faced the endless, dark Imbrium. There was no sign of a sky, she could only tell she was rising because she was close enough to the main tower to see the steel structures on its exterior, the laser router contact points and the gates and bridges and berth doors and other landmarks, descending rapidly past her. Marine fog and tiny animals swept down at her. Held breaths as if any second she would see a change, as if the waters would part to let her through.

On the edge of the screen a flashing red box appeared noting the direction of an attack.

A flurry of shells detonated around Homa, forcing her to cease climbing and turn sharply.

Homa traced the intensifying lines of gunfire to a trio of distant Divers quickly closing in.

Each shell exploded into a shockwave that transferred gently into her body, not enough to rock her Diver individually but since there were dozens of shells the continuous shaking unsettled her. Grazes and near-impacts on her armor chipped away at it, not enough to penetrate, but in aggregate she was taking damage. Homa could not tell the caliber but each vapor bubble resulting from the detonations grew to about the size of her head in an instant before collapsing. Her cameras filled with water vapor from the detonations, over and behind and beside her as she swung a semi-circular turn out of her climb.

When the Divers came closer, Homa saw they were the Volkisch Sturmvolker model.

Volkers were known for their rotund armor that made them almost cartoonish, but the Volkisch Sturmvolkers made away with the bathyspheric chassis. Instead, rectangular plates of light armor were packed tight around the square cockpit, and square shoulders and hip joints were added to attach the arms and legs, the silhouette resembling her stripped down Volker. A new, sleeker, more aggressive head was used instead of the traditional Volker head, with more cameras and some helmet armor, and the whole thing was painted black and armed. Homa had seen them around Kreuzung on patrols and saw them on the news as well. She learned about them from a news program, in fact.

Those were not full-length, high-caliber rifles they were holding, but compact bullpups.

Despite this, the hail of automatic fire they were capable of had Homa on edge.

They had come in guns blazing and were repositioning to give chase as she tried to escape.

The Delta was in surprisingly good condition despite all the gunfire, but she couldn’t underestimate them.

Homa tried to give them a wider berth, using her superior acceleration to speed far around them and hoping to find an opening to continue her climb, but gunfire shadowed every meter that she gained on them. She could accelerate faster than them and had a higher top speed, but they were light and quick themselves, with good aim. The speed difference was not enough for her to simply ignore them.

She grit her teeth, feeling vibrations in her cockpit as the exploding bullets inched closer.

Her hands were both shaken and shaking on her control sticks.

She tried to twist suddenly from horizontal movement to vertical, shooting up–

Quickly aborting and diving away from further gunfire.

“Ugh!”

Those three figures existing in her cameras only as red boxes swerving in the water.

They filled her eyes entirely with the flashing yellow-red blasts of their shells.

Long lines of bubbles cut into the water before the inevitable explosions.

There were so many bullets, and they were beginning to coordinate their shooting.

All of the black lightless water turned to white vapor around her. Shockwaves intensified.

Explosions trailed closer and closer– a direct impact rocked her cockpit–

Her chest tightened. She was giving it everything– and she still couldn’t break free–

And the sky remained barred from her.

Chaos still unfolding; time still ticking–

She had to stop it! She had to!

“I’ve had it. I’ve had it! You asked for this!”

Homa quickly lifted her hands from her control stick and tapped a touchscreen.

On her magnetic strip, the “GA2 30mm Machine Gun” released.

She reached the Delta’s arm behind its back, taking the weapon into one hand. Its stock extended and locked into a slot on the Delta’s arm for stability in one-handed firing. A box-like weapon lock burst from around the barrel into the water around the Delta. An ammunition counter and heat indicator appeared on the weapon status monitor just below her line of sight as the weapon armed.

“I’m not fucking afraid of you!”

One fluid motion; Homa cut the acceleration suddenly and spun the Delta around.

Her gun sight traveled over one of the red boxes as she smashed her triggers down.

In seconds, the XM2 flashed and sent a barrage of dozens of shells slicing across the water.

Two of the Sturmvolker boosted in opposite directions away from the shells, but the unit in the center of the formation caught six high-velocity shells in its midsection, the barrage falling almost squarely on its position. From the distance she was firing Homa could not tell what kind of damage she had done, but the behavior of the unit told her everything she needed. Immediately ceasing movement, it drifted slowly downward and Homa’s flashing red enemy overlay contracted and separated from it to follow the remaining two units, ignoring the stricken one. Homa turned her attention away from it as well.

Her remaining enemies arced away from her in opposite directions, one soaring upward and one spiraling downward as if twin jaws trying to put her in a vice. All the while their guns flashed in the distance and continued to put dozens of tiny blasts near her. Homa tracked them only on her computer with just the faintest visual impression of their actual, physical forms on her various displays.

After firing, Homa charged at full speed while remaining between the two units, swerving from side to side and up and down while carrying as much speed as she could through her corrections.

Unlike them, however, she had the advantage of vastly greater firepower.

Her machine gun had a higher rate of fire, more ammunition and bigger shells.

In the middle of a quick climb to avoid the gunfire from below, Homa flipped the Delta, which had been facing down, such that it was now facing the opponent above while still moving at full speed away from it. On her back, gliding across the water at over 60 knots, Homa aimed for the center of the red overlay box drawn on her monitor, distantly overhead, and squeezed down the trigger for her machine gun.

A few seconds of pressure and her weapon erupted into bursts of dozens of shells.

She could see the lines cut into the water linking her to the target, the rhythmic booming of the detonating shells, the brief and far-off flashes of the ordnance and the water vapor expanding bubbles the size of her whole body. Her face flashed from the gun camera with every burst of gunfire, holding down the triggers and depressing when she felt it was enough. From that section of seemingly empty water that she had turned into a cloud, not a single shell answered her attack.

“One left. One left.”

Keeping the Delta facing skyward, Homa took the machine into a dive.

She twisted in a spiral motion and her enemy climbed in an attempt to go level with her.

Jerking out of the dive, Homa once again cut all speed and stopped with the enemy in sight.

“Get out of my way! You bastards are just making everything worse!”

Homa depressed her triggers–

This time, however, the Volker was within the 60 meters or so where Homa could see it.

It did not change that she ruthlessly opened fire–

But the results were immediately evident.

Firing until the machine gun’s 200 round pack magazine clicked empty and detached.

Watching the Sturmvolker distort under her brutal gunfire.

In that moment, Homa felt like her once-pristine soul had dirtied, the glass edifice of her inner beauty had a crack put it in. Blow after blow from her 30 mm shells, each of which was half the size of her arm and detonated into a blast bigger than herself. Pieces of metal went flying, holes punctured into the cockpit, the limbs of the machine were thrown in every direction, its head smashed to pieces, fading vapor clouds revealing the mangled thing drifting into the dark. A red mix streamed from inside the chest, perhaps lubricants, perhaps blood and gore or both. That violence had been so easy and instant to unleash.

Homa stood with her eyes wide open as the red targeting box vanished.

Breathing deeply, sweat trailing down her nose and lips.

She had killed them. She had killed them all. Fired on them and killed them–

Like they weren’t even human– they were just things in metal bodies– herself too–?

Suddenly another red box flashed at the edges of her vision.

Hitting all of her boosters in a panic, Homa threw herself out of the way–

As a sword sliced past her swung from a sleek, sharp, triangular chassis with a sharp face.

She barely had a moment to think before more bullets came flying in her direction.

Everything shook around Homa as several rounds exploded just off her cockpit.

Gritting her teeth, she slammed the pedals and thrust upward at an angle.

For a split second, she caught the assailant on her cameras, claws, sword, shoulder gun–

Second generation close combat model, Jagd, painted Volkisch black.

That one she had heard about in school– there had been a demonstration–

A roughly triangular, long-armed and short-legged, light and fast killing machine–

School was too distant to think about. It was life or death now.

Within the next breath, the agile Diver had shot up toward sky with her, and with the initiative and better control than the scared Shimii girl the pilot of that vicious machine got within distance again, swiping its vibroblade arm just below her legs. All the while the autocannon on its shoulder dispensed dozens of rounds of a smaller caliber, much like the bullpups that the Volkers had been carrying.

Homa’s armor could withstand the blows but she had already taken several shots and each one of them rattled her brains in her skull and caused her stomach to churn. Her skin brimmed with fear.

Then, with one mighty boost from all of its thrusters, the Jagd suddenly overtook Homa.

Like a predator lunging, pouncing, one shoulder reared overhead, blade coming down.

It was nothing like those bullets– one good swing on the cockpit and she would be dead.

Before she even realized it, Homa had already responded out of sheer instinct.

She withdrew her own melee weapon and instantly swung from behind herself.

The Delta’s vibroaxe engaged with just centimeters between the cutting edge and metal.

Chopping through the enemy’s arm and shoulder, across the cockpit, tearing the pod open.

Froth and gore and metal spilled over all of Homa’s cameras disgorged from the machine.

Resistance from the water arrested the Jagd’s swing, its edge bounced from her shoulder.

Leaving a scratch as the wreck slid back from her, sword buzzing with residual vibration.

Homa hung in the water for a second, watching the Jagd fall away from her sight.

As quickly as it had appeared, lunging out of nowhere’s shadow with naked aggression.

Gone, in a blink. It was a nightmare. It couldn’t be anything but a nightmare.

Everything that she had done, all of the evidence of her violence– it was gone.

They might as well have been phantoms. Attacking from outside her visibility, from outside the thickness of the water that prevented her from seeing farther than out than the length of Kitty’s yacht. Then falling back into it and vanishing. Aside from dissipating bubbles and water vapor, aside from the pits and dents on her armor, there was no evidence that she had enemies– that she killed humans.

“No. Please. No more.”

She was already hearing the familiar alert noise as a red flashing box appeared.

More enemies. Even more enemies–

One enemy.

In the distance, a ship was slowly approaching, sixty meters long.

A conical body with an angled prow and a straight, rectangular conning tower.

Only a few guns across the hull, all of them smaller even than the station defense cannons.

It must have been a Cutter from the patrol fleet, but it was headed right for her.

Had she been out on a gig for Bertrand it would have been a welcome sight, a sign that she was safe and watched over, but she was fighting and killing with the rest of the maniacs involved in this chaos and so she was its enemy, and it was her enemy. Another enemy barring the way up above. Homa almost wanted to stand in place, to be shot and die and disappear with the rest of them, to cease struggling–

On the touchscreen, her shaking fingers selected the “M78 LAW” missile on the backpack.

As soon as it spotted her the Cutter’s double-barreled gas gun opened fire.

Homa launched upward with a lick of solid fuel boost to avoid the attack and launched her missile.

The defensive guns were targeting her, so they failed to shoot down the exceedingly fast projectile.

Arcing out of her backpack and boosting toward the ship, crashing onto the top deck.

Erupting into an explosion unlike any Homa had seen. A vapor bubble the size of the Delta itself tore open the top of the Cutter while the shockwave caused it to bob in the water like a dying fish, rocked by the sheer force. Equipment, tearing armor pieces and unmentionable objects disgorged from the orifice.

The Imbrium’s hungry waters quickly forced their way through the Cutter. Homa watched as its once confident advance toward her came to a halt and its prow tipped toward the seafloor. Runaway pressure damage tore into the interior, nearly split the ship top to bottom as the bulkheads burst from inside out from the pressure. It careened out of sight, crashing into sandy crater below too far away for Homa to hear. On her main screen, the targeting box on the ship remained pinned on it for far too long.

And,

faster than Homa could fear of it

it flashed purple for a moment rather than red.

It was as if the ocean below Homa parted to show her a vision as clear as on land.

Without the veil of darkness she had an impossible, terrifying visibility.

A hideously beautiful, perfect sphere of glowing purple energy lit up the world.

Like the core of some otherworldly weather pattern.

Several alarm sounds, flashing alerts, boxes and overlays warned of the danger.

Homa was entranced, staring down at the approaching purple glow.

Spreading, rising, consuming–

It never got far enough to devour her. Somehow, it ran out of energy with which to hate.

Below her, a circular crater with its walls covered in a hexagonal shaped grid.

Revealed to her for a moment before the water drowned the sight again.

No sign of the ship, not anymore. A runaway agarthicite reaction had annihilated it.

Everything became silent. Homa clutched her necklace. She couldn’t get herself to cry.

“How many people staff a patrol Cutter? It’s like– It’s like sixty or seventy isn’t it?”

In her mind, Homa had killed a hundred– no, hundreds of people. Thousands of them.

Her shoulders and chest shook up. She thought she would vomit right on the controls.

We’re Sorry.

“No.” Homa’s lips trembled. “It’s not you. I– I have to get up there. I have to get up there.”

We Believe In You.

That almost made her weep. Almost. “Thank you. At least I– damn it. Damn it.”

Homa interrupted herself. She had to see this through to end. She had no other choice.

Without any further enemies to stop her, she launched skyward again with renewed haste.

Those words which she had cut off– she had almost said, “At least I know I can fight.”


“Ma’am, the John Brown is out of position! They are moving northeast!”

“God damn it. They’re fleeing– of course we couldn’t count on the fucking convicts.”

The crew held on their stations as a shockwave rolled over the hull of the Republic Cruiser Eisenhower, munitions from the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah detonating haphazardly in the waters around it. A fierce battle had begun over 100 meters above the crown of the Kreuzung Core station, its massive span and the gargantuan crater into which it was set, all forming the backdrop to the fleet’s dizzying exchange of shells and missiles. The Imbrian vessels strafed in a wide circle that prevented the Republicans from scoring direct hits with their static guns, but Republicans had six times as many cannons and rocked the waters around Kreuzung with enormous rolling barrages that shook their enemies’ bridges.

So far, however, they had not managed to slow them down.

Eisenhower was the lead ship of the expedition, and its Captain was decided by democratic vote to be second in command to Kitty McRoosevelt overall, and the overarching decision-maker when it came to fleet combat. But Captain Dianne Smith had little experience guiding entire fleets. As Captain of a Cruiser she was versed in leading her ship’s barrage. She had always taken her orders from others, and now, amid a chaotic situation, she found her focus was narrowed to her ship’s barrage alone, and that she had neglected to give anything but broad orders and communications to the rest.

She had expected the John Brown, largely staffed by the 808th Penal Battalion, to flee.

However, this brought attention to the overall positions of her fleet’s constituent ships.

In chasing the tails of the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah, they were beginning to move out of the range of their mutually supporting flak fire. They would become vulnerable to torpedoes and missiles if they did not regroup, even if some of the smaller ships might have a look at the enemies with their guns. Though it pained her to take the pressure off the Imbrians, she saw no other choice to survive.

“We need to recover our formation! Tell the Frigates to tighten up on us. Send the Divers out to harass the Greater Imbria. That should keep them off our backs until we can regroup!”

Eisenhower and its remaining three attendant Frigates began to reorient, making up for the loss of the escaping John Brown, while their half-dozen S.E.A.L. mecha made up a squadron and sortied, leaving the defensive aquaspace of their motherships. On the Eisenhower’s main screen, a map of the crater with the relative positions of their own Divers was displayed in place of the chaotic predictive imaging. Soon, information on the enemy Diver’s positions was collected and appeared on the screen too.

“The Greater Imbria deployed two Divers, and the Mrudah deployed two additional.”

The Eisenhower’s communications and sonar officers rattled off map updates verbally.

“We have the numbers on them.” Dianne said. “We just have to clinch it.”

Dianne bit the side of her gloved index finger, staring at the main screen.

As if her sheer concentration could change anything. Her heart stirred with anticipation.

Kitty, none of us had any choice, ever since we became trapped here.

All of them had unloaded their responsibilities and culpability on that woman.

And she had gladly taken it all. Even if it was resoundingly unfair. She suffered for them.

They were a fleet of cowards. Dianne could never have deluded herself otherwise.

But they were dangerous cowards. Cowards whom the Imbrians could not treat lightly.

“We’re almost there.” Dianne muttered. “If we get through this–”

“Ma’am! One Diver has broken off from the enemy formation and is headed for us.”

“Intercept it!”

Here’s our chance! Pile on them!

With the advantage of numbers and a haphazard Imbrian formation, they could–

“Ma’am– something’s wrong!”

On the main screen, their Diver squadron had intercepted and surrounded the Imbrian diver.

Its supporting units were hanging back, closer to the Greater Imbria–

In moments, the S.E.A.L.’s positions stopped and became fixed in place.

And the enemy unit continued to move.

“How is it possible? Tell them to destroy that thing!” Dianne cried out.

She turned to her communications officer and the woman turning pale in her seat.

Shaking hands clutched her headphones– staring at her monitor incredulously–

“Pass it through to me!”

Dianne gave the order and donned her own headset, tuning into the Diver’s feeds–

“Agh!! No! I can’t–! I can’t–!”

“We’re going to die–! We’re going to die–!”

“Please spare me! Please– I have a family!”

The Captain was speechless as she heard the cries of her Diver pilots, all of whom fell into a sudden panic, screaming and begging for their lives and crying helplessly without firing a shot at the enemy. They would not respond to being hailed. On the main screen the representations of their Divers, marked by their IFF signal, began to waver and disappear one by one, the audio feeds cutting one after another with horrific atonal feedback noises. In place of each one, the lone Imbrian unit that had moved out of formation moved closer and closer as if sweeping methodically through the S.E.A.Ls killing each unit.

That green and black Diver with heavy armor and winged shoulders–

Its implacable aura of death broke their souls as it marched toward the Eisenhower.


“Finally! Finally!”

Cresting over the top of the Kreuzung Core, the S.E.A.L Delta piloted by Homa Baumann paused to gain its bearing. There was no mistaking the presence of the combatants nearby. Far below, she could feel the heavy ordnance as vibrations, but above Kreuzung, she was struck by a greater force of the shockwaves, carried on disturbed water seeking a surface to crash upon. She quickly found that she had to keep mobile, or risk being shoved into the station’s ceiling. She could see far off flickers in the darkness, the explosions muted by the distance, the ships battling still out of her limited sight.

But the booming and roaring of the detonations felt clear and close.

Homa looked over the ceiling of the Kreuzung Core, a sight she never thought she’d see.

Inside that tower, Homa was confined to the lower levels and for all she knew, the higher ones must have been a gilded and pristine heaven. Looking at it from overhead, it was not so impressive. There were none of those terrifying domes exposing the inhabitants to the Imbrium. Instead the ceiling was an uneven but closed surface. Near Homa’s vantage there were hatches for vertical berths, as a well as a missile launcher that was facing the enemy’s way, but out of power. There were all manner of sensor towers, some with rotund sonar arrays, some with high-powered lasers. In another world Homa had thought of learning how to fix these to continue her education. Becoming a station engineer, helping to keep people safe.

She was maybe twenty meters above it, but she was above Kreuzung, for the first time.

Such dreams felt lofty and distant now.

She only here to prevent further destruction– not to feel sorry for herself.

“Eisenhower– I have to find the Eisenhower. It would be the biggest one, right?”

In the Delta’s imaging computer, there was a profile for an Eisenhower.

Homa made note of the appearance of the vessel. As soon as the Delta had it on camera, Homa would have a green box pointing out the way to go. With a judicious press of her pedals, Homa advanced into the fog of war, following the dim flashes of the detonating shells. Careful not too move too fast so as to not run right into enemies without time to react to them, but also to retain enough speed to respond.

Within moments, several red boxes appeared, overlaid on distant but approaching targets.

There were several models in the fight which she already knew of, Sturmvolkers and Jagds.

There seemed to be some skirmishing in the distance. Homa hoped not to get involved.

She quickly reloaded her machine gun and kept the weapon on hand.

Water rushed past her, and the yellow munition flashes became closer and larger.

Up ahead, in the parting shadow and marine fog, she saw an enormous green hull.

Like a wall of metal taking up much of her vision. Homa stopped– a green box appeared over the ship. It was a Republic frigate. A boxy hull with retractable fins, a square conning tower, thick cylindrical jets tucked between sixteen-section rectangular rear flaps in the stern section. Even as it moved past Homa, all of its guns were blazing, its dozen defensive gun emplacements firing at unseen threats, its prow-mounted cannons periodically unleashing fast barrages of shells.

Homa found it hard to stay near it– it was displacing so much water as it moved.

And there was so much ordnance flying off it that she was scared of being shot.

“Not the Eisenhower. But I better signal, just in case.”

Reaching for a few buttons off to the side of the left stick housing, Homa turned on her emergency signal. She flipped through the preprogrammed channels on her communicator, hoping she could interject in whatever chatter the Republicans had, but everything was encrypted and her Diver wasn’t decrypting it automatically, so she heard nothing but garbled noise. Homa had never worked with the kind of military communications gear that was in this Diver. She was not sure how to communicate with them.

“Hello! Hello! Please come in! Kitty sent me here! I have a recording for you!”

No response when Homa tried to call them– she really wasn’t able to get through.

Was it because they were in the middle of battle?

Or was she doing something wrong? Which dial or knob should she turn?

“Ugh! I’m such an idiot!“

Homa had to hope they would see the Republic distress signal and contact her instead.

“Maybe the Eisenhower specifically– maybe I can get their attention.”

Hoping that the Frigate in front would not shoot her, Homa climbed several dozen meters up, cresting the top of the ship’s boxy hull and dashing over the top deck. To her relief, none of the gas gun emplacements turned to shoot her. As she crossed over it, however, there was an enormous explosion off the port side of its prow section, and this time, Homa nearly lost control of the Delta.

An immense wave of water poured over the top deck of the Frigate as a munition struck.

Homa rocked in her seat, slamming her shoulder into the side.

She nearly tumbled from the force, expending solid fuel to correct with gritted teeth.

Her toes curled, her fingers gripped the horizontal sticks with all the force she could muster, fearing that they would get pried off their mounts on the sides of the pilot’s seat. Such was the force of the tremor.

Rushing up and away from the ship, she looked at the underside cameras.

Catching a glimpse of the Frigate beginning to sink beneath her.

It would not crash into the Kreuzung tower, thankfully, but this was so dangerous!

If it annihilated like the Cutter that Homa sank–

“Where the hell is the Eisenhower?”

Homa found herself among several enormous, vague shadows each of which floated at the edge of her vision. She saw the gargantuan hulls, each over a dozen times larger than her mecha. All of the hulls had a dozen or more points all along their surface that shone brief in quick bursts, flashing muzzles, sailing comets with tails of vapor, painting distant suns in the darkness. Within these unceasing, incandescent barrages of cannon shells, Homa felt smaller than a single LED in the endless shadows of the Imbrium.

In the dim cockpit her face lit up again and again, every second, with flashes of gunfire.

Rumbling and roaring and crashing noises pounded into her ears through the hydrophones.

She felt as if every single piece of ordnance shaking her cockpit was touching her gut.

For a moment she stood transfixed at the scene of titanic, brutal war before her eyes.

Giants armored in billion times her weight of metal, causing detonations that could vaporize her a hundred times a minute, inexorably moving through the water in such a way that the waves which rolled off them slammed and shook Homa’s armor. Pure engines of destruction. The Delta was big and strong, and she could fight while clad in it, but this was another level of magnitude altogether. There were only three or four ships fighting in this group, and just that was already dwarfing her with its scale.

She recalled Majida al-Khaybari’s words when she told Homa she could not stop this.

At that moment, Homa sucked in a nervous breath.

And as she exhaled, green targeting boxes marked all of the ships as friendly.

One flashed, dead ahead.

Homa immediately slammed the pedals and the Delta thrust headlong toward it.

“The Eisenhower! I found it!”

Amid the three other shadows, there was one vessel half a length longer than the rest.

The flagship, Eisenhower, with the most flashing red guns and searing white projectiles.

Filled with renewed hope, Homa rushed closer, heedless of the gunfire blazing before her.

Climbing over the vast, broad deck of the ship, avoiding the gas gun emplacements.

“How do I broadcast Kitty’s message to them? Come on, one of these systems has to–?”

Homa reached out to the communicator when her face lit up red.

Warning overlay box–

Split into eight–

“No! Oh no!”

Jerking back the control sticks–

Half-second breath held slamming the boost–

Fire, buffeting blasts one after the other–

Barely escaping, hurled from the deck by the sheer scale of the attack.

Within an instant, eight missiles crashed in brutal succession over the Eisenhower’s deck.

Punching a vertical line of craters along the top of the hull that compounded into a runaway fissure from prow to conning tower. Through explosive decompression and flooding the hull was almost split vertically in half. Disgorging massive plumes of gas bubbles, thousands of unmentionable shreds of metal and ripped apart bits of electronic gear, whole rooms and sections peeled like the guts of a deboned beast. Red foaming masses of human interstice within the ship’s effluvia, death, hundreds of deaths rendered impossible to prize apart from one another in the killing mass. Abstracted and turned brutally symbolic.

Absorbed as if into the Imbrium itself. The Eisenhower was gone, destroyed, in a blink.

“No. No way. No, no no no– NO– NO WAY– NO WAY–!”

That helpless Shimii in the stranded Diver slammed her controls, her fists turning red.

“Please no, please. They can’t all be dead– they can’t all be dead–”

She was not being rational. She had not been acting rationally for a very long time.

This was not something that she knew. It was not something someone could know.

When an idea became too big in her head, of course, it sounded the most necessary.

Not rational– necessary. It was necessary, for Homa to “stop this.” It was necessary.

Necessary to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop being manipulated, to take control.

And to confront it, to confront the looming thing and climb on it from the ankles up.

Homa had been used too much. She had felt too much dread, seen too much pain.

In such a state, it was necessary to fight. It was necessary to take control of her life.

Nobody else was trying to stop the tragedy, to stop the killing, to stem the blood.

Why? Why was it only she? And why– why did it end like this? Why did she fail?

“The Volkisch. They killed them all. They let all this happen so they could kill them all.”

Homa’s exhausted, panicking, self-hating, and fundamentally innocent mind, too distracted with punishing herself for her naivety, had never considered the idea that the Volkisch, through the sheer brutal violence of which they were capable of, would ultimately put an end to the battle themselves.

That they could take all the lives that were left to be taken, kill everyone that she had wished to save, and conclude tragedy with tragedy. She had been so focused on turning back the Republic assault, on “stopping Kitty,” on finding a peaceful means through which to reverse all of the violence– that she had simplified the presence of the Volkisch in her mind. But now they loomed larger than ever. Homa had failed to stop the fighting; they had succeeded in crushing all of their opposition through force of arms.

“I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and helpless and useless and worthless.”

Punching her controls between every word. She was already in pain. She barely felt the strikes.

Floating among the debris of the Republic fleet in an Ocean that was suddenly silent and still.

Perhaps she could have saved them if she had been here sooner, been more skilled.

If she had gone to the authorities about Kitty when Imani would not do so.

Maybe if she could have done something about Radu and had secured Majida’s help.

And if she had been stronger. Someone stronger. Someone not Homa Baumann.

“What am I supposed to do?” Homa whimpered. Her strength had begun fading.

Without the adrenaline, she was just–

DANGER!

A burst of arms fire detonated around the Delta’s flank, rocking Homa in her cockpit.

It was a high enough caliber to cause damage and tore a piece off the flank armor.

“Please stop! Please! I surrender!”

Shameful words that she immediately hated saying escaped her lips before she could think.

Her hand shot reflexively to the communicator, slamming the broadcast button.

Jaw clenched, eyes finally finding tears again.

“Please. My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.”

She would go back. She would go back to Kreuzung clapped in chains.

Anything not to die. Anything to be lost in a million pieces in this cold cruel ocean–

“Remain where you are. If you lift your weapon, your life is forfeit.”

There was a voice responding, a woman’s voice. A slight accent– a familiar type.

In a moment, the Delta flashed a red overly off to the left side, and Homa turned to face it.

Her machine gun was still firmly grasped in her hand, but it was pointed below her.

Rapidly approaching, a Diver, green and black, fearsome, large and rugged.

Sporting the same symbols as Imani’s armbands, a black sun, a sword and a moon.

It had a broad chest which sloped from the center, like a rough, angular cone. Two thick shoulders bore a pair of missile racks which it discarded on its approach, as both were empty and dragging. Multiple hydrojets provided a lot of thrust for the bulky frame, with thick, armored arms and legs and a square backpack. Its head had a number of sensors arrayed around it that resembled a crown. Behind its back, the array of jets and control flaps looked almost like an abstract pair of wings.

Homa had never seen this model before. It was no wonder the Republicans had lost.

That machine approached and stopped within fifty meters of Homa. Terrifyingly visible.

“You say you are a civilian? What are you doing out here?” Asked the woman pilot.

“I– I panicked and stole this unit! I wanted to escape the station!” Homa replied.

“You are a terrible liar. But very well. It’s useless to interrogate you here. I’ll take you back.”

“Who are you?” Homa asked. “Are you with the Volkisch Movement?”

Head pounding, voice feeble, breath ragged. The wind had been knocked out of her.

It was all finished–

“Correct. I’m a Volkisch Standartenführer. My name is Vesna Nasser. So, drop your weapons–”

Homa’s eyes shot wide open.

Her head cleared like an explosion had sucked all the brain fog into its flames.

Fingers trembling, hands shaking, feet tapping on her pedals.

Brimming from the back of her neck, down her spine, into her hips.

Vesna Nasser.

Vesna Nasser!

Homa’s brain filled with weeping faces and grief-filled words–

Leija–

Imani–

Kitty–

So much suffering– so many people she had come to care about–

so many more innocents unspoken for that had been hurt–

“VESNA NASSER!”

The Delta lifted its arm while simultaneously boosting backward with all available thrust.

Homa crushing down the triggers as if she could squeeze more bullets from the gun.

With a roar the machine gun sent a chaotic burst of shells hurtling into Vesna Nasser.

Her machine lunged forward and arced up, an immediate response.

Absorbing a few shells but rising out of the way of the attack. She was fast!

“You’re not getting away! This is all your fault! I’m going to– I’m going to–!”

Homa pulled up the machine gun in the midst of firing, sending line after line of burning red trails chasing after Nasser’s wake, her machine rising, circling overhead, fast for its bulk. In her fury Homa turned with the machine but could never put rounds anywhere closer than around the feet, watching with frustration as the Vesna Nasser weaved overhead always a step in front of a long tail of vapor bubbles and yellow splashes of fire. In the midst of her attack, however, she realized an idea–

Suddenly, she boosted aside while firing the gun, leading the shots ahead of Nasser–

“DIE!“

One final onslaught from the machine gun before it clicked empty.

A storm of a dozen machine gun shells hurtling into the center of the enemy.

Nasser shot straight down into them, straight down at her.

Several shells crashed into her Diver’s shoulders and chest. Pits, cracks, dents–

Out of each explosion, the diving, rapidly accelerating machine came out undaunted.

Homa’s panicked reflex was to fire her remaining missile, but was it too close–?

Would she survive the explosion–?

Killing people is no joke–

Homa had killed– She could die for this–

I want to live

Her own pathetic voice in her own mind.

Homa’s hand froze on the missile trigger and retracted, wasting precious time.

“Damn it. Damn it!”

Vesna Nasser bore down on her, suddenly swinging an unfolded and active vibro-halberd.

The Delta’s hand came out from behind its back with an engaged vibro-axe.

Edge met edge, clashing in the water and spreading vapor and short-lived sparks.

Nasser swung her weapon with furious alacrity. Homa gave everything she had to match.

Two Divers in the middle of a cloud of water vapor and drifting metallic debris, blow after blow.

Their cutting edges smashed and blocked and parried in a vicious brawl–

Homa felt feedback from the arm transfer into the side of her cockpit. Harder each time.

She was being pushed back!

For a brief second, she lifted a hand off a control stick and grabbed hold of her necklace.

“I’ll give it everything. I’ll make you pay!”

As soon as her hand grabbed hold of her sticks again, she pushed both forward.

Hit both pedals, engaged all thrusters.

The Delta surged into a wild swing and caught the Halberd under its edge, pinning the weapon.

Slamming suddenly against Nasser’s Diver, the two of them grappling, grinding metal on metal.

Weapons up against their chests, sparks flying between them as the oscillators gnawed.

A contest of pure durability as their weapons and mechs wore each other to pieces–

You’re too weak, little-tail.

That voice did not belong to the “little guy in Homa’s necklace” that she fantasized about.

Too cruel, too cold–

It was Nasser’s voice– but she was hearing it in her head.

Homa was certain it was not the communicator. Nasser was speaking to her, to her mind.

Then,

the Delta suddenly pushed back, just enough to give Nasser room to swing.

Weapon rearing up, while Homa’s axe was to her chest, not even in a guard stance.

Homa had not moved it– and Nasser’s mech had not shoved more strongly than before–

How did she get knocked off-balance–?!

You never understood the difference between us.

Time seemed to suddenly stop for Homa.

She felt as if she was suspended, not in metal, but out in the ocean.

Standing across from the tall blond Shimii woman sneering at her in her pilot’s suit.

Homa had the vibroaxe in hand, in her own hands, holding it, feeling its heft somehow.

Nasser, too, had her Diver’s weapon in her real, physical hands, wielding it with ease.

But Homa couldn’t move properly. She was trapped in the instant of their collission.

Between them, hateful red color like a cloud consumed the entire ocean.

“I can feel the anger you have for me. I can see it. You want revenge.”

Nasser’s lips moved and Homa could hear her voice as if standing across from her.

Homa was furious, full of violence, full of dark desire, but–

She couldn’t find the strength to attack again.

In that instant, in this strange space in which she and Nasser were personified–

Nasser was a colossus. She had an overwhelming presence.

Homa’s sputtering wrath was like a candle-fire to Nasser’s volcanic aggression.

She felt like she was choking under the withering hatred of that woman’s gaze.

“You have spirit, but you lack a key element to challenge a King’s power, Homa Baumann. It is not enough to have virtuous words, a cause to fight for or even fighting spirit. A King must have domain over life and death. The power to kill. Not just fight; kill. I will show you the gulf between us, little tail.”

Around Vesna Nasser that nakedly aggressive red color turned immediately, starkly black.

Like the snuffing out of a light, an instantaneous smothering darkness.

Radiating from around Nasser and consuming all of Homa’s surroundings.

Her pitiful little red color was invisible in the pitch black sea.

Homa’s heart sank, her hands trembled, her legs shook. Her head felt empty and airy.

It felt like when Radu reached out his hand to her.

All of her rebellion, all of her emotion, all of her hope and vigor drained from her.

DANGER DANGER DANGER!

That pitiable little voice blared its premonitions on deaf ears.

Despite the urgency of the threat, Homa could hardly make herself move to respond.

Something was squeezing the strength of action from her, and she could only watch.

Vesna Nasser raised her halberd overhead, its edge lacquered in the same deathly black color..

In that instant she was both the woman and the machine, just as Homa was both.

Swinging from shoulder down with all of her strength and killing intention.

And,

as if through the clad metal protecting her

the black killing wave swept through

Homa Baumann

spraying out the weak red from her

causing immediate unfeeling

King’s Scorn.”

Homa’s held-up vibroaxe clashed with Nasser’s halberd to no effect.

Though the Delta’s weapon and the Muawiya’s collided out in the Imbrium Ocean–

An invisible violence directed the blow through the armor and right into Homa.

One brutal slash of furious black color running in a steep diagonal across her.

For an instant, she felt hot and crushing pain as if being hurled against a wall.

Then came the numbness–

Chills, the distortion of her vision, dissociation of her thoughts from her body.

Breaths escaped that couldn’t be caught. Smothering dark covered the edges of her vision.

Losing power over her limbs, releasing the Delta’s controls, spiraling into a descent.

Drifting, down like the debris of the sinking ships, down below the bottom of everything.

I’m going to sink and disappear. Just like the people I– I killed–

With her final strength, she lifted a hand, and it tore from her body, unable to reach anyone.

Vesnar Nasser was growing farther and farther out of that severed grasp.

The gulf between them had become as far as heaven and earth.


UNJUST DEPTHS

ANTHOLOGY II: WELTGEIST

You can unearth history while struggling alone.

But you will never change history on your own.


With the sinking of the Eisenhower, the Republican fleet’s dim and distant hopes of occupying the Kreuzung stations came to an end. The Greater Imbria and Mrudah along with the arriving Aleksandr quickly eliminated the remaining Republican forces. The Republic’s troopship surrendered, thousands of marines packed inside like sardines now becoming prisoner. The Volkisch’s assault troops sent another wave of suicide drones into B.S.W. and found no further resistance within. Republican ringleader Kitty McRoosevelt had taken her own life after being horrifically, fatally maimed by a Volkisch attack.

Inside the Core Pylon, the Alayzean special operations group was surrounded.

Once the fate of their comrades was made known to them, it shook their will to fight. A negotiator successfully argued for the release of the core technicians, but the exchange was a ruse to get the shooters to lower their guard. Volkisch troops attacked from all directions with vibroblades and riot shields, pressing the shooters in with their phalanx and practically hacking them to pieces. Standing atop blood and haphazard corpses, the traumatized technicians were made to resume their work. Within minutes of subduing the Cogitans, Kreuzung’s separated Core was again rejoined.

Power returned to Kreuzung and its outlying towers, making its way module to module, block by block. After about fifteen minutes the overwhelming majority of the station was back to normal functioning.

Civil authorities began to sound an “all clear” but extended the curfew as a precaution.

Throughout the station, the Volkisch took over for the battered K.P.S.D in leading the confused masses back to the status quo. With honeyed declarations they allayed civilian fears, playing up their own role in averting tragedy and defending the National Proletariat from a horrific threat. Investigations would be called, said the Volkisch press office, into the grotesque negligence and incompetence of the station authorities. They praised the great heroes of the nation who stood stalwart in the darkest hour.

Within hours, the Republic vessels over Kreuzung had been replaced by over 100 arriving ships bearing the “black sun” and “sword with moon” symbols of the 7th Fleet of the political troops of the Volkisch, the Stabswache. A particularly ethnic Fleet, it was uniquely made up largely of Shimii, exclusively Rashidun Shimii of Brennic and Diriyan descent, as well as a small regiment of Khedivate Loup who subscribed to Rashidist religious ritual despite their race. Collectively, these forces were referred to as the Zabaniyah— beasts that meted out the punishments of hell to those damned to the eternal fire.

Over the course of their disembarking, it was evident that they had been carried on a wind that would alter Kreuzung’s destiny. Thousands of Shimii in black uniforms and fascist armbands with assault rifles and anxious looks replaced the K.P.S.D. policemen on the streets. Block by block, module by module, they advanced, and the remaining Kreuzung police or guards stood aside, helpless to stop the march. In the Administration Block near the top of the Kreuzung tower, the old Governor remained silent. Those ranks of cat-like ears and tails in their black uniforms were slowly and steadily coming to greet him.

It was not for nothing that these once-repressed people were now part of the Volkisch.

There was talk of Tower Eight Shimii being allowed to live within the Core for the first time.

Talk of ending segregation in Kreuzung and of greater Shimii participation in the government.

And with these incentives, talk of getting the young and vibrant Shimii of Eisental to join the Volkisch Movement and become heroes of not just their own Volk, but of the National Proletariat as a whole.

Bolstering the Volkisch ranks at a time when they needed the assistance most.

Amid the commotion and the beginnings of change, the Ritter-class Cruiser Aleksandr docked into Kreuzung’s main seaport. While at the head of the Volkisch reinforcements, it had to wait a few hours before the troops disembarked and secured positions, before it could touch down on its new domain.

In front of the bulkhead to the Aleksandr’s offboarding chute, a tall woman in black uniform waited, her long, bushy tail swaying casually behind her. Long, honey-blond hair and tall ears trimmed of fluff, lightly tanned skin. Sharp and arresting facial features, exotic and photogenic. Athletic in build and somewhat boyish in her stance and expression, but for this occasion, made up in lipstick and pigments, wearing a pencil skirt and female dress coat with her military decorations. Arms crossed beneath her bust.

She had just gotten off a brutal battle where she killed hundreds of people.

But she cleaned up exceptionally well into the clothes and refinement befitting an adjutant.

Her eyes lifted from her feet when the bulkhead in front of her finally opened.

Unveiling the woman to whom, despite everything, she owed her own allegiance.

Flanked by a pair of armored Shimii, a shorter, distinctly Imbrian woman stepped into Kreuzung, slender with a soft face. Her hair was mostly dyed light blue but had a wide band of light pink, including some of her bangs and the hair covering her right ear and down the back. Her schirmmütze cap was decorated with silver cat ears, and she had one earring which boasted a flag-shaped decoration with the same bands of pink and light blue that dyed her hair. Her black uniform and cape was even more lavish than that of her surbodinates, heavily trimmed in gold. Upon meeting her counterpart, she eyed her figure closely; and the Shimii, so observed, seemed to allow the open lechery with a certain subdued glee.

“You’re looking fine as ever.” Said Oberführer Violet Lehner, grinning vigorously.

Across from her, the Shimii woman adjusted her glasses with a similarly gleeful expression.

“Have I ever looked less than perfect at your side, milady?” replied Standartenführer Vesna Nasser.


In the Old Iron block the water had begun to recede as the pumps regained power with the rejoining of the station’s Core. The level of flooding went down from waist deep back to ankle deep. Without repairs it would remain at this level, but for now, the threat of flooding the entire block was staved off. Aside from a few unlucky souls and a few corpses, there was no one on the streets.

No one except a little drone, the size and shape of a silver, hairless metal cat.

Walking with elegant strokes of its legs, despite the difficulty presented by the water.

Ankle-deep water was still half the cat-drone’s body, so it was a bit encumbered.

Nevertheless, it made its way up the street, and turned into the knocked-down door of a bar once renowned by the name “Majestic-12.” Its final days had come and gone, and its revival as a hub of conspiracy was quite short-lived. Now corpses were all that was left, corpses hours fresh but rendered quickly chill and gray by the cold saltwater washing in. Dead katarrans and–

–one unconscious girl, the contents of her heart kept closely guarded and unknowable.

It was the first thing she mastered when she studied psionics. She did it even in her sleep.

Navigating around the remains, the cat drone approached the sleeping Imani Hadžić.

Stopped, seated on its rear legs. Its tail extended around its body.

Attaching to her neck and delivering a drug to reverse her anesthetized state.

Within minutes, Imani’s eyes opened, and she stared, incredulously, at her surroundings.

“Master Hudson?” She looked down at the robotic cat.

From the cat’s neck a speaker responded in a tinny voice. “As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her situation slowly dawned on her. Imani rose to her feet.

Immediately, she felt her shirt and belt lighter than before. Her gun was missing.

“Homa.”

Imani’s fingers reached up to her lips. She started to make for the door–

“Time has passed. I’m sorry to say.” Hudson said. “All of the fighting is done.”

Nearly to the door, Imani paused. She reached out her trembling hand behind herself.

Showing Hudson the remnants of a powerful emotion. Dancing colors on her fingers.

An emotion that another woman had given her, and which had remained on her kissed lips.

Shaking its head, the drone’s unmoving steel face confirmed the worst.

“That aura– I’m afraid you won’t find it here anymore. Did she mean a lot to you?”

Imani did not turn back. Did not show her expression to the drone. Revealed nothing to it.

She ran out, as fast as her legs could carry her, and as far away, as if from misery itself.


Leija Kladuša ran as far as her legs could carry her back to Homa Baumann’s room.

I never found her! Majida never came back! What happened?

Once the Core had been linked, reversing the Core Separation, a group of Volkisch Shimii presumably under Imani Hadžić’s command had informed the civilian Shimii in the Kreuzung Core to return to Tower Eight and that they would receive emergency supplies soon, and more news in the coming days. These soldiers took over the manning of the checkpoints. Leija had been informed that her presence would be called to discuss the incident with the Shimii’s commander, again presumably Hadžić, but–

she did not care! All of her business with Kreuzung could collapse and she wouldn’t care!

Her heart heavy with regret, all she cared about in that moment was Homa.

Even after everything I’ve done to her. How could I have been so stupid? How?

Homa who had taken care of her drunk, worthless self even when she was just a child.

Homa who had helped her with her despicable affairs as an obedient young adult.

And now–

Homa who had given her worthless self a bed again, without cruelty or unkindness–

I failed her again and again and again! But she never turned me down! She followed my every word!

That poor girl, she terrorized her, she hit her, she got drunk at her, she swore at her–

Homa had never abandoned her. No matter how much she deserved it. Until– until now–

Elbowing past the people crowding back into the hall, rushing down to the door.

“Homa! Please! Are you back? Please tell me you got back safely! Please!”

Some part of her was prepared to find an empty room. To simply– to simply not know.

Instead, inside the room–

“Leija– I couldn’t protect her. I am sorry.”

Seated on the bed was a man in armor. His cloak burned and shredded. His chestplate burst inward and bloody. His legs shaking in heavy graves sliced and dented. His gauntlets cracked. His cat-like mask was broken, exposing one grey ear, singed gray hair, and a quarter of a face partially scarred by a patch of hexagon-gridded burned flesh, red-purple squeezing a mournful green eye.

Leija brought her hands up to her mouth.

“What do you mean? What do you mean sorry?”

She rushed to the bed and slammed her fists into the man’s armor.

“What do you mean you’re sorry? What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”

Radu the Marzban had no response.

He embraced Leija as she struck him repeatedly.

She beat him until her hands were bloody, until she had no voice, until her strength faded.

“Homa–! Homa–! Please– No–”

All she could do was cry and all he could do was bear it.


“Right this way! Right this way! She’s waiting for us! Make way, make way!”

In a sing-song voice, Katarran mercenary Xenia Laskaris escorted a young Shimii woman carrying several cases through partially flooded rooms below the baseplate of Kreuzung Core. While all eyes were focusing on the Core Pylon, the Administrative District in A-block near Tower One and the Shimii in Tower Eight, the baseplate was completely unguarded. In fact, Xenia had learned a juicy tip from a broker– the cameras to the baseplate sectors had all been shut off. Zero security down there, all day long.

“Making good money and getting out of this dump? I couldn’t ask for a better windfall.”

“Glad you’re feeling chipper, but she better be whole and hale, or you’re leaving in a box.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Calm down! She’s alive! That one’s the toughest Katarran I’ve ever seen!”

“She’s not a Katarran, she’s a Shimii. So you better have the right person, you glib crab.”

“Then she’s the toughest Shimii I’ve ever seen. Please just relax– I’m a professional.”

Xenia opened a door and bowed with a little smile, allowing Raaya Al-Shahouh through.

Raaya gasped as soon as the light from the corridor entered the dark room.

Huddled in front of an elevator into the old Kreuzung mines, was Majida al-Khaybari.

Collapsed on the floor, panting. Her chestplate’s ceramic layers were smashed, the armor still held together only because of the nanofiber chain-links that ran through it. Her face and hair were red and brown with caked blood, her arms limp at her side, her breathing heavy. Her tail had been cut in half, as had been her cartilaginous, fin-like ear. Only her Katarran armor was still intact.

When Raaya gasped, Majida looked up from her seeming stupor and smiled weakly.

“Don’t worry. It’ll all grow back.” She said, coughing, hacking up a bit of red phleghm.

“Majida! Majida!”

Raaya ran to the other side of the room, dove to the floor and grabbed hold of Majida.

Weeping profusely into the injured woman’s shoulder, holding her, screaming with agony.

Majida weakly ran a hand, heavy in its Katarran greaves, over Raaya’s hair.

“Ahh, so much love! Do not worry! Your nightmare is over! I’ll get you two back home!”

Xenia Laskaris gave the miserable couple a thumbs-up from the door.

“You might have to carry me.” Majida said, her voice rough and weak.

“Don’t worry boss! From the look of you, I expected that!” Xenia said cheerfully.

“Raaya, I’m really sorry.” Majida said. “I– I couldn’t even save the kid–”

“Idiot! You big idiot! You could’ve– You–” Raaya cried, continuing to embrace Majida.

Majida embraced her back as strongly as she could in her weak state, crying together.

They had gotten through this, but to Majida, it felt like the prelude to weather far worse.


Everything felt cold; numbingly, miserably cold.

Up above the white sky was completely covered in the branches of the great silver trees. They whispered among themselves with great worry, praying for the girl’s health. Trails of colors flew like paper streamers between the trunks, curling around branches and delving phantom-like into the great bodies. When the colors touched one tree to the next she could almost hear a sound echo distant and hushed.

“We just keep running into each other, huh.”

Someone knelt beside the body of the girl, on the pale muddy earth. A girlish face with red hair, eyes yellow on black. loomed over her and stared sideways down at her. A single black horn curled from the side of her head, and two smaller ones rose from her forehead, splitting her long bangs. She was pale, bloodlessly pale, and wore an ornate robe, closely fitted to her lean frame, with sleeves and a hem that both looked like streamers of greyed skin peeled from some creature. Over her shoulders and around her neck was a loosely tied string of crumbly, fleshy silverskinned fruits, like dry grey figs.

On that pale, beautiful face, thin lips spread into a monstrous grin full of sharp teeth.

She, the girl, the body who was being observed, could not move. She was as if suspended atop a pool.

Cold; paralyzingly cold. So cold there was nothing– not even a name in her.

“You are loved by them. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that is special– they love all of you Hominins. They can’t help it. It’s ancient history.” For a moment, the woman’s grin became a little smaller. Her eyes scanned curiously across the body. “But you can hear them. And that is indeed special. So you may yet earn yourself praise that the rest of your species hardly deserves.” Mockingly, she clapped her hands together slowly. “Congratulations. You have become a witness to the Great Silver Trees.”

Still clapping her hands, she sat, cross-legged, beside her.

Her gaze filled with the woman, whose enormous twice-split tail curled behind her.

“I am the God of this world, little Hominin. I am the Omenseer lord, Arbitrator II.”

Arbitrator II stared at her. She ceased to clap. When her hand outstretched, colors from the trees snaked around her. It was as if she was opening herself up to be bathed in them, as if the colors were delighted to come to her body and dance around it. Arbitrator II seemed to enjoy it. Some of the colors wafted up from her like vapors from hot water and washed over the girl, the body, wrapping her in fog.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes. Ali, I believe. Ali Ibn al-Wahran. An auspicious name. I know for a fact that meetings like this do not happen by coincidence. While I despise your kind, Hominins have ecological reasons to exist in my new world– albeit, maybe not in such numbers or such forms as you do now. There are many who would slander me, but I am merciful. I do not wish to strictly repeat ancient history. After all, for whatever reason, I could not win back then.”

For a moment, Arbitrator II stared at the body as if carefully examining her.

Then she stood, and walked to the body’s side, bending over her from a standing position.

“Out of my boundless mercy, I will grant you a boon. May it stir the course of things.“

Her pale hand grabbed hold of the body’s head and covered her face, transferring the colors.

She squeezed. Muffled screams as if from a sewn mouth. It hurt– oh God it hurt!

It was if Arbitrator II was trying to squeeze the brain out of the skull–

–yet it was also as if the pressure was not being applied by the physical force of her hand.

An unmoving body writhed beneath the touch of that hand, its soul screaming for release.

Then, instantly, the pain ceased as the hand retracted, and the colors retracted with her.

Over and behind Arbitrator II the colors spread, growing more intense, all-encompassing.

“I completed what you possessed. You can have your people’s Omensight— if you desire.”

That hand which had seized upon her face moved down to one of her cold, immobile limbs.

“Now, you won’t be needing this anymore. So in exchange, I will dispose of it.”

Without a sound Arbitrator II split her arm off above the elbow as if it was already severed.

Her vision swam as she saw the creature holding her jaggedly cut, bleeding limb.

And taking– hungry bites from the sheared flesh– sucking blood and marrow from bone–

Licking her bloody lips with an expression of euphoria.

“You’re delicious. I want more. I understand the omens here now. Seek me out Hominin– I’ll taste your blood and talk about the past. I feel like reminiscing. Hmm– but such a meeting requires a sacrifice worthy of the ceremony of it all. After all, Ali Ibn al-Wahran took a lot from me, and I do still hold a grudge. Tell you what– it’s not like you’ll be needing this either, young Great Tree Ascetic. I will take the price entirely in flesh and call the grudge settled. Descend into the Agartha and I will welcome you.”

Arbitrator II’s hand traced down the body to the leg opposite the taken arm.

Just as easily, she tore the leg off. Holding it like a fresh-caught fish by a gory tail.

Taking a loving red bite from the blue-tan dead flesh of the leg’s severed knee, savoring it.

The body screamed with all of her might, but her mouth made only muffled, weak noise.

She thrashed and thrashed but the brutalized body amid the trees only barely shuddered.

She could not move. She could not flee, could not fight, as she watched her flesh eaten.

“Tell everyone far and wide of my mercy– and do not squander what I have given you.”

Arbitrator II’s mouth then opened farther than should have been humanly possible.

Stuffing the remains of the plucked limbs down her throat like a snake swallowing an egg.

Savoring the taste of human flesh with unrestrained glee even as the trees watched her.

The colors became fog and overwhelmed all the body’s already fragile senses, in her panic.

Her sense of self had never been so shaken as now– she was made unwhole in spirit.

Was her body– already unwhole–? Had her limbs– already been severed–?

“Now: away with you.” Arbitrator II put her hand over the body’s eyes and made the world dark.


“Oh my god– she’s critical– so much blood–”

Distorted visions, like viewing a cracked screen with broken audio.

“Get me– she needs– stat!”

Metal walls, facsimiles of faces, hands, hands coming down on her.

“We’re cutting–”

Hands, thousands of hands touching every part of her, squeezing hands, sawing hands.

All of the hands of all the people she killed dragging her down.

Horrible faces climbing over her body and gnawing at her.

Teeth tearing muscle and bone. An imperceptible instant of the worst imaginable pain.

“It’s the only way–”

She bolted upright, gasping for breath.

Sweaty, breathing heavy, but her body did not hurt. She was not restrained, not sinking.

Her chest pounded. Her eyes darted around.

Nobody was attacking her.

Snapping in a blink from darkness to light was disorienting. She found herself in a plain-walled room. She had been laid on a bed, with soft gel pillows and a warm mattress, blankets. There was a line of other beds, all of which were empty. There was a table next to her bed, on wheels, covered by a blanket. There was a faint chemical smell, but the atmosphere did not feel hostile or uncomfortable.

Once comprehension finally came to her she realized she wasn’t alone.

There was a blond woman on nearby chair. Hair tied into a ponytail. Lipstick and makeup, a soft expression, handsome, beautiful. Button-down shirt, teal jacket starting to fall off her strong shoulders, a black pencil skirt and black tights. She had her hands on her lap, watching with eyes partially averted, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with a lock of hair. She felt familiar somehow– and safe.

On the other side of the bed was a long-limbed, lithe woman, long hair wrapped in a messy bun behind her head. Dyed a few different shades of blue, with tidy bangs up front. She was dressed in a white coat over the same type of shirt and skirt as the blond woman. She had painted pink lips and a gentle expression and looked over with sympathy in her eyes. She had a badge on her coat, with a multi-pronged blue star with an internal red cross– she must have been a doctor, and this place a hospital.

“How are you feeling dear? Any pain?” asked the doctor.

“I– Where–?”

She paused.

She could not feel her hand. Not like before.

When she tried to clutch the blankets. Her fingers weren’t moving like she was used to.

A shiver of cold fear ran down her spine.

She slowly lifted her right arm.

All the while moving the hand that she no longer possessed.

In its place, there was a mechanical ring, like a coupler made of metal, attached to the remains of her elbow. Under a band of aggravated red skin fused to the carbon-fiber connective layer in the machine, ran cables, inside her, visible along with her sinews. When she tried to move her hand, the physical feeling of moving her hand ran through the arm phantom-like, and instead, the ring coupler moved, and tiny electromechanical elements inside of it whirred and poked out of holes in the contraption–

“I’m sorry. We couldn’t save the limbs. We have prosthetics ready. I promise that your quality of life–”

Homa Baumann suddenly broke down, first into sobs, and then into full-throated screams.

She was alive.

And in that horrible instant she was convinced that she should have died, and unsure how to keep living.

All she could do was hold her head with her severed hand and scream until it drowned out the mourning.


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