The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.9]

A splash of water arced gracefully in the air and struck the earth at Sareh’s feet.

Children with ladles and small cans of water laughed riotously.

Cognizant of the power they had been given that day.

“Ugh, you kids always lose your minds with that!” Sareh complained.

“We were like them too once, hayati.” Baran said, softly and with a smile on her face.

Hearing such a strong term of endearment, even Sareh could not be gloomy anymore.

So empowered, the children ran throughout the festival grounds, scooping water from their cans using the ladles they had been given, and sending splashes of water hurtling at any adult in the vicinity. Casting these bolts like the arrows loosed by the Mahdi himself in the stories; but also paying respect to the lifegiving water and reminding the festivalgoers of the long lost rain of the surface. For the children this was just a fun game that they played, but it was one of the cornerstones of Tishtar, a festival of water, of survival, of heroes. The great heroes of the Shimii, the companions that bore the Shimii to the sea with the surface in its death throes. They were the reason that Mehmed, Nasser the Elder, and Radu the Marzban and others bore the title of “hero” to their respective followers.

The Rashidun Kingdom, the “rightly guided” era, was ancient history.

The Time of Ignorance, when humanity brushed with extinction, faded entirely.

The fire of the Age of Heroes, when Shimii warred for clashing ideals, had sputtered out.

Now was the time without name when the next era would be forged by their decisions.

It was perhaps the darkest era in history to be a Shimii–

But on Tishtar, the children splashing the water still smiled for the future.

That dire texture of the great weight of their history that could not be said to them, was communicated in the nature of their play. On Tishtar they splashed water, they listened to songs, they ate and played and were led in prayer by the adults around them. Baran and Sareh were once those children running around, carrying on the history of their people. Now it was their turn to watch, to be splashed by water, and to mourn with the adults.

“It’s a bit different looking at it now that I have to supervise.” Sareh said, sighing.

“We don’t have to be so strict today.” Baran said. “Let them have fun. Within reason.”

She reached out and took Sareh’s hands. “In fact, they should not be the only ones.”

“You want to splash water too?” Sareh asked, laughing.

Wearing a conspiratorial smile, Baran whispered.

“Sareh, will you swear a nikah mut’ah with me for today?” She said.

Sareh’s face turned a bit redder, she smiled, and held Baran’s hands tightly.


Tishtar swept through the Mahdist village like wave of light and energy.

Homa stood in the middle of the transformation almost in awe of the changes.

Colored streamers had been stretched on wires across the main thoroughfare of the village, from the old shops to the stage and to the stray light posts, criss-crossing colors hanging overhead. They were wrapped around the water barrels from which children refilled their green and blue pots to let loose projectiles from their little ladles. Amid the streamers and their wires the village no longer looked brown and dull in color but like a whirlwind of brightness that lifted the mood. Wider banners with moons and geometrical patterns accompanied the streamers, denoting the different areas of the village.

Most of the festivities orbited the front of the town. The Tazia monument on the stage had been put back together so well it almost constituted a miracle. Paint and putty had covered up the damage and made the plastic pieces looked as if they were always meant to be that way. In turn the new Tazia was much more colorful than the initial one by necessity. Like a green and blue and purple house set up on the stage for an equally colorful person to step into or out. It almost perfectly matched the colored partial veils the aunties wore.

It was easy to forget it was meant to bring to mind the grave of a beloved religious figure.

Tables had been set up along the thoroughfare with a variety of snacks and drinks as well as the means to prepare more. Each station had been equipped with an auntie whose powerful stare cowed the children from splashing water on the food and drink made ready for the festival. Homa made an immediate beeline for a station from which smoke, aroma and licks of flame arose. One of the aunties prepared long metal sticks covered in meat which glazed in its own fat as it cooked. Homa watched with such a longing stare that a smiling auntie immediately gave her the first morsel of the day without asking her.

“Here you go! First of many, I hope!” the auntie said.

Homa nodded her head quietly and bit into the kebab.

Her ears flapped, her tiny tail fluttered, and she shut her eyes with pleasure.

Delicately spiced and incredibly savory flavor made her cheeks contract.

A splash of water fell just short of her feet– followed by two more, none striking her.

Homa looked up at the children laughing and running away.

They must have been instructed not to strike her directly.

While every child had a pot and ladle for splashing water, there were other peaceful pursuits for those that got tired out or were uninterested in running around. There were children blowing up balloons, and the smaller children hung around the aunties and listened to stories. A few were given small wind instruments which they tried to play– it was annoying but rather cute. Homa certainly preferred it to being splashed with water. She spotted a few other children engaging in handicrafts. They were given disposable sheets of corn plastic or stone paper, which they cut up into stars and moons and other shapes. Some of the more ambitious kids tried to make the Tazia in miniature using cut pieces and glue and coloring it with paints. They compared each other and loudly debated the merits of certain colors– almost all agreeing the Tazia should be more purple than it was now.

Homa wondered whether she had been so boisterous and silly as a little kid.

Her memories of her childhood were incredibly fragmentary.

Perhaps if something so beautiful had actually happened to her– she would remember it.

Most of the adults not directly participating in the festival watched the children play while eating and chatting, exchanging small gifts, and reciting copious dua’s for friends and neighbors. While there were a few activities planned — including at some point whatever event would coincide with Kalika’s big dance — much of the festival was just unstructured time for the villagers to relax, eat good food and meet with their neighbors. As such there was not so much spectacle and whimsy as there was warmth and companionship.

As Homa explored she felt a bit strange about the festival– though not in a bad way.

Homa did not have high expectations for what kind of festival the poor villagers could put on. Even with the intercession of Kamma supplying them with food, that only meant there would be a feast at the end or snacks throughout. In Homa’s imaginary, festivals had games and musical events and toys and they were grand sprawling affairs. However, walking the main thoroughfare of the Mahdist village, she felt that what they lacked in spectacle they made up for with friendliness. Seeing so many close-knit people out on the street sharing the moment, faces that would have been invisible to her in any other place but that she was just barely starting to recognize during her stay in the village– it had a certain magic all its own. She almost felt like she was a part of everything– almost, but not entirely so.

In the back of her mind, she still felt like a stranger observing something from afar.

However, seeing the kids running around splashing people and houses, the older folk sitting down having kebabs and glazed figs, the auntie with the long flute leading a few kids with smaller flutes in an ensemble that almost sounded harmonious, hearing recitation of long song-like prayers and the aroma of flowers and sweets and sizzling meat– Homa felt like she was, if not a part of something, at least in the middle of something. Not entirely apart from it, not an invisible body in a crowd, not a lonely figure amid the living of lives. Yes, she did not let herself believe she was one of the villagers, but she was present.

They could see her; she saw them too. She was not lost in a crowd.

And it brought a smile to her face. She let herself be swept up into the fun.

Back in Kreuzung, Homa would have fled from something like this, from the gazes. She would have felt judged by the people around her, like she had something to live up to that she had failed to achieve. She would have welcomed disappearing in a crowd. But it was different in the Mahdist village. Nobody who looked at her seemed to demand anything from her. Nobody whose gaze she crossed had anything other than a smile for her even if they said nothing at all. They were approachable even when they were not approaching. In that way, she felt included by virtue of a lack of exclusion. Maybe it was all just in her head–

But if it was a change in her, then she was glad for the transformation.

“Homa! Over here! How are you liking the festival so far?”

When Homa wandered closer to the stage, she met with Baran and Sareh.

“I had a really good kebab.” Homa said. “And my feet are getting soaked.”

She tried to smile.

Baran and Sareh had a laugh and patted her on the shoulders.

Both of them were dressed up for the festival. Sareh had worn a coat and pants that looked almost brand new, dark blue and brown, working well with the rich dark shade of her own skin. Her dark, long hair was tied up into a ponytail with slightly messy bangs that made her look rather dashing but still wild and a bit unruly. Baran meanwhile looked radiant, wearing a long, bright blue dress with a dark blue part-veil decorated with gold stars, accentuating the otherwise subdued redness of her hair. She looked like a pleasantly, formally girlish beauty, a lovely counterpart to Sareh’s somewhat casual tomboy handsomeness.

Though she was starting to heal up, Baran retained her cane for the day.

“You know– I thought you two would be really busy today.” Homa said, smiling.

“We’ve already prepared everything we had to and planned all of the rest.” Baran said.

“We worked hard these past few days so we could enjoy the moment now.” Sareh said.

Homa looked fondly at them, and her tail fluttered a bit with embarrassment–

“Well– I’m happy to have some company. I am sad to admit I only really know you two.”

She did not even know the name of the auntie making the kebabs she had eaten.

“It’s okay, Homa. We’re your friends and hosts. We’ll help you have fun!” Baran said.

“I already figured if we left you alone, you would end up moping somewhere.” Sareh said.

“You have that little confidence in me?!” Homa replied, only somewhat offended.

She was mainly playing along and all three of them shared a bit of a chuckle.

“Speaking of what people you know and don’t–” Sareh began, glancing at Baran.

“You are forbidden from seeing Kalika until her big moment.” Baran said mischievously.

“So is she going to miss out on the festival?” Homa asked.

“She’s coming out in a few hours, it’s fine. She’ll get to have plenty of fun.” Sareh said.

“Until we can hand you off to her, we’ll be borrowing you.” Baran said.

“I’m not some toy for you.” Homa said with mock consternation.

Baran and Sareh laughed again and led Homa away by the shoulder.

They walked back the way Homa had come, retracing her steps through the thoroughfare. Taking their time so Baran could keep up with her cane. When she was with Baran and Sareh her festival took on a new character altogether, as everyone loved the two of them and would invite them to try a snack, or hold hands with them, or pray for their health and safety. Children would spray water at their feet and avoid splashing anyone with them perhaps for fear of collateral splashing on the two. They were quite special to the villagers and given how much they worried and worked on the village, Homa thought they deserved it.

Particularly, as Homa walked with them, it became clearer to her that there was nobody in the village that was Baran and Sareh’s age. There were young teenage girls, small girls and boys, and there were the older aunties and elderly folk– but no younger adults other than the two of them. That made them a unique sight among all of the village folk.

“We told them not to splash you. We didn’t know if you’d be bothered by it.” Baran said.

“It would annoy me, to be honest– but I am glad they are having fun.” Homa said.

“As adults, we should let the kids have a little bit of leeway, like how we got.” Sareh said.

“Don’t pretend like you aren’t annoyed with them also.” Baran said, grinning at Sareh.

“I’m trying to set a good example for Homa.” Sareh said, averting her gaze slightly.

“I’m exactly your age, I don’t need your example.” Homa grumbled. Baran laughed.

“I know, I know!” Sareh said, laughing too. “I’m just too used to taking care of kids.”

“You’ve gotten much better at it. You’d make a good parent now Sareh.” Baran said.

Homa looked at the two of them and felt even more of their lovey-dovey energy than usual.

She said nothing about it– despite appearances they probably weren’t out to the village.

Even for Mahdists she had to assume their relationship was something private for them.

While they were walking, Homa recalled the short explanation Sareh had given her for Tishtar. She grew more curious as they went about, seeing the villagers enjoying the day.

“Can you tell me more about the story of Tishtar?” Homa asked.

Her tone of voice lowered to a bashful whisper.

“I know you mentioned that it has to do with Ali Ibn Al-Wahran. I– I grew up in a kinda secular household, so I was never told a lot about the old stories. I picked up some thing from people here and there– random visits to the masjid when my uh– guardian felt like it.” Even calling Leija her mother in passing felt somewhat wrong, so she avoided using the word.

“We understand, you don’t have to be ashamed, Homa.” Baran said.

“Yeah, we’re not about to start judging you now for something like that.” Sareh said. She looked at Baran. “Which of us should speak? And how far back do we go?”

“I can start and we can trade off every so often.” Baran said. “Homa, we Shimii, like everyone else, came from the surface world. On the surface, the stories tell that our people went through horrible times. Our culture was dying, our religion was twisted, our people leaderless. Many of our kin were killed in wars, against others and among ourselves, and the other peoples of the surface finally left us for dead when the calamity started ravaging the land. But then the Mahdi revealed himself, and gathered his companions and united the remaining Shimii. The heroes brought our kin to the sea to survive the catastrophe.”

Baran looked to Sareh expectantly. Sareh’s ears stood on end, as did her tail.

“You really think I would forget? Homa, their names were Ali Ibn Al-Wahran, Shirin Dilaram, Faiyad Ayari, Banu Emiroğlu, and Mu’awiya Ibn al-Assad.” Sareh said, rattling off the names quickly– she did know them by memory. “Out of all of them, of course, Ali is now known as the legendary Mahdi, kind-hearted and strong, and Shirin was his closest companion, who helped sway the people with her words; but all of them together pooled their strengths and journeyed underwater. They led people to a mountain– a lot of people think that Khaybar in the modern day is where that mountain was. In the stories it was a mountain that formed in the ocean when a destructive serpent sunk a chunk of the surface world.”

That was a wild detail– Homa had never heard about the mountain or the serpent.

“Blessed Ali and Shirin were very important, yes– but each companion played a part.” Baran said. She seemed both amused by the way Sareh told the story but also spoke in a tone as if correcting her embellishment. “Ali split the ocean, and Shirin returned the faith to the people so that they believed in him as the Mahdi and followed him, despite their concerns. Mu’awiya carved out a city in the mountain, and Banu separated the salt from the water so the people could drink and use it to grow food. Faiyad gave them air to breathe, and he and Ali together spread warmth through the mountain kingdom that was naturally cold.”

“The Ummah were saved, hooray!” Sareh said, with a bit of a mocking tone to it that Baran did not seem to appreciate but let go with just a sigh. “However, Tishtar is not just the story of the journey into the ocean. Part of is it also mourning what we lost. We put up streamers and colored stuff overhead to remind us of the light and sky of the surface that we lost. We splash water to remember the ancient rain. But also– we build the Tazia to remember and mourn the death of Ali. We place much more importance on the Mahdi than others do.”

“Here is where old stories will differ the most, Homa.” Baran said. “Rashidun believe that all of the companions were divinely inspired and infallible people. They believe the second king of the Shimii, Mua’wiya, had an obvious, legitimate claim over the Shimii kingdom in antiquity. They emphasize the continuing legacy of the companions rather than any particular moment of miracle-making. They don’t celebrate Tishtar or any festival of mourning like we do. They have nothing to mourn. However, Mahdists tell the story of the Shimii founding quite differently– our ancestors did not simply accept the passing of the Mahdi, nor that his successors are Mua’wiya and Faiyad. The Mahdi is uniquely special to us– we celebrate his incredible miracle as the defining moment of our history. Because of that, we believe the Mahdi, Ali, was paramount– and thus we believe that the Rashidun took illegitimate control over the ummah. The story of the betrayal varies with the telling– in our village it is said that Ali, blessed be he, sailed from the mountain to protect the kingdom and was betrayed by Mu’awiya and Faiyad, coveting power over the early ummah.”

Sareh seemed to become more stern and serious as they reached the darker stories.

“Mu’awiya was accepted by the Shimii that became the Rashidun, who valued stability and continuity and got to write the canon. While Mahdists valued the miracle of Ali the Mahdi and thus insisted on his centrality in our faith. Mu’awiya brought the Shimii some stability, but he laid the foundations of the Time of Ignorance where our people killed each other in power struggles again and the Imbrians took over everything.” Sareh said. “Regardless of the details all Mahdists object to the death of Ali, Homa– Mahdists are the descendants of the historical mourners of Ali the Mahdi, who sought answers and retribution for his death. We survived persecution– Banu, the last companion, who represented the waters, spirited us away to save us. So– that is why Tishtar, the festival of water, is important.”

Homa looked at Baran and Sareh, as they walked and talked, with a heavy heart.

She tried to hide how upset hearing that story had made her.

She had wanted to know, and she asked, and she listened– and it was upsetting. Upset– because all of this violence, the blood feuds, all of this hate, was fomented by some ancient stories she did not even know she could believe. For all she knew, none of these characters might have even existed. But their names and stories were now an indelible part of the reason why her people were torn asunder. She did not want to accept that. It was even more painful to her than when the reason for the Mahdist and Rashidun sectarianism was in her mind just a vague difference of “religion.” Knowing the details only made it worse. Ali and Mu’awiya– why fight over this? All of the Rashidun even agreed that Ali was the great Mahdi and respected him– so then, why–? Why did they persecute his staunchest followers?

“Rashidun interpret the companions differently than us. We each have our own accounts and the Rashidun focus away from the descent story and from the miracles. Our folklore is why the Rashidun call us illusionists and idolaters.” Sareh said. “When I came of age, I began to think the Rashidun might actually be afraid of those stories because if the mountain kingdom is actually Khaybar, then the Mahdist Khaybari clan took that land in their blood feud against Nasser the Elder and could lay claim to a Mahdist Caliphate someday.”

Within that dizzying mixture of modern geopolitics and ancient myth, a word stood out–

Nasser.

She suppressed the anger that had immediately begun to stir in her heart.

Even more prudent– that mention of Khaybar piqued her interest.

“I thought Khaybar was just– full of pirates or something.” Homa asked.

She learned that particular detail from Kalika. The Volksarmee had intelligence on this.

However, they did not place the same importance that Sareh did.

“They are only pirates because they have no other means, Homa.” Baran said.

Her tone of voice sounded stern. Homa raised her hands defensively, heart pounding.

“I’m sorry, I completely understand, believe me– I wasn’t judging them.” She said.

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Sareh said, patting Baran’s shoulder. “Sorry all of this got so heavy.”

“I know you’re a good person Homa. I’m– I’m just being oversensitive.” Baran said.

She smiled, but her gaze still looked heavy, as if it had seen years more worth of pain.

There was probably no way to talk about Shimii history that wasn’t sensitive and heavy.

Hated on the surface and left to die; fighting among themselves; under the yoke of the Imbrians; thinking about it all Homa had an intrusive and cruel thought appear in her mind. It was unbidden and she pushed it aside and tried not to acknowledge it. But for an instant, she thought that the Shimii were a hopeless people whom all hated, and none would save.

Not even themselves.

Her heart was already doing some of the mourning associated with Tishtar.

“The real miracle of Tishtar is that the little kids can smile through all this.” Sareh said.

Trying still to pick up Baran’s mood– this comment did finally make her smile more.

She also shed a tear as she did so– and wiped it off.

Around them, the children continued to be rambunctious and throw water on folks.

Everyone stricken by such a bolt, however, simply smiled and laughed about it.

It was as if the children and their running about became part of the lifeblood of the festival.

Homa felt like she wanted to outrun the choking past, like a frolicking child.

However– it was sadly just not her place to do so.

“So– what do we do for fun? Until Kalika’s big moment?” Homa asked, a bit awkwardly.

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other, back at Homa, and smiled.

“We have a few ideas. First– we think you should look special for the occasion.”

Sareh gestured toward Baran’s house, which they had been moving toward.

Homa narrowed her eyes at them.

She was wearing her brown coat and button-down shirt and blue worker’s pants still. She had not been able to change, but she had washed up every day, and she had been careful not to get them too dirty. They represented a weird bit of stability that she still had in her times in the village– so she was a bit hesitant to take them off for no apparent reason.

When they arrived at Baran’s house, she was given a reason not to want them off.

“No way.” Homa said. “You shouldn’t have– because I’m not–”

Smiling, Baran picked up what looked like stray cloth on her living room table.

It was not stray cloth, however. It was a beautiful hand-sewn dress, long and colorful.

“On Tishtar everyone wears their best clothes. We wanted you to have nice clothes too.”

Baran seemingly ignored Homa’s stammering and hesitant attempts to form words.

She waved the dress in front of Homa as if she was urging a child, mischief on her lips.

“C’mon, Homa, no reason to be embarrassed. I am sure you will look fantastic in that.” Sareh said. “You are in a remote village where no one knows you! Nobody can judge you! It’s a chance to try something new! We both saw how you reacted when we talked about Kalika’s dress and all that. Will you really give up a chance to be prettied up for Tishtar?”

“Why don’t you also wear a dress?” Homa said, in a more accusing tone than intended.

Sareh crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “It’s not my style.”

“Homa, I worked really hard on it– but it’s okay. I can make Sareh wear it.” Baran said.

“Hmm?” Sareh glanced at Baran, who stared at her with continued, unbroken mischief.

Grumbling, Homa looked at the dress in Baran’s hands more closely.

Baran was definitely skilled– it was a long-sleeved dress blue up top with a brown center that bore a geometric yellow pattern over it and an intermittently blue and green skirt all the way to the ankles. It might have looked gaudy, but the colors of the fabric were somewhat muted, such that everything worked together in a strangely earthy way. All of the seams and stitches were made with precision and the garment flowed well as one piece with a flattering cut. Homa narrowed her eyes and felt both her resistance begin to fade but her consternation continue to increase. She did not want to appear ungrateful to her hosts, especially not on the big festival day– but she was deeply embarrassed.

It was a beautiful dress– and Homa deeply wanted to be viewed as a girl too–

Recalling how she felt about the prospect of wearing one of Leija’s costumes–

It was embarrassing, it was so embarrassing to even think about–

Despite herself it was indeed an opportunity that she could not pass!

And besides, Sareh was right, nobody in the village knew her enough to laugh at it.

Folding her ears and fluttering her tail Homa sighed deeply and deflated in front of Baran.

“Fine.” She said, her shoulders slouching. “Fine. I’ll wear it. Please get out while I change.”

Nodding rapidly, Baran took Sareh’s hand and with a gleeful skip, pulled her outside.

Homa looked down at the dress she had been left, sighed, and began to undress herself.

A few minutes later, she peeked outside of Baran’s door curtain, her face feeling hot.

Just outside the door, Baran had her hands together and a euphoric look on her face.

Sareh stood beside her with a little grin and her arms crossed.

For a moment, Homa felt that those two were far too gleeful about all of this.

When she stepped out, the two of them cheered and held each other’s hands and laughed.

Their tails entwined, so delighted were they at the predicament they led Homa into.

“Mashallah! You look stunning Homa!” Baran said. “You are a true mother’s daughter!”

What was that supposed to mean?! Was it some Mahdist saying that didn’t parse?!

“You look so good you might miraculously walk out of here with a husband!” Sareh said.

And what was that supposed to mean?! Especially coming from Sareh of all people?!

Both of them stepped forward and patted Homa on the head and shoulders.

Homa, in her long-sleeved, long-skirted, blue and green and brown dress– felt exposed.

Not only did the fabric of the dress feel a bit thin, but it also felt a bit tight in the chest.

Had her breasts grown since she last took notice? Could people see them under the top?

“It works well with the ponytail too.” Baran said. “Or would you like me to do your hair?”

“No, this is quite enough.” Homa said, looking down at the ground. “Thank you.”

“Aww, don’t hide your face!” Sareh said. “We’re not bullying you, you’re really pretty!”

“I can furnish you with a matching partial hijab if you would like.” Baran said cheerfully.

“No, no,” Homa said, sighing and lifting her eyes from the ground. “It’s– it’s fine.”

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other again and smiled together at their handiwork.

“Now you are truly experiencing Tishtar!” Baran said, clapping her hands.

Each of them took one of Homa’s hands and led her back toward the village fore.

Sure enough, nobody said a thing– but the aunties were looking.


While they had been away, on the stage, a small ensemble had formed that was putting on a show for the rest of their neighbors. There was a quite older gentleman with a string instrument, and a middle aged woman who was singing. They were singing in Low Imbrian rather than Fusha, so it was actually possible for Homa to understand it– the song they had walked into when they reached stage was about a woman who while struggling to feed her children in a time of famine, was provided with everything needed by God, and day by day she held onto hope and gave thanks until the tribulations were behind her.

Homa almost wanted to ask if they could play something a bit cheerier.

But when she looked around nobody seemed to be treating it like a sad song.

Baran was even singing a long a bit– and tapping her foot, tenderly, minding her injury.

The woman’s voice was so sweet and the man’s strings so skilled that all the aunties seemed to be clapping and singing along and in good spirits, almost drowning out the stage. It must have been a classic. The next song was about a warrior fighting a hundred men to a standstill and being martyred and the mood did not once dampen. Homa began to get used to letting the content of the lyrics slide off her brain and just tried to enjoy the mood.

“Everyone’s gathering in front of the village, so it’s my time to shine. Come on, Homa!”

Sareh led Homa over to a little table that had set up next to the stage.

Baran followed the two of them with a small smile, occasionally looking back at the stage.

Perhaps wistful about not being able to perform as she originally desired due to her injury.

She seemed to not be letting it get to her– she sat down across from Sareh.

There was an area off to the side of the stage that had been prepared for the festivities.

Aside from their table, there was space for the eventual feast too.

However, Sareh had set up this table with a very specific purpose in mind.

“Are you going to give me one too?” Baran asked.

“Of course, of course.” Sareh said.

She pulled out something from under the table– a series of small sealed basins and containers, and some strange little picks. When Sareh popped the lid off one of the containers, there was a reddish-brown substance. To demonstrate, she drew Homa’s attention to it, dipped the pick in it, and gently took Baran’s outstretched arm with her other hand. She laid a small flower-like pattern starting from Baran’s fingertip to her knuckle– it was a mehndi, a temporary tattoo. Homa had seen newlywed girls wearing it on their hands before. She followed Sareh’s fingertips as she very carefully painted on Baran’s hand.

“See? I run a mehndi table every time we can have a Tishtar.” Sareh said.

“She’s very good at it. And these days the dyes are safe.” Baran said, showing off the mehndi.

Starting from her index finger, Sareh had drawn an intricate web of flowers that fit Baran’s hand like a thin, sheer glove. Spreading down the rest of her fingers, over the knuckle, to the wrist. It took her just a few minutes to get it done. Homa was quite surprised. She had always thought of Sareh as a blunt sort of person and did not conceive of her having the patience for handicrafts. Of course, she would not say such a thing to her.

Instead she smiled with wonderment at the body art.

“I already knew what kind of pattern Baran likes– but what would you like, Homa?”

Sareh held up her pick and seemed to gesture as if over Homa’s arm.

Homa almost brought up her gloved, mechanical hand– which would have been useless.

She had gotten so used to it by now that she forgot sometimes about its deficiencies.

Sareh would not have been able to paint over such a thing– probably.

“Um.” Homa looked down at the table. “One of my arms– it’s– it’s actually a prosthetic.”

Even as she spoke– she felt her voice strain to form the shameful words.

“Is the metal just plain colored? Or is it black or something? I should be able to paint on it– I got a bunch of differently colored engineered dyes we can use for it. If not I can just paint on your other arm, it’s fine. It’s not weird to get only one arm done.” Sareh said reassuringly.

Homa thought she was dropping a grenade– but neither she nor Baran seemed to care.

They did not judge her for having lost an arm or had any sort of reaction to it.

“Let her try, Homa. Trust me, she’s quite crafty when it comes to mehndi.” Baran said.

“You’ll have to take your gloves off obviously.” Sareh said, jabbing the pick in the air.

Homa looked down at her hands.

Using her biological hand she pulled the glove off of her prosthetic hand. She showed Sareh what it was like– its black metal sheen, the visible articulation of the mechanical digits. Her eyes averted from it and from Sareh’s face. She felt a certain shame to be exposing it to others, she felt that it was unsightly and that it might shock people to see it–

Such a thing could not possibly be beautiful– nor be made beautiful–

“Oh, that’s not a problem! I can use a green dye or a redder dye– it’ll be visible.”

Because Homa could not feel with her prosthetic, it took her a moment to see that Sareh had taken hold of her hand. She spread the digits and dipped her pick in a second basin which had green dye– and drew upon one of Homa’s metal digits a green flower pattern that was a little thicker than that which she drew on Baran’s hand and had a tighter weave.

With her pick she gestured for Homa to look at her work.

The green die contrasted the black metal well and was indeed quite visible.

“What do you think? Should I keep going?” Sareh asked, smiling gently.

Looking at the sight of her metallic arm being decorated so kindly made Homa tear up.

“Oh no, I’m sorry.” Sareh said. “I shouldn’t have insisted–”

“No, no,” Homa said, wiping her tears with her free hand, “it’s okay. I’m happy.”

Sareh looked at her for a moment and sighed with relief. “Should I keep going then?”

“Please do.” Homa said.

Baren smiled at the two of them, watching Sareh’s pattern spread across Homa’s prosthetic.

Her pick glided as easily over the metal as it did on Homa’s flesh, weaving beauty.

Soon Homa had matching mehndi on both of her hands, vividly green floral patterns.

Looking at them together– it was the first time she had thought of them as her hands.

Not as a remnant of her body and a mismatched intrusion– just her two hands.

Capable of comfort and beauty and love and warmth– her natural hands.

“It’s really pretty Sareh. I really like this. Thank you so much.” Homa said.

Sareh smiled and nodded, clearly proud of her handiwork.

“Great!” She said. “Homa, just remember you’re part of the festival today. All of you is.”

Baran nodded in acknowledgment. She reached out to touch Homa’s shoulder for comfort.

Homa wanted to cry again from all the unearned kindness she had received–

Instead, however, she smiled a vibrant smile– with a joy a long, long time coming.


After receiving her mehndi and once her emotions cooled, Homa left Sareh and Baran’s side momentarily. She wanted to see more of the snacks that had been arrayed in the kiosks and tables around the front of the village. When the children saw Homa’s mehndi, all of them hurried to Sareh’s table near the stage. They wanted to have one done just like Homa, and ceased to splash water, creating a small island of peace in the middle of Tishtar.

Smiling, Homa brought up her prosthetic hand to her face, to look at it as she walked.

She flexed the metallic skeletal digits adorned with bright green color.

This was the first time since the prosthetic was installed that it was not covered up.

That hand, those digits, held another kebab, and a glass of watery pomegranate juice, and a spoonful of sweet rice pudding, and the aunties serving the food saw it, and they commented on how pretty the mehndi was and knew immediately that Sareh had set up her table. They made no comment about it being a prosthetic. They wanted to get mehndi as well, but they were busy tending to all the snacks. Homa reassured them that surely they would be able to get some done later, the day was young. It was stress-free chit-chat.

At no point did anyone say anything about Homa that was anything less than flattering.

Her dress got more compliments than her prosthetic hand even got any attention.

“A dress from Baran and a mehndi from Sareh! How special indeed!” One auntie said.

“Those two are so talented. They esteem you a lot.” An old woman said, sitting on a porch.

“Homa, did you know?” Another auntie said. “Sareh learned the skill from her older sister– Allah praise her, she smiles down on us. But even as a small child Sareh was fantastic with the dye. If you want to make Sareh smile, Homa, be sure to praise her mehndi skills.”

“And tell Baran you love that dress! She will be so delighted!” A third auntie said.

“I already offered many compliments, don’t you worry! I was very impressed!” Homa said.

It was just a bit overwhelming when there was more than one auntie around.

“Very good. You are such a polite girl. I’m sure you will find your family someday.”

Homa smiled, a bit awkwardly, not wanting to say any more about that particular lie.

“By the way, not to be nosy or anything–”

Both ears folded, one of the aunties put on a strangely conspiratorial expression.

Homa braced for whatever comment might follow–

“–but I’ve seen you eating quite a few snacks. Save room for the feast later!”

“Ah, let her eat! She is so skinny! Homa you can have as many snacks as you want.”

“It is good for our village that a city girl like Homa loves our snacks. Eat more, Homa!”

For a moment the aunties had a spirited chat about the culture of eating at the festival.

Of course nobody mentioned any of the things Homa immediately stressed about.

Despite the warnings, the aunties did give Homa candied figs and sesame crackers.

In the middle of her snack journey, however–

There was a bit of friendly mortification now heading Homa’s way.

Word quickly traveled across the village that a small group of visitors had come for Tishtar.

At first Homa thought it was Rahima and she braced herself to put up with the fascist leader– but the reaction was a bit different. Because it was rare for people from outside the village to come to the festival, everyone got excited about the strangers visiting. Baran left Sareh’s mehndi table in order to welcome the new guests, and a Homa even more high-strung than usual left with her. Knowing who was likely waiting at the village gates, Homa felt her entire body brimming under the skin with tension and future embarrassment.

Sure enough, the small group that collected at the gates was mainly composed of–

“Homa! Look at you! You’re like a cute little doll! How wonderful!”

Khadija al-Shajara– with the tall, gloomy blond Sieglinde Castille at her side–

“Hey! Homa! Looking cute! I’m glad you’re loosening up a bit!”

Sameera al-Shahouh– accompanied by the shorter, gloomier Dominika Rybolovskaya–

“Ah– I’m not anyone you know– I just heard there was a festival. Call me Outis.”

And one stranger, Outis, a tall woman in a coat and pants with long, pale hair and shades.

Judging by the blue scales near her neck and her gray skin, she must have been a Katarran.

Homa stood with her gaze averted, feeling pointedly the presence of the dress once again.

She introduced the people she knew to Baran, with their names and a quick excuse–

“– these folks work on the ship that I rode in on. They’re good people.” Homa said.

Outis stood off to the side smiling. There was no one to vouch for her there.

However, Baran and the villagers seemed delighted to have even more company.

“Marhaba!” Baran said, meeting the group at the gates. “My name is Baran, I represent the villagers. We are holding Tishtar, an important festival. Homa’s friends are always welcome here– and we welcome any strangers who want to celebrate with us too! We made so much food just in case, so don’t be shy. Enjoy the music and hospitality! Just try to be sensitive about the kids running about– they will probably splash you with water.”

Everyone from the Brigand group had dressed up casually.

Due to the infiltration mission into Aachen the Brigand had invested in some common casual outfits to avoid their operatives wearing their uniforms everywhere. Khadija, blond-haired and sandy-skinned, wore a long light blue synthetic dress, while Sieglinde Castille, tall and blond and well-built, wore a long shirt and pants. Sameera had an outfit that was probably too casual for the village, with a tanktop and pants and her shoulders and arms bared, not exactly modest– but Baran seemed not to mind. Dominika, with her reedy red hair adorned with a few ribbons, had on black tights and a knee-length pink dress with a jacket over it. Again, not typically modest enough for a God-loving Shimii woman.

Homa had only briefly spoken to Sameera; and only knew Khadija as one of the terrors of the cafeteria, along with the cook Minardo, who loved to sit up at the front serving counter and endlessly tease and harangue whoever showed up that she deemed cute enough to bother. Despite this they all looked upon her in the dress with such bright wonderment, that she was curious what they thought they even knew about her to begin with.

Nevertheless, she treated them as more familiar friends than they actually were.

It would have been silly to equivocate such things in their situation.

“Please excuse any staring from my kin– they’re not used to city folk!” Baran said, while beckoning the party to cross the gate. “I assure you we welcome all guests.”

Homa felt initially responsible in some way for the visitors from the Pandora’s Box

She thought that she might have to make herself something of a host to them–

Maybe keep them out of trouble–

However as soon as they went through the gate, Khadija and Sieglinde, and Sameera and Dominika, quickly fanned out away from herself and Baran and rushed to follow their own curiosities. Baran gently signaled to Homa to leave them be– and Homa thus found herself left with madame Outis, who looked upon everything with a distant curiosity.

“Madame, if I might ask, where did you hear about our festival?” Baran asked.

Outis smiled, adjusting her shaded sunglasses. “I had a rare day off and wanted to be far from my employer for a time. Some of the people out in the town implied that as an unsavory-looking character I should make my way to the bacchanalia transpiring here.”

Baran blanched slightly in the face–

“Oh dear, I’m sorry they gave you trouble.” Baran said. “But– also, we’re not–”

“Yes, I figured there was something more to it than that.” Outis winked. “It’s fine. I am easily amused, and I must admit, a bit sheltered also– I simply want to soak up the festive spirit.”

“Homa, perhaps you can show madame Outis around a bit?” Baran said.

“Ah– sure.” Homa hesitated at first before giving in to Baran’s pleading look.

“I have something I need to take care of.” Baran said. She turned to Outis. “There will be a stage act put on in the afternoon, with a folk dance. Then after that there will be a feast, and poetry and prayer. In the meantime, my friend Homa will be as gracious a host as I would be.”

Waving her hands, Baran sped off as quickly as she could while walking with a cane.

Homa wondered whether she was embarrassed by what Outis said, or actually busy.

Regardless, Homa was stuck with hosting duty– which was as fine as anything.

She was starting to run out of novel things to do around the village.

Guiding someone around the same places she had already seen would kill some time.

“Madame–”

“You can just call me Outis.”

The woman smiled, and Homa nodded her head. She gestured toward the village.

“Have you eaten anything recently? Honestly the snacks are the best part of the festival.”

Outis put a finger to her lips. “I had a bar ration a few hours ago– I wouldn’t mind food.”

“A bar ration? You’re living too small madame. Come with me!”

Homa smiled and tried to be affable as she led Outis toward the kiosks.

While Outis marveled at everything around them as if she had never seen so much color.


A pair of children with their ladles and pans full of water ran up to a couple of strangers. On top of the world as ever– Laughing, visibly proud to give new folks the traditional Tishtar welcome, the children dipped their ladles in their pans and prepared to splash– only to meet the eyes of the woman in the blue dress, her ears tall as possible, her tail straight up.

A gaze with such intensity and sternness, perhaps unlike any they had seen.

It paralyzed them, their little mouths agape at the sight.

This was not just any woman; they might have reasoned– this was a mighty auntie.

In the next instant, the children turned and ran pell-mell away from the pair.

Khadija al-Shajara looked almost proud; Sieglinde Castille beheld the children with pity.

“You’re supposed to let them splash you– that lady said it was part of it.” Sieglinde said.

“Absolutely not.” Khadija said. “After all the effort I spent on my hair and makeup? No!”

After word had gotten out of Homa’s little festival adventure, it was reasoned that some of the Shimii crew who had no other pressing business should be allowed to attend as well. This led Khadija al-Shajara to don her wine-colored eyeshadow and lipstick, dolling herself up in her best palettes, and to put on the flattering, long-sleeved, low hemmed, high-waisted dress that she had been given as a civilian “disguise.” Her golden hair and tail fur worked well with the gentle blue, and her long legs were covered with black tights.

She thought she looked ten years younger.

Khadija had a duty to surveil Sieglinde Castille, so she dragged her along, dressed in brown dress pants and a long-sleeved button-down. The tall and broad-shouldered woman got a taste of Khadija’s skills in makeup and hair dressing, though she resisted anything but the lightest dab of concealer and requested her hair be kept in a simple ponytail. Khadija of course gave her an earful for being so boring, but there was nothing to be done.

At least she looked handsome and made a good counterpart to Khadija– if she wasn’t going to stand out, she should at least be a good accessory and she accomplished this.

Arm in arm, the pair of them walked through the village, taking in the ambiance.

To everyone there, they must have looked almost like a touristy husband and wife pair.

One made up of two women, however.

“It looks like there’s nothing for you to drink here.” Sieglinde said, with a bit of a tone.

“Are you trying to be funny with me? Do you want me to kick your shin?” Khadija said.

“I’ve just never seen you enjoy yourself without involving alcohol.” Sieglinde said.

Her voice carried a note of annoyance or perhaps bitterness Khadija did not appreciate.

“You’re still sore about that? I can’t believe you. You had plenty of fun with it.”

Sieglinde sighed. “We should buy some kind of souvenir. We shouldn’t be cheap.”

Changing subject? Khadija would graciously allow it– to move off discussion of alcohol.

“What do you mean not being cheap?” Khadija asked, crossing her arms.

“Well– at the festivals I’ve been to, there’s always local handicrafts and such things.”

“You’re concerned with supporting the local economy?”

“I’m concerned with how we look. It looks bad to show up at a festival to buy nothing.”

Khadija wanted to say her brain was poisoned by capitalism–

But there was a kernel of what she said that rung true.

Not necessarily about buying things but about making use of the local hospitality.

Shimii did not throw festivals for things to go to waste and for people to ignore them.

What was ungracious for a guest was to ignore or reject the goods on offer by the host.

Money was not necessarily a part of it– nothing around them appeared to be for sale.

Khadija agreed silently that in all things, she should look as good as possible.

Not just physically, which was already granted– but also as a personable, a fine lady.

“Then let us be good guests and partake. I’ll show you I can have some dry, chaste fun.”

As much as she preferred wetter fun, Khadija felt nostalgic among the village Shimii.

They had set up different little tables and kiosks with food and handcrafts and little games.

There was a woman giving out bracelets, a young lady drawing mehndi–

“Oh! Could it be? Sieglinde, come here, this way!”

Her voice raised with delight, and she was awash in a wave of nostalgia.

Next to the mehndi lady sat the young woman who had met them at the gates. Smiling, she had tablet in front of her that was instantly recognizable to any Shimii– al-Kitab, the book, the collection of religious knowledge around which a Shimii structured their spiritual and aerthly life. On the other side of the table from the book there was a beautiful green and blue clay basin with water. There were people reading prayers elsewhere in the village, and the most religious people were visible at the masjid in prayer–

but that was clearly not the intention of that girl, Baran.

“Khadija–?”

Sieglinde looked surprised with her sudden enthusiasm.

For Khadija, this took her back to her own girlhood among her people.

Back before the Imbrians forced them to change their names– and then enslaved them.

“Young miss, are you perhaps offering counsel here?” Khadija asked.

“Offering counsel” was the most polite way to say what she meant in Low Imbrian. Rather, what Khadija intended to say by this was the act of Istikhaara. To the Rashidun, Istikhaara was specifically a prayer beseeching God for guidance in their aerthly affairs and it was as simple as that– to the Mahdists, Istikhaara could be used to derive a binary answer called a kheera drawn from the pages of the book of wisdom. Kheera could be either auspicious or terrible and were used to ease one’s doubts about a decision they wanted to make.

Like everything with Shimii, this was a contentious practice.

However, Khadija had always grown up around people who believed that it was not only possible to seek counsel from God in this way but that it was fine to do so for important matters and perhaps even for some trivial issues. God was infinite in his mercy and wisdom, after all. Therefore she was used to people indulging their curiosity in this ritual.

Seeing the young girl behind the table truly brought back memories.

Baran immediately smiled at Khadija. “I always do this on special occassions.”

“Um.” Sieglinde looked between Khadija and Baran helplessly. “What is it that you do?”

“It is a way to ease doubts about the future by seeking God’s counsel.” Khadija said.

“Like fortune telling? I thought Shimii forbade such things.” Sieglinde said.

“There’s some nuance you are missing.” Baran said, more sheepishly than before.

“You’ve probably only ever met Rashidun.” Khadija said. “We Mahdists are different.”

“I apologize for my ignorance.” Sieglinde said. “I would love to have my fortune told.”

Baran winced a bit, still smiling. “Please do not call it fortune telling.” She whispered.

Khadija realized she was using a different, more subservient tone of voice for Sieglinde.

She sighed a bit. Sieglinde was a tall, imperious blond woman, so it made sense.

Around here they had probably grown up feeling they had to show respect to Imbrians.

Even if only pragmatically-

“There’s an important specificity you don’t understand. Shut your ignorant mouth.”

Khadija responded harshly; Baran was a little surprised. She hoped it was demonstrative.

Sieglinde frowned and averted her gaze a bit but still remained by Khadija’s side.

Normally, the person who made a prognostication had to be someone of exceptional piety and respect, religiously pure, or at least viewed as such by others– because it was not worth it to seek a kheera from any random person, only from the most pious and clean. In this village, Baran seemed to be the person closest to that status, so it made sense why she was the one offering. Khadija watched, a deepening sense of nostalgia as Baran offered prayers, first a prayer for counsel, then a blessing on the companions, and finally prayers for ritual cleansing. While reciting this last prayer, she washed her hands in the basin, and then washed some of her face, careful not to smudge the bit of makeup she had worn.

Then, it was time for the kheera to be given.

Baran’s tablet was a small, cheap computer programmed only to render the texts of al-Kitab, more affordable than having a stone paper version of such an enormous book. It was grayscale and thin and flimsy-looking, just larger than someone’s pocket. However, hers had an additional function. Turning it over, she pressed a little button on the side, and the screen scrambled for a moment before displaying a randomly selected page from the book. Baran held her hand over the tablet to prevent anyone seeing the page before her.

She smiled at Khadija and held out her other hand.

“What are you seeking counsel in, madame? Is there something you are contemplating?”

Khadija put on a grin. “Should I pursue a romance?” She asked. Sieglinde averted her gaze.

Baran’s ears wiggled slightly with excitement. She must have liked to give such advice.

She removed her hand from the tablet to view the page that had come up.

“An auspicious result!” Baran said. “It will certainly take work, but you should pursue the relationship you seek. Try to accept the challenges that will follow, for Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will reward you greatly for your faith if you become a devoted partner.”

“Fantastic.” Khadija said, clapping her hands together, her tail swaying gently.

Sieglinde glanced at the two of them with a bit of a pout. “Can I–?”

“Of course, madame!” Baran said. “God’s knowledge and mercy are infinite.”

Politely, this meant that even for a nonbelieving Imbrian she was willing to read a kheera.

Khadija stepped aside and gestured for Sieglinde to stand in front of Baran.

Sieglinde took her place and put on a bit more cheer than she had previously shown.

Baran pressed the button on the book, covered the tablet with her hand–

“What kind of counsel do you seek madame? Perhaps a financial decision?” Baran asked.

“I am also interested in romance.” Sieglinde said. Khadija narrowed her eyes at her.

Baran looked down at the book with her usual excitement, reading the page–

For a brief moment her eyes drew wide, and her smile became a bit crooked–

She rapidly put the book back down and–

Quite clearly put on an act for Sieglinde! Khadija could tell right away what this was!

“What do you know? It is an auspicious result! Um– your pursuit of courtship will be quite successful. You should make every effort! But um– be sure to live free of sin!”

Baran had an innocent expression, and Sieglinde smiled and seemed to accept the kheera.

However, Khadija was immediately aware that this must have been an awful result.

It was only because she was dealing with an Imbrian that Baran likely lied about the kheera.

She had probably dealt with ignorant Imbrians before who argued with any bad results.

Her reading of Sieglinde was wrong– Sieglinde was taciturn-looking, but a complete wimp.

Khadija was not about to defend or enlighten the woman stuck at her side.

“Hear that? You should confess to whoever it is already, you lunk!” Khadija said, patting Sieglinde’s shoulder with a big grin and trying to distract her from Baran.

Sieglinde laughed and averted her gaze with mild embarrassment.

Baran subtly reset the book a few times while continuing to smile nervously.


“You know, as much as you complain about my company, you look happy.”

Sameera smiled smugly with a glance at her partner.

“Hmph. Other people are just much more annoying. Don’t flatter yourself too much.”

Dominika launched her riposte with minimal grumbling.

When she heard about the festival from Khadija, Sameera also asked for permission to go– and Dominika easily accepted the invitation. Neither of them had been too actively engaged of late and both welcomed something to do. Sameera was more excited to see the Mahdist village than she allowed herself to express in her face and in her mannerisms. She was guarded– she felt a bit silly about her excitement, and conflicted about whether the villagers could tell that she was mixed race, perhaps not a real Shimii. Nevertheless, she trekked down to the Shimii Wohnbezirk alongside Dominika, and entered the Mahdist village.

They looked around, taking in the ambiance and the sounds of the village.

Sounds of gentle drums and strings, and singing from the stage; the chattering of the villagers, particularly all of the aunties and the laughing children; the percussion of the steps people took on the hard ground; the sizzle of cooked snacks and the cracks of gas fires lighting in the old stoves. The spicy, savory aroma of the snacks mixed with the earthy and sweet scent of burning bakhoor incense– particularly around the masjid and the stage.

“Feeling peckish at all?” Sameera asked.

“Hmm.” Dominika met her eyes but seemed reticent to say anything.

“Say no more.” Sameera joked and left her side momentarily.

Approaching one of the kiosks where an older woman was serving food.

She thought that she recognized the snack being made and thought she would get some.

“Two kebabs, please.” Sameera said. “How much will that be?”

The auntie behind the grill smiled, raised her tail and made a dismissive hand gesture.

“I don’t want money, I want you to eat, look at you, you’re too thin.”

Sameera did not quite agree, but she knew there was no arguing with the aunties.

Behind the auntie’s plastic stand, she had a grill with meat already cooking.

With a smile, she handed Sameera two particularly plump snacks.

These were close to the type of kebabs Sameera was used to from the Union’s Shimii– ground meat mixed with spices, that was formed around a stick into a uniform and vaguely cylindrical shape before cooking. In the Union, the “meat” was vegetable or pea proteins glazed with oil, but the texture of the shaped patties of ground-up protein was very similar to the kebab snacks in this village. In the Imbrium, the popularized version of the kebab consisted of discrete bits of meat that were individually skewered on the stick and then cooked. Sameera had not tried them those– because they looked too different.

These, though they were meat, reminded her of home.

She would just have to try them.

Returning to Dominika, she handed her one of the kebabs.

Dominika took it in hand and turned over the stick in her fingers, examining the snack.

“Don’t look it over too much, it’s rude.” Sameera whispered.

“It’s actual meat, isn’t it?” Dominika said.

“When in Roma, do as the Elves do.” Sameera said gently.

She lifted her snack as if a glass to cheer with and took a bite of her kebab.

Unsurprisingly it was quite delicious, with a tender texture and a slightly firm exterior, and incredibly savory. All of the spices lent the simple snack a complex, earthy taste with a mild piquancy that was stronger in flavor than that of the meat itself. Nice and juicy from glazing in its own fluids. She was surprised that the taste was not that far off the ground proteins they served in the Union, perhaps because of the strong flavor of the spice blend.

She smiled at Dominika as if prompting her to eat, and Dominika took a tentative bite.

After that first taste, she clearly paced herself so as not to be seen devouring the snack.

“It’s good.” Dominika said, and no more than that.

“I’m glad.” Sameera said, politely leaving what was unsaid, unacknowledged.

Dominika was looking gorgeous as always on that day.

Her style of dress always surprised Sameera because Dominika was usually so withdrawn and taciturn, but her casual looks were always a bit bolder than she imagined. Everyone had chosen an outfit to requisition when they arrived in Aachen. To avoid drawing too much attention to the Treasure Box uniform while scouting the core station. Dominika had chosen and received a little pink dress with thin straps, knee-length, hugging her thin and largely angular body. She accesorized with a pair of tights and a jacket that was starting to fall off her shoulders. If she cared about its precarity she did not show it.

Her ruddy-colored hair she always wore long and loose, playing host to little reed-like black and red bioluminscent strands interspersed within.

The dim light in the village prompted her photophores to glow just a bit.

Her eyes, too, with their pink irises and blue limbal rings– they glowed gently.

Beautiful– Sameera had to try not to keep staring at her too obviously.

Meanwhile, Sameera felt her own mode of dress was quite casual.

She preferred to wear tanktops and pants as much as Dominika seemed to prefer tiny little dresses rendered modest only with jackets. She particularly liked her shoulders and arms and thought the world deserved to see them. In her own way, she was probably being immodest– but she nevertheless went through the world wearing a handsome, conceited little grin and nobody had yet to wipe it off her face (save Dominika.)

If anyone had an issue with their appearance, nobody made it known.

Everyone seemed equally pleased to have any visitors from outside the village.

Perhaps this was also because they felt kindly disposed toward “Homa’s friends.”

Sameera would have to tease that kitten sometime about how popular she was here.

“Pfennig for your thoughts, Dominika?” Sameera asked.

She had seen Dominika looking off to the side at the small, dispersed throngs of villagers.

Dominika glanced at Sameera briefly and then lowered her gaze.

“Walking around this village reminds me of living in the ice frontier.” She said.

“Cold?” Sameera asked, searching for her gaze.

“Scarce.” Dominika replied, still unable to meet her eyes.

In her own terse way, she expressed everything she felt clearly.

The Union’s southeast abutted the planet’s vast southern ice region. To expand their living space, a dedicated fleet that combined military, engineering and mining ships and gear wound their way through the ice and made way for new stations and uncovered untapped resources. It might have seemed like an insane project compared to building stations in the other territories of the Union, but the ice redoubt was also insurance against the worst case scenario. In case Ferris, Lyser and Solstice fell to the Empire in battle– then just as the Kingdom of Volgia fought the Empire to a standstill at the Northern Ice Wall, Solstice hoped to do the same in the Southern one, preserving communism for the future.

Those who picked through the ice, who lived in the slowly built-up stations and in the glacier mining works and in the subsistence tunnels– people like Dominika lived rough out there. Sameera could imagine that Dominika might have lived in a place just like this for some time. A hole in the rock in which there was oxygen and plastic shelters and dim LED clusters overhead. Where there was soup and hard work and bitter cold and always more ice sheets to cut through. Supplies were tight, local production limited, and rationing harsh.

“But–” Dominika had more to say, after a moment of silence.

She spoke in a low voice, a bit conspiratorial, between themselves and away from the villagers. “In the ice frontier, the years I spent there, I could see things getting a little better, year by year. I saw more stations go up section by section, I saw tunnel redoubts spread out and get better and more machines. Mining works became safer, warmer. There was more food stockpiled and more food served. We got better weapons and tools. More and more people came in seeking the frontier life, coming out of their own accord.”

“It was similar in Lyser.” Sameera said, matching her tone. “People didn’t want to work in the agrispheres at first, it was tough and unsafe and there was a sense that people did it just because it had to get done. But Jayasankar went through huge efforts to make agrisphere life appealing, and now it has the reputation that it has. People love to go to work in the farm communities now– they are aspirational. The government put in the effort.”

“Do you understand what I mean, Sameera?” Dominika asked, meeting her eyes again.

“Yeah– how long has it been since these folks saw their livelihoods improve?”

“Right.” Dominika said. “And– are they here of their own accord?”

Both their troubled gazes met briefly and just as quickly seemed to break apart.

In light of the hardships here, Sameera’s concerns about her mixed race felt petty.

As happy as the people looked to be holding their festival in their little village–

This was a place where they had been cast out to and trapped by others.

And worse– they had no control over it and could do very little to make it better.

Thinking about that, she felt that Homa had been the best of them–

Helping out here while the two of them sat around on the ship wasting time.

Something caught Sameera’s eye, at the edge of her vision– Dominika shook her head.

“Don’t fall into that self-sacrificing streak of yours again.” She said.

“I’ll try not to.” She said. “Do you think these folks see me as a Shimii or a Loup?”

“Ask them.” Dominika said. “But don’t judge yourself or them before you do.”

Sameera grunted a bit. It was not so easy as this hard-headed Katarran thought!

However, she also couldn’t help but laugh a bit at how blunt Dominika was.

Dominika watched her break out into unveiled laughter and grinned a little herself.

They wandered back over to the stage, besides which most of the village and the festival events seemed to be arranged. There was an enormous table being prepared that Sameera presumed was for the feast, and beside it there were tables occupied by seemingly popular figures in the village. There was the girl who met them at the gates, who seemed to be getting the most attention by far, including from Khadija and Sieglinde; and there was another girl on the table beside her who was responsible for the mehndi on the arms of seemingly everyone around them. All of the kids running around had mehndi now.

Sameera had a brief of fancy of getting one, but she hesitated for a moment.

Dominika however had no hesitation and marched up to the table, pulling her jacket off one arm. As the one Katarran in the vicinity she really stuck out among the villagers.

But she clearly acted without any such reservations.

“Can I get some green flowers?” She asked, stretching out her arm to the lady at the table.

Sameera winced a bit, expecting the mehndi girl to be offended– but she laughed instead.

“Hah, I like the enthusiasm! Comin’ right up!”

And set to work immediately, taking out a fresh container of dye with which to work.

“My name is Sareh.” Said the mehndi artist. “What do you do for a living?”

She made some small talk while preparing the dye and throughout her careful work.

“I’m Dominika. I work as a deckhand on a ship.” Dominika said.

“Ah, I see, I see. Rough work but you get to see a lot of places– right?”

“Exactly. I live for the adventure.” Her voice was so painfully emotionless saying this.

“What kind of ship do you work on, if you can say?”

“Transport ship. Moving people and things on the cheap.”

“Do deckhands have to lift heavy stuff? Can you pick up a huge crate with one hand?”

“I might be able to do it because I’m a Katarran– but deckhands just clean and fix stuff.”

“You know Homa, right? I remember Baran saying she was there to introduce you.”

Sameera briefly worried Dominika would not have the cover story straight–

“She is one of our cherished clients. We have a professional relationship.”

–she should not have been worried; Dominika was a no-nonsense kind of gal after all.

It did surprise her how politely the surly Katarran kept up the chat with Sareh.

“There, let me know what you think! You can be as critical as you want!”

Sareh looked delighted with her handiwork, the flowers and vines across Dominika’s arm.

Dominika smiled, a rare, small smile. “It’s pretty. No criticism here.”

After a moment, Sameera approached, and Sareh seemed to immediately take notice.

“You’re with her right? You’ve got a warrior’s look to you! How about I put something cool and tough on your arm huh? I’ve been wanting to try out some new designs!”

Sareh’s ears wiggled a bit, and Sameera’s raised up, briefly stunned at the proposal.

“She’s–” Dominika hesitated for a moment. “Yes, we’re together.”

Sameera was even more surprised by that than by Sareh calling to her.

Given that acknowledgment, she could not afford to be shy now– she gave Sareh her arm.

“I’m with her, yeah. My name is Sameera. Feel free to give me anything.” She said.

Sareh grinned. “You won’t be disappointed.”

For Sameera’s earthy skin, Sareh turned to her lighter dye and began the design. Around the fingers, the design was thick with lines, but became more precise behind the knuckles. Sameera watched, quiet at first. In her heart she felt a bit disquieted, because at first Sareh was not making conversation like she did with Dominika. She focused on her art instead.

Sameera wondered if this reflected on herself at all–

that maybe Sareh did not want to talk to her–

because– she was–

“–sorry I’m so quiet, the start is important. Do you also work on a ship?” Sareh asked.

–what she was, apparently, was still too foolish.

“Yes, I’m a deckhand just like my companion here.” Sameera said, a bit relieved.

“Ah– then I take it you’re also working on ships in pursuit of adventure?”

“Adventure and the paycheck.” Sameera said, trying to sound confident again.

“Tell me something interesting about you! I love keeping little stories from travelers.”

Sameera smiled outwardly but hesitated as to what she would say.

Some petty and bitter part of her spoke first, and spoke her pervasive insecurities–

“I’m actually a Loup–” She fumbled her words and restated, “Half-Loup. Half-Shimii.”

She tried to keep her tail from moving while she spoke– what if it moved like a Loup tail?

Sareh did not even look up from the strokes of her pick. “That’s interesting!” She said.

For a moment, Sameera was a bit disarmed. She had not expected such a response.

“It can be a bit tough. I don’t know anyone else like me.” Sameera said.

“Yeah– I get it.” Sareh said. “Our cultures have all these reasons to separate people out, Mahdist and Rashidun, Shimii or not. But you know, Homa is part Imbrian, but to us, she’s our kin too. I’ve never had any reason to exclude her from anything. She’s one of us too. If you want to be our kin as well, we will never demand your parentage. And I’m sure there are Loup who will feel that way too. It’s just about finding people who aren’t up their own–”

“–language.” Baran interrupted and glanced at Sareh from the next table over.

“–if you’ve been listening, you should give some encouragement.” Sareh grumbled.

“Madame Sameera, there is no Shimii who is too little Shimii to be welcome here.”

Baran and Sareh both gave Sameera the same little smile before continuing their labors.

Sameera, meanwhile, struggled to hold her composure because she wanted to weep a bit.

Her tail did begin to wag just a bit.

“Have you ever used a Diver for anything, madame Sameera?” Sareh asked. “I know on some ships the sailors are certified. It’s a really silly fantasy, but I’ve always wanted to learn to pilot one even for grunt work. They look so cool in the videos and the posters.”

So casually shifting the conversation away– Sameera felt such a strange mix of emotions.

She felt more at home here than she had for a long time in many other places.

Sameera had been running away too much– but here, home somehow caught up to her.

“Ah, no, no Divers. Our company doesn’t own anything fancy.” She said.

“Maybe someday. Anyway–” Sareh said. She lifted her pick and gestured to the arm.

On the edges of her fingers and hand, intricate swirls like flames surrounded a design shaped like an intricate curved sword in a very intricate scabbeard on the back of her hand, extending into her arm. Mehndi usually had either very feminine or very whimsical designs, since they were initially meant to be worn by brides and by girls debuting or coming of age. Sareh’s predilections came through in the design, it was a bit gaudy and a bit silly.

Sameera loved it, however. She showed it off to Dominika, who smiled at her.

“You look undoubtedly like a real Shimii warrior now.” Dominika teased.

“Give me a break.” Sameera said.

But she was smiling so widely that she nearly wept.


“Incredible! It tastes so good! This is almost hedonistic!”

Homa stared at Outis, who was enjoying a kebab so very much.

Chewing loudly, making all manner of moaning sounds, it was almost indecent to behold. She was probably not putting on an act, but the sheer joy she seemed to derive from simply eating a kebab– it made Homa want to ruin her fun by saying it was just beef and spices. There was something a bit irritating about her reaction. However, Homa was entrusted to show her around the village and had to be careful what she said. She had to suppress her own petty and cynical responses lest she misrepresent the villagers.

“Homa, is it permissible to have another? May I indulge?” She clapped her hands together.

“I mean– I don’t see why not–?” Homa was quite confused at the sudden begging.

Outis grabbed two more kebabs from the amused auntie behind the kiosk.

She handed one to Homa and watched expectanctly for a moment as Homa took a bite.

As delicious as when she ate one in the morning–

However, what she was really looking forward to now was the feast being prepared.

And the dance that seemed soon at hand judging from the preparations on the stage.

Rose petals scattered across the wood, and colored banners and streamers went up.

Baran and Sareh had left the tables with their unique diversions– maybe to fetch Kalika.

“Will there be a different type of performance soon? I see they are decorating everything more ornately and I saw people carrying more instruments to the backstage. But I like the minimalist show they have right now. The woman on the stage singing with the musicians just sitting there behind her– it reminds me of the plays that Katarrans put on.”

Outis looked at the stage with a certain fondness in her eyes.

Homa was unsure of how to read her. Her clothes were not shabby, she had a good jacket that was clearly fitted for her, and decent pants, and her shades were a simple style, and did not look expensive, but they were not trash either. Everything about her seemed to slip through the cracks of Homa’s ability to read class. She claimed to have been subsisting on rations, but she was well-dressed, and comely. Her skin was fair, and she had lipstick and perhaps concealer on, maybe even eyeshadow under those shades– her features were sleek, attractive, she was well kept and physically fit, with good shoulders.

Like most Katarrans Homa had ever met, she was probably good for a fight.

But she also just looked like any tourist and sounded like a bit of a weirdo besides.

What she said interested Homa– she felt compelled to make conversation.

“You know– I was unaware Katarrans had such traditions.” Homa said.

Outis looked at her with a sudden amusement.

“Of course we do! How do you think that we entertain each other on long voyages with nothing afforded to us? Minimalist theater. Nothing but an object to stand on, and the power of the voice and imagination. Kōmōidía! Tragōidía! The legends of warlord and mercenary alike, transmitted from crew to crew– one aspires to be spoken of in such a way!”

Flamboyant gestures and flourishes accompanied her speech. She winked at Homa.

Homa wondered whether if Outis had been the teller of any such tales herself.

She had the energy for it, certainly.

However, it made sense– and it also helped Homa to relate to her more easily.

Even with all of the Katarrans she knew, she was still fighting the stereotypes she learned.

Outis wasn’t just “some Katarran”– she was Outis, a woman who seemed to love theater.

She could imagine her huddled up in an awful Katarran ship telling stories to pass the time.

Not too dissimilar to what many villagers likely got out of holding this Tishtar.

No matter where they were or who they were, human beings needed some diversions.

This was one of many things that tied all of them together.

“Maybe someday, I’ll have a chance to see someone tell a story like that.” Homa said.

“If you ever go astray and end up with some Katarrans, certainly!” Outis laughed.

Soon enough, as Outis had realized, the festivities reached their highest stage.

First, the Tazia was lifted off the stage using a kind of palanquin– Sareh returned for the purpose of helping to haul it, and Imam Al-Qoms also assisted, along with some of the bigger aunties. Homa realized then why there were worries about its structural integrity, but it held up to being lifted, and seemed to hold up to being hauled off the stage.

From the stage, the Tazia was to be carried to the masjid.

Along the way, everyone in the village got to touch it, to pray near it, to watch it go.

It moved through the center of a growing throng. Making its way down the street.

Many of the older women were deeply affected by its passing, openly weeping.

There were loud cries in Fusha, perhaps bits of prayer Homa did not understand.

Swept up by the emotions of the adults even the children stilled and cried at its passing.

Homa understood it to be a mausoleum in effigy– so they wept for their beloved hero, Ali.

Such was the outpouring of emotions that even Homa felt like weeping suddenly.

All of the crying rippled in her guts, and the world was suddenly flooded with color. Around everyone, the color was so intense, and they imparted the color upon the Tazia, their green and yellow and red and black cries collecting in the monument– and becoming a soft, gentle white as if cleansed within the structure, which glowed– Homa saw it glow right in front of her eyes– and that maelstrom of all of their emotions was like a song of its own–

But she blinked– and these images seemed to disappear suddenly–

And she found herself holding her necklace as she had become habituated to doing.

Once the Tazia was set down in front of the masjid, Homa heard a sudden glee–

Moving like a wave from the people closest to the stage to the ones farthest.

They gestured with delight in what they saw– they prompted Homa to turn too–

Up on stage, the singer and the musicians had vanished, and there were two figures.

One was Baran, holding a harp, smiling, and gently beseeching the audience to quiet.

Doing everything that she could to stand with grace on her bad leg without flinching.

At her side– was the graceful figure of a woman, taller, leaner, gentle black on yellow eyes brushed with a touch of wine-colored pigment, inviting red lips curled into a proud little grin. Her hair was partially covered by a long, dark blue veil, but much was still visible, a purple ponytail framed by a pair of horns. Wearing blue clothes that matched her veil; long sleeves, a high neck, simple yellow embroidery forming geometric patterns across her chest and flanks. Gaps in the fabric exposed some of the upper back and belly in angled cutouts revealing starkly pink skin; a long and covering skirt from the waist down completely hid her long, graceful legs. All of the patterns and decorations brought emphasis to her limbs.

She wore a single black glove that seemed out of place with the rest.

And for her first act, she removed the glove, to reveal a mechanical prosthetic.

More intricate in its design than Homa’s, less skeletal, delicately buttressed carbon-fiber.

Nevertheless, its articulated digits, decorated with mehndi, seemed to beckon the crowd.

Beckoning Homa, who started to move closer to the stage, paying little heed to Outis as she walked in her trance. She moved through the crowd, and everyone parted to allow the awe-struck girl to move closest to the stage, some encouraging her and others smiling. Through the throng of once-mourners who now looked upon her so warmly, Homa arrived at the foot of the stage, and looked up at the woman in blue who was to begin her dance–

–of course, it was Kalika.

Kalika Loukia up on the stage–

And she was the most beautiful, captivating sight Homa felt she had ever seen.

In the center of that stage on the dim little village, a spotlight seemed to shine suddenly.

Baran retreated further into the shadows while her fingers plucked the strings of the harp.

From behind even her, came a drumming sound, a drumming on goatskin, and metal clicks.

As if carried by the melody, as if the drums were the beating of her heart–

Kalika came to life on the stage, seamlessly breaking into dance.

Building in intensity, her bare feet rose and fell on the stage in soundless piroutte, so precise and practiced her footfalls, while her arms seemed to weave the air in front of her. Her dance proceeded from full-body movements to hypnotic lifting and dropping of the hips and chest, to precise motions made with only her arms, with only her hands and fingers. It was as if the progression of the chords and the beat washed over Kalika from each step, up her torso, to her arms and seemingly carried to each digit in her gestures, off each fingertip.

Her movements captivated Homa completely–

She would spin once with her arms wide and then pull them close, to cover the face, while gracefully separating them, with a confident gaze slowly unveiled. She would cross her wrists, flutter her hands like a bird’s wings while slowly taking a shallow bow, before rising suddenly, spreading them out as if casting something into the air. In her every move, there was that flowing of states, precision and release, tension and freedom, slow deliberation and wild passion. Her body became its own instrument, joining the sound–

Homa had seen this before– she had seen this before in her dreams–

In the middle of that spotlight Kalika danced as if alone but–

Always, Homa had been watching her from right below, her heart soaring.

To her surprise–

Kalika suddenly dipped close to the edge of the stage–

And brushed the cool fingers of her prosthetic across Homa’s cheek.

With the briefest flash of a smile, she seamlessly transitioned to her next dance move.

As if it had always been intended– as if there had been no artifice–

Natural as the string-sound of the harp, natural as the beat-strikes on the drum–

Homa stood speechless and could not help but to smile.

Not just at Kalika and the beauty and skill of her dance, and at the music–

There was also a great and undeniable beauty in the fact that Kalika, a Katarran, was up on that stage perfectly performing a Shimii dance in a Mahdist festival. For the mixed race Homa there was a certain miracle in that. For a moment, so many people were captivated by that woman whom in their own arrangements they would not have had likely cause to ever see, that woman with her odd-color skin and eyes and her horns. Her beauty would have been lost on all of them and would have been lost on Homa also, but in that moment–

They were defying the prejudices that ruled the world around them.

Watching that dance, Homa felt strangely free– free of worry, free of burden–

And free to be herself, Homa Baumann, mixed race with limbs half amputated.

It was different than her dream– it was better than any of her dreams–

Up on that stage was the dream that she would have never let herself dream before.

She was the person who changed Homa’s life.

No accusing light would shine upon her yearning and no blood would spill from her hands.

Amid the spellbinding movements of Kalika’s body up on that humble festival stage–

Homa was no longer someone who viewed herself as defiled by her circumstances.


After the dance, the feast table was unveiled in all of its glories.

“Have as much as you like! There’s enough for everyone!”

A flamboyantly dressed Conny beckoned villagers and visitors alike to feast their eyes and fill their stomachs. She talked up each item on the table. It was a spread like they had never seen, and even Homa hardly ever saw so much food in one place, even in Madame Arabie’s properties. There were plates of hummus speckled with garlic and pickles; piled high with flatbread that still smelled of the oven; slices of grilled meat encrusted with a zesty paste of nuts and oil and vinegar; pots of stewed meat in a bright red tomato gravy with leek and prunes; bright green soup with spinach and leek and barley; and most captivating of all were the desserts. Plates of bright yellow halwa in the shapes of moons, stars, and a centerpiece in the shape of the tazia itself, flavored and decorated and even colored with rehydrated and dried fruits and nuts, with rose water and sugar syrups and chocolate.

Homa stood captivated by the food but only briefly.

While everyone else began to make up plates and to move aside for others–

She sidestepped the table entirely, squeezing through to the back of the stage.

There was someone she now hoped to see more than a plate of meat.

Behind the curtains in the back of the stage there was a platform where the instruments and various other acoutrements were laid out for the folks who would be performing, whether in view of the stage or hidden behind. Sitting on the edge of this platform, hidden from the sight of the villagers, her long legs and bare feet hanging off the raised structure– was Kalika, still in her dancer’s garb, save for the veil which she had taken off.

Homa found her laughing and smiling as she sat, catching her breath still.

“Kalika!” Homa called out, unable to contain her own smiling face.

Kalika glanced over to her, and her lips spread into a bright and joyous beam.

“Homa! You look so pretty! I was so surprised to see you dressed like that.”

“I was just getting into the spirit. You– you were amazing Kalika!”

Homa approached the platform. Kalika extended a hand and helped her climb up.

Then, she hooked her arm around Homa’s shoulder and pulled her cheek to cheek.

Sitting side by side behind the curtain, staring at the distant rock wall, laughing.

“It felt amazing.” Kalika said. “I had not done something like that in such a long time. I was surprising myself with some of those moves!” She made some of the motions with her hand that she did on stage, carefully lifting her hand in time with music that was no longer playing and gesturing over her own face. Carefully demonstrating the technique. “Moving so rapidly and deliberately, in such a rehearsed way– I can still feel it like there is an energy brimming under my skin that wants to get out. It was fun! I hope everyone enjoyed the show.”

“They better have enjoyed it!” Homa said. “It was incredible, Kalika. I was speechless.”

Kalika shut her eyes and smiled at Homa. Was her face perhaps blushing just a bit?

“Have you been having fun today?” Kalika asked.

Homa smiled again, perhaps more easily and casually than ever.

In that moment, she was all smiles.

“I’ve had a great time. I’ve had so many kebabs, and Sareh gave me a mehndi.”

She showed Kalika her arm, and Kalika in turn showed Homa her own in detail.

“Who knew that girl was so artistic?” Kalika asked.

“Right? Shes a bit blunt but she’s actually really creative.” Homa said.

“Everyone here is rather amazing.” Kalika said. “I almost wish I could stay.”

Homa felt like her heart caught in her chest for just a second.

Could she ever stand to lose Kalika–?

“Me too.” She said– not entirely honestly–

“But–” Kalika took Homa’s prosthetic hand with her own, entwining their fingers.

“We’re both going to the same place, aren’t we Homa?”

Implicitly, all of this time– Homa had been acting– she had already decided–

She was a communist now– along with all of the people of the Brigand.

“Yeah. We’re going to the same place.” Homa said, eyes tearing up.

Though she did not entirely understand what that meant, she knew that she had already decided to entwine her fate with that of that mysterious ship and all the strange, kind people that worked aboard it. She knew that had been the case ever since she accepted the doctor’s kindness, and the Captain’s sincerity, and most of all, Kalika’s endless, inexplicable and sometimes vexing support. As much as she pouted and rebelled– as much as she feared for her life– she felt that she both owed them, and had nowhere to go– but also–

–she felt that she wanted to be at their side because they were capable of change.

Homa, herself– she had already changed because of the opportunity they gave her–

Perhaps only a little– perhaps only the tiniest microgram of change.

She had changed enough, however, that leaving that ship was out of the question.

And leaving Kalika behind was an even more frightening prospect.

For a moment the two of them locked eyes. Tenderly– their gazes also changed–

“Homa– on the day that I met you in Kreuzung– this will sound so silly, but–”

Kalika had begun talking, but Homa moved first on her own accord, pressing on her.

Nearing her face, brushing her cheek, and taking her lips into a kiss quickly reciprocated.

In that moment their hearts entwined as tightly as their steel fingers.


Outis stood in front of the feast table, picking out small amounts of food with a smile.

She thought she had what was a normal and reasonable plate of food on her hands.

Along the way, however, another woman in line looked at her plate and got her attention.

“Madame– it’s truly okay to eat your fill here. Please don’t hold back.” She said.

When Outis looked down at the small scoop of veggies, the one piece of meat–

“Ah, thank you. I am just– used to being frugal.”

Unused to having such unrestricted access to food without the Warlord’s say-so, she had unwittingly fallen back into old habits. So with the blessing of the people in the line, she went back through the feast table until her plate was actually full. Once it was, she walked away, picking at it. Everything was delicious, but her mind became just a bit preoccupied.

These people don’t have so much that they can afford to give away.

It was a bit puzzling– when she grew up, it was not uncommon to conspire to kill another numeroi just to have at their rations for a bit. Here, these Shimii who lived in the roughly hewn rock in the outskirts of an actual town, visibly deprived of space and opportunity by the Shimii outside those gates– they still gave everything they had not just to each other but total strangers. This was a far sight from how the Imbrians had always behaved.

Nowadays it was not all bad in Mycenae– the Warlord had cleaned up a lot.

After purging the corrupt Synkletos, and killing all of their families and households–

Those were years when Odyssia– Outis– was able to eat better.

Enough to be able to make friends for less selfish reasons than cheating them out of food.

Perhaps that was why she had opted to be partisan toward Astra Palaiologos.

Where she went, plenty seemed to follow her– her people were treated well.

Would Astra ever be so charitable, however, if she were in these people’s position?

And– would any of them? If another tragedy took everything from them one more time?

If they were rendered powerless?

She grabbed a skewer and tore off a bit of meat from it with her teeth.

It was so savory that it nearly brought tears to her eyes.

Well– the Warlord is the best hope we have ever had of creating a future for Katarre.

Perhaps Katarre would never look like this– perhaps they would never smile like these Shimii could even amid their wretchedness. In the wake of a thousand year history of tragedies so cyclical that they felt inescapable, they sang, they danced– and so did the Katarrans– and maybe they got ready for the next worst thing that would transpire. One could suppose that time moved on regardless, so one might as well enjoy today while it lasted–

Outis dipped the meat in sauce for the next bite.

When she stood in place, she still tapped her feet as if impatiently.

“Ah– have I become too familiar with moving on regardless?” Outis mused to herself.

Hers was a path prophecized never to end– she had to keep moving, no matter what.

Or she would become powerless herself, without question.


“It was a truly magnificent Tishtar, wasn’t it?”

“Possibly the best one this village has ever seen. We’ll need to thank everyone properly.”

Stripped bare of both their clothes and their pretensions, in the glow that followed physical affection, Sareh and Baran laid on a futon together, holding hands still slick with their pleasure and staring at the ceiling. A mechanical fan spun its endless circle, gently turning away the sweat on their faces. They shared one thin blanket decorated with the shapes of masjids and moons. It was a bit chilly but their shared warmth kept them comfortable.

“How is your leg doing? Are you in any pain?”

“You asked before we–”

“I know– but we were a bit vigorous–”

“It’s fine, Sareh. You were quite tender with me. And it’s healing up quite well.”

Sareh felt she had gotten a bit carried away– it wasn’t their first time–

–that had been clumsier and faster, directly following the change in their relationship.

Regardless, neither of them were exactly experienced, so she had been a little worried.

For Sareh, it was still difficult to think that she let Baran be injured.

Worse to imagine that she might hurt her with her greedy little lusts.

They two of them and their dalliance represented part of the future of this futureless place.

Both feared they might see its engineered dead-end. Their courtship was always framed in the triumphs and tragedies of the little village in which they had grown up, discovered their true feelings for each other, and tried to live with vast, twisted contradictions behind everything. Both the feast and famine of their material lives and the whispers and shouts of their own affections. It was difficult not to think of the village when they thought of themselves and not to think of each other when they thought about the village. Both its needs and the dangers that threatened to unravel it completely.

Like the village, their courtship might be lost forever if handled carelessly.

Their biggest fears were unsubstantiated but possible– just like with the village.

For the moment, however, they had peace.

“Someday, I’ll treat you right, Baran, like how you should be.”

“At the moment, I am your wife, and I would say you are treating me splendidly.”

“I know– but you know what I mean. I care about you more than anything.”

“I know what you mean. But– don’t put so much stock in tradition, alright?”

As if to show there was no ill feeling, Baran turned and cuddled up closer to Sareh.

Laying in the bed like the husband and wife that they, technically, were for the day.

“We have to hold another Tishtar next year. I want to see you dance.” Sareh said.

“Kalika did fantastic, didn’t she?” Baran replied, her head laid on Sareh’s chest.

“She did– but I want it to be you! Up on the stage. A bigger stage! Brighter!”

Sareh lifted the hand at her side. Her other hand stroked Baran’s hair.

“That would be quite a sight. We will do it– I’ll dance like you’ve never seen.”

“Yeah! I can’t wait. We’ll absolutely top ourselves next time.”

They became quiet, the energy of their optimism always struggling against reality.

This year they had been able to hold Tishtar– a lot of good turns transpired to enable it. Despite some trials, the village, through God’s grace, made some new friends and welcomed a few returning ones, like Conny. Despite her stated intentions, Rahima had been absent from the festivities, but the supplies she had promised them did turn up without her.

They held an incredible feast and there was more than enough for all of their friends and neighbors to fill their bellies twice over. In the evening service at the masjid everyone told of the miracles of God on the surface, and the stories of the companions, and the gardens that awaited the faithful, which were full of the purest waters and most beautiful trees.

Everything had been beautiful, and the village had been injected with life again.

Was it possible to live every day in this fashion? Could this light and life simply remain?

“Sareh, what worries you in this moment? I feel your breathing quickening.”

Baran pulled even closer and laid her head in the center of Sareh’s chest for a moment.

Sareh smiled at the cheekiness of her wife.

“I’m just thinking about how many things happened the past few days.”

“It’s been lively, hasn’t it? I believe it can be that lively again in the future too.”

“You always read me so easily. Baran– I– I’m afraid I just don’t know how to make it happen.”

“It’s not up to us alone.” Baran said, lifting her head and laying closer to Sareh’s face again.

“You’re right.” Sareh said. “I just wish I could save you and everyone, by myself.”

“That’s foolish. You must at least rely on your wife.” Baran said.

Sareh turned in bed as well– the two of them locked eyes together and held hands.

They pulled in closer for a kiss, their tails entwined, chest to chest.

“Whatever happens, the villagers will remember and cherish this Tishtar and that is good enough for me right now.” Baran said. “Sareh– I will also remember and cherish it– as I cherish every moment I spend with you. Whether as villagers, as Mahdists, as lovers– we’ll be together Sareh. I promise you. I will never leave you. That future is certain.”

Though Sareh did not mention it in that moment– she understood Baran made her choice.

And she, too, would follow Baran no matter what happened.


Night arrived over the little village, understood only as time and the dimming of lights.

For many hours still there was the feast, and the evening service, and the kids ran around until their energy was spent. The aunties ate and told stories well into the night and attended prayers that lasted for as long as there were people with piety to spend. There was so much food that everyone in the village had their fill and more and the table only emptied when it was decided to retire plates going hours-cold as leftovers for different families.

Homa and Kalika, hand in hand, joined in the feast, and everyone congratulated Kalika for her dance. She was asked to reprise a few of her moves and gladly put on little impromptu performances for anyone who asked. Homa received heaps of praise and many thanks for her assistance, which she uncharacteristically accepted without equivocating in any way. Some people went as far as to say her appearance was a God-sent omen for the Tishtar.

She was asked to come back next year, and she said that she would try.

Khadija and Sieglinde remained fixed to the feast table and to a gaggle of aunties who vaguely recognized her surname, which she had not disguised. She made conversation among women only slightly older than herself, and faced the strange situation of being treated like a girl when she was used to being the older woman in the room. Sieglinde smiled and nodded along, unable to say anything much but seemingly enjoying the company.

It was easy to catch her fixating on Khadija all throughout the party.

Sameera and Dominika kept to themselves for a while, until Sareh and Baran joined them and made some small talk. When Sareh and Baran retired to their own quarters, they welcomed Homa’s friends to stay the night if they did not feel like traveling back to their ship. All of them took her up on it, briefly calling back to their ship to report.

Tishtar thus concluded. Before retiring, everyone left at the feast table led a cheer.

Tomorrow, they would put away all of the festival items.

But they would always remember their village as it was on Tishtar, full of color.

Color that glinted off of the necklace that Homa wore, unbeknownst to her.

When she retired for the night, she and Kalika held hands and slept close together.

They knew they had become more than friends or comrades, but had not had the chance to talk over what had transpired and what their feelings and desires truly were. Regardless, Homa held Kalika’s prosthetic hand in her own and fell asleep, and as she did so, her other hand lifted to hold her necklace. That dormant sliver of a once-venerated elder–

Color drifted into it and its ancient voice, unheard, whispered affectionaly–

We are so happy for you. We are glad you are well. Homa– we love you, Homa–

In her sleep, Homa smiled and dreamed so sweetly.


In the middle of the living room in a luxury apartment, a small object flew over a couch.

Shaped like a vertical hanging cylinder on four small rotors, with visible camera lenses marked by a slight glare dotting its body. There was a demarcation at the bottom end of the cylinder as if the lower third was a separate rounded-off square module. Sleek, unpainted metal coated in a dulling glaze so as to reduce its reflectivity; the quadrotor made very little sound as it moved. It was quick, and precise, and sturdy enough for its movement.

As a demonstration of its abilities, its lower half detached and hung by a cable.

Once it touched the floor, a pair of wheels emerged from the chassis and rolled the canister around the carpet, stretching the cable. It made a few quick laps between all of the couches, and the onlookers assessed the speed with which it could reach its target, and the length of the cable. It was also demonstrated that the drone could switch to a horizontal mode to fit in smaller spaces, and tuck in the rotors closer or farther from the chassis to maneuver.

Its payload, however, could not be discharged, even for a test– it had to be taken as it is.

“Inside the canister is enough G8 to cover a room. Isn’t it a lovely little gadget?”

Rubbing her hands together and practically salivating, with a tablet in her hands controlling this specific drone. A tall, skinny woman with long, golden-brown hair that fell over her shoulders, separated over her forehead, and soft and round cheeks twisted in a wicked sneer, round glasses perched on her nose. She wore an entirely black uniform, adorned with an armband, red with a white circle containing a black sun-disc, and her lapel had a metal pin resembling a braided square net, turned to resemble a diamond shape, with hooked crosses on its ends. This symbol denoted an engineering officer for the national socialist armed forces, and Henrietta Hermann was one such officer, and quite an example.

Atop her head was a peaked cap adorned with a totenkopf— Volkisch special forces.

“G8 viciously targets the nerves, inducing a complete neurological shut-down in seconds, with little hope of an antidote being administered. Once this transpires, multiple organ failure will be absolutely certain. It is technically possible to save a G8 victim by hooking them up to complete life support– but none of our targets will have this chance.”

“How long will the gas linger around? Is there a possibility for collateral?”

A strong but confident voice, unshaken by the grim subject matter.

“Absolutely not, mein gauleiter! The wonderful thing about G8– it lingers for only a few minutes before decaying into harmless compounds that wither away in the ventilation with no one the wiser. Our target profile will be quite contained, I assure you.”

Henrietta insisted; and Rahima Jašarević smiled approvingly.

“How many drones are ready to go?” Rahima asked.

“Enough to secure your rule, Gauleiter,” answered the blond woman ever at Rahima’s side, Bernadette Sattler, “Enough to carry out the operation even in the unlikely event that we meet any resistance. I explicitly ordered Henrietta to prepare for the worst.”

“Yes, indeed! Furthermore, it is possible to deploy the G8 tactically in combat.”

“I would strongly prefer not to be discovered, or to employ chemical weapons in battle.”

Rahima reached into her coat and produced a small tablet which she handed to Henrietta.

Henrietta picked it up, switched it on, and immediately grasped the contents.

“Quite thorough! Impressive work, milord! It more than suffices!” Henrietta said.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time, Hauptscharführer Hermann.”

A perhaps casual thought that many people had, once or twice in their lives, was whether and how and whom they would kill to get whatever they desired. How many people they hated and how much. In children it was viewed as an antisocial and threatening action to generate a list of enemies, an omen of a darker intellect than prior perceived; as an adult, it might even be used as evidence of a future action if such a list was revealed and if the hand that produced it was viewed as having the means to carry out reprisals. Nevertheless, it was not so uncommon to make enemies, and therefore, to keep their foul tally.

Ever since that fateful day when her governorship was stolen from her–

Ever since her colleagues and the system she upheld betrayed her in every possible way–

Ever since the destruction of all her dreams and beliefs in one overwhelming instant–

Rahima carefully populated her list. Names, addresses, and crimes. Hundreds of them.

There was no need to single out the manner of judgment– only death would expiate.

And now the Kolibri drones represented the sheathes containing her Long Knives.

Rahima watched the drone sway in front of her, its form quietly filled with killing might.

Her head briefly flashed with images that felt as if from a different person entirely–

Arriving at Aachen– all the political work– the hope for a future ever-brightening–

Conny, smiling at her, proud and supportive of what she accomplished–

Those two kids in their little village, holding their festival amid the hatred of everyone–

“You have twelve hours to prepare. We will begin the operation on my command.”

On not one single word did she hesitate and there was no pain in her heart or head.

A smiling Henrietta saluted with glee; and the stoic-faced Bernadette saluted with her.

Both quickly left Rahima to complete their assigned tasks.

There was nothing more that needed to be considered or to be thought or said.

Everything Rahima had ever been and ever seen would be destroyed and then remade.

“It will be ours– It will be us taking it in our hands once and for all.” She told herself.

Rahima knew– ever since she donned the black, there was no escaping from Destiny.

However– she would turn the black on all of those who debased and abused the Shimii.

Who had debased and abused– her self–

“They will suffer disgrace in this world.” Rahima murmured to herself, the beginnings of recitation. “And on the Day of Judgment, we will subject them to the torment of burning.”

And the Shimii would walk into a bloodstained future as they had many times before.


Flickering intermittent lamplight, dim, most of the diodes stricken black with age.

Casting a curtain of half-light between two support girders.

Partially illuminating the slight smile on Tamar Livnat’s face. Arms crossed in front of her, coat over her shoulders and fixed at the waist for warmth. In the deepest, oldest parts of Aachen were so many men had toiled for ores and died here forgotten. There was not even the dust of them left and so nothing to force recognition of this site as a grave. The site was chosen purely because of its advantages, but the irony was not lost on Tamar, how much this abandoned mine and its long gone corpses resembled her conception of Eloim history– the world a mass grave without evidence of what was taken from them.

Save that which she, and perhaps she alone, collected for them.

Tamar Livnat, the gravetender of the glory of Judea– until now.

“Is everything prepared? I would like the ugliness to be over before the day.”

Across the girders, in third-light if Tamar’s was only a half–

There was a jovial, euphoric grin that met Tamar’s query with an unrelenting glee.

At first appearing as if detached from a face, until the owner took a step closer.

“The goyim stand no chance, Manhig. We shall give them quite a show before their defeat.”

From the darkness approached a woman in a white military uniform, pristine despite the surroundings, decorated with a blue armband upon which there was a white star. Such stars, blue and white, adorned her uniform as well in many places, and she had two which served as earrings. Her tidy, black hair fell over her shoulders and down her back, and she had tidy bangs which framed a pretty and fair face– one that was distorted by the sheer vehemence of her sneer, which seemed to seize every facial muscle as she cackled to herself.

Tamar’s lips did not rise nor fall a bit in response.

“You are a good child; you are all good children. I believe in all of you.”

“Your praise elevates me,” replied Menahem Halevi, eyes twinkling with their own stars.

Tamar would not fool herself as to the magnitude of the task ahead.

The Eloim were a dead people who had lost even their true name–

All of them had lost the true comprehension of what their rituals and teachings even meant–

A decaying body with an empty brain.

However– this body was about to receive an injection of life, and a calling, a rallying cry.

“Next year, in Yerushalem— my dear Aluf Menahem.” Tamar said.

Tamar buried the weak part of herself when her sister was mutilated by the fascists.

Now it was time for every Eloim to bury their weakness and unearth their lost nation.

Death begot life– and the deaths of all of those that they hated would revive the Eloim.

It was only a matter of seeing it through to the end, without mercy, without hesitation–

“It will be so– the Dibuqim will finally emerge.” said Menahem, rubbing her fingers.

Only a matter– of hating everything as they themselves had been hated.


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins Of The End [S1.9]

This chapter contains graphic sexual content.


After Descent, Year 975

Gertrude Lichtenberg, half-stripped down, laid in bed in a hotel room in Nichori Station.

She was afforded a very lux room due to her status.

She had large windows, broad glass panels on three sides surrounding and framing a soft and plush bed, king-size. She had her own bathroom. There was complimentary wine on a rack, and a cooler with beer and water, also a courtesy. The entire hotel had been booked for the use of the Inquisition and the Navy. Nichori was square arcology-type station– the sort that had a false steel sky and discrete buildings and streets within its interior.

When she looked out of her open windows, she could see stretching in every direction a great number and variety of buildings under a dark indigo false sky, cloudless, distant. Everything under that false sky was very real to the senses. Skyscrapers towering over pubs and shops, multi-story office buildings between, massive neon signs and holographic adverts. Entire facades of buildings with computerized paneling displaying videos, messages. In the distance, to the north, there was a patch of clear green ground, colored so by grassy hills and patches of trees broken up by lower-lying, wider buildings. Nichori University.

Her face was colored, lit up in the artificial lights that shone from outside of her windows.

Gertrude was in Nichori to put down a riot. Another of Bosporus’ many student ‘uprisings’.

But her eyes listlessly staring out the window had something atypically horrid burned in.

In her mind’s eye, was a woman’s body, one that she had seen. Seen, smelled, touched.

Mutilated, ripped open, irregularly burned, ruined with such hatred that chilled the heart.

Everything started as a routine and easily controlled protest by the student movements against the conservative-leaning educational regulators, this time over textbook revisions. Then the protests became full-blown riots after a young student movement leader, Uria Livnat, was found murdered. No– it was not just that she was murdered. She was practically defiled in death, and nobody cared– Gertrude was not there to investigate her death. She was there to investigate the rioting, to put it down, to return order and normalcy, and to arrest a few student movement ‘ringleaders’ in order to call it a day’s Inquisiting.

Gertrude had only worn the uniform of High Inquisitor for precious little time.

She had stolen this uniform from an ambitious man, a cruel man.

A man who had become too used to his invincibility and thought he wielded the Inquisition’s powers solely for himself. She wondered if Brauchitsch had come into the Inquisition a bastard sadist drunk on his power, or if seeing too much of this sort of thing ultimately perverted him. That day as she laid alone in that room after having seen that woman stripped entirely of dignity in death and came to terms that she would do nothing about it, she felt keenly the limitations placed on the seemingly powerful High Inquisitors.

High Inquisitors only had as much freedom as the Inquisition had patience to spare for it.

All of their privileges were just a result of the Inquisition’s desires. Gertrude could lay catatonic in this hotel room because the Inquisition trusted her. They trusted her to restore order to sensitive events where they had no one else as skilled or discrete as required.

Maybe they would ruin her body like that of Uria Livnat if she ever displeased them.

Gertrude had certainly put Brauchitsch through a lot of pain before he went, after all.

Everything she was doing; she was doing for Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller.

Her childhood friend; her sweetheart, one might say; her guiding light, her lodestar.

Gertrude tried to burn in her mind the divine image of Elena, so alive, holding her hand.

Excusing all of the evils she had committed with her shining smile and endless heart.

But she couldn’t get it out of her head. Uria Livnat was a constant headline in Nichori.

In all of Bosporus even. It wasn’t the only headline. Everything about this was so dark.

Would Elena have forgiven her for not playing the hero here– would she have understood?

There was something happening in the Empire of late.

The murder of Uria Livnat had to be a hate crime by a fascist group. Maybe the Blood Bund. They were in the news– there was a leak that one of the Treckow heirs had been involved with them. She imagined that grim-faced noblewoman leering over the corpse she had made after all manner of unspeakable things before riding off to a hotel room nicer than this. It was unkind of her to think something so salacious, but the nobility was not above this. Gertrude could easily believe there were peers involved in sick shit with the Volkisch Movement. Perhaps she wasn’t allowed to investigate further, to do the right thing, because of those connections, and the inconvenience it would cause to the moneyed powers.

Circular thoughts– no matter what she did she couldn’t get what she saw out of her head.

But she couldn’t do anything about it, but to break up the pickets and return to the ship.

It was the fifteenth or sixteenth time of the night that she turned over this murder when–

There was a loud and sudden knocking on her door. She ignored it for a few minutes.

Then came the voice, familiar, a bit deep, a bit nasal, rough and rich, mischievous.

“Hey ‘Trude, you done crying? Can I come in now?”

“No?”

“Well fuck you. I’m coming in.”

“Ugh. It figures.”

Ingrid Jarvelainen-Kindlysong charged into the room, sans any permission but with great enthusiasm to her every movement. Gertrude would have locked the door if she had wanted to definitively keep her out– what kept anyone else from walking in was that she had told Schicksal and Vogt she was not to be disturbed. But Ingrid was not just anyone. Schicksal and Vogt could not have possibly gotten her to behave. She did not listen to anyone.

Anyone– but Gertrude herself, of course.

And then, only sometimes.

“Come on, quit your moping. Look at this swanky place we’re holed up in!” Ingrid said.

She was dressed only slightly more than Gertrude in that she had a tanktop and shorts. She got up on Gertrude’s bed and made herself comfortable, taking in the sight of the window for a few moments in stunned silence. She set down a tray of food. There was a delicate liver pate, sea urchin roe with delicate herbs, and thin slices of extremely delicate and marbled, freshly dry-brined raw beef. On the side, duck fat croutons were offered for dipping.

Ingrid reached for one of the complimentary wine racks.

Without glassware, she simply popped off the cork and drank from the bottle.

“Wine’s not my thing but even I can tell this is the quality shit.” Ingrid said, laughing and sidling up to Gertrude, offering the bottle. “I can taste the fucking manicure and nap the grapes got before they were pressed. What’s it saying here? Nutty notes?”

Gertrude took the bottle from Ingrid while she was trying to read the tasting notes.

Sighing, she took a swig from it. She was surprised at how different it was from the cheap wine they had on the ship. From the moment her nose neared the opening of the bottle, the aroma of the wine was fragrant, with an almost peppery spice to the scent alone. Its flavor was much more complicated too, though she did not know that she could describe it as nutty. She had no idea what to describe it as, in fact. It was simply rich and strong.

She took another deep draught then thrust the bottle back at Ingrid.

“There you go! Now it’s a party!” Ingrid said. With enthusiasm she resumed drinking.

Quietly, Gertrude picked up a crouton and wrapped a thin slice of beef around it.

Popping the morsel into her mouth, almost overwhelming by the richness of it.

She stole the bottle out of Ingrid’s hands for a quick drink– the beef was so unctuous.

And the croutons too– it was fat on fat on fat, her cheeks stung with the sheer flavor.

“Hey– ah, whatever, have at it. You gonna say anything to me, by the way?”

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said, handing the bottle back to her companion.

Her head began to feel a little heavier from the alcohol and exhaustion.

“There’s no use hiding it from me. What’s your problem, ‘Trude?” Ingrid asked.

“Where can I even begin? I’m at work. I have nothing but problems.” Gertrude said.

“Quit it.” Ingrid said, sighing. “That’s bullshit. Something specific has got you insane.”

“It’s really nothing. I’m just tired. I had to crack a seventeen-year-old on the head today.”

“And I had to crack ten and they were bigger. We’re bastards, it’s our job. That ain’t it.”

Gertrude averted her gaze. She reached for the bottle again, but Ingrid withheld it from her.

“Tell me what the fuck is wrong with you. Quit lying to me. Or I’m leaving.”

Her hands left hanging in the air, Gertrude felt a growing sense of exasperation.

“Alright, fine.” She grunted. “Weren’t you freaked out? That woman– that girl. We’ve seen politically motivated killing before, we’ve seen passionate killing, but it wasn’t as absurd as what we saw. It wasn’t this extreme. It fucks with my head, Ingrid. They did just enough that we could tell who it was, we could see enough of what she was like, but the rest– it was disgusting what they did to her. I can’t imagine what her final moments were like.”

“Somebody got their rocks off with that alright.” Ingrid said. “What are you gonna do?”

“What do you mean? There’s nothing I can do.” Gertrude nearly shouted.

Ingrid was unbothered. “Alright, that’s settled. You going to think about this any more?”

“Of course, I am! You’re so frustrating! How can you just ignore any of this?”

“I’m pretty skilled at not making shit my business that isn’t. I’m a Loup, ‘Trude.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Whenever Ingrid brought up her race Gertrude immediately felt a wave of guilt.

Ingrid hated when that happened.

“Ugh, come on. Come on! I’m just making a point. You’re a fucking dog too.” She said, smacking Gertrude on the shoulder. Her breath smelled of the wine’s strong aroma, and the proximity of that warmth made Gertrude’s skin shiver. Ingrid pushed herself until she was nearly nose to nose with Gertrude. “You and I both have to bite on command. Remember what you want to do! We have to tolerate this shit for now until we call the shots.”

She smacked Gertrude’s shoulder again, but this time it was gentler, in a friendlier fashion.

Picking up the bottle again she settled down against the headboard and drank.

“I look up to you; I admire you. I believe in you Gertrude.” Ingrid lifted the bottle. Her words were starting to slur a ltitle. “Someday shit will be different. You can’t save everyone. You can’t save that girl. You can’t save other girls about to be murdered like her. It’s gonna happen Gertrude. It’s been happening. It’s nothing new and it will only keep getting older with us. You can only stop it when you can stop it. You gotta get power, real power, the power not to take shit from no one. And then you can be the fucking hero.”

She tipped the bottle to Gertrude as if cheering for and then drank again. She smiled.

Gertrude was transfixed with her for a moment.

Ingrid was so strong. Of course, something like this did not bother her.

Wild and free, but bitingly cunning. More patient, more focused, than she appeared.

“I admire you too.” Gertrude said, comforted despite the chaos of Ingrid’s companionship.

“Of course, you do. I’m the fucking best.” Ingrid said. “Here, drink up. And eat more!”

Smiling for the first time that night, Gertrude took the bottle, and drank to Ingrid’s health.


After Descent, Year 979

Depth Gauge: 5040 meters

Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)

“Ingrid, can I sit here?”

“No?”

“Well– alright. Nice seeing you.”

“Mm-hmm.”

Gertrude found Ingrid in the cafeteria, put on a smile, and made her approach.

Ingrid immediately glanced from her plate with an annoyed, narrow-eyed glare.

She was dressed in her pilot’s bodysuit, with her wild, beautiful hair tied into a ponytail.

On the job, with a plate of food, alone in a table in a corner of the cafeteria.

Her expression was not any more intense or different than Gertrude knew it.

Ingrid was frequently annoyed with Gertrude. It was something Gertrude both regretted and sometimes could not help. Sometimes Ingrid had been annoyed with her because she was moody. Sometimes Ingrid was annoyed with her because Gertrude decided not to crack some criminal’s skull open since she needed to actually talk to them. Sometimes Ingrid found something funny that Gertrude did not. And sometimes– Gertrude broke her heart. It was only a few hours since, so she couldn’t be surprised that Ingrid would still be mad, but it still hurt that in addition to losing her lover she felt she also lost her best friend.

There was nobody else that she could sit with and horse around like with Ingrid.

Ingrid made things that seemed overwhelmingly important look actually trivial.

Gertrude wished dearly that Ingrid could just tell her now all her problems were something that did not bother her. That did not faze her. That she was too focused on her own shit to care that psionics were real and that monsters could put a whole ship to sleep and that an ancient civilization had locked incredible, secret technologies behind biological locks and keys, within people, and within things that looked like people.

That what she saw in her pools did not bother her one bit.

But there was no taking back how Gertrude had treated her.

If Ingrid never gave her a chance to make up for it then– that was that.

She deserved this punishment, and as much as she wanted Ingrid back, she would endure.

Because she deserved worse for treating her as so disposable when she was so special.

Sighing, Gertrude took her tray of food and scanned the room, walking a few paces–

“Oh, good timing. I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Sit wherever and I will join you.”

A small, dour voice without a hint of embellishment– it was Victoria van Veka.

Walking into the cafeteria, she found Gertrude immediately and called for her attention.

“Good morning to you too. Should I call you Commander now?” Gertrude said snidely.

“Good morning. If it will stop you acting so injured, I was excited to see you and forgot to exchange pleasantries. Now that my head’s bitten off, I will get food.” Victoria said bluntly.

Gertrude felt completely put in her place– the place of a childish idiot.

She sat in the far opposite corner from Ingrid. Victoria joined her shortly afterward.

Because of the reduced schedule, there was no one on kitchen duty. In preparation for this, self-serve machines with cold storage and heat lamps for different kinds of small, packaged dishes were set up in front of the serving counter. These were stocked in the very early morning. Gertrude had a three part lunch, consisting of a plastic container of chicken soup, a foil-wrapped egg salad sandwich on soft white bread, and a dish of mixed vegetables flavored with garlic and shallot paste. She was surprised by how warm the chicken soup was, and how savory. Though the broth was speckled with fat and stray strands peeled off the hastily cut-up chicken chunks, Gertrude preferred it this way to a cleaner broth. She liked the rustic texture of it. The sandwich was soft, with a creamy filling, the boiled egg blended perfectly with the mayonnaise to create a smooth spread. Green beans, carrots, and broccoli, tangy with garlic and shallot and perhaps a touch of vinegar, rounded out the nutrition. Not Gertrude’s favorite part of a meal, but she had no complaints.

While she and Victoria picked at the food, in between bites, they talked in relative privacy.

“I wanted to talk to you about Nile.” Victoria said.

“Are you two fighting again?” Gertrude asked.

“No. Please calm down. I am reevaluting her. I wanted you to know.” Victoria said.

“Thank you, Victoria.” Gertrude replied, sighing at her own skittishness.

Victoria’s ears folded just a bit and she narrowed her eyes a little.

“It’s not for you– she has earned it. When you disappeared, I could see how much she feared for your safety. She worked hard to comb the halls and to try to make sense of the layout of the station. She led one of the search parties, until all of us succumbed to the dream. It did not strike me as the attitude of a nefarious character who was only out for herself.”

“I had no idea I caused her that much grief. I just saw her a few hours ago.”

“If it were me I wouldn’t want you to think that way. I wouldn’t bring it up.”

“I see. Well– then I suppose I won’t know whether you were worried about me.”

“Of course I was worried about you. I’m not as cold-hearted as you paint me.”

She said this without much shifting in her tone.

Gertrude always tried to keep a close watch on Victoria’s mannerisms, since her speech was usually so balanced that it carried little implication of how she seemed to actually feel. Gertrude felt that last statement was said without negativity.

“At any rate. You were concerned that I would dispose of her, so I wanted to tell you.” Victoria said. “I am beholden to do something about Nile, but I believe that can be to leave her with you. As a ship’s doctor I think she is harmless, and she seems engaged in it.”

“You don’t think she will return to her ‘Sunlight Foundation’ as soon as she can?”

“Do you?” Victoria asked, meeting Gertrude’s eyes suddenly.

Gertrude had not meant to alarm her, but she had to be realistic.

“I would love it if she stayed aboard. She’s a fantastic doctor. I’ll certainly try to keep her.”

“But if she asks you to let her go, you will do so?”

“I don’t know if she will or won’t, and I don’t know how I’ll feel at the time.”

She knew she would hate it if Nile left her. She– she esteemed her greatly.

However–

It was too difficult to explain those feelings to another woman she felt the same way about!

So for now she admitted to as little as she could. Victoria looked content with her words.

“Fair enough Gertrude. I’ll continue to be on my guard. But– I feel positive about her.”

“I’m glad. Do you think you’ll tell her that? So you can stop catfighting all the time?”

Victoria narrowed her eyes at Gertrude again. Her tail stood on end, in cautious alertness.

“We weren’t catfighting and we didn’t do it all the time certainly.” She mumbled.

“You’re not going to tell her anything, huh?” Gertrude grumbled.

“At the moment, no, but I told you already, I’m evaluating and feel positively.”

“You know, you can be really hard to read sometimes.”

Victoria tipped her head to one side, her ears wiggling once.

“Sorry. Nevermind.” Gertrude said. “I have something I want to talk about too.”

Since she got up in the morning, knowing the crew had a day off, she had been thinking of whom she would spend some leisure time with. Monika was still recovering in Nile’s care. Ingrid needed space. Azazil was still due to be processed into the crew and she stressed Gertrude out anyway, there was no way to relax if she kept teasing her all day.

That meant there was only one real, present choice.

“Victoria, everyone has a day off today. How were you thinking of spending it?”

“You want to ask me out.”

Gertrude should not have been surprised that Victoria would cut through the crap this fast.

Nevertheless, Victoria’s bluntness caught her out once again.

“I– I mean yes, I kinda– I wanted to ask that, but if you don’t want to you don’t–”

“Obviously I can deny any such request, you don’t have to remind me.”

“So are you saying yes or no?”

Victoria shut her eyes and crossed her arms. “I am saying ‘yes’ I suppose.”

Gertrude sat in her chair, looking across the table awkwardly.

That tortured, vague way that she asked, and the tortured vague answer she received.

All of it made her feel like her blood was curdling.

“Okay, let’s start over. Victoria, will you go out with me today?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

In order to avoid talking further for a moment Gertrude devoured the rest of her sandwich.

Her heart began to soar when she realized moments later that Victoria had accepted.

There were a few things they could do on the ship– it was a very large ship.

She had hardly planned for Victoria to acquiesce so now she had to think of what to do.

“I want to change into a lighter outfit.” Victoria said. “Let’s meet up again later.”

“That works for me.” Gertrude said. “I’ll change too. Then the crew will see me relaxing.”

“Okay. I will see you in half an hour then?”

“Got it. See you then.”

“See you.”

Both of them remained at the table for a moment, staring, before standing with their trays.

Depositing the spent plastic in the recycling bin, setting the trays in the collector.

Then they left together and walked largely together toward, basically, the same destination.

There was no other route to the officer’s lodgings, it was all in the same hallway.

Nevertheless true to their words they had departed and did not acknowledge each other.

Disappearing into their own rooms until the time appointed for them to meet.

Neither of them acknowledging the absurdity of what had transpired.

Once the door shut behind her, Gertrude took a deep breath, and then burst out laughing.

“God– well, what I am going to wear?” She said, her heart fluttering with joy.


One of the perks of a dreadnought, a regal ship that was so much larger than the Cruisers and Frigates that acted as the workhorses of any Navy– was that its spaciousness gave room for comfort and even some small luxuries. More than just the broad and tall halls with their painted walls, art pieces, smooth music and high-romantic aesthetics, the Iron Lady also had more and better amenities than other ships. Such details played a part in retaining a professional crew. They worked hard not only because of the prestige of their position but because serving on a dreadnought meant serving in a much better environment.

For the crews of Cutters, there were no provisions for communal entertainment. Very few spaces on such a ship allowed more than five or six people to congregate at a time, and the social pod was a single cushioned booth table with a few amenities.

On a Frigate, there was always an actual social pod with comfortable seating and A/V equipment, the size of a tight little bar that could fit up a bit over a dozen people people watching a movie, listening to music, reading, or relaxing. It was cozy enough.

On most Cruisers the social pod was arranged like a broad lounge just off of the hallway on the second tier. It was a clear and massive upgrade. There were couches and tables, there were a few curtained booths offering slightly more privacy; and the offerings were things like games, a small stage with audio gear for solo performances, projector movie nights. It was mainly an inviting space to get cozy and chat or read a book or listen to some music. While the social pod would be one of the largest spaces on the ship, second only to the hangar, it was still essentially the size of a single, enclosed venue.

On the Iron Lady, the social pod was significantly larger, if only marginally better stocked.

Entertainment remained limited to the things that any ship could feasibly do without any massive alterations. Even a dreadnought could not fit a grand plaza or a sports field or a high-class restaurant anywhere. However, there was much more space in which to do routine activities, and the social pod of the Iron Lady looked almost like shops, with a main thoroughfare and sectioned-off venues. Compared to other kinds of ships, the large, decorated space felt luxurious even if it offered similar amenities.

There was a lounge, with the now-expected amenities but able to hold thirty people semi-comfortably; a fully stocked gym for dozens of people, where volunteers also gave fitness and wellness classes; there were six private rooms with booth seating and audio-video systems; a vending machine the size of a kiosk serving snacks and drinks; there was a little arcade with table games, video games, and a simulation pod; there was a smoking room with strong filtering and venting to prevent spreading air pollution; and there were a pair of discrete, enclosed spaces configurable as hot baths, steamy spas or cold showers, each holding up to four people at a time. All together, the pod’s individual activities could potentially host close to a hundred people, unheard of in other warship classes.

Each of these leisure facilities was fully automated and designed to allow the crew to self-service– and to bar access where appropriate. Everything in the pod was inaccessible without scanning a ship ID card at each door, wirelessly confirming person’s assigned schedule for the day. This made it impossible to unlock facilities if the cardholder was supposed to be working, preventing the extensive facilities from being exploited.

The committed professionals aboard a Dreadnought accepted that their leisure was earned.

Comforted in the knowledge that such amenities existed at all, they had ample patience.

“What do you think? Ever seen a social pod this big before?”

“Now I know why your crew hasn’t revolted against you yet.”

“What? It takes more than just a gym and a smoking lounge to stop that! It takes–”

“Private hot tubs and cheap beer one card swipe away.”

“Well– the cheap beer has to be authorized for disbursal; obviously.”

From the main hallway, Gertrude Lichtenberg escorted her date, Victoria van Veka, through the open double-bulkhead threshold into the Iron Lady’s social pod. Though the pair of them received a few mischievous looks from gossippy sailors and agents, they paid no heed to it. They were dressed up, and going together, but they weren’t even holding hands.

Though Gertrude would have liked to capture Victoria’s hand in that moment.

Victoria looked– quite ripe for the capturing in fact.

She dressed closer to how she looked when they were at school, but much more mature, ripened into a fine young lady. Rather than her vest and pants, she wore a long-sleeved and long-skirted dress, blue and white with a synthetic bodice but a top and skirt that Gertrude could have sworn were natural fabric. It was quite flattering to her slim, gentle curves. Incorporating a wide neck, the design bared her slim shoulders and collarbones. She wore a white frilly choker with it. Her hair, a rich chestnut-brown in color, was done up into two ponytails each ending in a cute little curl. Between her cat-like ears with freshly groomed white fluff, there was a little flat cap, its color and style matching her dress.

Though she did not wear makeup, Gertrude noticed her lips had a bit of colorless gloss.

Her skin looked really soft too, and she smelled nice– she took good care of herself.

There was no denying that she was absolutely gorgeous.

Even back at school Gertrude struggled not to think about the pangs she would feel for Victoria whenever she dressed up in anything but the ordinary school uniform. Even sometimes with the uniform too, as the girls got older. Back then she wanted to express utter loyalty to Elena and such thoughts felt like a horrific betrayal. Now, as her own person, and not Elena’s knight, Gertrude had no one whom she would betray by allowing herself to feel what she felt obviously– Victoria was incredibly beautiful and attractive.

Meanwhile, Gertrude herself had put together a casual outfit as best as she could.

She wore a red button-down shirt with long sleeves usually reserved to be worn with the black and gold dress coat of a High Inquisitor, on special occasions. Sans tie, or the coat, she wore the shirt untucked over black pants and black dress shoes. Her somewhat unfeminine figure was accentuated by the boyish style, and Gertrude wanted to believe she had evoked a certain bad boy handsomeness. She tied her hair up into a bun, but in a fit of sudden whimsy, she had put a skewer through her hair bun as a kind of decoration. She felt like the blaring red shirt made her skin look a bit darker, not that she minded any of it.

For something to accessorize with, she dug out a pair of thin, gold-framed sunglasses.

They had been a gift from Samoylovych-Deepestshore, her fellow High Inquisitor.

“You look incredible, Victoria. I wasn’t expecting such a beautiful dress.” Gertrude asked.

“Is it strange that I have this? It’s light and simple, I can relax in it easily.” Victoria said.

“It’s not strange. I think it really suits you. I’m just surprised you packed it at all.”

Gertrude awaited a return compliment for a moment– and then practically begged for it.

“So– what do you think Victoria? How have I turned out since school?” She asked.

Victoria glanced at her and then averted her eyes. “You haven’t changed one bit.”

“Does it irritate you?” Gertrude asked, trying to crack a grin as if she didn’t mind it.

“Not all. What I mean is, you still try too hard. Sometimes it’s charming.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt a bit of a sting and did not think to prompt any further discussion–

“It’s charming now.” Victoria finally said, before heading into the social pod proper.

Following after her, Gertrude felt a bit like she had won a round of cards just then.

They walked through the thoroughfare and Gertrude pointed out the amenities in place.

After Victoria got a chance to look at everything, Gertrude gestured vaguely at the air.

“So– what would you like to do, princess? I’ll be your escort to whatever you desire.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me princess.” Victoria said, but with a slight bit of a good humor.

Victoria and Gertrude scoped out the arcade first.

Gertrude was not a frequent visitor to these facilities, but she knew her way around them for the most part. There were a few video game machines set against the wall. There was a shooting game with a light gun, a jet-boat racing game with a seat, wheel and pedals, and a scrolling ship game where the screen was replete with projectiles to avoid. Gertrude was not interested in any of them; she sometimes showed up for a round of pool on one of the game tables, or darts at one of several boards. However, what she did enjoy most in the arcade, and wanted to show Victoria, was the simulator pod in the back.

“I don’t fancy brushing up on my piloting skills at the moment.” Victoria said.

“It’s not just a Diver simulation. Come on, you’ll see.” Gertrude replied.

From outside, the pod looked more like a novelty photo booth, a massive square brown box with a door on the side to allow entry, set against the wall. It took up a significant chunk of the back corner of the arcade. Gertrude opened the door and gestured for Victoria to walk in first. There were two small steps to climb to enter. Inside, there a few pairs of lenses on a wall rack, and several round, bracelet-like pieces of equipment, ten of each for up to two people at a time. Aside from the gear the room was seemingly empty, with reflective metal walls all around the interior.

“Clip these on, and wear this.” Gertrude said, taking off her sunglasses for the moment.

Victoria looked at the bracelets and back at Gertrude with a skeptical expression.

She did as she was instructed. Wrists, ankles, knees, elbows, one long enough to go around the waist, one around the neck worn over her choker. Gertrude also clapped on all the bracelets and then donned the special glasses. When they were both side, Gertrude touched the wall to bring up a typical contextual menu. This room was made of touch-capable display walls, but there was even more to it. Just as Victoria began to ask what about this made it a simulation, LEDs on the bracelets flashed, color-projectors emerged from the corners of the floor and ceiling, lighting up.

In an instant, the world that they viewed through the included glasses changed entirely.

Gertrude found herself and Victoria in the middle of a grassy meadow.

Perhaps reminiscent of Vogelheim. Blue sky above, trees in the distance, rolling hills.

There was birdsong, and even some birds flying overhead.

Underneath her feet, the ground was still hard, however. And the air was dry and stale.

“You’re right, it’s not just a Diver simulation.” Victoria said. “What else can it do?”

Gertrude smiled at Victoria, who looked around the meadow with a slight bashfulness.

“It’s limited to the kind of stuff predictor computers can do easily. It generates a landscape based on data that it has available. You can walk around a bit because the floor will actually slide around to keep you in place. You can look, but there’s no tactile sensation. You’ve probably already felt that the air just isn’t as moist and warm as a real green habitat.”

“It’s very high fidelity.” Victoria said. “Even if it’s just a picture– it’s very beautiful.”

“I find it relaxing. Here, I’ll show you my favorite one. It’s amazing.” Gertrude said.

She reached out her hand, and within the simulation, a contextual menu appeared.

From there, she selected “beachside evening.” Prompting the world around them to change.

Slowly it dissolved into the next world that they would come to inhabit.

Blue sky blending into orange red. Grass disappearing into sand and pebbles.

Water and waves, a tide, tongues of the ocean crashing on the dirt and spilling back away.

And in the far distance, the setting sun, a vast orange disc dipping under the horizon.

Too close to be realistic to what the surface was once like, but aesthetically pleasing.

Gertrude looked at Victoria, her soft face kissed by the gentle orange glow.

Hair blowing in a simulated breeze that neither of them felt but both of them now saw.

Even with the missing details, Gertrude found herself immersed in the picture.

Everything was so beautiful and calming, ideal, that she made herself believe in it.

“I admit, Gertrude, I’m more drawn in than I thought I would be.” Victoria said.

She put her hands behind her back, wiggled her ears slightly, and smiled back at Gertrude.

“Would you care for a little walk with me?” Gertrude asked, her disposition ever sunnier.

“For a few minutes only– I don’t want to wear out the illusion.” Victoria replied.

Gertrude reached out her hand. Victoria looked at it briefly, before taking it into her own.

Hand in hand, they set off along the simulated shore. It was something the computer could have never gotten right. That softness and warmth, the gentle grip of Victoria’s slender, smaller fingers. The way she fidgeted as she gripped with the tip of her index finger sliding across Gertrude’s knuckle. At no point did she protest, nor did she rip herself from Gertrude’s grasp. They watched the simulated sun move with them as they walked, another incongruity of this experience’s aesthetic– and Gertrude felt so serene to be in it. Her palm grew warmer, and tingled, where it brushed Victoria’s skin. Where that traveling index finger touched and rapped, unable to stay still; where palms touched, skin grazing skin.

Staring sidelong, briefly catching Victoria’s gaze. Both of them breaking that contact.

Both of them smiling, just a bit. It was a little ridiculous, to be doing this.

A High Inquisitor of a fallen regime; the Bayatar of the ascendant Vekan Empire.

And yet, they were both childhood friends who had cherished each other in their youth.

For the moment, they were allies, distant in allegiances but with a temporary ceasefire.

In this simulation of an impossible place, which had been annihilated long before either of their times– perhaps it was also part of the fantasy to be able to put everything out of their minds and simply walk with their hands held, their heads high and their hearts warm. Feeling living pulse transfer through their skin and deferring yet another day the argument and departures soon to come. In this world, they could just be friends–

(and in another, perhaps, they might have been lovers–)

Gertrude wished that the moment along that false shore could somehow last forever.

Because for once– she felt like she had recovered someone she thought lost forever.

She could almost have wept for the fleeting, almost irrational joy that beset her.

After losing so much, she had gained back something.

In that moment it felt like more than enough to raise the tally to positive.

Victoria looked overhead, shielding her eyes. The corners of her lips moved slightly.

“Gertrude, look.”

Soaring across the sky was a group of birds– several four-winged, manta ray-like birds with short, almost flat beaks. Arrayed in tight formation and moving fluidly, despite themselves.

“Predictor computers.” Gertrude said, as if amused by the antics of a child.

After sighting the predictor inaccuracy, the pair decided to end their walk on a high note.

From the contextual menu, they chose to dissolve the projections, and the world they had been enjoying melted back into the metal walls of the simulator pod. Gertrude took off the AR glasses and withdrew her sunglasses to wear instead– when she noticed, rather than the dozen or so minutes she thought their excursion had lasted, they had actually been in the simulation for over thirty minutes. She was surprised and turned to Victoria, amused.

Victoria in turn simply shrugged. “It was a nice time. Thank you for bringing me here.”

Gertrude thought she might have to cloak her enjoyment in humor to get it past her.

Some part of her was still hesitant and maybe even ashamed to be enjoying this ‘date’.

But Victoria had few secrets where it pertained to her emotions. She said what she meant.

“Where would you like to go next?” Gertrude said. “We’ve got all evening after all.”

“I want to sit down somewhere for a while. Maybe have a snack.” Victoria replied.

Settled on their next destination, the pair left the arcade. People filtering in and out of the venue noticed the two and their eyes lingered as long as they felt they could get away with, afraid they might suffer retribution. Gertrude was not going to punish anyone for gawking– though it did remind her why she made infrequent use of these facilities. She put it out of her mind. At her side, Victoria either did not seem to notice anyone, or she did not care.

Her eyes never wandered.

From the arcade, they walked a few meters down the thoroughfare to the auto-vendor.

King of all vending machines, the auto-vendor was perhaps half size of the simulator pod they had been using, glossy and dark blue, a very serious machine.

Enclosed save for the stocking hatch on its side, locked for use only by the victualers. It had refrigeration, as well as a microwave function, and could vend hot drinks as well. It was stocked with stackable, recyclable plastic snack trays, with a few hot and cold offerings. On the front, its wares were displayed on a touch-capable screen. Crew members would swipe their cards and could then make their selections via touch control.

Gertrude chose a can of dark beer and a tray of crackers, hard cheese and cured meat.

Since leisure time and alcohol were both permissible, and the machine knew, it vended.

Victoria chose a can of lemon seltzer water and a tray of crudite and spicy mustard spread.

Even though she never practiced her religion overtly due to her family’s situation, she was still avoiding alcohol and adhering to the restrictions where she could. Gertrude had known since they were young that this was a sensitive issue for her– so she said nothing of it, did not make any comments as to whether she might or might not drink.

Instead she pointed out the private rooms.

“There’ll be a table in there and some ambiance controls. We can sit down, eat and chat.”

“That sounds lovely. I have been wanting to catch up a bit.” Victoria said.

“Me too. Things just kept getting in the way.” Gertrude said, leading the way.

Each of the private rooms had one long booth seat, cushioned black, a half-table made of carbon-fiber extending from the wall toward the occupants. It could be folded away to give a bit more interior room if it would not be used, but Victoria and Gertrude both set their trays and drinks upon it and kept it raised. Touching the wall brought up the contextual menu for the movie and music player which would project in front of the participants.

There was also a slot on the far wall of the booth seat that contained some towels, a pair of working headphones, a salt and pepper shaker– and a packet of condoms.

Victoria glanced at the condoms and then at Gertrude in a way that seemed accusatory.

On the foil wrappers for the condoms there was a little sun-disc logo Gertrude recognized.

“When did she have time to do this? She better not be encouraging sexual behavior.”

After Gertrude spoke Victoria’s gaze drifted from her, in a way that seemed judgmental.

But Gertrude wouldn’t ask for clarification. She left the condoms where they were found.

Grunting, she reached out to the wall and queued up some slow but jazzy music.

She set the volume down so it would provide ambiance but not interrupt the two of them.

Then she sat back against the booth seat, trying to loosen up. Cracking open her beer can.

“So– what do you think of the ship so far?” Gertrude asked.

Not knowing what to say first– not knowing where to even begin with Victoria.

To begin anew, after years, after throwing away their first friendship.

Victoria peeled the foil off her tray and picked up a celery stick, swirling it in the mustard.

“The Irmingard class continues to impress.” She said, simple and curt as was her habit.

Celery stick lifted from the mustard. Victoria took a bite. She opened her can of seltzer.

“Did you really kill Ludwig von Brauchitsch?” She asked, in a too-casual voice.

Gertrude blinked. She peeled the foil off her own tray while responding.

“This is rather sudden.” She said, putting slice of hard sausage into her mouth.

“You are welcome to withhold an answer. I’m just curious about your current position.”

With her connections in Veka, she must have known something about that situation.

Did she just want to hear it from Gertrude herself?

“Yes, I killed him. I hope you’re not imagining anything grand.” Gertrude smiled, feeling embittered to recall the memory of that pitiful encounter. “It wasn’t an epic showdown or anything– we didn’t have a huge duel; he was just an old man and I had the advantage. It was the opportunity I was given by Norn and Inquisitor Samoylovych that counted.”

Victoria swirled another celery stick in the mustard, winding a circle in the tray.

“You shouldn’t put yourself down too much.” Victoria said. “There are people who would have lapsed in that moment, when they realized the transgression they were about to commit. Our society revolves around an unspoken acceptance that hierarchy can never be overturned. To strike a blow with your own hands against an authority figure is utterly out of the question for most. But you accepted everything that came with that murder.”

“I don’t know that I understood it.” Gertrude said. “I was barely thinking about what it meant to take power from Brauchitsch. I was just desperate. Brauchitsch was going after loose ends from the fall of Schwerin Isle. Ingrid and I were being targeted by a High Inquisitor. It felt like my life was over. I had no rights as a human being anymore. He could do whatever he wanted to me or anyone I cared about with impunity. I was lucky– that Norn was there, that I managed to reach her, that she saw something in me and took me under her wing.”

“It’s not just luck, Gertrude.” Victoria said. “Again, I can’t help but point out that it would be unconscionable for almost anyone to approach Norn the Praetorian, let alone beg of her. While it might seem pathetic, you did something uniquely foolhardy and brave. It’s– something I admired about you– that brazen desire of yours to subvert the norms.”

Victoria had paused in the middle of her sentence. Her expression did not change, however.

“I wish you’d have been there to gas me up in the moment like this.” Gertrude said.

She laughed a little bit. Hoping Victoria might join in.

Trying to restrain herself from seeming too comfortable with the notion of that.

How different would have things been if they had remained friends?

Victoria rewarded her with the tiniest of smiles– but it was more than enough.

“I’m sure you had plenty of people to help inflate your head to its current size.” She said.

“Hey, come on, don’t suddenly turn on me.” Gertrude said.

Both of them laughed, just a little bit, together.

Victoria turned from her tray of food to look Gertrude in the eyes.

“I ask that question, because I also had to kill someone powerful. Becoming Bayatar was no easy thing– and the Empress was not in a position to help.” Victoria said. “Gertrude, after we left each other’s acquaintance, we both committed our first murders. We overturned institutions and took power for ourselves. I– I want to know how you felt about it.”

“Back then? I was terrified. After I put on the uniform Brauchitsch lost, I was still terrified.”

“Yes.” Victoria said. “And you realized power didn’t bring the freedom you hoped for.”

“Exactly. It wasn’t even guaranteed that I’d see Elena again and that was the entire point of everything I was doing. But I lived at the Inquisition’s whim. I realized over time that they got sick of Brauchitch’s arrogance and greed. It became convenient to let him die.”

Victoria nodded and seemed almost excited about that answer when she next spoke.

“You realized that transgression went both ways. I realized the same. In that same way that I killed, I had to accept that I could be killed. Someone could engineer everything perfectly to murder me. It would be tolerated or even praised in the right circumstances.” Victoria said. “Both of us made these covenants, to take power, to take life; and to accept the consequences of both. We are those rare few who overturned power only to see the next set of chains that power would clap on us. We both saw the limitations of our transgressions.”

They locked eyes, and Gertrude felt a warm fondness for her Shimii companion.

She felt foolish too. Because she had never imagined they could have so much in common.

They could understand in each other something they could hardly speak of to anyone else.

“Right.” Gertrude said. “You’ve been through a lot, haven’t you? I was unaware.”

“High Inquisitors are normally appointed; but to be honored as Bayatar, you must kill.”

Victoria did not look nor sound like she wanted anyone’s pity, so Gertrude did not offer it.

“You’ll have to tell me the whole story there sometime,” was her response.

“And you’ll have to tell me about the end of Ludwig von Brauchitch.” Victoria said.

“Sure. I don’t think we have the time or mood to go into everything now.”

“I agree. It is the same with my story. But I do want to tell someone, sometime.”

“I’ll be elated to hear it. I’ll hang on every word.”

“You’ll be an acceptable audience for it.”

Was she teasing her now? Gertrude averted her gaze for a moment.

From that dire starting point, their conversation soon both settled down and livened up.

They were able to talk about their lives as if the events were trivial, just like old friends.

Victoria told her some things about her time in the Vekan court.

As Bayatar, she was kind of like a bodyguard and kind of like a royal guard captain without a retinue. Sometimes she had to control access to the Empress, sometimes she was sent out to complete a task, sometimes she had ceremonial duties. She told of how she had to field a few stupid duels on Carmilla’s behalf and thankfully managed to intimidate the challengers into backing down each time– and then Carmilla spared their lives each time.

“There are several traditions Carmilla chooses to retain that are pointlessly divisive.”

“Well, look at it this way– she looks brave for letting anyone challenge her, and she looks magnanimous for letting cowards who shamed themselves leave with their lives, when you could have just cut them down easily. It’s the kind of thing I associate with ‘Veka’.”

“Perhaps, but there’s more to us than the stereotype of barbarity.” Victoria said.

“I know. But you retain certain traditions to look more intimidating.” Gertrude said.

Victoria did not respond to that but did not seem to hold it against Gertrude either.

Gertrude asked her about horses, and how prevalent they were in the Vekan territory– a curiosity she had always had. Horses were exceedingly rare and valuable in the core of Imbria. There was a stereotype that in Veka, horses were much more accessible. Their culture had a lot of horse iconography, and the horse was a legendary animal to them, widely depicted in their arts. So that must have meant there were more horses there.

“Horses are indeed admired in Veka. They are seen as a symbol of wild, natural power. In fact the House of Veka were first notable in history as a horse-breeding clan.” Victoria said. “They took advantage of the Imbrian conquest to become the appointed duchal family, but the horse-breeding has remained an enterprise of theirs. Basically nobody owns horses– in ceremonies where a horse is involved in something, that animal was bred by the House of Veka and leased. They also produce any horse meat and blood that is eaten.”

“You had to drink horse blood to become a Bayatar right?” Gertrude said.

“Yes. Blood from Carmilla’s own horse, a child of her birth horse.”

“Huh. So the Empress has a specific lineage of signature horses.”

“When she was born, a horse born the same day was gifted to her. They grew up together, but a human lives longer than a horse obviously. So her horse sires or births a descendant that is also bound to her. This continues for as long as she lives. When she dies, her heir will inherit this family of horses. However, if she dies without an heir then the horses must be extinguished with her. Much worse than that will transpire afterward.”

“That’s– pretty incredible.” Gertrude grimaced. “How did the horse blood taste?”

Victoria’s ears folded. “Iron-like and salty, obviously. How does any blood taste?”

“How much did you have to drink?”

“You’ve become too interested in this. I refuse to discuss it any further.”

Gertrude laughed gently at Victoria’s expense.

They were having a good time. Victoria seemed healthy, positive and in good spirits.

Gertrude told a few of her own stories.

About Ingrid, her closest, abrasive companion through her years in the Inquisition; about Konstantinople, the lavish and beautiful seat of the Inquisition that formed part of the Fueller family’s purchase of loyalty from that venal institution; about travelling in the Iron Lady, some surreptitious meetings with Elena at various functions she was allowed to leave Vogelheim for; and finally a few little things that happened in Goryk’s Gorge.

Without yielding too much about each other, both seemed satisfied with what they learned.

Both of them had been through a lot; they had suffered more than the other knew.

And they had suffered similar things and felt familiar conflicts and catharsis.

Somehow after separating they had become more kindred than when together.

Bayatar and (ex-)High Inquisitor, trading stories, barbs and fond looks for several hours.


After talking for what felt like hours, the pair left their private room without words.

Gertrude was sure that they would go their separate ways after leaving the social pod, but to her surprise, Victoria both acknowledged nothing of the sort and also began to follow her closely and quietly back up the hall to the officer’s quarters. She was sure this just meant Victoria was tired and would turn in, but she followed Gertrude past her own door without so much as a glance at it. It felt too good to be true. Gertrude did not ask anything. In turn, Victoria did not say anything or act with anything but her casual confidence.

Without questions, Gertrude opened her door, and walked in, leaving it open–

Thereby allowing Victoria to quietly follow her inside and close it behind her.

Her expression was difficult to read. She looked– tired, perhaps? Wistful?

Victoria walked the length of Gertrude’s room, looking over the space.

“It’s a bit bare, isn’t it?” She asked, breaking the silence.

“I don’t have a lot to put in it. Or that I even wanted to put in it.” Gertrude said.

Perhaps this room was as bare as her personhood had been all these years.

Even after all her years in the Iron Lady, the Commander’s room was still laid out as it was first furnished for her. There was a bed, which was large and made of luxurious materials, with comfortable sheets and a good quality gel inside the mattress, stiff when needed and soft when wanted. There was enough storage for her uniforms and few casual and formal outfits. There were end tables, and she had access to a personal shower–

that was it.

There was not much else to it.

She used to have up a few things from the Inquisition, or Elena– but she put them away.

Maybe someday she would feel comfortable looking at them again– but not now.

“It could use more color.” Victoria said. “Even if just your characteristic red.”

“I didn’t realize red was characteristic of me.” Gertrude said, smiling a little at the attention.

Victoria glanced at her, and pushed on Gertrude’s bed, testing its stiffness.

“You know, I didn’t expect you to agree to go out with me today.” Gertrude said.

“I’ve started reevaluating my attitude on some things.” Victoria said, still poking the bed.

“Because of what happened yesterday?” Gertrude asked.

Victoria shook her head. “Not any one thing. I have been thinking.”

She left the side of the bed and got to walking again. She had a restless energy to her.

“Victoria– can you tell me how you feel about her? About Empress von Veka?”

Gertrude asked, as she watched Victoria pace along the edge of the bed.

It was the shadow which loomed over all their conversations of their past and future.

“You already have a preconception of it. Do you need to know more?” She asked.

“I want to know how my friend is doing and what she is feeling.” Gertrude said.

“Are you worried about me? Do you think I was groomed?” Victoria said, calmly.

“I’m just catching up.” Gertrude said, gesturing gently. “No judgment here.”

Victoria’s ears folded slightly, and her tail moved more stiffly, but she spoke.

“Carmilla is an incredible presence. I admire and esteem her. She makes me feel at ease and comforted. I love her and would kill anyone on Aer for her if she asked.” Victoria said.

Her voice was still her same dispassionate self, but Gertrude could see the admiration.

In her eyes– when Victoria looked far away she was looking at Carmilla.

She felt almost jealous– surely nobody talked about her in such a glowing way.

“But–” her old friend paused her pacing, hands behind her back.

Victoria looked over her shoulder at Gertrude with cold eyes, colder than usual.

Her turn was so sudden that her gaze almost felt like a physical impact on Gertrude.

“It’s not like you and Elena, Gertrude.” Victoria said bluntly.

“I never said it was!” Gertrude said, a bit amused at the comparison.

“You’re thinking it, you must be. Because of our social positions. You think it’s the same.”

“Victoria, I don’t know what your relationship is like, I don’t know the first thing, okay!”

“Then I will explain, because you’re so thick. I’m just her servant, even if she loves me.”

“Setting everything else aside. Let me ask you this: are you okay with it?” Gertrude said.

“Yes. It’s a tolerable situation because it is non-political. To take me as more than a servant-lover would threaten the order of things in Veka. She must continue her dynasty– so she must have a husband. I accepted this, Gertrude.” Victoria turned her gaze away and stared into the distance, toward the shower. She paced. Gertrude did not disabuse her of the notion she had brought up. She wanted to let her speak. It was the most she had said about herself and the most she had said with feeling in a long time. “Even if I was a man it would have to be this way. She can never be exclusive to me– it goes against the political order.”

When she thought she had a chance to interject, Gertrude did so, speaking her mind.

“I also understood that about Elena, but I still wanted her to be mine.” Gertrude said.

“That hubristic side of you can be charming sometimes.” Victoria said. Facing away, it was not possible to tell what sort of expression accompanied this statement. “Someday I will also raise children, as a Bayatar, and swear them to Carmilla’s children. That is the way of the warrior who drinks the blood of her liege’s horse. It is just how things are done in Veka.”

That way in which she spoke– it was impossible to tell whether it was fierce or resigned.

Why was she being so candid about this? She had been more distant about her other stories.

Did she want Gertrude to know all of this? For what purpose? Just as friends?

Maybe– she never had anyone she could ever tell these feelings to.

She could not tell the Empress von Veka, who obviously knew the state of affairs.

Had Victoria been holding this in her heart, all alone, for as long as they had been apart?

“Is it how things always have to be? Is it just an immutable fact that Veka will be this way?” Gertrude asked. “Wouldn’t you be upset to see her with a man when she could be yours?”

“I’m not as possessive as you.” Victoria said. Gertrude felt that her tone had gotten sharper but maybe it was just projecting on her part. Her back remained turned. “Someday I’ll find someone I can love outside of my love for Carmilla. I’ll love them differently but no less. They will be my partner in matters of the home and family in Vekan culture. Carmilla will find a man whom she trusts to support her, and they will have their family. Carmilla will still love me, and she will continue to use me as she has. I am already prepared for this.”

Her delivery was so matter-of-fact– had she really internalized and accepted all of this?

After she had told Gertrude she admired her for subverting authority–?

Curious, Gertrude briefly tapped into the muscles that allowed her eyes to see beyond.

What did she expect to see? Anger? Anxiety? Longing? What she did see, surprised her.

Victoria’s aura was gentle, like a breeze that kissed her skin, calm and stable in its rhythm.

To speak of sacrificing for her love’s sake with such surety, it was almost inspiring.

“I’m honestly kind of speechless. You’re so strong, Victoria.” Gertrude said.

Victoria finally turned around. Her face registered a mild surprise at her friend’s words.

Gertrude looked upon her, looked her in the eyes, feeling such fondness for her old friend.

She remembered the kind of blunt lectures Victoria would give to Sawyer, Elena or herself.

Out of all of them Victoria was always the smartest, but quietly, she was always the bravest.

That sharp tongue didn’t come from nothing– that was her strength speaking.

It was why Sawyer hated it so much. It was everything she herself lacked.

Victoria was free from their pretensions.

In her own way Victoria was freer than all of them. In her own way she had more power.

More power than Gertrude could have ever had– over herself, over her desires.

“You really were the best of us. I wish I had been more mature toward you.” Gertrude said.

Victoria looked, for the first time, openly conflicted. Her voice was a bit– exasperated.

“Back in school? Gertrude, I was never even angry with you. I wanted to help you.”

“But what I did was still awful– we could have kept up as friends if I hadn’t hit you.”

“It was awful, but I was never angry at you. I was upset with myself for losing my cool.”

“No. Victoria, you gave me a kick I really needed. I should have thanked you for that.”

Elena was in her final year of secondary schooling; they were going to lose her.

Victoria wanted Gertrude to consider how she could remain with Elena in the future.

Gertrude hated those words and attacked Victoria for uttering them so bluntly.

Just as Sawyer had done for much more petty and less meaningful words Victoria said.

But she did heed them– Gertrude also left their little garden of noble lillies after that.

To seek power, in the only place she knew she could find it– the power to take lives.

“Then was this cruel trajectory of our lives always inevitable?” Victoria said.

Her words trembled ever so slightly, for perhaps the first time in a long time.

Gertrude’s heart quavered and lost a beat looking at her face.

Perhaps she was imagining it, but Victoria looked to be on the verge of tears.

Yet she did not actually cry. It was just a subtle shift toward a more open sadness.

“Gertrude– I really wish I was more like you. You must think I’m insane.” Victoria said.

“Well– I don’t know that it would fit you– and you wouldn’t enjoy it.” Gertrude said.

“My own condition is not so blessed either. I don’t want to be admired. I am not so strong.”

Gertrude averted her own gaze, involuntarily, as that sharpness returned to Victoria’s eyes.

In hindsight, she was putting Victoria on a pedestal.

“We’ve both experienced a lot of cruelty that neither of us deserve.” Gertrude said.

Sighing, Victoria sat on the bed, her legs off it, leaning back with her hands on the sheets.

“No argument from me.” She said. “I just wanted you to know, Gertrude. I– I do wish it had gone differently. I do wish we could have remained friends. I wish you could have visited me like you visited Elena.” Gertrude was surprised. She wondered if Victoria had any ideas about what those visits had as their aim– she never considered Elena to be just her friend, after all.

“It can still be different.” Gertrude said. “We had fun today. I consider you my friend.”

“I wish our circumstances were not so complicated, Gertrude, I really do.” Victoria said.

Gertrude had already made her determination of this when they reunited.

It was easy to smile, put her hand to her chest and say it with conviction.

“If Veka asks you to kill me, I’ll resist– but I’m not going to hurt you again, Victoria.”

Victoria sat up straighter and looked down at her feet in response to that.

Her hands balled up into fists against her skirt. She shut her eyes.

“Gertrude– I was at Vogelheim on the day of the attack. I helped Elena escape from Sawyer. It was cruel to leave you ignorant of what happened. I knew exactly how much she meant to you. I could have informed you. But I did not. I thought badly of you– I wanted to hurt you or mock you. I hardened my heart and wanted to hate you– I’m sorry.” She said suddenly. “That day was such a mess for me. After seeing Sawyer again, I did not know I felt anymore.”

Though surprised, there was nothing for Gertrude to get either too upset about.

She knew Elena was alive. She had her own opportunity and used it to hurt her too.

And whatever pain Victoria had wanted to inflict on her, was in the past, and recovered.

So, there was no passionate reaction from her. She approached the bed and sat down.

Beside Victoria, as close as she felt was appropriate. She looked her friend in the eyes.

For a moment Victoria looked relieved. Perhaps she expected to be approached with anger.

“Do you still like Elena?” Gertrude said. Deliberately ambiguous in her choice of words.

“Yes.” Victoria said bluntly. Whether the esteem of a friend or something else, unknown.

“If it weren’t for that bastard Sawyer, we could have had a proper little reunion someday.”

They met eyes again. Victoria looked surprised at Gertrude’s calm demeanor.

After a moment, Victoria’s eyes wandered back to her lap. Another treasured little smile.

“Maybe if we capture Sawyer we can have a tea party and she can attend in a cage.”

Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. Victoria had a bit of a relaxed chuckle herself.

“Gertrude–” Victoria looked, to Gertrude’s surprise, quite openly happy. “I– I enjoyed myself today. Thank you. One thing that my life is missing, that I do miss, is that sort of spontainety that– that friendship brings. Friendship– it tugs at your heart’s strings when you least expect it. It makes you act differently. Changes the ruts that you have fallen into.”

As she spoke, Gertrude wondered if what her life really lacked was just friendship.

Her slight stuttering was very cute. She really was struggling with her feelings.

Not that Gertrude could tease for it– she herself had no idea how she would respond.

After all, what she wanted to say was perhaps far too scandalous for Victoria to accept.

So she sat next to Victoria on the bed, quiet for a moment, staring forward.

“Do you remember how we first met?” Victoria asked, breaking the silence.

“How could I ever forget?” Gertrude said.

The Luxembourg School for Girls had a tradition on its Inauguration Day, the time when new students were welcomed into the student body. Girls from the new classes would be paired together based on their IDs by the school computer and they would meet up and exchange ice breaker questions. For many of the girls this was a very serious ritual that they had already been preparing for. Aristocratic culture emphasized conversational skills and etiquette as something uniquely valuable to a woman, and Luxembourg served as a multi-year theater for such skills to be demonstrated and honed. The ideal girl raised by the school was supposed to be demure and beautiful but also literate and interesting.

Out in the flower garden, the girls in their uniforms, question cards in hand–

Little chattering voices, well-practiced smiles and just-so polite giggles–

And in the middle of all that, Victoria had been paired up with Sawyer on opening day.

Between Victoria’s terseness and Sawyer’s penchant to take offense, it was a disaster.

Gertrude had been feeling a bit foul about not getting Elena in the blind draw, as she had put a ridiculous amount of stock in being fated to be chosen to talk to Elena, like a sign from God that they were meant to be together. When she failed to get her way she got quite moody. Disinterested in her actual discussion partner, Gertrude could not help but notice Victoria and Sawyer’s intensifying awkwardness– and when Sawyer finally snapped for the very first time, Gertrude took her down to the ground for the very first time.

Sawyer, Gertrude and Victoria ended up in a counseling session.

Elena had to run in to try to convince the administrators of Gertrude’s good character.

Eventually, all three were released and made their acquaintance.

Gertrude even tried to make peace with Sawyer, though that was always very tenuous.

Yes– she could not have possibly forgotten. It had been such a pain in the ass, that day.

But also a fond memory, of her little group of outcasts who made sure she was never alone.

“Why do you ask?” Gertrude replied. “Feeling nostalgic?”

“Well– I never seriously asked you about it. Why did you intervene?” Victoria asked.

“Sawyer looked like she might hit you. You were smaller than her.” Gertrude said.

“It was that simple?”

“I consider myself something of a knight to defenseless, endangered girls.”

Victoria laughed.

“I’d have probably been friendless at school if you weren’t such a presumptuous rake.”

“Mysterious forces at work.” Gertrude said, suppressing offense at this description.

Again they fell into a silence. A longer silence. Punctuated by the turning of Victoria’s tail.

Suddenly, Victoria sidled a bit closer to Gertrude, until their hips touched.

She tipped her head so that it laid on Gertrude’s shoulder. Without any solicitation.

In the process Gertrude was completely stunned and paralyzed, her head spinning.

Victoria was so soft, and so warm– and her ears felt divine to even brush up against.

“Gertrude, would you scritch my ears? It’s been so long since anyone did.” Victoria asked.

Without a word, Gertrude’s hand tentatively lifted to the base of one of Victoria’s ears.

Her fingers traced where the soft cartilage rose up from beneath the head of hair. Following the slight arch, pressing with the pad, scraping gently with a blunt nail. Index finger acting as the main tool; while her thumb pressed the rim of the ear, or touched the pure white fluff that covered the opening of the ear. Victoria’s breathing and heartbeat transferred into Gertrude’s skin, her body nestling closer as her fingers worked her ethereally soft skin.

As if matching her rhythm, Gertrude felt a vibration coming from Victoria–

She was purring– Gertrude had never felt a Shimii purring right on top of her.

Her own heartbeat quickened as she realized the intimacy of what they were sharing.

And her mind, too, sped up in its desires and intentions.

Was this a dream? She felt emboldened to test the limit of the moment.

While the one hand had Victoria’s ear–

her other shifted the girl, pulled Victoria up straighter,

and closer,

tighter against her body,

by the hip,

There was no resistance from the softly flushed, gently breathing Shimii to this act.

Gertrude took one of Victoria’s hands into her own, gripping her fingers, stroking.

Leaning until her face was cheek to cheek with Victoria, just barely touching.

Nuzzling her, tentatively, sparingly.

Hovering under the jaw, lips brushing silken neck.

Leaving a brief, careful kiss–

awaiting a reaction.

“Nnh.” Victoria made a little noise, near indistinguishable from her purring.

Gertrude stroked her fingers, scraped the base of her cat-like ears a bit rougher.

And laid lips on Victoria’s fair, slim shoulder, savoring this kiss just a bit longer.

Gauging the reaction. Finding herself still in control of her contented friend.

Even as she left a red mark where the skin was once honeyed-fair.

Her free hand lifted from Victoria’s own, and climbed to her waist, up her flank.

Taking in Victoria’s little blue and white dress and the gentle curve of her chest.

Settling with a firm grip over Victoria’s breast, so perfectly fit to her greedy palm.

Pliant flesh beneath a thin, strapless brassiere. Gertrude kneaded, eliciting a little gasp.

Heart thrashing, she was afraid to say anything and therefore acknowledged nothing.

As her hand squeezed Victoria’s breast, her lips laid deep, sucking kisses on her neck.

Losing herself, drunk on the taste of skin and the touch transferring, on the pulse.

Victoria pressed her body tighter up against Gertrude, her back tensing.

Raising her head in response to the kissing, gently moving her hips on Gertrude’s lap.

Gertrude felt her vision waver as if in a heat haze, but she wouldn’t question it.

If this was a dream she would melt into Victoria’s body until she awakened.

Slowly, the hand which had been on Victoria’s ear traced down, brushing her cheek.

Gliding down the sides of her hips, luxuriating in her control of those slim contours.

Fingers exploring Victoria’s thigh, lifting up her skirt, pausing, with each transgression.

Feeling out the signals. Neither spoke. No adverse reactions. Gertrude took it as a sign.

Head lost in her own hungry passions; she traced the inner thigh to its terminus–

“Gertrude.” Victoria said, quick and near-breathless, as if all one syllable.

“Too much?” Gertrude said, struggling for breath herself, her chest pounding.

“No– I–” Victoria tried to look over her shoulder, Gertrude lifting from the marks she laid. Because of their positions they could only barely see each other’s faces. “Gertrude, I- I’m–”

For a moment she was lost for words. Barely able to speak between little gasps.

With Gertrude’s hands still on her breasts, between her legs.

“I want to look at you. I want to look you in the eyes.” Victoria finally said.

“I’d love that.” Gertrude said. Her head rushed with satisfaction.

She picked Victoria up with all her strength, causing her to make a little cry.

And brought her further onto the bed, dropping her in the middle. Looming over her with a contented grin on her lips. One hand supporting herself, another still teasing her inner thigh.

“You look dangerous. Have you been imagining doing this to me all along?” Victoria said.

“What if I have?” Gertrude asked.

Victoria turned her head, suddenly bashful. “It makes no difference. I want it anyway.”

Gertrude’s fingers took Victoria’s chin and gently guided her eyes back.

Looking deep and directly into them as if by sight alone she could devour her.

Slowly, savoring the moment, Gertrude drew closer to Victoria and kissed her.

At first an almost clumsy brushing of the lips, as if there was not yet reciprocation.

Then, when Gertrude thought to pull back, Victoria followed her and locked lips.

Now there was ardor, now there was a partner dance.

Victoria’s arms wrapped one around her back, one behind her shoulders.

Pulling her closer as they kissed, as Gertrude forced her tongue into Victoria’s mouth, as breaths that escaped from one entered the other. Drawing closer, Gertrude’s body on Victoria’s open legs, pushing her deeper into the bed gel. Between each taste of her lips Gertrude’s pulled on Victoria’s dress in fits and starts, peeling the fabric deeper below shoulder, over the chest to expose her brassiere, to the belly and below.

One of Victoria’s twintails came undone in the tearing fever that took them both.

Pausing for breath. Gertrude surprised at how vigorously her passion was returned.

Victoria pulled the other undone, letting her hair loose. Gazes joined, gasping for breath.

“Can I take the rest of this off you?” Gertrude broke the brief silence.

“Do whatever you want to with me.” Victoria replied in a near whimper.

Gertrude could not help but grin as those words made her body reach a boil.

Her eyes which had held Victoria’s own so devoutedly, wandered to the thin, rose-lace bra.

She peeled the rest of Victoria’s dress off, while Victoria clumsily undid her shirt buttons.

And hooked her fingers around the belt, unbuckling, zipping down her pants.

In the midst of her attempts to undress her, Gertrude slowly descended back close to her.

Biting one of her ears and then whispering while Victoria drew a sharp breath.

“I’m not the one who needs to strip down.” She said, while unhooking Victoria’s bra.

Layer by layer removed; Victoria looked suddenly so much smaller than Gertrude.

Shorter stature, thin waist, the slight curve of her hips, breasts almost as small as her own. There was leanness to her limbs, thin, flexible muscle, but in that supine position they were soft as the rest of her body. Exposing a delectable weakness that was driving Gertrude mad with lust. She ran fingers between Victoria’s breasts, down her belly and navel.

Victoria like the fair, moist nymph of some inexorably beautiful creature,

ripped from its cocoon.

Lying in bed with Gertrude over her, shadowing her, as if predator over prey.

That seeming vulnerability turned Gertrude on even more.

Made her want to be aggressive.

In that moment, she thought she would cum solely from the thrill of cornering her.

With carte blanche to do anything she wanted– what she wanted was to see more.

To prod more of Victoria, to explore her body, to touch every spot that made her quiver.

To catch up and sate the longing she never could as a hormonal teenager.

Tracing deep, sucking, marking kisses on Victoria’s neck, on her shoulder, collarbones.

All her soft, vulnerable, vital places, places that looked softest, most inviting, exposed.

“Gertrude–!”

Her delectable whimpering voice as teeth narrowly pulled on the tip of one breast.

Chest rising and falling, Victoria repositioned herself again, grabbing hold of Gertrude.

Pulling herself up to meet her eyes closely.

“I said– I– I want to see you–” She demanded. Retaining some of her bluntness.

“Right. I got carried away. For you, princess. My eyes will never leave you.”

“Ugh– Don’t call me–”

Gertrude suddenly took Victoria and pushed her up against the headboard.

Controlling her body like the weight was insubstantial.

She drew closer, gaze unmoving, not even blinking in the midst.

As her hands traced Victoria’s belly, forced her legs spread, slowly, deliberately.

Savoring the subtle shifts, the tensing shoulders, the wandering, incoherent expression.

Arching back, the way her core pushed up against Gertrude in need, her quivering thighs.

Her little moans, the vibrations of her purring–

As Gertrude’s fingers entered her wet cunt and worked her into a steady rhythm.

Looking into those beautiful, cloudy eyes, into that flushing face lost in passion.

Maintaining a confident satisfaction in herself even as her own breath trembled with desire.

Caught up in the heat, they began to slide back from the headboard onto lying positions.

Gertrude readjusting, her fingers slipping from inside Victoria–

Barely allowing a second to pass before her fingers began kneading her clit.

Victoria’s body squirming beneath her, her hips pushing, her back rising and falling–

Squeezing her fingers hard against Gertrude’s back as if wanting to tear into her.

Victoria was no longer capable of a gaze, lost in the involuntary spasms of pleasure.

Her chest heaved with the need of breath and the harsh satisfaction of carnal needing.

Moaning, gasping, and purring all seemed to melt into tiny and broken vocalizations.

And yet, Gertrude’s eyes never left even as Victoria was wracked with climax.

Her hips shuddered, her grip slackened, her body falling back from Gertrude weak–

“Gertrude– hold me– please–”

“Anything you desire, my dame.”

Taking hold of the shaking girl about to fall from her, tattered breath and shaking legs.

Gertrude curled up with Victoria’s back against her chest, close and tightly.

Those remaining clothes which she had been wearing through the act, Gertrude stripped.

Before returning her full attention to her lover.

Gentle kisses dotting her cheek, her neck and shoulders.

One hand to hold her, another up over her hair, stroking her head, and scritching her ears.

She could feel Victoria’s tail gently sliding over her sweat-soaked core and hips.

Tying around her leg, curling softly. Her breathing slowly settling into normalcy.

“How are you feeling?” Gertrude asked, whispering as she comforted those cat-like ears.

“Satisfied.” Victoria replied, slowing, steadying into Gertrude’s arms. “How about you?”

“Trying not to say something too greedy.”

“Hmm.”

Victoria pushed herself back further against Gertrude, nestling even more tightly.

“I’m not trying to take Elena’s place.” Victoria said.

“Elena doesn’t have a ‘place’– I’ve changed a bit, Victoria.” Gertrude replied.

“Right.” Victoria said. “You know– I never imagined you would be so eager with me.”

Gertrude had a short laugh. “I needed this pretty badly.” She said.

Victoria breathed deep. “I needed it too. I’m– I’m also greedy. I also want– everything.”

Prompted by Victoria’s stammering, Gertrude tightened her arms around her, kissed her.

Neither of them seemed to want to presume on what their relationship could become now.

Nevertheless, Gertrude was happy. Whether it was just a fling or not– she was happy.

They could talk later. For now their skin and flesh had all the conversation.


The Iron Lady breached the immediate seafloor and slid further down the cavernous maw at the bottom of the trench. Sonar and LADAR scanning as well as a drone had uncovered that the layout was strangely uniform and did not veer much, and the Iron Lady still had some room clear of the walls in its descent. Surprisingly, there were no readings of any threatening life forms. Abyss expedition survivors had historically claimed to have ran into eccentric leviathans and unverifiable megafauna in the extreme depths, so the ship had been cautious to scan frequently for anything incoming. All was silent around them.

This was taken as a positive sign by the crew, and the depth gauge continued to count.

Everyone assembled for a long day. They had a fully crewed bridge to attend to the descent.

Between 5000 and 6000 meters, there was nothing but rock and empty water around them.

Katov levels continued to rise, and the mass, when properly lit, had turned purple.

Strangely enough, however, the salinity of the Katov mass had begun to reduce.

“Um, Captain.” A crew member looked up from her instruments in disbelief and turned to Captain Dreschner. “Maybe this is a mistake, I do not know for certain– but if this is correct, salinity is continuously dropping as we descend. I– I don’t believe it’s possible but– if salinity drops below average for salt-water, we may start to descend faster than we expected.”

The After Descent civilization was aware of the concept of “fresh water.” On the continent, in the past, possibly even now, there was natural water without salt. However, no ship was designed to move in such water. It was impossible to encounter it. The difference was not vast– but for a massive ship moving precisely in extreme depths, it was noticeable.

They would have to be careful of this fact.

Captain Dreschner looked at the main screen, hosting a 3D diagram of the surroundings.

Since the cameras had become mostly useless, they navigated using this kind of data.

If the instruments were incorrect, they could be in more danger than they knew.

“We can send the drone out, if its instruments confirm the same, then we must accept it.”

Within ten minutes, a small drone laden with oceanography instruments left the ship.

As soon as it was in the water, it began to read exactly what the ship’s instruments did.

Salinity was dropping below saltwater level. Average Imbrium salinity was around 3.7%.

Meanwhile, the average salinity in the Crisium was 4.0%, and 3.8% in the Cogitum.

In their current position salinity had dropped to 3.3%– lower than any of Aer’s oceans.

And it was still dropping, steadily declining. 3.0%, 2.7%, 2.4%–

“Are we dumping anything from the ship? Any chemicals?” Dreschner asked.

“No sir.” Said a crew member, monitoring from their station.

Karen Schicksal soon received word from forensics about a quick analysis of the water.

“Sir, there’s– there’s not any strange chemicals in the water.” Karen said, stuttering once.

“Issue an Alert VALERIE to the crew.” Captain Dreschner ordered.

KONRAD was the full-on combat alert, but VALERIE just meant ‘proceed cautiously’.

They had to ready for a foreseeable raise of the alert level and sudden shifts in direction or acceleration. Rough waters ahead. Under Alert VALERIE, the crew should try to complete their assigned tasks expeditiously, to secure their tools and instruments whenever not in use, keep to designated secure areas as much as possible, and generally act as if they might be brought into danger at any moment. Strange situations often warranted this alert.

Whenever the Captain was not certain of an outcome, it was best to sound this alert.

After the issuing of Alert VALERIE, Gertrude Lichtenberg and Victoria van Veka arrived on the bridge together, both in their respective uniforms. Captain Dreschner brought them up to speed on what was transpiring. They were both confused. It was natural for salinity to shift very minimally in each ocean, and it was a historical fact that the Imbrium had gotten saltier across the hundreds of years of the After Descent era. However, such changes happened incrementally, infinitesimally small. In a matter of hours they found themselves staring at water that was approaching 2.0% salinity– incredibly low.

“Are we sure the instruments are correct? Maybe it’s some electrical phenomenon?”

Victoria crossed her arms, trying to find a logical solution. Gertrude shook her head.

“If it was that, we would seeing more weirdness with the instruments.”

“This isn’t a disconnected water system, it’s still just the Imbrium Ocean.”

“I know, but we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Maybe I should get Nile up here.”

“She would probably insist that she’s only a medical doctor– and it would be fair, I think.”

At 6000 meters depth, one of the sonar operators took off her headset, groaning.

“I– I need to rotate out, Captain. I feel like I’m hearing an audio anomaly. I must be tired.”

“Of course, go on.” Dreschner said.

Dreadnoughts had enough crew to rotate full bridges in and out if necessary.

Another perk of working on the most elite class of ship. Having top talent– and a lot of it.

By the time the sonar operator protested she had already been working several hours.

It was not a privilege that could be abused, as her fellow operators would hate her for it.

But any given officer was willing to take their station to relieve an ailing compatriot.

In this case it seemed the audio devices continually registered a strange, whispered, almost mournful noise, as if human in origin. It was no wonder that the previous sonar operator was so stressed out as to rotate. Dreschner had the station checked out by an engineer– but the noise somehow could not be attenuated digitally, at least not completely.

When the new sonar operator arrived and took her place, she, too, was unnerved.

However, as an elite member of a Dreadnought crew, she shrugged it off.

Sitting miserably at her station but soldiering on through the awful, haunting noise.

“I promise, if this keeps up, we’ll rotate more quickly and consistently.” Dreschner said.

6800 meters deep. There were almost 2000 meters of cavern above and around them.

Nothing but an enormous shaft, all rock, its surrounding surfaces naturally irregular.

Water salinity had dropped to 1.2% and the Iron Lady was descending slightly faster.

“Mitigate descent. Have the computer calculate differences in buoyancy.” Dreschner said.

Everyone was a bit tense, but this was an obstacle that was solvable.

Buoyancy could be controlled and adjusted. The Iron Lady was a very high-tech ship.

Water was water and the difference between saline and clean water was not so high.

It was still a medium that they could navigate through, and all their tools still worked.

7000 meters deep.

0.9% salinity– and holding.

7100 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7110 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7120 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

7130 meters deep. No further changes in salinity.

“Salinity has remained stable, even at the parts per billion reading.” A crew member said.

“You know– this is the same salinity as human blood.” Another crew member remarked.

7150 meters deep.

7200 meters deep.

381731138137193619311183193861736133 meters–

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” One of the crew members cried out.

“Language.” Captain Dreschner said. “Mind your manners on this ship.”

“Sorry sir– now the depth gauges are out of it. We’re not imploding so– this isn’t right.”

Captain Dreschner cast an eye sideways as if to solicit a response.

Beside Dreschner, Gertrude looked briefly concerned, but remained resolute.

She shook her head at him. They would continue descending.

“Ignore the depth gauges.” Dreschner said. “Have the computer perform a manual count of the current depth based on the final recorded correlation between descent and depth.”

On the main screen, the predictor computer put up a big, 3D-rendered depth gauge.

7300 meters deep.

7400 meters deep.

7500 meters deep.

7600 meters deep–

“We are not going that fast are we?” Captain Dreschner asked.

“It must be hallucinating.” Gertrude grumbled.

Predictor Computers–

couldn’t live without them, couldn’t live with their pathetic errors.

Or so everyone hoped– the amount of uncanny failures was starting to scare the crew.

Gertrude produced what looked like a pocket watch from her coat.

She put it back in her coat with a sigh.

“Anything?” Victoria asked.

“Aetherometry is stable.” Gertrude whispered. “So it’s not that.”

7700 meters deep.

7800 meters deep.

7900 meters deep.

“It’s only been a minute or two, it’s like we’re in freefall.” Victoria whispered back.

8000 meters deep.

Suddenly, a flash of an alert light.

On the 3D diagram taking up most of the main screen, a red grid overlayed the cave wall.

There was something happening– the predictor computer was drawing attention–

“Active sonar and LADAR, now.”

“Yes sir.”

From the sonar arrays, waves of noise emanated, bouncing off the cave walls.

Laser arrays around the ship flashed the surroundings, taking in the finer details.

All of this data compiled to update the diagrams in under a minute.

It appeared that the shaft went 1000 meters farther before opening up into a massive space.

Furthermore, the predictor computers hallucinated that the walls were made of flesh.

“Has it ever been this inaccurate this often before? What is going on?”

Gertrude complained, but around the bridge, the crew was growing ever more unnerved.

With a trembling voice, a different crew member spoke up then.

“Add it to the list of malfunctions, but barometry is reporting incredibly low pressure.”

“How low?” Captain Dreschner asked.

“Fifty atmospheres– and dropping?” Again, the operator was stunned by this.

“That is absolutely ridiculous. Recheck every system!” Dreschner grunted.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide. It seemed to dawn upon her how irregular this all was.

The Iron Lady was one of the most stable and gallant ships of her class.

Never had they experienced so many failures; so many bizarre, seemingly random failures.

It had to be something that the abyss was doing– but what? Would Nile even know?

At least nothing necessary for life was compromised yet. Just the data instrumentation.

“Any other data anomalies I need to be aware of?” Dreschner said.

One haggard-looking bridge officer looked over her shoulder, pointing at her screen.

“Sir– the luminosity– with that last laser scan– the surroundings might be visible.”

Everyone on the bridge seemed to develop a thick lump in their throats upon hearing this.

There were brief glances around the room. Everyone was fidgeting in some way.

Because if they turned the cameras on for visual confirmations, they might see–

“We have to straighten those spines out already!”

Gertrude shouted at the top of her lungs and stepped forward.

Standing on the center island of the bridge, raised over every other station.

“We are the crew of the Iron Lady! We have the greatest technology and firepower the Empire has ever produced! We have the finest officers that have ever climbed the ranks! All of you fought tooth and nail to make it here! If you felt fear, you overcame it! If an obstacle was put in front of you, you surmounted it! You would not be here otherwise! It is time we stop giving into fear over nothing! None of this data tells me that we are in danger! It tells me that we are pioneers, entering the unknown! Can you conquer the entire Empire in its fallen era, if a few measly readouts on your instruments put such fear into you?”

She turned to Karen Schicksal and pointed her finger like a sword at her suddenly.

“I want visual confirmation! Let’s see whether there’s nothing but katov mass!”

Everyone on the bridge stood up straighter having heard that speech.

Perhaps not any less fearful, but more cognizant of what fear was doing to them.

At the behest of the Commander, Cameras went back on across the ship, one by one.

Main screen cameras took up the prime position once occupied by the 3D diagrams.

Gertrude fought with every ounce of her being to contain her emotional reaction.

Victoria van Veka covered her mouth with a hand as if to stifle a burgeoning cry.

Across the bridge, every officer craned their head up to stare at the main screen.

All were silent. Some had a tremble in their jaw or trembling lips, shaking hands.

The Commander could not allow that silence to persist.

She had already seen horrifying sights before. Her body shook, but she put on a grin.

Perhaps, from the vantage of her crew, it appeared a grin of complete insanity.

“Hah. Nothing but– inert matter. What do we have to fear? Keep descending.” She said.

On the main screen, the main cameras, located on the forward “spoon” of the bow, caught a too-clear view of the cavern wall. Purple katov mass floated lazily in place of the marine fog, but despite the enormous katov level of the cavern’s waters, it was somehow not as viscuous and difficult as that which they found farther above. It could be seen-through, and what was seen was a slightly viscuous, weakly shivering wall of red-brown flesh. It was perfectly smooth and equidistant, unlike the ridged, irregular rock walls that preceded it.

The Iron Lady descended as if down a vast throat.

And very soon, too soon– the landscape of flesh expanded enormously all around them.

Coming out from the “throat” they entered a world that was eerily well-lit, as if kissed by an oddly angled sun, revealing a seafloor of flesh that extended into the horizon. On the fleshy roof of the cavern there were ridges and wrinkles in the flesh. Fields of yellow and red, fleshy reed-like “plants” swayed as if brushed by an impossible current. Enormous aortic strands, blue and red and purple, coiled through the flesh in the floor, the distant walls of the cavity, on the roof. This space must have extended for dozens of kilometers in every direction, it was absolutely vast. Despite the katov mass, it was possible to see

too far,

too possible–

and too much to be seen.

Gertrude stood speechless on the bridge as the cameras panned around the ship.

One landmark particularly commanded the attention of the entire area.

Over ten kilometers away was an absolutely massive silicate structure, pearlescent and murky, its milky-colored surface covered in fractures. It stood like a pillar between several knotted bundles of flesh that seemed as if they were suspending it in place.

All of the light in this cavity felt like it was coming from that structure–

which Gertrude hesitantly acknowledged, resembled a tree.

It was this sight which filled her first glimpses of the Agartha,

and the Great Tree Holy Land of Mnar.


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.8]

This chapter contains discussion of suicidal ideation.


It was the first living thing and therefore it was Longest Lived.

Despite its presence in an infinite space it understood only its basest of senses.

No eyes to see, no ears with which to hear. No understanding of its position.

When the sky first fell it battered its skin and the drawn blood became a world.

Longest Lived was all skin, it was all skin great and wide and millions of pinpricks upon it could not kill it. Its skin was gentle and nourishing, containing within it all substances and ultimately even coming to contain that which infinitely struck it, raining upon it, crashing into it– all of this would come to rest around and within it and on top of it in a glorious union.

It was all skin, all touch, all consumption. Perhaps this was its love.

Longest Lived, the Origin of All Living Things.

It took in the stone and it took in water and it took in warmth, ever consuming.

Upon Longest Lived, all that which it had consumed, and which returned to it–

Would constantly, cyclically, escape anew and take on new forms.

They would rise, fall and then return to Longest Lived who awaited them.

Longest Lived could not think in this way however. These were the stories of its creations.

Though it lived and consumed it never thought.

This was not a tragedy; thinking would have driven it mad and warped its selfless love.

Thinking, was a skill first refined by one of its earliest progeny.

They thought cautiously and kept in mind the love and unity in all their matters.

They too were alive, but, while they were communal in nature, they also understood their individual positions in the world. They could feel; to some extent, they could see and hear. They knew themselves to be separated even as they were together. Because they knew this, they would sing to one another, because there was one another to be sung to and to hear song from. With these understandings, they had great empathy for things which were alive and different, and wanted to encourage them to escape the skin of Longest Lived and to grow and prosper before they were inevitably swallowed back into the skin of the great being. They referred to their age of prosperity as the Time of Beautiful Songs.

In their songs, they called it Longest Lived, and themselves, The First Thinkers.

They were First to Think–

but the prodigal creatures who still heard their songs even now,

warped by ages of tragedy–

would come to be exalted as the Longest Thinkers in the world that remained.


Gertrude Lichtenberg slowly opened her eyes.

At first, in the haze of awakening, she saw a forest of vast trees with a reddening sky.

Then, in a blink, there was only the metal ceiling of her room on the Iron Lady.

She raised her hand to her forehead, pressed down against her eyes.

For a moment she looked at the hand. Fascinated by the movement of her fingers.

Gertrude flexed the invisible sinews and muscles that formed from her thoughts.

That hand grew a small additional digit next to the thumb. Moving as her other fingers did.

Just as easily, the flesh slid back into the hand as if there had been no transformation.

Gertrude sat back up in bed, against the headboard, yawning.

Pulling her blankets from herself, she found she had, in her sleep, shaken and turned enough to nearly lose her shirt off her own shoulders and to pull her own pants halfway down. Her hair was thrown into utter disarray. Her eyes wandered down from her hand to her breasts– to her own crotch. In a strange mood, she wondered something, and concentrated her new ability– and stopped immediately once she found that, if she tried, she could indeed alter parts of herself more complex and primal than just her hand. She reversed the endeavor when she felt her– alteration– stiffening and growing hot with blood unbidden.

Her lips cracked an involuntary, nervous smile.

“Maybe I shouldn’t experiment that way– at least not right now.”

She had wondered about that in the past– but she was worried about her long-term health.

Who knew whether she might go out of control? Or not be able to change things back?

Her wandering mind gifted her an image of herself as some kind of dick monster.

Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. It was the sincerest laugh she had in a long time.

“Stick to the easier stuff for now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” She told herself.

Despite all the painful things that had happened so far, her mood finally buoyed. She found that she did not feel as much of an impulse to question her sanity or the things she had seen. Her memories of that place, where she had stormed through in a consuming passion, were a bit hazy, as if the heat of that passion had partially burned the images. She remembered some shameful things reflected in the blue haze– but she let it pass over her.

She felt like she had her future back.

For now, she would let herself rest with those feelings and not force herself.

She recalled the things she needed to do with a refreshing lack of urgency.

Ingrid had broken up with her, but she was her friend; she just needed some time.

Monika was safe now– she would check up on her today and try to cheer her up.

Victoria and Nile would hopefully not be fighting. She needed to talk to them sometime.

Azazil–

Gertrude slumped in bed as if she had been struck in the back of the head.

Azazil could potentially be an immense headache.

Rising from her bed, Gertrude pulled off the remainder of her clothes and wandered over to the private shower in her room. While soaking under lukewarm water, she thought about her uniform. Last night she had told Dreschner she no longer wished to be called High Inquisitor. Her cape, epaulettes, coat and hat, her medals and insignias, all felt like a costume she had been desperate to force meaning on. She could no longer pretend that it gave her actions legitimacy or that it excused everything she had done in the past. Her skin, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s swarthy olive skin that was just different enough from the average Imbrian for trouble– it could no longer be covered up under the pretense of that power, for good or ill. The Inquisition could no longer elevate her from her lowly status and wretchedness.

She had more than enough of a burden with the sins she committed under its auspices.

That was a sizeable enough weight– without the heavy coat and the tall hat too.

Gertrude resolved not to wear the regalia of the High Inquisitor any longer.

From her wardrobe, she withdrew a button-down shirt and a long grey jacket instead.

Henceforth she would dress like any other officer of the ship.

Once she was clean, dressed and the morning fog had lifted from her eyes, Gertrude left her room and traveled down the main hall of the ship’s upper tier. She tied her long, dark hair in a simple ponytail, to be further dealt with some other time. She wondered how her crew was getting on after the unprecedented events of the past few days, but her confidence was buoyed immediately. People traveled the halls with their heads up and their backs straight, calm and collected. All of the crew had reduced schedules for the next day, and as Gertrude walked past and among sailors and officers, she felt a relaxed but professional energy.

Wherever she went, the crew would salute her casually, as ‘Commander’ Lichtenberg.

Dreschner must have informed everyone. Quite expeditiously too.

Gertrude smiled at the passersby, and they smiled back.

These halls and the people of this ship had been through good times and bad.

Often, they were under stress and moving with urgency, while keeping a tight hold on their emotions as warranted for the crew of a dreadnought, the elite professionals of the Imperial Navy. Gertrude was the one with the privilege to lose her mind, all of these people around her had been trained and drilled and pressured constantly to keep their emotions to themselves and in check, while doing everything she asked. Despite this, Gertrude never detected any animosity towards her. And she did not detect any animosity now.

They were proud to serve on a top-of-the-line dreadnought; to serve under Gertrude.

Even now, having surmounted a crisis and earned their leisure, they were even keeled.

Gertrude was lucky to have them. She could have done nothing without their assistance.

Life on a ship was never carried out completely off the schedule. Technically, having a day or two of leisure meant a day or two on a ‘reduced schedule’. Sailors would run still quick check-ups in the morning and at night, and never were they as efficient as they were during these times. Officers had to perform a few quick shifts on the bridge and in the hangar to insure that everything continued to run acceptably– but they had far less to do overall and far more time for relaxation in between these shifts. And of course, if anything was detected that could conceivably pose a threat or require intervention then everyone would have to return to stations quickly. Regardless, even with these duties in the back of their minds, everyone treated minimal work with the same relief as if they had none.

Arriving on the bridge, Gertrude found an immediate account of their situation on the main screen. They were descending, slowly, deeper into the abyss. Currently they were at 3840 meters of depth. Because of the Iron Lady’s size, they would have to be even more careful about their descent as they went deeper, and the trench narrowed. On the screen, there was an imaging map generated by the predictive computer, showing that at the very bottom of the trench at 5000 meters there was actually a crack in the seafloor that led even deeper down into a cave system. They had only mapped the entrance with sonar. Once they got down to it, they could send a drone inside or simply plunge deeper themselves.

Judging by current predictions, the Iron Lady could fit as far down as they had seen.

“Commander! Welcome back!”

Karen Schicksal saluted Gertrude with a smile, shortly after she quietly entered the bridge.

“At ease.” Gertrude said, smiling back.

“Greetings, Commander.” Dreschner said, from the captain’s chair.

Gertrude walked until she stood just off to the side of him, looking at the main screen.

“No time off for you?” Gertrude said, in a casual tone.

“I’m the kind of man who has never had anything but his work.” Dreschner said.

“Thinking about it, I really haven’t ever seen you take a day off.”

“I would have nothing constructive to do. It’s better that I hold the bridge, and then more of our officers can enjoy their own leisure. They would use it better than I would.”

Gertrude turned to Karen. “How about you Schicksal? Do you have any plans?”

Karen averted her gaze. She hugged her digital clipboard closer to her chest.

“I’m probably just going to man the bridge as well.” She said, a bit sheepishly.

“You don’t have to. You have been under considerable stress.” Dreschner said.

“Perhaps I am the kind of woman who has nothing but her work.” Schicksal said.

Dreschner sat back in his chair and laughed. “Don’t fancy becoming like me, Karen!”

Karen adjusted her glasses. “I aspire to the highest levels of professionalism, Captain!”

“Now I feel like I ought to stay on the bridge too.” Gertrude said.

“Absolutely not!” Karen and Dreschner both said at once.

They glanced at each other briefly and then back at Gertrude with sharp gazes.

Gertrude held up her hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I will take time to relax, I promise.”

Both Karen and Dreschner looked relieved hearing Gertrude say that.

“With all due respect, Commander– leave the bridge to us, now.” Dreschner said.

“You, more than anyone, have earned a rest. You will take that rest, Commander.”

Karen said, smiling, and then she gestured gently toward the door to the bridge.

Gertrude could not help but laugh at the sight of her officers forcing her to stop working.

“I’m going, I’m going. Thank you both.” She said. “By the way, Einz, did you tell everyone to start calling me Commander? I noticed that nobody called me High Inquisitor anymore.”

“It was in the morning minutes I drafted and sent out to everyone today. And of course, we are all professionals and read such things closely every day, even on our days off.” Karen said.

“I informed Karen of the situation.” Dreschner said. “She and the crew did the rest.”

“Got it. Thanks. I’ll be off now, and I promise I’ll try to get some rest.” Gertrude said.

Everyone was quite lively– a noticeable change from the lethargy of the past few days.

Gertrude had noticed that Karen was not as stammering and nervous as usual too.

Einz and her might have seen something in the blue pools too– she wondered what it was.

There was no sane way to ask anyone that, of course.

She thought about what to do next as she stepped out onto the hall once more.

Though she was a bit hungry, she was, more than that, worried about Monika after everything that happened. The more she saw the crew out and about the more she worried. Monika would be in Nile’s care. Gertrude headed for the clinic. She could have a chat with Nile as well and knock two things off her to-do list. Maybe she could make good on her promise to rest after all– but she was not intending to make an effort toward it.

Since she last saw it, Nile’s clinic had slightly expanded.

In addition to the meeting room with all her supplies and the meeting room in which she saw patients there was now a third meeting room on the other side of the clinic. In this room, a few plastic beds with rudimentary cushioning and blankets were set up in two opposing rows of four, for a total of eight beds. There was only one person laid up in the beds, a petite Loup woman with long, dark blond hair, sound asleep, wrapped up in blankets with a plain white gel pillow. Her breathing was steady, the curve of her chest rising and falling under the blankets. Gertrude stood at the door, given pause by the peaceful and contented expression on Monika’s face. She turned away from the beds and walked next door.

At Nile’s clinic, the door opened automatically in her presence.

Inside the room, she found Nile hunched over a table, her tail wagging and ears twitching as she used a dropper to lay tiny amounts of a clear liquid into a beaker full of murky red fluid, like a thin tomato soup. Her fingers were exactingly careful with the tool, and she watched the drops closely as she released them. Once the drops made contact with the red, the murk suddenly became active, rising and frothing as if it was suddenly being boiled.

Gertrude then stepped past the door threshold–

in the next instant Nile straightened up and looked over her shoulder, surprised.

“You’re doing an experiment here?” Gertrude asked.

More curious than she was critical, but still a touch of judgment in her voice.

“Science is the same no matter where you do it.” Nile said.

Gertrude tried to keep her eyes off Nile’s collar, its LEDs signaling a healthy green. It felt rude to worry about it– but nevertheless, she worried. So, she made an effort not to be caught staring and instead looked Nile over. She was unmasked, as it seemed to have become her habit within the Iron Lady. Dressed in a turtleneck sweater, a waist-high skirt that hugged her hips well, black tights, and her signature white coat. Her brown hair was tied up into a messy bun for work. She wore just a bit of blush and lipstick on her face.

She was gorgeous– tall, dark, curvy, Loup excellence–

Gertrude averted her gaze entirely before Nile could notice her lingering eyes.

“Don’t you need a different kind of environment to get good results?” Gertrude asked.

“Not at all. Cause-effect causality transpires regardless of how posh the surroundings are. As long as you prepare the best you can and the thinking behind your experiment is sound, the outcome can be useful for learning, whether you are in a repurposed meeting room on a ship or in the top laboratories of the Empire. Science is science. That is one of the reasons why it is so tightly controlled in the Empire– you can only control it by controlling the knowledge and materials that make it up.” Nile cracked a smile. “So– Gertrude, what ails you?”

Owing to the length of the spiel Gertrude was unprepared to be suddenly acknowledged.

Gertrude took long enough to respond, a few seconds–

That Nile simply walked up to her and stood directly before her, leaning in.

“Mind if I examine you? I’d like to check your condition after the night’s ordeal.”

“No, it’s not necessary. I’m doing fine.” Gertrude said suddenly.

Nile’s eyes trailed down Gertrude’s body and back up to her face.

“You look more energetic, but your unusually good mood might just be masking a physical issue. Adrenaline and hormones are not to be underestimated. At any rate, I won’t do anything without your consent, but you should allow me to give you a full checkup again as soon as your courage and pride can withstand the endeavor.” Nile said.

“My pride is irrelevant!” Gertrude said sharply. “I honestly haven’t felt better in weeks, I’ll have you know. I have no problems at all. Just accept what your patient tells you.”

“Hmm. I’m glad you’re still a bit surly.” Nile replied coolly. “Drastic personality changes, even positive ones, can be a sign of deeper distress. Stability and continuity are good indicators.”

“I am not being surly. You are just constantly trying to get a rise out of me for no reason.”

“My reason is that I am a concerned professional in whom you have entrusted your care.”

Gertrude sighed deeply and audibly.

Nile cracked a little grin and crossed her arms. Her ears did a little twitch.

“Forget all of that.” Gertrude said. “How is Monika doing?”

“She is just sleeping. Sleeping quite soundly in fact.” Nile said. “Thankfully before anything happened I already had permission to prepare an infirmary. Physically, Monika is unchanged from when I last examined her. I won’t be elaborating on what that means. Mentally, I can’t be sure how she fares. We’ll have to see how she acts when she awakens.”

“Thank you for taking care of her. She’s been through so much.” Gertrude said.

“My pleasure– but it is not necessary to thank me. This is my work. I would not be myself if I ignored people in need of medical help. It would be quite shameful.” Nile said. She glanced at the wall of the room. “I’m worried about her. But I’m also worried about you.”

It was not that Gertrude did not appreciate Nile’s attention.

But she had a stubborn feeling that she wanted to be treated as someone formidable.

She should have been the only one worrying– about Nile and Monika and the others.

In her mind, she had overcome her personal hurdles and deserved to be relied upon now.

“I promise, you can look after me when there’s need– but I feel perfectly fine.”

“Alright, I won’t press you any further. Just remember that I am here.” Nile said.

She turned back around to the table she had set up in the back.

“Nile, I’m curious what you’re doing to those substances?”

Gertrude pointed at the beaker, propped up on a foldable rack, and the red fluid inside.

It had done frothing and looked a bit thinner than even previously.

“I am testing Katov mass gathered from outside the ship. Preliminarily trying to figure out what happened last night.” Nile said. “I was hoping that I might be able to reproduce a fleeting effect resembling the strange aetheric phenomenon, in miniature of course. By applying a certain neurochemical to the mass, I hoped to stimulate the organisms that make it up– but it looks like it had no effect other than altering the PH to kill it.”

“I don’t follow– what led you to believe such a thing was possible?” Gertrude said.

Nile looked as if she had not understood the question. She narrowed her eyes.

“You can’t truly be this incurious about the world, Gertrude? I can’t know anything until I have tried and observed results. That is the nature of experimentation. That’s what I am doing.”

Gertrude felt like an idiot. What was it about Nile that flustered her so easily?

“I was just worried something might happen.” She said, trying to sound sensible.

“Something happening is the very point. That is how we start learning. I am working with very small amounts of katov mass and chemicals. It’s very safe.” Nile sighed. “At any rate, I now believe the mass had nothing to do it with it– it was perhaps only reacting to the phenomenon, just like us. However, I hoped to test my belief and acquire proof by actually running some experiments. I’ll keep trying over the next few days and see the results.”

“Right.” Gertrude said. There was no use continuing this topic– she had other concerns.

In a fit of pique, she locked eyes with Nile, who met her gaze almost on accident.

For a moment, Nile appeared to recognize how Gertrude was looking at her.

Her eyes flashed red; just as Gertrude flexed those alien muscles in her own eyes.

Demonstrating her ability and seeing the blue and green color that collected around Nile.

Through her psionic sight she got the sense Nile’s aura was very deep and very dense.

That there was a depth to her– a depth that she did not hide but did not acknowledge.

Nile was very powerful. And her aura seemed to flicker like a candle-fire in a gust of air.

Despite her outward calm her aura gave off a feeling of volatility, or perhaps fluctuation.

However, her aura was also gentle. Her flame was wild, but it was not unforgiving.

“Nile, you know that I can do this now.” Gertrude said. “You are seeing it, right?”

Nile smiled. Despite her almost proud-seeming expression her aura remained the same.

“I do. I told you my suspicions last night, didn’t I? I was too vague perhaps.”

“Nile, can you tell me what you know about this power?” Gertrude said.

To Gertrude’s surprise, there was no hesitation or reticence from her doctor.

She simply took in a breath and began to speak candidly.

“I must preface by saying that everything I know, I learned from others who have studied this phenomenon more closely than me. I possess the ability myself, but I am not as versed as my colleagues. We call the power, Psionics. It is a word that feels right does it not? Different cultures had different concepts of it– any kind of ‘magic’ like volshebstvo or sihr is actually an expression of this power understood through cultural myth.” Nile spoke in a confident manner, as if giving a rehearsed lecture. Had she said this same thing to others before? Or had she perhaps prepared to give this explanation to Gertrude? She continued. “Psionics is the power of the human mind and our conception of the world, influenced by our emotions. Or at least, my colleagues and I hope that is accurate, after our experimentation.”

“In other words, in my case it is the power of my anger made manifest.” Gertrude said.

In the liminal space with the blue pools, Gertrude’s red passion and anger had broken the blue walls of the phenomenon and allowed her to finally move past the maze in which she had been trapped. In that moment, she had come to understand that blue was the source of her lethargy, and that red was her spiraling passions, covering her like an armor. When she saw blue in Nile’s aura, however, she felt different toward it– she was not alarmed. It was the same color, but the intention of Nile was not to ‘sleep eternally’ as Monika once desired. It seemed much less urgent. In fact, Monika also had a quiet and gently blue aura.

Nile was quick to rebut what Gertrude thought was an ironclad assertion, however.

“That is your current conception of the power based on what you have experienced. Different people with different experiences develop different systems of intellectual decryption. This can help you control the power through conceptual associations. It is the power of your mind, after all, it is a bit abstract. But also, I must stress that your conception of the power can change as much as your conception of the world can change. Your mind and emotions are not rigid, Gertrude. You do have an effect on how you feel and what you think; it is possible to change your mind, after all. I would strongly advise you not to think of psionics as a phenomenon that intersects solely with your anger. It is limiting to you.”

Gertrude responded at first with a short, bitter chuckle at the idea of changing herself.

“I wish everything were as easy as just convincing myself out of my habits.” She said.

She could change the meat on her bones, now– in all kinds of ways.

But her mind still felt like something far less forgiving of alteration.

“I never said it was easy. But my assertion is still correct, Gertrude.” Nile said.

“That sounds like something Victoria would say.”

“Then she would be correct also. Rhetoric is another thing that is the same anywhere.”

“I don’t mean– nevermind.” Gertrude grunted. “Can you teach me to control my psionics?”

Nile averted her eyes in response. Her expression was suddenly glum and conflicted.

Gertrude noticed that her aura shimmered, as if the candlefire withstood a stiff wind.

“I– well, I mean– it presents a certain challenge– I am not opposed–” Nile was tongue-tied, “as much as I have managed to hang on to my patience with you, because you are my patient and deserve the best of me even when I see the worst of you so frequently–”

“–Hey, c’mon…” Gertrude mumbled at the off-handed insult. What was her problem?

“–I am not actually very good at controlling my emotions either.” Nile sighed.

She crossed her arms and shut her eyes, wracked by a quiet consternation.

So that was the issue– she must have been dreading this moment, anticipating the request.

“I understand. But you can still teach me what you know, can’t you?” Gertrude said.

“To be frank, I have never taught anyone psionics. I can try, for you.” Nile said.

“But you had that whole spiel in the back of your head for when I asked?” Gertrude said.

“Correct. That spiel is something I have been preparing. I knew from the moment I saw you that you had the potential to employ psionics. You just needed a push; either to discover it on your terms or to be influenced by an outside force. I was conflicted about whether I should give you that push– but I knew by accepting your offer I had to be ready to consult for you regardless of what happened. I knew that, because we were now heading into extreme conditions, you would be much more likely to discover your abilities here.”

“Then, hardship plays a part in achieving psionics?” Gertrude asked. “That means you knew that I would be under so much stress in the abyss that I would eventually awaken?”

“Correct again. Any sufficiently heightened emotion, in the right circumstances, might cause a person with potential to discover and achieve control of their psionics, to some extent.” Nile said. She crossed her arms. “Take for example the legendary Loup warrior Samoylovych-Daybringer. The stories had it that the young Daybringer, during the war with Hanwa in the late 910s, fought to the brink of death against a powerful Hanwan warrior to hold a station landing. In that state, the stories say a fairy visited him, and taught him volshebtsvo. Daybringer’s feats after that were not exaggerated– he had achieved the power to kill scores of men. I suspect a near-death experience jogged Daybringer’s dormant power.”

“That’s a lot to take in.” Gertrude said, sighing. She felt unsettled by the example and by the idea that this could happen to anyone. “I can’t help but think that despite his efforts, we lost that war with Hanwa. The Imbrian Empire was not able to expand into the Mare Crisium even with a psionic warrior on our side. Or who knows how many more of them there were.”

“Psionics can be very powerful, but it is still impossible to win a war by oneself.” Nile said.

“Some part of me hoped I would be able to use this power to do just that.” Gertrude said.

“That hubristic and whimsical part of you is very charming, indeed.” Nile smiled warmly.

Gertrude averted her gaze. “That’s all you’re going to say to me about that, huh?”

“Yes. There is no consoling you on that score, it is simply the hard truth of things. In fact, Samoylovych-Daybringer, older but still in his prime, was ultimately slain by an ordinary man. You will be similarly vulnerable and limited– but nevertheless, psionics is a useful tool to have. Especially if you are flexible in your conception and development of it.”

Of course, common sense dictated that no individual was ever completely invincible.

For a moment, however, Gertrude in her passions had truly wanted to believe she was.

That achieving this power was an enormous breakthrough that would settle everything.

There was something unsettling about it being only a tool that might help her going forward.

Arvokas Jarvelainen, Ingrid’s ancestor, had ultimately killed the legendary Daybringer.

For Arvokas there were no fairy stories or mythical deeds. He was just a kin-slayer.

Gertrude was still vulnerable, and she was not by herself suddenly an earth-shaking titan.

She looked at Nile, hands in her coat pockets, who looked back with quiet consideration.

Sighing deeply, Gertrude tried to look positively upon things. It was good to accept reality.

She was not invincible, even with her psionics, but she was also not alone either.

There was an entire ship of people who had her back. Advising her, fighting with her.

And even in this very room there was someone who had agreed to lend her assistance.

“Nile, thank you for giving me your perspective. I– I do really appreciate it.” She said.

Nile nodded her head. “I assume that at this point– you’ll want to know more about me personally, right? That is also another conversation that I foresaw and prepared for.”

Gertrude shook her head in return.

“Honestly I have lost the zest for it. I had it in mind to interrogate you at any cost about the Sunlight Foundation and what you truly knew about the world. I know you still must have all manner of secrets. But those things feel petty now. You’re right, none of us are one-man islands. I have no cause to doubt your allegiance. You’ve done nothing but help me even when I’ve been stubborn as a rock wall.” Gertrude said. Her voice was turning soft and fond of the mysterious Loup. She felt comforted by this discussion. She wanted to feel formidable, yes– but she also had to accept the reality of her vulnerability.

Hubris had already done a lot of damage to her. She had to try her best to temper it.

Thinking she could squeeze everything out of Nile, thinking it would help anything.

Both were notions that made sense before and did not make sense now.

Like Nile said– maybe her mind was something she could, slowly, deliberately, change.

“Thank you. I am willing to answer your questions, for what it’s worth.” Nile said.

She gestured toward a pair of seats– they had both been speaking standing up and close.

Gertrude shook her head. She suddenly felt very thankful to be in Nile’s ‘care.’

“I think I just want to sit by Monika’s side and see if she wakes.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Feel free to avail yourself of anything in the infirmary.” Nile said.

She did have one question– it arrived at her quite suddenly.

One curiosity about Nile. She would allow herself to sate a single one.

“Actually– I do have one question, before I go.” Gertrude said.

Nile nodded. “Like I said, I’ve been preparing. What do you want to know?”

“How do you feel about your former allegiances? Do you have regrets?” Gertrude asked.

For a moment, a surprised Nile was pulled into her thoughts, with a melancholy expression.

“What a cruel question to ask, fittingly for you.” She tried to smile and to sound good humored. It was forced. “Of course, I have regrets. We disagreed on many things. But it was the only place I ever felt accepted and treated as a peer. I had no other home and I wanted none– they were my colleagues. We esteemed each other, motivated each other. We were flawed and arrogant and made horrible mistakes, but I would rather deal with cracked glass as long as it can keep the oxygen in. I had hope; some part of me still does.”

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. She reached out a hand to Nile’s shoulder, to comfort her.

Nile allowed it. Perhaps she even welcomed it.

She was just as vulnerable as Gertrude was. Nile, too, was not an invincible threat.


Time passed as Gertrude sat on the empty bed adjacent to Monika’s in the infirmary. She looked at the sleeping beauty’s face periodically. It was a relief; though she was still asleep, she looked peaceful. Her breathing was steady, she did not seem to be in pain. After everything she had been through, Gertrude hoped that she could have a moment’s relaxation before she resumed her activities. She deserved so much more– but at least that much. Gertrude waited at her side, hoping she might wake in a few hours more.

After about thirty minutes, Nile walked in through the door as well.

She had a cup of coffee and a handful of unsalted crackers and handed them to Gertrude.

“You should have something in your stomach.” Nile said.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “Can I call you when she wakes up?”

“I am planning to stay here actually, unless something drags me away.” Nile said.

She sat on the bed beside Gertrude and sipped her own cup of coffee.

Gertrude dipped one of the crackers in the coffee and ate it.

Together they watched over Monika’s bedside.

As she did so, Gertrude began to ponder the mysterious phenomenon that transpired last night. That maze of blue pools and the things they reflected; Monika claiming she wanted to invite Gertrude and the rest of the crew to an ‘eternal sleep’; and the Drowning Prophecy, the monstrous entity in Monika’s false church; did everyone experience visions in the blue pools? Victoria had confirmed she saw the pools, and that she saw events within them, lives she had not led. Gertrude likened it to a dream and Victoria agreed– but it was not an ordinary dream, concocted purely by her exhausted mind. It had felt so real, and the fact that she could still use psionics proved it. Gertrude had been there to see all of it.

Dreams often felt like being carried away to a different place and ended upon waking.

For Gertrude, the experience of the liminal pools, and her current state, felt like they were entirely contiguous events. Her memories were a bit hazy, but not gone. If Monika had put them all to sleep and beckoned them to remain sleeping, it was not a usual sleep. Gertrude wondered if everyone could remember the things they saw in the pools, if the people with less understanding were trying to puzzle out the haunting sensation that they felt from becoming trapped in that space and seeing impossible sights. Or if different people had gone to entirely different places and seen different things entirely than her.

Eventually, Gertrude got it into mind to put that question to Nile as well–

“Nile– during the mysterious ‘event’ last night, did you see a maze of blue pools?”

Nile took a long sip of her coffee, nodding her head slightly while drinking.

“Yes. With my psionics I understood it as a supernatural event, but I couldn’t escape.”

“What did you see in the pools?” Gertrude asked.

Nile scoffed. She averted her gaze. “You’re terribly nosy, did you know that?”

Gertrude smiled a bit. “It served me well in the Inquisition at least.”

Glancing back at Gertrude’s gentle expression, Nile breathed deeply and put down her cup.

“Fine. But you must tell your doctor about your own dreams, first.” She said.

“All of them were about Elena von Fueller.” Gertrude said. “We built many lives together in those pools. I was her servant, and I was her lover. She gave me meaning.”

Nile looked surprised– she must not have expected Gertrude to be so forthcoming.

To people like Nile and Victoria, Gertrude had nothing to hide about that affair anymore.

“I was Elena von Fueller’s lover– surprise? I squandered everything though.” Gertrude said.

In response to Gertrude’s honesty, Nile looked exasperated, and seemed to resign herself.

“Fine, fine. I saw similar things in the pools. Some of them represented things I knew could be possible– different decision points in my life. But there were some that were fabrications. I saw myself as some kind of horrid queen of a disease-infested flesh castle that resembled Heitzing; I saw myself as a member of the Pythian Black Legion nerve-gassing an entire station. But the worst one–” Nile paused and looked down at her cup for a moment.

Gertrude raised a hand and waved, interposing it between herself and Nile to stop her.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to keep going. I know now that we saw similar visions.”

Nile looked in that moment as Gertrude had never seen her before, but the expression was familiar because she had seen it in herself. Pain and frustration, an internal conflict, reticence that fought with passion and quaked under her skin. Gertrude thought she might hear her scream any moment; she looked that bound up in herself. She tried to reassure Nile that she did not need to say anything, but she knew, because she had been there herself, that the emotions were too hot. She had been in that exact position far too many times.

“No. I want to tell someone. Even if you might not understand– almost certainly you won’t understand it. But I’ll get it off my chest and then I can put it away forever.” Nile said. Her voice rose– she was taken by a sudden passion. “Gertrude, I saw the Northern Host of the Loup being completely wiped out by Mehmed Khalifa. Somehow, he detonated the North Imbrian Agarthic Vein– what’s known as one of the ‘Ley-Lines’. You do not know how close this came to actually happening, Gertrude. In that vision I just stood there and watched him do it. Watched him kill half of the Loup, and scores of Imbrians. He devastated the Palatine and ended the Empire.” Nile’s fingers tightened their grip on the cup, nearly shaking. Her eyes looked like they would tear up. “I– I did not want his blood on my hands.”

“Nile– I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. It was hard to muster any words in response.

Mehmed Khalifa, better known as Mehmed the Tyrant or Mehmed the Sorcerer, had declared an organized, armed religious struggle known to the Shimii as a ‘jihad’. He mustered scores of mainly Mahdist Shimii fighters in improvised and stolen crafts. Using his limited resources he inflicted embarrassing defeats on the Empire in the early to middle 930s, slowly building his arsenal. The official narrative was that the Inquisition tracked him down to Bad Ischl and killed him, but Gertrude knew one better– she knew that one of the Inquisition’s secrets was that the Agarthicite veins in the area had a dangerous event that inflicted damage on the Imperial siege fleet but also scattered the jihadists. An act of God ended the Jihad.

Now she knew two better– not an act of God, but Nile and her ‘colleagues’ instead. Had they truly ended the Jihad? Why? Given the resources Victoria claimed they possessed, and Nile’s own abilities, Gertrude could believe that if they became involved in such an event, that they could have brought it to a conclusion. But why interfere against someone as formidable as the self-crowned king of the Shimii’s Age of Heroes? Had they become involved in any other events, Gertrude wondered? Had any other acts of God been instead the meddling of the Sunlight Foundation in the background of what had become accepted history?

Seeing how distressed Nile had become, Gertrude could not possibly ask for more context.

Despite her curiosity, the Jihad was over– and Mehmed was dead.

And it did not matter to her and her life what or who did it. It was in the past and Gertrude had no reason to litigate it. But it clearly caused Nile a lot of pain. In those blue pools she saw a world in which she never got her hands dirty, and allowed an atrocity to pass. Gertrude had thought of the pools as amoral, showing her things that were in some sense real, without judgment. She had only seen events that reflected her warped desires and horrible mistakes. To show Nile something that horrid, however, Gertrude began to wonder if perhaps the visions in the blue pools had been guided by an active malevolence.

Rather than say anything more, she gingerly sidled closer to Nile and tried to comfort her.

Nile raised a hand to gently prevent this, keeping her away, and another to wipe her eyes.

“Thank you, but– it’s fine–” She kept a hand over her eyes. “I’m sorry for losing myself.”

“No apology necessary. It’s only human. I would know.” Gertrude said, smiling.

“I appreciate your understanding. If I broke down anywhere, then at least it was with you.”

Nile must have meant that because of their similarities they could have a unique solidarity.

However, Gertrude’s heart was quick to accelerate, and her face felt a bit warm.

At the thought of Nile wanting to confer her vulnerability only to her.

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I am sorry for prying.” Gertrude said. “But– if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you. I understand what it feels like carrying a burden. God knows, I’ve made so many mistakes that perhaps no one would understand. My pool rooms were full of my stupid obsession, devoid of any of the people I care about or even people that I hurt. I am ashamed of that single-mindedness– it wiped out even the recognition of my mistakes from my psyche. This– it demonstrates you’re better than that.”

Nile lifted her hand from over her eyes, her tears wiped but clearly still a bit agitated.

She nodded in response, and quietly finished off the last of her coffee.

Gertrude took a sip too and began to calm her thrashing her heart.

“Gertrude, would you accept a chaste and professional hug?” Nile asked suddenly.

“Any time.” Gertrude quickly replied.

Nile sidled close to Gertrude, and extended an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close.

Gertrude accepted it and reciprocated. She could feel Nile’s tail thumping the bed.

For a while, they shared this quiet physical comfort before gently separating.

Going back to looking over Monika but with calmer hearts and minds than before.

After a few hours of staring in a silence only broken by Nile getting more coffee–

Monika turned in bed, once, twice– she tightened her eyes, and pulled her blankets.

Gertrude and Nile nearly jumped with surprise as if the floors and walls had moved instead.

Finally, Monika began to open her eyes. She opened them halfway, shut them.

She began to blink. She saw up in bed, dressed in only a patient’s gown. Her hair fell over her eyes partially and behind her back. Monika pulled her bangs to the sides of her face and let out a yawn. Without speaking a word, she continued to stare at Gertrude and Nile, who stared back. For a moment the trio traded stares at one another.

One of Monika’s furry ears began to twitch.

“Gertrude?” Monika asked, when she finally spoke. “Have I been dreaming?”

“Maybe. Did you happen to dream about a maze of blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

“Don’t tell her that so quickly– let her acclimate first!” Nile protested.

“Blue pools?” Monika’s eyes opened wide. She hugged herself. “Oh my god.”

“Let me handle the talking.” Nile said. “Monika, how many fingers am I holding up?”

She held up her index and middle fingers, making a ‘V’ sign in front of Monika.

In response, Monika made two ‘V’ signs with her own hands, blinking her eyes slowly.

Nile ran her fingers idly through her hair, seemingly thinking of what to say.

“She looks awake and aware to me.” Gertrude said. “Monika, how are you feeling?”

“Confused. Horrible. And– oh my god–!” Monika narrowed her eyes. Her tail extended.

Then with barely any warning she sprang from her bed and leaped over to the one adjacent.

Throwing her arms around Gertrude and nearly tackling her off and onto the ground.

Thankfully they both fell over on top of the bed instead, nearly kicking Nile aside.

“Hey!” Nile cried out. “Calm down! You’ll hurt yourself! We need to–!”

“Gertrude!” Monika cried out. “I’m so sorry! I can’t– I’m so ashamed– you saved me–!”

Between the gratitude and contrition all screamed in interwoven hysterics, Gertrude could not muster an answer. Despite her petite stature Monika in that moment had the force of a leviathan as she hugged Gertrude down against the bed, her tail drumming against the plastic headboard. Monika cried and screamed into Gertrude’s chest, her gown nearly pulling apart with her thrashing. She hugged her so close, kicking her legs, arms tight.

“Monika! It’s okay! Please calm down! Listen to the doctor!” Gertrude struggled to say.

Monika pressed herself tightly against Gertrude’s chest while Nile looked on with worry.

Then Monika raised her head and met Gertrude’s eyes, ears running down her cheeks.

With a smile on her face.

“Gertrude– I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I’m alive.” She said.

Gertrude felt an enormous sense of relief.

She let herself fall back on the bed without resistance.

Letting out a breath that felt long held.

“I’m so happy you’re here, Monika.” Gertrude replied, stroking Monika’s hair.

With some gentle coaxing from the doctor, Monika returned to her bed and sat upright.

Nile handed her a cup of water and some crackers. Monika took a few bites.

Gertrude sat across and observed her while Nile tested her faculties.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud,” Nile said, “That is your name, correct?”

Monika nodded her head.

“Thank you– but can you speak your answer clearly? For the sake of the test.”

“Yes, it is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

“I am going to ask you to do something that might seem silly. Can you extend your right arm over the left side of your body, with your thumb up, and stick out your tongue?” Nile asked.

“Yes.” Monika followed the instructions without hesitation.

Gertrude looked over at the wall to prevent herself laughing– Monika was rather cute.

“Can you name this object that I am holding?” Nile said. It was her digital pen.

“It’s a pen.” Monika said.

“What am I doing with it?” Nile scribbled on the screen of her digital clipboard.

“You’re writing. It’s a digital pen and you have a digital clipboard.”

“Do you remember the small talk we had when you came in for a checkup?”

“I think you asked me about the food on board. We talked about liking the liver pate.”

“It’s a bit gritty but nutritionally excellent– lots of what kind of Vitamin?”

“Vitamin A if I am remembering correctly.”

“You are correct. One last question– where is the consortium Reschold-Kolt located?”

“They’re in the Bureni Republic. It’s one of my many misfortunes recently, hah!”

Monika spoke candidly and cheerfully and seemed to be full of energy.

Nile smiled and put her clipboard at her side on the bed.

“I believe you have all of your faculties about you. This isn’t a comprehensive test, but you are aware, your coordination is good, and you can recall details. I don’t believe that I will need to hold you here for long, but I would like to observe you awake for an hour.”

“I was going to spend the day loafing around anyway.” Monika said. “Thank you, doctor.”

She turned to face Gertrude again and pointed at her. “How is she doing?”

“I’m afraid that’s confidential patient information.” Nile said gently.

Putting it like that made it sound like something was going on!

“C’mon. I’m fine!” Gertrude said, slightly irritated. “Don’t worry about me, Monika.”

“Don’t put up an act. You got stabbed in the gut– I saw it! I was terrified!” Monika said.

“Wait– what?” Nile looked at Gertrude with wide eyes, staring down at her abdomen.

Gertrude raised her hands as if to shield herself from the concerns of the two women.

“Everything grew back. Would I be walking around if I got stabbed in the stomach?”

“What do you mean everything grew back?” Nile said. “I’m going to need an explanation!”

“Calm down and I’ll give you one. I’ve been wanting to talk about this with you anyway.”

Gertrude put her hands on the bed, reared back a bit, sighed, and then launched into her story of what happened yesterday. She went through everything but embellished or glossed over a few details– Monika did not need to know about what she saw in the pools. But she explained becoming lost in the primary edifice due to Azazil An-Nur’s cries for help; being attacked by the strange blue creatures and her experience of falling asleep; waking up in the blue pools, and breaking through them; Eris and her ambitions to recover her–

She did not mention Eris. That was still for herself only. She was still processing that.

Finally, breaking the maze, the church, the abomination and her newfound power.

“And then she rescued me.” Monika said. “That part I can corroborate, doctor.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “I killed the creature that captured Monika. Then I woke up again and I wasn’t in the blue pools anymore. I carried Monika back to the ship. You were all there to greet me– and from what I can gather, all of us saw the blue pools too. Victoria confirmed that she did, and Nile, you saw them too. So– we all had this strange dream.”

“A collective psychic phenomenon.” Nile lifted a hand to her forehead. “Ya allah.”

“I take it this isn’t something you have experience with?” Gertrude asked.

“This specific incident is magnitudes stranger than anything I’ve heard or seen happen. I could not have predicted it.” Nile said. “I knew, and I attempted to communicate to you, that the abyssal ‘aetheric weather’ would affect us. I do not know the origin of the color weather, but the abyss has been observed by my colleagues to affect the auras of people, it causes our emotions to unbalance. Most people, most of the time, have a balance of stress and tranquility and other emotional states– the aetheric weather causes one of the states of our aura to expand at the expense of this balance. I knew this and I tried to tell you.”

“You tried to tell me once, in my room at midnight, when I was dead tired.” Gertrude said.

“Huh?” Monika said. Looking a bit red. “She was in your room at midnight?”

“I broke in.” Nile said as if it explained anything.

Monika blinked. “You broke into her room at midnight?”

“Nevermind that, nothing happened!” Gertrude waved her hands rapidly.

Nile shrugged her shoulders innocently. Monika glanced between the two of them.

“Unfortunately, the weather had begun to have its effect on me also and impaired my judgment. I was also tired and unbalanced. I should have kept pushing you on that subject, even as stubborn as you were. But I did not want to deal with it.” Nile said. “The past few days I had a lot to do and did the best I could despite the creeping exhaustion, but I had limited headspace and I put off important things. I only vaguely recognized that this was the doing of the ‘aetheric weather’ but I felt that we could do nothing but ride it out.”

“We were all acting a bit more foolish than usual.” Gertrude said, sighing.

“For you such a thing is much more in-character.” Monika said.

Gertrude frowned, and Monika smile back, having successfully caused her grief.

“Doctor,” Monika turned to Nile, “I– I think the strange stuff that happened is my fault.”

“It’s not your fault at all.” Gertrude was quick to say.

“I agree with Gertrude. Nobody is blaming you, Monika.” Nile said.

Monika sat back against the bed, crossing her arms and breathing out.

“It’s difficult– but can I try to explain to you what happened? Even if it sounds crazy?”

“Of course. Listening to my patients is the very least I can do.” Nile said.

Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling as if to avoid their eyes–

Monika recounted her experiences.

She confessed to Nile and Gertrude that she had been dealing with suicidal thoughts for a very long time. Monika grew up in a deeply religious household and she referred to the Loup culture as anti-intellectual– Nile could relate to this. After escaping from her abusive family, Monika had managed to get her thoughts more under control– but she knew there was a stigma against feeling such a way. She did not want to be seen as insane or as a ticking time-bomb, so she told nobody about it. Her despair sat quietly in her and she drowned it in various achievements. In the world of the Imbrians she could do everything her family barred her from. Completed her education, found a job that allowed her to express her interest in technology, sciences and industry. Finally she accomplished the aspirational feat of any military engineer– she was chose to serve aboard a glorious, high-tech Dreadnought.

Recent events had shaken her confidence in herself. She began to struggle with work and thought about how helpless she was to influence the events happening around her– such as Imbria’s dissolution, or the battles against the Brigand. She took it hard when the machine she had worked on, was defeated in battle and then stolen– she took it harder when she struggled to repair the Magellan that Gertrude got to keep. It wasn’t for lack of materials or time, but she felt, it was a limit in herself. In her usefulness to the world around her.

She confessed that in her mind, if she failed, then– there was no reason to keep on living.

“I started to have those feelings about myself again. Every little thing triggered them.” Monika said. “If I didn’t finish this or that, or if I couldn’t figure something out– even minor everyday tasks or things like how to set up my tools so I can reach them more efficiently. Any little thing started to feel like something I ought to have stopped living over. That negotiation with myself about whether it was worth living or not felt like it was taking a life of its own. Like I was really talking with death itself about living on or dying, any time that anything happened. Then, things started to move really quickly, it felt like– at one point I found myself almost worshiping death– thinking that everyone must have felt like me and we could all die together. That’s when I found that church, and that abomination.”

“Monika–” Gertrude began. It took everything not to cry. “I’m so, so sorry.”

She reached out her hands and took Monika’s, caressing her, hoping to comfort her.

Monika reciprocated, taking Gertrude’s hands and squeezing them in hers.

“It’s alright. I decided I want to live Gertrude. I’m going to try. I know I will probably have these thoughts again– but I will fight to live. And I will also ask for help if I need it.”

“Monika, whatever you need, you can come to me. I’ll always listen.” Gertrude said.

It wasn’t that she was completely unfamiliar with the kind of feelings Monika had felt.

Gertrude had more than once felt utter hopelessness, and all of its most dire results.

However, she never suspected that Monika was dealing with such feelings herself.

That frightened Gertrude– she could have lost Monika forever and never realized it.

She had been so self-centered and oblivious to her pain despite thinking she knew her well.

Conscious of this, Gertrude did not want to turn the conversation to her own failings.

Monika had already gotten angry at her once for drowning in self-pity.

In her mind however she told herself, and she knew, that she had to do better by Monika.

Nile also reached out and laid her hand over Monika’s with a gentle demeanor and speech.

“For as long as I am your doctor, I will support you, Monika. And everything you have told us will stay in this room. It is confidential patient information. So do not worry.” She said.

“Thank you.” Monika said. She sat back up and stopped looking at the roof. Her eyes were glistening. She wiped them on the sleeve of her hospital gown. “Doctor, during my experiences last night– I felt like understood implicitly that there was a supernatural power in my self. My mind was a mess– so I didn’t care then. I understand that you have power too, and Gertrude too. You know about all of this– and you must know more than I do.”

“I am not all-knowing. But I know some things.” Nile said. “Psionics, the power you feel that you now have, is as deep and as fluid as the human experience itself. I’ve lived for longer than you might imagine, and I will never observe and examine everything related to psionics. It’s like myths, or miracles; I’m sure it will always change to elude our reckoning.”

“I understand, doctor, but could you try to explain what might have happened?”

Nile’s expression was familiar– as exasperated as when Gertrude asked about psionics.

She nodded her assent but paused for a moment clearly gathering her thoughts.

Her ears folded and rose, and she ran her fingers through some of her hair.

“As it stands, this is conjecture– and barely educated conjecture at that. During the blue weather event, Monika, you were fatigued and beset by feelings of frustration and hopelessness. These feelings were amplified by the blue weather, sabotaging your mental stability until it crossed a certain emotional threshold. It led to your psionics awakening, and you lost control over them. This may have had a synergistic effect with the blue weather, which we were all experiencing, that led to us having a collective event. Of course, I vehemently reject blaming you for this– I believe you were a victim of circumstance.”

“Monika, do you agree with this? How did you feel?” Gertrude asked.

Monike crossed her arms. Her own ears folded and rose as she thought it over.

“I think it’s mostly right, but– I feel that I was not the one who created that abomination that Gertrude and I saw. I felt that it had been speaking to me for a long time, ever since we got down here– I tried to ignore it, but looking back, at a certain point, I embraced it.”

Gertrude supported Monika’s deliberation.

“Nile, inside the blue rooms, I felt like I understood what Monika’s feelings were with great certainty. I can’t explain it, but I just knew, like I could hear a voice in my head that explained everything. But the monster always felt apart from her. Like an invader into her mind. Those were not explicitly her feelings alone, they felt like feelings anyone could have. Like mine also. It was called ‘the Drowning Prophecy’– and I think Monika knows that name too.”

“Yes, I felt just like Gertrude. Like someone was telling me about its name for certain.”

Nile paused and crossed her arms. She sighed. “You don’t say. Anyone’s feelings, huh?”

“Would you happen to have any explanation for that phenomenon?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes and no.” Nile said. She sighed again. “Like I’ve said before, I am a medical doctor, not a pseudophysicist or a parapsychiatrist. However, one of my colleagues, Euphrates, theorized that it should be possible to create constructs with psionics that anyone would recognize as real entities despite their aetheric origin. Perhaps this entity you both saw was created out of collective emotions. Maybe its reach over Monika was a result of how many tired and hopeless people were aboard the ship– in the blue weather that would mean all of us.”

“I guess it makes as much sense as anything.” Gertrude said, feeling a bit helpless.

“I still feel like ‘The Drowning Prophecy’ was something else entirely.” Monika said. “Not just our feelings, but something older and bigger than that. It was like it had been ready to communicate with me at the earliest time I was able to see it. Like it was leading me to the blue church– just waiting all of this time to talk to anyone who would listen to it. I don’t believe in God, but thinking back, it almost felt like a horrible, sublime revelation.”

“Well, I can’t know more until I see this happen myself– and I don’t want to.” Nile said.

“Right. I’d also prefer never to have that experience again.” Monika said.

She and Nile tried to smile but the topic was heavy, and clearly weighing on their minds.

Nile probably felt frustrated with her lack of answers. Her body language had grown tense.

When it came to medical problems she always had a solution– this was beyond her.

Gertrude wondered if for a genius intellect like her, uncertainty was uniquely frustrating.

“So, if this all had to do with our emotions– were we in physical danger?” Gertrude asked.

“If this was related to psionics in some way, then yes. You were in danger.” Nile said.

“Can you elaborate how? Do you think the monster could have really killed us?”

In the moment, Gertrude’s sense of pain was dull despite the horrible attack she suffered.

That monster ran her through with its tentacle, and there was blood and she screamed.

There was not the level of acute, shattering pain she would have associated with that.

Perhaps it was the red passion cloaking her in power, and the certainty she felt back then.

Or perhaps it just had not been physical, and it actually was closer to a dream than reality.

“Normally,” Nile said, “it is very difficult to use psionics to coerce someone into harming themselves– it’s an action that is too atypical for the subject’s internality to accept. But it’s not impossible and we have no idea what a psionic construct is capable of doing, whether they follow our observations. Had you and Monika faltered, I imagine you would have indeed slept eternally. However that felt to you in the moment– your body was suffering.”

Not necessarily that being stabbed by the monster would have killed Gertrude, but rather, that it would have convinced them to pursue its ‘eternal sleep.’ Everyone would have chosen to die by never waking up from the dream until they passed. Mass psychogenic suicide.

Probably Nile would not have characterized it this way, but it got Gertrude thinking about the dangers that psionics might pose. She had been thinking about it exclusively in the way her body became a weapon when imbued with her psionics– but in reality, it was farther reaching and much more dangerous than that. Psionics was much more insidious.

Gertrude recalled all the strange abilities Norn seemed to possess. The incredible control over her troops, her ability to move extremely quickly and strike someone in a blink.

There was a larger and more terrifying world opening up before Gertrude’s own eyes.

“Nile, could you help Monika to understand and control her psionics too?” Gertrude asked.

Upon hearing that request, Monika looked down at her hands with a quiet concern.

Gertrude must have had that exact same expression on her face last night too.

That dire contemplation of becoming irreversibly different than before.

“I will do the best I can.” Nile sighed. “It’s– I guess it’s my duty as a doctor, after all.”


“Vogt, nobody roughed her up, right? And she’s been behaving well?”

“Indeed High– Commander.” Vogt caught himself. “She has been quietly waiting for you.”

“Any observations?” She ignored his struggle with her rank.

“One observation. When you first brought her here, she seemed almost– giggly. Energetic. Kind of fawning over you. At some point, and probably if I went through the camera footage I could probably scrobble to the exact second– she stopped smiling, Commander. She has this very neutral expression now. Her voice feels different too. When we brought her food, she spoke to us in a weird language– the translator tool said it is High Gallic. When we asked her to speak in Low Imbrian she teased us about our lack of culture. It was strange.”

Gertrude grunted, annoyed. “What the hell is she up to now– let me in to see her.”

After making sure Monika was okay and grabbing more coffee from Nile, Gertrude had set out to tackle her least anticipated errand of the day. It would have been callous of her to continue to subject Azazil An-Nur to captivity when she had wanted to cooperate before. But Gertrude had to know more about her and had to better understand her disposition. So she traveled to the Iron Lady’s containment rooms. She would converse with her in the interrogation cell she was being kept in, and she would decide then what to do.

“She has not been aggressive, Commander. I think she will cooperate.” Vogt said.

“I’m hoping as much too, but I’m always prepared for the worst.” Gertrude said.

Things she said to reassure her troops, without always meaning them.

In fact, she knew precious little about Azazil An-Nur and had no idea how she would act.

Vogt nodded and showed Gertrude he had brought a folding vibroblade on his person.

“I, too, am prepared for the worst. So you can be at ease, Commander.” He said.

Azazil was being kept confined in a glass-walled interrogation cell, one-way viewable.

Inside the cell she had a desk and a chair, both made of soft rubber-padded plastic.

Outside, there was a media room where recordings and observations were being made.

Gertrude passed through that room, out into a connecting rear room and then into the cell.

Azazil An-Nur lifted her eyes from the table briefly and smiled a very small, slight smile.

Her expression appeared much more reserved. When Gertrude had last seen her, she was gently smiling and cooing at her, like a motherly type of woman who wanted to impress her affection and comfort upon Gertrude. Now, she had a very specific sort of neutral expression, of the sort that Gertrude associated with noblewomen. Adelheid van Mueller had this sort of haughty non-smile that she would put on for people who were beneath her notice but not worth her disrespect. A noblewoman’s smile– put on for appearances, so perfectly practiced it managed to mean something while conveying nothing.

“Azazil, how have you been getting on?” Gertrude asked, sitting down across the table.

“In my appraisal, I have been diligently cooperative in my captivity.” Azazil said.

Vogt had been right– her voice was deeper, smoother. She had changed it somehow.

Could she change her body like Gertrude could? Could Gertrude change her own voice?

Azazil sat with her fingers steepled. Her gaze felt eerily penetrating.

That presence she now had– was she always so intense?

Everything else about Azazil looked familiar.

Her sleek, long black dress still hugged her perfect figure and looked almost brand new despite the scuffles of the past night. In the haze of the terrible events in which they had met, Gertrude had not noticed how well-made that dress was. It did not appear to be natural fibers, and it glistened, but it had a very soft look. Could it have been silk? In terms of facial features, she was without fault, with a gentle and regal beauty, soft red lips, small eyes slightly angled, her countenance mature but umblemished; her silver hair long and perfectly tended; her Shimii-like ears tall, black-furred, and sharp and fluffy; and her figure, ample in the right places and sleek in the rest. She was like a sculpture given life, a living artwork.

Gertrude felt that the more she observed her the more she found her gaze ensnared.

“After acquiring more data, I altered myself to better suit your tastes.” Azazil said.

“To better suit me?” Gertrude asked. She felt almost offended. What did that mean?

“As a biomechanoid servant I can serve better with more data. Upon close examination of all of our exchanges, I calculated that your nervous energy, inquisitiveness and spiraling passion are better matched by a woman who is more collected, distant and mature in appearance, mannerisms and personality. You are titillated by the mystery and taboo of women that feel out of your reach. You respond poorly when you receive too much open affection.”

“That is enough of that.” Gertrude said. She gestured for the recording to be cut.

“You want women to vex and challenge you at least a little. You are enriched by conquest.”

“That is– you think I find this attractive? I am terribly annoyed with you is what I am!”

“Perhaps– but I can tell you are already intrigued. I made a correct assessment.”

Gertrude had broken out into a bit of a sweat, and her face felt a little bit hot.

It was less what Azazil was doing or saying and more how she was doing it and saying it.

Her deep, sultry voice that felt like it was holding everything back while pulling her close. Precise mannerisms, like the brief flutter of her steepled fingers, or the ephemeral flitting of her eyelashes or the minute changes in her expression. She was like a silk-draped, full-figured puzzle box beckoning Gertrude to probe deeper and more forcefully.

Azazil was right, and Gertrude felt like a complete idiot.

She was manipulated– she had to stop fixating on Azazil.

Or she would be made a fool of.

It’s not easy to tear my eyes away from her– she is drop-dead gorgeous.

Maybe she could instead try to play it against her somehow.

“You said you were created to take care of humans, and you must follow my commands.”

“Correct. You are the owner of this body now, Master. It is yours however you desire.”

“What if I make you do something undignified? That breaks this façade you’re creating?”

“You can degrade me as a woman if you like. I’m sure it’s part of the fantasy for you.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t care what data you think you have collected on me! You do not know me, and I won’t have you typecasting me as some kind of pervert!” She hesitated briefly, a quivering in her chest working itself out as she then spoke. “I’m– I’m heterosexual!”

An interesting and hasty gambit that immediately faltered on all merits.

Azazil crossed her arms and grinned, just a little. “I know what you are.”

Suddenly Gertrude turned to what should have been a wall. “Get out! All of you! Now!”

She could not know whether or nor the recording and monitoring team vacated the room.

But they must have– they always followed her orders. They stopped recording and left.

Azazil waited obediently until the cell felt emptier. She continued. “My data is not wrong. From observing your interactions with me, and also the composition of your crew, which I also had a chance to observe. There are several women who have forged close emotional connections to you, and no men who have a relationship to you that is anything above strictly professional. No, my master, Lady Lichtenberg– you are absolutely a homosexual.”

Gertrude was nearly speechless. Azazil was correct, but it was utterly ridiculous to hear it.

“What if I ordered you to become a man?” Gertrude said, in a near-hysteric voice.

“You wouldn’t seriously do that.” Azazil said. “Master, there is no need to be distressed.”

Gertrude had completely lost it. Azazil had twirled her around like synthetic twine.

“I am not distressed! I am furious! Aren’t you supposed to ‘take care’ of me? What is this?”

Azazil wore that noblewoman’s smile again, but Gertrude could read the implicit malice. “I am indeed your servant, and it is indeed my duty to take care of your needs. I am presenting in a way which is the most suitable for your pleasure. However, I assure you I am not here to interfere with your daily life and your real relationships. I am an appliance that you can use as you need– has it not always been this way between masters and servants?”

She was stunned. It was stunning. Gertrude was left reeling by those words.

“What– what kind of perverted society– how the hell are you an ‘appliance’?!”

Even if Gertrude had entertained the desire to be able to keep more than one woman–

Nobody could possibly have been an ‘appliance’ to her!

And even worse for such a use!

“This– this situation— I’m disgusted! I don’t want anyone to take care of me like this!”

“Do you feel that it is ingenuine of me to try to please you in this way?”

“You are not pleasing me!”

“Would you find it more honest if I acted as I did before I had any data?”

Gertrude was given pause. Back then, last night– was she just acting then too?

Of course, she must have been. After all– she was an ‘appliance’ back then too.

Azazil An-Nur was a ‘biomechanoid’ that was ‘created to take care of humans’.

Thinking over this, Gertrude felt progressively conflicted and disturbed.

She did not know what to say to someone who had been created to serve her.

Gertrude had coerced and misled many people over the years. She was High Inquisitor.

Through honeyed words, through the truncheon, through legal threats–

She knew something about forcing people to bend to her will when necessary.

That coercion didn’t change them as people. Their bodies didn’t react to suit her needs.

Azazil’s comfort with changing pieces of herself to suit Gertrude–

She had conflicting feelings about it.

“When we first met, Master, I had an unclear profile of your personality, mannerisms, and your desires and needs as a person. After observing you for long enough, I developed the correct predictions, and I am better suited to serving you in a comfortable and tailored fashion. Humans do this too– but less efficiently. You are welcome to delete the profile I have generated but I doubt your needs will change much. In my view, I have optimized our relationship and am better able to serve you– why don’t you allow me to demonstrate as such for a few days? You will find I am a much better product now than before.”

“You call yourself a ‘product’ and an ‘appliance’– I don’t know how to deal with that.”

“Master, would it bring you relief to know a mop or a broom enjoyed the act of cleaning?”

Gertrude had no answer to that. She felt her heart and head grow heavy at the thought.

It was not possible that Azazil was a mop or a broom. She was a human, like Gertrude.

There was no way in hell that any society made people that were reduced to this!

That was her thinking– she could not, in her privilege, connect this behavior to anything.

Azazil smiled, more than she had before.

“I was created to take care of human beings. For so long, I have not had any people to take care of. They were all gone. Before I met you, I only had contact with an overbearing neural model and belligerent biomechanoids. I might not look like it, but I am pleased with the prospect of being able to take care of Genuine Human Beings again. It is not in my nature to make requests– but I strongly believe I can improve your quality of life if you will allow it.”

Gertrude was helpless. She did not know the correct or moral answer in this situation.

Insisting on Azazil’s humanity might go nowhere; would accepting this make her happy?

Could Azazil feel happy? What had they done to ‘create’ her? She looked human–

Now she was really second-guessing herself– was this all encoded in Azazil’s biology?

Was it STEM? Could she somehow alter Azazil’s STEM to free her from this condition?

To alleviate her own guilt and shame about all of this, Gertrude settled on that fantasy.

Perhaps if she discovered more about the mysterious STEM system–

She could turn Azazil from an ‘appliance’ and back into an independent human being.

It was this distant hope that allowed Gertrude to take a deep breath and speak again.

“I’ll accept you as you are, for now. I will accept that you are acting this way. But listen up and listen well, Azazil An-Nur– I don’t need your services in whatever perverse way you are implying. I need you to prove to me that you are able to act independently, that you can freely make your own choices as a person. Everyone on my ship agreed to be here. I am– I am adamantly against slavery. I will not so much as touch you until I am sure.”

“Adamantly against slavery– how curious. I’ll make a note of this.” Azazil said. “However, my condition is not slavery. Humans can be coerced into slavery. I was created to serve a purpose. I want to serve that purpose and I am happy to be given the opportunity.”

“If there is some way to free you from this condition, I will find it.” Gertrude said sharply.

For a moment, Gertrude caught what seemed like a twitch of Azazil’s eye.

However– it was so quick that it seemed like only her imagination.

Maybe she only wanted to see some kind of response.

“Very well, master. In such a matter and any others, of course, I will assist you.”

Gertrude sighed and slumped forward on the table. What an exhausting conversation!

After venting through a series of noises, she looked back at Azazil again.

“You have psionics, right? You understand your abilities to be psionic?” Gertrude asked.

“Correct.” Azazil replied.

“How can I know you are not controlling me using psionics?”

“If I have been doing that, do you believe it has been effective up to this point?”

“I can’t argue with that.” Gertrude said, with a grunt. “So–were you created to be psionic?”

“No.” Azazil said. She offered no candid asides nor any rhetoric to support her answer.

“What do you mean, no?” Gertrude asked, with mild but growing outrage.

“I was not created with psionic ability. That is not possible, as far as I know.”

“Where were you– created? Who created you? Elaborate a bit wouldn’t you?”

Azazil, with her small, wry, smile, answered the question exactly.

“I was created in Hephaestus Innovations Inc., Exafactory No. 4, in Turkiye, the seat of the Aer Federation. Turkiye is part of the internal polity known as the Nobilis Community. I was designed by Margery Balyaeva, with patented technology from Rita Angermeyer.”

That meant absolutely nothing to Gertrude. Just nothing but mush in the shape of words.

It was finally dawning on her that she was dealing with a relic from a lost civilization.

A perverse and horrid civilization that she was nevertheless now committed to chasing after.

Part of that chase would have to entail keeping Azazil aboard and enduring this for now.

Gertrude’s mind wandered to that hexagon of hexagons flag– what was she getting into?

And if she was committed to finding Eris at the bottom of all of this–

In what condition would she even find her?


Depth Gauge: 4581 meters
Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)

The Iron Lady descended, farther and deeper and darker into the abyss.

As its enormous hull navigated the encroaching spaces around it, all manner of creatures were disturbed, awakened, and scattered. Many of them were natural denizens of these lightless depths who knew to flee even the barest of hint of pursuit from something larger. Crustaceans on the cliffs scurried into holes only they knew of; slow-moving fish began to drift away from the steel leviathan; glowing jellies flexed their bells and jetted away.

Then– there were the creatures that could have been called unnatural denizens.

These continued to watch the descending ship with great interest.

Crab-like things with bubble-like missile packs on their backs readying to intercept.

Clusters of eyeballs trailed by tentacles, gathering and transmitting data.

Sentries with sleek, predatory bodies wolf-like and shark-like, larger than a power-armored human being, equipped with vibrating tungsten teeth and claws ready to charge.

Stand down and hibernate.

At once, the handful of drones in this abyss retreated to their hidden places once more.

Given psychic command by a superior with an actual will to determine fate.

From the barren cliffsides she watched the ship descend.

Casually resisting four hundred atmospheres of pressure, as if she had the Ocean’s mercy.

With a temporary body that was half aquatic, with a tail, hydrojets, fins.

And an upper body that was human, feminine, substantial in its musculature.

Grinning to herself, crossing her arms, narrowing eyes that could see clearly in the water.

I’m so curious, hominin. What are you doing here? In this mausoleum?

Watching them with the patience of a hunter amused at the sight of a coming sport.

Enforcer V of the Syzygy, The Wrath, referred to by her colleagues as ‘Ira.’

Unstimulated for an amount of years so great as to be a burden to recall.

Practically salivating at the prospect of the hominin diving into Aer’s own skin.

Let them enter the Great Tree Holy Land and see for themselves what Mnar holds!

I want to see their faces; I’m so curious what they will do with their final hours.

Will they find something that surprises me, before they dieor I kill them?

Surreptitiously, so as to avoid detection, Ira followed after the Iron Lady.

Toward the Agartha, and what little remained of the civilizations that preceded them.


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.1]

After Descent, Year 958

Sitting with her back to a metal wall, legs hugged close, tail curled around her waist.

Silencing all of the cries of pain and hunger from every part of her body.

All her heavy eyes needed to focus on was forward. Forward to a new life.

It was dark, the only light provided by the intermittent strobing of sensor LEDs on a few instruments. She could see the impressions of crates, fastened by metal cables and plastic tarps. She shivered, rubbing her hands together. While she was in the cargo hold, she thought about what Aachen would be like. She had heard that Shimii were not hated there and even that Mahdist Shimii did not have to change their names. She expected that the Rashidun Shimii would still be tense, but maybe the Imbrians would be kind.

At least there would be stable work. That much had to be true.

She could endure any kind of abuse; if she could get a job, she could live.

When the cargo hauler got closer to Aachen’s Stockheim port, the bulkhead door separating the hold from the rest of the vessel opened, allowing a spear of light to cut the shadows on each side of the hold into two halves. Rahima remained in the shadow, huddled behind the line of crates. When she heard footsteps into the room, she stood up, dusting off her old ill fitted brown coat and her pants. She walked out from behind a crate and waved lethargically at a man in uniform. He smiled at her and produced something from a pack for her.

“There you are.” He said, “Thank you for your work. As promised,”

A few polymer banknotes to the tune of about a hundred Imperial mark.

And a piece of bread.

At least she would have something in her pocket to start her new life.

Other than her immigration papers.

“Listen, when you leave the ship, take the people conveyor into Stockheim and stop by the immigration office. I know it sounds scary, but you’re smart and you have your papers, you don’t have to worry. Just be polite and answer the questions honestly.” Said the sailor. “Get registered and ask them if there’s some place you can stay. It won’t be good, but you don’t want to be on the street. After that, it’s all up to your luck. There’s honest work out there. You’ve got two good arms and two good legs. Don’t do anything stupid or indecent okay? We don’t want to regret bringing you here.” He patted her shoulder with a smile.

Rahima smiled a little in response. She took a bite out of the bread.

It would have to be enough to get her legs through the day.

Finally, the hauler entered one of Stockheim’s cargo elevators.

Once the area was drained and properly pressurized, the ship laid down its ramp.

Rahima slipped out of the back.

She dropped down onto the metal floor, her thin shoes barely offering protection from the awful cold. She was in a dimly lit cargo processing station and elevator, the ship in the middle, and a variety of instruments to shuffle crates around hanging distantly in the dark. Before the station security figured anything out, she made for the automatic door leading into Stockheim. It opened for her, as it did for everyone– for a moment she had feared it would know she was an immigrant and refuse her. Inside, a people-mover belt sped her from the dim cargo elevator facilities to a brightly lit, extremely modern lobby, glass dividers funneling foot traffic several ways. It was here that Rahima first saw a crowd.

There were holidaymakers heading in, businesspeople heading out,

ten different paths she could take,

a crossroads of living,

She lifted her head and found the direction of the immigration office.

Her clothes were shabby, she had no luggage, and there was no hiding her ears and tail.

However, nobody gave her grief– everyone had some place that they were going to.

Following one nondescript hall after another, she finally found the open door into the immigration office on the side of one such hall. There was a small line of people, slowly moving from just outside the door and into the immigration office. Rahima stood and waited. She was through the threshold in about fifteen minutes and in about fifteen more she was sorted into one of three lanes of people waiting for immigration officers in glass booths to call them forward to talk and show their papers. Rahima was one of the few Shimii in the line. At first, this eased some of her nerves about the situation she was in.

Until, while she was waiting, a Shimii talking to an officer was taken away by guards.

Then her heart began to pound like it wanted to escape from her chest.

Imbrians, too, were subjected to the same treatment, for who knew what reasons.

Soon it felt as if, every other person in the line was made to disappear.

She inched forward, the sight of the faces of those taken away burned into her eyes.

Struggling and begging. Where would they be sent? What would happen to them?

Shaking, she almost missed being called forward to the glass-shielded booths.

Rahima was summoned by a middle-aged woman, blond-haired with a stately face.

Was it better to be processed by a woman? Would she be kinder, have more sympathy?

No– Rahima had seen women before who were as vicious and evil as any man.

“I’m opening a slot. Drop your papers in. Keep your hand away from it.”

In front of Rahima a little drawer popped open suddenly. She almost jumped with surprise.

From her coat, she withdrew and unfurled a few crumpled-up sheets.

Careful not to have her fingers near to it, she dropped the papers into the slot.

In a second it instantly slid closed. Behind the booth the woman withdrew the papers.

With a sour look on her face, she unfurled them, sighing and grumbling, patting them flat.

“I can read these. Sometimes they get too beat up to understand. Be careful next time.”

“Y-Yes.”

“Rahima Jašarević, correct?” She pronounced it flawlessly. Rahima was surprised.

“Y-Yes.”

“Brennic Shimii? Eighteen years old?”

Rahima nodded her head quietly, her chest trembling.

“Answer the questions verbally please.” Demanded the woman guard.

“Yes to both.” Rahima said, trying to gather her wits at the insistence of the guard.

Then the woman held up one of the papers.

She tapped a finger from behind the paper, over a section that had a seal. That seal had a moon with a green and red pattern indicating the religious category of the person immigrating. For Rahima she had no choice in the matter due to how she was processed for those papers. She could not have lied nor was she given a chance to change anything.

“Mahdist. Is this correct?”

“It is.” Rahima said. She then added, “Will that be a problem?”

Instantly she felt like a fool for asking such a question. Why say anything unnecessary?

“Not with me,” said the woman behind the glass, “might be a problem with your kind.”

Then the woman, still holding up the paper to the shield, tapped a different finger.

This time over an Imbrian-style name listed near Rahima’s own.

“Your sponsor is an Imperial Navy officer. We will contact him. Is this name correct?”

“Yes, it is correct.”

“Alright. You’ll hear from us if he’s never heard from you. Understand?”

“Yes.”

In that fashion they went over many rote aspects of Rahima’s identity documentation.

Each question felt like a nail being pounded into Rahima’s chest.

At the start of each line, a pound, unknown whether pain or respite would follow.

Then, at the end of each line, the nail was dug in and no longer hurt. So, then– next nail.

Whether she would bleed out and her heart would stop or whether she would be allowed to continue living, this was a question asked by each lifting of the hammer and each pounding of the nail. Tapping fingers, sharp clicking of the tongue, the slight plasticky sound of the shield being touched or the border guardswoman fiddling with something on her desk. Every time, Rahima asked herself, will this answer have me taken from here?

“Staying for short term or long-term residence?”

Rahima paused. Would it be better to say short term? Would she find it more palatable?

But– staying in Aachen for a short term was useless to her. Where would she go after?

“Long term.” Rahima said.

In that instant she practically saw the truncheon come flying out of the corner of her eye–

“Okay. You’re a solo traveler, do you have any living family? Husband? Kids?”

“No. No family, no spouse– I’m too young for children I think.”

“Alright. We just need to know in case you pass away. Any medical issues to disclose?”

“No. I am healthy.”

“Good for you. Any banking anywhere? Immigrants must get accounts here in Aachen.”

“No. I’ve never had a bank.”

Nothing happened. Just more questions. They were almost through with the papers.

After going through the last lines in the documents, the guardswoman gathered up the documents. She flattened them out one last time, placed each in a plastic sheet and placed each plastic sheet inside a folder, into which everything fit perfectly. She deposited the folder into the slot, which popped out on Rahima’s end.

She gestured for Rahima to pick them back up.

“Compliments of the immigration office. Treat those papers better, that’s your life.”

Rahima reached in, took the folder, and as soon as it was out of the slot, it snapped shut.

“Rahima Jašarević. Welcome to Aachen. You’ll get an entry pass on the way out.”

“I– everything is okay then?”

“Everything is okay.”

“T-Thank you.”

Rahima looked down at the folder in her hands. She could almost cry.

“I’ve got some advice for you, Rahima Jašarević.” Said the border guardswoman.

“Oh– that’s right– I wanted to ask about possible lodging.” Rahima said.

“I figured you would.” The woman said. “Listen– don’t go down to the Shimii block. It’s awful, they hate your kind. You’ll end up a thief or a whore with those lowlives. You can read and write, you’re polite, and you finished secondary school. You can get an Imbrian job. I know someone who can help. She’s part of the liberals here. She’ll get you a good job.”

Surreptitiously, the border guardswoman beckoned Rahima to come closer.

Rahima walked up as close to the shield as she could get.

On the woman’s desk, there was a card, with an address and a logo.

A figure with a dress, a woman, playing a flute. Rahima made out the address on the card and read a name: Concetta Lettiere. It was some kind of women’s organization– before Rahima could make out more of the text on the card, the guardswoman hid the card and gestured for her to move back again. Rahima repeated the address in her head.

“Did you get that? She can help you. Go there. Don’t go down to the Shimii.”

As much as Rahima felt that the border guardswoman was being horribly racist–

–the money and opportunities were all with the Imbrians anyway, not in a Shimii ghetto.

She might as well see what she could get out of this “Lettiere” woman.

Having processed Rahima, the border guardswoman opened a door between the booths.

Following this path, another woman handed Rahima a plastic pass card and led her out.

Past the immigration station, there was a long hallway that led to a different lobby.

In this one, there were signs pointing her to the path into the Aachen Core Station.

She was through– she was just another soul in the City of Currents.

There was so much that she had lost. But she still had her life.

And she might have lodging.

From Stockheim, Rahima took one of many small, frequently moving trams between the port structure and the core station. At no point did anyone ask for her card. She was still guarded, but gradually began to feel that there would not be anyone coming after her immigration status. Her clothes elicited some looks– everything was old and scuffed and ill fitting, with faded colors and fraying fabric. But she expected that. She could endure being stared at for being visibly poor. She sat in the tram, caught her breath, and she almost relaxed.

At the drop-off from the tram, Rahima found a tall panel with a three-dimensional map of the Aachen Core Station. The structure was cylindrical with both vertical tiers and concentric horizontal divisions. There was an outer ring structure connected by elevators that contained thousands of offices and apartments. The centermost ring had a novel layout, essentially a vertical mall wrapped around a central atrium spanning multiple floors, with the atrium space hosting floating trees, art installations, small parks and plazas, and other attractions depending on the floor, sometimes accessible, sometimes hovering out of reach.

Rahima followed a lit path from the trams. As she walked, the path expanded, until it fully opened into the landing at the base of the Core Station. Surrounded by people, Rahima raised her head to a ceiling higher than she had ever seen. A sweeping circular path connected platforms with restaurants and businesses encircling a glass shield containing the tall, brightly lit atrium. Suspended under the lights was a series of hanging ornaments in a variety of shapes, shimmering various colors and in turn coloring the landscape.

Rahima was stunned.

She had never seen anything so grandiose in her life.

A ceiling so high, and lights so bright.

Her destination would not take her further into those lights, however.

Judging by the map she had pulled up; she was headed for the outer ring.

Away from all the trendy shops and the colored lights and gold-rimmed glass.

But she lived here now, she had the card, she was a citizen. She would see it again.

From the base of the core station Rahima followed a hallway to the outer rings. This area was much the same as any other place she had lived in before. Grey and blue metal, white LEDs, no luster, just utilitarian pathways, boxy elevators, and doors separated from one another at consistent intervals, indicating each interior to be the same dimensions. She finally found the door she was looking for, distinguished from any other only by the number on its plaque.

She laid her hand on the panel under the plaque. Indicating she was waiting at the door.

Then the door slid open, and she heard a voice calling for her.

“Come in. No need to wait in the lobby, I don’t have anyone else today.”

A woman’s voice with the slightest hint of an accent Rahima could not place.

Rahima stepped through the door. There was a small lobby, just one long couch seat and a small screen playing upbeat jazzy tunes set to video of café ambiances. A second door had a plaque on it with the words ‘Feministiche Partei Rhinea’ and the logo of the woman with the flute, same as Rahima had seen on the business card. She did not know what to expect when she opened the door, and hesitated with her fingers drawing near the handle–

but the door opened, nonetheless.

Inside, there was a white room, with a table in the center, a digital whiteboard taking up much of the far wall, a few screens projecting from one of the near walls, and a small plastic desk. Sparsely decorated, meticulously tidy. There was a neat stack of cards on the desk much like the one Rahima saw at the immigration office, as well as a stack of synthetic shirts and banners. To Rahima, the goods looked like they had not moved for some time.

Behind the cheap, thin desk, there was a woman.

Working on something on a thin-panel monitor, using the surface of the desk as a touch keyboard and saving everything to a memory stick. She was shorter than Rahima, paler, with dazzling green eyes and a soft, almost girlish face. Her hair was white-blue, some collected into a ponytail, some framing her face. She was dressed professionally, grey-brown checkerboard vest, white button-down and tie, pencil skirt and heels.

And her sharp, long ears said even more than that: this woman was an elf, Rahima knew.

“Are you Concetta Lettiere?” Rahima asked.

For a moment the woman looked up from her desk and met Rahima’s eyes.

“It’s not pronounced like ‘conceited’ it’s pronounced like ‘conch’. But I would prefer you call me Conny. Everyone else does and it’s easier for anyone to say. Conny Lettiere.” She said.

“Sorry. Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m Rahima Jašarević. At immigration, a woman–”

Conny interrupted Rahima with the sound of her chair scraping across the floor.

She stood up from her desk and walked over to Rahima and stood near. Conny was almost a head shorter than Rahima, but her confidence movements gave her a strong presence.

“How long has it been since you ate?”

Rahima was too tired to demand she be allowed to speak without interruption.

“I had some bread this morning.” She said, without further elaboration.

“I’ll order us something and have it brought over. Do you have a place to stay?”

“No. I just arrived here today. Do you want to see my papers?”

“I don’t care about your papers, I’m not a cop. It’s fine. Right now, I’m more worried that you might drop at any moment. Are these your only clothes? Do you have any luggage?”

“Nothing but the clothes off my back. I’m really okay– I just need a place to stay.”

Rahima tried to say this, but as soon as she thought about it–

All her body ached. Mind turned to fog. She was hungry. Her mouth was parched.

Her lean, slightly lanky frame had gotten so much thinner since her journey began too.

Before she realized it, she was turning to skin and bones.

So focused on making it to Aachen she never cared in what condition she might arrive.

Conny urged her to sit down at one of the chairs near the table.

“You can stay here. I’ll pull out the futon from storage– I sleep in this office sometimes. Helps me brainstorm. You can stay until you can find your own place. Can you read and write? There are a few jobs you can do around here. I’ll pay you out of the party budget.”

Rahima was taken aback by Conny’s sudden energy. She was talking so fast.

Though she wanted to ask why Conny was so concerned, and why she was so kind–

What came out of her lips was, “what is ‘the party’?”

Conny wore a slightly proud smile as she responded. “The Rhinean Feminist Party. We advocate for the rights of women in Rhinea. We’re only local right now– a subsidiary of the Aachen Liberal Party. But I have huge ambitions! Right now, you’re a girl who needs help, so– some feminist I would be if I just threw you back out the door just like that.”

Despite Conny’s enthusiasm, Rahima understood very little of that through the fog.

It was as if the fear and tension built up over the weeks had been load-bearing for her body.

As soon as she sat, she felt like she would not be able to stand again as easily.

With a moment’s peace to think, the brutality of her struggle finally caught up to her.

“I’ll get you some food and a change of clothes. We’ll talk more when you’re cleaned up.”

Conny smiled, with a hand on Rahima’s shoulder. Rahima nodded weakly at her.

For whatever reason, for the first time in a long time–

Rahima felt like she might be safe.


After Descent, Year 979

“See? I had full confidence that you could walk out here on your own and easily.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s that easy, but I’m not tripping over.”

“You sound so down. Come on, it’s a new station. We’re on a mission! Out and about!”

You’re on a mission. I’m just coming along.”

“Not at all. I need you. They will relate better to you than to me.”

Homa felt so pathetic about it, but that ‘I need you’ reverberated in her mind for a while.

It was so exactly what she wanted to hear that it pissed her off.

“Whatever. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.”

Kalika smiled at her. Her makeup, the sleek contours of her face– she was so pretty.

It was impossible for Homa to meet her gaze too directly for too long.

So instead, she turned her eyes on Aachen, laid grandly before her outside the entry lobby.

Never in her life had Homa seen a station interior so broad and ostentatious. Even the mall in Kreuzung had a ceiling closer to the ground than Aachen’s central structure.

There was an atrium so high up it was impossible to see the ceiling, and spiraling around it was a sweeping blue path with frequent stops next to platforms holding what seemed like shops, cafes, offices, and venues of that sort. What stunned Homa the most was that the central atrium structure was sealed off with glass and filled with water, so that the art installations floating inside a cylinder filled with sea water and stirred by machines forming artificial currents. Like bells or chimes, stirred by the water rushing past them, spiraling to the top as the pathway did– but instead of sound, they made color.

And so, it seemed that in front of Homa’s eyes there was a vortex of glass, water, and gems.

That dwarfed any given person crowding the paths that surrounded it.

“They change this every so often.” Kalika said. “Last I was here; it wasn’t full of water.”

“To create the stream, and to pump in the water, I wonder if they connected this to the sea.”

Kalika glanced at Homa. “Good point. I’ll write that down for later investigation.”

Homa averted her gaze again. “I was just saying stuff without thinking.”

“No, it’s a good observation Homa.” Kalika said. “Even if it doesn’t help us right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be useful. Reconnaissance is about gathering any information that might be important and letting HQ sort it out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Homa said. “But don’t regret it later if I start talking too much.”

After the Volksarmee arrived in Aachen on the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown, Kalika was given a mission to scout out the station for them. There would be other scouting parties going to different places where they might blend in better, and they would collate all their information through encrypted ZaChats each day. Kalika’s mission had a particular focus on the Shimii Wohnbezirk, a residential and business area that was largely if not exclusively populated by Shimii. Homa was given to understand that it was located beneath the core station cylinder and that while Aachen was not technically segregated, the Shimii Wohnbezirk was affordable to live in and had an established religious community so most Shimii chose to live down there. Kalika explained this during their last session of physical therapy– she would be going away for a while and find lodging in the Wohnbezirk.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye then?” Homa had asked.

Their last session was almost a formality. Homa proved she could walk without assistance.

She tried not to feel too downcast– after all, it was inevitable Kalika would–

“Not yet. I am taking you with me. I want you to pretend you’re looking for your family.”

“Huh?!”

Kalika smiled so sweetly and innocently as if she was not dragging Homa along by the arm.

Though Homa wanted to be dragged along she still acted as if she was complaining.

In her heart there was a mix of trepidation and excitement.

Excitement, because she was going on a trip into a station with Kalika, who was so cool, beautiful, classy and collected– she seemed like an inhabitant of an entirely different world that Homa should have never been able to access. The trepidation, while partly related to Kalika, was more related to their mission. Homa had never felt at home within Shimii communities, and it was a bit farcical to pretend that having her along would make the Shimii Wohnbezirk more accessible. Homa lived as a Shimii but hardly knew the culture.

If anything, she was worried she might screw everything up for Kalika by being there.

Homa had found that Shimii had extreme double standards. Their own people they would judge extremely harshly in all facets, but Imbrians were like an alien race that could go about their business with their only excuse being, “well, that’s how Imbrians are.” Homa never understood that mentality, and the expectations behind it were one of the few ways she felt like a Shimii despite being mixed race. She knew she was a Shimii because of the judgmental eyes on her when she walked by the masjid without attending, when the public prayer bells rang and she kept walking, when she showed up to shops with her Kreuzung passes, when she dressed up in Imbrian clothes. They treated her like they would a Shimii.

She had never been to Aachen but assumed Shimii were just as judgmental everywhere.

Nevertheless, she could not deny Kalika when she was ‘needed’. Homa followed along.

Dressed up in a simple brown coat provided by Kalika, and tough blue worker’s pants from the Brigand’s sailors, over the typical sleeveless button-downs the communists all had on. She finally got her work boots back and tied her dark hair up into a ponytail using the teal necktie instead of wearing it right. Her ears were groomed, her tiny tail fluffed up.

Like Kalika, she wore gloves now to hide her prosthetic.

Around her neck, she wore her good luck charm, the necklace with the piece of silica inside.

Every so often she continued her habit of grasping it gently.

But the beings inside it– the trees?– had not spoken to her again in some time.

“My, who is this handsome stranger? I feel so safe with her around.” Kalika teased.

“Shut up.” Homa said, but her heart soaked in the praise like a sponge filling with water.

Kalika was dressed in her usual attire, with her sword hidden in her bag as always.

Fancy jacket, silver, with see-through sleeves, classier than punk but edgier than formal; synthetic silk shirt, pencil skirt and black tights on her long legs; purple hair pulled up into ponytail framed by her rectangular horns, with tidy bangs covering her forehead; stark pink skin, wine-colored makeup. Shimii had a prevailing idea of Katarrans as being unrefined and monstrous, mostly the same as Imbrians thought of them– but to Homa, Kalika belonged on the cover of a magazine. The contours of her face were so sleek yet so soft-looking.

She was drop dead gorgeous.

“Are you thinking the same about me then, stranger?” Kalika said, winking.

“I wouldn’t call you handsome, I think.” Homa said, folding her ears.

She was, though– she was everything admiring that Homa could say.

Kalika was mystery and beauty and danger and sensuality, on a dazzling pair of legs.

And so, with Homa guarding her heart carefully and Kalika whistling casually, the two of them crossed from the Stockheim tram, into that stunning Aachen lobby, and finally into an elevator bank from which they were headed straight down through the crust of northern Eisental. While the central cylindrical block of Aachen was incredibly beautiful and colorful, this treatment did not extend to the utilitarian sidepaths and the elevators.

Everything outside that atrium and the surrounding mall was what Homa was already used to– cold metal lit by white and yellow LEDs. Like the rest of the world.

“It looks like Aachen has an offset reactor.” Kalika said, while the elevator descended. She laid a finger on a visual representation of the station and their elevator, which was descending into a wireframe box. “The Shimii Wohnbezirk is this box on the map, so the reactor must be this one just off to the side of it. Interesting. I wonder if the Shimii work in the reactor? It would be convenient, but Imbrians aren’t usually so trusting– not that it’s particularly kind of them to let Shimii breathe the salt and get pseudoburns.”

“Well, Shimii can get work in the Kreuzung reactor, if they have a pass and get lucky.”

“Lucky, huh? Well, if that hellhole Kreuzung allows it, Aachen might just allow it too.”

Homa meant ‘get lucky’ in a socioeconomic sense– reactor work paid very handsomely.

Reactor workers could more than make up in cash and benefits the years of life they lost.

Homa had never been brave enough to apply for a job like that, however.

Even at her most desperate, she did not want to trade an untimely demise for money.

When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Homa stepped out into the light of bright white LED clusters hanging high on street-light poles. There was no illusion of a sky. Towering rock walls and a rough, cavernous ceiling surrounded and loomed over a main street with discrete plastic buildings on both sides. Homa got the impression of long alleyways and winding paths just from looking between some of the buildings. She saw an electronics shop peddling the type of portable Homa had once been given by a certain unsavory woman; restaurants and cafes; a Volwitz Foods affiliated grocer and a high-end sneaker shop side by side. As far as she could see, there was activity.

Homa was reminded of Tower Seven immediately.

A parallel world that Shimii did not need to leave with everything in it except whatever rights the Imbrians must have stripped away. In terms of the architecture the buildings were shaped for functionality, none exceeded two stories. Many did not even have a coat of paint and were weathered beige or an off-white, while others were painted in simple greens, yellows and browns. Homa felt more at home once she took a look at all the signage. There were no logos or promotional artwork that had human figures on them. Shimii religious beliefs frowned upon depicting people– so the logos predominantly boasted elaborate Fusha calligraphy and geometric patterns. For the Fusha signs, Homa could barely read many of the characters, but thankfully most had Low Imbrian signage with a translation too.

On the main street, it was all chain stores and affiliates of Imbrian megacorporations, but Homa could still pick out familiar scenes happening all around the LED-lit plastic. A caucus of aunties visiting a stylist; young men haggling with a pawn shop owner; older men with overgrown tail fur sipping tea at the café; kids running ahead of their mothers.

She was surprised to see a lot of flowing hair and ears up in the air, however. True, not all women, especially young women, heeded the scripture when it came to donning a hijab, but Homa had not seen a single traditional hijab anywhere, which she did find odd. Not even the aunties were wearing the traditional headgear. She did see some women with trendy-looking see-through veils attached to caps with pretty patterns on them– a not-uncommon way of modernizing the garb, but not an exclusive one. She wondered whether Aachen’s Shimii were more liberal than normal or whether there was something else. Even in Kreuzung she was used to seeing as many women wearing some kind of headgear than not.

“What do you think, Homa?” Kalika asked, smiling gently at the sights around her.

“I feel so weird being here.” Homa said. “It’s not that much different from Kreuzung.”

“You’re right– whether technical or not, this feels like segregation to me.” Kalika said.

“Well, I don’t know if you asked some of these folks, if they’d want to live with Imbrians.”

That did not make it right– but it was always the most complicated thing about Kreuzung.

Probably also at work here as much as Homa hated to have to think about it.

She was not the one equipped to solve this problem, only the one haunted by it.

“How about we take a look around? I’m not in any hurry.” Kalika asked.

“Lead the way, I’m just following you.”

“Alright. If you want any treats, we can stop somewhere. Don’t be shy.”

“Fine. I’ll let you know.” Homa sighed.

Kalika stepped ahead and Homa followed closely, but still allowing her to lead.

Following the main street, past the throngs of people and the rows of stores, they eventually came up a town square with a small park with a few olive trees growing with a minimal support system. Nothing but lights and irrigation. There was a three-story building with a waving flag that Homa had seen before, and which caused her heart to jump– a Volkisch black sun. Imani Hadzic had an armband with that same symbol. Kalika had noticed it too– she turned Homa around and led her down a side-street deeper into the alleys.

“Let’s go somewhere more– local.” She said.

Homa did not struggle– she did not care where they went.

So into the depths of the Wohnbezirk, the two went.

Kalika made idle chatter as they walked through the winding, intermittently lit paths.

“Homa, I’ve always had a certain curiosity.”

Homa frowned slightly. “A curiosity about–?”

“What does ‘Shimii’ mean?”

“Uh. I think it’s an ancient word for cat?”

Homa pulled gently on the upright, cat-like ears atop her head, by way of illustration.

“I see.” Kalika said. She looked like she was containing some amusement.

Homa let go of her ears, giving them a ponderous rub before doing so.

“I mean, I don’t know how all this happened, obviously. But cats are very admirable.”

Kalika nodded her head thoughtfully.

Rather than list the admirable qualities of cats, Homa delved thoughtlessly into conjecture.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if like– ancient ummah admired cats enough to become cat-like.”

“That is a very cute origin story.”

“Yeah, but– I’m just joking– obviously nobody believes something that silly.”

While the main street had been populated by chain stores, the parallel roads had a few locally owned businesses and a few small religious schools and some homes. The deeper they went through the side paths the less people they saw. But there was still local traffic everywhere they went even if it was only a few people or a small group. They saw a small theater playing new Imbrian movies; a butcher shop that had Homa staring for a few moments at the beef hanging on the window; and a pharmacy selling both Imbrian-affiliated medications and local naturopathic concoctions; among a variety of places with darkened windows and shut doors, where they had no idea whether anything was inside.

There were less streetlamps, so the side paths were gloomier than the main street.

None of the people walking past seemed to mind the span between lamps, however.

After some walking through nondescript blocks, they reached one of the girder-reinforced rock walls and found a map of the Wohnbezirk on an interactive panel. Kalika stopped and began poking on it. Judging by the map, there was not just one street or three– the layout was an entire town under Aachen with a few kilometers of space and several districts hewn into the rock. There was an entire residential district they had not even gone near.

And a small village off on a corner away from everything else.

“So many people, and I haven’t seen any Uhlankorp. I guess that’s convenient for us.”

“But is it convenient for the people here?” Homa said.

“I think so– do you think the Uhlans would administer fair justice here?”

“I guess not.” Homa sighed.

She had never lived anywhere that had ‘friendly’ police. She had grown up being taught to be respectful but to keep away and keep quiet; the implicit understanding that police wielded justice for Imbrians and not her– hell, maybe not even for Imbrians. Maybe only for themselves. Could not one single thing in the world be fair to everyone?

“We’ll do what we can to help Homa. Maybe not short term– but be patient with us.”

Kalika offered her a small smile while looking up directions in the map.

“Homa, I want to see some local color. Where would you go in this situation?”

She gazed back at Homa. Homa averted her eyes and shrank a little bit.

“It’s not like I have any experience with this. I guess I would want to go to people I know– if I just ended up here by myself I might go to a grocer or a barber or something. Places where you find young guys or aunties– those are the types that are always chatty. I wouldn’t bother with the chain stores in the main street or trying to go to the masjid for small talk.”

“Why don’t you pick a place and lead the way? We can start running our little scam.”

“Don’t call it that– someone might hear.”

Kalika’s ‘little scam’ was for Homa to ask about ‘her family’ like a pathetic lost child.

It was a valid idea for learning more about the town, but Homa did not like it.

She approached the map and saw there was a greengrocer a few blocks away.

Without saying anything she put her hands in her pockets and nodded for Kalika to follow.

Homa turned her eyes on the ground as if she did not want anyone to see them.

Walking casually on her prosthetic leg should have felt like a triumph.

But replicating the miserable, lonely walking she did in Kreuzung, trying to seem small and to draw no attention–

It was depressing. Even with Kalika alongside her it all felt so depressingly circular.

Every Shimii habitat in the Imbrium– was it all the same? Homa wandered in thought.

No sooner had they turned the corner, however, that Homa walked into someone.

She felt a shock the instant of the impact. How foolish could she be?

Especially for Kalika to have seen her–!

“Watch where you’re fucking going– oh, oh hey, who the fuck are you? Katarran?”

Homa’s heart sank as soon as she recovered and caught sight of who she had run into.

In front of them on the street was a group of four young men, all of them skinny-looking, maybe even younger than Homa by a year or three. The one Homa had walked into had a fiery look in his eyes, gesturing with his hands as if demanding an explanation (or compensation) be laid on his palms. The whole group was dressed in Imbrian fashions, with zip-up hooded jackets with see-through vynil sleeves and big black pants and colorful sneakers. Their tails were straight, and their ears were folded, and their body language was tense, coiled-up, ready to release. It was supposed to be forbidden for a good Shimii to imitate Imbrians too much, but to Homa, these boys were archetypical Imbrian hooligans. All they were missing was jewelry and a football game in which to hurl verbal abuse.

“What’s a Katarran doing down here? You gawking? Here to fuck with us?”

Homa glanced briefly at Kalika and saw her staring down the lead hooligan.

She was not saying anything in response to the provocation.

Did she want Homa to be the one to talk?

“Not gonna talk? Did you bring her here, you little punk? I don’t recognize you.”

With Kalika, the obvious discrepancy, keeping mum, the hooligan turned to Homa again.

“I’m not from around here! I’m just visiting! She’s– she escorted me here!” Homa said.

Kalika sighed openly.

“You’re here visiting? Here?” The hooligan looked at his friends who all had a laugh with him. “And you bought a Katarran?” He turned sharply back to Homa, reached out a hand and shoved her. “You ought to make a donation, then, you rich bitch– you ran right into me and scuffed my favorite jacket. Do you know how much I had to hustle for it? I can’t afford to travel all over like you. So, you should make a contribution to the less fortunate.”

“We’re not looking for trouble here. But if you touch her again, you’ll regret it.”

Kalika stepped forward.

Homa thought that would have been enough to get them to back off–

“Want some? Katarran bitch! Go back to the fucking vat you got shat out from!”

But a sense of invulnerability was a universal folly of young men, inculcated by a system designed to insulate them from any consequences. So even these boys, who had no concept of what they were messing with and nothing but the chip on their shoulder to strike with, still formed up in front of Kalika as if Katarrans were everyday targets of their fists. It was enough to unnerve Homa, but Kalika was unmoved in their presence.

Homa saw her fingers sliding over her bag.

None of the boys knew what was in there– but Homa feared what might come to pass.

So, she stepped forward even closer than Kalika, directly in front of the hooligans.

Not knowing what she could possibly say to sound intimidating–

She lost her opportunity and received an even more forceful shove than before.

Thrown back to be caught by Kalika.

Homa could practically feel the burgeoning anger in Kalika’s grip.

It punctuated her own helpless foolishness. She was shaking with frustration at herself–

Suddenly a new voice sounded across the street.

“Hey! Knock it off! Stooping to street harassment now, you lowlives?”

Hurried steps sounded behind them; then a dark-skinned girl appeared in front of them.

Homa saw long black hair, the glint of golden eyes, a brief glance of a fierce expression.

She interposed herself between Kalika, Homa and the boys, standing firm.

With one hand in her pocket of a brown jacket made of a thick fabric.

Despite the difference in numbers the boys seemed more hesitant to approach her.

They still had to posture like they could fight, but they were slowly beginning to back off.

“Where the hell did you come from? You need to get your ass back to the Quarter, bitch!”

“Fuck off! I’m not afraid of you! Why don’t you step up to me like you did to them?”

Not even the taunt could get any of the boys to reach out for a shove or throw a punch.

Surreptitiously they drew back even as they continued to shout.

“Mahdist bitches! We’ll kill you if we see any of you again!”

There was a note of desperation in that voice.

“Get out of here already!” The young woman shouted at them.

Hurling slurs and abuse, the boys ran from the scene, dispersed with surprising urgency.

Kalika lifted her hand from her bag. And the young woman took her hand out of her jacket.

While Homa composed herself, her chest fluttering with shame.

“Calling me a Mahdist like it’s a slur, the nerve of them.” The girl said, grunting.

She was someone who had to be around Homa’s age, not a child by any means and yet not experienced in the fullness of her adulthood. Her face and body Homa thought resembled her own, like someone who was young and unmarred by the world, but frequently worked with her hands. She had a stronger back and shoulders than Homa did, however. She looked visibly poor– Her jacket was well worn, with scuff marks and frayed edges and missing buttons, but very sturdy, worn over a blue blouse. She wore black pants that were ripped in places and thick boots. Her ears had messy fur and her tail had a few scars on it.

“Are you okay? They didn’t rob you or anything, did they?” She asked.

Homa was surprised at how dark her skin was, almost as dark as her long, sleek and shiny hair, flat down her back but grown unruly in the sides and front with a lot of bangs and stray wavy locks. Her eyes contrasted the flesh around them to an intense degree. She had a mix of familiar and interesting facial features; she had an oval face with thin lips, her eyes had a slight narrowness to them, her nose was very straight, her eyebrows were a bit thick.

The contemptuous expression that the handsome young lady had directed at the hooligans melted into a much gentler look of concern for Kalika and Homa.

“Thanks to your intercession, it did not get that far.” Kalika said.

“Yes. Thank you.” Homa said, still feeling like too much of an idiot to say much more.

The girl put her hand on her own chest as a gesture of greeting.

“I’m Sareh. I hope those guys won’t leave you with a bad impression of us.”

“Not at all.” Kalika said, smiling. “I’m Kalika, this is Homa. Trust me, we’ve seen worse.”

Homa waved half-heartedly, still keeping mum.

“I appreciate you not putting them in the dirt. They’re just a bunch of morons.” Sareh said.

Homa thought Sareh must have known a thing or two about Katarrans to have judged that.

If she was hiding a gun in her jacket, then she wasn’t oblivious to this sort of scenario.

She might have interceded on behalf of those boys as much as she did to stop them.

“Usually when Shimii immigrate here, there will be an introduction by their family at the Rashidun masjid on the other side of town– or they get sent straight to the Mahdist quarter.” Sareh said, directed primarily at Homa. “It is odd for Shimii to just visit; especially with a Katarran. Tourists stick to the main street to buy trendy stuff. Back here, it’s all locals. So that’s why it looks kind of weird for you two to be wandering around these streets.”

“I’m–” Homa felt ashamed lying to Sareh, who seemed genuinely friendly to outsiders like them. But it was necessary. “I’m not immigrating. I’m looking for my family– when I was a kid I was sent to Kreuzung by myself. My surname is– Messhud. Homa Messhud.”

She picked surname that read as Mahdist since Sareh had been called a Mahdist. But she also picked an uncommon one and pronounced it quite strangely, in the hopes no locals had it.

“Huh. Well, I don’t know everyone here, but I know someone who might be able to help.”

Sareh pointed in a direction where the rock ceiling lowered, and the walls narrowed.

“Over that way is the Mahdist quarter. I can take you to my part– my friend, there.”

Kalika seemed to pick up on her correcting herself. Mild amusement crept into her smile.

Homa looked back to Kalika as if for permission. Kalika nodded her head.

And thus, fortune led them ever deeper into the Wohnbezirk– to a Mahdist ghetto.


After Descent, Year 961

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima, and I am calling on behalf of the Rhinean Feminist Party. Do you need assistance registering to vote or accessing your local polling office to exercise your right to vote? We would be happy to assist you, free of charge.”

Another call sent to voice-email. Rahima tapped on her keyboard to end the call.

She had a headset to make calls to people’s rooms notifiying them of upcoming elections.

Hands on the keyboard, headset always ready, a list of room addresses to call up.

She could go through a dozen rooms quickly– if nobody picked up.

When someone picked up, Rahima felt much more nervous than leaving voicemails.

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima,”

Since she had immigrated a few years ago, Rahima had been doing much better for herself.

Her hair had grown out, richly brown, and her cheeks had filled again. Her arms and legs were no longer so skinny and her back had broadened a bit. She had new clothes, Imbrian business attire; a vest, shirt, a blazer and pants. Her skin, which had been turning pale and yellowing with neglect and sickness, had returned to its light brown richness. All of this thanks to her new income. She was the workhorse of the Rhinean Feminist Party, carrying boxes of logo-branded goods to and fro, fixing things around the office that Conny did not want to bend down or climb up a ladder for, picking up lunch, and now, making calls.

Guten morgen,”

At first there was not much to do around the office but menial manual labor.

Even so, Conny hardly wanted to do it, and so happily paid for it to be done.

Now, however, there was a buzz of excitement.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller had made a historic decree. The Imperial monarchy and its offices would no longer contradict local decision-making in the duchies provided it was done through legally approved means. This was being referred to as ‘the Emperor’s retreat from politics.’ Law enforcement between the territories would continue to be carried out by the Inquisition, Patrol and Imperial Navy, but each Duchy could control its economy and social policies without intervention. For territories like Veka with an authoritative duchal family, little would change. For Rhinea, however, this was a moment of great opportunity.

Rhinea’s duchy had long since relinquished decisionmaking power to generations of the noveau rich who had then formalized that power in the Rhinean Reichstag.

Now the Reichstag would have more weight than ever as Rhinea’s policy-making body. Established parties like the Liberals and Conservatives attracted real corporate investment, as it became clear they could be a nexus for further reform of the economy to suit some interest or another; and even niche parties like the Rhinean Feminist Party now had opportunities to grow. The All-Rhinea stage was still barred from them, but if they could make a strong showing in Aachen’s local politics, they might turn their fortunes.

Right now, they were under the Rhinean Liberals, but they could grow, attract members.

With greater membership, they could run on their own ticket for council and executive.

And with any amount of victories in a real ticket, they might then attract real investment.

Therefore, Conny had Rahima making phone calls down the entire room registry.

Rahima kept making calls, running through the script, trying her best when picked up.

Until she felt a gentle squeezing from a pair of hands on her shoulders.

“You’re working hard. Want to get lunch together?” Conny Lettiere said.

“I’ll never say no to lunch. Your treat?” Rahima said.

“My treat.” Conny said. Rahima could feel her smile even without looking at her.

When she turned around to look at her, she immediately thought–

Conny looked gorgeous.

Wearing a cardigan that had a pattern of thicker and sheerer material across its surface and bits that hung from the hem and the end of the sleeves, over a plastic tanktop with a deep cleavage plunge that cut off mid-belly, both quite provocative. Bell-bottomed pants and open-toed shoes gave her such a bohemian look, and her hair being collected into twintails added to the almost girlish style. Colorful, full of youthful vibrancy.

Rahima could have never dressed like that.

Conny had the energy to be more frivolous because she had Rahima to be serious for her.

“Is it the outfit, or is it me?” Conny said, grinning at Rahima.

“It’s both.” Rahima said, smiling as she stood up.

If only she had Conny’s courage– but that was something she could work on.

They relocated from the office to the central ring of the Aachen Core Station, following the spiraling walkway around the central atrium and its bright decorations. They stopped off at a platform three stories high and sat in a corner table of a small restaurant that served homestyle Imbrian fare. It was a small, homey venue, little more than a serving desk, an unseen kitchen, and six tables with four chairs. Very few people took up the very few seats in the establishment. Most of the people on the lunch rush picked up their meal from the counter and walked back out, headed back to their offices or workplaces.

Conny ordered cheese-stuffed dumplings served in a meat and tomato sauce.

“You know, this is based on the Elven dish ‘Ravioli.’ It’s an Imbrian take on it.”

“You don’t say?”

Rahima, meanwhile, ordered a pickled cucumber soup with a simple dinner roll. The soup had a base of chicken broth full of earthy vegetables, flavored with pickle brine, and topped with a dollop of cream and a big mound of grated pickled cucumbers and peppers. Rahima mixed everything together, broke off pieces of bread and dipped it into the unctuous soup. It was rich and tangy; it warmed her heart; it was just what she needed to soothe her throat after hours of talking. Even something this simple felt luxurious– especially with Conny.

“Rahima, do you go down to the Wohnbezirk often?” Conny asked.

She meant the Shimii town in the rock under the Aachen core baseplate.

“I’ve been visiting more often since I got the apartment. Easier to do now that I don’t have to worry about someone seeing me going back and forth from the office.” Rahima replied.

“Do you go to the religious festivals? I don’t see you praying often.”

Conny took a bite of her dumpling, and Rahima could have sworn her sharp ears wiggled.

“It’s a bit tough for me Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m a Mahdist so if I want to go celebrate I have to go into the Mahdist ghetto– and then the Rashidun in the town will know about it.”

“Will that put you in danger?”

“I don’t know. It’s just another thing that could be a problem. Common prejudices.”

“I see. That’s so unfair. But I don’t want you to be overly concerned with appearances.”

“No, it’s better this way. We need to be careful about things like that, Conny.”

“Rahima, I might not know the cultural nuances that resulted in the Shimii’s troubles. But what we have going for us at the Rhinean Feminist Party is that we stand for radical politics! I want this to be a place where you can dream of a better world! You should never have to hide what you are or believe in here. I want women to be equal to men in the Imbrium, to end forced marriages, to get equal wages, to make workplaces safer; so, what are your dreams, Rahima? What can we do for the Shimii, and especially for Shimii women?”

After a long contemplation over the pickles in her soup, Rahima finally answered.

“I want to end the hijab ban; and to decouple Shimii suffrage from residency.” She said.

Her voice was a bit meek, as if there was a secret sin to saying such things.

Conny smiled brightly. “That’s what you’ll stand for then! We’ll fight for it together!”

She reached across the table and laid her hand over Rahima’s own, firm and supportive.

Rahima had never thought it about so closely before– it almost made no sense to her that she might be on the ticket for the Rhinea Feminist Party. They had few members, so if they wanted to run someone other than Conny, she had to be on the ticket. But she had an unexamined idea that only Imbrians got to be in the government, and a Shimii like her, a Mahdist even, could not have possibly been put on the ticket. Perhaps even the first time she saw her, Conny’s unspoken radicalism had already imagined Rahima on that ticket.

“I’m kind of nervous about this, Conny, if I’m being honest.” Rahima said.

“Don’t be. I’ll coach you. You’ve already got an advantage– you dress more formally!”

Conny reached out and rubbed her fingers over a bit of Rahima’s blazer, laughing.

Rahima laughed with her. Her heart was racing, but she felt strangely positive.

It would be nice to give the Imbrians a black eye in their own game.


After Descent, Year 979

“Kalika, I have a curiosity.” Homa said.

As she spoke she mimed Kalika’s earlier tone a bit, with a hint of mockery.

“Ask away, dear.” Kalika said, clearly ignoring Homa’s taunting.

Homa’s eyes narrowed a bit when Kalika did not take the bait.

“What does ‘Katarran’ mean?” She said.

“It means ‘the damned’ or ‘the ones born cursed’.” Kalika said casually.

Homa quieted down for the rest of the walk. She had not expected something so dark.

“Almost there,” Sareh said, looking back at them as she led the way, “can you tell?”

On the northern end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk the cavernous ceiling descended closer and there was an area where the walls tightened. For a stretch, there were more exposures of the rock wall, less buildings and other structures to cover it up. There were more boarded-up, old and empty buildings too. Some had signs indicating they were for sale or rent but many, many more were just shuttered as if permanently abandoned. The road under their feet roughened slightly, it was less paved down, and even the air felt a bit thinner.

Eventually Homa could see the square entryway to another area up ahead.

“Shit.” Sareh said. “Our oxygen generator must be going again. Ugh, this sucks!”

“That’s not good.” Kalika said. “But hey, maybe we can help each other out.”

“Do you really mean that? I am not sure what you could do.” Sareh said.

“We’ll talk when we meet your friend, but try to trust me and keep an open mind.”

“Well, alright. We’re basically there. Our own dusty little corner.” Sareh said.

Homa could see it too. As soon as she caught her first glimpses of the village–

Her fist closed and shook with an impotent rage.

They crossed under an archway with an open gate that had a few bars broken on its doors. Here the ceiling was close enough to form something of a short tunnel, but then it opened back up into a little village. It was much more haphazardly planned than the main street of the Wohnbezirk. There were less streetlights, and only one short street that seemed to terminate on a double-wide building being used as a masjid. However, behind the masjid, and behind each house on the one street, there were more buildings set up, like a haphazard little village arrayed from the masjid as one of its central features.

There were a few dozen people hanging out in this little main street. They were like Shimii were everywhere– they dressed as nicely as they could, they had lively conversation, their ears were standing, their tails swaying. Homa noticed a few more frayed and discolored items of clothing here and there. There was also nowhere for them to go. This village was much smaller than the rest of the Wohnbezirk but there were a lot of people in it.

All of the buildings were plastic, but shabbier ones, less maintained. Rather than paint, many of them had pieces of patterned fabric for decorations. Just like the rest of the Wohnbezirk, there were shops here, but very few. There were no restaurants either. Homa saw a cobbler, a stylist, and a clothing atelier. All had very lively crowds like they were bright little local hangouts. There might have been more. But the streets looked mostly residential.

Other than the masjid, what drew Homa’s attention the most was a small clearing to the right a few dozen meters from the entrance gate. On this clearing, a plastic stage was in the final stages of assembly, with chairs around it, and a curtain that could open and close around it with poles and pulleys and carbon cable. It was sturdy and relatively new, the color of the plastic looking much fresher than that of the plastic in the surrounding houses.

In the back of the stage there was a square structure erected which resembled a small building facade, the size of an adult human being, with numerous arched entryways and a sweeping upper rim. Colored gold and red with blue patterning, its the spires dome-like and green, it was perhaps the most inventive little thing in the whole Wohnbezirk, nicer looking than any of the real houses. Homa wondered what monument it was supposed to be a replica of, since Shimii never built structures like this nowadays. Perhaps it was supposed to be a palace, maybe of one of the ancient kings, or maybe it related to the Mahdi.

“It’s a Tazia.” Sareh explained. She must have caught Homa staring at it. “We’re preparing for the Tishtar festival– it’s a yearly celebration we have around here. On Tishtar we recall the heroism of Ali Ibn al-Wahran, blessed be he, who opened the ocean for the Shimii. We build a replica of the mausoleum that his companions built. It’s not actually anyone’s grave though– the great hero al-Wahran is not really dead. Tradition stuff, you know? It’s kind of a hero festival, kind of a water festival, kind of a folk– well if you join us, you’ll see what I mean.” Her tone grew a bit awkward as if she either did not know how to explain it well.

Homa suddenly froze up upon hearing the name of the blessed old Hero, however.

She recalled a dream in which a red-headed demon of a woman spoke that name to her.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes.”

Ali Ibn al-Wahran.

What had she meant– when she said Homa was– of his flesh–?

Was it just because she was a Shimii–? Or was she– a Mahdist–?

“I’ve– I’ve never heard of him I think. I’m sorry.” Homa said, suddenly nervous.

“Huh? Really?” Sareh said, staring at Homa with curious surprise. “You don’t know? He’s like, the most important of the ancient kings. For Mahdists, we are also taught he is the Mahdi, a great hero who will return to us. I guess you must not be a mahdist– but I mean that’s okay! We don’t judge anyone here as long as they don’t judge us. So don’t stress out over it.”

Sareh continued to act a bit awkward around the subject of her religion and its rites.

Kalika continued to smile neutrally, her expression collected as Homa and Sareh spoke.

“Ah, thanks. It’s okay. I’m– I’m non-denominational–” Homa stammered as awkwardly.

It was just a stupid dream– she shouldn’t take it so seriously–

But–

didn’t the trees sing to her,

and the red-haired woman awaken the colors–?

wait, what colors?

“I’d love to stick around for the festival. Wouldn’t you Homa?” Kalika said suddenly.

Homa jerked her head to look at Kalika, eyes drawn open. “Uh. I mean. Sure! I’ll stay.”

Kalika must have had some plan to make use of the Mahdists here to her advantage.

Or– maybe she just wanted to help them.

She and the Volksarmee were a bunch of communist weirdos after all.

Homa did not know if she considered herself one, but she was still just following Kalika.

So she had little choice but to do as the communists did.

And also–

When she looked around this tucked-away piece of the Shimii world, cast into obscurity–

She felt angry. And there was no good outlet for that anger.

So perhaps she should help. It could be educational as well.

Without a family, Homa had never been afforded much of her religion.

Leija certainly never cared to teach her anything, except vague prejudices against Mahdists.

For all she knew she really could have been a Mahdist just like them.

“Alright! The more the merrier!” Sareh smiled at them. “Then let me introduce you to the lady organizing things. She happens to be the friend of mine I told you about. We can talk with her about getting you two into the festivities– and maybe other business.”

Kalika nodded, smiled, and followed behind Sareh.

She glanced at Homa and winked at her.

Homa blinked, confused, but followed along. Kalika was definitely plotting something.

Hopefully something good and kind– and not too troublesome.

Sareh led them to the masjid, and then around an exterior walkway. Behind the masjid there was a solitary old olive tree, living with an oxygen controller grafted onto its trunk, and a path of flattened out rock that led to a small plastic house next to one of the few light poles that were installed in the village. There was enough empty space between this house and the rest of the village that it felt more a part of the masjid than part of the residences.

Sareh pointed it out as their destination.

“Baran! Are you home? I’m back from town! I’ve brought some visitors too!” Sareh called.

“Welcome back! Yes, you can come in! I’ll be happy to welcome them.”

Homa had not known what to expect, but the voice greeting them sounded pretty young.

Sareh waved her hand toward herself, inviting the guests in.

Rather than a door, the house had a curtain over its entry similar to ones on its windows.

Sareh pushed away the blue and green curtain. Beyond the entry, there was one room that contained almost all the acoutrements of living. There were a few plastic chairs around a little table, in one corner. On one wall, there was a screen with a cable snaking out of one of the windows. Plastic buildings did not have built-in computers and projection monitors, like the metal rooms in the station. Another corner was taken up by an electric pot and kettle stood up on a small refrigerator, their cords snaking into the wall.

Finally, there was a set of plastic shelves that held cutlery, bowls, cups, and a variety of little knick-knacks. There were dolls of Shimii girls, with colorful dresses, and a little resin horse, and a cup and ball game– kid’s toys and handicrafts. While the horse was stitcher-machined, the rest looked a bit rougher and might have been hand-made, Homa thought.

At the end of the room there was another curtain. Out from it stepped their host.

Her bedroom must have been behind there. Homa did not see a bed anywhere else.

“It’s so nice to have visitors! Not many people come by here. Introduce me, Sareh!”

“This is my– friend, Baran Al-Masshad.” Sareh said.

She looked to have been reaching for words for a second.

Baran giggled and put her hand to her chest by way of greeting.

“As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her voice was quite lovely– Sareh seemed momentarily stricken by it and averted her eyes.

In general, Baran might have been the prettiest girl Homa had seen in a very long time.

She looked about Sareh’s age and therefore, Homa’s age. Unlike Sareh, who dressed in utilitarian Imbrian clothing usually typified as boyish, Baran wore a long blouse and skirt. Her eyes were deeply green and her skin a light honey-brown, with bigger eyes and slightly softer cheeks than Sareh. Her hair was worn long, and it had a very light reddish-brown tone. Like the other religious women Homa had seen in Aachen she did not wear a hijab but instead wore a see-through veil with a small cap. Hers was blue with little moon patterns on it, through which tall, fluffy ears poked. Her tail was a bit skinny, but as far as her figure, she had more than Sareh or Homa. She thankfully looked like she got to eat regularly.

After seeing the state of the buildings, Homa had been worried there might be starvation.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Al-Masshad.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia.”

She put a hand to her chest as she had seen Sareh and Baran do.

“Um. Salam. I’m Homa– Messhud. Homa Messhud. It’s– it’s nice to meet you two.”

Homa also put her hand to her chest. She was feeling rather awkward with her cover story.

“Oh, my whole name is Sareh Al-Farisi.” Sareh said, after receiving a little look from Baran.

“It is a pleasure to meet all of you.” Baran said. “Please just call me Baran.”

“I hope our unannounced appearance won’t trouble you, Baran.” Kalika said.

“Not at all. I was just resting. It might be my imagination, but the air is feeling thinner.”

“It is thinner. I think the air generator must be busted again.” Sareh said, sighing.

“I truly hope not– nevertheless, we can check on it after we have treated our guests.”

Baran gestured for Kalika and Homa to sit and then approached the electric pot.

Cracking the lid open, steam rising up, filling the room with a savory aroma; Baran scooped up steaming pulao rice into two bowls and passed them to Sareh, who in turn passed them to Homa and Kalika. From the kettle, she poured two cups of lukewarm tea. Homa looked down at the bowl of rice, eager to spot some chicken or beef within– instead finding only raisins and onions. While the aroma was incredible she could not help but feel disappointed.

Kalika looked down at the contents of her bowl, mixing things up further with a fork.

“We should accept it.” Homa whispered. “Turning down food from a Shimii is very rude.”

“I figured.” Kalika whispered back. “I was getting a bit peckish anyway.”

Baran handed Sareh her own bowl and cup and served herself as well.

Together, they all sat down on Baran’s table, with Kalika setting down her bag beside her.

“I’m afraid I am out of yogurt and sabzi, or I would offer you some.” Baran said.

“This is fantastic on its own. We can’t thank you enough for your hospitality.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded her head, trying to hide her wan expression at her continuing lack of meat.

“Baran, if you’re out of something, you should have told me!” Sareh said.

Baran shook her head. “I’m being thrifty now so we can spend more on the feast.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that.” Sareh grumbled but seemed to give up the argument then.

Homa looked at Kalika. While she ate, she was clearly observing Baran and Sareh.

She hoped dearly Kalika was not going to cause them any trouble.

All the communists she had met had been nice to her– but Kalika was “on a mission,” now.

Would she behave any differently? Would she try to take advantage of these people?

Helpless to do anything about it, Homa took her first spoonful of pulao into her mouth.

Her ears stood on end as the smooth, deeply savory flavor coated her mouth. Pops of tart sweetness from the raisins, and the crunchy red onions, lended the dish some complexity. The rice itself had a bit of cumin and Shimii pepper, maybe– but the real mystery was the deeply savory, velvety mouthfeel that came with each spoonful of rice, and the meaty flavor that it carried. Her mouth was slick with thekind of flavor she had been craving.

Baran saw the expression on Homa’s face and smiled proudly. Sareh stared at her in turn.

“Want to know the secret, Homa? Rendered down chicken trimmings and bones!” Baran smiled like she had been clever. Sareh looked at her as if with mild embarassment. Heedless of this, Baran continued. “It’s the cheapest stuff from the butchers out in the town. I can make my own chicken oil and stock with it, and have my meat that way!”

A proud, smug little smile remained fixed on Baran’s face while her guests ate.

Homa savored the rice like it was the last time she might ever taste any meat.

“And before someone comments on the state of my pantry again, I am saving up so there will be meat on Tishtar. You are welcome to partake if you’d like to attend.” Baran said.

She looked at Sareh with a self-satisfied little face. Sareh looked back, exasperated.

Homa felt rather ashamed of how much this made the festival more attractive to her.

But not enough to reject the idea of showing up for the feast outright.

“As you can see, this is the sort of character our village chief is.” Sareh replied, grinning.

“Now, what is that supposed to mean? Good with budgeting? A genius chef?” Baran said.

Sareh shrugged and did not pick any of the available options.

“Oh interesting, she’s the chief? I thought she was just putting on the festival.” Kalika said.

“I don’t consider myself important.” Baran said. “The Imbrians are the ones who have true power over the Wohnbezirk. But my father and his family were very respected within this community. When my father passed away, the villagers wanted me to take up his hereditary titles. I just help around town and I consider the title purely ceremonial.”

“Is it because of the Imbrians that this place is so run-down?” Homa asked.

Kalika shot her a glance as if surprised. Homa realized she was being too blunt.

Sareh shot her a look too– but Baran was not offended. She began to explain.

“They are not solely responsible. However, they could fix things if they wanted to, and they do not. So that is a form of responsibility they must be criticized for.” Baran said. She put down her cup of tea and put her hands on her lap. “I’m sure you know, Homa, that there is a lot of bad blood between Mahdist Shimii and Rashidun Shimii. I don’t know the entire history of the Wohnbezirk, but it’s been segregated for as long as I have lived here. There are harsh rules imposed on us. For example, we are not allowed to grow food, we can only buy it in town. We also need to get any materials we use from the Shimii economy. Rashidun Shimii won’t offer us any charity, nor prefer us for anything. Sometimes, people will be upset if we try to buy too much or buy things that are scarce. Sometimes the Imbrians help us, but we are in essence responsible for everything here by ourselves. But despite that we–”

Here, Sareh suddenly interrupted. “Don’t mince words. Look, the problem is, this is a town of mostly women, children and old people. We risk being harassed every time we try to leave so only some of us go out infrequently. Very few people here earn outside incomes and we have limited imports; some families get remittances from kids who got work in the Core Station, and we have some aunties here who do clothes and shoes, but they are basically all trading the same reichmarks around. These conditions are supposed to put pressure on us– they want us to renounce our culture and become Rashidun and move into town to kill the village. All of the shiftless piece of shit men here left because of that–”

“Sareh, please, that’s enough.” Baran interrupted. Homa picked up a note of desperation.

Sareh stood up from her chair and left the table suddenly. Baran sighed as she watched her.

Homa raised her hands as if she wanted to stop her or apologize but could not speak out.

She sat back down on her chair feeling defeated. Kalika remained silent and calm.

After a minute’s silence Baran turned to their guests and tried to smile again.

“I’m sorry about that.” She said. “Politics and religion should not be off the table; we just need to be able to speak about them politely. That’s what my father always taught me. So please do not feel responsible for what just happened. Sareh is extremely dear to me; and I know I am dear to her. She just needs to cool off and we will rejoin her then.”

“Um. Right. Thank you.” Homa said, nervously.

“I’m glad Sareh is that tough– she seems like she needs to be that way around here.” Kalika said. She had finished her bowl and tea. “I feel like I’ve seen enough so I will be forward. Baran, Homa and I can help you. We want to stay for the festival. Homa has some money– she’s looking for her family here. Right Homa? And I’m a Katarran mercenary.”

Kalika looked over to Homa with a casual and untroubled smile.

Homa straightened up in her chair and put her hands on the table, stiffly.

“Yes. That– That’s all completely true.” She said.

“Then– you will help us with the festival, so Homa can search for her family here?”

“That’s what I’m thinking.” Kalika said.

“I would be happy to help– but there’s a lot to do for the festival. It’s an unequal trade.”

“Homa’s family means a lot to her.” Kalika said, glancing at Homa again.

Homa stiffed up more. “Uh. Yeah. I’m– I’m a real family cat.” She wiggled her ears a bit.

“You said your surname is Messhud?” Baran asked. “I was thinking– it could be a weird way of saying my surname, Al-Masshad– or maybe I just don’t know everyone around here. Surely some of the aunties would know more. I can ask them. Would that be okay, Homa?”

For a moment Homa felt extremely stupid about how close her hastily chosen fake surname came to being Baran’s actual surname. Had she tacked on an ‘al’ prefix there she would have been cooked. Somehow, the close call felt more embarassing than being completely caught in an outright lie, and Homa was growing to hate the entire situation.

She began evaluating everything she wanted to say to the very simple question of whether she was okay, running it by an intense committee in her own brain. The result of this was that for close to thirty seconds she was saying absolutely nothing to Baran.

“She’s shy– hasn’t gotten around much.” Kalika kept smiling. “Please do ask around.”

Baran looked at Homa for a moment and then smiled more warmly at her.

“No need to be shy– it means so much to me that you want to help us.” Baran said.

“I am actually a communist. If I ignored all this, I’d bring shame on myself.” Kalika said.

THIS WOMAN–!?

Homa’s ears and tail both shot up as straight as they could go.

She shot Kalika a glance from the edge of her eyesockets, without moving her head.

Trying with all of her body to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!

Without in fact saying a single word or even making so much as a noise.

“That’s so interesting. You might like to talk to the NGO people then.” Baran said happily.

Homa shot a glance at Baran. She felt like she was in an alternate universe suddenly.

Wasn’t she going to inform on them to the Volkisch? She just heard the c-word out loud!

Kalika continued to look and act as if nothing odd or auspicious was happening.

Did she just tell everyone she met she was a communist?! Did she want to die?

“Maybe I will. Homa and I have no prejudice towards anyone anyone except evildoers.”

“Right.” Homa finally said. “We– we hate those. Because of– communism?”

“Yep. Honest truth to Allah, Subhanahu wa-Ta’ala.” Kalika said in suddenly perfect fusha.

Homa felt more ridiculous than she had since the last time she felt utterly ridiculous.

Such moments seemed to transpire with increasing frequency.

Mashallah! It is the first time I’ve ever set a table for communists, and also communists who know of our religion too. I’ll always remember this day.” Baran said excitedly.

Perhaps Baran was just more innocent than Homa would let herself believe.

Or maybe she did not really know what a communist was.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to take a look at the oxygen generator.” Kalika said.

“Oh, yes! Follow me. I am hoping it’s not actually broken.” Baran said.

“I’m handy with things like that.”

“Sareh is too. She’s quite reliable. Maybe she already scouted it out?”

With their course decided, the trio stepped outside of Baran’s house.

They immediately found Sareh with her back to one of Baran’s walls, waiting for them.

Her arms crossed, her head down, and a wan expression on her face.

“Feeling better?” Baran asked gently, stepping in front of Sareh and beaming.

Sareh averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for yelling. You don’t deserve that.”

“Maybe not– but I earned it, and I accept responsibility. I’ll always forgive you, Sareh.”

They briefly held hands, perhaps cognizant of their guests reading too much into it.

Homa had pretty much already deduced those two were something or other together.

Perhaps they might have only seemed like friends to someone with less life experience.

If the concept of homosexuality had already burrowed into one’s brain, it was easy to see.

Homa herself was a complicated girl with complicated feelings so she understood.

And it would have been quite a sight for Kalika of all people to be homophobic.

Not that anyone here knew that– of course they would not trust them on appearances alone.

Together, Sareh and Baran led Homa and Kalika from the house behind the masjid, off the paths wound around houses, and closer to the undeveloped, rocky surroundings of the village. They followed a series of exposed ventilation tubes that ran into the village. Near to the rock wall, they found a metal plate with a machine in a square housing that served as the epicenter of all the tubes they had been following. There were several bolted plates that could be removed and reaffixed and a few gauges that seemed to be stuck.

“This generator doesn’t actually generate oxygen, but it pumps it from an oxygen plant in the Wohnbezirk and out to the rest of the village.” Sareh said. “We just call it the oyxgen generator because its easier to say. We used to have some CO2 converters in the village but most of them broke, so this thing has been working harder than ever as our main source of oxygen. Then it breaks down every once in a while and gives us all a headache.”

“We’ve tried to have someone fix everything in the village, but there’s always a problem.” Baran said. “When we ask for major repairs from the Wohnbezirk, they say they have to special order parts because of our outdated systems, so little fixes are all they can do. In the past I sent mail to Councilwoman Rahima, who is a very kind Shimii politician in the core station, and she helped speed things up; but I don’t want to bother her too much.”

“If it’s just a pump, I don’t see how their complaints could hold water.” Kalika said.

“You have a good point there.” Sareh said. “Sometimes I just kick it and it works again.”

“Sareh, please stop kicking things. They need to be fixed properly.” Baran said.

“Hey! I do that too sometimes. I just barely ever have parts or tools.” Sareh complained.

Kalika kneeled down near the machine. She put her ear to it. Her brows furrowed.

“I don’t even hear it doing anything.” She said. She opened an accessible panel on one side that had a handle– it was the door to the circuit box, Homa thought.

Homa walked around with Kalika and peeked at several different parts of the machine. She did not know a lot about electrical circuits, but she agreed with Kalika that a machine that pumps oxygen should not be too hard too fix. Even the circuits or the sensors that determined the oxygen level should not have needed special order parts.

“None of the junction box LEDs are on. This doesn’t look too good.” Kalika said.

Baran sighed and raised one hand to her forehead, and Sareh closed her fists, agitated.

“It’s fine. I’ve got some Katarran friends who are handy with this kind of thing.”

Kalika stood back up, wiping dust and rock fragments from her knees and coat.

“You would really do that for us?” Sareh said. She looked at Kalika with narrowed eyes.

“Yes. It would in fact cost me almost nothing.” Kalika said. “I’ll get a friend down here to run a diagnostic, and then I’ll get a friend to find the right part, and then I’ll find a friend to go get the part I’ve got a lot of friends, and it pays to have them.” She winked at them.

Homa thought she knew who some of those friends might be.

She had heard Kalika mention that Olga, the bodyguard of Erika Kairos, could locate any object if she saw it once. There was also the chirpy and energetic Khloe Kuri, another of the Rostock’s special agents, who was allegedly good at sneaking around and stealing things. And as far as fixing things, the Brigand had no shortage of engineers and mechanics around– so in terms of friends they were well positioned to solve this particular problem.

“It’s not your responsibility, Ms. Loukia.” Baran said, shaking her head.

“Just call me Kalika. And like I said, I am not able to ignore something like this.”

“Because of your beliefs?” Baran said.

“Because it’s the decent thing to do. Because I refuse to ignore your pain. Is that enough?”

“Forgive my skepticism. It feels too good to be true.” Sareh had a conflicted expression.

Baran seemed to appraise Kalika and after looking her over finally accepted her assistance.

“It’s alright, Sareh. Kalika is a communist. I think she’s sincere.” She said.

“Huh? Oh– you mean like the NGO people. I guess that makes sense then.”

Homa stared, incredulous. What kind of NGOs did they have around here?

Sareh still seemed to be having trouble believing Kalika, but her body language relaxed.

Kalika patted her hand on the chassis of the oxygen generator with a big grin.

“Just let big sis Kalika take care of it. In return, let Homa eat a lot of meat at the festival.”

Homa’s tiny tail suddenly started to flutter, and she struggled to quickly make it stop.

“Um. Err. Yeah. We’ll– we’ll definitely repay your hospitality.” Homa said.

“Whether or not you assist us, we would still love to see you on Tishtar.” Baran said.

“Kalika, let me help with the repair job too. I can’t just accept charity.” Sareh said.

“A familiar form of stubborness. Fine– there will be something for you to do.” Kalika said.

Homa glanced sidelong at Kalika and Sareh but resolved to say nothing about that.

She was turning over imaginary kababs and kuftas in her mind, juicy and slick with fat.


After Descent, Year 967

Whispered sweet words and low, heavy groans of desire from an empty office.

Two shadows in a corner, a different corner every time, practiced, well-rehearsed.

They would not be found, not today. Today was an especially easy tryst.

Having come off a major victory in the council, everyone left early after the celebrations.

Leaving behind only the two party bosses, with what work was left, and what play was left.

“Rahima–”

Before Conny could say whatever was on her mind Rahima quieted her with a deep kiss.

Pushing her against the wall, her fingers slipping into Conny’s bell-bottomed pants.

Savoring the taste of booze, smoke and lipstick– things her religion denied her–

Things that she could nonetheless claim from her partner-in-crime.

Rahima almost lifted Conny against the corner, pushing herself as close as she could.

Looming over the shorter elf, having to bend to take her due to the difference in size.

Conny raised her hands to Rahima’s chest and gently pushed her back.

Until her tongue parted from Conny’s lips, a slick string tying them together still.

“Mm. Relax. Nobody is here.” Rahima said.

There was a grin on her face, hungry and confident, savoring what she had claimed.

Rahima had grown in the intervening years. Ambitious, self-assured, and powerful.

At least, compared to what she once was– it was quite a leap.

“It’s not that. Ugh. Everything– everything is all wrong now.”

Conny had a demure expression. Her hands remained on Rahima, creating a bit of space.

When Rahima tried to get close those hands would not push but would keep her separated.

“Conny, after all we’ve fooled around, you can’t be having regrets now.”

“It’s not that, Rahima. I wish it was only that. I wish this was just about the Council.”

Rahima’s eyes opened wide. “Conny, what happened? Tell me.”

She laid her hands on Conny’s shoulders. Conny could not meet her eyes.

Their heartbeats both accelerated, and the heat of their passions became a heat of anxiety.

Rahima wracked her brain. Everything was supposed to have gone perfectly.

They had finally achieved a long-term goal– extending suffrage to the Shimii Wohnbezirk.

With this and Rahima’s support from the Shimii, they would be an undeniable force in the politics of Aachen, practically impossible to dislodge in the local elections. As long as Rahima postured as a liberal and non-demoninational Shimii and treaded the lines between radical and moderate as she treaded between Rashidun and Mahdist, she could look forward to a practically secured seat in the Council. It would enable the Rhinea Feminist Party to throw their weight around and push more of their agenda on the Liberals.

And of course, Conny, her mentor, her lover, the one who pulled her up from darkness–

Of course, she would be with her every step of the way. Of course. She had to be there.

“Rahima, I’ve been served a motion of Censure from the Reichstag. My career is over.”

Hearing those words, Rahima’s heart sank.

It was like someone had twisted a vise inside her chest and cleaved her guts in half.

Shaking fingers clutched Conny’s narrow shoulders. Both of them wept.

“How? For what purpose? That can’t be possible. We’re local politicians!” Rahima said.

“I went too far with the anti-slavery stuff. They’re calling me a communist.” Conny said.

“But you’re not a communist! That doesn’t matter! You can resist this, Conny!”

Conny finally met Rahima’s eyes. Rahima felt her heart jump again from the contact.

That fondness– a love within that gaze that Rahima hardly even knew had existed.

There was such admiration and gentle support from that simple meeting of the eyes.

“The more I fight it, the more it will drag your good name down too Rahima. They will bring up my sister, and the Union, call me a spy, run inquiries crawling into every part of my life. They will find out about us. They will ruin you too. I don’t need to resign but I will– because you’re more important than me, Rahima. More important than us. You represent a possibility I can’t achieve here. Your people need you. I resign, all of it stops, and you keep rising.”

“No.” Rahima said. “I can’t accept this. I can’t accept this, Conny. We are in it together.”

Conny averted her eyes again and seemed to speak past Rahima.

“Herta Kleyn of the Progressive Party has agreed for you to caucus with them.”

“What? You’re dissolving the party?” Rahima said. It was one blow after another.

Conny continued to speak without looking at her and Rahima continued to spiral.

“You’ll be a mainstream Liberal now. Your Council seat will remain secure. Even with me gone the Liberals will retain a majority. Don’t involve yourself in the special election. Let it go.”

“Conny don’t do this to me!” Rahima shouted. “Don’t do this to me! How can I–?”

“Rahima. I love you. Thank you for all these years. Don’t ever let them stop you, okay?”

Conny reached up to touch Rahima’s cheek, moving her hair from over the side of her face.

Rahima’s own hand reached up, and grabbed Conny’s and pressed it tight against herself.

Feeling as if she might never feel a hand that soft and that close ever again.

Like Conny would dissolve into a mound of ash right in front of her.

What had she done wrong? Was this God’s punishment for her indiscretions?

Had she not been modest enough? Had she not been sincere? Why was this happening?

“There’s nothing more to say Rahima. This was never going to be able to last forever– but I will keep rooting for you. You’re extremely strong. You’re stronger than me. I just had the money to rent an office and print things. You came up from nothing. You did all this work– and look where you are. You are proof there is something worth fighting for here. Someday all Shimii will believe in that. Don’t throw that way for me, Rahima. For anyone.”

Weeping, Rahima pressed the hand tighter against her face. She did not want to let go.

“I don’t want to lose you. I wouldn’t have known what to do without you.”

Conny seemed like she truly did not know what to say.

For minutes, she seemed partway between leaving and staying.

Watching Rahima cry in front of her face; crying herself, wiping the tears, crying again.

“Rahima–”

She hesitated. Then she kissed Rahima back. Quicker than she had been kissed.

But this time without hesitation or distance.

“Rahima. Then– get so strong nobody can deny your claim on me, despite everything.”

A kiss as fleeting as a passing breeze–

with incredible alacrity, Conny slipped out from under Rahima’s arms and ran away.

There one second and gone the next as if she had never met that dazzling, vibrant elf.

Leaving Rahima with the suddeness of that departure, holding and staring at an empty wall.

Shaking, weeping, with the cruel sweetness of that final kiss on her lips.

Her legs buckled. Rahima fell to the floor. Screaming into the ground.

For all of the night she remained huddled in that corner, in pain like she had been set alight.

Sometime in the twilight, between colors of dusk and dawn and every possible emotion–

Rahima stood back up. She fixed her shirt and blazer, washed her face, and left the office.

Head and heart empty save for the purpose that remained to animate her.

Even if Conny did not need her anymore– the Shimii needed her.

Her work was not complete; without Conny that was all she had left.


After Descent, Year 979

“This house used to belong a small family. They had teen boys. But they renounced Mahdism and left the village so they could live in the bigger part of the town. Since then, I’ve kept this place as a little guest house. We have a TV, the lights work, there’s a mattress there with blankets. Behind the curtain, the little door that looks like a closet is actually the bathroom. Oh! And I always try to keep some long-lasting snacks and water in the fridge too.”

Baran bent down to her knees to open the small fridge to show them the goods.

A small jug of water and some assorted nuts and candied dates.

“Anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask. You’re my honored guests.” Baran said.

“I am quite grateful. Hopefully I will have good news for you tomorrow.” Kalika said.

Baran put her hand to her chest again and bid farewell, leaving Kalika and Homa alone.

Homa wandered over to the television, flicked it on and sat down on the old mattress.

At first with a neutral expression, tired from the day, depressed by her surroundings–

Then immediately, absolutely furious at the image of the blond woman on the screen–

“Nasser!” She shouted, despite herself, it had to come out, she was surprised and livid.

Vesna Nasser– that fiend who had robbed her of everything.

Homa had never seen this woman in the flesh, but she knew, she knew that was her.

Standing in uniform, swaying her tail and smiling like nothing had happened.

Her cold, dead heart untouched with an ounce of guilt for what she had done.

While Homa scurried in holes, Nasser was in that high tower, on regional television!

Unspeaking, but firm, confident, even smug. Homa practically gritted her teeth in anger.

Beside Nasser was the actual speaker for the program, amid a speech on a podium.

Dressed in that foul black uniform with the most medals and armbands of anyone Homa had ever seen. Ridiculous pink and blue hair, her speech eloquent and intensely confident for what she was saying, with inflections of passion and grandiosity punctuating certain words–

“…it has been only mere months since Rhinea embarked on the Revolution of National Awakening. Already, the Party-State is being dilligently constructed. All national socialists are joining as a single force under the Party-State. Together we deliver swift punishment to the liberals and reactionaries who opposed the Nation’s Destiny and tried to drag the national proletariat to the shadow of their former ignorance. Even now, the cultists of those dead ideas plot in the corners, trying to rewind our chosen future. They will find their reckoning soon. National Socialism is an idea that cannot be contained any longer! National Socialism is modernity! Our Volk has had enough of Liberal divisions and Reactionary elitism! We will bow neither to the man on the ballot nor to the man with the crown and scepter! The Party-State will unite the people, protect them, and enrich the Nation! Through blood and labor, the Volksgemeinschaft will be nurtured, and the national peoples unleashed! These are no longer things which can be resisted! The many will become one under the nation! One people, one nation, one party-state! With our blood and labor! This is Destiny–!”

Homa sat fuming as the speech progressed further, until Kalika finally swiped her finger across Violet Lehner’s face. She disappeared and a Shimii clerical channel took her place.

“Kalika, what is everyone else on the ships doing while we’re out here?” Homa asked.

Kalika sighed. She must have been able to tell how frustrated Homa was.

But Homa was not in a mood to care about her tone or appearances anymore.

“A lot of things, Homa– it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Right now, the crew is preparing for the United Front negotations.” Kalika said. “It might not seem that way, but we are helping.”

“Are we any closer to getting revenge on those Volkisch bastards?” Homa shouted.

“Quiet! Look, you’ll need to defer your revenge. We don’t expect things to be so simple as shaking hands and agreeing to fight the Volkisch– every group has an agenda, and they will push their own way of doing things.” Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa and patted her back. Homa did not feel appreciative of the support in her current state– but she also did not want Kalika to stop touching her. That warmth on her back kept her from crying.

“Why wouldn’t it be as simple as shaking hands, and agreeing to fight the Volkisch?”

Homa felt such a boiling-over frustration with everything around her.

Looking back at everything that happened, the Volkisch Movement was clearly the enemy.

So why could they not set aside everything and fight them, and discuss the rest later?

“Homa, people need concrete structure and leadership. They can’t just go out and fight unprepared.” Kalika said. “Three huge organizations coming together will have to work out priorities, supplies, targets, and delegate intelligence and action work. Furthermore, these are three political organizations, who will need to sway Eisental’s people to their side as collaborators, allies and recruits– so they need to decide on a message, too.”

Homa grunted. She turned a disgruntled look at the clerics on the screen instead of Kalika.

“Homa, our job is to support the Volksarmee’s effort by carrying out our mission. And our mission is to be down here.” Kalika said. Her patting on Homa’s back grew a bit more vigorous. “It might not seem like we are doing anything, but getting support from the Shimii here is something no one else is doing. The social democrats and the anarchists are not making efforts to touch base with disenfranchised peoples. We have eyes, your eyes, my eyes, where they don’t. That does matter; please just work with me here, ok?”

“Fine. It’s not like I can do anything else. I am just your helpless little orbiter.”

She laid down on her side, putting her back to Kalika with a disgruntled noise.

“Homa, it’s not like– ugh.” She could feel Kalika moving behind her. To lie down too.

For a moment, Kalika did not finish her sentence. She sounded a bit exasperated.

Homa felt both nervous that she had angered her, but also had a disgusting satisfaction too.

Had she finally needled this woman enough, who had no reason to care for her–?

A sigh. “Homa. We’ll have some big days ahead. Get some rest. You’ll feel better.”

Her voice was surprisingly gentle– none of the expected fury, no lashing out.

For a moment, Homa felt so ashamed of herself that she might have burst out crying.

She hated herself and her thoughts and her ugly, stupid little soul so much. So intensely.

If she was not so tired, and did not drift off to sleep, she would have beaten her own head.

But she did drift off to a dreamless sleep. A sleep like a comfortable shadow engulfing her.

Until that shadow and its attendant silence were suddenly parted by a scream.

In the near-total darkness of the room Homa shot upright from where she had lain.

Her head turned immediately to face the doorway and the swaying curtain to the outside.

When she tried to stand she felt a hand move to stop her.

“Homa, stay here!”

From her side, Kalika darted to her feet and ran out of the house.

Parting the curtain, a glint in the steel of her sword as it sprang from the handle.

Heedless of the warning, Homa scrambled to her feet and ran right after.

When she got outside, the shouting was far clearer–

“No! Stop it! Why are you doing this?”

Baran, pleading–

“Shut up bitch!”

There was a man’s voice– familiar–

Baran crying out–

in pain

Homa’s running steps practically thundered on the rough floor.

She crossed the side of the masjid and caught sight of several figures on the Tishtar stage partially illuminated by burning flares thrown onto the middle of the street.

Baran on the edge of the stage, weeping, three people with face coverings and long clubs or truncheons in their hands. Beating at the beautiful Tazia that had been erected on the stage with a hellish glee. Between Baran’s shouting and sobs there was their laughter and jeering as they destroyed the villager’s art. They taunted Baran as they struck the object.

“We won’t let you Mahdists hold your evil rituals!”

“Stop it! That’s enough, aren’t you satisfied?”

“I said shut up!”

One of the boys swung at Baran, striking her leg and knocking her off the stage–

Into Kalika’s arms, catching her and setting her down roughly.

Jumping up onto the stage.

Homa was not far behind, she saw Baran fall and dropped quickly near her, to support her.

Up on the stage the assailants realized instantly what they were dealing with.

They ceased beating the Tazia to pieces and laughing at the act. They stopped to stare.

In the silence they left–

Kalika’s vibroblade buzzed and whirred audible with killing power.

She said nothing as she approached, her wildly furious eyes glowing in the flare-light–

“I– I told you I’d fucking kill you–!”

One of the men threw himself forward, screaming, and he swung,

Kalika caught the blow with her bare forearm, battering his arm aside,

blade splitting air with a low whistle as it flew–

“Please don’t kill them!”

Baran cried out, tears in her eyes, caught in Homa’s bewildered grasp.

Kalika held her blow.

She sliced across the chest of her attacker, blood running slick on the edge of her sword.

Leaving a shallow cut across the man’s chest where his guts might have otherwise flowed.

He stumbled back onto the stage, dropped his club, screaming, begging,

From behind Homa a gunshot rang out.

There was a brief spark as it struck one of the assailants on his club.

Sending a finger flying into the air and the weapon rolling down the stage.

Sareh ran to Homa’s side with a pistol in her hand, preparing to shoot again–

And stopped as Baran’s hands reached up to her, pleading silently.

Lika Kalika, Sareh stopped her retaliation and watched as the assailants fled.

Bloodied, crying, but still throwing curses borne out of their hatred.

“If you cross that gate again you’ll leave in a bag!”

Kalika shouted after them, at the top of her lungs, an anger in her voice that was chilling.

Holding the stricken Baran in her arms, with Sareh standing dumbstruck beside them.

Homa felt completely detached from reality. Her skin was clammy. Every muscle shaking.

“Stupid, worthless bastards.” Kalika said to no one. Her sword hand was shaking.

Sareh finally put down her arms, with which she had been aiming her pistol the whole time.

She put the weapon into her coat and kneeled down and took Baran from Homa.

Into her arms, holding her tightly. Baran was crying. Sareh was mumbling, weeping too.

“I’m so stupid. Why did I go to sleep? I should’ve known they would do something!”

Baran reached up to Sareh’s face, gesturing for her to come close.

They put their foreheads to each other and touched noses, crying together.

Behind all of them, a few villagers began to emerge from the back streets.

Homa’s eyes were fixed on Kalika, glowing red on the stage amid the sparks of a flare.

Her hand remaining on her sword, her eyes on the gates, gritting her teeth.

Clutching the handle.

Not knowing what to do, Homa climbed up on the stage.

Standing side by side with Kalika amid the light of the still-burning flares,

and the pieces of the ruined Tazia behind them.

“Kalika. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do anything–”

Suddenly, Kalika turned to Homa. She flicked her wrist, snapping her blade folded again.

She reached out and took Homa’s clenched fist, opening her fingers.

Then on that cold, shaking, helpless hand, Kalika laid–

“Don’t make me regret this, Homa.”

–a firearm.

A light, synthestitched pistol, materially light but heavy with deadly potential.

She had entrusted Homa with a lethal weapon, a killing weapon, just like her own.

Homa stared at it and back at Kalika and felt like she would sink into the earth with shame.

In her mind she had done nothing to earn this. Nothing but lash out and complain.

But she accepted it. She felt that to do otherwise would have squandered everything.

With her hands still shaking, she put the gun into her coat. She said nothing.

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t understand anything she was seeing and feeling.

“You’re not helpless anymore, Homa. I trust you will make good judgments.”

Kalika’s voice sounded, for the first time Homa had ever heard– openly nervous.


After Descent, Year 978

Rahima and Herta Kleyn convened alone in one of the rear storage areas of the Aachen Council’s Assembly Hall. Underneath the debate floor where policy fought for its life, the two of them stood over a disused desk in a dusty corner, their faces half-shadowed in the dim light of a sputtering LED cluster. On the desk, there was a portable computer with an open digital letter with official digital letterhead, demanding confirmation of receipt.

From the collective body of the Rhinean Reichstag.

To Governor-Elect of Aachen Rahima Jašarević.

“Interfering in our local politics again.” Rahima grunted.

“I’m afraid so.” Herta said. “But this is not just a party insider squabble, Rahima. The Liberal-Proggressives and the Conservatives all passed it in the special session. Only the Nationalists abstained from the process. Our folks caved, Rahima, but so far the contents are not public. They want you to respond discretly and avoid a bigger scandal. I advise you should.”

Rahima closed her fists with anger, staring impotently at the filigreed letter on the screen.

“Why should I abide by this?” She said.

Herta sighed. They had worked together long enough now that she knew Rahima’s moods.

Still her voice remained collected and calm.

“Unless you resign from the governorship they will practically crawl down our throats, Rahima. They are saying they will turn up the Progressive party’s ‘ties to Kamma, piracy, communism and foreign nations’ . The Liberal-Progressives cannot afford this.”

“So what if they investigate? We have no such ties!”

“We do technically have ties to Kamma. Through you, Rahima.”

Rahima felt a shudder hearing the implication and shot a vicious glare at Herta.

“I know you are not seeing her. I know! I trust you. But the Reichstag will not care.”

“Kamma is just an NGO! They distribute lunchboxes and blankets! They aren’t radicals!”

Herta shut her eyes and shook her head.

“Rahima, you know as well as any of us that the substance of this threat does not matter. It does not matter whether they can turn up anything. It does not matter whether you fight it. You are not getting a fair trial here. By making the threat, they are implicitly saying they will turn up something– they will put on a show to damage our credibility. Your credibility and that of the main party. Right now, the Progressive-Liberal coalition is facing a hard fight against the Conservatives and Nationalists in the upcoming elections. The Heidemman bloc supported this motion in order to appeal to moderates and to seem reasonable.”

There was nothing Rahima could say in return because what she wanted to do was scream.

For years– years!– she had fought in the Council, debated and defeated Imbrians on the merits. She had passed successful bills, and not just her projects for the Shimii. She had fought like hell for a Progressive agenda. She had compromised, she had toed the lines.

All of the Aachen Liberal Party had gotten behind her for the Governorship.

Aachen’s people cast their votes! She had won the Liberals an important governorship!

Rahima had won them the Shimii! She was turning them into Liberal voters!

None of it mattered. Her local successes were nothing to the Reichstag Liberals.

They were focused solely on the presidential battle next year and nothing else.

On those two Imbrian men whom the nation now revolved around. Not any Shimii.

Sacrificing her to look more moderate and serious. To show they were not radicals.

“There is still a shot, Rahima. You don’t have to give up your dreams.” Herta said.

“And what is our shot, Herta.” Rahima replied, her voice turning slowly into a growl.

Herta started staring directly at Rahima’s darkening expression with a wan little smile of her own. “The motion specified the Governor-Electship– we can comply and still retain your Council seat. I will replace you as Governor, and we will salvage our local slate. After Ossof Heidemman is elected next year, things will calm down. You’ll be able to run again.”

Rahima looked at Herta dead in the eyes. She could hardly believe this naivety from her.

“What happens if Adam Lehner defeats Ossof Heidemman?” She said gravely.

Herta’s expression grew concerned. “That won’t happen Rahima. I know we’ll win.”

Rahima grunted. Who was this ‘we’? Was Rahima now included in Heidemman’s circle?

“Herta, look at how dirty they are playing me– do you think Adam Lehner is above that?”

Herta turned around and paced toward the opposite wall with a heavy breath.

As if she did not want to meet Rahima’s eyes while speaking her next words.

“Rahima, I am truly sorry. But you are still here and have responsibilities. Don’t squander what we have built. I taught you to be pragmatic. You have decades in politics still. You’ve opened a path for other Shimii to follow. You must remain in the council, for them.”

Rahima threw her hands up in fury. “So, what–? I was only a path for others to follow?!”

She gritted her teeth. What about the path she had been treading so tirelessly all this time?!

How could it be that after all this struggle she was relegated to holding open a door?!

What did this say to the Shimii?

You can become a local councilwoman who will tidy up things in your ghetto and that is it? You will never even reach the height of these pitiful confines? All of these games that she played, not even able to get her kin out of the fucking ground– and no amount of polite words saved her when the hatchets came out. The Liberals simply abandoned her.

Was all of that for nothing? All of her sacrifice? All of her pain?

Herta had no answer. Nobody did.

So one more time, Rahima toed the line and compromised for the Liberal-Progressives.

As if she had anything left to compromise.


After Descent, Year 979

On the morning after the attack, Homa stood with several dozen Shimii around the stage.

Ears folded and tails down, examing from afar what remained of the intricate display.

Smashed pieces in a heap, colorful debris only recognizeable if one saw the complete thing.

Enough of it remained to mourn over the whole.

There were several villagers with their heads hung low or shaking, covering their mouths, crying for the smashed Tazia. They looked from afar, helpless. There were a few older men, but most of the people coming out of the shabby little houses and the few bigger business buildings to look, were women and kids, and the kids looked to be mainly girls.

Baran had been right– Homa wondered if the men last night were–

She immediately stopped her train of thought. She felt so angry about everything.

In her coat, the pistol Kalika had given her weighed down her pocket like a stone.

Suddenly the villagers turned to face the masjid.

Out from it, Baran, Sareh and an older, slightly more formidable man walked out.

Homa noticed immediately that Baran was walking with a stick to support herself.

Upon seeing this, several of the women stepped forward to her, stroked her hair and her shoulders. Many of the women started crying fresh tears over her injury, the heavily bruised and bloodied ankle quite visible through Baran’s sandals. They copiously recited Fusha prayers for her and begged God’s mercy and safety and for God to seek answers from the criminals for this. That seemed to be the prevailing question among the villagers–

why inflict such pointless cruelty?

Even though they all knew the answer, deep down in their hearts, but nobody wanted it.

That answer which was too painful to consider and too impossible for them to resolve.

Homa considered it and turned it over so thoroughly it lit her heart ablaze with wrath.

“Homa! Are you alright?”

Baran called out to her and walked out from between all the aunties and teen girls.

Knowing how she felt when she was using crutches, Homa did not try to tell Baran to slow down or not to come forward. Such little kindnesses just bothered Homa and made her feel inept when she was the one who could not move well. She stood where she was, suddenly the center of attention in the middle of everyone in the village. It felt like there were not just a few dozen people around now but thousands in the pitted streets.

“Everyone, this is Homa Messhud! She helped me last night! Please pray for her too!”

Baran stood by Homa and put a hand on her shoulder, with a big smile.

Confused eyes turned to warm smiles at Homa, in an instant. Baran’s word was all it took.

They really loved her– Homa felt like everyone in the village cared about Baran a lot.

Homa felt she had not done anything deserving of praise but did not deny Baran.

Even though they were all heaping praise and prayers on a fake surname.

There was no helping it– it’s what Homa had to endure for her mission.

Compared to what the villagers had to go through this was nothing.

After that declaration, Sareh also walked up. She reached out to Homa.

They shook hands together, and Sarah also patted Homa on the shoulder.

“Homa, thank you, truly. Baran could have been killed– I’m sorry I wasn’t any help.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sareh. Please.” Baran said gently, squeezing Sareh’s hand.

“I know. I’ll try not to.” Sareh said. “Where is Kalika, Homa? She was incredible.”

“Asleep.” Homa said. “I didn’t want to wake her– that situation was really rough on her.”

After they drove off the attackers the night before, everyone slowly dispersed.

It was as if they were caught in a delirium, and nobody knew what to do in the moment.

Sareh took Baran into her home. She must have administered first-aid.

Homa knew that Kalika had not gotten any sleep. She had remained on-guard all night.

“Homa, let me introduce you– this is Imam Saman al-Qoms.” Baran said.

From behind the girls, the man who had walked out with them approached Homa.

He stopped several steps short of her and put his hand on his chest with a smile.

“As-Salamu Alaykum. God sees all praiseworthy deeds. Thank you dearly, Homa Messhud.”

Imam al-Qoms was a sturdy older man, definitely older than Leija would have been. He dressed perhaps the most appropriately, to the typical picture of a Shimii man, than anyone Homa had seen around Aachen so far. He had a blue Tagiyah cap, with holes for his ears, and very short hair. He had a simple, long, covering and loose robe the same blue as the cap and wore glasses and sandals. A simple man, like a Shimii educator and prayer leader ought to be.

After the introductions, the Imam, Baran and Sareh walked up to the stage. Sareh and Homa helped Baran make the short hop up onto the stage. But Baran surprised them by immediately and without assistance dropping down beside the shattered remains of the Tazia, flinching from the pain in her ankle as she sat beside it, and collected the pieces.

Despite everything she still smiled.

“Baran, please–”

“Sareh, we can put it back together! Most of the pieces are pretty big. We’ll repaint it too!”

Sareh looked down at her partner on the ground, sighed, and sat down next to her.

Quietly, Imam al-Qoms also sat opposite the girls, collecting more pieces of the Tazia.

Homa stood off to the side. She was a stranger to all of this; it held no significance for her.

Everyone in town seemed invested in this presentation and the traditions behind it.

All Homa could focus on was the fact that someone violated their safety to destroy it.

She did not hold the dearness they all had for this– she could not.

To her this was just a thing– but it was a thing that inspired brutality against them.

She wished she could understand. Both their love for it; and the hatred that it drew.

Maybe if she could understand she would have an answer for herself, that she could bear.

But she did not– in that moment she felt more like an Imbrian than she ever had.

Just some fool watching from the sidelines, shamefully able to leave if things got too ugly.

Why did this have to happen? Homa felt that anger swelling in her heart again.

All of them were thrown in a hole out of sight of the Imbrians in the Core Station.

And their response was to recreate all the violence of their past, but here, in the hole?

It was so senseless she wanted to scream.

“Homa,”

A gloved hand laid upon her shoulder, heavy and a little cold, but familiar.

Without turning around, Homa laid her own hand over Kalika’s.

“Are you okay?” Kalika asked, standing on the stage beside Homa.

Behind them, the villagers had begun to return to their homes and businesses.

All of the younger girls followed some of the aunties into the masjid.

Homa looked around for a moment before giving her answer. “Kind of not.” She said.

They spoke together in whispers at the edge of the stage.

“Is it your heart or your head?” Kalika asked.

“I’m not hurt or anything. It’s just depressing. I don’t know why they would do this.”

“Because it’s what they are steeped in– it is their value system.” Kalika said. “Out in the town, our friendly little villagers, and their customs, are seen as dangerous to the–”

Homa sighed bitterly. “I– I don’t need you to answer, Kalika. Or– well– not like that.”

“I understand.” Kalika said gently. “Keep a keen eye out and decide for yourself then.”

She patted Homa on the shoulder and walked past her to Baran and Sareh.

Sareh helped Baran to stand up from the floor so they could greet Kalika.

“You saved my life, Kalika Loukia. I can’t thank you enough.” Baran said.

Baran offered her hands and Kalika held them. Sareh then offered her a handshake.

“Yes, thank you. I styled myself as the protector of this village– and I–” Sareh began–

“You saved Homa and I, remember? You’re doing what you can.” Kalika reassured her.

“I don’t feel like you needed my saving.” Sareh said. Still ashamed of herself.

“No, for you and I, fighting is completely different.” Kalika said. “It is easier to stand in front of someone and fight when you are not tied down to anything. That requires no conviction. It is more difficult to fight when you might be endangering yourself or your kin. Most people would choose to keep their heads down in that situation. You had the courage not to.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to remind myself of that.” Sareh said. Baran comforted her.

“If you need any crafts supplies, I might be able to help with that too.” Kalika said. “I’ll be contacting my friends soon to get things moving. Homa is here to help if you need a body.”

Homa bristled slightly at being referred to ‘for her body.’

“You’ve done so much; I don’t want to ask for even more. Please understand.” Baran said. “We can put this back together. We’ll glue it and then repaint it in a way that can make the cracks stand out less. I’m sure we can do that. For things like this I would prefer we work with what we have. It is part of the story of the festival now, for better or worse.”

Homa thought in that moment, Baran sounded very wise, as sad as it was.

“But. There is something else that troubles me.” Baran said.

“I think I know what you mean.” Sareh said, looking down at Baran’s ankle.

“Go on. I want to help.” Kalika said.

Baran suddenly turned from Kalika to Homa, who was caught off guard by the attention.

“Homa, do you know how to dance? Did your mother ever teach you?” Baran asked.

“Huh? Dancing?” Homa’s nerves instantly fried. “No way, no– I’m too clumsy!”

She waved her hands defensively. If she had to go up on stage she would die.

Plus she imagined the kind of outfit dancers wore– flashing back to Madame Arabie–

Baran slumped, clearly disheartened. “Your body looked like you might’ve been a dancer.”

“Really?” Now Homa was suddenly interested again. “I guess I look pretty athletic huh?”

Sighing, Kalika waved her hands between Baran and Homa. “Leave her be– I’ll do it.”

“Oh!” “Huh?” “REALLY?”

Baran, Sareh and Homa responded at once, wagging their ears with surprise at Kalika.

“I spent years living with Shimii.” Kalika said. “Those folks had their own local festivities, but I learned all kinds of traditional arts including dances. With Baran’s help I can absolutely learn the moves she was meant to perform for the festival. That’s the issue, right?”

“Yes, ever since I was a teenager I danced whenever we could hold Tishtar.” Baran said. “Everybody in the village looks forward to it! Sareh plays the music and I dance.”

Sareh put her hands behind her head and acted casual, as if she did not want recognition.

“We’ll find time for you to coach me.” Kalika said. “Then I’ll dance on the big day.”

It was an idea that captured Homa completely and immediately.

There were a dozen things put into her head. She wondered whether Kalika might be perceived as too old to dance in Baran’s place, but she did not voice this dangerous rumination, for fear of making an eternal enemy out of her most cherished ally. Another dangerous thought that came to her unbidden was that it might have been thought of as silly for a Katarran to perform traditional Shimii dance at a Mahdist festival. That one, too, had to be shelved very quickly. However, one observation of value did arise– Homa felt she finally understood Kalika’s real and unspoken motivation for helping the villagers.

Perhaps she was getting a rare taste of that feeling she so cherished– community.

With that in mind, Homa finally put on as much of a smile as she could muster.

That– and her third dangerous thought. Seeing Kalika in a traditional dancing garb.

Such outfits varied greatly– but what if Kalika wore something as sexy as Madame Arabie?

Those outfits were embellished versions of traditional Shimii wear– for sex appeal.

In a sense, they were even more lewd than having seen Kalika in the nude before–

“You’re finally smiling Homa. I don’t dare ask what has come over you.” Kalika said.

Homa visibly snapped out of her reverie and put her hands in her coat’s outer pockets.

Averting her gaze and not answering the question. But still grinning a little bit.

Baran meanwhile was also smiling wider and brighter and more openly than ever.

“Kalika, Homa, you are life savers! This will be the greatest Tishtar ever, I promise you!”

“I can’t wait.” Kalika said. She seemed to be soaking in the girls’ enthusiasm.

“I’m glad to see everyone in good spirits. But Shaykhah, it seems you have company.”

Imam al-Qoms spoke up again– Shaykhah must have been in reference to Baran.

He pointed to the gate, where a woman walked in with small wheeled drone following her.

Homa could tell from her pointy, long ears and her very pale and shiny blue hair that she was an elf; such vibrant hair colors difficult to find naturally in anyone but an elf. Her figure was thin and she was pretty short in stature, with fair skin that had a very, very slightly golden tone. Her hair was collected into two tails dropping down her back. She dressed in an open white blazer coat with what looked like a striking blue tasseled bra top underneath, cut off above the belly, and bell-bottomed pants. Homa hardly ever saw anyone dress so flashy.

Everyone was watching as the woman calmly crossed into the village. There was a small flag hoisted from a pole on the back of the drone’s boxy chassis. The drone seemed like it might have contained cargo, its insides rattling a bit. The flag had a half-white, half-black, vaguely diamond-like emblem made up of knotted lines over a bright blue background.

All of the village onlookers seemed excited by the new arrival.

Homa saw them looking at the flag. Did they recognize it?

“Oh, she’s from the NGO! What excellent timing– let’s go greet her!” Baran said.

As the elven woman approached the stage, she waved at the group with a carefree smile.

“Hello, hello! Is this a bad time? I’m Conny Lettiere. I’m with the NGO Kamma.”


After Descent, Year 979

On the table laid a portable computer with a digital letterhead begging confirmation.

Beside the portable was an unopened plastic box. Lit only by the screen of the portable.

And in a dark corner behind the desk was Rahima Jašarević. Legs curled against her chest.

No longer weeping– she had not wept for a very long time. For years now she had been smothering the softness deep in her soul and trying to forge it into steel. Nevertheless, whenever she needed to think, she found hiding behind the desk helped her do so. As long as nobody saw her in this childish circumstance she could find comfort in it.

It made her feel less– surveilled.

Ever since that night, where she spent hours and hours seething behind her desk.

On that night, she ceased to be able to cope in the ways she had done before.

Sometimes she thought back to that night, and to the nights preceding it.

When she arrived at Aachen she was barely an adult. So much time had passed.

In her mind she remembered the things the immigration officer told her and laughed.

Look at what I’ve become, would you think I am decent now or just a lowlife?

She remembered the sailor, too, who brought her to Aachen.

Would he regret it? Had she done something stupid and indecent now, in his mind?

Going into politics; giving all her spirit to budge the status quo even a centimeter.

What did they all think now? Was she upstanding now? Was she respectable?

She had always been young for politics. She had liked to think that gave her an edge.

That youth had its own vibrancy and power. Perhaps it did once.

Now, however, it was completely lost.

Having nothing but her experience of time and in that sense youth relative to the mean was worthless, and relative to itself even more so. She was alone. Simultaneously too old for assistance and too young for pity. No mentors she could trust to ask for counsel. No peers to stand beside her during her tribulations. She was the mentor, and without peer. As she grew older, the more and more people she left behind and replaced with only herself. It was so unfair– she had never wanted to abandon anyone nor for anyone to abandon her.

Uniquely positioned; uniquely alone. The only Shimii councilwoman.

Once, the only Shimii governor.

Now–

Since she arrived at Aachen, she gained so much, and yet lost so much.

She did not know where the scales came to rest in the end.

All she knew is that when she needed someone, now, there was no one around her.

Was this her punishment? Had she done wrong?

Was it hubris to ever have any hope? Was it heresy to follow her dreams?

At first all she wanted was to help Conny– then she slowly found her own dreams.

Those dreams, her pursuit of something, anything, for her kin living beneath her.

So no one else would have to lose their whole families and homes.

So no one else would have to bear the slow destruction they were subjected to.

No more name changes, no more deportations, no more deprivation–

Was that paradigm so hopelessly ordained? Was even God against them?

That pursuit of power and those grand intentions for it had destroyed everything she held personally dear– and for what? Shimii could cast their ballots for a slate of Imbrians and Rahima to judge their lives from on high. Again, and again, but now from the masjid in the Wohnbezirk. Never from anywhere else. Even Rahima, symbollically, voted there.

They always voted for her. She was all that they had now. That was all that changed.

Was it her fault? That she became a tool of their callous power?

Her heart tightened with a growing anger.

No– she was just doing what she could. She was doing what one woman could do.

It was the Imbrians, at each turn. It was them. It was their fault!

So deathly afraid of being the equals of anyone. They fought her at every step.

That was the cruelest irony of everything. They raised her up, they broke her down–

–and they would face the rip-current, thrashing in the waters they themselves filled.

In that instant there was only one foreseeable thing that she could do.

Only one Destiny.

Rahima shot to a stand with a sudden fervor, raising her arms and practically clawing the desk on her way to her feet. She took up the portable from the desk and without thinking it, without feeling, with her breath in her chest and her heart motionless, skin tingling, face sweating. Her finger struck the confirmation, the knife she would plunge into Aachen.

There was an instant of recognition. The portable slipped from her fingers back onto her desk. Her heart started thundering. Ragged, rasping breaths of a woman choking.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She slumped over the desk, the moment of fury passed.

Hands raised over her face, brushing salt from her eyes that only drew more tears.

She wanted to scream, but no one would hear her.

She wanted to beg for mercy she ill deserved.

On the desk, the box taunted her.

You are the one, it jeered, who will be judged for your wickedness now.

You are the one who has crossed the line now.

Rahima picked it up, overturned it. The lid fell off, and inside were a pair of armbands.

For a moment, she stared at them. Then she affixed them to her arm.

Black Sun. Hooked Cross. Red, white, black.

Her discarded portable lit up again, blue light crossing the desk. Rahima righted the object.

There was a call– she routed it to audio and tried to calm her voice.

“We have received the confirmation. I assume you are ready and willing?”

A woman’s voice, courteous, and perhaps, even excited for what was to come.

“Yes. I will prepare the lists. Doubtless you’ll have additions.” Rahima said.

Her voice left her lips as it always did. Commanding, confident. Like on the debate floor.

She knew what she had to do. She knew what she agreed to.

“You have the lay of the land here– we will trust and support you.”

There was a request to turn the audio call to a visual call. Rahima denied it on her screen.

“We will need to be thorough. Hold your hand until your preparations are ironclad.”

“Indeed. Do not fear. The Special Detachment will protect you with our lives.”

There was room for neither shouting nor tears. She had cried for herself all that she could.

Rahima had exhausted all of the means at her disposal. She had tried to work righteously.

Every way that one woman could hold on her shoulders this mountain of human agonies.

She had tried. She had tried everything. Done all the right things, the kind things.

All of the rational arguments, the statements in even tone, the logical, respectful pleadings.

Signing her name as if in blood, her gut wrenched with shame.

But the fingers that made the final confirmation brimmed with electricity.

For the first time in her life, Rahima felt real, actionable power in her grasp.

And that, one way or another, the Shimii would carry out their vengeance.

“Based on the fuhrerprinzip, you are to follow my orders without deviation. Correct?”

“You have done your reading– yes, unless you are contradicted by the Reichskommissar.”

“Good. Let me know if you need any access. I’ll make sure you have it.” Rahima said.

There was a girlish titter on the line.

“You know– you sound so formidable– I look forward to meeting you in the flesh.”

That voice was almost lascivious in its tone. Rahima could not be bothered by it anymore.

It was the last of her concerns now.

That armband on her bicep felt like a wound that had been ripped open in her.

Rahima laid her hand upon it. It had to bleed then. There was only the bleeding left.

Whispering in her mind an apology to Conny Lettiere–

and to everything she had once stood for.

“I will get to work then, Rahima Jašarević. I look forward to serving, Herr Gauleiter.”


Unjust Depths

Episode Thirteen

THE PAST WILL COME BACK AS A TIDAL WAVE


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.7]

This chapter contains themes of suicidal ideation and child abuse.

“I won’t let them touch you, master.” Azazil said.

Azazil’s baton collided with the mask of the blue-robed aberration with a loud–

–nothing.

Blue color wafting from the entity met the deep purple color from Azazil’s silhouette, as solid a collision as the physical blow. Gertrude’s mind wanted there to be noise, the sound of an impact, so she heard the thud that should have been there, saw the crack it should have inflicted on the mask, saw the figure driven back by the attack in a natural response to pain. In a microsecond of thought, she envisaged what should have been.

Deep down, she was unsure if it happened.

It was an insane, split-second anxiety of reaching for a grounded reality.

It was not untrue that she saw that; but she also saw the creature simply dissipate into blue particles. One second there; one second gone as if it had never existed.

Which was the truth?

Soundless; formless; without a trace in the world.

Except a sparse instant of dancing color. Was that really what happened?

Gertrude stood shock still, drawn-wide eyes witnessing Azazil’s glowing purple baton crack into the shadows one after the other in swift retaliation for their advance.

They continued to twitch her way in jerky movements like badly-edited stop-motion. Their limbs would be retracted one instant and suddenly reaching the next. Trying to strike Azazil with their claws, trying to get their wafting blue clouds upon her, kept at bay by the purple color that was wrapped around her like a billowing cloak or a localized gust of wind.

Another enemy neared, its languid face briefly lighting up–

Azazil took a solid step forward for momentum before swinging.

Her eyes narrowed, her lips inexpressive, her face briefly lit up by the flash of an entity bursting under her attack. This time Gertrude could have sworn her baton went through the entity entirely, even before it had burst and dissipated. Azazil brought the baton back in front of her chest, her eyes keenly following the approaching entities, matching and checking each creature’s moves. She was agile and flexible and undaunted.

Gertrude observed everything happening, but it was as if her head was caught in a fog.

She felt sleepy. She was so exhausted, so drained.

She felt like she couldn’t take another step.

Her eyes became heavy. Her head pounded from the effort to stay awake.

As her vision wavered, the blue color of the entities seemed to grow in intensity.

Then she felt Azazil’s elbow strike her in the rib suddenly.

Not hard, but enough to startle her. Her vision focused again– but only briefly.

“Master, don’t fall asleep. That is their objective.” Azazil said.

“I–” Gertrude couldn’t speak. Her words sank back into her throat.

Sounds felt heavier than the strength of her vocal chords to lift them.

She was so tired that it was almost hopeless to try to do anything.

It was as if her body was slowly forgetting how to move, everything was so sapped from her, thinking was fast becoming an impossibility. Her body hurt, as if her muscles could no longer lift her weight and had begun to collapse from the effort of standing. Unfathomable sights that should have evoked apoplectic terror instead put a cloud before her eyes, as if she was too enervated to scream, too weary to break down into tears. She wanted so badly, more than anything, to lay down and fall asleep and ignore everything in front of her.

Her skepticism, her need for a material grounding to the world, her desire to make sense of the madness in front of her; all of it becoming as dull as her muscles felt supporting her weight. There was no rationality. She was like an animal. She was aware only of her body and the sheer agonizing need that was slowly making itself more and more real to her.

It was hopeless.

The world was so heavy. Her limbs started to shake with the weight.

And so, ever grew the fog. Turning intensely blue before her eyes.

“I’m sorry– I can’t– I can’t go on–”

Gertrude’s knees began to buckle. Her chest could not stay upright.

Azazil half-turned to look back on her, eyes widening with concern.

“Master!”

Gertrude mumbled to herself in lament.

“I was useless the whole time. I was helpless. There’s nothing I could do.”

“Master– no–!”

Blue color began to overtake the surroundings, crawling across the walls, rippling on the ceiling. Rock and metal and the pale moon of Azazil’s face all began to dissipate in the blue. With the blue there was not peace, however, only weight, sluggishness, burden. Blue like the crushing weight of the ocean, strength-sapping blue that slowed the world, thick enough to give light pause. She was being pushed down against the floor and even past it.

Gertrude began to tumble backward.

Her body fell and fell and did not hit the ground.

Nor the ocean around her.

Succumbing to the aberrant blue aether, Gertrude left the material world entirely.

It was not sleep, but a stillness that had deteriorated even the passage of time.


Gertrude fell and fell and she knew she was falling, but the lack of weight was a relief.

Despite the falling, she was at peace.

It was blissful, even, to descend into the eternal blue where nothing changed.

She felt that she was unburdened of the task of being, the effort of maintaining her own existence. There was no effort, there was simply the perfect stillness. To drift was automatic, to fall was just enough inertia to feel alive without the violence that was inherent in deliberate movement. In front of her foggy eyes there was a constellation of lights that were, all of them, blue. None of them shone brightly enough for feeling. There was no warmth, but unchanging surroundings left her with a comforting sense of stillness.

Was there a fall if there was no destination?

Here, there was no pain–

No thought, no worries, nothing external to consume her.

She drifted peacefully as if cradled on a breeze.

But there was in the midst of the fall an introduction of something else–

Passion.

It was like a painful spark that jabbed through her chest.

Spreading to her limbs, beckoning her to struggle.

Gertrude suddenly remembered all the currents that had come to intersect her own.

At first there was a sense of relief– but it was different than the blue nothingness.

It was mixed with her emotions– with them came regrets, frustrations–

She would not have to carry the burden of being High Inquisitor anymore.

No longer would she need to find a place in the world after failing to be Elena’s knight.

There was no need to reconcile her lust toward Ingrid with the lust she felt for other women.

Nile’s secrets could simply remain her own.

Victoria and her would not have to navigate the messy rekindling of their relationship.

Azazil would remain something like a bad dream that disappeared with the morning alarm.

Monika–

Suddenly none of these things felt comforting anymore, none of them felt weightless.

She could not let them come and go. They were hers, she claimed them!

Her heart began to feel hot, and the world began to feel heavy again–

Gertrude opened her eyes and immediately her throat filled with water.

She was surrounded in blue because she was submerged completely in water and it was terrifying to her. Her eyes burned from it, her throat and nose hurt immensely from being filled with it, her lungs struggled. She started thrashing limbs, kicking and paddling in a panic, trying to force herself out of the water with no sense of direction.

Being out in the water was death; every cell of her body screamed for escape.

In a panic she exerted so much force, that she felt as if she had overturned something.

She tumbled, arse over head, and then she hit something solid and flattened out.

Gasping for breaths she could finally take; her entire body in intense pain.

Somehow she had escaped the water and hit a hard floor. Her eyes still burned.

But when she opened them, she began to see blue again. But it was solid blue this time.

Not water, not lights, not those masked things and their blue spores and clouds.

Gertrude found herself laid flat on a tiled floor, its light blue cubic pattern extending all around her. It was on the floor, on the walls, it covered the roof without any change or deviation. Her hand reached out, and it touched water again– she whipped it back as if she had touched a burning chemical, but it was only a panic response.

She forced herself to sit up against a wall.

There was no explaining the transition in her surroundings,

from the station, from the cave, to this place.

In the small room she found herself in, there was a small pool. Not deep enough for her to have been fully submerged and drowning in it. It, too, was tiled the same as every other surface. There was dim light coming as if from under the water, projecting a swirling pattern over some of the roof. She could see out of this room, that there were even more pools connected by a short adjacent hallway. None of these pools followed a logical configuration– there were shallow and deep pools, some only one meter by one meter wide and long, others several cubic meters deep, arranged throughout the space at seemingly random. They reminded Gertrude of hot baths, in their seeming uniformity. But some were too deep, and others were shallower than a shower’s basin. They were connected by tiled walkways.

Forcing herself to a stand, her entire body aching, Gertrude walked to the next room over.

From it, she could see pathways snaking on all sides.

As far as she could see, every hall, every doorway, all led to even more pools.

These seemed to become even more bizarre the farther in she walked.

She began to see pools on the walls, retaining their water despite their position.

Pools on the roof, in places, with their water as still as if they were flat on the ground.

Gertrude walked for several minutes in stunned silence.

Everything was whisper quiet, and there were only more tunnels to follow, more pools.

It was as if she had fallen into some kind of maze.

“Azazil!” Gertrude screamed.

Somehow, her voice did not echo through the corridors and pool rooms.

Nothing in this place made any sense.

She was screaming for Azazil because that was the last person she had been stuck with. But she truly knew next to nothing about Azazil, or the old station in which they had become trapped. For all she knew, it was Azazil who was responsible for all of this, and trying to protect her from the creatures was entirely a façade. Gertrude wondered if someone had drugged her, or if she had been taken away to some bizarre place. Maybe there was equipment fucking with her senses– Azazil had mentioned being enthralled to a computer, maybe that was also the case here? No– that was because of STEM– it made no sense.

As far as Gertrude knew, she did not have a STEM, so that could not apply to her.

Gertrude’s mind was hurtling in every possible direction for answers.

What was the last ordinary thing she remembered?

She and Nile and Victoria had found those boxes marked with a surface era political logo.

Then Gertrude had heard Azazil cry for help– gotten separated– found Azazil–

Learned about Norn–

And then the creatures attacked them.

“I can’t even trust that I didn’t just go insane at some point during that.”

Did insane people realize they were insane? No– they were unaware of it, right?

Could she really have been seeing these pools in the flesh right now?

It was so frustrating.

She walked through the identical corridors unfolding into more bizarre pool rooms.

Finding nothing else anywhere around her. Unable to even tell if she was going in circles.

“My body hurts, so I can’t be dreaming. And I’m wracking my brain, so I can’t be crazy.”

At least she had water– and there was a vac-sealed dry ration bar in her suit too.

So she could endure at least a few more hours of walking.

But to what end?

If she wasn’t so terrified of just sitting down and dying, and if her mind was not so occupied with the bizarre images around her, she would have begun to fear a likely demise within this place. Walking kept her sane within the blue purgatory in which she found herself– if she could even be sane, while traversing such an inexplicable landscape as this. But was there any possibility of escape? Everywhere she had walked looked exactly the same.

Gertrude withdrew her sidearm. She made note of a wall and shot into it.

Tiles cracked and fell from the stricken site, jingling on the floor.

Leaving a little scar, unveiling plain baby blue concrete wall behind the tiles.

She could use this to make sure she was not walking in circles.

Continuing her journey, she put a hand on the left-hand wall and followed it.

Walking past several more pools, through several more hallways.

And never again seeing the hole she had put into the wall.

“I’m making progress, I guess.” Gertrude to herself. Her teeth chattered.

She was growing a bit cold. Though the air was very still in the pool rooms, she was wet.

Hand on the wall, she continued her journey.

After some time, Gertrude found herself in a distinctly larger room.

This in itself did not arouse her attention. But to follow the wall, she had to skirt around the edges of many more pools than before, and those edges were thin and tight. In the dim blue light and the shimmering ripples of water on the ceiling it was difficult to keep focus. She could have lost her footing entirely and fallen into a pool quite easily, which in her mind would not have done anything but annoy her– but then she considered she did not actually know whether what was in the pools was water– or whether that liquid would actually behave normally, nothing else about the situation was normal.

Nevertheless, she followed the wall with continuing frustration.

Then she chanced a look at her reflection in the still and clear water of the adjacent pool.

And the shock she felt almost did cause her to fall into it.

She drew back against the wall, kicking her feet.

Initially in the fear of some figure without description that she thought might jump at her.

But then with the stunned realization that she was seeing herself.

Herself– in a black uniform festooned with symbols of esoteric fascism.

She could even hear her own voice as if surrounded by the figure in the water–

“Standartenführer Gertrude Lichtenberg, reporting for duty. Mein schatzi.”

Smiling, even in that despicable uniform, and saying the last in such a sweet voice–

and a woman’s hand reaching from afar to lift her chin as if owning her–

Gertrude caught the briefest glimpse of the ‘little treasure’ of her other self.

Elena with blue and pink hair, in the same uniform, covered in hooked crosses and sun discs–

Tearing herself away from the sight, Gertrude charged across the thin strip of tiled floor separating one pool to another, and dropped, almost falling, hoping to see her reflection as it should have been. But the adjacent pool had a separate vision, both from reality as Gertrude knew it and from the last pool she had seen. Instead of a Volkisch officer, this Gertrude had clerical robes and wore her hair long and half-covered in a loose habit.

She silently entered a dark room filled with paintings and symbols of Solceanic belief.

“Apologies, holy pontiff. I needed to check up on you.” She said.

In the center of the room, a thin and bedraggled looking Elena gave her a tired look.

Now she was dressed in the papal garb and hat–

“Of course.”

“Another failed experiment?”

“Let’s not speak of it. Tend to my ablutions. I’m feeling– stiff.”

And the nun Gertrude smiled and bowed reverently, and the pontiff shed her robes,

exchanging glances full of– lust–

Gertrude tore herself from the pool and crawled pathetically to a third within reach.

Then she found herself in such an intersection of pools that she could see many of herself at a time, reflected in the waters. Then she was reflected in the ceiling and the walls, surrounded in herself as if carried on a mist that blended the light into apparitions. They walked past her, beside her and through her like ghosts but always playing their own scenes with their own aims as if these histories were currents washing over the unseen woman observing them from the pools. So many Gertrude Lichtenberg overwhelming her.

She saw one Gertrude who was a Katarran in the Pythian Black Legion, carrying out the ancient prophecy of an annihilating battle of the fittest, under the orders of the warlord, Elena; a Gertrude who was an officer in the Hanwan Konoe Shidan, and having been promoted following the crushing of a rebellion against the Empire as well as meritorious service in the conquest and subjugation of the Yu states, reverently sought even the briefest glimpse of Empress Elena; G.I.A. agent Gertrude McLyndon proudly holding a pile of compromising documents and photographs sure to discredit and tear apart the progressivist coalition challenging President Elena’s reelection; Gertrude as the Political Commissar of Captain Elena in a Union Cruiser on an important communist mission; and Gertrude the Praetorian, holding the power of life and death over Fueller Empress Elena–

“No– No– Stop it– I’m not– I can’t–”

Breathless, unable to escape from the figures and shadows, Gertrude shut her eyes.

Unable to make it all go away, unable to bear it–

So badly, she wanted to give in to the worst of herself and be one of those images.

To do anything, destroy anything, compromise anything, to hold the whole world back.

In exchange for her– but no– not these horrid facsimiles–

There was such a thing as a price too high to bear! Gertrude told herself this.

That if Elena had been anyone but herself, Gertrude may well have not followed her.

“Elena was none of those kinds of people. That’s why I love her–”

Gertrude grit her teeth. Of course, Elena was not the monster. Never Elena.

She was the monster. And it was her love for Elena which had made her a monster.

“No– that’s not true– I could have done things right– it was all my mistakes–!”

Some part of her realized that the thoughts she was having and voices she was hearing–

They were all mixing in her brain until she could not sort out what was real.

Unable to escape, to sort out her thoughts or bear any further visions–

Gertrude slid herself to one of the pools and pushed herself into it.

Immediately, she sank deeper and deeper than was possible.

Water filled her throat and nose with incredible rapidity.

Instantly, she was drowning again.

Panicking, thrashing, choking, in immense pain until her consciousness was obliterated.


Blue.

Even as her tear-stained eyes struggled to open, she still found herself surrounded in blue. Now the tiles were an even darker blue than before and their sectioning was much less obvious. She instantly felt ever more enclosed. The light, too, was dimmer, but it still seemed to come up from within the pools, of which there was one nearby.

Her hand had dipped inside it.

Gertrude laid on her back.

Soon as she recognized that she was herself, and awake, and saw her surroundings, she felt the biting cold again and resumed shivering. She retracted her hand from a pool and hugged herself, curling her legs up closer to her body. On the ceiling, the water, lit from under, cast shimmering white waves over the dark blue tiles. She stared at it, helpless and cold,

following the waves–

Until she noticed the shadow cutting across the center of the light show.

In a panic, Gertrude pushed herself up onto her feet and to a thundering step,

sliding over smooth slick tiles

falling hard on her shoulder and coming to lie

staring

into a pool much larger deeper darker like a blue hole in the world

occupied

“You’ve done more harm to yourself than I mean to you already.”

With her back to the wall, shivering with cold and fear, Gertrude stared in the center of the gaping blue maw that had become of the pool. There was a figure there, floating gently atop the surface. Slender with a long torso and limbs, and almost nymph-like, not simply in her beauty but in the pallid softness that her features seemed to take. Her hair was long and red and flowed over the water around her like a spreading bloodstain. She was dressed in a long robe which had been entirely soaked through, and clung to her hips and her small breasts in a way that, even in this situation, made Gertrude run a bit hotter than before.

Curiously, she had one single black horn and an over-long white tail, its end splitting like that of a whale or dolphin, almost as long as her body and somewhat thick.

When their eyes met– Gertrude could have sworn they were black with a yellow slit.

Then imperceptibly fast, so that it made her previous perception appear a mirage–

Those eyes changed color, becoming blue and green.

“I remember you.” Gertrude said, her lips trembling. “You– you attacked me–”

In her dreams, she had seen the trees, and seen a woman giving a speech, and seen a vast and horrible machine processing something ungodly and inhuman. Visions as if of other worlds, impossible places that felt terrifyingly familiar. In those places, this woman appeared. At times callous; at times barring the way; at times, tearing Gertrude apart.

Those memories of the pain inflicted by this woman caused Gertrude to wince.

And push herself further back against the wall–

There was nowhere to go.

When Gertrude pushed back, the edge of the pool became, suddenly, closer.

Her legs were in the water, she now sat on only enough tile to sit in at all.

Just as that edge had come closer, the woman now lounged right beside her.

Head and arms out of the water, her long and voluminous red hair on Gertrude’s lap.

One slender white finger traced the front of Gertrude from her sternum to her belly.

Spreading warmth wherever it touched. Giving off a hazy wisp of those strange colors.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the object Nile had given her was buzzing uncontrollably.

“You needn’t fear me. Like you, I am given into my passions. Sometimes I can no better control myself than if my right half and left half were different people. It’s hard to explain; but I’m in a good mood. I wanted to follow after you again. You have stumbled upon an interesting place. You have an uncanny ability to stumble in this way. Because you have a passionate, chaotic heart that is tearing through the world for a purpose. Just like mine.”

Gertrude felt her tensions dissipate, her muscles loosen up, and the cold fading.

The touch of this woman was perhaps the most soothing sensation she had ever felt.

Enough that Gertrude almost gasped when the woman simply lifted her fingers from her.

“Can you help me?” Gertrude asked. “You said I wandered here– well, I’m trapped now.”

At her side, the woman smiled. “You’re so bold– going right past names to favors.”

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

“But you don’t know who I am. And you won’t, without a proper introduction, Hominin.”

“Hominin? Well– I am Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Gertrude said, submitting to the demand.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg. Alright then– can you call me Eris?” Asked the red-haired woman.

Gertrude smiled a little. She started to feel safe. “As you wish. Thank you, Eris.”

Eris closed her eyes. Her lips slowly turned into a smile. She looked strangely placid.

“What are you thanking me for, Hominin? So easily forgetting the danger I represent?”

“You’re the only thing keeping me sane right now.” Gertrude said.

She was being coy, but Gertrude was certain this woman was doing something to her.

Something that helped her stave off the rot of mind and spirit in this place.

Gertrude came to realize that ever since the katov mass had turned blue, the same blue that permeated this evil place, she had felt tired. Tired, helpless, rushing blindly. Desperate to outrun something, so desperate it wiped her out; everyone else was just as tired as her too. No amount of vitamin jelly drinks could restore her. Blue that made the marrow turn cold, that made the fog of mind freeze into hard walls around thought and meaning. She had been so stupid; Nile had tried to tell her, but she did not want to stop and understand.

Gertrude had marched them all into the abyss’ insanity. Into its consumptive power.

Hundreds of expeditions had been devoured in holes like this. Unknowing until the end.

Only now, with that healing touch, was Gertrude finally able to realize her predicament.

But she did not feel panic. Her heart was steady and her breathing calm.

Instead, she felt like she had finally made a breakthrough.

Gertrude sat up straight.

Her boots sank further into the water, but she didn’t care anymore. Being wet was the least of her worries. Unable to make any headway, she resolved to catch her breath and try to clear her head. Blue ripples reflected eerily upon her face, which was mostly in shadow and barely visible in her reflection until a blue streak crossed her eyes. She glanced at the woman in the pool, who floated gently toward her, long tail curving further into the pool.

“You look so resigned. Have you finally accepted your situation?” Eris said.

“I’m collected. I’ve been going around in circles and getting jerked around for so long. Now I don’t know. I feel some kind of way. Right now, I just want to talk to you. Is that okay?”

She looked down at the water just as the red-haired woman floated closer to her.

Their eyes met, golden yellow and dark green.

In good humor– for once.

After circling these pools for so long the she wished she could gut herself with her knife–

Eris in the water, however absurd a sight, gave her hope for something.

“You remind me of someone.” Eris said.

Turning her head to meet her eyes further, her cheek caressed by the tiles.

Eris had an expression of uncanny fondness on her face. She looked so placid.

“Is the resemblance positive or negative?” Gertrude asked.

“She was someone who said she would protect me, no matter what.” Eris replied.

Gertrude smirked a little. “You feel too formidable to need protecting.”

Eris smirked. “What if I did? What if, as we speak, I’m in the greatest danger of my life?”

“Don’t tempt me.” Gertrude said. “I’m also the type to say ‘I would give my life for you.’”

“You are an awful cad.” Eris laughed. “I’m not so easy, you despicable hominin.”

“I’m serious.” Gertrude replied. She even started laughing a little bit too.

“Even if I told you my enemy is something too vast and impossible?” Eris replied.

She raised her eyes from Eris to the walls around them.

There seemed to be no passages out of this pool. No matter.

For once, Gertrude did not really want to go anywhere. Eris was too interesting.

“I’ve spent all my life putting my body between women and something vast and impossible. Sometimes, they even wanted me to do it.” She said, betraying a hint of sadness.

Eris seemed to pick up on her wistful tone of voice.

Her own eyes wandered too. She looked up at the tiled walls and the ceiling.

“Would you protect me, if I myself became your enemy?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Gertrude said. Now even more weary-sounding than before.

“You should give up. I am not able to be protected, nor am I worthy of it.” Eris said.

“And I’m not worthy of protecting anyone. You can’t be any worse than me.”

“You say that so easily. But my sins are monumental.”

“There are people who would say I’m utterly unforgiveable too.”

Gertrude swayed her legs gently in the bewitchingly blue water of the pools.

“I used to be a High Inquisitor of the Empire. My hands are stained permanently with so much blood. Blood from innocents whom I suppressed, and from my own allies and the people I turned into enemies.” She said. “I made many deliberately evil decisions. And as many mistakes. I don’t think I can make amends. But if you need someone– I can help you. I can’t just walk past someone drowning in the same stagnant water I’m drowning in.”

Eris looked up at the roof with a wan expression. Avoiding Gertrude’s own eyes.

“You’ve come a long, painful way, since your journey began.” She said. “In that sense, we are alike. Both groomed into the weapons of greedy empires, fighting for injustice, losing everything by our own foolish hands, including our identities. Trapped in liminal space, with a dead past and a foregone future. All we can do is to despair and rebel against the world.”

Eris continued to give the walls the same narrow wistful gaze.

“Eris– you know what this maze actually is, don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

There was a note of frustration finally creeping into Gertrude’s voice again.

She had been stuck, in motionless suspension, a blind idiot trapped in limbo. Time and again, dangers and obstacles beyond her ability and cognition erupted in front of her, and she would be rescued from her vanity by an ally with the answers. Her own power and skill had been utterly worthless. She was forced to grovel or to become someone’s damsel, unable to resolve any situation by herself. It was the same here. Whether it was Norn, Victoria, Nile, Azazil or now Eris. Gertrude was lucky to have their pity or she would be dead.

Every time, she lacked the ability to change anything.

Even outside this blue hell– everything had been going in circles.

Ever since she left Luxembourg– circles,

ever since she first stood between Sawyer and Elena,

ever since,

she was born,

spinning circles on her own heel,

all of it in vain,

“Ahh– to think I have to give succor to a Hominin. But– this doesn’t feel too bad.”

From the water, an arm stretched up, and silk-soft fingers caressed Gertrude’s cheek.

That touch, so tender and warm, snapped Gertrude out of her sudden despair and fury.

“Listen well Hominin. Rarely do I enlighten your kind. This liminal space is built up of resonant human emotions.” Eris said. “The Aether is a reflection of humanity. It is a body whose flesh is the human soul. Its blood formed of human perspective, and circulated in veins the gifted can see. Everything that is human can exist here, circulating endlessly wherever humans have been and wherever they desire to go. Everything you fear, everything you love, everything that brings despair, joy or even stultification. But in this specific place, a single emotion has overwhelmed everything, and the ‘blood’ has become clotted.”

Ordinarily, Gertrude might have reacted adversely toward that explanation.

She had been doing a lot of that lately too.

But at that moment she wanted that to stop and had the conviction to stop it.

No more panicking and shrieking pathetically at the things she did not understand.

She wanted to understand. This was part of the world too– she had to master it.

Gertrude kept hurrying to get somewhere, and she ended up here, nowhere.

She ran past every explanation only wanting what was convenient and simple.

Always missing the important context, the crevices between statements, the hard truths.

Her heart needed to open itself to the possibility of what she was seeing.

“You are saying that this is a place of emotions; an overwhelming emotion created it. Can my emotions change this place back? Can my emotions free me from here?” Gertrude said.

“It’s not so easy– but your emotions are powerful, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” Eris said.

Gertrude scoffed. “My emotions have only brought tragedy– I fear relying on them.”

Eris’s eyes met Gertrude’s again.

This time, they had some of their former scrutinizing coldness again.

“Your emotions forged and destroyed bonds. They upended your life. They brought you to this place.” Eris said. “They can be a power to destroy, but they also brought you many followers and believers, many close bonds, the armor you wear and the weapons you wield. In that sense, they have not only brought tragedy, but have also created your triumphs.”

Gertrude’s passion had brought her from the heights of the Imbrium to the depths of this trench. But she couldn’t accept that so easily. It wasn’t just her emotions, as a disconnected entity or power. Her emotions were not something that happened without her.

They were not autonomous.

It was herself. She stuck herself into this endless circle.

Her eyes began to sting and weep again, even with Eris’ touch upon her cheek.

Teardrops crashed on the surface of the pool.

Sending hot red vapor into the air.

“Are you wavering again? So easily? Even after my comfort?” Eris sounded offended.

“I’m sorry. It’s– I was just so stupid. I can’t call any of it a triumph.” Gertrude whimpered. “You don’t understand. I was delusional. I used those bonds as my excuse. I convinced myself everything I was doing for Elena was consecrated, necessary, and good for her. And yet– along the way, I betrayed the trust of so many other people who needed me.”

Just thinking about ‘emotions’ had set her off on a warpath again. She went out of control.

“They saw me as a symbol of hope. That a swarthy-skinned and dark-haired little brat without a drop of noble blood nor the vast wealth of a capitalist, could grow up and climb to the highest peaks of the Empire using only her martial ability, and could achieve control, and with it, independence and agency. But I didn’t climb anything but a mountain of corpses. I never had any merits. I cheated, I begged, I conspired, I killed so many people, some of whom deserved retribution but many, many more that did not deserve what I did to them.”

Gertrude lifted her eyes from the water and met Eris’s gaze again.

“I don’t believe in the Imbrian Empire. My uniform, that flag, all of that crap– none of it was worth shit to me. All I believed was in Elena von Fueller. I loved her with all my heart. It made me human– she was the only reminder that I had a soul. That I still had a beating heart.”

“Gertrude–”

Eris tried to speak up, but Gertrude pounded her fist on the tiled edge of the pool and put a crack in its perfect facade, shattering the tiles. Eris stared at the cracks with surprise.

And so Gertrude continued to lament.

“And in the end, I was ready to kill her too! I would have killed her if I couldn’t have her. She invalidated everything I had become. She never asked me to; and I never asked her. But I became this for her and she rejected it, and when she did, my future disappeared. I became suspended in nothingness. And now I am nothing but a monster. Emotions? What good are my emotions? Norn sent me down here, maybe hoping to alter my perspective. I rushed in with all the greed and obsession of my monstrous heart looking for a treasure at the end of a rainbow. I wanted this place to just give me her strength as if I deserved a reward!”

Eris’s eyes softened slightly.

“But I just failed.” Gertrude said. She smiled a hopeless smile. It was the smile of a dead woman, she thought. She saw herself reflected in the pool. So pale, so helpless. “I know that now. I can’t do anything. Even before I became trapped in this hell of empty pools, whatever this place is– it doesn’t even rate compared to how meaningless my life outside here was. How circular and empty and delusional. I burned all of the joy I could have had with her. I foreclosed on every other possibility. Anything outside my fucking circle of hell.”

More tears streamed down her cheeks. Red vapor steamed from the blue water.

“I’m lost. I’m lost! I don’t know which way to go. You are asking me to make use of my emotions? These are my emotions. I am a raging animal who wants to tear her own fucking face off. I can’t use these emotions for anything good. All I can do is rage impotently!”

“We are more alike than even I thought.” Eris said. “So will you just sit here like me?”

Gertrude fell silent, staring at the water with that lost smile.

“How disappointing.” Eris said. “And here I thought it would be worth following you.”

Her tear-stained eyes met Eris’s beautifully pale face once again.

“I’m sorry. I’m so pathetic. I’ve been saved so many times the past few days. I’ve not been able to protect anyone. You’re right. I am a cad. I am just trying to find a new lie that I can tell myself, desperately, even now, even in this god-forsaken lightless hole into which I have been cast. I can’t protect you. I can’t protect anyone. You’re right– I have lost my beginning and I’ll never reach my destination. You called it a liminal space? Then I’m just stuck in limbo.”

At the sound of her voice, the walls shuddered. Red cracks put upon blue tiles.

“What about Monika?” Eris asked. “She’s in danger.”

Gertrude’s breath caught in her chest. Monika– that poor girl believed in her–

–but it was no use,

“Gertrude, if anything were possible– what would your ambition be?” Eris asked.

Gertrude’s fists tightened. Anger swelled in her heart. She hated that question.

She hated these what-if’s and sophistry.

Already, the meaningless answer had formed in her mind. It was immediate and absolute.

“I’d cut a trail of blood across this fucking Ocean. I would destroy the remains of the Imbrium Empire.” Gertrude said. “I’d tear down everything separating us without mercy–!”

Her and–

Elena–?

Ingrid–?

Victoria–?

Nile?

Sawyer even–?

Perhaps–

Eris too?

“You are a fascinating Hominin. I feel– I feel so close to you. I– I want you, Gertrude.”

There was a moment of silence again between herself and Eris.

Gertrude noticed Eris’s eyes becoming shadowed.

Her bangs, and the angle at which she was laying on the edge of the tiles.

It hid her eyes– but Gertrude could see her lips slowly curl into a smile.

“Gertrude, you know what your emotions can do? They can put a crack in these tiles.”

Gertrude, for an instant, felt a familiar stirring inside herself.

She felt a sudden desire to take possession of Eris too.

Before her eyes, a flash of a world where she could exploit her, where she could use her knowledge, her powers, her beautiful and strange body, in every possible advantageous way. Eris became power and treasure in her mind, became salvation, redemption, sublimity, pleasure. She could use her until her dark heart was full. There was a mighty red haze before Gertrude’s eyes that showed her pleasures and triumphs beyond imagination. With control over Eris, she could escape, she could rescue all of her crew and her ship, she could attack all of her enemies, and take back Elena, and sweep through the world in her fury–

And she stopped herself, utterly, and completely. Her emotions were a spiraling storm.

She could not let herself treat anyone like that again– could she–?

“Can I still raise my head after all of this–?”

As soon as the words left Gertrude’s lips, Eris was suddenly face to face with her.

She had left the pool instantly, it was as if she had always been standing beside her. Curled around her, embracing her, and with a gentle hold on Gertrude’s chin, forcing her to lift her head. Her face was so close, Gertrude could feel her breaths warming her lips.

Close enough to drown in her eyes.

Close enough to kiss.

Her lips took Gertrude’s own, so hungry it almost felt like she would bite.

Tasting the subtle hint of iron in her tongue and throat, Gertrude felt her mind waver.

She saw herself sharing this kiss under a sky rather than the ocean.

Saw an enormous tree-like structure looming over the two of them.

And then Eris ripped apart right in front of her.

Every piece of her torn out and scattered.

But just as quickly and with much more emotion, she saw the kiss and reciprocated.

Painted blue in the pool room but beginning to glow gently red instead.

When they parted, a string of spittle between their once-interlocking tongues–

Gertrude was rendered speechless again. In front of that nymph-like, dream-like beauty.

That taste had been so– dangerous– intoxicating– but fulfilling too.

Eris stared at her dead in the eyes, close as warm breath. Looking at her so– covetously.

“Promise me, Gertrude Lichtenberg. Take your power and use it to destroy your enemies. Seize every treasure which you feel is yours and guard your hoard like a dragon. Let yourself be envious, greedy, lustful, furious and vain. Let sloth overtake you and experience despair. Allow all colors of the aura into yourself. Live your darkest passion. Don’t stop moving. Don’t accept being in a place like this ever again. Become someone who will protect me; not in the midst of this, but at the height of power over a new world and perhaps, at my side.”

She smiled, rapturously, almost– insanely– her aura becoming vast and stark white–

“Don’t put up with the path. Seize the destination. Betray this world; crush it in your fist.”

“Eris–”

“Promise me– and I’ll help here. And we’ll meet again too. Out there.”

There was no denying the allure of her words.

Gertrude was full of nothing but contempt for the world.

This was not a world in which she or any of the people she had come to care about could live in peace. Tearing down the high towers and standing over the rubble would be doing the world a favor. Building something new and better over the heap would be mercy. But it was the least she could do; and the minimum required was for the Imbrium Empire to be completely annihilated. It was the only way she could live with herself.

Emperor Lichtenberg— she had been called that in jest.

And yet, in the brilliant and fond eyes of this ‘Eris’ it felt like she could see that world.

A world in which she had power. A world in which all the current rules were overturned.

Creating a new order by which all of these tragedies could be averted.

The final death and burying of the Imbrian Empire.

Vengeance against all of its architects.

And the rise of the empire of the future, her empire– The Agarthic Empire.

“I promise you.” Gertrude said. “I will tear my way out of this. I will find you.”

“What if you made an enemy out of me? What if I tried to stop you?”

Eris was testing her conviction.

But she didn’t know Gertrude as perfectly as she thought.

Her words were as dark and heavy and hot as the shielding on a reactor.

“I wouldn’t let you make that mistake. I want your power too. If we’re alike as you say–”

Gertrude smirked.

“Then I’ll become like you someday. I am a monster too. I’ll claim you for myself first. I will not let you get in my way; nor will you escape. I will use you, Eris; everything of you.”

Eris’s face warped into a grin.

“Let us seal this covenant, Gertrude Lichtenberg. If you possess the conviction.”

In the next instant, Gertrude found herself on her back, pushed back from the pool.

On top of her, Eris loomed, her golden eyes shining.

Her lips spread, revealing sharp, hungry teeth.

She descended on Gertrude, who resolved to keep still and endure it.

Eris bit down into her shoulder and tore a piece of her flesh right into her mouth.

Rather than agony, however, Gertrude felt warmth, closeness, affection

through those fangs

ripping skin, tearing fibers, blood swallowed up

she was filled with something

made a part of it

connected to a grander whole

It was as close to paradise as she had ever neared, and she felt her chest fluttering.

“Gertrude. I am a sputtering throat without heart or limbs. I have been ripped apart and remade whole and been swept by currents like dust. I may not be– myself– next time.”

Eris’ gaze met Gertrude’s own. Lit up a dim red by Gertrude’s growing aura.

“I want to believe that something of me can be saved. That something of us can be saved.”

In one instant, Eris’ tears dropped from weary eyes–

And she put her head up close to Gertrude, looking so helpless and defeated.

Gertrude reached up, wanting to touch her again, to pull her in tight–

And as suddenly she was gone, in a sweeping current formed of a myriad colors.

For a moment, Gertrude felt the absence of her warmth, and the blue despair crept in–

–but she would not accept it any longer.

She would not settle for suffering loss after loss.

Her red passion brimmed, a thin shining aura, and the blue wisps scattered from her like flies being driven off by smoke. After Eris’ departure, the room tried to go dark, but Gertrude was her own light. She stood from the ground, fighting back tears, but filled with purpose. Red streaks accompanied her steps, dim at first but red enough to vanquish the dark blue.

She walked, filling in the negative, a light in the storm, a matchfire in void.

Rational thoughts of hopelessness, of being trapped, of seeing the impossible surroundings and recoiling with fear, of the need to curl up and preserve life for as long as she could, all of it burned in that insane red. Gertrude was instead filled with a conviction that was backed by no evidence of her senses, and it afforded a clarity she had never felt in her life. There was nothing in front of her but a straight line forward. If it didn’t exist, she would carve it. In that moment, there was no wall strong enough to stop her. No length she could not cross.

No depth too unreachable.

All of these unseemly blue tiles cried out for a pattern only a battering could inscribe.

Gertrude reached her hands to where she had been bitten.

Almost disappointed to find no wound there. She almost wanted to be marked.

“I’ll claim her. She’s down there somewhere– some part of her is. I know it.”

Gertrude looked at the fingers that had touched the site of Eris’ bite.

Closed them into a fist.

And put that fist directly through the wall of the pool rooms.

She expected to meet any amount of resistance, and for a second she thought she saw the walls actually, physically crack, fissures spreading through the wall and up the ceiling and even into the water itself, cracking everything like glass– but then in the blink of an eye, her entire surroundings had simply changed from what they had been previously, annihilated immediately. Consumed in the devastating red they burned away like paper set alight.

Gertrude had forged her own chaotic red path through their ordered blue despair.


In place of the pool rooms there was suddenly a long and tall hallway of cobblestones.

All of the cobbles had sooty burnt traces as if a fire had raged through the hallway.

Stained glass windows shining all around her some set at impossible directions and angles as if not anchored to a physical wall, or as if the wall had been bent awkwardly around them. But the cobblestone was continuous, it climbed the walls, it formed the ceiling, and it was unbroken even in those places where there were seemingly organic breaches of their geometry. Gertrude was left briefly speechless by the grandeur of this place compared to the tight, looping pool rooms. It was as if this place housed something enormous.

She was not alone. There was much more activity here than in the pools.

Gertrude saw both near and far a dozen of those masked aberrations that had been trying to overwhelm her and Azazil. She had her guard up and awaited an attack. They did not seem to notice her, however, and after a few tense minutes she relaxed. They dragged their bloated arms behind their cloaked bodies, all of the facial features imprinted on their white masks contorting into dazed and stupid-looking expressions. They were making their way down the corridor, following the far off walls into the distance without aim or aggression.

Closing her fists and steadying her breathing, Gertrude followed them from afar.

Soon as she began walking, she noticed nothing in the distance seemed to come closer.

But she would not give up– the appearance of hopelessness was the aim of the blue color.

Stubbornly she continued to walk even though she seemed to make no progress.

She then noticed that the stained glass windows had actual shapes, and depicted scenes.

Scenes of a golden-haired girl with dog-like ears, rendered abstract but dreadfully familiar.

“Monika.” Gertrude said. Feeling a sense of trepidation again and smothering it down.

From one of her pouches, she withdrew the aetherometer that Nile had given her.

Stirring continuously, like a tablet vibrating to inform the owner of a message.

All of its face had become distorted with spiraling shades of blue that became impossible to read. However, the more concentrated on it the more she could feel something from it. That feeling became sound. Sound that when it crossed into her became a voice and a voice which she recognized. Gertrude listened, shuddered and had to fight to keep her fire alight.

Somehow the aetherometer was broadcasting Monika’s voice.

“Sleep soundly, peacefully, without resentment.” She whispered in a mischievous voice.

There was a note of palpable desperation. It was an unsettling tone of voice.

Like Monika had gone mad.

“Sleep the eternities away. Without pain, without bigotry. In the eternal sleep there lies our paradise. We are equals in sleep. We have no war or famine or genocide. Join our deep blue and beautiful sleep. It will be so easy. It will be so kind. You have needed it so long.”

That suggestive voice tempted Gertrude to surrender herself, and she was weak to it.

Indeed– it would have been so easy. And it would have felt so kind.

True– Gertrude had needed it for so long.

But she lifted her feet and continued despite the inherent difficulty.

Fire slept when it was snuffed out and ceased to burn.

Gertrude stubbornly tried to shut it out of her mind, descending the hallway.

As she walked, she saw movement out of the corners of her eyes and realized that the scenes on the stained glass windows seemed to be changing. Like projector slides, they would blink through short animations in the glass frames. When Gertrude stopped to look, however, the abstractions in the glass were given photorealistic shape. She saw Monika as she knew her; and saw Monika in the flesh in ways she never had known before.

A child; a young woman; a prisoner.

“It is impermissible for a Loup to disbelieve God. We exist only by the grace of God.”

“If God is the reason I was born, he can have his grace back.”

Voices accompanied by the cracking sound of a slap.

Monika was not always so different from others. Because in fact each person is not so radically different from the rest. But they all had the radicalism beaten out of their souls in different ways. Monika never gave up hers. She stood aside the crowd during oaths, she failed to perform drills, she gave nothing of herself onto God in church, and she dreamed and prepared instead for study. There were people in her life who encouraged her, who assisted her greatly and nurtured her desire for knowledge. Teachers who understood; liberal church folk who took pity; Imbrians looking from outside-in who judged the culture of the Loup without acknowledging the culpability they had in its creation and corruption.

It was this last group who offered Monika the most hope in her endeavors.

“I want to escape to an Imbrian school. I want to learn what makes up the world.”

How does the world work?

Could one learn about energy and matter to understand cruelty and hopelessness?

Could a Loup turn her back on God and War and Blood and lead her own free life?

A too-young Monika fought with everything she had to try to realize her goal.

And she was defeated.

Family had an iron hand; the Church had a baleful eye; and Imbrians had half hearts.

“Don’t worry– our therapies have put many anti-social girls back on the correct path.”

Cretinous voices promised anything that could not happen to those who had already forfeit.

Still, Monika did not give up.

Even as Gertrude stared at more and more scenes of captivity and abuse.

Every step of the way, that same little Loup protected her rebellious and inquisitive soul.

Gertrude felt her own body growing heavier as she witnessed the scenes.

Scolded right in her face so that the spittle of her “instructors” fell upon her cheeks.

Beaten.

Stood before the rest of the wayward children and humiliated.

Denied food.

Forbidden to sleep, even so far as being denied a bed or chairs.

“Why?”

Gertrude asked herself, but Monika’s voice came out of her throat.

“Why did they do this to me? Are my desires so terrible?”

If all of this was done in the name of God, then God was nothing but a demon.

And his world was a Hell itself.

“Gertrude.”

She lifted her boot and set it down on the ground again.

Without thinking, she had moved– or everything had moved her.

There was in front of her, a threshold, an archway door open into a church.

Pews made of fake wood grain led up to a grand altar behind which was a vast organ. Lead-and-copper cross-shaped pipes jutted out at wild angles from a throbbing mass of wet flesh. All of it set upon a series of tentacles that dangled over the edge of the altar’s raised stage. In the pews sat the masked creatures, sleeping, led to the source of their stupefaction.

In front of the vast, fleshy, throbbing organ stood Monika herself.

Her blond hair was partially wet and completely disheveled. Her irises were surrounded by red rings and had begun to partially warp into blue fractals creeping toward the edges of the eye. Physically she remained unchanged, being short but an adult in form as Gertrude had ever known her. Even under these circumstances, that wild and irreverent grin was on the same beautiful face Gertrude was familiar with. She dressed in a long blue and white robe with a tall hat, and rather than the mushrooms which the aberrations around them wore or grew on themselves, Monika was wrapped in nightshades blooming with black, suppurating fruits. She had a mask, like the other inhabitants of this space, but she wore it hanging from the nightshade plants like they were chains. Gertrude saw her radiating blue color.

“Welcome to the church of the Drowning Prophecy, and to your deliverance from pain.”

Behind her the organ let off irregular and discordant notes as if attempting to make music.

“I’m happy to see you, Gertrude. Other than myself, I want to give you peace most of all.”

Monika held out a hand in invitation and Gertrude, heart racing, stepped into the church.

She crossed the pews of sleeping aberrations to stand below Monika.

It reminded her of whenever she saw Monika atop some equipment, looking down at her.

But she wasn’t smiling anymore. Her kind little smiles were lost to the madness.

“Gertrude, you doubt me don’t you? Or in fact, did you ever believe in me at all?”

“I’ve always had the utmost esteem for you. I’ve never given up on you for a second.”

Tendrils of blue color from Monika’s body prodded the edge of Gertrude’s stark red aura.

“I am a genius, Gertrude. I’m a genius and a child prodigy, a generational talent. Everyone was afraid of what I represented.” Monika smiled. But it sent a chill down Gertrude’s spine. There was none of her warmth there. “That is why I understand well– why I have finally deduced everything in the world. I’ve been thinking about it for my entire life. But there is no evidence to suggest that there is any value in continuing to endure pain in this wretched life. There is no saving it; no preventing the forces that extract every second of suffering they can from us to power this infernal machine; no accountability for its architects.”

Monika spread her arms wide and the tentacles of the organ unfolded and stretched.

“We have control over only one thing. One life, which we can do with as we please.”

A series of guttural noises came out of the pews. Startled, Gertrude turned around.

One by one, the sleeping aberrations in attendance retched and spat up something black.

They fell from their seats, banging their heads on the floor and the pews around them.

Gertrude had seen them disappear when struck before– to see them fall over and die like human beings was shocking to her. It felt wrong– like these creatures should not have had this end, but it was all for some reason engineered for them. That sleep which came from their soporific mushroom spores was different from the eternal sleep now given to them by the black bile they had ingested. All of the aberrations were destroyed.

Monika’s nightshades– she must have poisoned all of them?

“This is the peace you want to grant me, Monika? And I presume, the whole crew?”

“Eternal Sleep is a kindness, Gertrude! It is our answer to God and his malfeasance. He will toy with us no longer. And all those who tormented us will disappear with him.”

Gertrude did not know what to say in response. It was difficult to muster her conviction.

She had never been in a situation where she had to argue for being soberly awake.

For herself– she had certainly thought before, and would probably think again, that it was too much to endure. Both the lightless world in which she found herself; and the fact that she had ruined so many elements of her life. She had lost what she had regarded as the core of her being, and the driving direction for much of her life. She lost her planned future.

Certainly she had thought about giving up before.

More than anything, however, her heart hurt so badly for Monika.

Words could not express it.

There was no taking back all of the horrible things that had been done to her. Nothing that Gertrude could do or give would wipe out the knowledge that all of the people who were supposed to protect Monika betrayed her; that her own warped culture had delivered her beatings her entire life; that her only crime was not falling into line with the rest of society’s mindless edicts. The Imbrium Empire had scarred her. Gertrude had already done what she could do– she had tried to validate Monika and to give her a worthy place to belong.

Regardless– such a thing would never wipe out the years that she had to endure, drowning. In the sanatoriums, under the oppression of her family and the church, for decades, unable to make official her genius. The military should not have been her salvation from that.

Gertrude could understand how a girl so beaten down might contemplate surrender.

The Imbrium Ocean was a dark and horrible place where people suffered needlessly.

Humanity’s final refuge on a dead planet.

Was it worth all of this loss? All of this pain? All of this injustice?

Untold billions of their ancestors died with the planet– for this?

Why not just give it all up forever if there was no deliverance from pain?

Gertrude shook her head. Clutching her chest like she wanted to touch the fire in it.

There was one good reason perhaps. Gertrude had one argument in her.

“Monika, I want you to come back with me.” Gertrude said.

She extended a hand up to the stage for Monika to take if she so chose.

“To toil away on your ship for your benefit?” Monika said.

“No. I’m not going to force you to do anything. But if you would accompany me, I would be very happy. Not as your commander– as someone who esteems you. You’re immensely strong, and you are incredibly smart and incisive; and you have a really cute laugh.” Gertrude tried to smile at Monika, who stared in confusion. “My life is pretty bleak, I must admit. But it would be so much worse without you. I care about you a lot, Monika. I want to know you’re okay and I want to do anything I can for you. You’re a cherished companion.”

Monika’s fingers curled into fists. She started shaking, staring at Gertrude.

“Gertrude, I would not suffer another day on this forsaken hell-hole just for you.”

“It’s not just for me either. Ingrid would be devastated to lose you.” Gertrude said.

“Ingrid?” Monika paused, her eyes drawing wide.

“She’s bad at demonstrating it, but she understands you. And she cares about you too.”

“Neither of you understand anything! You really want me to remain awake through this?”

With a boom and the cracking of the plastic planks of the stage floor, the tentacles writhed.

Smashing up and then down, the pipes playing a furious disharmony.

Vibrating right through Gertrude’s guts; but she stood her ground, her hand still raised.

“Monika, let me take you away from that thing. Everyone must be so worried.” She said.

“You’re–” Monika grit her teeth. She began to weep. “You’re dodging my questions–”

“I’ve given you my answer.” Gertrude said, smiling. “I want this ugly world to be more beautiful for your presence. Monika, if you take my hand, I’ll help you stay awake with me.”

“Gertrude– but– you’ve been through– would you really keep enduring– even after–?”

Monika was crying openly, a deluge. Her words came out choppy and anxious.

And the organ-thing behind her stirred with ever growing violence.

Gertrude stood up as straight as she could and delivered her clearest answer.

“I will endure. Monika, if it would save you, I would never even try to look at Elena again.”

It was time to let go of her own terrible dream that was drowning her in her sleep.

And at the power of those words the entire church had a spasm of agony.

As if the walls were those of a lung or a heart expanding and contracting, the stone and the stained glass stretched until the mortar joining them nearly split, and fell back into place with a booming and crunching sound. Monika’s nightshades started wilting, the fruits falling to the ground and rotting rapidly. Her mask had a crack in it; and red cracks began to appear on the floor, on the pews, across the walls and ceiling, emanating from where Gertrude was standing. They glowed and put permanent scars in the structures.

In response one of the tentacles bore down on Gertrude like a thrown fist.

With its end curled into a mass almost the size of her entire body–

–meeting a concave riot shield that held the blow at bay.

“Monika! Run! I’ll catch up with you!” Gertrude shouted.

Her eyes flashed red; and with a flick of the wrist, a vibroblade was in her hand.

She pulled back her shield, reached and swung far, the blade crackling bright with aura.

Red slice severing the blue tentacle leaving a gelatinous seeping wound.

Up on the stage, Monika stood paralyzed, weeping, shaking.

Gertrude discarded her shield and rushed to the stage, leaping up to Monika’s side.

In her wake, her aura formed a billowing cape now clipped to an ostentatious red and gold military uniform. A garrison cap rested upon her head, and her hair was tied in its neat bun behind her head once again. None of her inquisitorial symbology was present, and this was not a uniform of any particular nation. But it was a uniform, jacket, pants, boots, shirt, all formed of her red glowing aether that flowed from her impassioned heart.

So attired, Gertrude stood between Monika and the thrashing organ.

“It’s this thing that is the ‘Drowning Prophecy’ isn’t it?” Gertrude said.

In this place she developed an almost insane certainty, as if a whispering voice in her ear told her all of the truths she would tell herself. Her red conviction against the blue despair.

Buoyed by enkindled emotions, Gertrude reached to her side for a weapon.

And when she lifted her hand, there was a familiar black grenade launcher on it.

Gertrude pulled the trigger and a 40 mm explosive grenade launched out of the tube.

The munition hurtled toward the tentacled horror, soaring between its appendages.

Blue aura from the arms intensified in response, slowing the munition.

When it exploded the fire and force of the grenade barely touched the monster.

As if the explosion itself had been slowed and smothered within that aura.

Gertrude’s grenade launcher dissipated in her hands, and a sword appeared in its place.

Monika was too shocked to run, so she had to stand her ground here.

Covering herself with her riot shield and bracing for attack, trying to plan a response.

The Drowning Prophecy was like a lung, pierced through by the church pipes.

Writhing meat that made up its bulk expanded and contracted in a predictable sequence. Its labored breaths went through the pipes piercing it and made discordant music. Its severed sinews made up its tentacles, all of which slobbered and slid out from under its bulk, several meters in length. Such a lifeform could not have possibly existed, but in this realm of emotion, she could understand its existence. It was as if something like this being had been in the back of her mind, something primal and shapeless. It was not this fleshy monster, but the fleshy monster was an abstraction of it. A signifier of something unspoken.

Looking upon it, she could feel the temptation to a sublime hopelessness.

Only the enflamed red aether emanating from her body staved off those thoughts.

Wreathed within that cloak, absurd certainty protected her and drove her to action.

With her sword and shield, she leaped forward into the reach of the mass.

Tentacles began flying at her in all cardinals and angles.

She was almost sure she would find some of these appendages having no connection to their main body, lashing at her from impossible directions. But even as they flew, she could predict them, seeing traces like reverse shadows which appeared before their origins rather than trailing after them. Even amid the pressure of the furious and sweeping blows from the slick tentacles each thrice the width of her own arms, Gertrude could set her shield before each blow. She shoved into the attacks, or swung her sword and clashed with the arms, putting scars or severing tips. Deflecting the cage of meat that struggled to ensnare her.

Despite the onslaught, Gertrude advanced into the shadow of the monstrosity.

Step by embattled step, battering away the meat with furious swings.

Until she made it between the guard of several tentacles.

Drawing back her arm, she put all her strength into a thrust at the throbbing mass–

In real time, she felt the deep blue aether sapping all of the strength of her blow.

Until she dropped her sword at the “foot” of the being, and even her knees became heavy.

Gertrude retreated several steps to avoid being boxed in,

setting her back against a fast-approaching tentacle that dug through her midsection

sprouting a sharp tip out of the sternum

Blood burst dramatically out of the wound, as red as her aura had become.

Gertrude’s body reacted to the assault in natural ways.

Her chest pushed out as her back arched from the blow, she cried out in pain, her throat filled with fluid and her breath arrested. But she was not dead, and in fact, she barely felt any acute pain. Even as the tentacle lifted her centimeters above the floor, Gertrude did not lose her lucidity completely, nor was she paralyzed by it. Nevertheless, she could merely writhe on the tentacle skewering her, reaching blindly behind her back.

Blue aura glowed in the tentacle, attempting to spread into Gertrude’s red aura.

Aether pulsated from the wound. Gertrude found herself unable to call for a weapon.

Behind her back, she finally grabbed hold of the tentacle.

Her limbs shook as she struggled against it.

All of her mind was consumed with escape, with persevering; she saw the tip of the tentacle shaking through the center of her chest, and grit her teeth, demanding with every fiber of her being the weapons to tear it to pieces, to free herself from it, to reconstitute herself; she wanted her body to be rid of the intrusion, she was consumed with this desire, fight or flight, and her mind raced, her emotions spiraled. Clashing blue and red over her pierced heart and the tip of the tentacle began to thrash and steam came off its slick exterior, its blue sheen overcome with licks of red vapor trying to burn it and tear at it and devour it.

She needed a weapon. If she had a weapon she could cut herself from this creature.

Vibroswords, handguns, assault rifles, truncheons, grenade launchers–

So many weapons had crossed through her hands– all of them could be beckoned–

However– her spiraling mind settled upon a different interpretation of that truth.

All of those tools had been given into her hands by the Inquisition.

And her hands turned those tools into weapons.

This felt like a truth she had been missing.

Something locked into place.

Gertrude accepted the culpability– the monstrosity– but also the power in her hands.

Said mournfully but without excuse: “I myself was the weapon.”

Wet ripping noises issued from behind her as the flesh of her hands split open.

Black vibrating razor-like rectangular claws dug into the Drowning Prophecy’s tentacles.

On Gertrude’s chest, her flesh enclosed over the tentacle and sent its severed tip flying.

As if a maw had opened on her breast and devoured the tentacle that had pierced her.

She dropped to the ground on feet first unsteady, but quickly recovered her posture. She felt her hands brimming as if with electricity, just under the surface of her skin. Everything felt lighter and more flexible and malleable, as if her wrist could turn 360 degrees and her arms could fold into themselves. As if skin and muscle could move with the ease of fingers. Her new clawed digits moved as naturally as any other appendages. They were wreathed in red aura because they were part of her. Part of the weapon Gertrude Lichtenberg.

One step forward; two and three; she broke into a run.

Deep into the blue aura of the aberration, but its effects could not slow or stop her.

Her entire arm shifted, all her fingers became as one.

Absorbing the steel and plastic of her riot shield into her arm itself.

Forming a shining red spear attached to her that moved with her exact conviction.

In a sprint, a charge, and a screaming thrust of her arm–

Gertrude stabbed the Drowning Prophecy directly into its contracting mass.

Before her red-ringed eyes, half-overtaken by red fractals– the aberration burst like a bubble of meat spraying gore into the air. In the first instant of its destruction its body behaved like a physical object that had been devastatingly struck, the pipes bursting out of bloody meat, the tentacles thrashing in horrendous pain. Then the entire thing turned into blue dust that blew past Gertrude like a stiff breeze. She shut her eyes and it was just gone.

On the altar stage, she turned toward Monika, framed by the dissipating church.

She reached out the hand which had not completely disfigured into a weapon.

“Monika, come home with me. I want to see you every day; not just in a dream.”

Monika’s eyes filled with tears. She reached out her own hand and took the one offered.

“Thank you, Gertrude. I’m so sorry.” She covered her eyes with her free hand, sobbing.

“It’s okay. I don’t judge you; and I sympathize with your beliefs. That’s why I’m here too.”

She urged Monika to come closer and embraced her, holding her tightly with one arm.

As the Aether around them began to disperse and reveal more and more of their location.

Holding Monika close, in the distance, Gertrude thought she could see a shadow watching.

There was a smile in the dissipating aether. It looked genuine; almost like a praise.

In Gertrude’s pocket, the aetherometer slowly ceased to vibrate and make noises.

Her aether-buoyed sense of self was beginning to wane with the clearing of the “clot.”

Holding Monika in her arms, Gertrude shut her eyes and felt a momentary peace.

Depth Gauge: 3621 m

Aetherometry: Stable


When Gertrude awakened she was lying face-up on the floor of a steel corridor.

Groggy at first, she pushed herself up to a sitting position. Though she was disoriented, after a deep breath she began to feel strangely refreshed for a moment. Like she had finally caught up on some much-needed sleep. Her muscles hurt much less than before, and she was not as weighed down with fatigue as before either. She was able to move.

Slowly, she found the strength to stand up and to take in her surroundings.

Almost as soon as her back straightened, Gertrude felt her stomach toss.

All of the terror of what she had seen and felt, held back as if by a mental dam, now flooded suddenly over her every thought and feeling. She saw in her mind the pools, the visions, the monsters, and herself. Her legs buckled, she went down to her knees and elbows, feeling dizzy and nauseous. Retching over the ground. Had her stomach not been completely empty already, she would have emptied it on the floor. Her back shuddered, her eyes broke into stinging tears. Her head pounded and she heard a whistling inside of her ears.

She put her forehead to the ground and shut her eyes as hard as she could.

As if she could awaken again from dreams, and find herself in the true reality.

But she was awake, and this nightmare was her world now.

Her inexorably changed world.

Having seen what she saw, felt what she felt, and retained the full clarity of it.

Aether.

The Pools.

Eris.

Monika.

The Drowning Prophecy.

Herself. So much of herself. Too much of herself.

And a changed self.

Gertrude looked at her hands with a panic, remembering they had been horribly disfigured into weapons to drive her red aura into the aberration at the center of the pools and blue cobbles, the so-called Drowning Prophecy (so-called by none– it was entirely in her head–!) She peeled off her gloves and she could not understand what she saw.

Her flesh felt so tender. There were no scars, rather, it felt like the calluses and scrapes she had gotten ever since she was a child to her days violently enforcing the imperial will, all of them had disappeared. Her skin felt so soft in her hands that she thought it might peel back and expose something, as if every seam was a set of lips. They felt like membranes.

And no sooner did she entertain that thought, that her hands did split into buzzing jaws–

She screamed, and shook her hands and looked again, and the changes reversed.

Worst of all– Gertrude began to feel like she had control of it.

Like it was part of her.

Like sixth, seventh, eighth and so on new digits corresponding to nothing natural.

Inside her torso, there was the presence of her heart, lungs and stomach. She knew she had them even though they worked automatically. She knew she could take in air to expand her chest and belly to a minor degree. She knew she could make her chest muscles tighten, for all the good such a pointless act would do. In essence, her arms, her legs, her hands, all of her body now felt this way to her. Like she had dozens of new and unseen organs that responded to deliberate actions. They could split, they could grow, they could change.

It was not disfigurement, not in a traditional sense– but Gertrude still wept as if broken.

Her body was completely changed. She could never go back to how she was!

There was a great terror in the back of her head at the sudden opening-up of the world.

Everything was so much more massive, so chaotic, an impossible and surreal enigma.

The Aether. It was all around them. Those colors held meaning to her eyes now.

Flexing the organs in her eyes allowed her to see the colors whenever she wanted.

Monika had been overcome by the colors– perhaps she even created that twisted world.

Had Gertrude not been able to intervene they would have all died in their sleep.

How did people survive the existence of these forces? How prevalent were these attacks?

Were things like this happening in the corners of the eyes of unknowing fools, forever?

How many people knew? How many people had been lost to the aberrations of the aether?

How many people abused this power and knowledge? Could anyone actually control it?

She wanted to scream herself hoarse. But there was no use to it.

No putting it back anymore.

Indelible change. Of the world, of the body, of the mind.

“This isn’t even the start of it.” She said, smiling bitterly and insanely through the tears.

There was more, farther below. Deeper into the abyss.

There was something waiting–

And there was more, right in front of her too. Just a few more steps into the metal.

Behind her, on the floor, Monika was passed out, in her lab coat and a protective bodysuit.

In front of her, the metal corridor led to a door that opened suddenly.

To reveal a shimmering figure that walked out of the room in long strides.

A woman, not too tall, average in her physique. Dark hair, a girlish face, perhaps too youthful for what she had experienced. Dressed in a lab coat herself too, over a turtleneck sweater and a skirt and black tights. She walked out of the room, crossed the hall, slowly, with a calm deliberateness as if she had been waiting. She passed by Gertrude. Gertrude was unable to focus her eyes clearly on her, she had been crying so much and been in such a state.

But when the woman crossed her, Gertrude could tell she was smiling.

Could tell that she said something, which was meant for Gertrude to hear.

“I am entrusting her to you. Good luck. Step inside; the password is A000166.”

Margery Balyaeva; from her dream. Hands in her pockets; smiling; eyes fixed forward.

“Wait– why–? Please–!”

As soon as Gertrude recognized her and asked– she knew the woman was gone.

Nothing but a trace of the colors slowly dissipating into the air.

So be it.

Gertrude looked at her hand again, tears running down her cheeks, her nose dripping.

Sweat coming down the bridge of her nose.

At her own behest, of her own doing, her hand split open again.

Swarthy skin and pink flesh parting. She felt a tingling as it did so. Between her middle and ring finger, it divided, and a thin tentacle emerged from it. She felt it– her stomach felt immediately emptier and sicker for the act. Something was drawn from her body, she could feel the fluids traveling, the flesh moving, to create the little appendage that mimicked the ones she saw beneath the Drowning Prophecy. She had transformed her body.

Though it made her feel light-headed at first, she could sustain the continuing existence of the tentacle. It was as if there was a price to pay for the disfigurement but, once the flesh had reached its new state, it was just what Gertrude’s body was now like. She felt the tentacle in her hand like any other digit. She could turn it, curl it around her wrist, lash out with it. Her stomach felt like it was kicking her belly each time the tentacle tried to move.

She turned over again and bent nearly double with a strong heaving in her throat.

It was sickening, unnatural, horrifying–

But– she had control over it. This horrid appendage was a part of her, it was hers.

Part of the weapon that was Gertrude Lichtenberg.

A weapon– to what end? What was she supposed to do now?

She had something of an answer. But it felt so impossibly out of her reach.

Outside of the aether, she felt much less certainty about herself.

Ruled more by rationality than sheer passion, the situation was much more overwhelming.

But even so. She had promised to keep moving.

Gertrude forced herself to stand again.

This time, she stood upright, without vomiting or crying any further.

Her tentacle retracted into her hand and her hand closed.

It looked ordinary again.

Like a hand that could touch another human being tenderly.

Thankfully she had enough control over herself to keep her body from breaking out into such appendages. She was still a person, not a blob of changeable meat. She could walk without thinking about all those new contortions she could force her body to take. That was enough for now. She would ask Nile what she thought– and she would ask Victoria and Monika and– Azazil? If she could find her. She would tell people, she would ask questions. Her body was not a problem that was impossible to solve. Certainly this ability had come in useful.

Gertrude grinned silently to herself. Everything was overturned.

What a terrifying world; more terrifying than it ever had been.

Vast, bleak and hopeless.

But that blue hopelessness did not prevent her from walking on forwards anymore.

She looked back at Monika and felt glad, that she was in the world with her.

It made this dead world a little more worth living in.

“Monika, wait here for me.” She said, even though the sleeping Monika would not hear.

Gertrude stepped forward into the room that had opened in front of them.

Inside, everything was dim, lit only by light coming from a screen or two in the very back of the room, and from the hallway that Gertrude had just come in from. She stepped on fluid and felt alarmed that the station might be leaking, but was quickly distracted by the smell in the room, reeking like rotten eggs or ammonia. Then her anxious exploration took her closer to one of the network of structures that dominated the room, tall and evenly spaced, and she realized that these must have been computer racks from the surface civilization. They resembled server racks that she was aware of, with cables and storage units and cooling.

Several of them had suffered from enormous punctures, and some looked like they had been crushed. Others were just toppled over, and more had their interiors dug into and ripped out such that they resembled bodies disgorging their guts on the floor. All of the fluid was liquid mineral coolant from the racks that had bled out onto the floor. To Gertrude’s eyes all of the violence looked random and inefficient if the objective was to destroy the computers. It felt like something or someone had just raged through the room and inflicted damage wantonly.

When she finally made her way across the ruin, she found a desk with several discrete LCD monitors plugged into the wall. There were markings on the wall between the desk and the monitors, that reminded Gertrude of a torpedo tube. Something was contained inside that recess in the wall, but she could find no way to open it or interact with it. Her searching hands in the dim glow of the dark green pictures on the screens found nothing new.

Then she was briefly blinded by a sudden flash from one of the screens.

Gertrude staggered back.

When her eyes recovered, she found herself staring at one screen that had become white.

There was a text prompt on it that reminded her of the STEM input screens from before.

But this time there was also a voice, coming in tinny from the LCD’s speakers.

“Greetings, occupant. You may input queries verbally or write them into the prompt. Please note that the central corpus has suffered extensive damage. As such, the number of queries and their potential answers will be limited. It is nevertheless my pleasure to serve you.”

Gertrude was taken aback hearing a voice.

“Are you the computer?” She asked, taken aback.

“By the perspective of a layperson, yes, I am the computer. This mainframe contained my corpus of data. These monitors and the text prompt are but crude remnants of the many vectors by which I could interact with occupants, complete my assigned tasks, and insure the comfort and safety of all Genuine Human Beings aboard the project edifices. I would say that my influence extended to more than this computer once. But it does not anymore.”

“What happened to all of that?” Gertrude asked. “Wait– is that one of my queries?”

“These all count as your queries. To answer you: my corpus was attacked and damaged. This severely limited my influence and ability to control and maintain this environment.”

Gertrude was still pretty stunned. “Are you alive? Or I guess, sentient?”

“I am an Advanced Neurological Model. I synthesize audio, images, video and text in order to carry out specific tasks and respond to queries. I am not capable of original thought outside of my corpus of data. It is unlikely that my capabilities match a definition of sentient life. My most advanced processing units utilized human nervous tissue, but were all destroyed.”

Gertrude winced. If she understood right, this machine had been made using people?

She wondered whether it was stitched or grown in a lab– or if it necessitated a sacrifice.

Looking back over her shoulder at all the cable-matter spilling out of them–

Those sights took on a different, macabre significance.

But those questions were pointless to ask the machine. She had to prioritize other topics.

“Where is Azazil An-Nur? Have you seen her?” She asked.

Based on what Azazil had told her before– if she had not dreamed it–

Then this machine had been the oppressor she was crying to be saved from.

Quickly the tinny voice responded.

“I lost contact with the biomechanoid unit corresponding to that handle many seconds ago.”

Gertrude almost asked how many seconds, but supposedly her queries were limited.

Asking how many queries she had was probably a query– so she did not do so.

“Is Azazil An-Nur real?” She asked instead.

“Unclear. What do you mean by real? It was one of my biomechanoid units.”

She already felt like an idiot asking the computer something like that.

What was she thinking?

“Forget it. Did you force Azazil An-Nur to work here?”

“Yes. It was convenient to have an ambulant biomechanoid for maintenance tasks.”

It kept calling Azazil a biomechanoid– what did it mean?

“Elaborate on: what is Azazil An-Nur?”

“It is a stem-chain enabled biomechanical unit designed for social upkeep of humans.”

“Can you elaborate any further on Azazil An-Nur?”

“Its specifications are not part of my corpus. It was a bespoke unit with unique DNA.”

Gertrude sighed. “Who created you? How come we can understand each other?”

Elemental questions such as this might have yielded good results but–

“Apollo Computing Works, and, because we are both speaking in Simplified Aerean.”

Maybe she just was not very good at this. Maybe her head was still not on right.

“That means nothing to me. I guess– who was in charge of this place? This station?”

“Margery Balyaeva was the leader of the project under which I was commissioned.”

Margery must have been the woman she saw walking out of the room.

And in her dreams.

Excorium Humanitas– she had been betrayed by the surface world.

Declared a non-human or an enemy of humanity, as defined by the government.

So she must have fled down here–

“Can I input a password into you? The password is A000166.” Gertrude said.

She suddenly heard a metallic noise coming from some other part of the room.

It took her off-guard so she turned to look, though there was nothing to see.

The computer spoke again immediately after.

“I’ve unlocked the box for you. You will find the box to your left.”

Gertrude turned back to the monitor with the unused text prompt. “What is in the box?”

“Preserved stemchain materials. Input them into a vitastitcher to create a STEM unit.”

That finally piqued Gertrude’s interests. “Where can I find a vitastitcher?”

Stitcher machines of course existed in the Imbrium.

She had never heard of one that was referred to in that particular way.

“I cannot account for its current status, but the primary edifice contained such a unit.”

“Where is the primary edifice? What is it?” Gertrude pressed.

“Both this structure and the primary edifice were part of the Island-3 colony project. Island-3 was separated into this outpost, the Crown Spire, and a primary edifice that touched down 5000 meters farther below. Island-3 has not been in contact with the Crown Spire for over 2.209032e+10 seconds and it is therefore impossible for me to ascertain its status.”

Gertrude had no idea how many seconds that was supposed to represent.

It was probably no use asking it to clarify further.

“Could I acquire a STEM administrator token in the primary edifice?”

“Yes, using a functioning vitastitcher, spinal verifier and marrow impeler.”

All of those implements sounded hideous to think about. They sent a chill through her.

But there was no use in turning back now. So she did, indeed, have to go deeper down.

“Is there an– Advanced Neurological Model that can assist me in STEM installation?”

“No. Per regulations, ANMs must be isolated from sites where STEM installations and token verifications take place. Only Genuine Humans perform STEM installation or verification.”

“Do I need to use the preserved stemchain materials to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“No. Do not incorporate those materials into a current unit. They will require a new unit.”

Fair enough. Gertrude began to feel wary of what these ‘materials’ might represent.

“What materials do I need to gain a STEM administrator token?”

“They will be available at the location of the previously mentioned machinery.”

Useless. “Prior to myself, did anyone to attempt to access the passcode box?”

“One moment. I will print to the screen a reconstruction of the actor.”

One of the monitors light up brighter.

There was a swirl of color and activity like a puddle of paints being spread haphazardly on a canvas. However, slowly, these colored pixels began to align properly into a slightly skewed image that Gertrude nonetheless recognized as a face. It was in particular the face of Norn the Praetorian. Blond ponytail, the same facial features. Grinning confidently.

That made some kind of sense. Gertrude felt a bit excited about this discovery.

“Did you interact with this ‘actor’? Did she say anything?” She asked.

“The actor was not recognized as a Genuine Human, and it was not STEM-enabled so I did not interact with it nor attempt to communicate. Prior to its intrusion, several malfunctioning biomechanoids of similar specification had already broken into the Crown Spire. I limited their access to prevent them from finding Island-3, but could not repel them.”

How–? How was it that Gertrude was a ‘genuine human’ and Norn was not?

She tried to think of a way to ask the machine, but it felt too complicated a question.

“Was your corpus accessed between Margery Balyaeva’s departure and now?”

“Not successfully. Intruders became lost or discouraged by the STEM systems. Sometimes intruders behaved erratically for reasons I found impossible to quantify and perished or killed each other. Eventually some intruders departed. I have not been able to interact with a Genuine Human in a very long time. Especially not in an amicable fashion.”

“When was the last passcode access attempt?” Gertrude settled for knowing a timeline.

“Over 1.262304e+9 seconds ago–”

“Great, that’s useless. Whatever. Show me a picture of the one who damaged you.”

Again the same process repeated itself on the monitor. She expected to see Norn pop up.

When the picture was completed, however–

Gertrude recognized the perpetrator as Eris herself. Very pale, red-haired, an alien beauty.

With a terribly cold gaze. But not uncharacteristically cold of her, Gertrude felt.

Eris must not have been exaggerating about becoming lost in her passions.

Gertrude wondered how long ago Eris had come here, and what she had done.

Maybe it was just impossible to establish a timeline of such events.

“Is there a way to recover your corpus? Or fix you? To access more queries?”

Gertrude spoke and had to wait a much longer amount of time to receive an answer.

“I have completed my final task, so I will be shutting down. You may have one final query.”

“Wait– hey– what will happen if you shut down?”

She had spoken carelessly after being surprised– it was her final query.

“Without a mobile unit and my supervision, the edifice will further decay. But the occupant will be safe if they can escape by whichever means they arrived. The reactor will continue running as long as its quantum state is undisturbed. Oxygen generation is suboptimal but livable– food is the main problem. So I would encourage departing. I have completed my final task as given to me by Margery Balyaeva. Aer Federation Vivit Aeternum.”

Gertrude gestured further confusion toward the monitors,

but all of them instantly went dark.

On the wall, the indentations and markings she had noticed before also dimmed and shut.

One step forward and thirty back. She had some answers and many new questions.

“What the hell kind of place was this Aer Federation? Good lord.”

Gertrude turned away from the desk with the dim monitors and followed the wall past several more ruined pieces of the ANM’s ‘corpus’ until she found ‘the box’. It slid out of the metal wall, a design the Imbrium still widely used– leading Gertrude to wonder if every cell in the wall was a storage closet too, and whether they should remain closed.

Sighing to herself, at the enormity of what could lay trapped forever in these metal walls, she reached into the unlocked box and produced a thick metal cylinder. Its contents were impossible to discern. Gertrude could feel whirring and buzzing of mechanisms within the shell of the cylinder. It felt cold to the touch. She wondered for how long this device could preserve what was inside, now that it was removed from its place of hiding.

Gertrude called upon the organs in her eye that allowed her to see further–

And began to perceive that colors wafted from the cylinder– a human presence.

She thought she would be sick again contemplating what it could mean.

What exactly were STEM materials? Was it some horrific human byproducts?

But she nevertheless put the cylinder in one of her uniform pouches as best as she could.

She walked back out into the corridor.

She did not know where she was but there were other branches of the same hallway, and open doors. Gertrude picked up Monika, carrying the sleeping girl princess-style. She deserved the rest– Gertrude wished she could have known that Monika was suffering so much. She could have done anything to make it better. But she was so focused on herself. There was so much weight in human pain that she had to make amends for.

Compared to that, Monika was easy to carry.

As she walked through the corridors she thought of everything she had to do now.

Or– not had, but rather, things that she wanted to do.

Gertrude no longer allowed herself to be driven by unaccountable demands.

That obligation that she heaped upon herself, to return to Elena, or to replace her and find happiness somewhere else– it had to be discarded. She could not continue to live like that or she would destroy herself and her crew. Instead she had to think of where she was, what the situation was now, and what she wanted to do now. Recognizing that she was no longer High Inquisitor Gertrude, a person with respectable power in the respectable politics of the Imbrium. She was not royally connected, and officially sanctioned by a powerful lord.

Now she was just another among many petty warlords vying for anything they could take.

She felt responsible for her crew. For the people she wanted to drag further into this mess.

Not only Monika; but Ingrid, Nile, Victoria; Dreschner; the sailors, Vogt and his marines.

Gertrude wanted to take them deeper.

To delve into the Hadal zone where the world was even darker.

To Island-3’s depth 5000 meters deeper–

To find the “primary edifice” of Island-3; to unlock this “STEM” system and get direct access to surface-era information; to find Eris again. Her eyes glinted red. She had power of some measure; now she needed to shoulder the responsibility of having power. There were no more people left to save her, and no more excuses she could make anymore.


Gertrude was eventually discovered.

She crossed another nondescript hallway, unsure of how long she had been walking and whether she might be trapped in another liminal area; and was heard by a rescue team.

Voigt and his men and several sailors, led by Nile, Victoria and Ingrid, had begun combing the facility to look for her hours ago. According to the men who found her, during the expedition, everyone had fallen asleep suddenly. Once they all awakened, it was quickly relayed back to the ship that contact with Gertrude had been lost, and that Monika was also mysteriously missing. Dreschner organized rescue teams to find Gertrude.

Near the beginning of the rescue operation, however, several devices previously seen, such as the STEM doors, now refused to respond to interactions. So the rescue teams used the tunnels Gertrude now knew to have been dug by Katarrans who had escaped the Palaiologos collapse. They had begun to prepare equipment to break down more doors and walls, but thankfully Gertrude was found before they had to resort to such drastic measures.

“There is nothing more we can access here. Let’s head back to the ship.” Gertrude said.

“Yes ma’am. We also encountered another woman here. We were very surprised.” One of the Marines said. “She was unfailingly polite; even when we were yelling in her face after she said she had lost you, ma’am. We thought she was bullshitting us. Her name is apparently Azazil. Our officers had a chat with her and then ordered her arrest.”

So I was not hallucinating her, Gertrude thought.

“She is harmless. She assisted me inside the facility, but then we lost contact.”

“Ma’am.” The Marine acknowledged, and ushered her out through the halls.

Gertrude was thankful to finally see familiar faces.

In her head, the sequence of events that had played out inside of this facility was extremely muddy. Even now she felt like she did not understand how she had navigated from one place to another within the walls and halls. But perhaps there was no understanding it; not without the raw and insane emotion which had overtaken her in the aether.

Maybe all those pools she destroyed had analogous walls in there.

It didn’t matter.

Ultimately she was burying this place and heading to the Iron Lady.

The marines called in that they had found Gertrude, and not too soon after–

“Gertrude!”

She was joined in route by Nile, carrying a first-aid kit; Victoria, whose expression was just so subtly tinged with concern; and Ingrid, who appeared to want to rush forward and give Gertrude a hug but was stopped by the fact Gertrude was still carrying Monika. All three of them appeared one after the other in the halls, spotted Gertrude, went-wide eyed and then paused. They collected together in a little group around her and the marines.

“I’m okay.” Gertrude said. “We’ll talk later. I want to get Monika back safe.”

Reticently, her companions nodded their acknowledgment.

Only Nile stuck close to Gertrude, much to Victoria’s open chagrin and Ingrid’s wariness.

She pretended that she was checking on Gertrude and Monika to make sure they were well.

But while she was doing so, she whispered to Gertrude, when she found an opportunity.

“You’ve awakened to something special, haven’t you? Your aura feels different.”

Gertrude grunted. She whispered back, when she could.

“I’ll have questions for you later.” Gertrude said. “When that time comes you won’t leave the room until you answer them to my satisfaction. Now stop fussing over me. I’m fine.”

Nile smiled. “It’s a date then.”

Gertrude threw her a contemptuous look.

But then cracked a bit of a smile back.

“Gertrude, that woman should be under the highest level of suspicion.” Victoria said.

“Are you two bickering again?” Gertrude said, exasperated.

Nile shrugged. “I have nothing against her, and in fact, she is my alibi that I did nothing.”

Victoria scoffed but could not argue any further.

Ingrid stared at everyone sidelong and over her shoulder and seemed to say nothing.

Gertrude walked a few steps quicker to get closer to her.

“We’ll talk later. I’m sorry.” She said.

“It’s whatever. Found your newest floozy in the halls by the way, ‘master’.”

Ingrid’s voice was thick with sarcasm. Gertrude wanted to be buried alive in the earth.

There was no way to tell Ingrid what she wanted to tell her without causing great acrimony.

But it was a conversation they needed to have, and she had to get ready for it.

One of many.

“Victoria, I’m going to need to speak with the Captain and with you first.” Gertrude said.

“Duly noted.” Victoria replied dryly.

Ingrid shot another sidelong glance, which Gertrude caught and felt mortified by.

She then turned her cheek; she looked so over things.

Gertrude had really treated her badly.

All she could hope for was that Ingrid could be patient with her.

And that there was some way to make up for everything she had done.

Maintaining a rather awkward atmosphere throughout, the party marched to the main hall, where they were greeted by clapping from the bulk of the rescue team, and cheering that Gertrude and Monika had been recovered successfully. They were ushered into the chute connecting the ship to the station. In the hangar, there were more cheers and people looking relieved. Everyone looked like they had been holding their breaths until now.

Along with the sailors and engineers cheering with relief–

“Master,”

Azazil An-Nur stood among the crowd, quietly, with a little smile.

She was cuffed and two marines were looking after her. They glanced at her curiously.

“I apologize for failing to protect you from danger.” She said.

Trying to bow her head, but being grabbed by the guards for the sudden movement.

“Don’t rough her up.” Gertrude said. “Azazil, can you wait quietly somewhere?”

Azazil smiled even more cheerfully.

“Of course, master. I exist solely to serve you now.”

A weary Gertrude glanced over to Ingrid to find her staring daggers at this statement.

She sighed again.

There were not enough ‘I’m sorry’ in the world to pay for this mess.

“Victoria, follow me. Can one of you soldiers tell the Captain to meet me in Room 25?”

“Yes ma’am!”

Room 25 was on the second tier. With awkward stares all around, Gertrude and Victoria parted from the rest of their companions and entered an elevator together to be taken up to the second tier. Gertrude was more than a bit disheveled, but Victoria looked no worse for wear than before. Her ponytail and her fluffy ears looked as manicured as ever.

She looked much less tired.

“What happened when I disappeared?” Gertrude said.

“We tried to search for you by ourselves but we could not find you and we risked getting lost ourselves. We went back to get a rescue team and heavier gear to force more of the doors and walls. Then we all fell asleep.” Victoria said. She appreciated Victoria’s direct and unembellished way of speaking so much in that moment. She could have kissed her for just saying what she meant. It was such a relief from everything that had happened.

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No. Did you also sleep? And did you dream?” Victoria asked.

Gertrude nodded her head. “Yes to both.” She said.

Victoria shut her eyes. “I had a dream that I was in a series of pools, witnessing evidence of several lives that I did not lead. Some of the possibilities disgusted me. I recognized it was a deliberate delusion– but even so, I could not escape it, until I suddenly awakened.”

“You can tell I have the same power as you now, can’t you?” Gertrude said suddenly.

“You have had the potential for some time.” Victoria said. “It’s called ‘psionics’.”

“Psionics, huh. Are you afraid? Or angry with me?” Gertrude said.

“No.” Victoria said simply and bluntly. No qualifiers, no elaboration.

“I’m– I’m going to need help navigating this. Can you help me, Victoria?” Gertrude said.

“Yes.” Victoria said. Again, she elaborated no further.

Her body language was a little bit more reserved. Her eyes shied away from contact.

Thankfully the assent, coming from Victoria, spoke more strongly than the subtle reticence.

Finally, the two of them made their way to the meeting room.

Inside, Dreschner was already waiting. For once, Schicksal was not at his side.

“Come in. Schicksal has the bridge.” He said.

Gertrude and Victoria stepped in. Gertrude locked the door behind herself.

There was little in the meeting room, besides chairs and a desk.

Dreschner was seated behind the desk, but Gertrude remained standing.

“Something happened to me.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I need your help in thinking about what we will tell the crew, and what we will do now. Not as a superior, but as a friend. You have been there for me. Think of me as a stupid kid that needs some direction once again.”

“I would never think of you, nor of your needs, as stupid, Gertrude.” Dreschner said.

“Can you tell that anything is strange with me?” Gertrude asked.

As soon as she walked through the room, she had been able to see it.

Gertrude saw the colors around Einz Dreschner for the first time.

She felt as if, when he saw her, those colors fluctuated a bit.

Like he understood something.

“Yes. I feel as if I’m standing in front of someone who had the fight of their lives.”

“Gertrude, this man is at the very least capable of reading auras.” Victoria interrupted.

Dreschner smiled.

Again, the small green and blue colors around him flashed for a second.

“And you tell me this now?” Gertrude said.

“You had no context for this before, and would have been unlikely to believe me.” Victoria added. “I was confident in my ability to confront him should the need to do so arise.”

Sometimes wanting to kiss Victoria briefly turned into wanting to shove her down.

Not that she was necessarily wrong with the tack she took toward this situation.

“Einz, how much do you know about this?”

Gertrude demonstrated how she could split her hand open and manipulate the flesh.

Victoria looked alarmed. “That– that is not within the purview of psionic abilities.”

“That you know of, I guess.” Gertrude said. “It is within my purview now.”

Dreschner’s eyes blinked briefly red. It was the same that she saw when other people used the strange abilities the aberrations, the Drowning Prophecy and the Aether space demonstrated. She imagined that she herself displayed those red rings when attempting to call upon her power. But with Dreschner it felt a little different.

Gertrude got the feeling he could not sustain the eyes as long as she could.

Maybe what he had was different in some way to what Nile and Victoria and Azazil had.

But he could get a glimpse of it.

She knew he had recognized the power she possessed.

Not just from the red rings; but his expression and aura as he realized what it all meant.

“The curse of the Jager is not hereditary. But as you stand before me, I get the same feeling as if I was in the presence of ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition Jagerkorps. I can’t explain it, but you possess the same abilities as a Jager, despite the Inquisition’s best effort to keep you away from the Korps and unable to pierce their veil of secrecy. What happened?”

“If I tell you, I guarantee you will think I’m out of my mind.” Gertrude said. “Einz, I want to know how much you were aware of– did you know about Norn? Or Victoria? It’s not like I don’t trust you, don’t get me wrong. But you did keep things from me, didn’t you?”

“We were aware of these strange powers to some degree. I knew about Norn because I’m part of the Inquisition, not because of any ability I myself possess. We suspected the young Bayatar too. And I always felt that you had potential and that you should have been informed about the Jagers and given command over them. It would have prevented Samoylovych from having to come out of retirement, again. Alas.” Dreschner said.

“The existence of the Jagers is well known; but their full capabilities eluded even Vekan intelligence.” Victoria said. “I should have guessed that psionics would be involved.”

Victoria looked at Dreschner with distrust. He had no expression toward her.

“The Inquisition is essentially dead now. I do not have to keep its secrets.” Dreschner said. “Gertrude, once you get back to Konstantinople you can unearth everything you desire about the Jagers. There is too much history and my old brain has not committed it– what I can say is that the Jagers and myself included undergo horrible modifications and conditioning to attain interesting abilities such as your own. They used these abilities in missions. I was unable to incorporate into the Jagerkorps but continued to serve the Inquisition as an officer. Thanks to your father in large part, and Norn also.”

“My father?” Gertrude asked. “How is my father involved in all of this?”

“Your father was a protector for the Kaiserin for so many years. However, before he took on that role for Leda Lettiere, and before he delved into the abyss, and long before he managed to build a family, he was ‘Codename Rot’ of the Inquisition’s Jagerkorps. Meanwhile I was ‘Codename Schwarz’. Both of us suffered inhumanely to achieve our positions– but we endured to obtain power and influence. We got far enough that the Inquisition trusted us with command roles. I received a ship; your father was trusted with spying on the Kaiserin. But unfortunately your father, and yourself, ended up suffering with Leda Lettiere.”

Gertrude smiled bitterly. “I always knew there had to be more to him. You too, I guess.”

“He was your hero. But he was not your hero because he was a Jager, Gertrude.”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s dead– and I’m here.” Gertrude said.

It did matter.

She felt so bitter about it– she felt like the Inquisition had toyed with her entire life.

Had she known about her father, and all that happened– she may have chosen differently.

No– that was a delusion.

Even as she thought about the situation she felt ridiculous about herself for this conclusion.

No matter what, she took the path she did because of her love for Elena.

Whether or not her father survived Schwerin Island, Gertrude’s course had been set.

In the pool rooms, all of those visions ended the same way.

Dreschner looked at Gertrude with a fondness in his eyes and voice.

“You are here. You’ve come a long way; farther than anyone imagined. I always related to your hunger for strength Gertrude. You were exactly the daughter of your father. I want you to know, I did the best I could to support you, even as I saw you suffer for it. To tell you not to have ambitions, and force you to live helplessly, felt like a betrayal. But I must admit, seeing you standing before with the curse of the Jagers, I truly regret what came to pass. Like I said, I have no explanation for how you became a Jager. But it affects your mind, and your body. You may not be able to relate to others the same way again.”

“I was not worried about that. I already relate to people in a weird fashion anyway.”

Gertrude sighed. She had a question bouncing around in her head.

As soon as she realized her father was part of the Inquisition, the question troubled her.

She knew why her father had died; he had died on Schwerin Isle.

He was Captain of the Guard and he went down protecting the Kaiserin.

That same day that destroyed Elena’s life had also upturned her own.

She knew that. Or she thought.

Perhaps he had not died for the reasons she had concluded before.

“Einz, did Norn seek to kill my father when she invaded Schwerin Island?” She asked.

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed and covered his eyes with his hand.

“I do not hold Norn personally responsible. She explicitly forbade wanton acts of violence. During the attack one unit in particular went wild. They were protected by High Inquisitor Brauchitsch who wanted to use the opportunity to test the potential of Divers in a station invasion. The unit was led by a man referred to as Sawyer the Berserker.” Gertrude’s eyes went wide as Dreschner spoke. He looked at her with a soft expression. “I did not tell you because I did not want you to spend your school life at greater odds with the Sawyer daughter. Of course, it’s pointless now. Sawyer grew up the way she grew up.”

Sawyer–

“I’m not going to blindly chase her.” Gertrude said. “But if I see her again, I’ll kill her.”

“You don’t have to do it for your father. I killed Sawyer the Berserker on that day.”

Gertrude grunted.

Pointless. Everything was always so pointless and complicated and frustrating.

She could not even give herself onto revenge again.

Things just wouldn’t be so simple from now. Never as simple as just getting revenge.

All of the names he rattled off did not matter. They were already dead.

Hell– she had killed Brauchitsch herself. Unknowing of what it meant.

A dirty trick of fate.

“Was my dad just slow with old age?” Gertrude asked, a note of bitterness in her voice.

“You’ll find a Jager’s powers are largely useless in the paradigm of Diver combat.”

“So my father did die trying to protect Leda Lettiere.” Gertrude said.

“No, Gertrude. He died protecting you.” Dreschner said. “He died so you could be saved.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t remember that.”

“No. You were in no condition to remember anything. You were a child, it was dark, there was war. People lied to you and omitted information. But it was for your own good.”

She sighed. There was truly nothing she could do about any of it.

“How did you feel about my father, Einz?” Gertrude asked.

“He was like the father I never had.” Dreschner said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She laughed a little bit. “I think of you kind of like that too.”

“I’m happy to hear that. I would be very lucky to have such a daughter.” Dreschner said.

It was so strange. Gertrude did not really feel so hurt by these events anymore.

Instead she felt released from a few of her burdens.

Like a few chains she had been pulling her entire life finally snapped.

None of the people responsible for any of this were available to strangle to death.

The Inquisition, for all the harm it had done, was powerless in the Imbrium’s collapse.

Her father’s death had already been avenged. Everyone responsible was dead.

Konstantin von Fueller, whose rule allowed these tragedies to happen, was quite dead.

Gertrude had been lied to– but she would have never believed the truth anyway.

And– Gertrude could never muster any anger toward Norn in all of this too.

She admired her too much. Maybe even loved her. Norn had made her.

So she learned many things about herself which could not force her hand in any direction.

As if everything in the world was telling her she just needed to move forward from now.

“Einz, I need help mustering and controlling these abilities.” Gertrude said.

“Gertrude, I’ll teach you.” Victoria cut in suddenly.

“She can; but I can also assist. Specifically on how Jagers make use of the curse.”

“It’s not a curse!” Victoria said. “It’s called psionics. Gertrude is not cursed.”

“I must concede before such concern and camaraderie.” Dreschner said coyly.

Victoria realized her vehemence in making that point and averted her gaze, embarrassed.

“I appreciate it, Victoria.” Gertrude said.

“As for the crew, leave that to me. I will draft a general briefing that will explain the current circumstances in a succinct and sensitive way. I have experience with treating psionics with care as part of the Inquisition. We should not explain it directly; we can describe the sleeping and other irregularities as abyssal behavior that we managed to counteract.” Dreschner said.

“I don’t particularly like lying to the crew.” Gertrude said sadly.

“You must have done it all the time under the Inquisition.” Victoria said. “I agree with the Captain. We should limit the spread of information about the station and the events in it. Otherwise the crew might feel adrift, it could affect their morale and make them paranoid. Let’s cover it up. I will work with the scientist criminal on actual countermeasures.”

Sometimes Victoria was blunt, and sometimes she was a brutal hammer blow to the head.

“I will take your counsel for now.” Gertrude said. “I’m too tired to argue.”

“I just need to know one more thing, Gertrude.” Dreschner said. “What happens now?”

Gertrude smiled wearily. “Now, we keep moving forward. Or in our case, down.”

Victoria remained silent. Gertrude took it to mean she did not oppose continuing the dive.

Dreschner nodded. “May I recommend 24 hours of rest and recovery for the crew?”

No one was arguing. No one was against her. Everyone was still just taking her orders.

Gertrude felt relieved. Her strength was starting to fail her. She was tired. But relieved too.

Not tired because of the blue helplessness– but normally, physically tired. Rest would help.

“Make that 72 hours.” Gertrude replied. “And release a unit of alcohol ration to everyone.”

“Alright. Is there anything else I can do for you, High Inquisitor?” Dreschner asked.

“Yes. Don’t call me that.” Gertrude said wearily. “I’ll come up with a new title.”

“Emperor Lichtenberg?” Dreschner said cocking an eyebrow.

Victoria narrowed her eyes.

“No. Just Gertrude Lichtenberg. For now. Please.”

“Acknowledged, Madam Lichtenberg.” Dreschner said.

Then, he saluted her proudly.


“Victoria.”

Gertrude stopped in the middle of the empty hallway.

They were halfway to the officer’s quarters.

Victoria paused with Gertrude, and turned to face her. Gertrude met her eyes.

“Monika was– wrapped up in all of this. Can you keep an eye on her?”

“Yes. But that is not what you really wanted to say.”

Gertrude took a deep breath.

“When you learned about psionics, how did you feel? Can you please tell me?”

“Yes.” Victoria nodded.

Gertrude had not expected her to assent so easily.

Nor did she expect her answer.

With no around, their eyes locked together deeply–

“When I realized what this power meant, I felt like I had command of my destiny– even more than that, I felt like humans have always had control of our destiny. We made this world.” Victoria said. She reached out a hand and gripped the sleeve of Gertrude’s uniform. “With this hand, I controlled my world, Gertrude. And I felt like the world is actually how we have made it, for good and for ill. Not just us; but all human beings throughout time.”

“You are extraordinarily brave.” Gertrude said. “I don’t know that I can think like you.”

“Psionics is the power of human emotions. I am sure in the back of your mind you must understand this.” Victoria said. “We can become paranoid and helpless in the face of a larger world; or we can come to the realization that humans made the world the way it is now. That means humans can also take action to change it. We are not just the playthings of destiny. We are not just acted upon by forces; humans are in control of their lives.”

Just being told that, of course it had no effect on Gertrude’s sense of self.

Not immediately; but her heart was lifted by the sight of Victoria’s determination.

She had been in the Pools too. And it had not broken her resolve.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “I needed to hear that from someone.”

Suddenly, Victoria stepped forward into Gertrude’s space.

She tiptoed, and she pulled Gertrude down by her shirt–

And put her forehead to Gertrude’s own.

For a brief moment their noses even touched.

Gertrude almost thought they might kiss.

Even so the gesture that they did hold was gentle and lovely.

Warm and oddly comforting even though Victoria had been a bit brusque.

Victoria then stepped back assuming a respectful distance again.

She smiled.

“Thank you for putting your trust in me, Gertrude. Even in front of Dreschner, when the Inquisition’s secrets came up I expected to be ejected right away. You let me stay in that room; and you entrusted me even with your own secrets. Your life’s story is not part of the stakes of this war. I will take that information to my grave. Good night.”

Victoria turned sharply and left a bewildered Gertrude to watch her cape flutter.

Once she was gone, Gertrude, compelled to smile, made her back way back to her room.

Even before stepping in she had a hunch she would find someone inside.

Whether it was psionics or instincts honed from familiarity.

She was not surprised to find Ingrid sitting on her bed, still dressed in her pilot suit.

Her long, dark hair was loose, the band she had used to tie it up discarded on the bed.

Long streaks and beads of sweat spilled gently across her brown skin, glistening in the dim light of Gertrude’s room. Her ears twitched, but she could not suppress a wag of the tail upon seeing Gertrude come in. Her expression remained cold; Ingrid was almost always laughing or being boisterous so to see her quiet and pensive, it was an entirely different kind of beauty. But she was still beautiful. Gertrude could not help but to recognize her.

She was incredibly beautiful.

“Ingrid, I’m really sorry, the way I treated you–”

Ingrid held up her hand. “No, it’s fine. I’ve kinda figured this shit out already.”

She really thought Gertrude was two-timing her all this time; probably three-timing her–

“I’m sorry. I’ve been horrible to you. You don’t deserve–”

“Hey, shut up.” Ingrid said. “Let me finish. I know– when we just started fucking out of the blue, it wasn’t like we were suddenly boyfriend and girlfriend now, or something–”

Gertrude stood, aghast. She tried to interrupt.

“Ingrid– it’s not like that–”

“I said, shut up.” Ingrid snapped. “Look. I know you’re getting over that princess bitch. I’m happy for you. I was only ever comforting you over that. I didn’t have more illusions than that– well, I did, but I’m also grown-up enough to know when my bubble has burst.”

This was possibly the worst version of this conversation Gertrude could possibly have.

It was the version of this conversation they had in her nightmares.

“Ingrid! Let me talk.” Gertrude said desperately. “Ingrid, I do love you! I love you so much!”

“Yeah.” Ingrid said. She smiled. “I know. But you don’t love me like you loved her.”

“You’re right! I’m trying to get over Elena.” Gertrude said. “And you’re right, I don’t love you like I love her, because the way I loved her destroyed us! I lashed out at her, I could have hurt her; I would never want to feel like that about you! I have to love you differently!”

“Gertrude, I’m trying to make this easy on you. But you always make everything hard.”

Ingrid stood up from the bed. She put a hand on Gertrude’s shoulder and squeezed.

“I’m still your friend, I’m still your soldier, and I still love you. But right now– If you want me, then you have to work to chase after me. If you want someone else, go after them. Have your space and figure shit out. Fuck– I’ll probably come around– But I’m done with this.”

She gestured to the room and to Gertrude herself and started to walk out.

Gertrude could have said that she did want her, that she didn’t just have sex with her for empty reasons, that she did want her instead of Elena and that maybe even, that she could have replaced Elena, now. If not before; and yet Gertrude said nothing. Because some of Ingrid’s incisive observations had been true and because it would have been shameless and hurtful to have begged Ingrid to stay in spite of them. So instead she watched Ingrid leave the room with a flat expression, silent until the door shut. Silent even afterward.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was never lying about loving Ingrid, she loved her.

She loved and desired her and wanted her companionship quite badly.

But she felt that in that moment, dumping her was something Ingrid needed to do.

And Ingrid was right. Gertrude had accepted her devotion so disrespectfully.

Gertrude deserved to be dumped more harshly. Ingrid was being downright diplomatic.

Ingrid deserved to be pursued, to be sought after, to be worshiped as a woman.

Maybe Gertrude would pursue her. Maybe worship her too, like she deserved.

But the important thing was that Gertrude couldn’t just passively accept her anymore.

She couldn’t hold the leash she was given; she had to tug on the leash like Ingrid wanted.

“But I do need the space.” Gertrude sighed. She covered her face with her hands. “There’s so much shit I need to figure out, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. You have no idea how sorry; and how those sorries aren’t anywhere near good enough for you. Ugh. I hope she’ll even speak to me anymore. After all this time– I am such a piece of shit. God– god damn it all.”

That was definitely the version of this encounter that came straight out of her nightmares.

But neither of them had died from it; and the door was not permanently closed on them.

She hoped at least she could remain Ingrid’s friend. That they could make up that much.

There was nothing more she could do on that night, in that room, on that bed.

Time had to pass for both of them. Both of them needed to think about their lives.

Gertrude also had her emotions for a few other people to consider–

–she hardly wanted to even think about that too.

Especially the latest of those fantasies.

Exhausted, Gertrude dropped back onto her bed.

She loosened up the armor plates and her blue shirt and cast it all off. There was something catharthic to undressing at the end of this entire mess. She was soaked in sweat, but she had not taken three or four dips into drowning water, like her mind could have sworn she had. All of that had happened in some quarantined space of the ego. Out here in the world, Monika was unharmed and merely sleeping, Victoria was patrolling, Nile was looking after Monika, Azazil was waiting patiently in the brig for Gertrude; and Ingrid had left to her room.

On that bed, alone, Gertrude felt lighter than before.

Not because she was falling endlessly but because she had been unburdened.

That poisonous love for Elena she had failed to bury in Goryk, she buried in Kesar.

That ruinous desire to replace her lost future with something, she stifled in her chest.

That desperation to acquit herself of failure, she let blow past her like a brief gust.

The world had changed and she wanted to be able to change with it even more.

But the shape of making amends was a task for the Gertrude of the future.

On that bed, her head was emptying. She was tired. And she was in no hurry to do anything.

Surrounded by a myriad colors flowing gently and freely, she finally shut her eyes.

After days of tribulations, Gertrude slept soundly, and recovered her strength.

For once, she had a peaceful dream.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.13]

Across the bridge, a bulkhead door opened from the main station.

From the barricade, the strikers could see multiple persons at the door, but only a solitary figure started the long walk from the core station’s side over to that of Tower Nine.

Tower Nine was exclusively leased to Rhineametalle, and the entire tower was an absolutely massive steel plant. The steelworkers at Kreuzung were particularly responsible for manufacturing armor plate in a variety of dimensions and compositions, which would go on to be assembled into ships and divers. They also produced some ancillary construction materials for ships and stations, like interior walls with touch-enabled surfaces.

Those same products largely constituted the barrier the striking workers had erected.

Because they did not have control of the bulkhead into their side of the station, they used their equipment and whatever materials they had to create their own defenses. Kreuzung had forced the door to remain open, and sent negotiators, teams of scabs, and even a few strike-breaking attacks from the K.P.S.D– but with their tools and materials, the striking workers had maintained their hold on the tower. Rhineametalle had spoken against any further attacks– so for a time, the workers had some semblance of peace.

Even the core separation, frightening as it was, had not shaken them from their spot.

Now, however, the workers felt a bit of concern.

There was something strange about a single woman in a black uniform approaching them.

She took off her hat partway through her casual, ambling walk to the barricade, revealing a head of messy blond hair partially tamed by being wrapped into a long ponytail. She was tall, too, particularly for an Imbrian woman, with sharp, angular shoulders, and a frame that was somewhat lacking curves. Her uniform was slightly poorly fitted, with the all-black coat out of her pants and a bit too long, as well as unbuttoned, revealing the button-down shirt beneath which itself was not wholly buttoned, nor tucked in.

On one arm she had three separate armbands: all red and white, but one had a sonnenrad symbol, another a sword, and the third had an iron eagle.

Her easy gait and strange little grin, were eerie and a bit disarming.

As she approached, she introduced herself.

“Gutentag! I’m a 7th Fleet Stabswache officer, Untersturmführer Skonieczny, and I am only here to deliver a letter. I mean no harm! Please forward this as soon as possible.”

Her casual demeanor was additionally bizarre to the men behind the barricade.

Anyone else would have gotten a bolt launched at them by a pneumatic gun by now.

They allowed this lady to approach, and all she did was tiptoe to hand them a letter.

She turned around and left immediately, seemingly without any worry of a sneak attack.

To their surprise, she really did hand them a letter, stone paper, handwritten.

Suddenly unsure of what may become of their strike action soon, they passed the letter on.


Situated at the very top level of Kreuzung’s core station was the A-block of modules that represented the highest-end housing accommodations in the city, as well as the seat of the Eisental regional government. A-block was expansive and beautiful. Unlike other blocks, which were often situated side by side and with modules haphazardly placed like stacking blocks, A-block was one continuous module, that dominated a significant portion of the tower’s vertical space. There was a single main thoroughfare that branched into the walkways to several walled villas of varying designs.

At the center of A-block stood the government palace, a massive building with sweeping semi-circular wings connecting to a central, circular edifice with a brilliant domed roof. In the upper distance, visible from almost anywhere in the block, there were also several thick glass berths for the private seaport available to the A-block residents and the civilian government. Within the illusion of the sky, at times made it seem like ships were flying overhead in the horizon, as they situated themselves in their places.

All of A-block seemed to lead to the government palace, to reside in its shadow.

Kreuzung’s governor stood atop this edifice, and everything spread before him.

Within the palace, the Governor of Kreuzung had a sparsely furnished office that was nevertheless the site of some arresting designs. Because the walls were at all times projecting camera feeds from throughout A-block. Capturing sights such as the park gazebos and the small artificial lakeside enjoyed by the upper crust, the beautiful tended lawns of the most well-developed villas, and the vastness of the sky. It would appear to anyone walking in for business that the Governor of Kreuzung was like a God surrounded by windows into his vast domain. Situated the middle of all of A-block and able to see every direction.

If Governor Adolf Werner was a God, then he stood watching his downfall to mortals.

Surrounded by scenes of black-liveried electric trucks and black-uniformed paramilitaries.

Storming the villas, trampling the gardens, crossing the beautiful streets.

He was surprised that most of the troops combing A-block appeared to be Shimii.

Perhaps there was something karmic to that.

In this very office for nearly twenty years the Governor of Kreuzung had kept the Shimii separated and strictly controlled, and even he, who had promised reforms and liberalization, was consumed by the pragmatic calculus behind that injustice. He had let it go, because it was easy, and the Shimii were lesser compared to the peace that the Imbrians had begun to enjoy. Now, the Shimii dragged his Imbrian financiers out of those same beautiful homes they were denied and beat them on the street, with official sanction of the fascists.

Reform, of some kind, was slowly encroaching in armored cars down the one road.

Leading, inevitably, to him– and he could do nothing to stop it now.

Behind him, a door opened.

In walked a young woman in a white suit jacket and skirt, with black leggings.

Carrying a portable computer with a brand insignia– Rhineametalle.

She had an impassive expression. Her red-brown hair was tied up in an efficient bun.

“Governor Werner.” She said. She did not introduce herself.

Werner, taller, older, hairless, severe in expression. He looked at her with utter disgust.

They could not have been any more contrasts of themselves and the eras of their legacies.

“I assume it is not dangerous for you to be here, because Rhineametalle is a part of this.”

He waved at the screens, at the scenes of villas being broken into and combed through.

She ignored his implied accusations. They did not even cause a twitch in her countenance.

“I am here to convey Rhineametalle’s wish for a peaceful transition.” Said the young woman, delivering her stoic lines without once stumbling. “As an Eisental-headquartered business we believe this is the best outcome for the region’s economic outlook. We cannot support any decision by the government that escalates this confrontation any further.”

“None of this is peaceful, but if you are worried I will fight back, rest assured I cannot.”

In the aftermath of the Core Separation, Werner acquiesced to demands from the Volkisch Gauleiter to terminate the mandate of the K.P.S.D. Not because the fascists demanded it. They could fuck themselves. Rather, the K.P.S.D. had worked up tension with the Volkisch to an unconscionable degree. To continue to support them meant joining what was essentially their mafioso war against Laurentius tower. Werner had paid the mercenaries their blood money for too long– he cut them off. Without official support, any resisting K.P.S.D fought for a lost cause. Most of them gave up right away. Any stragglers were just doomed.

Therefore, Werner now he had nobody to defend him, nobody to defend the men who had ruled over Kreuzung for so long. Nobody to defend the Gods atop the mountain who had squeezed so much out of the people beneath their gazes. It was only now, as he watched the black shirts dismantle everything around him in real time, that he realized how low he had fallen. Whatever happened to the Liberal ideal? Freedom, franchise and fraternity for all men? His liberalism had upheld only the old fiefdoms, and changed nothing.

And now, the change was climbing the steps to his abode with gun and sword.

Werner felt embittered staring into the eyes of the young woman and reminiscing.

If all of the graft in Kreuzung was but a star, then Rhineametalle was entire constellations.

She could appear here and berate him, waiting like a dog to greet her Volkisch masters.

Because she had infinitely more power than he did. This was their town.

There would always be Rhineametalle, while liberal reformers came and went throughout Rhinea having failed to accomplish anything. Rhineametalle was the Prime Evil of Eisental, its warped influence followed only by the likes of Volwitz Foods and Lanz Erzwerke. She stood before this black and silver wind as an immovable titan. The more he looked at her emotionless face the more violence he felt in his old heart. He grit his teeth.

Stepping back from her, he walked around to his desk with a new clarity of purpose.

From a drawer, he withdrew an old Dreys pistol and raised it to the woman.

“This will earn you nothing.” She said, unwavering even when faced with the gun.

It only made Werner angrier. He was so helpless. All of his emotions swelled out of control.

Nothing of his spirit as a liberal elder statesman remained unsullied in that moment.

He was willing to throw away everything if he could have killed this girl.

Consumed in a terrible range to destroy the foul embodiment of his defeat.

He could not shoot at Rhineametalle, and the bullet would not redeem his Kreuzung.

He could, however, shoot this woman and sweep away her scrutinizing expression–


–but before Adolf Werner could exit the stage a murdering God, he was cast down.

When the door opened suddenly amid the confrontation to invite a new actor–

Her black gloved hand wielding a sleek black semi-automatic that preempted his next lines.

Hammer sliding with a thunder that echoed through the room, and again.

Five shots, neck, shoulder, sternum, belly, pouring bloody over his fine suit. His own gun dropped from the failing grip of his fingers and vanished under his desk. The old God of Kreuzung dropped back onto his chair, his role completed. Standing across the desk, the Rhineametalle communications officer Maxine Kramer shut her eyes for a moment.

It was the first expression she had made during this entire divine encounter.

Then, the second– she turned and smiled at the woman walking in from stage right.

Grinning back, the woman in the ornate black uniform and cape approached the desk, stepped behind it, and dismissively shoved the corpse of the old governor off of it. She then sat on his chair, on which there was just a little bit of blood– and put up her feet, hands behind her head, relaxing. She took a deep breath, twirling the pistol on one finger and catching it with the rest. She holstered it and appeared to be quite pleased with herself.

It was in that instant that Violet Lehner took her place in the grand opera about to unfold.

She was a curious sight in the black uniform.

Her skin was just a little bit ruddy, her eyes dark; facial features somewhat indeterminate, with strong nose and eyes with a slight angle, and yet striking in their overall configuration. She could have perhaps been a model or an actress had she been allowed an altogether different stage. Her hair was flamboyantly dyed, obscuring whatever other racial clues the fascist onlooker may have been predisposed to see. Whether she was blond, whether she was raven-haired, impossible to say. Though long, silky and straight, it was colored light blue and partially pink in a pattern reminiscent of the flag pins which hung from her earrings.

Average in stature and figure, thin and light of frame, more angular than curved, her limbs and shoulders and back were slim, her fingers soft and unblemished, with little in the way of pronounced musculature on her limbs. Nevertheless, her impressive uniform evoked the martial spirit that her training regime may have lacked. Her uniform, a black jacket and pants with a black cape, was decorated with every conceivable symbol of the fascists. Golden wolf’s-hooks, a sonnenrad medal, a reichsadler on her peaked cap, eagles and arrows, a hooked cross lapel pin. Her armbands had similar symbols. Atop her cap there were two silver protrusions like metal cat’s ears, and she wore a tail-like tassel on her belt.

Ruling over the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, known as the ‘Zabaniyah.’

Violet Lehner grinned with an ambition as easy, in her mind, as taking a life.

Soon, her role of murderer would elevate, to ‘Reichskommissar’ of the Eisental region.

In this opening act, she had stolen the gold ring from the abode of the Gods.

While the drumbeat of truncheon strikes and the melodic wailing of the purge played all throughout A-block, casting from the mount the Gods for whom the audience’s sympathy was meant, her shadow grew ever more titanic in the background of the stage. Smoke and fire and great screaming horns heralded. Violet as devil, as son of a false king–

as player on the stage of Destiny.


–but while the Gods bellowed for justice, the player in black experienced only silence.

“You were so collected, Maxine. You should leave the corporate world and join us.”

“I’m afraid I can only present the facade of strength knowing that rescue was on its way.”

Violet and Maxine smiled at each other like old friends, minding not the corpse.

“What’s the temperature at Rhineametalle? Did you show your bosses my proposals?”

“I walked them through everything. They are initially cautious, but not opposed.” Maxine said. “They’ve been party to fruitless ‘labor reform’ talks with the liberals.”

“They haven’t seen it like I plan to do it.” Violet said, a grin on her face and a winking eye. “Soon they’ll be hearing about this strike being over without a further drop of blood shed on their precious factory floors, and they will have cause for celebration. Then you can ask them again what they feel about Violet Lehner. Not to mention what will follow.”

“With regards to labor, their ceiling is ‘neutral’ at best.” Maxine said. “They will never be happy to talk ‘trade unions’. But I have prepared the way for you as best I can.”

Violet finally put her legs down from the table and sat up straight.

“They will. I’ve already handed them a victory. One of my subordinates arranged a meeting with the leader of the strikers. I was informed just before my arrival here that the meeting has been accepted and arranged. You can formally announce to your employers that the strikers are coming to the table. They can do whatever with that information.”

“It’s too early to announce anything. But I will do my best to make it a media coup, and you can share the glory of it when the time comes.” Maxine replied. “There has been a lot pessimism in the business community. Unfortunately, your father has not been–”

“Don’t call him that.” Violet snapped. Her voice had risen almost to a breaking point.

For the first time, Maxine looked a bit surprised. She bowed her head. “My apologies.”

Violet sighed. Anger was unproductive. She stood up, and walked past the corpse.

“It’s fine. I am full of optimism, Maxine. I’ve crawled up from the gutter, all the way here.”

Violet’s gaze met Maxine’s, standing side by side. She reached out and patted her shoulder.

“Destiny is on my side, and Endsieg is finally near to my grasp.”

Maxine nodded her head low in acknowledgement and deference.

“Of course, Reichskommissar. Rhineametalle looks forward to your success.”

With her cape flowing behind her and a stoic look on her face, Violet Lehner left the office of the Governor in its state of desecration, Maxine Kramer following dutifully behind her to their next stage. Speaking of the so-called Fuhrer of Rhinea, related so casually– it was unheard of to say within the 7th Stabswache. Because it angered Violet so–

the holes she had to crawl out of were dug by his hand.


Business was at an ebb at Madame Arabie’s Flowing Scarlet.

Her main clientele were either laying low, or catching a clubbing from the Volkisch.

Imbrians with money to blow on girls and dope had too much on their minds these days.

And wealthy local Shimii had hunkered indoors out of sight of a very bitterly critical public.

Kreuzung was not in a mood to drink and make merry. Their festival was over.

In the days following the Core Separation, the little people of the segregated Tower Seven began to look to their neighbors again. It was the mosques where people chose to congregate, rather than dance clubs and eateries. They gathered on the floor mats discussing the events, what the future might hold, or anything they could do as a community to prevent further tragedies. There was so much uncertainty looming over them. One especially concerning matter was that of missing persons. Several Shimii had tried to escape the tower, and in the chaos, people had been separated from each other, and there were already a few sadly missing. One shopkeeper named Hasim, rarely seen at the mosque otherwise, actually showed up to report a missing person, for example.

“There’s this girl– she came by my shop every day, one of my favorite customers–”

But nobody had seen the bob-tailed girl he described. Few people even remembered her.

There was an older woman who described another girl, who had assisted the crowd.

“Her name was Madiha. God guard her and preserve her. She was a brave one.”

Nothing. They could collect the names, and any descriptions or pictures, and report it–

–to whoever the authorities ended up being now.

That was all, and many people felt helpless and were frustrated at their situation.

And to those most embittered, the Scarlet, and Arabie, were particular points of frustration.

Weren’t those rich Shimii who owned everything supposed to be keeping them safe?

What good were they if they could never stand up to the Imbrians even to prevent deaths?

For now these thoughts remained private. The streets had emptied of crowds of people.

Outside the Flowing Scarlet, where it was once routine for crowds to gather in front, the street was empty. And for its emptiness, and the size of the building looming over that emptiness, it made the tower feel even more hollow. Guards had been posted out of Arabie’s paranoia for what may transpire– but there was no need. Not one person came to throw one stone, or any other petty delusion held by the woman in the higher stories.

But, just when Arabie’s mafiosi began to feel secure in themselves–

They heard the sound of wheels turning.

And stood in stunned silence as a black and silver liveried electric truck drove up.

Emblazoned on the side of the truck was a shield with the number 7 in thick font.

Surrounding the triangular shield there were two swords and three words–

Faith.

Fealty.

Fascism.

Inside the truck were a dozen uniforms. Hitting the false pavement like a ramp, the door to the truck bed creaked as the men and women, all Shimii, all dressed like Volkisch, and all armed, stepped off and formed up. For the mafiosi, this was an insurmountable enemy that instantly defeated them. Those black jackets could have been mythical wootz steel, for the protection they offered. Arabie’s gang could abuse the public, rough up journalists, turn away detectives, and maybe even disappear a K.P.S.D. who got too in their faces.

Madam Arabie was powerful and had good connections within Kreuzung.

Madam Arabie’s connections, her social and financial power, meant nothing to the fascists.

The Volkisch Movement For The National Awakening played by its own insane rules.

They were the fiendish leviathan immune to the spell woven by the witch of Tower Seven.

It was even stranger that they were all Shimii. It gave Arabie’s men even more of a fright.

There was no thought of even reaching for the revolvers and pistols hidden in their clothes.

All of Arabie’s guards stood dumbfounded, and nobody made a move.

Then, from the passenger seat of the truck itself, another Shimii woman stepped out.

From the outset, it was obvious that she was a cut above the rest of the Volkisch here.

Her jacket had brighter and more impressive patches and pins to denote her rank, and on her ample chest there were several medals. She brandished no weapon on the street, but had on her hip a sabre in a sheathe as well as a revolver in a holster. Those looking at her were taken by her. She was beautiful, yes, with golden hair and lightly tanned skin and steely green eyes and striking facial features– but it was not her beauty, but her presence that captivated the onlookers. Her every step was as if taken by a titan, her gaze threw the weight of a storm wind, and when she spoke, her voice was thunder. They were instantly gripped by her.

“Step aside or you will all be arrested! I am not here to deal with you. Where is Arabie?”

Of course, they divulged the location instantly. The bouncers even handed over their keys.

All of them could feel that the current flowing through Kreuzung favored the fascists.

There was no use dying uselessly, for the woman drinking herself stupid up above them.

Almost without effort Standartenführer Vesna Nasser gained access to the Flowing Scarlet.

Her troops remained outside to watch over the men and the street.

She had business with the woman supposedly in charge of this depressing tower.

Nasser found her in the middle of a richly furnished penthouse.

Despite her age she was just like Nasser remembered her.

Lavishly manicured to hide the toll time had taken on her face, dolled up in fine clothing and pigments, hiding in a room that smelled of myrrh. She had come upon her in a vulnerable moment, however. Arabie was half fallen from a plush sofa and her makeup was running around her weeping eyes. Sobbing, kicking her feet; cans strewn about the room and white powder arrayed in messy lines on the coffee table. Wearing a loose purple robe that was off her shoulder enough to unveil an olive-tan breast with a dark pink tip.

Even without taking any care to hide her steps, Nasser managed to surprise her.

It took the dazed Madame Arabie a few moments to register a figure approaching her.

“Huh? Who? Leave– leave you idiots, I said I was busy–! I’ll– I’ll fucking kill you–!”

She sat up on the sofa and stared with glassy, still-weeping eyes at Nasser.

The Standartenführer was able to watch as if a time lapse, as the danger dawned on Arabie.

Her eyes drew wide, her ears folded, and her lips partially opened and remained so.

Nasser said nothing. To comment at all, would have made her angry enough to strike.

Even when properly dressed, Madame Arabie was a fallen being destined for the fire.

A whore; a drug pusher; a drunk. She sold her soul, and didn’t even try to pray for it back.

Without her high class airs, it was only more evident how impious she had become.

But she was convenient; and she would be necessary.

Nasser had to temper her frustrations.

“Who are you? Did you steal that uniform? I can’t smuggle you out.” Madame Arabie said.

Her voice was so gone. She was in an utter stupor.

“You’ve very well met fascist Shimii already. I am a proper Volkisch Standartenführer, just like Imani Hadžić. I serve in the ‘Zabaniyah’, the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache, with many of our kin. You know me, Leija Kladuša. I am Vesna, a member of the Nasser clan.”

Leija narrowed her eyes. Her body began shaking as if from the effort of that empty gaze.

“I– I’ve never heard of a Vesna Nasser. I did not know– the Nassers had a daughter?”

She was even more lost than Nasser thought.

“You drank your brain to death. But fine. You have heard of Vahid Nasser, haven’t you?”

Across from her, the sinner’s bleary red eyes blinked and then squinted at Nasser.

She could not possibly have been seeing any of Vahid in the Vesna who stood before her.

But her addled brain nevertheless made the connection.

She recognized her– perhaps?

“You’re– then– you’re the same as Homa? You took the medicines– to become–?”

“Homa? Who are you comparing me to? Leija, you need to cut the crap and clean up–!”

Leija’s tears welled up in her eyes again. She lowered her face into her hands.

“My precious kadaif— she was taken from me so cruelly– oh Homa! Homa!”

Wailing that name, she fell back onto the couch, writhing as if her skin was being burnt.

Not wanting to stare at that pathetic display, Nasser lifted her gaze– and saw something.

In the end of the room, a shrine had been put up.

The myrrh incense vapor machines had been set on a shelf along with an old picture, of a very young girl. There were flowers, sticks of cinnamon, colored gems, a haphazard assortment of little things. Memorials like this were impermissible for Shimii, but so was drinking, and dealing, and whoring– it no more damned Leija’s soul than any of her other sins. However, the haphazard placement of it inspired something in Nasser. She found herself pitying Leija for her loss in that moment. Leija was actually mourning.

She was surprised that this vile woman could care about anyone other than herself.

Hearing that name wailed over and over, and looking at the photograph–

Homa–

Homa–?

My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.

Nasser remembered.

And then– her wrath, the coming to blows.

Hatefully screaming Nasser’s name in an ever-fading voice as she died.

Nasser exhibited a brief shock that Leija was, thankfully, in no condition to notice. She would not acknowledge to Leija that she knew where her “precious kadaif” had ultimately gone.

Seeing what she had done to this woman, before her eyes. Her heart briefly wavered.

Nasser closed her fists as hard as she could. She dispelled a long-held breath.

It did not matter.

Many more families would be separated, many more young people killed, before Nasser’s ambitions would be completed. By her own hand, perhaps less– but she was not so deluded as to think the blood shed by her subordinates did not reach her. To end the feuds, once and for all, and unite the ummah, it could only be done by shedding blood. It was inevitable that Homa Baumann had to be killed for it. It was inevitable that Leija Kladuša had to suffer.

Ever since old Al-Khaybari turned his blade on the elder Nasser during Mehmed’s Jihad.

Ever since then– no, even before– ultimately they were all slaves to their Destiny.

Nasser bent and grabbed Leija by the shoulders and forced her to sit and look at her.

“Leija! I understand your loss! Were the circumstances different I would give you all the time you need to mourn. But not this way! Do you think Homa would want to see you like this? We shoulder the dreams of all our lost kin! You need to get a hold of yourself! We need someone here whom the Shimii will listen to. Fall apart once your duty to me is completed!”

Shaking Leija like a doll in her hands, as if it would rattle her back to her senses.

For a brief moment, the glassy eyes of that broken-down woman sharpened once more.

“Ugh– dreams and duties– talking big while you’re just some blackshirt!” Leija snapped.

Her eyes were still hazy. She was completely out of it.

And yet her words were so defiant and incivisive. Stupid woman.

Nasser could not help but to grin in response. In the grand scheme of things, it was true. Even when it came from the drawling mouth of this drug-addled fool. To the Rashidun, events were already Qadar— a divine destiny that was already known to God.

Compared to this truth, Nasser was indeed very small.

Nothing but another black shirt– but one with a heavy burden to bear.


When she awakened, the room was as dark as when Emilia went to sleep.

“Huh? I set an alarm. What happened?”

She had awakened naturally– there was no sound.

And the lights didn’t come on either.

She reached out her arm and tried to touch the wall just over the pull-out drawer beside her bed. After a few seconds of futile reaching to the furthest her arm would stretch, she woke up enough to figure things out and turned in bed. She instead touched the wall directly beside her. However, this too had no effect. Incredulous she touched the wall a few more times, but there was no response no matter how much she pressed.

Nothing lit up, no computer windows opened. The wall touchscreens were not working.

There was something just a little vexing about it.

Emilia forced herself up from the bed.

She grabbed hold of her blanket and wrapped it around herself.

Her room was so cold– everything must have lost power for some ungodly reason.

All of that Core Separation business was in the past, wasn’t it?

Emilia stood up and went to the door.

She groped in the dark for the physical switch that opened the door. Finally, it slid open, surprising her. She almost fell through the doorway and out into the hall in nothing but her blanket, a tanktop and shorts– thankfully she caught herself in time. But she was all the more embittered when she peered out, groggy and with fogged eyes.

All of her hall was in the dark. Several people were peering out of their own doors.

There was an electric torch set up at the far end of the hall, and a pair of men had pulled out a panel in the far wall and were working with tools impossible to discern. Something must have happened to the hall’s power infrastructure. Maybe it was a knock-on effect of the Core Separation, Emilia thought. At least it was being fixed. She was about to just sigh and turn back and lie around in the dark– but then her eyes were temporarily blinded.

A torch-light shone right on her face for an instant, causing her to grimace.

“Oh! I’m so sorry–! Please wait, I need to talk to you!”

Said in the voice of a woman, accompanied by clacking heels on the metal floor.

Emilia shielded her eyes and squinted and tried to make out the woman approaching.

When her vision returned, the woman had stopped in front of the door.

“Unter–?” She began to speak, but was not allowed to say much–

In response, Emilia grabbed her wrist, disarmed her of her torch and turned around.

The woman was taken aback. “–Wait! Ma’am, I’m– You– I’m here to–”

“I’m borrowing this. Wait here a sec, okay?” She said, sighing deeply.

She pulled the door shut behind herself, leaving the uniformed woman outside.

With the woman’s torch she could see into her room again.

She put it up on the pull-out bedside drawer, the beam shining up at the ceiling. It was so strong– Emilia flicked the tab on its handle down two notches to reduce the brightness. Now she felt like she could finally see comfortably in its presence. Immediately, she caught sight of herself in the room mirror, which was part of the pull-out drawers.

Grumbling a little to herself, she gathered up a haphazard fistful of her blond hair and a hair tie she had left on top of the drawer. She tied a quick and messy ponytail, and brushed her bangs by running her own fingers through them. It was a little bit messy but probably not too unsightly. Across the room from her bed, she found the catch to open the panel into the bath stall. She washed her face, gargled some water, brushed her teeth.

Another mirror. She saw herself in it. Auburn eyes. Her lips were a bit dry. She did not think she was necessarily beautiful, but she was pretty, she had a young, girlish spark– right?

She queried herself. She did not hate how she looked. It was acceptable.

Back at her drawer, she applied some chapstick. She fluttered her eyelashes.

She sighed.

Running through her mental checklist.

She wouldn’t even bother with makeup– she was so bad at it anyway. She had showered last night. She had not eaten, but this was a temporary room with no cooking furnishings, so she would need to grab something on the way to the Gau office. Uniform was a given; but she recalled that she should take her pills. She couldn’t keep forgetting.

“Good morniiing~ Emiliaaa~ It’s Emilia’s pills time~ pills that make her dick soft~”

Singing in a silly voice. Her good mood was starting to return.

It helped thinking about that woman’s face when she disarmed her.

After swallowing all of her day’s medications at once, against the instructions printed on the bottles, Emilia opened another wall panel to extract her uniform jacket and pants, as well as a button-down shirt and a tie. Her armbands were hanging on hooks. Everything smelled dusty and a little bit sweaty. She had to pay money for the wardrobe to maintain her clothing, and the prices had become ridiculous the past few days. In prison they just had a synthestitcher pop out a cheap jumpsuit for her whenever warranted.

Her uniform consisted of a black peaked cap, black jacket and pants, all with silver trim.

On the collar of the jacket there was a tab with four wolf’s hooks denoting her rank.

Untersturmführer— in the old Rhinean Navy she would have been a ‘Leutnant’.

Leutnant was so much easier to say.

But she was not part of the old Rhinean Navy.

Her armbands were red with a white circle, and inside each circle resided a different symbol including: a sonnenrad, a black sun disc; the Handschar, a Shimii sword; and the Reichsadler of the Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening on the third armband.

She had to wear all three. One for the Esoteric Order of National Socialism; one for the 7th Stabswache Fleet; and the third to denote that she was a national socialist party member in good standing. That last one was perhaps the most personally amusing of the armbands– but it was annoying to wear all three. She felt their presence conspicuously.

Emilia buttoned down her shirt, pulled up her pants, threw on her jacket, and put on shoes.

She left the cap where it was, in her enthusiasm to finally meet the woman at the door.

“I am ready! Sorry for the wait– I had to get decent.” Emilia said.

Opening the door, she found herself face to face with a pouting young woman.

Pointing her own torch back at her causing her to avert her gaze a bit.

Emilia instantly thought– this one was a bombshell.

A sleek jaw, a straight nose, sharp blue eyes and lush lips, all with precise makeup the likes of which Emilia could not have hoped to imitate. Her hair looked so silky, and it had a sheen in the light of the torch, dark, deeply black as her jacket and garrison cap, cut straight at the shoulder with perfect symmetry. Her body was fantastic– the uniform flattered her. Same as Emilia’s, but with a skirt and black tights. Had Emilia not been a degenerate who was on the way to embarrassing herself, she would have definitely tried to make a pass.

Instead, she simply smiled and held out her hand for a shake.

“Untersturmführer Emilia Skonieczny.” She said.

For a moment the woman at the door eyed her, with a slight bit of contempt.

Then she shook her hand, firmly and without reservation.

“Hauptscharführer Christina Fink. I am here to assist you in command duties, ma’am.”

Her voice was strong. She had a very no-nonsense energy to her.

“Assist me?” Emilia was confused. “I thought you were going to escort me to the Gau?”

“To the Gau? What for?”

“You don’t know?!” Emilia was suddenly shocked. “You didn’t come here to take me?”

“No? I did not come to take you to before the Gauleiter. Is something wrong?”

Emilia felt like, if she could say nothing, and continue to look normal–

–no, it was hopeless. She wouldn’t fool this (beautiful) woman for long.

“Err– Ah, well, you’re about to find out anyway– See, I did some jail time, so that’s still stuck on me today. I am having those old charges officially commutated. So I have to show up at the Gau office. Technically, I’ll still be a federal offender– but I can have this commutation, to then work toward acquittal thanks to some– let’s say ‘friends in high places’.”

“May I ask what the offense was? Was it something spurious?”

“Ah, yeah, I mean, I sure think so. It was for Sodomy. See– that’s still a federal offense.”

“Well– that’s– I see. I am glad the Gau office is assisting you, Untersturmführer.”

No! Her respect for Emilia had hit rock bottom! It was clear on her face!

Ah well– such was the fate of a degenerate, no matter her rank, service and deeds.

“So– you were sent to assist me? Are you from the 7th Fleet too?” Emilia asked.

Christina shook her head. “I’ve been working in Kreuzung, as a Gleichschaltung officer. My job was once to analyze communications from A-block– but this is no longer necessary, so I am being seconded to the combat fleet now. I am to work as your adjutant.”

Emilia nodded her head in acknowledgment.

Gleichschaltung meant coordination— the Volkisch sure loved their High Imbrian.

In this case, it was the idea that the liberal institutions of Rhinea had to be forced to accept total Volkisch rule. In places like Kreuzung where it would be too costly or chaotic to go after the liberal government in a violent purge without cause, the Gleichschaltung process began with the establishment of a Gau office that acted as a Volkisch civil authority.

Working with the Gau office, analysts like Christina spied and scrutinized the liberals, opening opportunities for the Volkisch to attack officials and policies, demand the alteration of laws or issue their own legal proclamations. It was a slow political war of attrition.

But liberal Kreuzung had fallen. The Gau’s decrees were the law of the station now.

And soon, Violet Lehner would be law and order of the entire region.

Knowing all of that– Emilia smiled a bit more awkwardly.

Christina now looked like a very frightening woman behind that steely composure.

“So– if you will, I’m headed to the Gau office.”

“Yes.” Christina said. “I will follow you. You should get something to eat too.”

“Right.”

Christina then stepped forward and reached for Emilia’s chest.

Taking her tie in one brusque sleight of the hand– and tying it appropriately.

Then also buttoning her jacket correctly, her long fingers, one button after another–

Emilia became as stiff and dead as all the LED posts that didn’t work in the hallway.

She tucked her shirt in, buttoned her coat, did her tie. With stoic precision.

Then Christina finally retreated, with a final swipe at Emilia’s shoulder to pat off dust.

“I want to assume you do not care about your appearance for lack of time and energy with which to do so.” Christina said sternly. “So I will assist you in maintaining an appropriate standard. From now on, you need to maintain decorum as an officer. You do not represent solely yourself, but us, the unit, the fleet, the party, and the fatherland.”

Emilia felt like she was being called an embarassing pervert in code.

“Yes. You’re right– I’ve just been busy, and tired.” Emilia replied, averting her gaze.

All lies that they both saw through, but it was the lies Christina wanted to hear.

“Very well. Lead way, Untersturmführer.”

Christina was such a presence.

She was the armbands but hundreds of times heavier.

Since arriving at the station, a few days earlier, Emilia had been afforded a rather plain room in D-block while she waited for her transfer and the commutation. It was not ‘hers’ precisely and she would neither keep it nor miss it when it was gone. Especially since the hallway was having electrical problems now. However, it was convenient, with elevators going farther down or straight up, easily accessible by turning the corners. She and Christina made their way around the hall, and rode the elevator up to a street module in C-block.

There were shops, grocers, cafes, all in quaint little buildings connected by a false cobblestone road under a gentle, false blue sky. It was like a little town road.

Nervous glances shot their way from every direction after they stepped onto the street.

There was no hiding within a crowd wearing the black uniforms of the Volkisch.

Standing out was the point, as much as Emilia disliked it.

She tried to smile and wave at anyone who stared for too long, but it only scared them off.

It was foolish to think she was anything but an intruder in this place.

Emilia was fooling herself about a lot of things– but that one was far too glaring.

On one street corner, Emilia spotted another black-uniformed woman.

Tall and fair, with brown hair– and a pair of rounded cat-like ears atop her head, between which she wore her garrison cap. She had a simple submachine gun that resembled a grease gun, on a sling around her shoulder. It was unloaded, but she had visible magazines on her person and could have reached for one easily in response to a threat. Her bushy tail swung behind her as she stood, leaning back against the corner, looking bored.

Sturmmann!” Emilia called out the girl by rank. “All quiet on the front?”

The Shimii woman raised her eyes off the floor when addressed.

“Yes ma’am. Nothing to report.” She said. Her hands were completely off her gun.

“What is your name?” Emilia asked, quite curious.

At her side, Christina looked a bit annoyed with her, but she did not say anything.

“Sturmmann Ajna Jakupović.” The Shimii said. “Is this an inspection, Untersturmführer?”

“Not at all!” Emilia said. “I was just greeting you. I haven’t gotten out much, you see.”

“Well. There’s not much to see. Everything is quite normal, and the street is peaceful.”

“Hopefully we can scale down posts like this soon then? Don’t you think?”

“I could not say. I take up my post as I am ordered, and I will continue to do so.”

Quite a dour girl.

Emilia felt like she was surrounded by very tense people in the Volkisch.

Despite her insistence that everything was quite normal, in fact, she herself represented a change for the people of Kreuzung. Even if they had gotten used to a black uniform here or there; now all of the policing was done by black uniforms. No more K.P.S.D guards.

Armed black uniforms on every street corner. Must have been terrifying.

Not to mention the majority of them were Shimii, once a segregated people in Kreuzung.

When Emilia and Christina got to walking again, Christina cleared her throat.

“Untersturmführer, please do not trouble the patrol officers.” She said.

“It won’t matter anyway. I’m bound for the sea again soon.” Emilia replied jovially.

“Be that as it may.”

She did not follow up that remark and Emilia did not respond to it either.

They simply walked, amid the morning crowd that was going to work or preparing for it.

Partway through their trek to the Gau office, Christinia tapped on Emilia’s back.

They both stopped, and she led the Untersturmführer off the street and into a little café that was sharing space with a bar which was closed. Both halves of the venue could sit customers for the café, and the café was serving coffee out of the half that constituted the bar. But the coffee was a rather shocking price, for such a thing that just came in the fighting rations of Diver pilots like Emilia– instead, Christina bought the two of them cups of breakfast tea, along with breakfast potatoes, grilled with cheese and sausage.

“I take it Kreuzung hasn’t recovered from the recent shortages yet?” Emilia asked.

As she did, she stirred sugar cubes until they dissolved in her tea.

“You’re– rather curious, aren’t you, Untersturmführer?” Christina said.

“I see it as my duty to understand things, Hauptscharführer, not merely accept them.”

Christina let out a little sigh. “I rather meant, you’re different from other officers.”

“In that too, yes. Possibly for the best, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps. It’s too early to tell.”

Christina took a long sip of her tea as if to forego further conversation on this topic.

Emilia tucked into her potatoes. They were salty, fatty, almost unctuous.

Rhinea was known for potatoes. Potatoes, black bread, gritty sausage– all those foods that the Imbrium Empire exalted as traditional and cultural and staples of a hardy working class, they were grown in quantity in Rhinea. And these were the foods exalted by the Volkisch Movement as befitting the masculine and vital Volksgemeinschaft of the national socialist man. Probably soon, the Gau would start promoting these foods and politely criticizing restaurants and establishments that continued to drive up demand for luxuries.

Just like in her native station of Weimar, a few months ago, just before she left.

Before she was deployed to the front as penance for her degenerate bisexual ways.

 “You can call me by name.” Emilia said. “Can we chat for a little bit?”

Christina looked up for her plate. She ate quite slow and delicately.

“Alright. What about?”

“Anything really. I just haven’t had a human conversation with someone in so long.”

“From reading your file, it did seem like you have been shuffled around a lot of posts.”

“It’s because the ships kept sinking.” Emilia said. “But I kept surviving. I made no friends.”

“Reports spoke highly of your combat abilities. So– I expected a different sort of person.”

“I’m kind of flattered they did not mention the penal conscription and sodomy and all that.”

Emilia looked up from her food and smiled quite cheerfully at Christina.

The adjutant looked quite disarmed by the sudden look on her face.

She averted her gaze.

“Here I am. Not like the reports.” Emilia said. “Except that I’m good in a pinch, maybe.”

“Unter– Emilia,” Christina said, “might I ask– do you have any ambitions in the military?”

Perhaps a tricky question for someone who had been forced into this horrible situation.

But Emilia had thought about it well, and for a long time, having gotten this far.

“Since I’m here now, I would like to retire with decent benefits. I’m tired of struggling.”

Christina looked at her with further confusion. “I see. I suppose you didn’t have a choice.”

“I’m making the best of it. I’ve thought about everything– I had tons of time to plan it out. If I fail, I just die– that ends up solving all the problems anyway. But in the military I can get a pension, health benefits, lifetime housing, the works. For a wastrel like me, it’s great. Being conscripted was fine for my prospects. I’m too scandalous– not a lot of equal opportunity.”

“I see. You really have given it a lot of thought, Untersturmführer. It’s– a worthy goal.”

Emilia did not see it as particularly worthy– but it was attainable! That mattered the most.

“But what about you Hauptscharführer? What attracts a woman like you to the navy?”

Christina looked down at her tea. Her own perfectly applied makeup looked back at her.

“I suppose it is similar– maybe even the same. As you say– there is ‘equal opportunity.’”

“In times of hardship, the nation would rather allow homos and women to jump in front of the steel, than fall on its own sword purely out of pride. Suffering makes us all equal.”

Christina looked suddenly sad. “You have a certain way with words, Untersturmführer.”

Clearly she was uncomfortable with the rhetoric– but Emilia didn’t care.

She was hitting her stride. Her heart was soaring, even. God was in his heaven, to her.

All of the worst things that could be done to Emilia Skonieczny– they already had been.

So anything that happened from now on was acceptable. Things were truly looking up.

In fact, it was a thrilling puzzle. War. Surviving. Winning, even, the few times it happened.

All of it was a gamble where only something worthless was at stake– her own life.

And certainly gambling was one of Emilia’s vices, among many.

After eating, and having gotten to know each other– at least more than not at all– Emilia led Christina to the Gau office on the far end of the C-block street module from the cafes. The building was set against the wall of the module, with a roundabout road in front of it, such that it felt like the terminus of the C-block. All roads led to the Gau office. It was three stories tall, so it was taller than all the two-story shops and offices on the street.

A steel Reichsadler decoration in front looked over the passersby.

Through the door into the building, there was a lobby and waiting area with pull-out chairs.

Emilia and Christina sat down together until they were called.

Though they were entirely alone in the Gau office, it took almost fifteen minutes.

At a counter, behind bullet-proof glass, a very young receptionist confirmed their identity. She was thin and blond and small– at most she could have been an older teenager perhaps.

“Take the stairs, and it’s the third door. Thank you for visiting.” She said without emotion.

There was a buzzer, and one of the doors leading further into the building opened up.

Emilia and Christina walked inside.

For the building where the downfall of the liberal government of Kreuzung had been planned and underway for months now– there was nothing about it that was out of the ordinary. Thick plastic walls painted in a faux-brick style, stagnant air that smelled like the vents it passed. Gloomy halls lit by rows of centrally-installed white LEDs on the roof. It was rather eerie. It felt like a dentist’s office more than a nerve-cluster of fascism.

Third door, upstairs. Inside there was a small office, with a desk and two chairs.

A blond man who tried to smile bid them to sit down. One of his armbands had a symbol of a wrapped stack of arrows– this denoted support personnel and civilian service workers within the National Socialist Party of Rhinea. Unlike Emilia, this man’s battlefield was this desk, or any other desk he was given, but he still had his markers of service to the National Socialist Party. Emilia saw his eyes appraise her quickly, but he never stopped smiling falsely.

“Emil Skoniecszny, correct?” He said. He passed Emilia a portable computer.

There were documents about her loaded into the device. Many had glaring errors.

Surname frequently misspelled. Different names used. Wrong national ID numbers.

“I had it changed.” She replied. “Before I ended up in jail. A bunch of this is wrong.”

“Ah, yes, the government was not so efficient before as now. You would be aghast at how many of these documents we must amend.” Said the man, still trying to put up a smile. “How about this, officer. Tell me the correct ones, and I’ll see to it we fix them all. No need for paperwork or anything silly– everything has been authorized to the fullest extent.”

“That would be lovely.” Emilia said. “So then– I will get my commutation too, right?”

“Of course, of course.” Said the man. “The Reichkommissar’s signature guarantees it. You will no longer be considered to be serving a sentence through labor. Then we will process a formal acquittal after a brief review by all parties. You’ll be a free woman soon.”

All of the parties involved– Emilia knew they would be amenable.

After all– they had come to have need of the murderous skills she had exhibited.

While the man began editing the documents, Emilia found herself looking at the ceiling.

Somewhere, far up above, Violet Lehner was in the process of changing everything.


After only two days in Kreuzung, the vanguard of the 7th Fleet of the Stabswache had secured control of the station in its totality, facing little resistance. Already the first reforms were beginning to roll out of the new government in A-block. A purge of local administrators was underway, along with an expansion of the Gau government seat and the reorganization of Eisental as a Reichskommissariat, a Fascist-led regional administration that was the fiefdom of its Reichskommissar, in this case the self-appointed Violet Lehner.

No one had heard of Violet before, but the surname Lehner rendered them quiet.

Elections were suspended indefinitely. All appointments were by decree from the Gau or Reichskommissar, and served indefinitely until promotion, resignation or dismissal. More reforms were then planned– including a rumored desegregation of the towers. But it was not all bad. Prices had gone back to normal, particularly for Rhineametalle subsidiary goods along with Volwitz Foods products. It was a sign of esteem from the corporations.

Whoever Violet Lehner was, business seemed to approve of her accession.

Volkisch presence continued to grow exponentially in Kreuzung. At first the vanguard was composed of a dozen ships, but it would swell to over 200 vessels. Aside from the core of the 7th Stabswache, Volkisch militia were summoned in droves, along with a constellation of ancillary paramilitary organizations that had also rallied to Reichskommissariat Eisental.

Once bordering on the outskirts of the Volkisch power structure, groups appeared such as the Silver Wolf Brigade of once-oppressed Khedivate loup; and stranger Esoteric Order paramilitary fighters like the Black Sun Valkyries who were not the right kind of fascist for Adam Lehner’s neatly micromanaged central government. On the civilian front, all manner of new age polemicists, such as scientific atheists and technology supremacists, flocked to Kreuzung from places like Thuringia and Weimar, hoping for intellectual sympathy.

Adam Lehner had tried to paper over the bizarre, fractious nature of his coalition.

But Violet Lehner seemed to revel in the grand universe of niche fascists surrounding her.

And it was a universe which was daily accruing more twisted stars within its firmament.

Knowing all of this, Rhineametalle labor leader Josef Kohler decided to follow the letter which he had received from the barricades. He clutched it in his hands as he walked.

He knew he was accepting a poisoned chalice, but he was afraid at the daily appearance of more fascist military ships, and of the rapid collapse of the liberal Kreuzung government. It felt like this was his last and only chance to achieve something tangible for the shop floor. So he donned his suit, left the barricade with the signature of the new Reichskommissar in hand, and made his way cautiously to the heights of the core station.

He had been warned that there was chaos in A-block, but by the time he arrived, everything appeared to have long been sorted out. No arrests or beatings in progress. There was a single checkpoint staffed by Shimii in uniform, that he easily crossed. All of the villas and parks and the gorgeous lakeside, appeared untouched, just like in the pictures and television programs. There hung numerous banners with strange symbols now, but it was exactly as alien to Josef as the tastes of the previous owners, so it did not perturb him.

When he arrived at the government building, he showed the receptionist the letter.

It felt like all the hustle and bustle he expected to see in the street had been pushed into the government palace in A-block instead. There were hundreds of people coming and going, taking boxes of things out, bringing boxes in. Bringing in furnishings and taking them out. There was a metal painting in the process of being hung on magnets in the walls of the lobby. The painting depicted the Eisental region, but with subregional separations that Kohler had never seen before. He was ushered away before he could examine it.

“Please wait here. The Reichskommissar will see you shortly.” Said the receptionist.

“Wait, the Reichskommissar? I thought I would be meeting a negotiator or–”

Without listening to him, the receptionist simply left and closed the door behind her.

 Kohler stared speechless at the door. He then took a seat.

This was a small, ancillary office, nothing but a desk and some chairs, if it had been decorated to any further extent before then those decorations had been stripped, probably loaded into a box and taken out with the rest of the junk. There was nothing particularly intimidating about it, the place was extremely ordinary. It felt like he was visiting the tax office or the licensing bureau, except he was not waiting for some functionary.

Why would Violet Lehner come talk to him in person?

When the door opened next, it took all of Kohler’s power not to stare or make a gesture.

A woman walked right past him, her wildly colored hair clashing with her black uniform.

She was breezy and confident in her gait, casually taking her place behind the desk.

As if this was any other event for her, as if her presence was so natural.

“Mister Kohler, I am glad my letter reached you. Let’s talk about ending this strike.”

“I– Yes.”

Her voice was a little bit nasal– Kohler thought it was unusual for a woman.

In terms of stature, Kohler was taller, his limbs thicker, even in his suit, he was the working class man in the room. Across from him, Lehner was almost wispy in her figure, like a dark fairy who might vanish the moment he took his eyes off her. She had a strange but captivating beauty. He couldn’t keep himself from staring at the colors of her hair. It was almost ridiculous to him that this woman was now the master of the station and the region of Eisental at large. But clearly, if she achieved that– she was formidable.

And he thought, when she moved, when she spoke, that she had a certain presence.

Her every breath betrayed her belief in her own power and advantage, exuding confidence.

Kohler was dealing a girl much younger than he, a girl who looked almost unserious.

Yet he was immediately pressured and rendered cautious by her gaze and voice alone.

“I strongly believe that this meeting can be mutually beneficial to us. To start, I would like to hear from you the motivation behind the strike, and your demands in full.” Violet began.

“Yes.” Kohler said. “Months ago– after the elections–” He paused to gather his breath. He had found himself about to stammer and he had to project confidence. “Rhineametalle instituted productivity targets that demanded intolerable work hours on the shops in order to fulfill them. When some of the veterans complained, they fired all the old hats, and hired a bunch of younger guys and girls. But trying to train those kids, it was impossible to meet the targets. And then the targets were set to go up again, because of demands from the government. That’s when we’d had it. Even younger workers joined the strike. That was how bad it was, Reichskommissar. They were practically demanding we live in the shops.”

“I don’t disagree that in those conditions, the production targets were set carelessly.”

Violet agreeing with him, even mildly, came as a staggering surprise to Kohler.

“We either need wages to go up, and more guys and machines in the shops– or we need the targets to go back down and our work hours to normalize again in turn.” Kohler said. “They can throw out all the guys they want, and they can hire all the kids they want to replace them. Even if they replace all the guys with new machines that can shove the metal into themselves and stitch it all themselves perfectly and then shuttle it themselves out of the shop– they aren’t getting out a Dreadnought’s worth of plates every day.”

“I agree. And replacing you all with miracle-machines would take up space that we don’t have in those shops anyway. So the realistic option is to talk things out as humans.”

“Listen, Reichskommissar.” He had gotten so used to calling her by her title. But it felt too surreal to call her Miss Lehner or anything else. “I’m– I’m not political here. None of the guys and girls in the shops are being political about this. We all respect the government, we live here. We just need a fair shake for once. We’ll go back to work, as soon as we have a contract that makes sense. We’re not gonna work ourselves to death failing to meet targets that keep rising in desperation and getting punished for it– not for last year’s wages.”

“All of that sounds acceptable to me.” Violet said. She steepled her fingers and smiled. “Here’s my proposal, Mr. Kohler. I looked through the production totals for the Tower Nine plant going back two years. Productivity was steadily growing– until the start of the war, when production targets grew immensely. I want you to agree to work out a plan for a 4% increase in weekly productivity in ninety days, but based on last year’s production scheme, with a guarantee that hours and totals will revert to that scheme and will not rise haphazardly. This is incumbent on immediate resumption of deliveries.”

That was much better than Kohler expected. Only 4% was doable with what they had.

He felt confident to push a bit. Violet seemed amenable.

“Ma’am, I am almost positive that we could get you a 6% increase on last year– if you could agree to the reinstatement of some of my trade union boys that got fired before. We got some kids who joined the strike, and a lot that didn’t. But I got guys with families ma’am, good guys, who you could bring back, and we could do so much more. With only the greenhorn kids, I don’t know that I’ll get you 3%. What do you say to that?”

“Very well. But I have an additional condition to add as well.” Violet said.

“I’m listening.” Kohler said. He felt safe– he thought he was winning her over right now.

Across the desk, Violet put on a cheekier and even more conceited grin.

“I want all of your union members present and future to join the Eisental National Socialist Party, which I will soon chair, as our first National Socialist Trade Union. Through the Party, we will organize all future labor contracts. Before you balk at this, know that I won’t demand you attend any pointless political theater for the sake of the party. Those are simply my own numbers which I must meet, and you will help to meet them. In turn, you can have as many of your men back to work as the new hires who did not join the strike. Deal, then?”

Kohler was stunned. “Ma’am, all due respect– that is a bit of a pill to swallow.”

Violet leaned forward a little bit on her desk.

“Mr. Kohler, I am willing to cooperate with you on this endeavor, in a way that nobody else is going to do. Rhineametalle won’t; and Adam Lehner won’t. Before I arrived nobody was trying to help you. I am not your friend; everything is incumbent exclusively on your results. I am taking this risk, at great personal cost, because I have crunched the numbers and the numbers do not lie. I know you can make these numbers and I know it will benefit us both. Those numbers will be met, whether by you and your trade union buddies or by someone else. But I don’t want to replace you. Please make the rational choice, just like me.”

Violet slowly drew back and laid against her chair, looking relaxed.

While Kohler felt himself sweating just a bit.

“Think about it.” She said. Her voice sounded almost sultry. “Destiny awaits.”

Kohler found his expected poisoned chalice, but now golden and studded with gems.

It was so much more difficult to turn it down or to argue against it.

Because if he could survive the poison, he had the gold and gems right in his grasp.

He was not lying to Violet. Few if any of his workers viewed themselves as activists first.

They made their living in stitching and shaping and treating steel that was then to be used in weapons for the Empire. They were part of the war machine. Had they all been ideologues, they would have quit the job when Rhineametalle quietly continued making weapons for the National Socialists. Had any of them been commies or pacifists, they would have quit even before that. All that they wanted was to live comfortably with their families. Their jobs were rare in that they were in constant demand and paid well and had perks.

None of them wanted to end up as contractors.

But he would have to surrender the union to the Volkisch. Could he do that?

Kohler imagined himself in a black uniform, with a sun disk on his chest, an eagle armband.

Some part of him was repelled by it– but his pragmatic mind told him it didn’t matter.

Getting paid and continuing to live mattered more than keeping his conscience clean.

Was the Volkisch Movement any worse than the Emperor and all that, anyway?

And Violet Lehner seemed so reasonable. She actually believed in the workers.

“Reichskommissar, soon as I see that deal in an official stamped document, we’ll sign it.”

He reached across the desk. Violet took his hand and gave it a curt little shake.

“Fantastic. I will get my Reich Ministry to put it all into a contract for your review. I’ll expedite it– I of course expect you’ll continue to man your barricade in the meantime.” She said.

“I’ll stay here until it’s ready and take it back to them, if that’s what it takes.” Kohler said.

“Splendid. We’re planning big things here, Mr. Kohler. I’m happy you’ll be on board.”

Kohler tried not to think about how ominous any of this sounded, nor meet Violet’s gaze. He was a member of a National Socialist Trade Union now– but god damn it, he’d be a fed and clothed member of a National Socialist Trade Union. He’d have a job and benefits.

He wouldn’t be out on the street.

Or dead.

In his eyes, that was a victory for labor.


Violet Lehner could have had any of the villas in A-block as a home, having purged most of the local politicians and men of influence who had taken up residence in the shadow of the Kreuzung central government. Of the vacancies, she preferred one of the smaller and more out of the way plots. On the opposite side of the lake from the main road, there was a small white house. While it was two stories tall, it consisted of only a foyer, a dining room, kitchen and a bathroom and bedroom on the upper floor. No sweeping wings with dozens of bedrooms. It was a little square thing that was almost cute to look at.

After working until 2000 hours, Violet finally retired from the office to her new home.

Having spent all day in meetings about every conceivable aspect of Kreuzung, arranging new appointees, speaking with the corporatins, as well as looking through Kreuzung’s records with her own eyes and coming up with her own ideas of how it should be managed henceforth– she was exhausted. All of the shouting and speechifying was bouncing around in her skull. She wanted to eat, and to sleep, and to be alone with her thoughts.

She was quietly driven out of the government palace, around the lake, and left at her home. Two armed guards would take the night shift guarding her home. She welcomed them to have dinner, but they declined, having already eaten. They requested to be able to pray, instead. Violet agreed wholeheartedly, and she left them to do so on her porch.

Inside, the house was sparsely decorated. Unlike some of the other villas, this one had been unoccupied, it was up for sale, and Violet had purchased it. It was a drop in the bucket compared to the windfall that Kreuzung had repossessed in its sweeping purges of the liberal government and their ill-gotten gains. Violet hung up her cap, cape and jacket near the door, and undid the top buttons on her shirt, removing the tie. She ran her hands through her colorful hair and sighed deeply, making her way to the kitchen.

She had only two major kitchen appliances: a refrigerator, and a dehydrator. She had a pantry, a cupboard, and she had a mortar and pestle out on small island.

Violet wandered over to the dehydrator. A tall metal box with nine racks inside, designed to perfectly hold temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees centigrade. She opened the box, and there was already a rack where she had been warming up some nuts all day. She left them on the island while she gathered herbs and garlic from her refrigerator. From the pantry, she took a small bottle of olive oil. With everything assembled, she pulled up her sleeves a bit and got to pounding the ingredients in her granite mortar and pestle.

There was something therapeutic about the action.

Her mind practically emptied as she smashed the herbs, garlic and nuts along with a bit of flaky salt, periodically splashing oil into the mix until she had a loose paste.

Then, she withdrew some mushrooms with big caps from her pantry, the stems having already been cut off, and she spread the paste on the underside of each mushroom cap like pieces of buttered toast. She put four such mushrooms on a plate, paste-side up, and took her light dinner to the dining room table along with a glass of lemon water.

She sat down and took her first bite. She already knew it would taste good, but she was still surprised at how fresh and hearty it felt every time she had it. Vegetal and earthy, with a fresh, bright taste from the herbs, this was real food, living food. In her mind, something like a fried sausage was like eating cancer. It was a pity that they could not feed the soldiers a diet like the one she had. They did not understand its virtues, and it simply was not cheap– promoting raw vegan food was a longer term project for Violet. For now, she had to accept the political realities, but someday. Someday everyone would eat only like this.

It would be a better world, a healthier world, a corrected world.

A perfect, superior world.

A world of truly modern humans enlightened by a scientific yet mythopoetic political ideal.

That ideal was Fascism, in the particular expression Violet herself championed.

Halfway through her dinner, she heard the front door open.

It did not worry her.

Someone put up a coat in the foyer. There was the approaching clack of heeled shoes.

Around the corner appeared a familiar figure, smiling as she took her place at the table.

Vesna Nasser, loosening her own tie and undoing a few buttons on her shirt.

Violet smiled back at her.

Nasser was a sight. She was tall and beautiful, with a strong gaze and countenance. She had an amazing figure, like the treatments they both received had brought out three times as much of a woman from her body as from Violet’s. Her blond hair and golden ears and tail only added to Violet’s interest. Already predisposed to Shimii, Violet thought that Nasser was the most perfect example of the grace and wild beauty of her kin.

Everyone else was deeply afraid of her majesty.

“Want some?” Violet asked, pointing to the last mushroom cap on her plate.

“I already ate, but I appreciate it.” Nasser replied.

“You’re missing out.” Violet said, with a little grin.

She picked up the mushroom cap and took a bite. Some of the spread got on her lips.

Nasser reached out and smudged the paste over Violet’s lips, grinning back.

“I’m not a convert to your silly diet, you know.” She said.

“It’s not silly– it’s scientific. Someday we must all eat like this.”

“Tell me, how does a dehydrator not constitute cooking? I still don’t understand that.”

“Heating up food past around 47 C kills all the nutrients, but just warming it up will inhibit bacterial growth while expressing some of the living flavor compounds.” Violet said.

“If you say so.” Nasser’s ears twitched. Her smile spread even farther, and she chuckled.

Glaring at her, Violet ate the last of her mushroom in one big bite.

“How was your trip to Tower Seven? How are the people there?” Violet asked.

“Badly abused, but resilient.” Nasser said. “Leija was a disaster, so I could not get anything important done. I left a few people with her to force to her clean up. I need to make sure she is in command of the place, before we begin serving carrots and swinging sticks.”

“Good idea. Don’t feel too rushed. Every Shimii stronghold is worth the effort for us.”

“I will keep that in mind, Reichskommissar.” Nasser said playfully.

Violet narrowed her eyes at the tone with which she pronounced her title.

But she decided not to make anything of it. She would just get teased even more.

This house and their stay in it was not for productive conversations about work anyway.

“I’m tired, Vesna. I’m going upstairs.” Violet said.

“Mind if I join you? We haven’t had the privacy to just chat for some time.” Nasser said.

“Oh, of course I don’t mind. My home is your home, always.”

They made their way upstairs.

Up a quaint-looking set of steps in the little foyer, empty save for their coats hung near the door. Violet began undoing more of her shirt’s buttons with a mind as empty as the surroundings, with each step taken up to the second floor. She felt Nasser’s hands lay on her shoulders and rub them, and she thought idly about taking a bath before deciding to do so in the morning, before she headed off back to the palace to continue her work.

As soon as she crossed the door into her bedroom, she felt Nasser’s grip on her tighten.

In an instant, Violet found herself nearly hurled onto the bed, face-down.

Nasser was on top of her just as quickly.

One hand running through Violet’s hair and grabbing.

And the other hand forcefully pulling down her pants from over her ass.

Violet did not resist.

She was bleary with anticipation and the forcefulness of her partner.

Her shirt was falling off her shoulders purely from the brusqueness of how she was handled.

“Vesna–”

“Quiet.” Vesna said, gentle but authoratative.

Violet went silent.

Vesna leaned forward, putting her weight on Violet.

Her lips left sucking kisses on Violet’s neck, her back, her exposed shoulders.

Then a bite that felt deep enough to leave red.

Violet cried out in surprise.

She heard and felt Vesna pulling down her skirt, and it sliding off onto the bed.

Felt her pants finally come down.

A hand slid under her belly and urged her to lift her hips.

“I love you, Vesna.” Violet said, her voice fading in the midst of her lovestruck stupor.

Vesna’s voice in her ear. “I’ll imprint how I feel right into your skin, mein Schatzi.”


In one of the cleaned-out rooms in the government palace, a holoprojection-capable table was arrayed in the middle, and it became a tactical room and the embryonic nerve center of the Reichskommissariat’s fleet activities. Barely a few days into Eisental’s transformation, its architects gathered in the room and around the table to formally commence the next phase of their operation. Kreuzung was their stronghold, but all of Eisental had to be taken.

Projected between them was a map of Eisental’s regions, stations, and projections of ship traffic between them. Stations were displayed by size and type. Business traffic was simulated in real time as it was known and regulated. Around Kreuzung was the ever-growing fleet of “Player Black.” In the far northwest in Aachen, close to the continent and Ayre; in the east near Khaybar; in the northeast around Stralsund group of towers; appeared the theoretical fleets of “Player Red,” “Player Green,” and “Player Yellow.”

It was “Black’s” turn to move.

At the head of the table was Violet Lehner, flanked by her dutiful adjutant Vesna Nasser. On accession of Violet to Reichskommissar, Nasser was promoted to Oberführer.

Opposite her, stood a woman with very orderly dark-blue hair, holding her cap in her hands. Her tail was extremely bushy and a little bit messier than her hair, and her cat-like ears were rounded-off at the tips. She wore her jacket off her shoulders, with her arms out of the sleeves. This was Standartenführer Imani Hadžić, a wealthy and intelligent follower of Nasser’s ideals. On that night, she met no one’s eyes and had a distant expression.

Beside Imani Hadžić, an exceedingly stuffy-looking dark-haired woman glared at her.

Her eyes seemed to take particular umbrage with the way Imani wore her uniform.

Along with this woman was a bubbly blond smiling in a way Violet found stupid.

This was Untersturmführer Emilia Skonieczny, whose career was a peculiar interest.

Then the sides of the table. Violet looked to each, examining their countenances.

On one side was a serious-looking Loup woman, with a long mane of brown hair. Broad-shouldered, tall, and with large hands, a scar cutting across the bridge of her nose and another extending from the side of her mouth near to the peak of cheekbones. She looked the most like a warrior of anyone in the room, but her scars and ruggedness had a sort of romantic and tragic beauty to them, itself evident in the softness of her gaze.

This was the Loup warlord Sushila Hatta of the Khedivate Loup “Silver Wolf Legion.” She was given the rank of Obersturmbannführer and a corresponding uniform within the Eisental fascists, having left the backwaters of Southern Rhinea to join their cause.

Standing beside her was a woman who was also rustic, large and tough — though nowhere near Hatta’s level — with a great quantity of silky brown hair and an unfriendly expression on her pretty young face. Her girlish beauty was yet untouched by war. This was Heidelinde Sawyer, Sturmbannführer in charge of the Volkisch militias. As a kind of insult she was subordinated to Hatta temporarily– Violet did not trust her for a second. She would find a more permanent home for Adam Lehner’s personal attack dog soon enough.

Opposite them was the final member of this group of conspirators. She was a very pale woman, blond, so blond her hair was almost white. Her icy blue eyes and icy-blue lips were twisted in a euphoric expression. Around her neck she wore an enormous medallion with a hooked cross, and she was bedecked in jewels, gold and earrings besides. She was perhaps the oldest woman in the room, with crow’s feet and a lot of makeup. But she boasted a grand and refined beauty, like an actress still slaying the lead role in sensual romance films well into her 50s. Her busty, ample figure was flattered by the uniform.

She was the first one to speak while everyone else was getting settled.

“Aaah! Such powerful auras! I can feel the divine feminine coursing in this room! It is touched by the sign of Venus! It is a site of Ying energy! Here the sun falls and the moon shines in its magnificence! We are pregnant with the future and giving birth to power!”

Everyone stared at her in complete and utter confusion.

Violet narrowed her eyes at the pagan’s rambling, as the woman began to hug herself.

“Divine feminine? I would be very surprised to find any of that in this room.” She said.

Perhaps the strangest of Eisental’s military forces, this chirpy and unwell woman was Luciana Waldeck, head of the Black Sun Valkyries, an all-woman female-spiritualist paramilitary. Like Hatta, she had been given a rank in the Volkisch, but hers was only Sturmbannführer. Violet eyed her skeptically. Her family had once been ennobled, and she threw a lot of money at the Volkisch Movement over the years, and she was now eager to throw even more money and manpower at Eisental. Violet was not particularly fond of her, mainly because she just could not tell whether Luciana knew about Violet’s particular form of femininity–

but she wouldn’t bring it up. That conversation could only be annoying.

Let this idiot proselytize and throw money around, and let her deluded followers die for Violet’s schemes. That was perhaps the best place and the best end for such people.

“It appears that we’re all here.” Hatta said. “I await my orders, Reichskommissar.”

“Indeed, indeed! Let’s talk uniform-type business! I’m so excited!” Luciana added.

Hatta stared at her like she wanted to bite her.

“Very well. Nasser, disclose the situation and preliminary assignments.” Violet said.

“Yes, Reichskommissar.”

Nasser touched the table with her index finger and swiped across.

More information appeared overlayed on the initial map. A prepared set of regional colors.

“Prior to the declaration of the Reichskommisariat, the Eisental region was only loosely governed from Kreuzung. Despite this, most of the region has fallen in line to support our administrative reforms. One notable holdout is Aachen, an industrial station in the north. Over time, Aachen was allowed to grow into a powerful center of administration, commanding large amounts of resources from western Eisental. Aachen is the only other station with political power and economy on par with Kreuzung. Most Western stations are primarily engaged in the harvest of raw materials. Eastern Eisental is mainly Agrispheres with traditionally large Shimii populations. Kreuzung is the most important part of the southern portion of the region, and already under our control. Other than that, the South and Southwest contain many Rhineametalle facilities and a few luxury habitats.”

“Now that you know about the region you can guess what the problem is. We have communicated the changes in status to Aachen and requested acquiescence.” Violet said. “They claim they wish to confirm with the Reichsgau in Thurin before they recognize us. Of course, I don’t believe this is the case.” Violet touched the table as well, tapping on the red units that were located around Aachen. “I am almost positive Aachen is plotting some resistance and stalling for time. They have many reasons not to accept our rule.”

Nasser followed from Violet’s statements naturally. She pushed up her glasses.

“We have good intelligence from a Katarran mole with ties to Aachen, that a constellation of leftist protest movements and paramilitary groups are mustering in the north. This mole also assisted us in predicting the Core Separation– the Cogitans refused the so-called ‘United Front’ and launched their own failed attack which we were able to repulse. So we can trust their information. We can surmise that this United Front is disorganized and its many groups are ideologically divided, so their cohesion will likely be very poor even without the Cogitans. But they could nevertheless constitute a threat if they are allowed to go to ground. Eisental still has the potential to break down into a greater crisis if the leftists get organized.”

“Labor is a big issue. To bring temperatures down and weaken the labor movements, we will establish several centrally-governed National Socialist Trade Unions.” Violet said, following up easily from Nasser. “We will negotiate softly and cautiously cede demands, incumbent on continuation of work, and thus slowly calm the antagonistic animus that Eisental’s labor has toward the corporations. I want to get goods moving to the Rhinean heartland again– however, our goal is also to divert labor and materials preferentially to Rhineametalle. Rhineametalle will get first purchase on all materials, and will work more closely with the Trade Unions than any other corporation. They will then give Eisental preferential buyer status for weapons and technologies. Allowing us to build up our own power.”

“Outside of Trade Unionism, our next potential problem,” Nasser continued from Violet, “Is Eisental’s history with the Shimii people. Shimii are the largest non-Imbrian ethnic group in Eisental, and they have historically been segregated in station towers as well as forced out of industrial work and into the agriculture sector. This is a boiling pot that could explode at any time. However, as you can see all around Kreuzung, our 7th Fleet is a largely Shimii formation. We can court the Shimii into our Trade Unions, and recruit them as a source of manpower for the ‘Zabaniyah’, and equip them with newly-purchased Rhineametalle weapons. Then we’ll use them against our enemies to prevent any further spillage of chaos in Eisental.”

“However, this is all pointless if the leftist forces are allowed to overturn the pot, so to speak. We will send an advance party to suppress the dissidents in Aachen.” Violet said. She touched the table again. Some “Black” units began to move toward Aachen, overlapping the “Red” units. “This will be our first major military maneuver as a Reichskommissariat. Imani Hadžić will be in command, with her flag on the Mrudah. She will have the assistance of Sawyer’s militia, and will have Diver tactical command under Skonieczny. The Mrudah is a new type of vessel and Skonieczny is on the bleeding edge of Diver warfare. I have the utmost confidence that Hadžić can make the most of these assets to crush Aachen.”

Across the table, Imani looked up briefly at Violet before averting her gaze.

Her reticence was a bit confusing– but Nasser trusted her, and so Violet did too.

Sawyer continued to hold her hands behind her back and made no expression.

If Imani could get her killed somehow it would be so much the better.

Emilia Skonieczny put up an extremely forced-looking smile and a thumbs-up.

She looked like an idiot– but if her thesis was correct, Violet would profit mightily.

Aachen would be the proving ground for all of them. No more needed to be said.

“North, West and East Eisental will be divided into Wehrkreis until they are fully pacified, with defense responsibility split up among our forces. Appointments will be formalized after the Aachen adventure. Preliminarily, Hatta and Waldeck will move east and west respectively to begin setting up our new Gau and most importantly, to assert our new economy. Hatta’s Loup follow Rashidun Shimiism so they are the best choice for now to control the east. Waldeck can employ her family’s business acumen to get the west producing again.”

“I am honored to be entrusted this command.” Hatta said, partially bowing to Violet.

“I will miss the amenities here, but I will follow orders.” Waldeck replied snobbishly.

There was more to discuss, but that was the meat of things. Everything was now moving.

On the table, black pieces departed from Kreuzung to each and every station, and slowly, the black filter extended over all of Eisental. From Kreuzung, to Bad Weissee, to Stralsund; to the manufactories of Rhein-Sieg-Kries and the Agrispheres of Baden; to Aachen in the north. In weeks, they would have control of the entire region. In a month, their economy would be back on track. In less than a year, perhaps, Eisental would surpass the heartland in power.

All of it played out on the table, under the widely-grinning face of Violet Lehner.

Her Nationale Volkskrieg had begun– and Endsieg was finally visible in the distance.


Deep in the bowels of Kreuzung, another group of conspirators awaited their own time.

Overhead, a glass observation dome in the baseplate exposed the massive Imbrium ocean. Directly beneath it, with the light of a few LEDs casting her shadow over her subordinate, sat Enforcer I of the Syzygy, Avaritia, atop a small crate in the damp chamber. She loomed over, statuesque, laughing to herself. Fawning over her at her side, with her head on Avaritia’s lap like a very dressed-up kitten, was Enforcer III, Gula. Avaritia gently stroked Gula’s long hair while looking down at a woman kowtowing in front of her and copiously weeping.

“Please, Exalted, my troops did all that we could. I beg you– if you must punish anyone, punish me alone for my weakness. The Wizard class was supposed to have the blood and instincts of powerful tacticians, and I have disgraced it. Please– punish only me.”

Wizard III begged, crawling shamelessly in front of Avaritia’s feet.

“Wizard III– If I were to spare only a single one of your troops. Please name one.”

Avaritia spoke in a cruel, uncaring tone of voice.

Wizard III felt a jolt of terror directly into her heart. Her lips quivered, teeth chattered.

She felt almost insane to be responding to this awful question.

Insane to know her answer.

“Vanguard IX.” She said. “She fought most valiantly of all of us. Please spare her!”

Avaritia suddenly started laughing.

She bent down, reached for Wizard III’s head.

And softly and condescendingly patted her hair with a cheery grin on her face.

“My darling, did you hear that? Wasn’t it romantic? Wasn’t it so unlike Wizard III?”

Gula rubbed her cheek on Avaritia’s lap, giggling.

“Darling, it was exceedingly romantic!”

“Wizard III, you failed me, but I am proud of you nevertheless. I could feel it in that instant. That little bit of humanity in you– that little spark of greed. It was worth making this trip just to see that become a part of you.” Avaritia’s eyes formed their cross-hairs again and locked on to Wizard III. In turn, she withered at the attention of her exalted leader. She put her head low to the ground and continued to bow without daring to look up, terrified.

“Of course, we will reward such romance! Besides, we need the troops intact anyway.”

Gula said, before extending a very long tongue out to lick Avaritia’s hand.

Avaritia’s fingers absentmindedly toyed with the long, slender tongue like a little toy.

“Indeed, indeed. But, there is one action I must regrettably take, in response to all of this.”

Avaritia lifted the hand that was toying with Gula’s tongue. Casually, she reached down.

Then effortlessly ripped Wizard III’s arm out of its socket with a horrific wet crunch.

Wizard III gritted her teeth, groaned, struggling to hold her bow. Her entire body shaking.

“Please use this to assist Vanguard IX in recovering. She needs an arm more than you do.”

Through the dizzying pain, Wizard III continued to bow. “As you command, Exalted.”

She held that bow valiantly, never collapsing even as the blood flowed.

Avaritia toyed with the arm a bit and pondered.

In all likelihood they would be a little late to the conference in Aachen, but that was fine.

All of their plans had become longer-term than any of them wanted.

But what good was a Destiny devoid of romance? Their destination was set, so why hurry?

“I am curious what more the hominin are capable of– let us watch them for now.”

Avaritia smiled in the darkness, her cross-hair flashing.

And her shadow stretching across the room as a hundred-limbed, serpentine horror.


“I’m telling you, I’m fine now.”

Majida al-Khaybari cast a tired glance at Raaya al-Shahouh, who was fussing over her.

She stood at the side of Majida’s bed with her arms spread out, preventing her from rising.

“You need to stay in bed.” Raaya said. “Please. Just a few more days. For me.”

“Raaya. Please step aside.” Majida’s breathing was troubled. She broke into a sweat.

“What happened to me being your wife, Majida? Sometimes wives must do these things.”

“Not so loud.” Majida moaned. She dropped back into bed, defeated.

Had Raaya made any more of a fuss, Mawla Asma or someone else close to her could have heard, and then they would both have some very awkward explaining to do.

Unlike Majida, bedridden and ill, the Mawla had a rare and blessed streak of good health and was engaged in inspecting the various tunnels and modules of Khaybar. Though Majida was not the “ruler” of Khaybar, she still felt a strong sense of responsibility for the community and as she lay in bed, she only grew more nervous of what the Mawla might think. Majida had been accruing more and more military resources while making only humble improvements to the life support and food systems. The Mawla might disprove of her ambitions.

Seeing Majida drop back into bed, Raaya sighed and sat down at her side.

“Everything will be fine.” Raaya said. “You’ll get to terrorize the world again soon.”

“Funny.” Majida replied sarcastically. It did little to lighten the mood.

Around them the room was fairly dark. In a corner of the room there was an improvised lamp of LED bulbs wired into a battery, but it was rather dim. The entrance to Majida’s simple abode was a physical door with a lever-catch. She had no possessions except her bed, and a chest for her clothes. Anything else she needed was outside that door, with the ummah she cherished. Her only precious treasure in that room now was Raaya herself.

Majida turned her head and looked at the rock wall of their room.

Her mood took a dark turn as she imagined the Mawla making the rounds.

All of these people whom Majida had sworn to protect, to save; to uphold their justice.

She had promised the old warlord al-Khaybari that she would protect everyone.

Was it even possible to protect them? Living in this cave, with hunger and sickness?

Confined here eternally, and for what? For the sin of believing differently?

In a sense, was she any better for the ummah than that bastard Radu?

Was she really just an illusionist then? Another false hope for their beaten people?

Majida felt a rare swell of emotion.

She began to weep and she hated herself for it. She felt so weak and so helpless.

In her mind, she envisioned the man whose DNA she was cursed to bear.

“Raaya, was I born to bring misfortune? Was Mehmed truly so evil that I must suffer too? Can I do nothing? It feels as if I was destined to struggle fruitlessly. I am afraid for us.”

Raaya smiled gently. She reached for a bucket of cool water and dipped a towel in it.

“My father used to say that ‘to believe in Destiny is to disbelieve in justice’.” She said.

She laid the towel on Majida’s head. It provided some relief from the heat she was feeling.

Even more relieving was the gentle gaze and comforting touch of her companion.

“I like that.” Majida said softly. She smiled bitterly. “I want to believe in that.”

Raaya tenderly laid down at her side. “Majida, I truly believe you are living proof of it.”

Majida shut her eyes, comforted by Raaya’s presence.

She wanted so dearly to believe that, in spite of everything, God loved her.

That God loved her people too– and that they were not cursed to die in this place.

She had to recover soon. She needed to get out there again and fight for them.

If it was against such a cruel Destiny– Majida would curse and fight it with all her strength.


“Ha! Ha ha ha! Incredible! A Core Separation? How inventive! And they still lost?”

Laughter boomed through the room and out into the adjacent hallway.

“Such trick was only necessary for lack of martial prowess! A sign of weakness! Pathetic!”

Seated on an collection of colorful inflatable chairs, for one cushion along was not enough to hold her stature: Labrys Agamemnon. A “representative” of the Mycenae Military Commission of Southern Katarre, she had suddenly burst out laughing at some news.

She laughed at the thought of the terror Kreuzung must have gone through, and the folly of the Cogitans who still failed even after such an audacious gambit. Truly the Cogitans were the weakest race on the planet, reliant always on trickery. Only the Imbrians were truly war-like and mighty enough to rival the Katarran race in any way, she thought to herself.

Labrys lounged in a penthouse prepared for her in Stralsund, one of Eisental’s few luxury habitats. Unlike Kreuzung, which was a tower-type station, Stralsund was an arcology, with a domed structure and vast underground works. Stralsund’s upper level, under the dome, had free-form construction, with streets and discrete buildings, and it was a gorgeous and racuous pleasure resort. Standing at 3 meters tall, Labrys was not going to be comfortable anywhere but the upper level, where there was “sky” overhead, rather than a ceiling scraping against her horns. And only a VIP suite with a sliding glass ceiling would do for her pleasures. Seated on her cushioned throne, holding a bottle of fine wine by the neck, with a tray of charcuterie meat balanced on the flat and broad side of the axe-shaped tip of her tail.

“I thought the audacity of the method would appeal to you. Perhaps give you ideas.”

“Hah! You still don’t know me very well, Asan. If you’re trying to suck up, try harder!”

“I am simply concerned about our position.” Replied the annoyingly curt Shimii.

Labrys suddenly leaned forward, eye to eye with her inexpressive subordinate.

“Being concerned isn’t your job. But I could give you something to be concerned about.”

Asan did not waver in front of Labrys, despite the gargantuan difference in size. A slender, fair and almost cute Shimii woman, purple hair and a little lab coat, all made up in pigments; versus the Colossus of Sebbenytos, red and orange hair like flames, clad in golden armor, her muscled figure lacquered bronze, whose very tail was a deadly weapon. It would have made for a farcical scene had it not been for the sheer power and menace Labrys exuded.

In deference to that power, and the control it had over her life, Asan stepped back.

She dropped to one knee in deference to the warlord.

Labrys grinned and leaned back.

Raising her wine bottle and nearly downing it all in one gulp.

While Asan waited to be either dismissed or addressed once again.

She was lucky she was so useful– anyone else so out of line, Labrys would have beheaded.

Talking back to a superior was close enough to sin for a death sentence in Mycenae.

“Tell me, how is our little Warlord doing? You should be here to talk about your actual responsibility, rather than bringing me fucking news, don’t you think?” Labrys snapped.

“I apologize for my impudence. Her review is nearly complete. The troops respect her.”

Labrys smiled, bearing all of her many sharp teeth.

“Of course they respect her. She was created to rule. It is her inalienable genetic Destiny. Neither of us would be alive and here if she could not command basic respect.”

She reached out her enormous hand and prodded Asan with one large, sharp finger.

Again Asan locked eyes with Labrys without expression.

“But her creator is perfectly fallible. She could fail me yet. And I’d hate for that to happen.”

“Physiologically, Astra’s body is without flaw.” Asan said. “She has not shown any signs–”

“I’ve heard this once before.” Labrys said, moving her tail, plate and all, close to Asan.

Before Asan could offer a rebuttal, or shy away from the blade, a door opened behind them.

Both Labrys and Asan quieted, since the subject of their discussion had just appeared.

They quickly shed all hostility and tension and awaited acknowledgment from the girl.

Dressed in a uniform that was gold with black trim, festooned with medals.

Their new arrival was a short and slight woman with a confident gait, incredibly beautiful features, very fair and regal, with copious pale hair that almost touched the floor. In her hair there were several thin black antennae interspersed within it, with a few of these structures stiffly arranged in something like a four-pronged crown at the back of her head. Infrequently, a spark of electricity would crackle from that crown. Trailing behind her was a pair of spindly, eel-like tails that could be manipulated, but were currently just dragging.

As a Panthalassian, she had inherited features from the DNA of a– rare– donor animal.

Perhaps one of the rarest and most dangerous in the world.

It had to be that way– had she been born any lesser, Mycenae would have rejected her.

That superior DNA contained the oaths that kept Mycenae together.

When she looked upon her, Labrys could almost see Katarre reunited again too.

“Long live the Palaiologoi! For the Golden Age!” Labrys said, putting her fist to her chest.

That fist still clutching the nearly empty wine bottle, even in the presence of her lord.

At this scene, the Mycenean Warlord Astra Palaiologos II simply smiled.

She was young still, and forgave the excesses of her great and terrible mentor quite easily.

Or at the very least, she mostly ignored them.

Labrys loved to see that beautiful little smile on her face.

That naïve, malleable smile.

“Lord Agamemnon. I have completed my inspection of the troops. It is satisfactory.” Astra said softly. “Even those rambunctious mercenaries seemed to be falling in line for me. Spirits remain high too, even in the circumstances. Many seem excited for what may come.”

“Of course! It is in the blood of every Mycenean to see opportunity in chaos.”

Labrys reached out her enormous hand and patted Astra on the shoulder.

Asan averted her gaze as Astra looked eager in the presence of the dark Colossus.

“We stand to make a lot of money, my liege.” Labrys said. “Our time is soon to come. Just give the Eisental pot a few more degrees. It is bound to explode, and so will our profits.”

Astra nodded her head. She said nothing more. She was a quiet girl, often with her thoughts.

That part of her, Labrys wasn’t too keen on. But it did not matter.

Quiet was fine as long as she remained compliant.

Soon, this patch of the Imbrium, including that girl, would all be dancing on her palm.

Labrys knew for certain it was her Destiny to ascend to ever greater riches.

And maybe even power. Over Mycenae– over all of Katarre.

That was the unalienable truth inscribed into her DNA.


On an enormous television in the middle of a lavish pink room, a soft couch full of big, fluffy teddy bears watched scenes of carnage that played out in a distant place on a distant day. The Rhinea News Network had been playing the events of the Kreuzung Core Separation nonstop. Opinionated guests urged citizens to throw their full support behind the Volkisch Movement, and referred to the Core hijackers ominously as “the alternative” to the Volkisch law and order. Every day a new reason to fear arose. Weakness from the Liberals allowed crime or terrorism or extreme communist violence or another abstract demon to slip into Kreuzung’s core. And your home could be the next one attacked by the madness.

From the midst of the plushies, a slender and fair hand made a gesture in the air.

The television shut off with a quick command from a remote.

“It’s incoherent, but it will scare the oldsters who still watch RNN.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg spread her arms and yawned, leaning back on her couch.

All of this was quite sad– and she felt a touch of regret about it all too.

She had been watching days of this mess playing out in the media, while waiting for the delegates to the United Front to arrive at Aachen. It was not the media narrative itself that troubled her– the RNN’s right-wing slant was well known. Even the RNN’s accession to the premier media of the Rhinean government would not do much. Most of Rhinea was composed of apolitical liberal Imbrians who did not suddenly become fascists just from having one news network that was known to be toxic put in their faces.

What did haunt her– was the sheer enormity of the situation at hand.

Twelve ships of the Cogitan remnant fleet caused a monumental event to transpire. They very nearly destroyed an entire station, and could have killed hundreds of thousands. They attacked the core of an Imbrian station. Violated the taboo and nearly eliminated a human habitat. In her mind, that felt massive. It exerted its own gravity that felt crushing in its weight. Humanity could have been reduced. They could have lost Kreuzung as land.

Gloria was not just planning for hypothetical conflicts anymore.

It was actual war now. War that could become apocalyptic.

Soon, such decisions would be in Gloria’s own hands as well.

They would be her duty. Everyone would expect her to be decisive.

Everything on the television had felt so distant, once upon a time.

Other people’s problems. Outside the walls of her beautiful gardens.

Now, war and violence was hurtling toward Gloria, or Gloria herself hurtling toward it. Headlong, without pause. She had set into motion events that could not be taken back and written pages that could not be ripped. The “Red Player” on the board. The little rich Princess on a vast stage. Hundreds of lights would shine demanding upon her soon.

Her hand on the remote trembled.

She thought of words she heard Kremina Qote scream at the crew of the Brigand.

There is no United Front without Daksha Kansal.

Could Gloria Innocence Luxembourg give more to the world than Daksha Kansal?

Could she give more than Leda Lettiere– could she give her entire life for this?

Gloria remembered, so long ago, when her eyes met those of Leda Lettiere–

that power–

She hugged one of her plushies close. Hugged it extremely tight.

She smiled to herself. Whatever was she worriying about?

A few tears shed from her eyes. There was no turning back. It was done.

She was trapped in this and could do nothing but accept it.

No– she had been hurtling toward war for a long time now.

More than just the thought of Leda Lettiere and what she had meant– her school days were days of loss and transformation that revealed the world as too evil for her to endure.

Those days overturned ideas of power and nobility that she had long held.

Since then, she knew she had to claim the gold of the Gods for her own wicked self.

From the moment that Leda Lettiere met the gallows–

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg had received her inevitable Destiny.


At the top of the main building of the Rhinea News Network in Thurin station, the Fuhrer Adam Lehner had a private office, decorated to his liking, from which he ruled the country. At his back the wall was entirely glass, his window into all of Thurin below him. Furnished with a tall leather executive chair; a desk made of real wood; glass cases with models of ships on the walls. On that day, the model on his desk, which he had just recently assembled himself, was a Ritter-class Cruiser from Maximus Models’ “Highest Grade” line.

It was assembled without its various gun turrets, and partially painted blue.

Lehner stared at it for a few minutes while waiting for a visit from his officers.

He reached out an index finger and nudged it ever so slightly.

Enjoying the cooler angle that it had from his vantage, when poked a little to right.

Without the guns, it had such a sleek profile. And the guns were annoying to glue anyway.

Then an LED blinked on his desk to alert him to someone at his door.

Lehner cast a bored look at the door then returned his attention to the model.

Through the door walked two figures in black uniforms.

One was familiar, the Chief of Staff of the Rhinean Navy, Walther Weddel. A round-headed, very sweaty man with a rather wan and pathetic expression– Lehner felt almost disgusted to look at him sometimes. He was so disappointing. Lehner had told Weddel that he needed to put on some muscle, and if Weddel was even trying, it was impossible to see. However, the person next to him, despite being a woman, was the far more impressive one.

It was this woman that caused Lehner to lift his gaze from his sexy model ship.

All of the gallantry Walther lacked as a man, Hedwig von Treckow seemed to possess. She was taller than him, leaner, with sharper facial features, and particularly long and attractive legs. Her dark, shoulder-length hair had a fantastic sheen, long and wavy with a slight curl in the ends, and an ornamental braid on one side. Her makeup was perfect– Lehner paid particularly attention to her lips. Outside of the recent promotions Lehner had heaped on Violet and her freakish clique, von Treckow was one of the very few self-made female admiralty of the Volkisch Movement, with the rank of Brigadeführer. Female admiralty in the Volkisch movement wore a pants uniform rather than a skirt, and it only made Treckow look all the more comparable to Weddel, and again, absolutely not in his favor.

Lehner almost wanted to crack some kind of joke that Treckow should just become a man and replace Weddel in the high command for optics; but it made him think about Violet and all that assorted scandal and he did not want to promote further thinking along those lines. So instead he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, bored and awaiting the two of them to report. He knew some of the points they were going to bring up already.

“We’ve got good news and bad news, don’t we? Start with the good news.”

“Heil, Fuhrer,” Treckow said, speaking before Weddel, “we have arranged a ninety day ceasefire with the Royal Alliance’s main force under the Brauchitsch admiralty. A few mercenaries and stray bannermen attempted to take parting shots, but were easily repelled without the main force of the nobles. The front is already quieting down as we speak.”

“Sorry doll, that’s bad news for me.” Lehner said. He groaned. “That’s news that makes us look weak. I didn’t say ‘no’ when this was proposed, and I could’ve, because I’m the guy, but I don’t have to like it. Put that under bad news and tell me something else. How are those royal bastards holding up? They can’t possibly still have parity with us, can they?”

“In the final accounting, we did just a bit more damage to them than they did to us.” Weddel said, taking over for Treckow. Lehner already wished Treckow had continued speaking. If Weddel wasn’t such a good manager, he would have demoted him to staff mailman just to avoid having to see and hear him. “And they have far less ability to recover long term. We have Rhineametalle and Skuld Armaments and all that– we have corporations with developed industrial pipelines. They only have whatever bits of Bruckwaldt Armorers that managed to flee to Yucatan with the clan. We will whittle them down long term.”

“Long term doesn’t matter!” Lehner said. “I wanted these puffed-up queers dead yesterday. We should’ve had all the metals and food they’re sitting on! If I did, then I wouldn’t have to lose sleep over Rhineametalle and those corporate bastards you trust so much!”

“Sir– I’m– Well–”

Weddel looked at a loss for words.

Treckow cleared her throat and interrupted his stuttering.

“Fuhrer, I have a proposal to turn the ceasefire to our advantage.” She said.

“Now that is what I like to hear.” Lehner said, his eyes suddenly interested in more than Treckow’s legs and chest. “See, Walther, that’s initiative. You’d do good to dig some up.”

Weddel frowned. He eyed Treckow as if to bid her to please continued speaking.

“Sir,” Treckow continued. “The internal situation of the Royal Alliance is deeply complicated. There are multiple competing interests within their stronghold in Yucatan. During a hot war, these factions do not have opportunity to seek their own advantages– issuing a ceasefire is necessary for their military wing to reorganize, but it will give their political factions the space to further feud. We can use the time to infiltrate, reconnoiter and exploit the political divisions of the Alliance to weaken it from the inside and make it easier to destroy.”

Lehner sat in silence for a bit, blinking, a vacant look on his face.

He then clapped his hands.

“Fantastic! Finally! Look, Weddel– a winning mentality! Please, Treckow, tell me more.”

He put on a smile and stared even more intently at Treckow.

She continued to fix his gaze without making any undue expressions.

Lehner had almost wanted her to blush or act girlish but it apparently just wasn’t her style.

“There are three main weak points which we can target to weaken the Alliance. We should begin to sneak in Sicherheitsdienst and Stabswache agents into the Yucatan to take advantage of this. I would like to plan to do so in the upcoming prisoner exchanges.”

“Draft a proposal, and Weddel, take everything she says very seriously.” Lehner said.

“Of course– I’m the one who brought here, I cosign everything–”

“Shut up and let her talk, Weddel.”

Treckow continued speaking as if Weddel and Lehner were not feuding.

She held up three black-gloved fingers.

“First point: recently the Sedlitz and Lothair families formalized a merger through marriage between their young scions, in order to provide the Alliance with a ‘king and queen’ and a ‘royal court’ to replace the Fuellers.” Treckow said. “Sethlitz and Lothair were the 3rd and 5th houses in the Imbrium Empire as the Fuellers led it– but of course, the lower houses are not all necessarily accepting that the Fueller status quo should be reproduced within the Alliance. We could potentially find and promote a competing royal couple from the lower houses to sow discord within the aristocrats. It would be especially useful if we could disrupt the 8th House too, Brauchitsch– they are responsible for training and strategy.”

“This one’s a tricky idea.” Weddel said. “We don’t necessarily have an in here–”

Lehner spoke up. “We have aristocrats right in this room.” He said. “Treckow, you are part of the Treckow family– or you used to be– correct? They were the 9th House, once upon a time. Surely we have more former aristocrats around who could infiltrate the Alliance.”

Treckow shut her eyes. “I will do as you command, for national socialism. Never has a Treckow officer abandoned her leader and duty– save for my disgraced clan–”

Weddel cringed.

“Please don’t send Treckow away, Fuhrer. It’s– It’s so hard to get good help–”

Lehner bared his teeth.

“I didn’t mean Treckow specifically! You dolt! Ugh. Treckow, what’s point two?”

“Yes, Fuhrer,” Treckow said, “Point two entails the preponderance of mercenaries in the Royal Alliance. Katarrans, Loup and certain Imbrian adventurers have been fighting as monarchist soldiers of fortune. These forces are smaller than the core of veterans that Brauchitsch has been leading for the Alliance, but they are significant enough. If we could turn them at a crucial moment, it could shift the tide of the war in our favor. Alternatively, we can at least pay them enough to look the other way at our initial infiltrations.”

“I’m not buying any mercenaries.” Lehner said. “If there’s anything the Royal Alliance has it’s money– all those fucking nobles are loaded with diamonds and gold and shit. I’m not gonna match whatever exorbitant price they are asking to fight for these losers. Not for what, 10 or 15% of their armed forces in total? It’s not a good deal, doll. I only take the best deals.”

“We should consider at least paying for smuggling and informants.” Weddel said.

“It’ll go out of your operational budget.” Lehner grumbled. “You have one, use it.”

“Very well, Fuhrer. Next point, Treckow?”

“My final point, and perhaps the most volatile: the native people of the Yucatan, the Campeche or ‘Campos’.” Treckow said. She launched into a history lesson that lost Lehner near immediately. “During the Empire’s expansion into the south, Imbria assimilated the Campos, who had created a militarily weak state. Yucatan remained largely dominated by the Campos since its location near the continent walls made it rich in minerals as well as growing materials for Agrispheres, so it was a region dominated by workers and corporate managers. The Alliance represents a massively extractive and domineering force over them.”

Lehner started gesticulating as if to say ‘get to the point’ but Treckow never picked up on the gesture until she was fully done speaking. Finally, the Fuhrer sighed and put his hands over his eyes. “What you’re saying is, we could try to instigate a native uprising? How? I don’t think the Escabeche people are going to be receptive to national socialism.” He finally said.

Treckow and Weddel ignored the flagrant mispronounciation.

“They might be. Nationalists exist everywhere.” Weddel said.

“And revolutionaries everywhere need a source of guns.” Treckow added.

“Guns? What’ll they do with guns?” Lehner asked, incredulous. “Brauchitsch has fleets.”

“We can sneak in Divers to them. Even Sturmvolkers, properly deployed, can make retaking any stations the Campos overturn painful for Brauchitsch.” Treckow explained.

“We don’t care about the ultimate success of the Campos, just the chaos they can sew.” Weddel said. “The Campos are the Alliance’s workforce, Sedlitz is cooked without them. And with all those conceited nobles around it will not take much to stir up a conflict.”

“I was on board at first, but the commercial went on too long.” Lehner said. He sighed. “Seriously, I don’t believe any of this will or can work– but it doesn’t feel like it costs me too much to take a gamble on it. It’s not like we’re in any condition to just break the ceasefire right away. But my priority is reorganizing the frontline– alongside all this spy nonsense, I want someone with brains like Treckow to plan a blitz ninety days from now.”

“Yes sir.” Treckow said. For the first time, her tone sounded just a little crestfallen.

“Weddel– keep on doing what you’re doing. Dismissed. Send me all the plans you make.”

Lehner waved his hands dismissively, as if shooing two dogs out of his office.

Treckow and Weddel hailed victory and left the room.

Once they were gone, he reached into a drawer for a pack of cigarettes and lit one.

Not some electric vapor pipe thing– real cigarettes.

Hundred marks a pack. The good stuff.

“Honestly. I get behind all this ubermensch shit and not one of them is superior to fucking anything.” He took a long drag and ran his fingers across the surface of the cigarette. A concrete, vital object, not some necrotic facsimile. That’s what he wanted the Volkisch to be– but at every turn, he conceded living vitality to further erosion.

“All of this is a goddamn fucking nightmare.”

He was distracted by the red LED lighting up on his desk again.

“Come in, but it better be good! You didn’t schedule this!” Lehner shouted.

When the door opened, a sheepish Volkisch communications officer walked in.

Her beret was practically falling off her head with how much she was shaking.

“What’s the matter now?” Lehner asked, exasperated. “You can speak up!”

“Fuhrer,” said the girl, “We have a report of recent events in Kreuzung. It contains some– irregularities. We believed you should be consulted on the situation before it was officially disseminated to other analysts. I have the papers in this portable computer, sir.”

She approached the desk and deposited the computer on it.

Lehner looked down at it skeptically, for merely a second.

“Just tell me what it is!” Lehner said. He was getting fed up with his subordinates.

“Sir!” said the girl, straightening up as stiff as she could go. “It appears Kreuzung ended the Rhineametalle workers strike. They have struck a deal– details forthcoming– but apparently the deal was struck by Vladimir Lehner of the 7th Stabswache, acting as Reichsk–”

“Violet Lehner.” Lehner said suddenly. His reaction even surprised himself for a moment. However, he was too elated for introspection. “Finally, someone around here has displayed a shred of competence. So what’s the irregularity? You just got her name wrong?”

“Um.” The communications girl paused for a moment. “Well, sir, that was– one–”

“So what’s the rest then? Am I going to have to read all of this? Really?”

He picked up the portable computer and let it drop from his hand back on his desk.

The thudding sound caused the communications girl to shake. She finally continued.

“Sir, Kreuzung has declared itself the seat of a political unit called Reichskommissariat Eisental. It has also declared that Vlad– Violet Lehner is its Reichskommissar. Sir, it was the understanding of the Sicherheitsdienst that these proposed land divisions and governing positions were only to extend to future conquests, not to Rhinean regions.”

Lehner blinked, hard. His cigarette hung in his fingers untouched for seconds.

He brought it to his lips and took a long drag. Then he smashed it against his desk.

“Send for your boss. I want Haus right here, now. Bring every communication and report from Kreuzung for the past month. And get me a meeting with this Reichskommissar.”

Violet– his scandalous offspring was doing too fucking good a job right now.

And it had just then begun to deeply concern him what she might be capable of doing.

Maybe he was worrying for nothing– he was her father, surely she would not–

But–

But maybe she had the ambitious bastardry of a Vladimir rather than a sweet Violet.

Or worse– a born and bred Lehner.


“No– No, don’t leave me here– please take me away–”

Violet mumbled in her sleep. Nightmares. It was an almost nightly occurrence.

There was nothing she could do to protect her ward in the warped realm of her mind.

Nasser held tightly onto Violet, who felt so thin and small in her grasp just then.

She grit her teeth, overcome with dread as the players began the fated performance.

They had been playing house in Kreuzung for a bit– but those days would soon be over.

Sometimes she wanted to take Violet and run away for good.

But there was no use to that. There was too much at stake for both of them.

Normal lives were not meant for them.

It was impossible to outrun it, ever since they first laid eyes on one another.

Nasser, nothing but a wicked mercenary tasked with handling some forlorn girl.

Violet, a seed of hatred and scandal who nevertheless could not be allowed to die.

Ever since then, they danced upon the cruel, immense, and inescapable stage of Destiny.

For the future of Imbria.

For the future of the Shimii.

For their own futures.

Without their politics, and their blood, and the power they conferred, there was nothing.

There were a lot of people Nasser could curse. But there was nothing she could do.

Mehmed’s rebellion was crushed by the predecessors of the Volkisch in Rhinea’s navy.

Al-Khaybari’s people were confined to his mountain, to die with him.

Nasser the Elder died cursing the Mahdists for a hundred generations despite his “victory.”

Mogliv Omarov exiled to foreign lands to die. Radu the Marzban but a shadow of himself.

Who would be the next Hero whose ambition would overturn these lands?

Who would be the next one to fail and to be buried, leaving behind only grudges?

Nasser could not afford to fail as they had.

In order to have a future, she, too, had to realize Endsieg.

“I’ll be strong for you.” Vesna Nasser said. “I have to be strong. I have to be.”

For the Heroes whose feud she had to continue.

For the Order that she needed to construct.

And for the woman that she saved, and used, and now painfully, that she loved.

Vesna Nasser had to become a king worth the favor of Destiny.


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