Thieves At The Port [5.5]

Without fanfare good or ill, the Brigand finally entered Imperial waters by crossing the demarcation line set at the abandoned Cascabel station. A cylindrical pillar with ribbed sections, it was like an eerie sentinel, abandoned at its post on this empty borderland, watching the Brigand cross the rocky ocean between Ferris and Sverland. A field of pallid, plankton-eating stalks had taken over the sand banks that once hid defensive torpedo pods and cannon casemates defending this border. Bubblegum coral grew from the dismal patches of sand atop rocky, uneven surfaces making up the seafloor around Cascabel station.

Disparate groups of bioluminescent fish danced in the orifices of the hulking structure like flickering, ghostly lamps. A casualty of one of the final battles of the revolution, Cascabel was deliberately flooded to deny the nascent Union a useful forward base.

On the main screen, the crew was entertained by the first landmark they’d seen in days.

“Magnificent. What a sophisticated aura!” Fernanda said.

“It’s just a creepy hunk of metal.” Alex added.

“You know, they say that when the Empire flooded Cascabel, the souls of all the men and women who died defending it were anchored to the structure and could never rise out of the Ocean.” Semyonova said suddenly. “Even to this day, they are trapped, wandering the flooded halls. Illegal scrappers from both sides of the DMZ have gone missing in the station’s depths.”

She waited with a serious expression for the response from her comrades.

“Wait? What the hell? Really?” Alex asked.

“Such foul things do transpire within abandoned stations.” Fernanda said.

“Foul things? Do you mean the ghosts or the smuggling?” Alex asked.

“Apparitions and banditry are both within the purview of ‘lost places’.”

“So you also believe in ghosts? Fucking ghosts?”  

“Hah! Do you disbelieve in the power of the great beyond? Living under the Ocean?”

Framing it that way made Alex hesitate, like there was something she missed. “I–”

Before Alex could continue, Helmsman Kamarik butted in with a groan.

“All of you need a serious brain checkup if you believe that crap.” He said.

“Another philistine discovered.” Fernanda said.

Her inflection carried a certain sadistic delight.

“I’m just being practical.” Kamarik said. “If I can’t hold it in my hands, it’s not real.”

“Aw, come on y’all.” Semyonova said. “I didn’t think y’all would take it so serious.”

“The work of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, is in all things, but this is verging on jinn talk.”

Fatima mysteriously spoke up at that point. Alex looked at her with a certain confusion.

“I feel like I didn’t understand half the things she said. No offense.”

“It’s Shimii religion.” Kamarik said. “I know a little about it. My name comes from it.”

“Are you a Shimii?” Alex asked, jokingly.

“Half.” Kamarik replied dryly.

Alex’s jaw dropped slightly. “Wait? What the hell? Really?”

“Yep.” Kamarik said mysteriously. He crossed his arms and nodded his head.

 Fatima looked suddenly mortified.

“Ah, I apologize. I did not intend to cause offense by suddenly bringing up my religion. It’s just a reflex, my father studied under a Mawla, a religious teacher of our people– ahh, I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. If you want to talk about jinn, I suppose I can try to keep out of–”

“Ahh, don’t worry Fatima! It’s not your fault, it really isn’t.” Semyonova said affably.

She reached out and patted the excessively apologetic Fatima on the shoulder.

“Jinn are evil spirits, right?” Kamarik asked. “I think I remember they’re bad.”

“Oh, yes.” Fatima said. “They are evil apparitions responsible for all dark works.”

“Well, I don’t believe in that either. All of you need to be more materialistic.”

“It’s materialist.” Alex said. “What you wanted to say is ‘materialist’, Abdul.”

“Oh dear, the gamer presumes to patronize us about language and the supernatural?”

Fernanda grinned and gently covered her mouth with the back of her hand.

From the Electronic Warfare station, Zachikova piped up suddenly.

“I believe in something I can’t hold in my hands — it’s called data.”

She grinned to herself. She looked like she must have felt incredibly clever.

Kamarik stared at her while Alex looked at him like she was trying to find something.

“Where do you keep the tail? Do you have one?”

“Huh?”

Above it all, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been put in charge of a zoo.

“What is this conversation? I feel like I’m getting dumber for having to listen to this.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara saw Ulyana with her face in her hands and reassured her.

“This kind of banter is important for a crew, Captain. It forges stronger bonds.”

She spoke just low enough for their conversation to be private.

“I feel like they’re forging some pretty stupid bonds down there.” Ulyana said.

“The Brigand’s crew is…eccentric. But sailing is sailing. You must have seen this before.”

“My old crews used their inside voices a little more in the presence of Nagavanshi.”

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled a bit. “Was the Commissar-General that frightening?”

“How can you have worked with her and ask that? She’s a demon.” Ulyana said.

 “I guess I never worked with her closely. I, personally, believe in having an open bridge.”

She looked proud, as if she had said something of great meaning just then.

Ulyana grinned. “Okay, well, do you believe in ghosts or jinn or whatever?”

“Unlike a lot of Shimii I’m a dedicated atheist. So no, I don’t believe in such things.”

Aaliyah gave the Captain a look as if she were annoyed by having the banter raised to her.

“Then how do you think all those stories Semyonova brought up attain cultural purchase?”

“Cascabel is in disrepair and dangerous. Scrappers probably just die in it because of this.”

“You know, that’s actually a very practical explanation. Nevermind this nonsense then.”

Ulyana sat back in her chair, stretching her arms. Aaliyah shook her head gently.

“Okay, so then what do you think about video games, Commissar Bashara?” Ulyana said.

 “We don’t need to reproduce their banter, Captain.” Aaliyah said with a bit of growl.

“Well, if it’s good enough for down there, isn’t it fine here too?” Ulyana winked.

Aaliyah turned a little red and glared at her. “Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean? I need it explained in strictly materialist terms.”

“Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya–” Another low growl, this time through teeth.

And now full name and rank was coming out. Ulyana staggered, sensing a sudden danger.

Thankfully, the absolute chaos that had overcome the bridge was soon interrupted.

“Captain! Sensors are picking up trace long-wave radiation — might be an E.L.F message.”

Extremely Low Frequency was one of the few forms of long distance wireless messaging available underwater.

Massive antennae buried in Solstice could send these messages through any amount of water out to extremely long ranges.

But the throughput was abysmal — it was text only, and character-limited.

Fatima shouted up to the Captain. Besides sonar, her station had access to the sensor array.

“I can confirm! I’m capturing and deciphering as we speak!” Semyonova added.

Ulyana was taken aback. She had not expected official communication this soon.

“Send it up to me when it’s done! If it’s HQ this soon, it must be urgent.” She said.

“E.L.F. message received, decrypted, and sent to your station, Captain!”

Semyona turned around and did a happy little salute. This was the first official message from HQ she had transferred as the Brigand’s chief of signals, a milestone on any maiden voyage.

Ulyana smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, turned her computer screen sideways.

Using the arm that was attached to her seat, she was able to angle it for herself and Aaliyah.

“Can you read it?” She asked her Commissar.

Aaliyah blinked. She leaned forward on her seat to look at the Captain’s screen.

“Yes, I can but– do you need my help? Are you having trouble reading it?”

“Oh, not at all. I just want you to be part of this discussion also.”

“I see.”

Aaliyah looked confused. Ulyana wondered what her previous ships must have been like.

Nagavanshi practically demanded to be shown every message. She was very hands-on.

In time, Ulyana came to see it as a resource, a form of help, rather than a hindrance.

So it made sense to let Aaliyah be part of these situations from the start.

“Alright, let’s see–”

Ulyana read the message, printed in four short lines of text.

HOSPITALITY ORDER.

VIP IN SERRANO.

DOCKMEN FRIENDLY.

WAREHOUSE 6.

“Looks like we’re being asked to dock in Serrano to pick up a passenger, who will be with us for the journey, if I’m parsing this right. I’m a little taken aback honestly.” Ulyana said. “It’s not as if we don’t have extra supplies. Sailing is all about being frugal and planning for the worst. But as far as picking up a VIP, don’t you think we’d just put them in danger, Commissar?”

Aaliyah read the message and nodded her head. “We would not be able to guarantee their return from this journey. However, if we’re being asked to do this, it must be because they have information pertaining to anti-Imperial resistance efforts. Otherwise it would be truly pointless.”

“I wonder how they contacted the Union.” Ulyana said. “What’s the time frame here?”

“Our spy networks have their ways. I think it’s realistic they could have gotten a message out and arranged for asylum; especially since the Empire has apparently been on shaky grounds for a few weeks now. Before the Emperor was dead, he was dying, and I’m sure his retreat caused the Empire’s guard to slacken.”  Aaliyah replied. “At any rate. Orders are orders. We must go to Serrano.”

“We were going there anyway. It’s a place that it makes sense to start getting information about the Empire. I know there’s tons of smuggling that happens there, some of it to the Union. I was posted at an Agri-Sphere once that got smuggled cattle from the Empire through Serrano. And if the dockworkers are ‘friendly’ it would behoove us to get in contact with them.”

Ulyana ran a hand through her blond hair and tossed it. She had worn it long that day.

She sighed and bowed her head a little.

“You seem unsettled still, Captain.” Aaliyah asked. “You can tell me what’s wrong.”

Ulyana found herself thinking “why do YOU look fine with it?” after hearing that.

“We’ve been given a pretty tough job. Not just the whole ‘organize a bunch of people who may or may not exist to topple the Empire’ business. I’m more concerned with the day to day ‘keep one step ahead of thousands of Imperial Navy ships trying to kill us’ types of business right now.”

“None of those ships know our intentions or objectives. Right now, we’re invisible.”

“Right now; but how do we stay hidden forever? We only have to blow our cover once.”

“As a Commissar, I swore to trust and support you. You must trust yourself too, Captain. Being fearful won’t keep us safe. We have to move forward bravely to complete our mission.”

“True but being too brave will put us in danger. I’m worried we won’t see that line when we cross it. Being frank, I’m worried that I won’t see it. Under the water, ships see each other as noise first. I am afraid I won’t know when we’ve made enough waves to be seen by our enemies.”

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah in the eyes, a contact the Commissar briefly held.

Seeing the Captain being so honest, the Commissar could not just respond with barbs.

Aaliyah seemed to hesitate, but then reached out a hand to Ulyana’s shoulder.

“Have faith Captain. This is not your mission or only your life to lose. You’re not alone.”

“You’re right, as usual.” Ulyana sighed yet again. “You’re right, Commissar. I know it.”

“Don’t fret too much. You have me– our whole crew.” Aaliyah corrected herself quickly.

Ulyana was not so distracted that she wouldn’t notice something like that. She smiled.

“You’re right. With a top notch Commissar like you at my side, how could I lose?”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She sat back in her chair, then pulled her hat over her face.

“Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Good advice for all my anxieties, I suppose.”

Ulyana winked, but only because the frigid Shimii beside her would not have noticed.

More and more she felt very lucky to have Aaliyah Bashara at her side.


The Brigand received its first mission and left Cascabel behind.

Now in Imperial waters, the ship navigated carefully, remaining about fifty meters above the rocky sea floor and keeping a watch for incoming vessels. Since they were masquerading as a civilian vessel, silent running would have been quite suspicious, so no policies were set in place to regulate the sound of most human activity on the ship. What did have to be regulated was Diver maintenance and training, since the noises of heavy equipment would have been suspicious too.

Since the ship left Thassal station, the navigation computer had been keeping track of their position. Speed and heading and other kinds of navigational data were used by the computer to track the Brigand’s course on a slightly outdated Imperial map. In this way, Helmsman Kamarik always knew where they were and knew the way to their destination, at first Cascabel and now Serrano. This allowed them to retain the correct course even while astray in the Ocean wilderness.

“There’s this legend that people on the surface used to navigate by looking at the sky over the Ocean. You all know what the sky is right?” Kamarik said, turning back to the Bridge crew.

“It’s the heaven that’s far above the surface of the water.” Fatima said.

“That’s one way of looking at it I guess.” Kamarik said. “Anyway, you understand what it is. It used to be, people could look past the sky and see lights. You can even still do that — there’s been drone photographs of clear sky, full of lights. If you could survive up there, you could see the lights in the sky. And people used to navigate by looking at the groups of lights. Most of the sky isn’t like that anymore though, it’s just gas now, purplish thundering agarthic gas; but yeah.”

“I think I’ll trust the navigation computer over the ‘lights in the sky.’” Alex said bluntly.

“Duh, I wasn’t saying it was better!” Kamarik laughed. “I was just spinnin’ sailor tales.”

The bridge was riotous as ever. Their talents allowed them to keep that lively atmosphere.

One particular officer made an outsize contribution to that high morale during the journey.

Fatima proved herself worthy of having ‘golden ears.’ She was able to easily discern noisy civilian traffic, identify the models to the best of her knowledge even before the predictor could see them and she sounded no false alarms. Aaliyah had been correct about the state of the patrols. There were no military ships out on the hunt for Union vessels. Even beyond the Cascabel region, the only naval vessel they ran into after coasting past Cascabel was a single Maltier-class utility ship. Like every other ship, Fatima identified it quite easily and reported it calmly and promptly.

“Remarkable.” Captain Ulyana said. “Chief Petty Officer, you truly have splendid ears.”

Fatima’s black-furred, slightly curved cat ears gave the Captain a happy little twitch.

“Ahh, thank you Captain. I’m only sorry I was distracted for a moment and did not–”

“You truly have nothing to be sorry for.”

What an apologetic girl! She must have been maybe a millisecond off her own, already freakish idea of how quickly a sonar technician should detect and categorize hydrophone noise.

Aaliyah tapped the ecstatic Captain on the shoulder with a demure look on her face.

Her own ears gave a little twitch when acknowledged. Her face was a little bit flushed.

“Captain, I understand what you were saying, but to compliment a Shimii’s ears like that, it’s a bit embarrassing. It’s not exactly proper, you know. You must take care of what you say.”

“Hmm? Is it a cultural issue? Fatima did not look bothered. Her ears even wiggled.”

“You were saved by the context, and praise is all well and good, but decency must be–”

“Ah. I understand what’s going on. Don’t worry. You have lovely ears too, Commissar.”

“Captain! It’s different than when you talk about a Volgian’s ears. I am not joking!”

“How is it different?”

“It’s different! It’s just different!”

“Okay, okay. I’ll be more careful with my words. But you know, Nagavanshi never–”

“I am not Nagavanshi. You would do well to get used to me and stop bringing her up.”

“Ah, I’m so sorry. I will do my part to recognize and praise you for your unique merits.”

“This is not about that at all. This is not one scintilla, one iota, one whit, about that!”

Even the Captain and the Commissar expressed their high morale in their own ways.

Sverland used to be one of the “colonies” that the Empire founded after the expanding from the Imbrium. Due to its proximity to the imperial heartland, Sverland became a management hub for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s production. Unlike the territories that would become the Union, Sverland boasted a handful of actual cities, and the most southern of these was Serrano station, a commercial hub through which everything coming and going through Sverland seemed to end up.

A pillar-type Station of enormous size, Serrano’s base was set into a crater 1200 meters deep beneath the Ocean, while the highest point was at the 800 meter mark. There were three port structures, one at the base, one in the middle of the pillar and an exclusive covered dock at the very top. Fatima’s golden ears were overwhelmed around Serrano. There was a lot of traffic coming and going. There were perhaps a hundred large ships and many dozens of smaller, shorter ranged craft docked, docking, or departing from the station. In such a crowded scenario, the acoustic predictor was more efficient at analyzing the discrete models of ships around them than Fatima alone.

For the first time, the Brigand saw Imperial naval vessels. Small patrol cutters covered the waters starting half a dozen kilometers from the station. They could not tell that the Brigand was a Union vessel. As far as they were concerned it was an old hauler that resembled several of the merchant vessels frequenting the waters around Serrano. So while their first brush with Imperial patrols caused the Brigand’s crew to break a sweat, the cutters merely floated by without incident.

After meeting the smallest imperial ships, they soon met the very largest.

Anchored to the same lower dock that was their destination, there was a truly massive ship.

Gunmetal grey with an elegant, spoon-shaped prow and a sweeping chassis and fins.

“Irmingard class.” Ulyana said.

“You know it?” Aaliyah asked.

“When I was Captain of–” the Captain began to reply but paused briefly as if staggered for a moment by the bitter memory she recalled. “When I was part of the Pravda project, the reason we were making such a big dreadnought was that a defector from the Empire managed to make it to us with the early plans for the Irmingard class. This was like, seven years ago. All of the Union’s current dreadnoughts are more advanced than the common Koenig class that the Empire has kept around for decades. But we have nothing against the Irmingard class. Not after the Pravda sank.”

Aaliyah seemed to be able to tell the Captain’s mood had suddenly turned a bit foul.

She put on an expression of sympathy and laid her hand on the armrest of the chair.

Not touching the Captain, but offering some proximal physical support nonetheless.

“The Brigand might not be the Pravda; but it’s no common ship you’re Captain of.”

“Don’t try to console me about the Pravda.” Ulyana said bluntly. “Just ignore me.”

That Irmingard dreadnought, like every other Imperial ship, had no reason to fight them.

They would have to ensure it remained that way. Aaliyah did not press Ulyana any further.

As they approached Serrano station, Kamarik took on the task of getting them docked properly, while Semyonova was in charge of communicating with Station Control to report in their ship and be assigned a space in the port. Owing to the indifference of a port that saw massive amounts of money going in and out every hour, the Brigand was not scheduled for a search and needed no further identification to berth. Imperial ports were famously corrupt, and the Brigand could have easily bribed its way through. And so the Brigand slipped in under a steel sky, above an ocean floor turned white by bright floodlights. The lower dock was accessed through massive openings in the base of the station, and was mostly inhabited by dismal-looking cargo haulers. The Brigand requested access via a cargo unloading berth — a massive structure into which the cruiser-size ship would be clamped, locked into place, sealed, and the berth would then drain. Finally, they would employ their cargo elevator for access.

While this was transpiring, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara left the Bridge in Semyonova’s hands and assembled the squadron who would be handling their first mission within the station itself. In the strategic planning room, Zachikova, Shalikova and Murati had been called to assemble, along with Akulantova and Ensign Van Der Smidse, a member of the security team. She was a young, bright-eyed woman with a mischievous smile, wearing her blond hair in two long braids. She had an athletic figure but was completely dwarfed by Chief Akulantova.

“Murati,” Ulyana began, “You will lead Zachikova and Shalikova into the city to recover a refugee from ‘Warehouse Six’. This team was chosen because of your practical abilities — Murati has a track record as an excellent tactician and speaker, Shalikova has sharp eyes and hands and quick reflexes, and Zachikova has unique skills with computing and reconnaissance.”

“Unless something truly unfortunate happens, the authorities won’t have their eye on you. So be cautious and don’t give anyone cause to follow you or suspect you of anything.” Aaliyah added. “Zachikova will be in contact with us through encrypted radio, and with her unique talents she’ll be able to tell if there’s any heat coming down on you by monitoring the station network. We’ll have part of the security team patrolling the docks just in case you find unwanted friends.”

Akulantova smiled. “I’m going to stay here to help the Captain and Commissar. But I’ve assembled some of my people to guard the docks. Like this young lady, Klara Van Der Smidse; and another of my team, Zhu Lian, who is preparing equipment for us. I will station these two at the entrance to the docks. They can rush into the city to help if you need a distraction or cover or anything like that. Like the Captain said though, we’re hoping you’ll keep a low profile today.”

Upon being mentioned, Van Der Smidse put on an almost smug look.

She did not say anything, but her face showed she was quite pleased with herself.

Murati showed no outward concern upon being given her mission.

She did have questions, however.

“Wouldn’t it be better for the security team to fetch and protect the refugee?”

“Have some confidence in yourself Murati.” Aaliyah said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Besides that, the reason you’re going and not the security team is that we’re not setting out to shoot anyone or extract under fire.” Ulyana said. “We assembled a team to blend in, make their way through city overlooked in crowds, and peacefully meet up with our refugee. Then assess the situation and return safely. Our Security team is better put to use guarding our perimeter here.”

“I guess I understand when you pit that way. Are we taking any gear?” Murati asked.

“You’re not getting a weapon.” Ulyana said. She had a faint, bemused smile.

“I didn’t ask for a weapon. I just want to know what’s available.” Murati said. “Beside weapons, what about armor? What about barter items in case we need to negotiate for something?”

“Murati, they don’t do much bartering in the Empire.” Aaliyah said.

“You’d be surprised. Historically, in times of war, the value of currency–”

“You’re all supposed to be civilian workers with a transport company.” Ulyana interrupted, before Murati could get too far into her history lesson. “Logistics personnel aren’t usually carrying around much on a quick trip into town. If you need to negotiate money with anyone, it’s going to be in imperial marks, not seashells and whalebone. All the gear you get is Zachikova.”

Zachikova nodded her head. Shalikova glanced sidelong at her.

“How will we find the meeting place? Warehouse Six, you said?” Murati said.

“It’s likely in the city map. I’ll download it when we get outside.” Zachikova said.

“We’ll also be making contact with the dockworkers.” Aaliyah said. “When you work with ships and cargo, you get all kinds of information. I’m hoping I can catch up on current events and see if there’s anything interesting going on in Sverland specifically. If I learn anything useful about your situation in particular, I’ll tell the Captain and she’ll inform Zachikova right away.”

“Do we know anything about the refugee? How will I know it’s them?” Murati said.

“I’m sorry to say we don’t know anything. To be honest, we’ve been assuming it’s only one person, but reading E.L.F messages can be like astrology sometimes.” Ulyana said. “That’s why I’ll be in contact. Keep me appraised of the situation.”

“We also trust your judgment, Murati.” Aaliyah said. “As the first officer, Zachikova and Shalikova will follow your orders on the field. In fact, I’d prefer you limit contact with the Captain to avoid suspicions. Only do so in an emergency.”

Ulyana sighed as if she was afraid it might come to that.

Then, for a brief moment, everyone felt a faint vibration transfer from the floor.

“We’ll be fully docked into the station soon. Is there anything else on your mind?”

Ulyana addressed Murati, and the First Officer responded by saluting.

Murati had a smile on her face. She looked at ease.

“No, I think I understand everything. This should be nice and easy.” She replied.

Shalikova crossed her arms over her chest. Zachikova stared at Murati as if knowingly.

 “Any objections, you two?”

Murati turned from the Captain and Commissar to her fellow officers and team members.

“Of course I have no objections. Orders are orders.” Shalikova said bluntly.

“All things considered, I’d rather stay on the ship, but I’ll go.” Zachikova replied.

“Wow, so lively and full of enthusiasm.” Akulantova joked.

Van Der Smidse hid a small laugh behind her delicate fingers.

Shalikova threw a nasty glare at the too-affable security team member.

“I’m glad you’re all still lively.” Aaliyah said. “Murati, depart as soon as possible.”

“Yes ma’am. Will do. Thank you for choosing me for this mission.”

“Of course. It’s our first outing in Imperial waters, but I trust in every one of you.”

Ulyana stepped forward and shook hands vigorously with each of the team members.

“Bring that refugee back safe, and we can start taking the Empire down a peg. Dismissed.”

Everyone saluted. At least, the Brigand would enter the war-torn Empire and begin its quest.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

After several days, the hangar was finally fully prepared and every mech in the Brigand’s squadron had been assembled, charged up and assigned its gantry and equipment. Murati could finally convene and formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron. On the morning of this triumphant day, she set aside some time to look over the official roster and the files on each pilot.

That was when she spotted an oddity. She sought official confirmation from the Bridge.

“First Officer on bridge!” Commissar Bashara called as Murati stepped through the door.

Everyone in the room turned to meet her briefly. Murati felt a little overwhelmed. She was, strictly speaking, their superior and depending on the health of the Captain she might even have to command them someday, but she was not very familiar with the bridge crew. She saw Semyonova on ship broadcasts and had met Zachikova recently, but the rest she had no occasion to speak to.

“It’s really not necessary.” Murati said to the Commissar. She spoke in a low voice.

“Not necessary? As First Officer you should always demand the respect you are owed.”

At the Commissar’s side, the Captain laughed. “I also tell her it’s not necessary.”

You more than anyone need to command more respect also.” Said the Commissar.

She glared sidelong at the Captain in a way that caused her to visibly shrink for a second.

“Let me see there, Murati.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

Murati handed her the tablet with the pilot roster. Murati already had the offending page up.

“Ah, right, this situation.”

The Captain sighed as if it would be a wearying thing to explain.

On the roster, one of the reserve pilots was a young man, younger than Shalikova. Maybe the youngest person on the ship. His name was Aiden Ahwalia. Murati recognized the surname immediately. Anyone in the Union would. Elias Ahwalia had been one of the Union’s founders, and after Daksha Kansal, he was the second Premier of the nation. He was Premier for nearly nine years of the Union’s 20 year life as a state, so he certainly made an impression on the Union.

However, his term was remembered for many bitter difficulties the Union suffered.

Many people felt that after Kansal left, the Union was close to falling apart.

The Union’s recent, comparatively “prosperous” period was thanks to Bhavani Jayasankar rising to power and removing the Ahwalia family from the political sphere. Her administration dispensed with the ideals of the Ahwalian period, where the Union was steered toward fully automated, high-tech utopianism. Bhavani’s Union was more analog, thrifty, and highly militarized in comparison to Ahwalia’s, but everyone had food, everyone had education, health, and some small comforts. As a student of history, Murati could not help but find the Ahwalia surname on her roster ominous.

“I don’t need to explain to you who the Ahwalias are, right?” the Captain asked.

“No ma’am. I’m well aware. I’d like to know why Ahwalia’s youngest is on this ship.”

Commissar Bashara joined the conversation. Her tail was swaying, gentle and relaxed.

“You must think there’s some ulterior motive?” She looked up at Murati from her seat.

Murati felt like that was a trick question, coming from the Commissar.

Captain Korabiskaya was quite relaxed as well, however. They were both untroubled.

“In fact, there is an ulterior motive.” Captain Korabiskaya said plainly, shrugging her shoulders.

“That’s what I was afraid of!” Murati said. “With all due respect, I don’t want–”

“Keep him away from a Strelok and you have nothing to worry about. He’s in reserve.” Commissar Bashara said. “Aiden Ahwalia is here as a punishment on Elias Ahwalia; if you were assuming that then you are correct, Lieutenant Nakara. He’s here because Premier Bhavani and Commissar-General Nagavanshi want to apply pressure to his father through this assignment. Ahwalia will think twice about making any kind of moves if internal security has his sons.”

“His father was purged from the party. His family can’t take public office.” Murati said. “Isn’t this a bit ridiculous? Elias Ahwalia is under house arrest. I don’t see any reason for this.”

Murati felt the Commissar would be predisposed to take the side of the security arm and the intelligence arm of the government on this issue. She looked to the Captain for support, but was met with only a soft, sympathetic expression, like a mother unable to go against the father on some household disagreement. Captain Korabiskaya stood up from her chair to meet Murati’s eyes.

“You’re a really good combat soldier, Murati.” Said the Captain. “But if you want to be a ship Captain or even go to Headquarters, you have to understand politics a bit better. And I don’t just mean Mordecist theory. There are some distasteful things you have to accept. So I accepted Aiden Ahwalia’s posting to the Brigand. That decision is final. If you don’t trust him to pilot a Strelok then don’t give him one. However, as far as he knows he is here on a legitimate mission. He thinks he’s just fulfilling his military duty. So, let him think that while he sits in the reserves, or let him go out if you need him. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

Commissar Bashara nodded. “The Captain’s assessment is uncharacteristically thorough.”

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

“At any rate, Lieutenant, I believe you have work to do. Does this satisfy your inquiry?”

Murati grit her teeth. Her grip tightened around the tablet computer with her roster files.

“Yes ma’am.” She said. She did not like it, but she had no choice.

Commissar Bashara turned her eyes from Murati and forward to the rest of the bridge.

“Keep on keepin’ on, Murati. You’ll be fine.” The Captain said, by way of parting.

Swallowing some nasty things she wanted to say, Murati turned and vacated the bridge.


Despite everything, Murati was pretty excited that the pilot group was so diverse.

They had a few dark-skinned North Bosporans (herself included), a few Volgians, a Pelagis and a pair of Shimii. There were three other transgender women with her, a transgender man, and even a pilot identifying as nonbinary. She shouldn’t have been surprised — there were a lot of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Union military, particularly transgender women who got to transition after the revolution. A lot of them became pilots for the respect afforded them.

Almost everyone in the Union had a military background these days, and the Union was pretty colorful.

It made sense the military reflected that.

The Union was fairly socially progressive: it was after all the place where the Empire sent many “undesirable” people to “cleanse” its internal population, so it made sense there would be a lot of their causes championed institutionally in the Union. That by itself did not stop social prejudices, but it did mean the state would protect Murati’s rights. And it also meant she could end up leading a squadron that was so varied in gender expression and sexuality. As a bit of a social activist herself Murati was a champion of workplace diversity — even if Gunther might have been disappointed in her sidelining of some other workplace ethics.

Her pilot group looked very strong. She put a lot of faith in them.

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

Some of their history was a bit more complicated than Murati would have liked.

As a leader, however, she set aside those issues.

Her goal was to lead the people she had. To lead them to safety; to lead them to victory.

At 1200 hours Murati and her pilots finally convened in the hangar.

Even wearing the same uniform, they really did seem like an eclectic group.

“Welcome, comrades! I am Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara. I apologize for the idleness of the past few days, but I am pleased to formally launch the 114th Diver Squadron! Today we begin our mission to uncover, unite, train, and equip anti-imperialist forces in the Imbrium. This was a doctrine originally envisioned by our founder and first Premier, Daksha Kansal. We’ve had many difficulties as a nation since then, but the tide of history turns in our direction and the Union Navy is finally ready to do whatever it takes to seize victory! We have finally embarked on this historic mission, and I wouldn’t have any other crew but this one at my side. Let us work together to topple imperialism in our Oceans!”

Murati had spent some time in her books researching for her little speech.

To say Kansal created this doctrine was putting a heavy coat of paint on the events. She had insinuated in her Premiership speech that she wanted the Union to serve as a beacon for other revolutions in the Empire, and on more than one occasion believed the Empire would someday be split up by revolutions. When she ultimately left the Union, it was broadly believed that she did so in order to foment unrest in the Empire using the skills she gained during the revolution.

That being said, Murati was the only military and political history expert among the pilots.

So she thought it was a good way to get them thinking positively, if they knew no better.

After all, if Kansal had thought of it, then it wasn’t some random idea thought up yesterday.

Despite her passion, however, the response to the speech was a bit muted.

A blond Shimii woman among the pilots gave her an energetic clap and a big smile.

Next to her, a second Shimii started clapping slowly when the blond woman wouldn’t stop.

Shalikova averted her gaze.

Everyone else stood eyes forward with hands behind their backs like good soldiers.

Murati moved as fluidly as she could away from the subject.

“Now, I want each of you introduce yourselves to the group. It would be pretty frustrating to operate day to day without names, so let’s all become more familiar. I will go first and then I will select the rest of you to come up one by one. I’m Murati Nakara, I’m 29 years old. I piloted at Thassalid Trench, and before that, I did every odd job you can think of in the military. I really like electronic music and I actually played in a football club, so I’m going to push for us to get some nets down here sometime.”

She smiled at everyone, and a got a few small smiles in response, except from Shalikova.

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

There was an almost audible groan from Shalikova as she walked forward to join Murati.

Stiff and unsmiling, Shalikova turned reluctantly to face the rest of the squad. Murati had seen this unfriendly face before at Thassalid Trench. Shalikova was thin and pale, with long, white hair and wonderfully indigo eyes that really popped amid her pristine skin and girlish facial features. For some reason she had stopped wearing her jacket since they embarked on their journey. With the sleeveless TBT button-down, Murati could see her arms and shoulders had a bit of wiry, athletic definition to them.

“I’m Sonya Shalikova. I’m 23 years old. I also piloted at Thassalid Trench.”

Shalikova started to walk back and Murati gently tapped her on the shoulder to stop her.

“Do you have hobbies or interests Shalikova? Anything you want to go back home to?”

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

“I like hardbass music. And I like crafts. I like– making stuff. I made a bear once.”

“That’s great. Thank you Shalikova. I can have some supplies brought to you–”

Shalikova interrupted Murati. “It’s really not necessary. I’m going back to the line now.”

She returned to the lineup with a bit of desperation in her voice.

However instead of returning to the side of the blond Shimii woman, where she had once been standing, she conspicuously walked all the way to the other end of the line and stood there next to Aiden Ahwalia. Perhaps it had been because the Shimii had been making rather energetic gestures of support throughout Shalikova’s introduction and she did not want to be near her now.

“Well, alright.” Murati suppressed a laugh. “Next up is Lieutenant Khadija al-Shajara.”

Once more, the bubbly blond Shimii clapped her hands together.

She walked to the front with a long, graceful stride and took her place beside Murati.

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

“Hello darlings! As she said, I’m Khadija al-Shajara– ah, do I really have to say my age?”

Murati blinked, surprised. “Err, I suppose it’s not really necessary.”

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

Everything about Khadija seemed to shine brightly. She had a confident, foxy appearance, and her makeup was glamorous. Dark wine-colored eyeshadow; long black lashes; well-kept, slightly thick eyebrows; a rich, dark red color on her lips. She had a sophisticated air, more like an actress or a singer than a soldier. Her figure was more rounded off than Murati’s or Shalikova’s, but still plenty fit. Her natural Shimii features were charming enough on their own too, with her long, tapering ears and fluffy tail.

“Let’s forget about my age then. Let’s just say, I’m a woman in the prime of my life. I’ve been a Diver pilot longer than anyone among us, and I would love to see how all of you keep up with me in the ocean waters. As for my hobbies, I love board and card games, so if you ever want to lose a few social credits to a very beautiful gal, we could play some mahjong or poker.”

She winked at the other pilots with her hands crossed over her breast.

Murati had her official age in the roster, forty one, and she could see the gray in that voluminous and otherwise golden ponytail, and the hint of crow’s feet mostly hidden by her makeup. Khadija definitely wore her beret, nestled between her cat-like ears, to hide some of the gray where her hair parted. Murati found her little vanities charming. She could only hope she would look like Khadija did when she herself turned forty-one years old, after decades of intensive military service.

Maybe she would ask Khadija for her secrets some other time.

“Next, I’m calling on,” Murati paused briefly to look over the entire name before saying it. It was quite a mouthful. Like the name of the bridge officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa it was a combination of the mother’s and the father’s surnames. So it ended up being long and somewhat foreign to Murati: “Senior Ensign Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.”

“Ha ha! Oh my god– please just use al-Shahouh or Raisanen, not both, and not my Loup soulname.”

From beside Khadija, the other Shimii on the team walked forward with a serene smile.

“You want me to pick?” Murati said. “I guess I’ll use al-Shahouh.”

She shrugged as if amused by the decision. “Heh, do I look more Shimii than Loup then?”

Murati simply did not know enough about Loup to answer. Certainly, Sameera had the ears and the tail that resembled those of some kind of heritage mammal. Shimii ears had all kinds of shapes, so it was hard to tell whether Sameera’s tall and bristly ears were more cat-like or dog-like. Her tail was certainly a bit different. Most Shimii swayed their tails gently, but Sameera was wagging hers fast, and the shape had slightly clublike girth — maybe more like a dog. Who could say?

 Loup were a rare sight in the Union. By the numbers among the rarest ethnicities there. Shimii were incarcerated and deported to the colonies that would become the Union by the Empire, starting thirty years ago, creating a significant population in the Nectaris ocean. Loup retained a privileged position among the minorities of the Imbrian Empire, and few were deported. Sameera’s roster entry listed her as biracial, both Loup and Shimii — a testament to the barriers that could be broken in the Union.

There was more to her than her ears and tail of course. Everything between them was quite distinctive.

With a sleek nose and a sharp jawline, a tall and lithe build and a confident, graceful demeanor, if Murati was “husband” material in women’s eyes, she felt Sameera would have been a trophy husband. With her brown hair tied in a long ponytail with messy bangs and her light, sand-brown skin completely unembellished, she had an earthy, handsome beauty that was easy on the eyes.

“I’m Sameera. Just call me Sameera or ‘Sam’ please. I’m 27 years old, and single.”

She did a cheeky little bow in front of everyone, with one arm crossed over her chest.

One of her ears did a little twitch. Her tail continued to wag excitedly.

“My previous piloting experience has actually all been Leviathan hunting. I was also the test pilot for that fancy new mech in the back there for a few months,” she pointed over her shoulder at the Cheka with a little grin on her face.

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

“As for my personal life, I like games, drinking, get-togethers, that kinda thing. I prefer being able to host a few friends, or maybe a single special someone.” She winked. Nobody reacted. “If I’m by myself, I like to do yoga actually.”

She walked back to the line of her own accord and stood between Khadija and another pilot, a colorful young Pelagis woman who briefly glared at her from the corner of her eyes. It just so happened that this was the next person Murati wanted to call.

“Thanks ‘Sam’. Maybe I’ll see you at the gym! Next, Ensign Dominika Rybolovskaya.”

Dominika wore a gloomy face as she walked to Murati’s side. That friendless expression, however, was framed with vibrant color. Her hair was a base of red with brown highlights, long and silky. There were black-striped strands of red that blended in with her hair but were actually cartilaginous pelagis fins. Her face looked soft, unblemished, and very uniformly pink, while her eyes were a bright pink with a blue limbal ring — unique and captivating. Her figure was almost as skinny as Shalikova’s. Curiously, Dominika wore the top three buttons of her shirt undone, exposing what looked like a series of tiny bumps of tissue running down her neck and presumably chest. Murati thought she saw a bit of a glow to them, but maybe it was just the lighting.

“I’m Dominika Rybolovskaya. If that’s too much of a mouthful you can call me Nika, but I’d prefer you don’t. I’m 25 years old. I was in the border troops along Campos and the ice frontier. I like target practice, archery, knife throwing. Anything with a target, I’ll be able to hit it.” She briefly and mysteriously sighed. “I guess I also like yoga– Don’t get your hopes up!”

Dominika was so quick that Sameera went from sudden elation to being put down into the ground in an instant.

“Um, thanks, Dominika.” Murati said. She opted to not acknowledge Sameera at all.

Notably, however, Dominika returned to Sameera’s side defiantly, without trying to avoid her but also without giving her any attention. She averted her gaze and Sameera stayed quiet. Khadija, to the right of both, looked between them with growing delight in her eyes. Shalikova stared dead straight at Murati, or maybe even past her, unwilling to acknowledge the rest of them.

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

There were two members of the squadron left to introduce, and one was listed as a reserve for rather dire reasons, so Murati did not have to think much about who she would call next. It was the one nonbinary member of the roster.

“Next to step forward will be Ensign Valya Lebedova. Gender neutral pronouns, correct?”

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

Valya’s voice trembled just a little as they stepped forward in front of everyone.

They pushed their glasses up the bridge of their nose and held their hands behind their back.

“I’m Valya Lebedova. I’m 26 years old. I identify as nonbinary, um, thanks to everyone for respecting this.”

They bowed their head a little bit, their bangs briefly obscuring their gentle, demure face.

Valya took a rather guarded stance as they stood up in front of the squadron, their slight, curvy frame shaking from the knees up. They had a small nose and thin lips with a gentle expression, their face framed and partially hidden by messy, neck-length salmon-colored hair. Their long, straight bangs swept to the right side of their face, with one bright green eye peeking out. From what Murati could see, it was a stylistic choice — not covering up any kind of mysterious scars or anything so stereotypical. They wore the TBT pants and half-jacket uniform, all buttoned up over a dark blue bodysuit, quite tidy, with no customization.

“I’ve only had simulator experience, but um, my performance in the simulator was used to program the Veteran level OPFOR. So you may have actually fought against me in training. I really enjoyed simulator work but I was called on to join the team here, so I couldn’t really say no! Um, for my personal life, I like computers, programming, tinkering with stuff. I know how to solder!”

Their last words escaped them like an anxious gasp. Their cheeks flushed lightly.

“Thank you, Valya; relax, you’re among friends!” Murati said.

Finally, Murati got to the last name she wanted to speak about on the roster.

Not knowing what to expect, good or bad, she drew in a breath and prepared herself.

“Last but not least, our reserve team member, the cadet Aiden Ahwalia.”

Valya, Khadija, and Dominika all turned to face Aiden when his name was spoken.

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

Murati nearly cringed. She had really hoped to avoid things like this.

Aiden looked a little annoyed, but he walked forward with his head held high. He was a thin, athletic, smooth-faced young man with long, tidy black hair, tied into a short ponytail. His bright red eyes stood out more in contrast with his dark brown skin. His expressions and movements conveyed a bit of arrogance, and it only made him look more like a kid putting on airs. Even compared to Shalikova or Valya who had somewhat similar height and figure to him, and were not much older, he looked somewhat babyfaced and far too young to be among them.

“I’m Aiden Ahwalia. You all know my family, from the looks on your faces, so I won’t need to explain it. I’m 19 years old. I completed my initial enlistment like everyone else. I scored highest in the simulator against the Valya-level program out of any cadets in my class.” He put on a little grin. “My outstanding scores and performance are why I’m here. I want to represent my family and restore our standing. You all probably hold it against it me, but to be frank I don’t believe we deserve–”

“You’re doing nothing but taking up space here, you brat.” Khadija butted in.

 Aiden’s outrage was immediate. Almost as if he had been ready to put on that face.

“Hey, nobody else got interrupted! You see what I’m talking about here?”

Aiden looked to Murati for support, but Khadija quickly continued to argument.

“I interrupted because you’re talking a load of shit. Like your god damned father–”

Khadija turned and poked her finger right into Aiden’s chest accusingly.

“Everyone, calm down!” Murati raised her voice. While she did not like Aiden’s attitude, she did not want this to escalate further. Khadija really looked ready to beat him up — and capable of it. “The Captain approved of him coming aboard, and I’m responsible for him. It won’t be a problem unless we all collectively make it a problem, so please, just treat him professionally.” 

“I have no problem with anyone but him. I’m probably not the only one.” Khadija said.

“I know where you’re coming from.” Valya replied. “But Lieutenant Nakara is right.”

“We must listen to the commander.” Dominika said, arms crossed and head down.

“I agree, let’s just relax. Why don’t I treat you later, Lieutenant al-Shajara?”

Sameera tried to sweet-talk Khadija, but the older woman was clearly not in the mood.

“I apologize, Nakara. Please continue. I would like permission to retire for the day after assignments.”

“Permission granted. Aiden, come talk to me after I finish the assignments.”

Murati looked down at Aiden at her side. She nodded, directing him to leave.

He crossed his arms and returned to the line of pilots in a huff.

Now that everyone was introduced, the final official step in establishing the squadron was the assignments. Khadija would have known that — she was a veteran who had been through several missions already. Union Divers worked in pairs, often two to three pairs per squadron. Working as a pair gave everyone in the squadron a buddy to rely upon. Pairs were more resilient than individuals and gave the squadron more flexibility. Originally the Brigand had five Divers with two reserves, but Murati successfully lobbied the Captain for Valya to become a full member.

“I’ll start giving the pair assignments. This will be short for today, but we’ll flesh out our roles and capabilities more in the coming days, when we really start training and when we will be expected to be on call 24/7 as part of the ship’s combat power.” Murati said. “First off, the flanking unit will consist of myself in the Cheka alongside Ensign Shalikova in the Strelok ‘I-bis.’”

Murati looked to Shalikova with a big, happy smile that was not returned in the slightest.

“Ok.” Not even a ‘looking forward to working with you’ or anything of the sort.

Hopefully, that withdrawn attitude was something they could work on together.

“Next, our breakthrough firepower unit will consist of Ensign al-Shahouh in the Strelok C.Q.C. ‘Cossack’ and Ensign Rybolovskaya in the Strelkannon ‘Modular Weapons Platform.’”

Sameera turned cheerfully to Dominika for acknowledgment. Dominika turned her cheek.

Clearly the assignments Murati had made on paper would need some work in practice.

“Lieutenant al-Shajara and Ensign Lebedova will pilot Streloks in our support unit.”

Khadija walked over to Valya and gave them a friendly squeeze on the shoulder that took the latter by surprise. Valya nearly jumped, and then tried to smile at Khadija to play it off. No sooner had the Shimii’s hand lifted off her assigned enby’s shoulder than Khadija took off casually toward the hangar elevator, wanting to leave the hangar as soon as possible. Murati sighed.

“Finally, Cadet Ahwalia will be in reserve. Everyone is dismissed for the day. At ease.”

As soon as they were released, the pilots wandered away. Shalikova waited for everyone else to take the elevator first; Valya headed toward their Strelok’s gantry to inspect it; Dominika found herself closely followed by Sameera who was quiet but had a cheeky expression as she quite clearly and obviously shadowed her partner but pretended to be merely going her own way.

Murati, meanwhile signaled for Aiden to come forward to talk to her. She whispered:

“I don’t care who your family is. I won’t judge you or protect you for it. Next time you get a rise out of anyone, it will be up to Akulantova to get the boots off your face, because I won’t.”

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

“We are now convening the first ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ on the Brigand.”

In the planning room of the Brigand’s command pod, a small group of officers gathered.

At the head of this meeting was Ensign Braya Zachikova, the Electronic Warfare Officer aboard the ship. She had been missing during the battle against ULV-96 since she was getting acquainted with the ship supercomputer at the time. Missing out on the glory did not seem to bother her at all: her response to being asked about it was to simply say, “Leviathans have no ECM capabilities.”

Zachikova was a distant young woman with a somewhat short and skinny figure. She had tawny brown hair tied into a single tail, which looped into a long, wavy spiral that was quite fantastic. This seemed to be the only point of vanity she allowed herself. Her face was rather expressionless, she used no makeup, and she wore her uniform to code.  Two metal antennae each about the width of her wrists adorned the sides of her head.

The agenda for the meeting was on a minicomputer she carried. When she set the minicomp down on the room table, she swiped the agenda text off her screen and directly onto the table screen for everyone to see. There were three particular items that she wanted to discuss with the group. Joining her in the room was Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, First Officer Nakara and an engineer, Gunther Cohen.

At that moment, the Bridge was led by Semyonova temporarily.

“Zachikova,”

Captain Korabiskaya sighed deeply and brushed her fingers through her blond hair.

“That was a placeholder name for the project. But you still called the meetings–”

“It doesn’t really matter what they are called, does it?” Zachikova asked.

She looked at the Captain quizzically, as if she really didn’t understand the issue.

Commissar Bashara shook her head. “Don’t get distracted, Captain.”

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

“Fine then. ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ indeed. Zachikova, report your findings.”

Zachikova nodded. “First, a brief explanation for Nakara and Cohen about the project.”

Before the Brigand was handed over to its eventual crew, to prevent any leaks of its secrets, the sailors, mechanics, engineers, and officers were given very limited information about the ship in the lead-up to departure. It was understood that when the ship was underway its crew would have access to the finer details of the ship’s functions and would have a one-week shakedown period in peaceful waters. This time would be used for training, tuning and organization to make up for the secrecy and lack of onboarding.

The Captain accepted these terms. Mainly because she had no other choice.

Despite being attacked by a Leviathan almost immediately after setting off, the Brigand’s crew got underway and began to get acquainted with the ship per their schedule. Almost as soon as they started to touch things on the ship, however, they ran into numerous curiosities about the Brigand’s design.

Immediately, Helmsman Kamarik found oddities in the ship’s propulsion. Zachikova found that the ship’s supercomputer had several gaps where something was soft-deleted but the data was not zeroed out and could not be written over until it was properly reclaimed. Geninov and -de la Rosa took some mechanics to inspect the backup firing solutions on their respective weapons systems and found some strange parts in the hull armor when they dug themselves into the casemates for the guns and the guts of the torpedo tube. Supply staff found an inventory of unmarked spare parts in the cargo hold with instructions on destroying them.

The Captain halted any destruction of those parts until further notice.

Various confusing design “innovations” of this sort started to pile up.

Captain Korabiskaya tasked Zachikova with investigating as much as she could by digging into the ship’s computers and working with the engineers and technicians. As they sailed, Zachikova used drones to inspect every nook and cranny of the outer hull, gathering data on the materials and construction of the ship. She ultimately concluded that the ship had various functions that had been dummied out in the software.

“Cohen, you were part of the Cheka project, and traveled with the Brigand before. Can you shed some light on this? What do you know about the Brigand’s development?” the Captain asked.

Gunther Cohen nodded his head. “So, I will say up front, I didn’t design anything on the Brigand, and none of the guys who did were in contact with me. I know that, before the Brigand became fully seaworthy, it was a different, bigger ship. I know I heard folks talking about how they ‘chiseled’ the current Brigand out of the ‘rock’ that was the older one. I couldn’t tell you what that means, and it’s just hearsay, but this is a pretty mysterious ship. However, I’m not surprised they dummied a bunch of stuff out in the software. That’s standard procedure for Union design.”

“Standard procedure? To install a ton of extra equipment and make it inoperable?”

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

“It probably saves on R&D, doesn’t it? It’s easier than physically ripping out mechanical systems that were not properly completed, and then having to restructure the ship’s guts for it.”

“Murati has the right of it. Projects like the Cheka and the Brigand are pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff, we were dreaming big, and then we had to temper our expectations. I can imagine for a piece of machinery as complicated as a ship once you have added certain mechanical systems it’s not easy to rip them out entirely if they’re buggy or just unfinished. Those extra jets, for example, are way easier to dummy out in the software than they are to remove and redo the whole stern.”

Commissar Bashara rubbed her chin with one hand, resting the elbow on the table.

“Zachikova, could you list the equipment you were able to account for that has no available software? I would like a clear picture of the kinds of things we are talking about.” She asked.

Nodding, Zachikova read from her minicomputer. “There are two retractable devices in the prow and two above the stern that appear defensive in nature. We know they have motors, actuators and what looks like an agarthicite lattice associated with them. There’s a vertical missile tube that can fit standardized tube drones, dummies, and chaff, but Geninov can’t launch anything out of it. There are two additional small jets, but they do nothing if Kamarik tries to engage them. These are only a few of the larger objects. There may be finer systems we haven’t accounted for yet.”

“This sounds like such a massive waste of engineering.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“I can understand your perspective as a soldier, you all want to have as many options as possible, but these things were dummied out for a reason.” Cohen said. “Already the Brigand is a bit of a patchwork and it was designed as a testbed for a particular capability and purpose. I think right now, we should stick to the basics of launching Divers out of it and supporting them.”

“Sometimes equipment that is dummied out is fully operational.” Zachikova said.

“That’s true, but we can’t know that here.” Cohen said. “Everyone who designed these bits is a high-level spook, too, I’m almost sure of it. I think we should leave it well enough alone.”

Zachikova turned to the Captain with something like determination in her eyes.

“Captain, Commissar, I must admit I am fascinated by these findings.” She said suddenly.

“So are we. Cohen’s points aside, though, almost everything on this ship is digital.” Captain Korabiskaya said. “So, if we don’t have software to run it, we can’t use it. Even if we can crawl someone through the ducts to that vertical missile tube, for example, they can’t launch anything.”

“Judging by your expression, Zachikova, you have an idea.” Commissar Bashara said.

Captain Korabiskaya stared at the Commissar and then at Zachikova in confusion.

Zachikova smiled for the first time. It was a small smile, but quite self-satisfied.

“You are right, Captain, that the Brigand is a digital being and we have no analog ways of using this equipment. It is conventional wisdom that for security purposes, it is not possible to write executable code to a ship’s supercomputer, so the ship’s crew can only use the included script and software bundles to carry out their tasks and can only perform minimal customization.”

“Wait. You’re insinuating that you can crack the computer?” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“Indeed. I can potentially edit back in some of the ship’s lost functionality, with time.”

Cohen looked terrified. “Ensign Zachikova, have you read a single treatise on engineering ethics? There’s a reason, other than security, that we don’t let people just write and execute code willy-nilly on ships. We’re supposed to be guaranteeing a certified, safe environment to work in!”

Zachikova turned her cold eyes on him. “Engineer Cohen, what if I told you I was a ‘spook’ myself at one point? That I was exactly the sort of unreachable, invisible person whose intentions you feared to probe? That where my actions were concerned, the ends justified the means, far above any regulation you could name?”

“Say what? Excuse me? Did everyone just process what this woman just said?”

The engineer looked to the Captain and the Commissar for support and found none.

“Zachikova was a ship saboteur in the Union Navy special forces.” Said the Commissar, calmly.

“I guess if anyone can crack something like this, it’s her. A very lucky personnel assignment.” Captain Korabiskaya smiled, perhaps a little nervously. Zachikova puffed out her chest with pride.

Cohen looked at them as if he could not believe what he was hearing.

Murati then raised a rather soft concern, in light of the other issues.

“Wait one minute though, how can you write executable code on a ship computer?”

Cohen tried to look to her for support as well, but as a soldier, she was also not opposed to the idea of trying to rehabilitate some of the Brigand’s more eccentric features. A piece of equipment was something to be mastered and perfected, both in the realm of strategy and logistics, and in development. They were owed full control and full power over this ship. She simply did not share Gunther Cohen’s passionate sense of the sanctity of workplace regulations. At least, not aboard an experimental military ship on a black ops mission.

Zachikova, of course, had an answer to Murati’s question.

“I found an exploit that would let me install software on Union ship computers.” Zachikova says. “In order to make it work, we need to briefly cut power to the computer, causing an unexpected shutdown and recovery. Normally only thin clients specifically mated to a ship are able to connect to its supercomputer. Those clients are knocked out when the supercomputer goes down. However, I am an independent, compatible device on the ship network, so I can exploit the recovery state to take unauthorized actions. I’ll install software to guarantee us continued, privileged access to the supercomputer so we can write our own code to it.”

She pointed to the two antennae on her head and demonstrated how she could remove one to expose a tiny serial port in her head, to which one might have connected networking or data cables. This port could connect computing devices directly to the mechanical parts of her brain, which had been cybernetically augmented. Cohen stared at it speechless, while the Captain and Commissar looked quite impressed with it.

“So you’ll use yourself as a computing device through which you can access the supercomputer. Interesting.”

Commissar Bashara seemed to understand the plan. Captain Korabiskaya looked a bit lost.

“Will you be okay, Zachikova? I’m not sure of the limitations of your brain implants.”

“I appreciate the concern, Captain. I will be fine. I’ve used my status as a living machine to great effect on missions before this one. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be on this ship otherwise.”

“You’re not a living machine, you’re a person, Zachikova. But I accept your reasoning.”

Zachikova looked indifferent to the Captain’s assurances of her humanity.

As the conversation developed, Cohen grew visibly more dissatisfied. “You asked me to come here to consult. My advice is, don’t do this. There is a world of problems with this!” He crossed his arms, seemingly offended.

“We value your input, Engineer Cohen.” Commissar Bashara said. Her tail stood straight and her voice and expression both grew stern. “However, this ship is not a collective farm. You were asked to advise us and we have listened to your advice. We have a mission, and our mission is led by a dictatorship. The Captain and I appear to agree about this course of action. We need all the power we can get. Zachikova, you will prepare the cracking software. We’ll work with you on a window of time to execute it. Then we’ll explore our options with each individual customization. We will be careful with them, and we will be as responsible as we are able.”

“Those devices were removed for our own good. But you’re right; it’s your decision.”

Cohen sat back and turned his head as if he were wiping his hands clean of this business.


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara headed to the bridge to set up a window for them to cut power to the computer to crash it. All of the ship had to be informed about the shutdown and to take a break until this task was accomplished. As they walked to the lab, Zachikova worked on her minicomputer.

From her jacket she withdrew a memory stick, worn and scratched, a sticker peeled off it.

“Is that the program you need?” Murati asked.

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

“Were you issued that, or did you make it yourself?”

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

She might have taken it with her after leaving the special forces. Maybe not fully reported.

Murati did not pry any further. It would not have been fair to Zachikova.

“I wanted to thank you for your work in proposing this to the Captain.” She said.

“Well, I’m glad at least the people who matter were happy with my presentation.”

Zachikova spoke in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone without a shred of doubt or hesitation.

“It may sound sentimental, but I respect your expertise. I trust you; because of your record.”

Everyone else had made such a big deal of Zachikova’s past in the Special Forces. Had it been her, Murati would have definitely felt ostracized by those kinds of comments. Zachikova was her peer. She had kept quiet at the meeting, but she wanted Zachikova to know she had support among her peers.

For her part, however, Zachikova did not acknowledge her intentions whatsoever.

“How do you feel about the special forces, Lieutenant?”

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

She thought of what she knew about them: they handled critical missions, against external and internal threats. Asset protection, targeted liquidation, reconnaissance, sabotage, espionage. They were accountable to the internal security directorate and not formally part of the Navy. Training for the special forces was heavy, and it required a certain temperament to get approved for them. Or at least that was what Murati learned about them in her time writing papers about the military for the Academy.

She knew, basically, what they were and what they did — but how did she feel about them?

“I trust that your unit fulfilled its duty. Like all of us you worked to protect the Union.”

Even if she did not know exactly what Zachikova had done, Murati wanted to trust her.

Zachikova glanced sidelong at Murati in response. She put on a tiny little grin.

“I see. You would be really dangerous in the special forces, Murati Nakara.”

Murati waited for Zachikova to elaborate on that point, but she never did.

Zachikova stuck the memory stick into her minicomputer and connected to it via the serial cable on her left antennae. On the computer, the ordinary GUI for Union thin clients was taken over by a shell that was running a series of commands, scrolling through diagnostic text much faster than Murati could figure out. With that device plugged into her antennae, the hazy way her eyes looked while staring down at the screen, she really did look almost mechanical. When her eyes glanced sidelong at Murati once more, she briefly saw tiny digits flitting across them. They must have been cybernetic, like the antennae.

Most sufferers of Hartz syndrome needed both the antennae and the eye implants together.

She was not a machine, however. She was a person. Murati held firmly to that.

“You definitely joined this mission because you have a self-righteous streak, Murati Nakara. As for me, I just want a challenge.” Zachikova said, almost to herself. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Did I give such a bad impression? I won’t judge you. What matters is that you’re here.”

No response from the Electronic Warfare officer. She became immersed in her work.

Murati felt mildly anxious about whether Zachikova appreciated or disdained her kindness toward her.

At the meeting she had called herself a machine. Did she really believe that?

They had barely met; Murati resolved to give it some time.

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

Beyond the common areas of the ship was the Science & Observation section, closer to the tail of the ship and directly plugged into the conning tower — a ship’s “top fin” that contained a multitude of sensors, cameras, and other equipment. Through the sliding doors, the first object in Murati’s sight was the ship’s tree. Encased in a habitat and attended to using drone arms controlled from the outside, the tree was almost as tall as the room with a vast, beautiful green crown that brushed against the confines of the hermetic glass in which it was kept. Like many Union trees it was planted on a black mound — a combination of synthetic soil, heritage soil that was brought to the Union’s agrispheres by the Empire, and soil extracted from continental caves.

That tree would provide some of their fresh oxygen, but it was mainly symbolic.

Even under the Ocean, after the catastrophe, surface life continued to struggle. Humanity was part of this.

Arrayed around the tree in the center was the laboratory equipment. Each station had a different purpose that would have been better understood by a science officer. There were centrifuges, containment cells for biohazardous material, burners, dessicators, evaporators, distillation equipment, all manner of glasses; a few more mysterious devices like a “vacuum oven,” a “particle accelerator” and an “ultraviolet chamber” among others. In the rear of the room was a nondescript box about the size of a locker turned on its side, containing the supercomputer and an array of cooling racks and heat sinks that looked almost like an art station.

Along the sides of the room were the agri-units, one growing mushrooms, a second growing spinach and a third housing a bubbling vat of modified yeast, which would be turned into patties. These units could provide some of the ship’s fresh food needs. They could not feed the entire crew, but they could make sure the entire crew could have a bite or two of fresh food regularly, rather than relying entirely on their packed supplies.

“Murati! You came over! I can’t believe it took this long for my hubby to pay a visit!”

Managing of all this equipment was the task of the Science Officer, Karuniya Maharapratham.

Seeing Murati, she rushed to the entryway and threw herself into Murati’s arms.

Unprepared to have to catch her fiancé, Murati nearly fell over with her.

Karuniya nuzzled herself against Murati with a big grin on her face.

Murati held her, like Karuniya clearly desired, but let a tired sigh while doing so.

“We see each other every day. We live together!” Murati then cried out.

“You think that’s enough attention for a maiden in full bloom? What a frigid husband!”

“I don’t even know where to start with that!”

“You should start by giving me a big kiss, hubby–”

Murati turned her face away with a big grin, making a show of denying Karuniya attention.

For a moment, Karuniya put on a shocked face in response.

“In the first place, I’m a woman, I don’t know where this husband business came from–”

“Women can be husbands! And cold and mean as the river Cocytus! As you demonstrate!”

“Being called frigid and mean really puts me in the mood to indulge my needy fiancé.”

“Stop casting me as the villain. If you took better care of me, I wouldn’t be like this.”

For a moment, the pair indulged in this sort of teasing as if in their own little world.

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

Murati could not help but smile, a bit bashfully. Being a “husband” was kind of charming.

After indulging in their aura of cohabitation, the pair suddenly realized they had company.

At their side, Zachikoya briefly looked up at them from behind her minicomputer.

Just as quickly, she went back into hiding behind the screen.

“Ah, sorry Zachikova.” Murati felt her heart sink with embarrassment. “This is Karuniya Maharapratham, the Science Officer. We’re getting married, and she gets carried away a lot–”

“You were playing along too.” Karuniya said, narrowing her eyes at Murati. She reached out a hand to try to be friendly, but Zachikova was not in the mood. As soon as Karuniya reached out, she had already walked past them toward the back of the room, headed for the supercomputer.

“Let me know when the Captain authorizes the shutdown.” She said, waving her hand.

As she disappeared behind the tree, she did not even glance at them once over her shoulder.

Karuniya crossed her arms and put on a petulant expression in response to the snub.

“What’s her problem?”

Murati sighed, rubbing her temples. She was so mortified she had begun to sweat.

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

“Whatever. I don’t care.” Karuniya was clearly mad. “So, what are you here for then?”

Murati almost considered trying to tease her, but her mood was simply too oppressive.

“Zachikova is going to do some work on the supercomputer.”

“Uh huh, this isn’t surplus junk at a station plaza, you know. What can she even do to it?”

“Apparently a lot. The Captain authorized it, so don’t worry about the finer details.”

Karuniya shrugged. “I haven’t done any important work on it anyway, so go right ahead.”

“I would’ve thought you’d have more to do than me.” Murati said, commiserating.

While Murati was completely idle, being a combat soldier without any combat or training to do, Karuniya was a scientist. She had drones and sensor tentacles and other equipment at her disposal to collect samples at any point. And she had other responsibilities too: her lab housed the ship’s tree and the agri-units.

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

“We’re still in the Nectaris. Cascabel’s waters aren’t really any different from the Union’s. Once we’re deeper into Sverland and even the Imbrium, I’ll have research worth doing, samples to collect and all of that. Until then I’m just looking after the nitrogen levels on the tree and looking forward to my next meal.”

“Remind me to lend you one of my mixtapes. I can really waste away the hours to those.”

Karuniya perked up a little. She laughed gently with Murati. “I guess that’d help a little.”

On one of the monitors in the lab, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara appeared.

“Alright, we’ve given her a window! Make sure she’s okay, Murati.”

“Copy.” Murati said. Karuniya saluted alongside her.

At the appointed hour, the pair of them stood by as the supercomputer went down.

There was really nothing to see.

Zachikova sat next to the supercomputer housing, plugged into it with one antenna and her minicomputer with the other. She had a placid, glassy-eyed stare as if sleeping with her eyes open. She was like that for twenty minutes. At one point, Karuniya kneeled beside her and pressed her hand to the girl’s chest to confirm a heartbeat and breathing. She was perfectly alive and fine, but her consciousness was somewhere else.

Finally, Zachikova moved. She unplugged herself from the computer and shook her head.

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

One of the monitors in the lab graphically glitched for a second then began to display a horrid looking line of text that seemed to have been constructed out of graphical assets normally used for the UI on ship programs, like the cute swirls on the corners of the screen, and the stylized buttons, but chopped up into bits and pieces.

It read: “80085”

“Boobs?” Karuniya shouted, her jaw hanging in disbelief.            

Zachikova smiled.

“Perfect. Tell the Captain we’re in business.”


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.

Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.

Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.

This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.

Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.

Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Forced had to overstretch themselves.

Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Noble Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.

Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.

Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.

Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.

Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.

Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.

Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.

Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.

There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea, Sverland and Skarsgaard. This junction was known as the Khaybar Mountain. What was now the “mountain” was once a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.

Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.

The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.

Khayber was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.

Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.

In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.

PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.

This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.

Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.

The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.

The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.

Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.

“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”

Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.

On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.

“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”

The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.

Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.

Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.

And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.

It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.

Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.

Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.

For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.

On every one of the ships, there was a mark.

A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.

“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”

His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.

Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.

“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”

He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.

An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.

Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years.

Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?

If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.

Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.

Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.

Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.

There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.

As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”

The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.

Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.

Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.

Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.

There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.

That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.

“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.

“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”

“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”

“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”

They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.

She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.

For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.

Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarians symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.4]

The Holy Body

Polity: Holy Kingdom of Solsea

Naval Strength:  Papal Guard (400 ships), plus Solceanist irregulars.

“Skarsgaard retainers! Cease your heretical resistance at once! Her Holiness is guided by God and goes where He wills! You are all her subjects, and must turn from the abdicator to her!”

Volleys of coilgun shells crossed paths in the waters over Amaryllis station, seat of power of the Skarsgaard duchy. Though Amaryllis was a small pillar-type station housing only one major domicile, it was fiercely defended. Barrages of light and fast rocket-propelled missiles launched from recessed racks on the station surface, forcing the attackers to keep up a massive flak barrage to defend themselves from the projectiles and slowing down their progress. A fleet of several dozen frigates held their ground around the station’s waters, forming a defensive formation that maximized their ability to fire on the invaders.

Such a scene could have come out of any station invasion scenario in any military textbook.

However, it was the identity of the attackers that shook the confidence of the defenders.

Rather than a flotilla of bandits or anarchists, the invaders composed a massive fleet with dozens of ships, all of which were painted stark white, red and gold and decorated with the cross and sun of the Church of Solceanos. They did not fire the first shot, not with ordnance. The Papal Guard and the Church Paladins demanded entry and occupation of the station. Such a demand itself constituted violence as the station belonged entirely to the Duke of Skarsgaard’s House.

However, the young Duke Carthus von Skarsgaard had all but abdicated his duties.

He had left with his close friend Prince Erich von Fueller, and there he remained.

Amaryllis was abandoned. The Skarsgaard family retainers would not be relieved.

Skarsgaard’s own history precipitated the conflict.

While Skarsgaard had always contained the holy see of the Solceanos church, there had always been tension between the Ducal estate and the Holy See over the state’s coffers, military power and social policy. It did not matter to the Dukes and Duchesses of Skarsgaard that the Church was sacred and sanctioned by the Empire, and beloved by the people — affairs of power trumped any affairs of the afterlife. A separation of powers and thus of influence kept a delicate peace. The influence of the Emperor prevented either force from fully taking control of the state. Now, however, there was an additional problem for Skarsgaard’s secular military forces.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller was dead. With his death, the balance was sundered.

To complicate matters, the current head of the Holy See was Millenia von Skarsgaard II. The disinherited youngest daughter of the ducal family, who had risen through the ranks of the church, acknowledged as a holy woman touched by God. This woman, who had been denied the secular control of the state, had achieved comparable power through control of its religion.

This produced a standoff, in which the detachment sent to take the Station for the Holy See met with the Skarsgaard defenders. While the defenders stood their ground and upheld their secular duty to defend the Skarsgaard family holdings, they had no leadership and were outgunned. All they could do was harass the Papal Fleet with missiles, forcing them to slowly move forward under a massive curtain of flak, largely unable or unwilling to deliver much firepower in return.

“Skarsgaard retainers! You stand against God and all that his holy! You will drown in the flooded hell and be barred from the warmth of heaven! We do not wish to condemn any more souls to the horrors of the Deep! Surrender yourselves and your weapons, and repent for your evil!”

In the center of the Papal Guard fleet was the state-of-the-art Irmingard-class Dreadnought Anointed One, a massive and beautiful ship with its stark white armor decorated with swirling gold patterns. The Anointed One used its superior electronic warfare package to push acoustic messages on the lesser and older Frigates of the Skargaard retainers. All of the messages were sent by the military leader of the church, Paladin-General Rosemont, a radiant older woman clad in shining armor. Had the retainers been able to see her furious face as she conveyed the messages their morale may not have survived it. Anything she said seemed powered by the utmost righteousness.

Behind her, raised on a throne in the middle of the bridge, was Pontiff Millennia herself.

Long, flowing robes of a vinyl-like material trailed down her lean body, bedecked with gold. She wore a tabard with two horizontal red stripes along the edges and the sun and cross of the church. A habit partially covered her rusty-red hair, but messy bangs could be seen to come out of the front, and the sheer length of it could be seen to come out the back. She had a bored expression on her lightly painted lips, propped her olive-colored cheeks up with her hands.

Her wine-red eyes developed a glowing ring around them. A small cross-shaped ornament hovered in mid-air near her, spinning as the Pontiff turned it over and over in her mind, distracting her from the tension around herself. This sort of thing happened around the woman known as “The Holy Body.” Her miracles were well known, and over time they came to be seen as a qualification to lead the church. Objects would move by themselves; common people would become inspired to sing holy words in her presence; messages from God would appear spontaneously on the walls.

“Sister Rosemont, I would like to address the leader of the enemy fleet if possible.”

Around the bridge, all of the officers wore white and red uniforms. They were all faithful of the church, but also military personnel with full Navy training. Being able to work on this vessel was a privilege for them, and they cared about the Pontiff. They hung on her every word. When she spoke, they paid attention. They pored over her every word very carefully and silently.

Rosemont turned and kneeled in front of the Pontiff.

“We shall do always as you command, Pontiff. I am deeply sorry.”

Millennia narrowed her eyes. “There is nothing to be sorry for. I am not so unmovable that I demand my retainers do the impossible for me. These heretics will learn their place, not because your faith was not strong enough to show them, but because their ignorance was too dreadful. Besides, we could do battle with these heretics, but I do not wish to cause any harm to the station.”

“Thank you, most Holy one. Your mercy and understanding bring me joy.”

A laser request was sent from the Anointed One to the defending fleet.

The Skarsgaard retainer’s fleet selected a missile Frigate, the Unwavering, to answer.

This was predictable. Missile Frigates had more experienced crews than Gun Frigates did. When asked for a representative, an unled flotilla would always select the most experienced crew to do so. Millenia had counted on being able to talk to the Captain of that one particular frigate. An unremarkable uniformed man appeared soon on her personal screen, trying to look confident.

“This is Captain Emmett–”

She could instantly feel it. A weak, unguarded mind with no potential whatsoever.

He was not only unguarded, but afraid, and that also compounded things. Those without potential had few mental barriers, and confidence and force of will could still decide the contest, but fear always undid them. Even the slightest lick of psionic power would have made her switch strategies. Such a weak-willed nonbeliever, and already in a vulnerable state, had no defenses.

“It is unnecessary for me to introduce myself.”

Millenia had him where she wanted him the instant their eyes made contact.

Red rings appeared around her eyes which his eyes took on as well.

Those around him who lacked psychic ability could not tell he was being controlled.

“Put me on the main screen and use the upper room camera to show me the whole bridge.”

Emerich obeyed instantly. Millenia felt a sting as her neurons burned with effort.

On her screen, the video expanded so she could see all the confused faces on the bridge.

All of them looked at her with the red glow around their eyes.

Nonchalantly, she declared her orders.

“Fire all of your missiles at any surrounding ships. Use instant tracking and do not monitor their progress. Simply fire at will. Then turn your ship around and flee at maximum speed.”

Complicated, suicidal orders would have been much more difficult to execute.

This was not simply pushing on their arms to make them hit buttons.

Millenia was overriding the crew’s will. She was controlling their minds directly.

All of them broke eye contact, and began to do as Millenia ordered.

On her main screen, Rosemont and the crew watched as the algorithmic predictor picked up a dozen heavy missiles flying out of the center of the Skarsgaard retainers’ defensive formation. Explosions went off around the fleet, and ships began to list and sink, such that the remaining undamaged ships could do nothing but flee and there was total chaos among the defenders.

To those watching in the bridge of the Anointed One, it was nothing short of a miracle.

They crossed themselves, gave prayer, and a few prostrated themselves before Millenia.

“Praise be, Pontiff,”

Rosemont turned to meet her Pontiff again and venerate her, but gasped when she did so.

Blood flowed copiously out of Millenia’s nose and down her lips.

From the sides of her eyes, tears of blood began to trickle down her cheeks.

She felt a burning inside her skull as if her brain had been cleaved in half.

Her hands grabbed hold of the armrests of her seat, squeezing as she endured the pain.

Backlash. A monumental amount of psychic backlash.

Even with all that she practiced; she was still not completely ready.

It did not matter. She was still alive. As long as she lived, God would be with her.

To her subjects, however, the sight of her bleeding body was quite shocking.

“Pontiff, is this the stigmata?” Rosemont asked. That large armored woman kneeled beside Millenia and tenderly held her hand and kissed it. “Can we do anything to ease your suffering?”

Millenia grit her teeth. She could not speak, not immediately.

For minutes, she rode out the pain of the backlash.

Finally, she gasped for breath, released from the fog and agony that had taken her mind.

“Pontiff?”

“I am fine, Rosemont.”

Millenia smiled, her mouth, tongue and lips soaked in her own blood.

“This is the price that must be paid to God to beseech his divine presence into the Deep to which we are condemned.” she said. On some level, she believed this, even if only as the explanation she had concocted for abilities she understood to be beyond the purview of Man. God had never spoken to her directly.

She imagined God did not Speak. He made his presence known in other ways.

Weakly, she stood from her throne. She wiped the blood from her mouth with her hand.

Everyone on the bridge watched her raise that bloody hand.

Today was not the first time she had killed, or even killed many.

Only she knew that it was herself who killed them. To her faithful, it was God’s doing.

“Miracles are not solely the purview of the Holy Body. Your own faith can make miracles if you can make the commensurate sacrifice. Faith is key; the ignorant will never reach God.”

There was a reverent silence as the crew took in the Pontiff’s words.

“Now, unleash the Divers and take the station. Without the fleet’s flak, they can’t stop us from boarding them. Continue to interdict any missiles. Once the station is secure, I will board it.”

She sat back down on the chair, and requested an attendant come clean her face.

A long time ago, Millenia had learned that it was possible to manifest her powers against anything she could see. To make “miracles” happen she moved things by spying on them with drones or video cameras. For sentient beings, they could come under its effects if they could see her live. They could not be affected by video recordings, images, or any such thing, but if she could see and speak to them with a connection lag time of a few seconds or less, such as with a laser connection. Furthermore, she understood that there were powerful people other than herself.

There was a limit to what she could do. Pushing and pulling did not hurt her too much.

At least, not when using those powers on small objects or on weak people.

More complicated psychic tasks took far more of a toll on her health.

This made it vitally important to use her powers strategically, on the weakest targets.

Through politics and trickery, she had exposed and crushed most of the people with strong potential in the Church. There were only a few, who were loyal to her, or too important to get rid of, that remained. One such person arrived at the Bridge at the command of the Pontiff herself.

Dressed in a red and white habit, matching the Pontiff, if not as ornate. This sister was a young woman, olive-skinned with very light red hair, almost pink, and slightly pointed ears. She had a tidy, shoulder-length bob and a regal beauty to her facial features. Everything about her appeared collected, calm. Inexpressive. Almost doll-like, save for the small smile she gave the Pontiff as she arrived. With a portable basin of warm water and a cloth, she began to clean the face of the Holy Body, tinging the water a rusty red color as more blood came off the dipped cloth.

Once we’ve taken Amaryllis, I’ll use the network override hub to declare myself Holy Empress of the Empire of Solcea on every government screen that can broadcast a picture. Carthus will be excommunicated. Anyway, what do you think of the name? Good branding?

Outwardly, Millenia was just resting, recovering from her miracle.

Sounds impressive. It will certainly draw the attention of our opponents.

Her attendant, Sister Salvatrice Vittoria, appeared only to be cleaning the Holy Body.

And yet, the two them carried out a conversation. They spoke directly to the other’s mind.

Like with any psychic ability, if this was done to the unaware it would be more difficult.

Millenia had Salvatrice’s consent, so it was effortless to use her powers to speak to her.

I would like you to try dreaming again, Millenia said.

My dreams have been of little use to us, and I don’t enjoy them, Salvatrice replied.

I am curious. We need more information, and you have uncovered some useful things.

Only as a fluke. I’d rather put my efforts into something more concrete.

Millenia acknowledged her psychically. As if sending a “nod of the head” via their link.

How have your dreams ended lately? Did you die again?

Salvatrice sent a distressed, somewhat silly expression over the link.

Forget about that for now. I have important news. I found Faiyad Ayari.

Millenia sent her an annoyed Millenia face into her thoughts, with big, round, angry eyes.

Do you realize how scary that guy’s aura is? I almost felt like he would notice I was looking for him in the aether and that he would just link to me from that far away and attack me.

Where is he?

I traced it to Sverland. Millenia, we should be careful the hornet’s nests we stir.

What should I be afraid of?

Things we are not meant to see, know, or dig up. People we should not mess with.

More concretely, please.

Faiyad Ayari.

I’m not afraid of him. The Church kept him locked up for decades.

Millenia, he escaped! He escaped from your Church!

He is just an opportunist. I will expand the search for Maryam and we will leave our options open when it comes to dealing with Faiyad. Unfortunately, we may have to struggle for physical control of Sverland with the Volkisch and the Noble Alliance. And if we cross that line, our Southern and Eastern fronts may be opened to Veka. We may have to be underhanded instead. We can use the flock to apply pressure beyond our borders.

Salvatrice crossed her arms and nodded sagely, in Millenia’s mind.

We should let Sverland be fought over by the Rhineans. They’ll weaken themselves.

We’ll let the military dictate battle strategy. Rosemont is a bootlicker, but she’s smart. But like I said, I’m leaving my options open for dealing with all of this. From where I’m sitting, I have no shortage of assets to use.

Soon it came to pass that Salvatrice had completely cleaned Millenia’s face.

They had very little reason at that point to stand beside one another any longer.

Salvatrice was a civilian, and Millenia did not want her to draw too much attention.

“Thank you for your service, Sister.”

“It is my honor and pleasure to serve you.”

“I will see you again tonight. You must attend to my meal, bath and bedchamber.”

“Of course. It is the honor and privilege of my life to render such service.”

Salvatrice dried Millenia’s face with a new towel, took the basin and left.

Millenia would be able to speak more with Salvatrice.

When they ate, when they bathed, in bed. There would be opportunities.

There was no sense feeling like they needed to have the whole conversation right then.

Nevertheless, Millenia felt frustrated.

Eager to make her wishes come true. Salvatrice lacked ambition. She didn’t understand.

Millenia was beginning to develop a concept of how the world really worked and if she was correct in her assumptions then the Imbrian Empire was small potatoes compared to what was hidden from her in the aether. However, the Empire and its resources were necessary to fulfill her ambitions. Skarsgaard had a developed industrial sector able to exploit its mineral resources, and create any necessary weapons for a war. Their agriculture could sustain hardship in the near term. By ruling Skarsgaard with a regime of religious authoritarianism she could keep the social and political sphere stable and expand from there.

Scrambling the right brains would help with that ambition as well.

No one would dare defect or flee, if they knew the agony that she could subject them to.

Millenia needed more and greater scientific development. And the right sort of development.

Imbrians seemed to develop psionic power the least. Could the power be genetic in nature?

However, the ethnic makeup of most Imbrians was complicated.

Salvatrice was a Kattaran elf. Millenia suspected she was not purely Imbrian herself.

Without proper facilities, personnel, equipment and resources, she could never unravel this mystery. She needed more than just Salvatrice’s dreams. She needed more brains, more minds to throw at these questions in order to decipher the mystery. They had to be the correct minds, as well.

If she was successful, she might be able to ascend beyond this fallen place, beyond this accursed ocean beneath a dying sky.

Millenia dreamed of an Empire that spanned more than just the territory of Aer.

And if she was correct about the world; and if Salvatrice’s dreams proved true–

“Pontiff, the defenders of the inner sanctum have surrendered.”

Rosemont reported the good news. On the bridge’s main screen, they connected to cameras showing the interior of Amaryllis being surrendered to several Volker and Jagd class Divers that had been sent from the Papal Guard fleet. Millenia’s Paladins had routed the opposition. Amaryllis was hers. With it, Skarsgaard’s secular government was no more. All of the state bowed to her.

Millenia grinned from ear to ear. She wanted to burst out laughing, but controlled herself.

This was just a small step on a journey that promised to take her past heaven itself.


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