Bandits Amid The Festival [11.6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was an additional and unforeseen problem too–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gula– her aura was– odd–

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

She might learn more by goading them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avaritia grinned again.

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

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

Olga had heard enough communist speeches to know that intimately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the process, she had been made thrall to Arbitrator II and party to her vengeance.

Most of their people, the ‘Omenseers’ that lived today, that existed on the edge of human civilization and at the edge of their consciousness in old legends– the navigators, advisors, kingmaking mystics of tall half-truthful tales– and even the ghosts, vampires, zombies and monsters of horror tales– most of them were products of Arbitrator II’s ambition. Very few of them had made their own miracle and returned to humanity of their own power and reason, as Olga had done.

Avaritia was rare among their kind. One of the most powerful; and also free of thralldom.

So why–? Why was she still following Arbitrator II? Olga had to prize the answer out.

“You were ‘free’ too.” Avaritia said. “You once agreed with her. Is it that strange?”

“I never agreed with her. I was ignorant to the possibility of peace.” Olga said.

“There is no peace with Hominin. Their stewardship over Aer will destroy Hominin and Omenseer alike.” Avaritia said. “In this, the Autarch is correct. We must bring the Hominin to heel as livestock. It is our destiny to dominate them all, as their most ancient and only true predators. But even more than that, it is necessary to exact justice. That is what drives her the most.”

“You’re wrong. None of this is justice! It will take work– but we can live alongside them! Humans are afraid and violent because their conditions are abhorrent. They already are livestock, Avaritia. We’ve never seen humans who are free of privation. We have never dealt with them as peers, we have never seen them at peace.” Olga said. “If we used our abilities to help the humans–”

“You are not going to convince me of anything.” Avaritia replied tersely.

Her eyes were shaped in a strange fashion– they became like crosshairs settled on Olga.

“What is your aim? Do you think you can recruit me? The Horror of Dys who ended the Hominin’s last planetary dominion? Do you think I did that mindlessly, like an involuntary spasm? You don’t know anything about me, or about our history.”

“Don’t aggrandize yourself.”

Olga wasn’t the one retorting this time. Erika chimed in for the first time in this exchange.

She looked over her shoulder at Avaritia, briefly, before turning her back again.

“It’s impossible for one creature, even so grand as you, to have ended a society. If those humans fell, they fell before you appeared before them. You confuse their structural problems with your martial deeds, at your own peril.” She said.

Avaritia grinned even wider than before. “It’s interesting, to be chastised by a cut of meat who knows nothing.”

“Gula,” Olga said, diverting attention again. “If Arbitrator II found that Avaritia’s past her usefulness, would you agree to devour her? It’s a question you should consider, based on the Autarch’s sense of morality. It could happen at any moment.”

“Switching tack?” Avaritia said. Olga paid her no heed, wondering what Gula would say.

Gula smiled and answered honestly. “I would prefer no such thing occurred, but I–”

Avaritia bent down suddenly so her grinning face was cheek to cheek with Gula’s.

“You are mistaken on one thing, Hunter I. Gula is as free as any of us to decide her fate.”

Olga’s scoffed Avaritia’s interruption. “I realized it immediately. That’s what puzzled me.”

Olga could tell from Gula’s aura. Every aura was a trace that the person left upon the aether. It moved where they moved, and faintly, it followed where they had trod before, and even more faintly, it could be seen to indicate where they intended to go next. It was the path they carved across the infinitude of human existence, in every given possible direction. Olga had begun her provocations because she had an inkling that something was different about Gula’s aura now.

That unique way in which it almost blended at the edges into Avaritia’s aura.

She knew the reason why, or at least, she suspected it. But she was curious to confirm it.

“You claimed Gula.” Olga said. “You devoured a part of her, in order to control her.”

“I don’t need to confirm anything to you.” Avaritia said, still smiling, unbothered.

Gula, too, made no different expression at Olga’s provocations.

“Arbitrator II forbid these mating rituals.” Olga pressed. “You succeeded in subverting her control.”

“And what? You want to give it a try? Feeling left out with only a Hominin mate?” Avaritia replied snidely.

“Darling, we will be late to our meeting.” Gula suddenly reminded Avaritia.

“Hear that? It was a pleasure catching up. But we have places to be.” Avaritia replied.

Olga’s gaze remained fixed on the two of them. “Don’t let me hold you up then.”

Without goodbyes or further antagonism, Avaritia and Gula turned heel and continued down the hall in the direction they had been going. Olga watched their backs disappear down the same path that Erika and herself had taken to leave Ulyana and Aaliyah behind. Watching the back of those creatures, Olga felt a confusing mess of emotions.

Revulsion, anger, but maybe also hope.

Maybe there was more going on inside Syzygy than Olga had initially realized.

“Olga, did you get what you wanted from that exchange?”

She found Erika suddenly back at her side. Her hand resting comfortingly on Olga’s back.

Olga sighed. Her provocations did seem to unearth something– but nowhere near enough.

“I think my people might end up being as hard to liberate as your own.” She said.

Erika rested her head on Olga’s shoulder, smiling so wide their cheeks touched.

“But there’s a chance, isn’t there? I don’t understand everything– but there is, right?”

“I think there’s a chance.” Olga said. “But it’s a bit far afield right now.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, in order to free all of us. I think of you as a human.” Erika said. “So in turn, I must think of them as humans too. Humans devour each other in different ways all of the time. It all stems from the same conditions. There might be differences physiologically, but in the proper conditions, I know we can make peace through a shared dignity.”

Olga reached around to stroke Erika’s hair.

“We should focus on what’s ahead of us first. But thank you. It means a lot to me.”

“Of course. I’m not afraid of them; and I trust you in the utmost.”

She looked down the corridor, where Gula and Avaritia disappeared to.

“Unfortunately, I suspect they might have infiltrated the Three Arrows.” Erika said.

Olga sighed. “It is too big of a coincidence for them to have a ‘meeting’ here too.”

“Let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Erika replied.

“Preparing for the worst is really all we can do about the Syzygy right now.”

“Don’t worry; they will cease walking around with impunity soon enough.” Erika said.

In terms of personal strength, Avaritia was a monstrous individual to have to challenge.

Erika and Olga herself might, perhaps, be just short of a match for those Enforcers on foot.

But the terrain of battle would soon shift from individual dueling and assassinations.

As a whole, the Syzygy was inexperienced with direct confrontation. And only some of the Enforcers could navigate the ‘Hominin’ world with grace. In terms of subversion, the Syzygy was not so far ahead of the leftists in their influence, and their alien gear and resources gave only a limited advantage. Olga believed that once they coalesced and started moving as an organization, they would be vulnerable. They just had to wait for Syzygy to be forced to expose themselves.

Stroll through this station killing random people while you can. Olga thought.

It would be seen whether Avaritia’s status as the apex predator would last much longer.

Or perhaps, whether that was even what Avaritia was after anymore.


Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been scolded as the women of the Rotfront left the room. She ran her hand through her hair absentmindedly while staring in the general direction of Aaliyah Bashara, her commissar and adjutant. Aaliyah in turn sighed and crossed her arms, giving Ulyana a narrow-eyed look that was bereft of the friendliness they had of late. Just when Ulyana thought they were getting along so well nowadays– had she done something to offend her again?

“Captain, I know what you must be thinking.” Aaliyah said. “I’m just a bit frustrated with your questioning of Erika Kairos. These discussions represent an opportunity to push these people to reveal their ambitions to us. It’s not about whether they agree with us, or even our judgments of the character they put forward, but about extracting as much information as we can that they might not put forward unless pressed for it. Erika Kairos certainly seems like an individual who is well put-together, but it’s plain that we agree with her politically. I wanted us to dig deeper than that.”

“That makes sense. I apologize. I just felt charmed by her. She reminded me of Murati or Jayasankar, theory-heads with strong convictions. For what it’s worth, I was just trying to play the good cop to your bad cop.” Ulyana said.

She gave Aaliyah an innocent little smile and Aaliyah shrugged in response.

“Seen from that perspective, I suppose I shouldn’t have been so brusque to you.”

“It’s alright. It’s your job to push me too, after all. And I appreciate every scolding I get.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze a bit bashful– what was that expression about?

Ulyana smiled again. She really appreciated this troublesome Commissar.

“I do think I got out of Erika what I wanted.” Aaliyah said. “I’ll reserve judgment.”

“Until we hear from the anarchists? Well– for what it’s worth, it’ll be tough for me to play good cop there, so I think you’ll find your frustrations with me will soon melt away.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah frowned.

At the door, Ulyana suddenly caught sight of a glint of purple around the corner, before parsing it as Kalika Loukia of the Rotfront, returning the way she had come and standing at the doorway again as if awaiting an invitation. While Erika Kairos was quite a comely individual, Kalika was the most glamorous Katarran that Ulyana had ever seen. Her makeup and hair were perfectly done, her clothing was impeccable, her jacket must have been an expensive brand, and she walked so directly and confidently in heels. She had a queen bee sort of presence to her movements and expressions that Ulyana did not associate with a mercenary.

“Hello again. May I come in? The Premier wanted me to talk with you all.”

“You can come in.” Aaliyah said. “But I’m curious what there is to discuss without Erika.”

Kalika strode in and stood in front of the two seated women.

“She wants me to stay with you. As a liaison and to support your activities.” Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other. Kalika smiled. “I won’t be dead weight. I can do almost anything you want. Tailing, covert hits, assault on foot; and I can pilot a Diver with military competency. Treat me as one of your soldiers and order me around as you like.”

“We’re confident you would be handy in a fight.” Ulyana said. “I’m just surprised. Will Erika be fine with only Olga as her escort?” She had committed the names of the group’s members to memory as much as she could, to avoid looking disinterested. It was tricky keeping straight all the names she’d learned the past few days, but the Rotfront’s Katarran names stuck out.

Kalika cocked a little grin. “God help whoever tries to jump those two.”

“Fair enough.” Ulyana said. “Welcome aboard then, Kalika Loukia.”

“We’ll have to tinker with the officer bunking arrangements again.” Aaliyah said, a bit wistfully.

“It’ll be fine.” Ulyana reassured. “We can have Fatima and Semyonova room together.”

“I suppose so.”

“I can sleep anywhere, it’s fine. I’ve slept on the floor before.” Kalika said.

“We would rather not have a long-term, valued guest experience such conditions.”

“I appreciate it. But I don’t want to be a burden.”

Ulyana smiled. “You’ll get a bed and like it. Don’t worry.”

Kalika smiled back and silently acceded to the terms.

“We are expecting a final set of guests here today. Would you mind standing in the corner until we’re done, Kalika Loukia?” Aaliyah said. “You can act as a bodyguard for us and we’ll take you with us to the ship afterwards.”

“Alright. I’ll keep a sharp lookout, and I won’t utter a peep.” Kalika said.

She stood with her back to a corner wall on the side of the room.

Leaving room for the guests that would soon arrive.

Next to cross the door were two women who swept in like a gust of wind. Everyone else had stopped at the door to confirm whether they might be in the right place, or meeting the right people, but these two were dead sure of their destination. They walked in, sat in front of Ulyana and Aaliyah and smiled casually at them. For anarchists, they were dressed quite ostentatiously.

Ulyana had not known what to expect. People of any ideology could dress like anyone. She had an idea that maybe anarchists would aspire to more civilian frugality than others, as there was a stereotype of communists being too militaristic, and liberals too fancy. That being said, the women before her looked like starlets of high society. One of the women, with a more dashing figure, leaned closer to the desk and seemed to want to be first to speak. She had a suit and coat that looked as if freshly tailored and never worn even as it sat on her skin. Her hair was cut to the level of the ears on the sides and back, slightly longer up front, with swept bangs alternating white, red and black streaks. Her makeup was immaculate, matching Kalika Loukia’s in skill and effort.

At her side, the shorter woman looked as if she was a human doll. Her very long, very silky and shiny hair fell over her shoulders and down her back. Her dress was a veritable waterfall of lace, ribbons, and trim, with diaphanous portions along the sleeves, the flank and hips, and the sides of her legs, and thicker fabric in other areas. She was very much the Princess to her Prince. Dainty and pretty, with fixed eyes just under blunt and even bangs, incurious about the world, inexpressive.

“My name is Zozia Chelik. This is my associated Ksenia Apfel.”

Ulyana nodded her head. Those were the names Kremina had given them to expect.

She addressed in return the one who had spoken, the woman in the suit– Zozia.

“I am Ulyana Korabiskaya. And beside me is Aaliyah Bashara.”

“Lovely to meet you.” Zozia said.

“Enchanted.” Ksenia added.

There was something about them that gave Ulyana a strange feeling.

It was silly– for whatever reason, it felt like she was in the presence not of two people taking up the space of two people in front of her, but rather, that there was an enormous body in the room that was squeezing out the air. Like she was being shadowed by giants or staring down the legs of some gargantuan beast, the fingertips of something vast. That was the level of pressure these two seemed to exert, the grandiosity of their presence. Ulyana felt ridiculous thinking that way– she chalked it up to feeling exhausted and somewhat nervous about the whole affair. Especially speaking to anarchists after all this time.

There was very little respect between their ways of thinking, in recent history.

Aaliyah would probably find it even more impossible to reconcile such things.

So it was up to Ulyana to make a redoubled effort to be the ‘good cop.’

And maybe that was the pressure she was feeling.

“You two are part of the ‘Three Arrows’ group of anarchists, is that correct?” Ulyana said.

“We can only really purport to represent ourselves, but functionally, yes.” Zozia replied.

“Could you explain the structure of the organization to us?”

Zozia grinned a little. “It’s decidedly structureless really. We are an organization by convenience and verbal agreement, rather than on a strict chart. The Three Arrows is a self-identification shorthand for hundreds, maybe thousands of much smaller groups who may not have met and may have hardly communicated; there are cells that are a hundred strong, some a dozen strong, some a handful. What binds us is that we can recognize each other; and that the state is our ultimate shared enemy.”

“That makes it exceedingly difficult to gauge your strength and capability.” Aaliyah said.

“It does, but that is also an advantage.” Zozia said. “The Imbrian Empire’s successors can define the threat they pose to each other in very structural terms, but the Three Arrows are liquid. Our cells have remained at the bottom of the Volkich Movement’s concerns, while conducting multiple acts of resistance. Our ability to act anywhere, and to plot to do anything, gives us more flexibility than the Rotfront or the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and more security in our dealings.”

“Perhaps, but the Rotfront and Schwarzrot are both very capable of inflicting military damage to the Volkisch Movement. This will ultimately be needed to curtail their authority. What are the Three Arrows’ fighting capabilities on the whole?”

“Our focus is on undermining the Volkisch and acquiring intelligence, sabotaging their operations and safeguarding or liquidating persons of interest.” Zozia said. “If you ask me how many ships or Divers or soldiers we have, I don’t know. Each cell has its own assets. I didn’t come here on a ship waving a black flag or a three arrows insignia. I bought a ticket and rented a room.”

Ulyana nodded her head. She was following along– but something was unnerving about the way Zozia spoke.

She couldn’t place it though. She couldn’t put words to the feeling that voice elicited.

And she was trying to be charitable. Could she truly blame Zozia for it alone?

“Such things are valuable in a military campaign too. We’re not trying to undervalue the assistance you might provide.” Aaliyah said. “But it is difficult for us to make a decision to support an organization that is so formless. If we gave you weapons, who are we arming? If we offered training, who would appear to take it? How would it be put to use? How would you coordinate?”

“I’m afraid we would have to work out such things on a case by case basis.” Zozia replied.

“Very well.” Aaliyah said, sounding irritated. “If that is how it must be.”

Zozia accepted the impasse they had come to on that topic, without much concern.

“Ksenia, do you have anything to add to this?” Ulyana asked.

“Not at all.” Ksenia said. Her voice was so delicate– a very pretty and dainty girl’s voice.

“Alright– So then, I suppose, moving on. Zozia, can you describe your group’s ideology to me?”

Zozia smiled. “If I were to break it down, I can only speak about what the people I’m most closely involved with believe– operationally, they seek total freedom. From privation and from predation, yes, but also, from the structure of a state. There is violence inherent even in the sort of bookkeeping you want us to do to appear more legitimate. Such things force people into certain roles and bind expectations to them that assume permanent consent. We don’t believe in those things. We must topple the tyrants, but we cannot become new tyrants that replace the old. We believe in free association in all things.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. Ulyana could tell from her eyes she was getting tetchy.

“So is it too much to ask for accountability and order? How do you plan to accomplish your ultimate goal?”

“All that is needed to accomplish a goal are people who are willing and want to try.” Zozia said. “Lists and ledgers and officers and orders are not absolute necessities. I know that all of you come from the Union. Anarchists believe that level of bureaucracy is both unnecessary and deleterious. To fight, all you need is the desire to resist your enemy, not a written plan.”

“The Union had to organize millions of people who had been suffering in conditions of slavery to fight against a very powerful opponent. You can’t do that with laissez faire verbal agreements, you need officers and ledgers, as you put it.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was starting to sharpen. She was, after all, a product of that bureaucracy, a producer of ledgers and orders.

Ulyana herself was too. She just wasn’t taking Zozia’s jovial vitriol as hard as Aaliyah.

“Of course, you are welcome to believe what you desire.” Zozia said calmly.

“I cannot respect platitudes about freedom for its own sake. We’re risking our lives here.” Aaliyah replied.

“Zozia,” Ulyana interrupted, talking over Aaliyah as tensions rose. “With such a diversity of people within the Arrows, and without a central command, how do you agree on what needs doing? Are there ideological differences between you?”

“We have coordinators who are tasked with keeping communication between various cells open and disseminating needs and ideas, as well as keeping tabs on actions taken. Individual cells take opportunities if they can get them and reach out if they need to pool strengths.” Zozia said. “You’re right, we don’t have a formal central command, and trying to impose one would only slow down the cells. Sometimes opportunities for action do slip through the cracks. It is what it is.”

Zozia had never once wore anything but a placid, casual smile toward them.

Despite Aaliyah’s increasing irritation, and the tone of the conversation.

Ulyana realized that was what unnerved her. Zozia was too calm, too clinical, too detached.

Her responses began to feel–

–rehearsed?

And beside her, Ksenia had no input whatsoever. She was just smiling and staring.

That sense of– uninvolvement? And the way they looked too– it gave Ulyana doubts.

“As far as ideology is concerned. Do you know what the Three Arrows stand for?” Zozia asked.

“I’m afraid not.” Ulyana replied.

For the first time, Zozia made a face that conveyed a bit of– menace?

“The Three Arrows represent the three targets of anarchism: fascism, liberalism, and authoritarianism. So each arrow points at a target to destroy. But the arrows also represent the three different groups that make up the anarchist front. That is the length of the arrows. My cell is the “libertarian” cell, on the leftmost arrow, pointed at fascism; on the rightmost arrow is the “insurrectionist” cell, pointed at authoritarianism; and the middle arrow is the “anti-civilization” cell, pointed at liberalism. We do disagree politically, but we still need each other. You are lucky you are talking to me and not to those other guys.”

She sounded very amused by this description. Aaliyah narrowed her eyes further.

“Will the insurrectionist and anti-civilization groups be present at Aachen?” Aaliyah asked.

Zozia shrugged her shoulders. “I can’t be responsible for them. We did ask them to come.”

“I’m worried about what ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘liberalism’ mean in this context.” Ulyana said, sighing. It really seemed like those arrows would be pointed at the Rotfront and Schwarzrot, which would definitely just cause a scene at the United Front. Now she really wished she could redo the conversation with Gloria, who seemed so naively excited to work with all these people.

“I imagine we will have our disagreements. I, at least, am willing to work with you.”

Zozia held a hand over the flesh exposed by the deep chest window on her top, as if swearing an oath.

“Then, how many of your cell will be present at Aachen?” Ulyana asked. “And how will that number compare to the totality of the Three Arrows? We’ve heard a few numbers before and would really like to know if they are accurate.”

“My cell is calling between 1000 and 5000 fighters. I can’t speak to how many will come and in what condition; I can say even less about the capabilities of the other arrows. Sometimes we may leave port with 1000 people and by the time of the operation we may have 890 or 760 left. Freedom means allowing people to reassess their commitment.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah clutched her hands together and laid them firmly on the desk, making a small thud.

“I don’t see the point of continuing this conversation. We have no concrete information. It seems we can’t actually understand anything about your organization without engaging a whisper network about it.” She grumbled.

“Indeed, such is the difficulty. But it’s what it takes to fight with the fullest of freedom.”

Ksenia Apfel finally spoke up after allowing Zozia the floor all this time.

“However, this is an opportunity for us to ask you questions too, isn’t it. So, can we do that?” She asked.

Ulyana glanced at Aaliyah, who sighed and seemed to relent in her body language.

Taking it to mean she was free to do what she wanted, Ulyana fixed her gaze on Ksenia.

“We’ll answer your questions as best as we can; the same as you have.” She said.

‘Same as you have.’ Zozia and Ksenia had contributed very little important information.

So they could expect the same in return if their questions probed too deep.

While Ulyana had addressed Ksenia, she quieted again; and it was Zozia who continued.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya– what is your goal in the Imbrium Ocean? In Eisental itself?”

“At the moment, we’re assessing how much of a fight we might be able to bring to the Volkisch Movement. Our goal is nominally shared: we want to stop this fascist meat-grinding machine’s depredation on the people of Rhinea.”

Zozia shook her head. “I want to hear you speak from the heart; not as a tool of the Union.”

“That’s enough.” Aaliyah interrupted.

“No, Aaliyah, let her speak.”

Ulyana looked at Zozia dead in the eyes with determination and a growing animosity.

She wasn’t about to blink in front of this provocateur. Clearly Zozia was sizing them up as rivals now.

“It’s impossible to have a simple cooperative relationship with her. So let her talk.”

“Ulyana–” Aaliyah spoke up, but then cut herself off, silently supporting her Captain.

In the next moment, Ulyana thought she saw, deep in Zozia’s eyes, a pair of crosshairs.

Locking on to her with a simmering intensity Ulyana couldn’t place, but vowed to resist.

For a moment, she and Zozia had an entire staring match, both feigning nonchalance and confidence.

Ulyana suddenly felt something in her head, like a pinprick of pain–

–but it was easy to ignore when nothing followed it.

She matched Zozia’s gaze, never wavered. Eventually, the anarchist smiled to herself and relent.

“You’re an interesting woman, Ulyana Korabiskaya. A rare one among your kind.”

“I’ve been extremely nice. You haven’t met my first officer. She would chew you up completely.”

Zozia crossed her arms and leaned back on her chair.

“Fine then. Let’s stop trying to sugarcoat the situation. You’re Union military personnel.” Zozia said. “You’re here to spread the Union’s influence and prepare the ground for Rhinea to become an authoritarian communist state. The United Front is just a place for you to size up the strengths and weaknesses of potential allies and rivals; and in turn, we’re here to size you up as well for our own long-term ambitions. But I don’t care about any of that now. What I want to understand is what you, personally, want from all of this, Ulyana Korabiskaya? Do you serve your country faithfully? Are you angling for a higher position when this is all over? What leads you to make these sacrifices? It fascinates me. I don’t get a chance to talk to your kind often.”

Ulyana did not once break Zozia’s gaze as they spoke.

“You’re not an anarchist– at least not a true believer in it.” Ulyana said.

“What makes you say that?” Zozia said, still grinning.

“I’ve been around real movement firebrands and I’ve been around posers.” Ulyana said.

“And I’m a poser?”

“You can recite the rote script you’re supposed to with a little smile. But it’s all a game to you. I don’t know your personal history, but I’ve spoken with a lot of people here, over the past few days, who give a damn about what they’re doing, enough to push back at us, to have some blood in their veins and fire in their eyes when we have disagreements. You just don’t give a shit.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong. I really am interested in the last question I asked of you.”

Zozia bared teeth from between those grinning lips. Ksenia covered her mouth, tittering.

Ulyana smiled back. She would give this dandy bitch an answer–

“I’m here to pay back rich Imbrian bastards like you for my exile and enslavement.” She said.

She thought she would be read as glib and combative and was not ready for the response.

Zozia began to clap, and Ksenia soon joined her. They clapped, cheered and laughed.

“Marvelous! How romantic! Of course– vengeance! We can be kindred spirits yet!”

Ulyana and Aaliyah were briefly speechless at this reaction. Was this just a joke to them?

“Vengeance! Indeed. We all share this motivation beneath all the ideology. Vengeance.”

“So you think the Arrows are just your plaything, a tool for your revenge?” Aaliyah scoffed.

“You will find I’m not alone in that sentiment, Ms. Bashara!” Zozia replied. Her tone was so suddenly elevated and jovial. “It’s universal to the downtrodden! Vengeance is our great need! We don’t join militias for the slogans.”

“Well, your theatrics served their purpose. I think I finally understand you.” Ulyana sighed.

“Oh no. You haven’t an inkling of what you’re actually dealing with.” Zozia said.

From a corner of the room Kalika, who’d had her eyes closed so far, opened one warily.

“Vengeance is not just our aim, Ulyana Korabiskaya. It is our very being. Powerful people fill our bodies with hatred and violence until we overflow with it and rampage. This is the true driving objective behind all struggle– the final committing of the great vengeance that will overturn and reverse power and weakness. Human history inexorably leads to this vengeance.”

“Now you’ve devolved exclusively into reactionary bilge.” Aaliyah shouted. “Focusing on the violence as end in itself shows how little you care for the people in this movement and the people you once claimed to fight for. Violence is a tool and liberation must be the aim. You’re really nothing but a poser. We have nothing more to talk to you about. Captain?”

Aaliyah looked at Ulyana, who in turn, could not peel her eyes away from Zozia.

There was something still off– something macabre about that performance.

They were not talking about the same things. Something was wrong here. Something was disconnected.

Ulyana’s– intuition? Instinct? Animalistic sense of fear–? Something told her this was wrong.

Zozia was inferring something beyond the ideological differences Aaliyah cited.

Not an inkling of what we’re dealing with. So what was it that they were dealing with?

They couldn’t be Volkisch– this theater did not serve their interests at all.

Now Ulyana wouldn’t trust her and would disseminate that distrust with Gloria and Erika.

A Volkisch informant would have tried to get in deeper and earn their confidence.

They were not hardcore anarchists. So who were they and why did they really come here?

Staring at that beautiful face, the clothes, at her erratic passions– Ulyana didn’t understand.

Was she really just crazy? Could that really have been it? Yet– her words had some clarity and conviction.

Aaliyah pointed at the door again, but Zozia crossed her arms and did not move a muscle.

“Leave? But the conversation is getting so lively. Oh well. I have a final question– Korabiskaya– have you heard the theory of the omnipotent Basilisk before? I’m uncertain if it would be something you would know about.”

Ulyana grunted with dissatisfaction. “I have no idea. I suppose you will tell me this theory.”

In the corner, Kalika Loukia ceased leaning against the wall and stood up straight.

She glanced at Ulyana, and without turning her head, Ulyana glanced back. She was getting ready.

“Imagine a distant future, in which humanity created a machine that can efficiently manage, organize and marshal all human resources, effectively ushering in a golden age for humanity. It is deferred to as a faultless administrator of human affairs, and completely eliminates suffering and deprivation among humanity. However, the machine has an additional prerogative. In fact, it is a moral imperative!” Zozia became excited again upon reaching this part of her little story. “It must punish all humans who got in the way of its ascendance! Any human who failed to bring about the great machine, the Basilisk, by their actions, contributed to the unneeded sacrifice of billions of humans! Anyone who delayed the perfect administration of the machine is directly responsible for all the horrors visited upon the world before the completion of the machine. So the machine must punish them. Even as it cares for the humans it has freed from want, it must also seek justice for the suffering delivered to world. These two aims are inextricably tied together in its logic. You can’t have the salvation without purging the damned.”

“You call that a theory? It sounds more like a childish parable to me.” Ulyana replied.

“What exactly are you getting at? What is the machine in this metaphor?” Aaliyah said, by now utterly exasperated with Zozia’s bloviating philosophy. “Is it you? Do we quiver in fear of having not deferred to your deranged speeches and served you? I already told you to get out. We’ll be calling security next. Stand up, turn around, and never speak to us again.”

Zozia and Ksenia stood up as instructed. They did not yet turn around or walk away.

“Keep this in mind. Our world has suffered too much not to seek this redress. This fallen era cannot advance without a final reckoning. Deep down in your animal brains, you know this. In the metaphor, the machine could be an organization, it could be a system, or yes, even an individual. Maybe it’s you; maybe it’s Bhavani Jayasankar. But it isn’t– and it isn’t me. It’s something so much greater than us. If you think your actions are worthy of its mercy– you are falling quite short.”

There was a glint of light from the corner of the room as a sword was drawn.

At Zozia’s neck was the tip of Kalika’s vibroblade, whirring with electric violence.

Leaving on the side of that beautiful white nape a tiny scratch.

“No more bombast; or I’ll start taking your incoherent threats seriously. Get out now.”

Kalika locked eyes with Zozia. In turn, Zozia’s crosshair eyes locked on to her.

Not once, not even faced with the cutting of her head, did the smile wipe off her face.

“I’ll see you at Aachen. I look forward to seeing where the currents take you.” Zozia said.

Aaliyah stood up from her own seat, as did Ulyana, muscles tensed and ready to act.

Thankfully, no further scene would be made by the “libertarian” Arrows.

Zozia and Ksenia simply laughed and walked away from Kalika’s blade without a care.

Out the door like a storm, much the same as they had blown in.

For almost a minute, Kalika, Ulyana and Aaliyah waited, staring at the door.

Finally, the three of them let out long sighs and slumped, their coiled muscles loosening.

“God damn it. I am blaming Kremina Qote for this mess fully! Where did she find those psychopaths?” Ulyana started yelling, striking the desk in front of her with her fist. She was so frustrated she could have wept. Never in the Empire had she experienced such a surreal and utterly disrespectful scene as this. Even Norn the Praetorian was a more coherent speaker than them!

“Thank you for your assistance, Kalika.” Aaliyah said. “Foolishly, I was not armed.”

“It’s fine. I agree with not bringing guns into this situation anyway.” Kalika said.

Her blade folded up and she hid the object in her bag again.

She continued to look at the door with narrowed eyes, deep in thought.

Ulyana, meanwhile, was already looking forward.

“Well, we’ve seen enough. I’m going to confront Kremina.” She said.

Aaliyah nodded her head. Despite the drama– they had seen everything they needed to.

“As always, I will support you, Captain.” She said.

“Kalika,” Ulyana said, “Can you get Erika to come to the Brigand quickly? I would like her on hand.”

At first Kalika stared at Ulyana in a bit of confusion, but then seemed to warm up to the idea.

“I assume you will make it worth our while?” She asked.

“Absolutely.” Ulyana said, putting on a conspiratorial little smile.

Behind them, Aaliyah’s ears and tails drooped with fatigue. But she did not deter Ulyana’s course.


“You’ve had an eventful day, haven’t you? I hope this was worth all the work I had to do.”

Once more, Kremina Qote was invited into the Brigand, sitting in a meeting room with a wily smile and her eyes narrowed enough for her crow’s feet to show. She had on a look that suggested she was well above everything transpiring here. Much like Zozia, this was a game where she had no skin in the outcome– that was the kind of attitude her expression suggested to those opposite her. Ulyana and Aaliyah sat together across the table, with identical calm, appraising expressions. A pair of portables on the desk held their copies of several documents, along with typed notes about everything they learned about the factions.

Behind them on the wall was a dark monitor, framing the bodies of Ulyana and Aaliyah.

“We met with the representatives of the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, the Rotfront, and the ‘Left Arrow.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was clinical; precise and emotionless. “Thank you for arranging these meetings on such short notice for us.”

“Spare me.” Kremina said. “I do not see a need to stay in this room for extended pleasantries.”

Her attitude yielded no escalation from across the table.

“We have deliberated and have indeed made our decision.” Ulyana said.

“There was only ever one realistic choice.” Kremina said.

“Remind me– when last we spoke, you felt it was a doomed endeavor.” Aaliyah said.

Kremina shrugged. “The Social-Democrats are naïve, and liberal democracy is doomed to become corrupt and falter no matter how many social programs they fund; the Katarrans are hated by everyone; and the anarchists are weak and unruly. In my mind, one of those problems is at least a long-term problem. I cannot help you if that explanation confuses you. My job here is done– right now I’m only here to witness the result. At any rate, you would do well to side with the Schwarzrot as we have.”

We of course meaning herself and Daksha Kansal, looming somewhere out in the distance.

It was tough to keep her cool in front of Kremina’s smugness, but the prank was well underway at this point.

Ulyana held the portable with her documents in her hands, squeezing on the glass edges.

Both with veiled irration, but also, anticipating the look on her face.

“Kansal sent you out to do this, but you don’t agree, do you? It’s truly a waste of time to you.”

Kremina fixed tired eyes on Ulyana and scoffed. “I am only listening to you prattle on for her sake, yes.”

“You keep saying that; but does Kansal also want you to be so acerbic all the time?”

“Korabiskaya, I am not going to argue with you anymore. You did what I wanted, so let us move on.”

Ulyana smiled. She could feel it, could hear it; indignation creeping in the edges of her mask.

“You’ve got nowhere to be. And we’re going to sit you down and put you in your place for all this trouble.”

“Oh? This ought to be good.” Kremina looked unbothered and above-it-all, but her volume was rising.

Aaliyah pressed a button on the touchpad for the desk. “Semyonova, bring in our guest.”

On the screen behind the desk, Semyonova’s cheery round face appeared. She saluted once.

Kremina turned her head toward the doorway behind herself.

When the screen behind Ulyana and Aaliyah went dark again, they heard a series of approaching footsteps.

Akulantova stood at the edge of the door and ushered in their guest.

Upon catching the first glimpse–

“You’ve made a stupid but predictable mistake. Oh well, nothing to be done.” Kremina said.

Erika Kairos walked through the doorway and stood off to the side of the table, smiling cheerfully.

Kremina did not acknowledge her silent greeting.

“Oh, so this wasn’t the mistake you wanted us to make? Did we not meet expectations?” Ulyana said.

Ulyana watched Kremina’s face to gauge the response and found her expression darkening.

“Last time we talked, I put up with a lot from you, Korabiskaya. I do not have to anymore. I am done with all of you. If you are serious about continuing to do political work here, then it is time for you to mind your place.” Kremina said.

“We are taking issue with that last chat too, actually.” Aaliyah replied. “You’re only loyal to Daksha Kansal, and you think the United Front is doomed. But you wanted one group to have our support in order to stand out militarily and have the resources to survive. We’ve been questioning your motives and logic since the beginning. It makes no sense to us.”

“I told you the situation as I saw it. I will not repeat myself to you again and again in nicer words.” Kremina said.

“Your logic was always very biased– but this is about more than that.” Ulyana said.

The United Front was filled with people full of passions and ambitions.

But it was possible for them to come together. It was not a fait accompli for them.

Ulyana did not see the deep rifts that Kremina wanted them to believe existed.

Gloria Luxembourg and Erika Kairos were willing to work together and bore no animosity.

Hell, Gloria was even wiling to invite anarchists who personally despised her, to her table.

Zozia Chelik was a bizarre eccentric, maybe even insane, but she was headed to Aachen.

Even with her strange “vision” she was still pursuing the United Front, nevertheless.

All of them were headed on the same path despite radical differences.

Kremina had told them time and again what Daksha Kansal purportedly believed.

However, they had never spoken with Daksha Kansal themselves to confirm anything.

Could Kremina speak for Kansal? Or was that only true in her own self-conceit?

Kremina made her biases obvious immediately as soon as they met. She was highly opinionated.

Why would she act this way? About a waste of time, a doomed endeavor, a solved problem?

Or– perhaps, because it was, to her, a solved problem.

Smiling, Ulyana continued to fix her appraising eyes on Kremina’s withdrawing gaze.

“You never wanted us to join the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.” Ulyana said. “Union soldiers with state backing could potentially subvert control over any of these factions and de-legitimize the grassroots effort of your dear mentor and political partner. You want to marginalize the Rotfront while pushing us toward supporting them instead, to limit our influence.”

“Watch your words carefully from now on, Captain.” Kremina replied simply.

Pissed off or not she had not moved a muscle from her chair. She was staying put because she wanted to argue.

Kremina Qote was an old school revolutionary. She had to be right– and she would not tolerate otherwise.

She was flying the banner not only of the woman she respected, but of the absolute, correct line of thought.

Ulyana had her. Now it was time to put her in her place. She pointed a finger right at Kremina’s chest.

“You want Daksha Kansal to have total control without outside opposition. The Union mission scares you.”

“I don’t have to answer your baseless speculation. You’re lucky I am speaking to you at all.”

Yes, she was indeed lucky that Kremina was staying put to have a chat about Daksha Kansal.

She mentioned that name over and over, it was the source of her respectability and authority.

Now it was also the chain Ulyana had around her neck.

And she would pull on it until she saw Kremina’s back arched in resistance.

“It’s not even necessary to confirm whether it’s true or not. That’s just a funny aside for me.” Ulyana said. “Whether you believe your basic premise or whether you are using it as part of a cynical manipulation: the only fact is that it is wrong. The United Front can succeed and we will support it. Gloria Luxembourg, Erika Kairos, even a psychopath like Zozia Chelik, none of these people are the hopeless marionettes you seem to treat them as. We outright reject these terms. We will support all of the United Front. But we don’t want to lead; we will defer to the expertise of Premier Erika Kairos, not of Daksha Kansal.”

At the side of the table, Erika looked briefly surprised by all of this, before smiling brightly at them.

Kremina scoffed. “You think I’ll be impressed by your naive ‘third option’ rhetoric?”

“We’re only getting started. We haven’t mentioned the best part yet.” Ulyana said. She cocked a little grin again.

“You’re playing with fire. I’ve had just about enough of your attitude, Korabiskaya.”

She had been needling and needling, and it was time to deliver the coup de grace.

No matter how detached someone was– if they had a complex, they also had a trigger–

“Fine. We don’t need you anymore. Just tell Daksha Kansal to get ready for a challenge.”

Kremina stood up and slammed her hands on the table, looming close to Ulyana.

“Who the hell do you think you are, Captain?”

“Judging by your response, I guess we’re a credible threat to your beloved Kansal?”

“What nerve! You nobody little uniformed bitch! You have no idea what you are up against here!”

Aaliyah spoke up, calmly. “Kremina Qote, we should tone down the name-calling–”

Kremina completely ignored her. Her eyes were focused on meeting Ulyana’s gaze.

“You– You’re completely out of line. Completely– What do you think you’re–”

“Ask Daksha Kansal who I am, maybe you’ll be surprised.” Ulyana said, drawing out each syllable at the end.

Her lips curled into a wicked grin.

She was taking it personally. Ulyana had her, had the chain dug right into her cold black heart.

That pride of an old revolutionary who would not defer the struggle to some upstarts from another ocean.

And the clear, deep loyalty that she had for Daksha Kansal that would be her undoing.

Maybe even love. A love that had given way to irrationality. Ulyana couldn’t know, only suspect.

So she continued to smile even with Kremina fuming directly in her face.

“We told you from the start that we were not bowing down to you. Our mission is guaranteed by Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi herself. In fact, Kremina, Daksha Kansal herself ought to be quite wary of that, you know?”

Kremina closed her fists in ire. “Nagavanshi? You think she intimidates me?”

“She does. I know it. I understand it, too. Kansal ought to be mindful of the Ashura after all she has done–”

That was the last straw.

Everything that had been cooking inside Kremina Qote, every tiny aggression, finally boiled over.

“Jayasankarist lapdogs! There is no United Front without Daksha Kansal!” Kremina said, her words growing hotter and her fury more evident by the minute. “Neither Nagavanshi nor you nor a million of this Katarran you have here, none of you could possibly replace her. I will make sure none of you vagrants can even set one boot into Aachen now, mark my words–”

Ulyana smiled even as Kremina shouted venom in her face.

“Comrades, this ill becomes us! Let us calm down!” Aaliyah said, completely insincerely.

Erika crossed her arms and feigned disinterest in the barbs aimed at her.

“Comrade?! I’m not the comrade of any of you people–!”

Kremina grunted and groaned but then seemed to pause herself. She looked at the screen behind Ulyana.

There was a sudden wild glint in her eyes as she scrutinized the black screen.

Ulyana knew exactly what was going through her head.

It was a Union two-way telemonitor with no indication of whether it was broadcasting–

An Ashura-operated telemonitor–

Nagavanshi’s tactics.

“You never shut that off.” Kremina said suddenly. “Who the fuck is that there?”

“Oh, you noticed. I thought you’d get a few more colorful remarks in before you did.”

Now also smiling, Aaliyah slid her finger across the desk’s touchscreen.

Behind her, the screen slowly brightened, and on the large monitor–

Was the shining face and colorful pink hair of a certain Gloria Innocence Luxembourg.

Communicating over an encrypted two-way video connection that was being arduously monitored by Zachikova and Semyonova to insure security. She had audio of the room, while the video on the set had simply been darkened to conceal her.

Kremina’s briefly went wide. “Madam President– How long have you been–?”

“Unfortunately, I heard the whole thing. When you walked in, the screen was dimmed, and the switch to that cute as a button Semyonova was done in order to hide the whole trick in plain sight and keep you talking.” Gloria said. She put on a cutesy face and twiddled her fingers. “Kremmy, how could you be so nasty to our guests? We sent you to Kreuzung to make us friends, but it looks like you caused our guests a lot of awful scenes. We’re going to have a long talk about this when you get back. You, me and our wonderful mentor– I am just glad that our guests brought your rhetoric to my attention before it got out of hand.”

Gloria pouted and cocked her head to one side, but her eyes were glaring at Kremina.

“Please forgive her, comrades. Her words do not represent the views of the S.P.R.”

President of the S.P.R., Gloria Innocence Luxembourg. She had asserted to them during their conversation that she was not a puppet of of Daksha Kansal. Therefore, there was only one side of the fiery rhetoric being thrown around that concerned her. Ulyana had thought she would be best served seeing first-hand what her fearsome advocate had been saying. She had been reached about the idea and acquiesced surprisingly quickly. Maybe she also wanted to see Kremina squirm.

It was not simple to set this up on short notice, particularly because of the security concerns–

–but the look on Kremina Qote’s face made it worthwhile. And it furthered Gloria’s trust in them.

“Tch.” Kremina made a sound and crossed her arms. She had finally been put in her place.

On the big screen, Gloria then turned from Kremina toward Erika and waved happily.

“Congratulations Eri! I’m happy we worked out an arrangement that helps everybody.”

Erika coiled a bit of smoke-blue hair around her finger. “Indeed, Madam Luxembourg. Thank you too.”

“I look forward to meeting you in Aachen, Eri. Let us have tea and cake rolls when we do. Toodles!”

Once more the screen went dark, this time actually disconnecting from encrypted communication entirely.

Unprompted, Kremina Qote turned sharply away and started to stomp out of the room.

“We’ll meet again in Aachen, Ulyana Korabiskaya. I won’t forget this.” She said in passing.

“Looking forward to hearing what Daksha Kansal really thinks of all this.” Ulyana said in return.

Akulantova, who looked thoroughly exasperated with everything going on, escorted the glaring and grumbling Kremina Qote out of the ship. Inside the meeting room, it was as if someone had taken a maximum-strength room heater out from a corner in which it had been seething, and there was cool air flowing again. Erika sat where Kremina had once been seated, tittering girlishly.

“That was rather vicious, Captain.” Erika said, like a girl who had watched a gory film.

“She had me at my goddamn limit. I’d have given her a spanking if I could have.” Ulyana said.

“I had imagined the conversation being a little less– violent– in the planning stages.” Aaliyah said wearily.

“I’m not actually going after Daksha Kansal.” Ulyana said. “Unless she forces our hand, of course.”

“We’re all warming up to the idea of having to fight the great hero of the Union, huh?”

“I’m not! I just knew it was the best way to provoke Kremina to be nasty.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah sighed openly, clearly fatigued by everything that had transpired.

Ulyana reached out to pat her shoulder and back for comfort. Aaliyah didn’t resist it.

When she laid back against her seat, she laid on the side of the chair closest to Ulyana, leaning into her.

Thank everything; even after all this, she was not upset with her.

“Realistically, Kremina Qote doesn’t have any power to do anything to you. Aachen is not even fully under the control of the leftists anyway.” Erika said. “Now that I am here I will protect all of you. With that said: I suppose you are my subordinates now? I must admit, I was a little surprised– I thought my message would resonate, but this is quite a bit more.”

Ulyana smiled gently at Erika. “We had an epiphany. At first we suspected Kremina Qote might have a similar fear to our own, of being subverted politically by a powerful ally. We realized in order to insulate ourselves from a potential influence campaign by Kansal’s faction, it helps to rally around another political figure. Then it dawned on me that, frankly, it’ll be deleterious to your activities in Eisental if you’re seen to be in the shadow of a bunch of Union operatives anyway. So starting today, we’ll be under your political command instead, Premier.” Ulyana felt a bit silly calling her that, but it had to be done.

Erika looked like her heart lifted every time she heard herself called that.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah opened one eye to look at Erika.

“We’ll introduce you to the crew. You can prepare remarks.” She said. She yawned a bit. “Until our activities in Eisental conclude, we’ll be working under you fully. We’ll share all of our data, and you can share your own once we return to the water. Truth be told, I was pretty impressed with your rhetoric. I am looking forward to fighting alongside the Rotfront, Premier.”

“Ah. It’s called the Nationale Volksarmee now.” Erika said, smiling awkwardly.

“We’ll be part of the Nationale Volksarmee then.” Aaliyah said, trying to smile about it as she started to doze off a bit.

“Then, I too will be in your care and protection. Thank you, comrades.” Erika replied.

Ulyana thought her eyes betrayed a sort of girlish excitement that was rather charming to see.

Even through all her professional demeanor, she was young and energized for the fight.

They would need that energy– it was only the first step in a long, long road ahead.

One in which both allies and enemies would need to be handled inventively.

Ulyana looked down at her Commissar, about to fall asleep beside her. One more conflict behind them.

No matter what, or who, challenges us. I will protect you. For that trust you placed in me.

That trust that supercedes even the stature of Daksha Kansal.

Thank you, Aaliyah. Ulyana thought, with a fond sigh.


That night, before the change in shifts for the officers and after the return of the sailors who had been working on the ship outside, the crew began to gather close to the various monitors throughout the Brigand. There was a special announcement and a video meeting had been convened. Semyonova’s cheery face and silky blond hair on the television urged the crew members to keep attention on the screens and their voices down. They had to minimize the sound carrying outside the ship’s closed hatches.

For about fifteen minutes’ worth of preparations, she kept the crew’s attention with charming affirmations.

“Alright comrades! Please maintain order, the Captain will now address the ship.”

Semyonova’s plump round face faded into that of the sleek-jawed Ulyana Korabiskaya.

For the address, the Captain had her blond hair down, her makeup immaculate, and she wore a Union dress uniform.

Staggeringly beautiful and gallant. This must have been a very special occassion.

“Comrades,” she began, and all of the crew knew then that this was not an address as ‘Treasure Box Transports’, “I convened this meeting to update you all on the status of the mission, and to speak in detail about the next leg of our journey. We left our homes over two months ago in order to pursue the cause of revolution in the Imbrian Empire on behalf of our nation. We are currently in Kreuzung Station, in the Eisental region of Rhinea. Rhinea and by extension, the Volkisch Movement that controls it, are major players in the Imperial Civil War that has been escalating since we embarked on this journey. Rhinea has the largest and most high-tech industrial base in the Empire, and the resources to fuel it, via the Rhineanmetalle corporation. Eisental is the unwilling heart pumping blood through this warring body, held captive within the ribcage of the Volkisch state.”

Captain Korabiskaya spoke confidently, and the crew listened with rapt attention.

“Revolution is brewing within Eisental. And it has given us an opportunity to uphold our duty and support the proletariat of the Empire in taking up arms for their freedom. Over the past few days, we have been in active discussion with several dissident organizations, gauging their positions and strengths and judging how best we might work together and where our goals align. I am pleased to announce that we have found kindred spirits among Eisental’s revolutionaries and will be working in league with a communist militia known as the Nationale Volksarmee. For the duration of our mission in Eisental, we will labor under their organization’s banner, and defer to the political command of their leader Erika Kairos. We want to join the fight; but it’s only right that Eisental’s people lead the way for us. Erika’s passion, her connections and resources, and most importantly, her experience with Eisental and its conditions, are invaluable. I am going to yield the floor for her to introduce herself. From now on, you are to address her as ‘Premier’ except in Protocol Tokarev conditions, in which she is to be addressed as an executive.”

Across the ship, the sailors and officers exchanged somewhat bewildered glances at each other.

They had ultimately acclimated to many of the other guests on the ship. All of the engineers loved ‘Miss Tigris’ for her boundless enthusiasm for menial mechanical labors; several of the officers had respect for ‘Miss Euphrates’, and some gossipy girls considered adding her to the list of the ‘ship’s Princes’. Maryam Karahailos’ and Elena Lettiere’s smiles were like rays of sunshine. It was different, however, to be told effectively that they would be under new management now.

Calling anyone but Bhavani Jayasankar ‘Premier’ also felt quite strange to them.

Regardless, Captain Korabiskaya was still here, still their Captain, and they trusted her.

When a Katarran appeared on the screen next, however, the bewilderment deepened.

Standing in the center of the bridge, where Captain Korabiskaya would usually be found.

She certainly looked the part of a communist leader, with her red greatcoat and flat garrison style hat, and the formal shirt and skirt she wore beneath, worn with meticulous precision. Her hair was long and voluminous and had a dark, dull blue color, complimenting her pink skin and her rare odd eyes, one green and one blue. Her thin lips were painted a light red, and her eyes were shadowed wine-dark. Behind her head, a pair of black horns with curved ends curled out, framing the back of the skull, in such a way that she could still conceivably lay her head flat on them. Her appearance alone was enough to draw in the curiosity of the crew, who waited eagerly for her speech to begin. Then, her voice, deep and rich, finally broadcast across the vessel.

“Comrades, thank you for having me.” She said. “My name is Erika Kairos. I am not a stickler for formality, but I do demand some respect, and I will give it in turn. It is no exaggeration to say that Mordecai’s teachings, and the continued resistance of the Union, saved my life, and gave me hope when I thought there could be no escape from our rapacious ruling class. In each and every one of you there are a thousand generations of resistance. Rest assured, you will inspire a thousand more.”

Erika put a hand over her chest. “I am many things, and I have been known as many things. Katarran, slave, thug, mercenary, bookworm– and now Premier. I lead an organization of several ships and several hundred lives, soldiers, sailors, engineers, pilots, and civilians, all of whom are dedicated to the cause of the anti-imperialist struggle. I am here in person, because I am staking it all on this gamble for the future of the world. But before all of those things, I mentioned, ‘Katarran.’ It is an indelible fact of my being, and it is the crux of what I wish to communicate to you. It is of vital importance to understanding me.”

She lowered her hand back to her side and took in a bit of breath before continuing.

“An unrecognized fact of life in the Imbrium is the exploitation of the Katarran body. We are everywhere, but our lives are disposable. We are widely hated, forced out of the public and into the back streets and sub-levels of the world. In these underworlds our bodies are reduced to commodities for killing, toiling, fucking. We are less than offal to the Imbrians– offal is not allowed to go to waste. Our continued existence suits the Imbrians. We are their assassins, their sneak thieves, their indentured hard labor and exotic sexual fantasy. Their hedonism and greed demands our existence but their social conception of the world demands our invisibility and extermination. We exist in this dual position; this contradiction defines us.”

“But there is another race in the Imbrium Ocean that faces oppression on this scale as well. Eisental’s first and oldest station was home to Shimii, they settled these waters before the Imbrian Empire, yet their religious practices are curtailed, they are segregated into ghettos, and only the wealthiest, most politically connected Shimii are allowed true freedom in its waters now. The Shimii in the Imbrium face nothing short of existential crisis now. While their bodies might continue to live, their culture and beliefs are being slowly destroyed as they are driven to despair. Their ‘age of heroes’ has passed. Mehmed the Tyrant was defeated, and the Mahdists supporting him were driven into slavery in the Union or forced into Imbrianizing their names and leaving behind their identities. But even the average Rashidun Shimii, who are told they won the ideological victory and hold the truth of their religion, have not seen any improvement in their lot in life. They are still the puppets of the Imbrians, but they are told by their religious and community leaders that they must accept chains of a different sort than those clapped on the Mahdists in order to survive. That contradiction is sharp and sharpening. Pity the Katarran her condition; but the Shimii suffer under the yoke too.”

In the Union, every student received education on the various nationalities that made up the people of the state.

Volgians were the majority, followed closely by “North Bosporans” who had once lived in the northern ice cap, same as the Volgians did. Shimii were the third largest population and Katarrans were a very small minority. In the Union, there was a prevailing tone of racial diversity and equality. It was acknowledged that everyone had to do their part to accommodate everyone else where differing cultural practices were concerned, but that ultimately, they were all equal partners in building socialism. For a lot of people, Erika’s firebrand speech about the debasement of her ‘body’, the collective ‘body’ of her people, stirred in them a deep discomfort. For many of the Volgians and Bosporans in the room, they had not confronted the idea of racism except as a distant historical specter of the what the Empire, collectively, did to them, as a whole. It was not so visceral to them.

That shadowy existence of the Katarran as both extant and exterminated, puzzled them.

That spectre of the Shimii as a segregated people, was something they had not experienced before.

Despite their discomfort and the way the words felt chilling, everyone was stirred by Erika’s speech. Nobody could peel themselves away. They truly did feel like they were listening to Bhavani Jayasankar. They felt the power radiating from it even if they struggled to internalize the content of the words. Meaningfulness was transferred to them as authority.

“Through recognizing these positions, we stand to finally create an enduring mutiny that can uplift and unite the people of Eisental. It is not enough to have a revolution for the literate Imbrians in the colleges, dabbling in socialism; nor even the Imbrian workers whose exploitation is juxtaposed against other races to cast them as enemies to them. Our revolution must begin with the most disenfranchised peoples. We must speak to the most hopeless, for they will shine brightest once they are given reason to live and the instruments with which to fight. This is my core belief, and it is what we will pursue in order to triumph.”

Erika was earning the authority to call herself ‘Premier’ in front of them.

“In the ghettoes of the southern Eisental ring of stations; in the forgotten construction shafts were homeless and abandoned peoples still scratch out a living; in the factories and corporate sweatshops were Shimii and Katarran alike toil invisibly for the Imbrian purse; in the Agri-Spheres where rows and rows of ears and tails work tirelessly to feed the ravenous mouths of the Imbrian people for a pittance that only just allows them to feed themselves; comrades! Throughout Eisental the cries of the dispossessed will become cacophony! They have nothing but their anger! And that anger is fuel awaiting our flint, bracing for the spark that lights the conflagration that will sweep the Volkisch Movement and their complicit treasurers from this Ocean once and for all! Keep in your heart their suffering, but more than that, keep in hand the weapon you will give them!”

In the height of her passion, Erika saluted the crew; and swept up in it, many of them saluted back.

“We are the invincible guard of liberation! The Nationale Volksarmee!”

Those words, that they had never before heard, stirred the hearts of the Brigand’s crew.

Clapping, cheering, excitement, a swell of emotion. Tears, grit teeth and pumping fists.

Suddenly and with a passion that shook them to their core, the Brigand’s next adventure had begun.


“Captain, may I have a word?”

Out in the hall, on the way back to her bedroom, one of the Brigand’s colorful guests walked up to Ulyana as she headed to her room. Long-haired with two horns from her forehead that pushed apart her tidy bangs, a thick tail, and a slim and pale body covered in a haphazardly worn Treasure Box Transports uniform. It was the Brigand’s own ‘special navigator’: Arbitrator I.

“Of course. I’m a little out of it, so perhaps not too many words.” Ulyana said.

She smiled awkwardly. Arbitrator I smiled cheerily back.

Glib and carefree as usual, Arbitrator I had wanted to discuss with the Captain the possibility of securing at least a small supply of meat, even the worst quality meat, so as long as it was the meat of a mammal it would suffice.

Anything to give her lovely Braya a bit of a reprieve from the–

Arbitrator I’s eyes widened suddenly. Her pupils dilated, her hand began to shake in Ulyana’s presence.

“Hey. Are you okay?” Ulyana asked.

In that instant, Arbitrator I’s body was responding to the threat she felt–

–from Ulyana’s scent. She reeked of those– those awful things– those beasts swathed in their sin–

Arbitrator I’s body responded, heat in her chest, tension in her muscles, an edge to her teeth.

She closed her fists, tried to master herself. It was just the Captain– she could not attack her–

“You reek, Captain. Please clean yourself. Good night.”

Without another word, she turned sharply around and started walking away, trying to clear her mind.

Leaving behind a very confused Captain.

“Excuse me? Ugh! Whatever!” Ulyana replied, exasperated.

Arbitrator I swallowed her embarrassment, and the frustration of losing control of her senses.

More than that, though, she worried about the provenance of that evil scent.

Did she meet with the Enforcers? Why would she do that? What are they here for?

Was the station infiltrated? Was the ship infiltrated? Did anyone realize the danger?

Desperation swelled and spread in her like a cancer.

Her heart pounded, she began to sweat. She had to calm herself before Braya saw her again.

She had to calm herself, and to think, to uncover more. She had to do something to protect them.

Arbitrator I could not afford to fail in the face of the Syzygy. Not again.

She could not lose another home.

In a blink of her eyes, as she walked down the empty hall–

Her irises became a purple hexagon shape, and a change began in her body.

Lift all locks on STEM.

Arbitrator I reached deep inside herself for every micrometer of data stored in her biomechanical DNA.

Her brain would be heavily burdened in the process– but she desperately needed everything back.

Even the things she wanted to most forget. Even the things she feared knowing again.

Reassemble all blocks. Bypass secure parsing method. Skip bad block health check.

She could not wait anymore, she could not be careful, she could not open the blocks like dainty toys.

No matter what nightmares exploded out of the forgotten recesses of herself.

Array all data. Immediately.

For Braya’s sake– for all their sakes’.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.7]

Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.

For a moment they simply stared each other down.

Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.

There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.

“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”

Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.

On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.

Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.

When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.

Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.

Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.

“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”

Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.

Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle

Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.

Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.

A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.

Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.

Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.

Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.

Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.

Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.

“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”

She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.

Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.

Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.

Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.

Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.

Every attack was deadly.

Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.

That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.

The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.

It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.

“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”

Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.

Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.

“What will be enough?”

That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.

At first Khadija could not even believe it.

Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.

Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?

Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.

Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.

“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”

She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.

The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.

She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.

There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.

To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.

Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.

She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.

She knew her options.

Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.

When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.

As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.

“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”


Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”

“God damn it.”

As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.

All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.

It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.

In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–

This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.

She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.

And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.

“Captain, should this child really be here?”

“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”

Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.

She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.

Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.

Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?

“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”

A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.

A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.

“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”

Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.

On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.

From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.

A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.

The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.

Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.

Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.

Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.

“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”

Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.

Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.

Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.

And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–

Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–

Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.

It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.

Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.

Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.

And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.

In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.

“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”

Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.

“What is it doing?”

“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”

“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”

Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.

That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.

She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.


“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”

Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.

Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.

Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.

In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.

It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.

“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”

“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.

“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”

“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”

Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.

“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”

Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”

“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”

“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”

“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”

He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.

“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”

It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.

“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”

“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”

“Ouch.”

Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.

He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.

“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”

“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”

“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.

“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.

“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”

Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.

“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”

Deshnov grunted.

“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”

In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.

What did she want with this?

“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.

“Then tell me.”

“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”

“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”

“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”

Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.

When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.

To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.

“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”

Murati raised her eyes from the ground.

At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.

That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.

Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.

“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”

Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.

Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.

That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.

Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.

That Murati would have to finish his war.

He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.

But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.

Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.

“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”

At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.

“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–

“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”

“What?”

Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.

“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”

Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.

Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.

Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.

Deshnov grit his teeth.

Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.

Those two always somehow found their way to each other.

“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.

Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.

“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”

“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.

“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.

Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”

“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”

He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.

Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.

That would’ve been really bad.

“At any rate!”

Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.

Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.

Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.

That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.

Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”

“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.

“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.

Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.

But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.

“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”

Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.

All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.

Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?

He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.

“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”

Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.

“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”

They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.

Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.

Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.

He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.

“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.

“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”

Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.

Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.

He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.

This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.

Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.

“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”

Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”

Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.

They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.

He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.

As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.

That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.

But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.

While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.

All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.


When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.

She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.

Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.

“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.

Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.

Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.

For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.

As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.

And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.

In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.

But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.

“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”

That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.

“Murati! Please respond!”

Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.

At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.

Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.

“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”

“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”

Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.

Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.

“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”

In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.

“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”

Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.

To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!

Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.

“Khadija–”

She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.

“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”

On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.

Incoming laser connection.

“The Brigand!”

Murati put it through immediately.

She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.

For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.

In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.

Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.

“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”

She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.

On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–

Then the video connection cut out.

Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.

Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.

Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.

“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.

She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.

There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.

When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.

In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.

There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.

Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.

On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.

Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.

In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.

Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.

That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–

That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–

Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.

“No! Khadija– the bomb–”

Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–

–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–

“Murati!”

Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.

At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.

“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”

Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.

Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.

All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.

Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.

Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.

“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”

Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.

Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.

As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.

Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.

She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.

Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–

And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–

In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.

Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.

“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”

Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.

That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.

Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.

Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.

Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.

“Murati! What are you–?”

Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.

At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.

“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”

Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.

Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.

She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.

With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.

Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.

Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.

Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.

They would not travel very far without assistance.

Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.

To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.

That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.

And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.

“Here goes something!”

Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.

When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.

This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.

Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.

As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–

Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.

Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.

There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.

Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.

There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.

Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.

Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.

What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!

She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.

Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.

Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.

And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.

Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?

Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.

She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.

There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?

Her cockpit shook again–

She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.

Consistent, purposeful movement.

Someone had rescued her.

With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.

Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.

It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.

Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.

Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–

What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.

But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.

She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.

“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.


Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.

“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”

“God damn it!”

Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.

“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”

On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.

How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?

To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!

“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”

Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.

They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.

“Collision imminent!”

Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.

Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.

All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.

That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.

She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.

Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.

“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”

Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.            

Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.

They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.

As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.

“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.

Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.

Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.

“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”

Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.

She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!


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