Bandits Amid The Festival [11.3]

For the overall majority of the population of Kreuzung, the world outside of their rooms was mostly a long series of hallways and elevators. Long lines of identical doors, fake carpeting, beige walls. A pretense of warmth that hid cold metal. Hypocrisies large and small that had to be endured in order to live.

How did the people of Kreuzung live?

The ordinary people with no other recourse but to keep living?

Those who worked in the service industry, if they worked for a strong brand, would leave this world of halls once a day to go to a mall or food court, where they would find another enclosed space that would occupy most of their day. Those who served “local” shops in the lower districts would trade one hallway for another, or if they were lucky, trade a street without a sky, flanked by identical squat plastic buildings, for a hall flanked by plastic or metal doors. Since those older “street” modules often had defects that led to accidents or flooding, this was not a particularly good trade in terms of their well-being.

Some people did not leave their rooms at all to work– even when they wished they could.

All of this toil was presided over by the vastness of the Imbrium Ocean. Deeper and darker.     

Kreuzung was home to millions of people– who lived largely below the tower’s centerpoint.

“Upward mobility” was not as such literally. For someone close to the bottom of the tower and compressed into a block that had dozens of modules each with several hallways, all of it cramped into the tightest livable space– if they even completed their education or achieved some certifications in a field they were competent in, there was no guarantee of a job. And in addition, virtually no guarantee of actually ever moving out of the comparatively cheaper and smaller rooms in the lower part of the tower to the slightly better habitats in the core’s upper reaches. It was impossible to ever believe someone like that would ever work or live in A or B block at the top of the Kreuzung Core. Certainly, a few people did do so– but collectively, it felt like it took a miracle. Most people would never climb from those depths.

In Kreuzung, a large majority of people did not “have a job” in the sense of a stable position in a company. Instead, most people were “contractors.” Contractors technically worked for an agency that connected them to jobs in exchange for a fraction of the pay. These agencies arose from the distrust between the highly stratified classes in the Empire and were a common feature in most imperial stations– an Agency could guarantee that the people it hired were not lowborn scum of the earth, but humble and servile folk with good skills; if they were not they could be easily discarded and replaced.

That was an agency’s promise to the employers; employees were promised nothing but a wage.

All service work was contract work where Agencies vetted candidates that would not harm the upper and middle class sensibilities of those shopping and dining in the middle to upper tier of businesses.

Heavy industry had a culture of “tradesmanship” where workers traditionally formed guilds or unions and had access to better pay, benefits and a slightly better lifestyle than contractors, even as collective power began to be eroded. The tradeoff was in difficult certification requirements, as well as the possibility of losing life or worse, limb. Guild and union health benefits were good, but cybernetics were still expensive. Even with the best possible healthcare plan, this would ultimately saddle the worker with medical debt and a period of recovery that would wipe out some of those other good benefits like the paid time off and vacations. Regardless, this was seen as one of the only ways “up” (relatively) for a lower class worker.

The most on-demand jobs in Kreuzung beside customer-facing services were behind-the-scenes hardware jobs, particularly in monitoring, reporting on and responding to system events. A lot of Kreuzung systems administration had been privatized to the agencies, particularly the grunt work of keeping eyes on sensors and pressure valves and other such things. Contractors did these dull tasks from their homes, until something broke, at which point they would have to go out on the field and assume risk for much less money than a trade union worker did– which was ultimately the point of privatization.

Nevertheless, there were some parts of station administration and customer-facing services that did manage to remain trade-union owned, and there were also good jobs that were not agency-controlled. Dockworkers, for example, had a union, and non-union private dock workers at least didn’t have to go through an agency and could keep all their pay. And it was always possible, even if somewhat unlikely, for a very poor person to excel and become a journalist or a teacher or a nurse or some other “legit” career outside Contracting. These were the elites, comparatively, of lower class labor in Imbria.

One could also always join the Navy.

In Rhinea, in 979 A.D. during the Pandora’s Box’s stay in Kreuzung, joining the Navy meant becoming a National Socialist and participating in the Volkisch Movement’s conflicts– this was less attractive even than contracting. But for some people the food and shelter was enough incentive. Adding insult to injury, however, was that the Volkisch wouldn’t take all comers. No shirt, no shoes– no military service for you. In reality, the Volkisch remained a solidly volunteer army, more than a poor and desperate one.

Middle class labor entailed direct career work in the major corporations or public groups. These jobs were highly class stratified– someone with a parent that was a university teacher, would be able to go into higher education and would be much more likely to also become a teacher. For the children of contractors and service workers, it would be unlikely though not impossible to attain the needed licensing and higher education due to the difficult development environment for the child.

Working directly at a corporate office was the common hallmark of middle class work. Successful corporations and major brands had data, premises and equipment that they did not trust agency contractors to handle. Interviewing was deliberately difficult– people could be weeded out as soon as the recruiter saw their address. Technically, however, the jobs were open for anyone to interview for.

Some people dreamed of making it big by working seemingly outside “the system.” Trying out for roles in films, writing hot novels, creating innovative software, or even putting on personal shows to become influential in the burgeoning network culture– but these things already favored people with existing money and connections, so an “outsider hit” was unlikely as the hits were already being dictated by what could only be considered to be “the system” itself. Just enough “miracles” happened to keep people dreaming, but overall, the structure remained stable and firm. Class was ossified in the Imbrium.

All of this was Imbrian society as it was seen and accepted by the public at large.

There was a tier below Imbrian society, however, below even the most miserable parts.

In Kreuzung, it existed literally below the baseplate of the tower.

In the unkempt, spiraling viscera of the tower’s ancient history, dating back to its construction. Some of the uppermost of the maintenance tunnels still saw a good bit of official use, particularly by very unlucky contractors maintaining and repairing the interstice of the bottom rung of society just a hair above the baseplate itself. Deeper below, there were tunnels that had not been visited by an official contact of the station in decades or more. Most of them had become a sprawling nest of society’s most unfortunate.

Because the tunnels connected back to the ancient construction shafts, which had oxygen systems, they became homes for the dispossessed and unfortunate. Groups both openly criminal and secretly so, took advantage of these lost and invisible places as well to build and hide their own enterprises.

It was in this space below and between “the system” of Kreuzung and Imbria itself, that there existed the parallel society home to myths and legends: such as that of the fearsome “Katarran mercenaries.”


“Hmm? ‘Tarot Chocolate’? What are you giving me this for?”

“It’s dark stuff. It’s too sophisticated-like. It suits you better.”

“Hmm. This is a bit fancy. Where did you get it?”

“There was a boy selling them out of a box. Maybe he stole it– but who cares.”

“As long as the box is real, and these aren’t full of meth or razors.”

“None of that would kill you anyway. Quit being so prissy and take it.”

“I’m just confused as to why you’re giving me anything, even if it suited me.”

“We’re all comrades aren’t we? God damn– look, I got it for Chloe. But she hates dark chocolate. And I don’t eat this kind of shit at all. So there you go. Happy, detective? Just take it already.”

With finality Dimmitra threw the chocolate bar she had been showing off and left the room.

It landed in the hammock beside Kalika. She picked it up, turning it over in her long fingers.

Tarot Chocolate had the logo of Atelier Paradis, a premium brand in talks to join Volwitz Foods. Kalika always thought about those sorts of things, turning over goods in her hands. That fancy font on the Atelier logo, the royal purple mineral paper wrapper around the chocolate. This was a product worth thirty marks with competitors that sold for ten marks. But businesses had hierarchies just like the people around her. She was branded for being a Katarran, for not having any opportunity for some Imbrian desk job; no matter how she dressed or the airs she put on, she was always lesser-than and had to use her body in illegitimate ways to survive. In the same way that a Premium Brand like Atelier Paradis which made high-class and expensive products– was still lesser to a Major Corporation like Volwitz Foods.

She was holding in her hands a symbol of all the things that she fought against.

A story of inequality and alienation starting from the harvest to the final setting of prices.

At each link in the chain, the company that sold this item had stolen from somebody to do so.

Slowly, almost mindlessly, she unwrapped the paper around the dark chocolate squares.

Inside the packaging, she found another little piece of mineral paper.

It was a fortune that read: today you will meet the person who will change your life.

“So this is the sort of malarkey that turns 3 marks of chocolate into a 30 marks bar.”

Kalika sighed and took a bite of it. The complex taste that coated her tongue gave her some pause. Not just the dance of bitterness and sweetness, but the accompanying fruity notes and the glossy texture that seemed to hold its shape only until it met the warmth of her mouth, and then delicately melted. Perhaps this was actually eight or nine marks worth of chocolate in raw material. This was– the good stuff.

“It tastes premium, I must admit. I wouldn’t mind having another one.”

She was speaking only to herself at this point. Dimmitra had already left.

“Maybe I’ll keep my eye out for the little hawker with the box on my way out.”

Kalika slid her legs over the side of the plastic hammock she had been sleeping in. She had strung it up between two pipes on opposite walls in a 3 by 5 meter room. She and her comrades had claimed the space, in one of the many abandoned maintenance tunnels beneath the baseplate and dug around the old construction shaft above which Kreuzung’s baseplate and lower floors were ultimately built.

The Katarran’s room had once upon a time been a pressure monitoring room of some sort, from before the station was completely built. Valves and dials stared at her from every wall, completely motionless. Everything above the baseplate had sensors that were read by computers, so rooms like this were useless. Now it was nothing but pipes and an abused electrical panel in an otherwise empty room.

There were hundreds of places like this. But the locals did not particularly like the rooms farthest afield of the central construction shaft. There were rumors that people went missing in them– one of the tamer superstitions was that there was a syndicate of organ harvesters in the vicinity of the very room Kalika was standing in. It wasn’t too farfetched, but she had not yet seen any. More than likely, one too many opportunists robbed or killed someone here and imagination did the rest to create this myth.

Her own organs were perfectly safe. Even with one arm, she liked her chances in that fight.

“My arm–”

Kalika ran the fingers of her biological left arm over the bicep of her mechanical right arm.

Underneath the sleeve of her shirt, she felt the frayed metal and the torn syntheskin.

She tried to move the arm. Extending it felt alright. However, trying to bend the arm toward her, as if to flex her bicep, resulted in a shot of pain through the nerve bundles that remained of her original limb, which had been affixed to the prosthetic’s transmission couplers. She winced, and she could hear the metal scraping in a way that it should not. There was no way she could trust that arm to swing a vibrosword or even throw a punch. She had to get it fixed before anything went down.

“Hey,”

Through the crack in the door, Dimmitra peeked back into the room.

“You’re gonna go up, right?” She asked.      

“I have to. Nobody down here is going to be able to fix this.” Kalika said.

She gestured to her arm. Dimmitra nodded her head.

“The Premier shouldn’t need us today.” Dimmitra said. “You should be clear.”

“I’m just worried I won’t find anyone who will treat a Katarran.” Kalika said.

“If you don’t, you don’t. Nothin’ you can do. We can have you taken care of at Aachen.”

“We should teach Chloe how to run maintenance on prosthetics.” Kalika smiled.

“She’s fine.” Dimmitra said. Her voice took on a slightly more serious tone.

“I didn’t say otherwise.” Kalika replied. “Thank you for the chocolate.”

Dimmitra, Kalika and Chloe were all Katarrans. “Pelagis” was the race– Katarre was a nation.

But most Pelagis came from Katarre, and in the Imbrian imagination, all Pelagis were Katarrans.

Being Katarre-born Katarrans, real-deal Pelagids born in vats by the dozens and destined to die, they had deliberate genetic embellishments. All of them had been created using the DNA of armored gurnards, small fish with mortifyingly ugly appearances that thankfully did not transfer in almost any way. This was most evident in the pair of roughly rectangular and thin horn-like structures which grew from the back of their heads. In Kalika’s case, her horns framed her ponytail. These resembled a gurnard’s snout. Like a lot of Katarrans in her natural state her skin would have been grey, and her hair would have been white, but aside from their strength, durability and the few signs of embellishment, they were human.

Two legs, two arms; a head and neck; shoulders, breasts, hips. She was just a woman.

Kalika used cheap pigment treatments to alter her skin and hair and appear at least a little bit more presentable and less monochromatic. Imbrians disliked the cheaper cosmetics because it made the skin unnatural colors– it was tough to get that Imbrian pinkish-white fairness using the cheap skin pigments. That usually required a second skin to get just right. For Kalika, it sufficed to make her skin go from grey to a stark pink flush. It made Imbrians less nervous of her, and in her eyes, it made her look prettier.

Raylight Beauty’s budget products sufficed to keep up this appearance.

Her hair, meanwhile, she dyed a shiny grape-purple color and tied into a long ponytail.

For Katarrans, even mercenaries, such preening was not uncommon nor beneath them.

It was all part of coping with the warped relationship they had to their bodies.

Every Katarran mercenary in the Imbrium was more than likely someone who escaped from Katarre itself and service under a Warlord. It only made sense for anyone with that kind of repressive background to assert their individuality. Kalika had an ideal of her own body and her own sexuality which she expressed for her own comfort. She wore wine-colored lipstick and a similar type of eyeshadow, she wore toner on her face, she dressed in the nicest shirts she could afford and even owned a brand jacket from Lanzknecht, Epoch Clothiers’ edgy line of streetwear itself inspired by Katarrans. It was “steel-silver” colored and cut sharply, with see-through sleeves. She loved that jacket– it felt like skin.

Tights and a pencil skirt accentuated her long legs and figure. Heels made her feel more sophisticated (and feminine– for a woman who punched people’s heads open sometimes, this was more vital than it might have seemed). She even wore perfume sometimes. It was all part of the product she sold to the world– a Katarran’s body, born to kill and ready to die. (And look good doing it.) It showed to the discerning eye that she cared about herself, had a sophisticated personality, spent money on herself.

In this way, Katarrans survived, trying to retain the soul of human living despite all the abuse they suffered– and despite the extremist Solceanist belief that Katarrans did not actually have souls.

Dimmitra was a bit more spartan in her own style, but even she had one. Her grey trench-coat had beads sewn into it by Chloe. Her pain black shirt had the midriff quite literally ripped from the rest to expose her toned belly. Her black boots were stained and left as such. She had fingerless gloves. Her hair was dark, which meant she dyed it, but she cut it short and manageable. Like many mercenaries she communicated, ‘I am tough, and I can kill you– or whoever you pay me to kill’ but she also demonstrated self-care.

“Where is Chloe anyway?” Kalika asked.

“She’s visiting Platform Town.” Dimmitra said. “She wants to grab a souvenir.”

“She can be such a kid sometimes.” Kalika replied.

“So what? That’s good. You want her to be a nihilist?” Dimmitra said.

“Relax.” Kalika said. “I am just making observations. I am not criticizing her.”

“Hmph.”

Dimmitra walked to the other edge of the room, where her own hammock was strung.

“I’m staying here. Waiting for Chloe to come back.” She said.

“Figured. Don’t worry too much about her.”

“I’m not.”

She was clearly on edge, but Kalika did not push it any further.

She liked those two– they were cute together. They felt like they had a future ahead.

Kalika picked up a false leather bookbag from a corner of the room and slung it over her shoulder. There was a vibroblade inside, and she had a vibroknife hidden in an arm harness under the sleeve of her clip-down shirt. No guns– it was too easy to make a ruckus and get caught that way. Guns had to be a weapon of last resort when there were unfriendly eyes and ears everywhere.

Or a weapon for the final stages of an operation. Never at the beginning.

For now, nobody knew they were any different than any other Katarrans in Kreuzung.

From the metal door into the room, Kalika exited out into a long, circular tunnel, two meters tall. There were a few doors down from the hallway and an obviously riveted elbow piece on the corner. These tunnels were built out of a standardized series of ferristitched sewer tunnel sections that were used for water treatment, waste management and pressurization. Kalika nonchalantly walked the halls in her heels. There was a massive maze of these kinds of tunnels all around them.

From what Kalika understood, the process for building Kreuzung required a huge hole be drilled at the bottom of the crater and a substation to be buried under the baseplate. This building was known as the central construction shaft. It doubled as part of the foundation, as well as housing the construction equipment, elevators and supplies to begin the building process. The workers extended out supports in weak parts of the ground and built out infrastructure for themselves within these tunnels, since they could not live comfortably in the substation. Materials were partially mined out of the surrounding crater, but also brought in from the rest of the Imbrium along with the rations for the workers. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the suffering of those workers was still evident in the suffering way that people still lived below the baseplate. They were forgotten; much in the same way the old workers were.

Those workers were never counted among the heroes and glories of Kreuzung.

And the people of Platform Town wouldn’t either; unless something dramatically changed.

“Maybe Erika would say ‘we are the change’– but I don’t hold such presumptions.”

Kalika traveled through several similar-looking tunnels, ambling confidently in her high heels without missing a step. She knew where she was going even though the path was dim, lonely and so identical it could have easily confused someone into thinking they were going in circles. Another reason a lot of the locals avoided these less-traveled outer tunnels. Eventually, however, Kalika found an old and out of service bulkhead into a pressurization room, and there was a woman and her daughter sleeping inside.

Out the other door, and she was in a hall with a small crowd.

While there was a stereotype of homeless or impoverished people as being filthy or nasty, you would not see it from the platform town residents. They kept their clothes clean, nobody smelled, the hall was dusty and there were some wrappers and bags about because it was simply not possible to keep dozens of metal halls completely clean without vacuum drones or formal staff. Almost everyone she passed had a hoodie or a jacket and a good pair of pants. Sturdy, comfortable clothes that they could sleep in and keep warm that also held up to walking daily. Shoes were the sore spot for many of them, because the tunnels and the platforms were rough on cheap plastic sneakers. Because they washed with saltwater that was let in from partially dismantled desalinators, there was a bit of wear and graining on their mainly plastic clothes, but nobody was living in filth. Everyone did their best to keep the place livable.

There was a lot of hustling in the corridors. Mainly people selling or trading in miscellaneous goods they kept in boxes or blankets, always something easily portable and commonly in need like snacks or tray dinners, first aid supplies (and illegal drugs), shoes, sundries; provenance unknown and priced suspiciously. While hawking was much more profitable (relatively speaking) above the baseplate, there were people selling or bartering things around Platform Town nonetheless. Maybe because they had heat up above and were hiding; maybe because they were trying to flip NGO aid supplies or stolen goods.

Nobody tried to hawk anything to Kalika. They could tell immediately she was strange.

Platform Town and its residents had dignity. No amount of poverty would prevent them from having it. People tried their best to live whole and healthy lives. They tried to keep things as clean as possible. They maintained a quiet peace. What was palpable, however, was caution and distrust among the residents. Kalika definitely stuck out among them, and there were a lot of idle eyes thrown her way, but it wasn’t in here that she needed to blend in– it was up above. Nobody could blame them for staring at a Katarran who was vain enough to wear makeup and tights and heels down here among the desperate folk. Her relationship to the space was fundamentally different and she knew she must have looked like a voyeur. She didn’t have to live here, like them; she was just passing through here on a mission.

She would leave here– go on to the next thing. Until she lost her life to the violence.

Like a lot of other underworld travelers that hid in places like this from the public eye.

That she had supposedly loftier goals didn’t help her feel like any less of a parasite.

Kalika strolled by one of the entrances out into Platform Town itself, which was built by parking all the cargo elevators on the same level within the construction shaft in the center of the ancient substation infrastructure, creating a sort of “town square” for the entire underground town. Platform Town’s elevating mechanisms were then struck in place so it could not be plunged down the shaft. It resided about 100 meters below the baseplate, separating it from the tunnels that still saw some use farther above, but keeping it accessible to the underground dwellers. This was done out of necessity and safety. Keeping out of the way kept them relatively safer from the authorities.

Platform Town had been raided before. But it was a difficult and ugly sight for the people above, so it was mainly forgotten, its own world separated by 100 meters of empty vertical space and several more of winding old tunnels. For a station that was less than two kilometers tall and a few more wide, Kreuzung was vast inside of its own walls. One could give as many objective measurements of space and distance as one wanted– but the reality was, in terms of class, Kreuzung contained within it several entire worlds that may as well have been measured in hundreds of kilometers of distance apart from one another.

Kalika traversed one and now she had to leave to another.

At the end of the hall, there was a smaller personnel elevator. There were some things that did not get core power down here, and people improvised portable battery-pack devices to power them. But the elevator was always powered from the core above. However, it was also always guarded by someone. On that day it was an older man with a red face and a heavily white beard. He had on a brown jacket and a flat cap, and his hands were in his pockets. He had boots, unlike a lot of people here.

“I’m going up.” Kalika said. He was standing in the way of the elevator door.

“You are, are you?” He asked.

Kalika tried not to roll her eyes. It was always something like this.

“We already talked to the Watchman.” She said.

The guard’s bloodshot eyes locked with her black on yellow eyes.

They had done more than talk, too. Erika — the Premier — had sent a crate of supplies.

“Okay. Watchman isn’t here. Maybe nothing you gave the Watchman got to me?”

“How much do you want?”

“Maybe it ain’t bribes? What if I just don’t like you fish fuckers?”

What if I rip your fucking head off? What if I kill your entire family?

She recalled, in Erika’s cheery voice, before delivering what was a routine threat–

It’s not their fault; their attitudes are a result of abuse and exploitation; we must be kind.

Exercise the fortune you have that allows you to simply walk away, Erika would say.

Sighing internally, Kalika lifted her hand from her bag, and therefore from her sword–

“That would be pretty unfortunate, but my life would go on. And my journey, too.”

“Your journey– pfeh– fancy bitch aren’t you?”

Begrudgingly, he stepped aside just enough for her to walk past.

Kalika made no more eye contact, no aggressive gestures and kept a neutral expression.

Erika was right– there was no point in upsetting or fighting these people.

It wasn’t their fault they had been cast into the deepest darkness of the world to rot.

Into the elevator she went and up and out of the world below the world.

Platform Town’s elevators could take someone to the tunnels directly under the baseplate, and from there, the safest way up without anyone knowing you had been in the underground was to take an emergency ladder up above. It was common knowledge passed around the inhabitants of the underground which ladders had their panels ripped off already and were easily accessible, and these took the would-be trespasser into discrete places out of sight from crowded thoroughfares.

In this fashion, Kalika climbed a ladder in a dark room, opened a hatch, and stepped out of the dim alleyway next to an automatic desalination plant on the lowest tier, rejoining the above-ground world on a street in one of the lower modules of Kreuzung. The ceiling was low, and there were squat plastic buildings with scratched-up unpainted metal streets between them. The sunlamps were maybe half-working. But compared to how people lived in Platform Town, it was downright luxurious. There were shops, eateries, there were small crowds of people with merry expressions, and there was an unimpeded way up higher. Kalika pulled out a portable from her jacket, checked her route, and got moving.

She had to find someone to repair her arm– before she needed to use it seriously again.

Her first thought was to go to the medical NGOs that served the lower level folks.

Not because she was lacking in funds– but because they might actually agree to see her.

Traversing several of the tight halls that adjoined the street module where she had entered the station, she finally found herself two or three street modules away in front of a large, temporary plastic building which bore the logo of Khumeia Pharmaceuticals, one of Rhinea’s major medical manufacturing corporations. Despite the logo, there was a line of people, and signs calling out free healthcare services, including biostitching, which could take care of lacerations and broken bones by itself.

It felt promising, so Kalika stood in line. Maybe they could ferristitch her arm joint.

She was in line for almost an hour, about thirty minutes of which she spent staring straight at a desk with a nurse behind it, who would take people’s information and then point them to a room inside the building itself for procedure. Soon as Kalika walked up, the nurse raised her hands.

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we can’t help you here, ma’am. Our grant specifies primary care services to Imbrians. We are beholden to the terms of our grant, so we can’t see any Katarrans.”

Rotten luck– not even charities in the lowest rungs would look at Katarrans!

“Incredible. So I stood in line for nothing? You couldn’t have just shooed me out?”

“I recommend looking for a private practice to assist you. Have a nice day.”

Grumbling, Kalika walked out, clutching the sling on her bookbag tightly.

There were very few private medical practices in the lower levels of the station. They were mostly run by samaritans who could shoulder the unique pressure of existing in places with higher levels of poverty, and therefore, desperation. Those few that existed were booked out months in advance because there was high demand for any kind of healthcare. That piece of advice from that wretched nurse would not help. Kalika took another elevator, though she was loathed to climb further as she knew that Imbrian racism only got worse the more affluent the population became. Her hopes began to dim.

From her next elevator, she exited onto a beautiful park full of white flowers.

She had looked up a cybernetic augmentation prosthetics service center that had a walk-in storefront near the park. They took walk-ins because they essentially took someone’s entire arm off them, repaired it, and then called them back a few hours later to reinstall it, it was all very process-driven. This process and the specialization of their service meant they could easily treat the dozen or two dozen people who would coincidentally all have broken cybernetic arms or legs the same day. Kalika was hopeful as she walked in through the sliding glass doors of the ritzy “Capua Limb Service Center.”

There was nobody inside, so she could walk right up to the gentleman behind the counter.

Hallo,” Kalika said, waving the hand of her prosthetic arm with a little difficulty. “I’m having a bit of trouble with this one. I think it’s the joint– it got bashed hard in an accident.”

“Can I have your name, sex and date of birth ma’am?”

She sighed.

“Name is Kalika Loukia. Date of birth is tough. Sex– Look, I’m a Katarran, you know–?”

The man at the counter seemed to make up his mind quite quickly hearing her name.

“Unfortunately ma’am, we only service prosthetics we installed. You’re not on the list.”

“What?” She held up her portable. “But I read that you’re a walk-in service center.”

“We are, but we can’t work on just anything, we don’t know your specific needs.”

“Is that how it is? Then how am I supposed to get this thing to looked at?”

“We might be able to see it with a referral from your doctor. We can look them up.”

“Thank you. Please give it a try. Her name is Hilana Tarik.”

“A Shimii?” Again the receptionist immediately gave her a skeptical look. He did not even attempt to search that name. “You might have better luck asking around Tower Eight then.”

Kalika closed the fist on her biological arm and shut her eyes with frustration.

“She was a Khedivate Loup actually– but I get the picture. I’ll see myself out.”

She stormed out of the building, clicking her heels as hard as they would take.

Her next idea was to look up prosthetic sales shops– places with actual manufacturing.

Since she could not get the thing she was wearing serviced, she would get a new one.

While her arm was special, she could live with an inferior model that just worked.

So she made her way to a small workshop tucked into a corner of a business block–

“Sorry, but we don’t service existing hardware in here ma’am. We can take your measures and build a new arm for you, but we’ll need to see a prescription from the doctor who installed that one, so we know what kind of work’s been done on your biological arm’s remains. Do you have a prescription?”

Surrounded by models of arms all in cases on the walls. Kalika was briefly speechless.

Not even in a place that just sold arms could she actually purchase a new arm?

“I don’t– I haven’t seen the doctor who installed this in years.”

“Then I’m sorry ma’am, but we can’t help you with that. It’s the regulations.”

“So let me get this straight. You only replace someone’s broken prosthetic if you get an okay from the original doctor? What happens if they died or went missing? I’m in pain right now!”

“It’s unfortunate ma’am but the rules are the rules. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

This particular receptionist was much less patient with her than even the last.

Feeling a knot in her chest of anger and shame, she left the shop and wandered aimlessly.

At first, she had been merely annoyed.

Then she spent so much of the day so awful fruitlessly.

Now, she was actually afraid. Now she felt helpless. She felt the weight of her prosthetic, she felt acutely every defect that it possessed, she heard the scraping of the metal like it was being broadcast through a booming speaker, felt the roughness where the synthskin had broken like the texture of sandpaper, and the pain felt like it was worsening. There was nothing she could do to make herself better, to return to normal, and every step felt more troubled than the last she took. Her arm was heavier, clunkier, less mobile, it felt like it would pull her through the floor and into the water itself to drown.

Useless, with only one arm, she would fail to defend the people she loved again–

“Agh!”

She had not been paying attention. Walking mindlessly around a corner–

Kalika bumped directly into another person, and both fell to the floor.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I made you drop your bag! I’ll get it!”

A girl had bumped into her.

Fallen right off her heels and on her rear, her bag off her shoulders.

Thankfully nothing spilled and nothing broke.

She laid eyes on the person she had bumped into– and her gaze lingered for a moment.

Collecting her bag– was a Shimii, a young woman with long, dark hair, short, fluffy ears and a little fluffy stub of a tail that was comically short.  She had a brown jacket that was clearly a bit worn-in, over a very fine button-down shirt and a pair of pants and shiny shoes. Dark-eyed, with sleek features, handsome. But with a soft, pretty smile, clearly nervous. Kalika was a little bit speechless looking up at her.

Having recovered more quickly, the Shimii girl extended a hand to help her.

“I’m sorry for bumping into you! I wasn’t paying any attention. Let me help you up.”

Kalika took her hand– warm, firm. She was a bit lean, strong. An active kind of girl.

Good upper body. She worked those shoulders. Legs a little less so, but still solid.

With her assistance, Kalika stood up and dusted herself off. The girl handed over her bag.

“Thank you. It’s not a problem. No need to be nervous.” Kalika said, smiling.

“Ah– well, I’m glad then. I hope you have a nice day ma’am–”

“Wait.”

Kalika stretched out a hand.

“Kalika Loukia.”

“Um. Homa Baumann.”

They shook briefly. Kalika locked eyes with the younger woman.

“Homa, you live in Tower Eight, don’t you? Are there any Shimii medical device shops?”

“Medical devices? Um.”

“My prosthetic arm is broken. None of the Imbrians around will see me.”

“A prosthetic arm, huh–?”

Homa looked slightly bewildered. Kalika should have known it was a long shot–

Then, from their shared handshake, Homa pulled Kalika’s hand forward.

“I think I know a place. Follow me. Tower Eight’s not very far from here.”

“Oh! Well, thank you! Can Katarrans actually–?”

“I’m sure you can! I’ll raise a stink otherwise! Imbrian bastards are always allowed in!”

Homa pulled Kalika along by the hand at a quick clip– she was surprised by the girl’s initiative.

They strolled by the park from before, through a few elevators, down a crowded mall with a high pavilion and to a tram station. Homa badged her way through the tram station gate, and still holding Kalika’s hand, led her through. The guards did not express any interest or concern over Kalika. She and Homa rode the tram together, crossed another gate. They were both quiet. Homa stared out into space during the elevator rides and in the tram, her expression a little dark– she seemed to notice this eventually.

“Ah– sorry. I’m not ignoring you. I have something on my mind.” She mumbled.

“It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded.

“I’ll take you to a place– you can get back. You’re not a Shimii, they won’t stop you.”

“Thank you. Will you be alright? I didn’t bump into you too hard, did I?”

“I just want to go home– and kinda forget everything today. I– I’ll be okay.”

“I get it. I also want to put today’s nightmares away before receiving tomorrow’s.”

They crossed another guard gate at the other end of the tram. No questions asked.

Down another elevator, and Homa again took Kalika’s hand firmly and led her around.

And– strangely enough, she always seemed to grab the artificial hand too.

Her tug on it was just a little bit painful due to the arm’s condition– but Kalika did not mind.

Such nonchalant attention made her feel just a little bit girlish, she had to admit.

They arrived at a colorful street full of plastic buildings from which Shimii sold goods, services, food. There were so many ears and tails about, hijabs worn, beautiful Fusha calligraphy, the sound of song-like prayer and the smell of spices — it brought back certain memories. Homa took her down the street, past a few grocers, turning a corner on a flat-topped mosque filled with folk and animated conversation, decorated with a series of banners advertising the day’s philosophical topics for open discussion.

“I thought there was–there!”

Homa animatedly called out and pointed farther up the street–

And in the next instant, her ears dropped, and her tiny tail sagged.

“Aww, man.”

They stopped in front of a two-story plastic building. It had exterior windows facing the street, but they were all shut and colorful curtains drawn over them. The front door was locked, the doormat in front dusty and forlorn. There was an old sign which read “Fahrooz Orthetics” with the logo of the Imbrian Khumeia Pharmaceuticals to show they were affiliated. But the building was clearly disused. The sign was fading, and the plastic had not been treated for sunlamp exposure for a good bit and was beginning to discolor. The only thing which had been kept was the bubble bush in front of it– because that was community managed and not actually the property of the building owner in any way.

Homa grunted. She let go of Kalika’s hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so useless, dear god.”

She raised a hand to cover her face in shame. She was taking it so much harder.

“It’s completely fine. Thank you. It was lovely of you to try.” Kalika said.

Homa made another frustrated little sound. “Will you be okay?” She said.

“Yes. I will be fine. Run along home, Homa Baumann. Have some rest.”

“Thank you– again, I’m really sorry for the trouble.”

“Don’t be. And furthermore,”

Kalika put a hand on Homa’s shoulder and smiled directly at her.

“It’s her loss if she turned down such a handsome and courteous young lady as you.”

Homa’s ears stood back up. Her face flushed red. She nodded and walked away.

Kalika could see her tail swishing as she left. Awkward girl; so cute when she was flustered.

Her intuition must have been right. Homa must have really come back from a bad date. Poor girl; it was worth it to follow her along, even if it didn’t turn up anything for her search.

At least Kalika felt more stable now. She had almost had a meltdown over her arm.

“Ah– the glow of youth. Or, you know– I’d say that if I was that much older than her.”

Kalika sighed. She felt just a bit foolish herself. She looked at the building again.

She lifted her arm. It was a bit sore– Homa could not have known but with the bad elbow the arm’s balance was all wrong and it was starting to hurt the remains of her flesh. She was having even more trouble bending it than before. There was an awkward feeling, as if her brain expected the arm to have already bent at a certain angle, but the mechanical arm was not all the way there.

I guess I’ll sit this one out. I’ll get transferred to the Rostock and wait for everyone

“Oh ho? Interested in this old clinic, are you? Is there perhaps an emergency?”

From behind Kalika, a Shimii woman approached.

Her features were mostly concealed by a green and white hoodie, but through the holes in the hood exposing her ears, Kalika could see that the color of her fur was honey-yellow, therefore the woman was a blond. Aside from the hoodie she had long pants, with a voluminously fluffy yellow tail swaying behind herself. Her stature was fairly small, her figure short, wide and round, but her mannerisms had such a confident and easy presence that her stature did not matter. She exerted a certain pressure.

Kalika could tell her aura was particularly dense despite her emotions appearing ordinary.

She was suspicious, but at the same time, if she could get her arm repaired–

“I’m looking for a cybernetic prosthetic repair. My arm was damaged in an accident.”

The hoodie wearing Shimii nodded her head in acknowledgment, her face barely visible.

“Unfortunately, that clinic closed down over a year ago. However, you’re in luck. I happen to have been the one who leased the place to its former occupants, and I taught them everything they knew about the practice too. I came here for nostalgia’s sake, but I can see you just this once. Just don’t tell anyone– it would inconvenience me and the folks here if people mistook this for the reopening of the clinic.”

It’s a bullshit-sounding story, but I don’t have a choice but to try my luck.

Erika and the Rotfront needed her. She couldn’t afford to be out of action if something happened. She couldn’t afford to be dead weight. None of them would ever say that to her– because they were all too nice. But Kalika would not forgive herself if she stood around helplessly while they died–

She had to get this fixed and return to her post. Had to; today. She was dead set on it.

“I can’t turn down such rare courtesy.” Kalika said.

She saw the golden eyes beneath the hood for a brief instant.

“Lovely. Follow me, then. You can call me ‘Hudson’. But I must stress– please don’t tell anyone.”

“I’m Kalika Loukia. On my pride as a Katarran, my lips are sealed.”

Hudson walked around the side of the building, between it and the next one there was about two meter gap. Behind the building was the wall of the module, and Kalika had assumed the buildings were flush together with it. However, there was also about a meter gap between the buildings and the back wall of the module. Probably for access to electrical paneling or something like that. Hudson led her to a rear door that opened with a keycard, and into the interior of the building itself.

“Watch your step. We’re going upstairs. Follow me closely.”

It was pitch black inside the building. There were blackout curtains on the windows, and the lights weren’t on inside. The only illumination was a tiny green LED on a wall panel indicating that the building still had electricity. Everything must have still been up to date and paid for, and the interior was not really dusty or unkempt. Human activity must have been utterly nil since it closed down, and yet, it was maintained.

Kalika could track Hudson fairly well through the interior of the structure. From the back door they hooked a right through a tight room, and then another left to the stairs. At the top of the stairs, Hudson led her down a short hall to a room in the front corner of the building’s second story.

Inside that room she finally switched on a light by placing her hand on the wall touchpad. A largely undecorated room became visible around them, white walls, an air circulator unit on the ceiling, a storage unit with multiple drawers. In the middle of the room there was a table with a stitcher.

It was this machine that caught Kalika’s eye. “Nanostitching machines” were ubiquitous in manufacturing and in mechanical repair, but also in medicine. Biostitchers, Ferristitchers, Synthistitchers, and others, were all conceptually this same type of machine. They were equipped with cartridges of material which was manipulated and used by extruder arms to build something nanometer by nanometer.

In a kitchen, a biostitcher could be loaded with mulched up vegetable matter, a flavoring cartridge and a vitamin solution to create edible, aesthetically pleasing “fresh” veggies; in a medical setting, that same machine with minor modifications to the extrusion arms could be loaded with body-compatible materials to sew up wounds or even fill in the gaps in broken bones or lacerated flesh. Ferristitchers melted down metal in tiny amounts to “stitch” together steel parts and plates bit by bit. For someone working on human cybernetics, the weapon of choice would likely be a combination of all of these machines.

“Okay! I’m going to need you to pull your sleeve back up or something.” Hudson said.

She pulled down her hood. Her face was unremarkable– pretty, but certainly with nothing to hide, one would think. Golden eyes, a round jaw and tall fluffy ears. Long, flowing blond hair styled in a way that it exposed her forehead and fell around her shoulders. She looked like she could have been any other Brennic or Volgian Shimii, though there were also blond Shimii of other heritage. Her skin was a sandy pink color. She truly looked like any other bystander could have. An ordinary Shimii woman.

Kalika obliged. She took off her jacket, unbuttoned her shirt most of the way and slipped her arm out of the sleeve and out of the shirt entirely. On most of it, the synthetic skin shredded and peeled. While it was affixed tight to the outer sleeve of the prosthetic, it could be dyed to look like the rest of Kalika’s skin, but when it was coming off, it turned completely white and unnatural. Where the arm had been struck, close to the elbow, there were jagged bits of material as the surface sleeve and a bit of the internal ligaments had been shorn. She was surprised it wasn’t more broken, as she had blocked a vibrobaton strike in a snap reaction without heeding the consequences. Hudson examined the extent of the damage.

When Kalika tried to bend the arm, working the joint, there was visible friction between the broken parts of the forearm and the parts that moved the joint, creating a creaking metal sound that seemed to be getting worse the more that Kalika moved the arm. Hudson raised a hand as if to tell her to stop.

“I recognize this model. You’re in luck. Full fix coming right up.”

She approached, and with Kalika’s consent, she used a tool to separate the prosthetic arm from the ring that had been installed farther up the arm. When Kalika had lost the arm, all she had was a little bit of flesh and muscle close to the shoulder. That flesh was melded into a ring cap that hosted the couplers, to which her prosthetic attached. Because she lost most of her arm, the prosthetic needed to have its own elbow joint. From what she understood, that was much more complicated than just a forearm would have been. Without the prosthetic, the coupler array hung loose and exposed that ring of metal and screws and a lot of bloodshot veins and visible nerves where it met Kalika’s flesh. When she tried to move her arm now, only the stray coupler-links wiggled uselessly like steel worms. Her nerves were sewn into the coupler and thus into them. Their only purpose was to translate between the flesh and metal.

“Technology is wonderful, isn’t it? But– it’s still a pity, to lose a limb. Especially for you!”

Kalika said nothing. She stood with her back to the wall and averted her gaze.

“Katarrans’ natural bodies are already stronger and more durable than an ordinary Imbrian body, so it’s extra tragic for them to lose a limb. You can get away with losing a leg, but they call Katarrans who lose their arms, ¾ of a Katarran, don’t they? It’s seen as such as a tragic shame among your kind!”

Hudson tittered while tenderly stroking Kalika’s prosthetic, and taking it to the table.

“So that is why,” she continued, hooking one finger into the orifice resulting from the damage near the elbow, “only something I made would suffice for a Katarran warrior who retains her pride.”

Kalika’s eyes narrowed. She hated being spoken about in the abstract like this.

Those words piqued her interest, however. “So you’re affiliated with that Loup doctor?”

“Oh! So Nile installed this for you? That makes sense– that woman is such a good samaritan.”

Years ago– Kalika had been riding with an entirely different crew altogether.

She risked her life for them, and her limb. Then she left them behind.

That was when she had the fortune to meet that doctor. Hilana Tarik– or “Nile.”

“Do you know where she is now? It’s so much harder than I thought to get this serviced.”

Hudson shook her head. “I’m afraid she and I don’t have much contact these days.”

Kalika was not going to pry into it any further then. She felt it was pointless to push it.

While Kalika watched, Hudson opened the glass hatch at the top of the ferristitcher. Most of the operating table was taken up by the machine. She set the arm down in the center of the table and closed the hatch. As soon as she powered it on, lasers scanned the prosthetic and on an attached LCD screen a highly detailed wireframe model appear. Extruder arms and manipulator arms from the floor and walls of the ferristitcher box arrayed themselves around the prosthetic in preparation for the operation.

Hudson took a look at the LCD screen attached to the stitcher machine. She used the touchscreen to zoom in on the minute details, swished her finger over it. She made corrections to the default plan that the machine had drafted after scanning the arm and she gave new instructions to the machine. Once she was satisfied with her work, she turned back to Kalika briefly, her golden eyes cheerfully wide.

“We’ll spot-melt some of the imperfections and then spot-fill them.” Hudson said. She sounded almost like she was talking to herself even though she was addressing Kalika. “Once the structure is repaired, I’ll pull out the old elbow tensioner and the broken ligament, ferristitch new ones, and then ferristitch them into the arm.” Her eyes fixed on Kalika’s shoulder, twitching one ear. “As far as repairs are concerned, I’d be happy to fix it for you if it breaks again. Get in touch with Sunspot Health Cooperative and someone will help you. Failing that, you can ask Theresa Faraday from Solarflare LLC, based in Kreuzung.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. How much will I owe you?” Kalika asked.

“Owe me? Nothing. Don’t mention payment– I find it gauche, you know? I’m an artist.”

Kalika crooked one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t trust that you’re doing this for free.”

“Well, start trusting. I categorically refuse your money.”

Inside the ferristitcher, the arrayed arms began to work.

It looked almost like a swarm of rigid metal crab legs dancing all over her arm.

Barely visible sparks appeared, the contacts being made at such a minute level it was hard to imagine.

“Nothing in Imbria is given without an ulterior motive.” Kalika said.

Erika would have hated her for saying such a thing– but it was her natural reaction.

Charity — with a few exceptions — was a two-faced strategy, a conspiracy, however gentle.

In response to her skepticism, Hudson chuckled.

So far, for as long as Kalika had seen her face, she had a placid little smile.

Now she put on a grin as she gave her answer. Swinging her arms open in a grandiose fashion.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing this for you because I care about you as a person. Anything I built, I maintain. There is a legacy, woven into the metal crafted under my watchful eyes. It is my DNA, my seed, my egg! You are gravid with my legacy, Kalika Loukia, and I would be remiss to be bias against you and allow the work which you have been blessed with to rot and become useless. That would invite others to say my craftsmanship was less than legendary– and I will never accept that. On my pride as well.”

Something about being gravid with anyone’s legacy made Kalika feel sick to her stomach.

Having to depend on people like this was so rotten. Everyone had some awful ideology.

At least this pervert was fixing her arm for free.

“Suit yourself then.” Kalika said. She averted her eyes, staring at the wall.

Hudson continued to grin to herself with satisfaction as the machines did her bidding.

“These tensioners are based on the same materials as the housing for vibroblade oscillators. One of my cleverer ideas. It’s lightweight but tough and can endure a lot of force being put into it. It supports depleted agarthicite nanowire muscles to achieve Katarran levels of biomechanical labor output. This is the only model of prosthetic that will suit a Katarran mercenary. You are quite lucky indeed.”

For a few minutes, Hudson ran her mouth about the prosthetic.

Until the ferristitcher stopped halfway through.

“Oh! Hand me a cartridge please. Use the one labeled Mixture III.”

Hudson pointed to a drawer just over Kalika’s shoulder.

She turned around, opened it with her good arm and pulled out the one cylinder left.

It was just a little annoying, not being able to use a second arm to pick the object up.

Having to pull out the drawer, stop, and then use the same arm– it was a little frustrating.

Missing an arm– was frustrating. That was how effective her prosthetic had been.

She was drawn back to the time shortly after losing her arm, trying to go without.

She hated it. It triggered feelings of anxious self-loathing she had not felt in a while.

Without a warning, she lobbed the cartridge across the room into Hudson’s awaiting hands.

Judging by the materials she was working with, Hudson really didn’t care about money.

“You said that has depleted agarthicite in it? You’d leave something that expensive here?”

“What’s the worst that can happen? Someone breaks in here, is not stopped by any locals or by Arabie’s enforcers, and makes away with nothing but a ferristitcher cartridge? It doesn’t matter to me. Plus I do think you overestimate how criminal the people around here are, nobody would bother.”

Hudson opened a hatch on the side of the table and pushed the cartridge into the underside of the table, where the spot-smelter was located that softened up the material so it could be piped to the arms. Once the machine was reloaded with material, it resumed ferristitching automatically, and within minutes, it had completely repaired the sunken-in part of her arm and the frayed metal near the elbow. Then, the manipulator arms separated the elbow mechanism and one ligament from the structure, setting them aside. Hudson opened the hatch into the main workspace, pushing the prosthetic arm out of the way of the manipulators and extruders. She then began to swipe and swish her finger on the ferristitcher’s computer using the touchpad, issuing updated instructions the machine began to follow.

Pecking and spinning and slicing across an axis– they were building something now.

“Do you ever feel dysmorphia for the body you used to have?” Hudson asked.

Kalika grumbled. “I don’t view myself as having lost my body.”

“But do you feel a phantom pain? Like now, with your arm nothing but couplers.”

“No.” It was a lie. Kalika felt terribly uncomfortable and eerie with a missing arm and the hanging couplers coming out of the remains of her arm. She could not help but ‘move her arm’, it was something unconscious and automatic, especially because of how restless Hudson made her.

Each time her brain and nerves sent that command, it just made the couplers shudder.

Whenever that happened it did unnerve her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Did you know– once you become fully biomechanical, that feeling goes away. You are set to right; you reach an apotheosis.” Hudson said suddenly. Kalika narrowed her eyes at her.

Her aura shifted– her intentions– “Have you reached an Apotheosis, Kalika Loukia?”

Hudson absentmindedly raised her arm–

One of her hands suddenly launched from the wrist as if launched by a jet anchor.

It all happened so fast–!

Kalika dropped her good arm, releasing the knife hidden in her sleeve, catching it and swinging up.

One fluid motion– was it fast enough–?

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

Hudson’s hand, glowing yellow with a sickly aura,

met Kalika’s knife, burning red with furious conviction and deflected it,

sending the object to the floor in an instant.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Kalika shouted as the hand fell to the floor.

She had the knife in hand, held out in defense.

“Sorry, sorry! I just couldn’t help but check you out. I’ll stop now!” Hudson cried out, folding her ears.

There was a whirring noise, and Hudson’s hand was pulled by the cable back into its wrist.

She raised her fingers to her eyes, removing two lenses that had been covering them up.

Rather than gold, their actual color was a metallic, ice grey, with dozens of tiny digits and symbols visibly playing about the surface of the clearly mechanical orbs. When she smiled bright and wide, Kalika noticed, for the first time, the presence of the tiny seams around her cheeks like surreptitious plate joins. Her wrist, having fired its hand, now had a visible seam between the hand and forearm. And as if to further demonstrate the illusions of her body, that big bushy tail split into several mechanical, sharp-tipped implements, which quickly rejoined back into the original form of a bushy cat’s tail.

Kalika had never seen anything like it. Was her whole body robotic?

No– her body seemed soft on the outside. It was not just mechanical– it was biomechanical.

Just like a prosthetic– a full-body prosthetic.

“You used Saint’s Skin. Do you have the other two gifts too?” Hudson asked innocently.

“Fuck you.” Kalika said. “I’m not just going to forget you tried to attack me.”

“Then, how about you attack me, and we’ll call it even? I’ll resist only as much as you.”

“Give me back my arm. I’m leaving.” Kalika shouted.

Hudson’s expression darkened. Her eyes narrowed.

“No! Not until it’s repaired!”

Her cry boomed across the room and not just because she had shouted it.

Kalika hesitated to agitate her further but kept her guard up.

That punch she threw had been clearly imbued with yellow aura.

Saint’s Skin was not able to force that aether directly into someone else, but the addition of aether passively empowered any ordinary blow, necessitating aether to deflect it. Employing Saint’s Skin could change the ambient auras for the worse, slowly poisoning Kalika with its intentions and causing her emotions to shift unless she controlled them; but if it was King’s Gaze, being struck by the punch would have instantly made her feel sick. She may have devolved into a vomiting fit from just touching it.

Such was its awful power. The ability to force one’s aura, one’s emotions, directly into someone else.

Those who had the King’s Gaze had every other Gift by necessity.

She had not been paying attention and Hudson had concealed her intentions well. Without having prepared with Oracle’s Voice, she could not tell whether Hudson had used Saint’s Skin or King’s Gaze. Fighting someone with the King’s Gaze was incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. So she had to hold off for now in case that was a possibility and assess the nature of the situation.

Hudson’s aura was powerful. She was practiced in not just psionics but aetherics too.

When Kalika mentioned taking her prosthetic and leaving, Hudson’s aura flared.

That provocation triggered a band of undisguised, hateful-feeling black aura.

Nothing else the Shimii attempted had been done with killing intention behind it.

Kalika relaxed and laid back against the wall again, sighing deeply. No use in pushing it.

As if realizing she was being seen in a different light, the Shimii’s aura softened.

“Offer still stands, by the way.” Hudson said. “Give me a good hit and let’s be friends.”

“I’ll never be your fucking friend, you freak. Just hurry up over there.” Kalika said.

“That’s too bad.” Hudson smiled. “Maybe I can befriend that cute girl you were with–”

Snap. Inside Kalika’s self a taut and fraying string holding her back burst utterly.

In the next instant, a red flash; a swing of the arm; an error noise; the ferristitcher paused;

From across the room, a wave of force blew past that stirred the ferristitcher instruments.

Its wake a shining bloody red trail that started in a furious swing of Kalika’s vibroknife–

–and connected with Hudson’s cheek, splitting the artificial skin over the side of her face.

Kalika’s eyes flashed as furiously red as the harmful aura which she had hurled at Hudson.

Her brain screamed with pain that she ignored. Shaking, teeth bared in unremitting fury.

Struck by the red aura, and visibly wounded, Hudson’s aura started to take on Kalika’s anger.

Kalika realized what she had done and drew back. Stupid. Stupid move. God damn it.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.” In a second, the polluting red completely disappeared.

Hudson took direct command over her aura, preventing Kalika’s anger influencing her.

She sighed heavily, with one hand over her injured cheek. She then smiled again.

Her aura normalized completely. Blue and green, the colors of humanity. No red or black.

“So you do have the King’s Gaze! It really was so serendipitous that we met!” She cheered.

Absentmindedly, she restarted the ferristitcher. It completed the parts it was building.

Without paying Kalika further heed, Hudson opened the ferristitcher’s hatch and set the arm back on the center of the workspace. A manipulator arm took the elbow piece, and another took the new ligaments and the machine set about quickly reassembling these parts into the arm to make it complete. Kalika was speechless. She thought she would have provoked a horrific response from that attack.

Hudson’s joking threat had gotten the absolute worst rise out of her.

It had been stupid– but she could not have stood by for that Homa girl to be victimized.

Not on a whim– not on anyone’s whim. Kalika would not tolerate an innocent to be hurt.

But Hudson cleansed her own aura of Kalika’s infused anger so quickly and easily.

She was back to her unbothered self. It really was all nothing but a joke to her?

King’s Gaze is extremely rare. Mahdist Shimii once saw it as a sign of a divine right to rulership, without knowing what it really was and what it meant. And yet, a few people with this ability are on this Station right now. Who knows– maybe even somebody you met on the street today could possess great power. Kreuzung has become a place of destiny; I can feel it brimming in the aether itself.”

From the ferristitcher, Hudson withdrew Kalika’s arm and took it in her hands. While the synthetic skin was all gone, the carbon-fiber sleeve was a sleek shiny black, and all of the damage had been fully repaired. It looked brand new. In fact, it looked even better than when Kalika first received it.

“It’s fixed. Let me install it.” Hudson said. “Can I come closer?”

“Yes. Fine. I don’t want to spend another second here.” Kalika grunted.

She was so vulnerable. In an untrustworthy person’s “care.” It pissed her off.

To be treated like this– just because of what happened to her body.

When she should have been allowed to rest, instead she had to keep fighting.

“You better not try anything.” Kalika said.

“Okey-dokey. I don’t want to hurt you. Please trust me for a moment.”

Hudson ambled over to the other side of her room.

She gently gathered the couplers and led them into the associated ports in the arm. She pushed until the prosthetic locked into the steel ring bolted on the remains of Kalika’s old arm. Then she turned the upper arm ring until it locked the prosthetic tightly into place. Kalika could feel the couplers attached to the correct synthetic nerve bundles. When Hudson pulled back a step, Kalika could move her arm.

Once the deed was done, she slipped her arm back into her shirt and clipped it back up, closing it over the lacy purple brassiere she had to partially expose throughout in order to let her arm out.

She donned her jacket anew and put away her knife back into its trick sleeve.

Hudson smiled at her, with her synthetic skin broken, partially exposing the soft carbon-fiber muscle that formed part of her face. Kalika fixed eyes on her. This individual was extremely dangerous, no doubt about it. However, she did not seem intent on killing or causing injury, for the moment.

“You keep acting like this is all a big joke. What is your agenda?” Kalika asked.

“I’m building the greatest machine in the world. My greatest work of art.” Hudson said.

Kalika grunted. And yet, there was no sense that Hudson was actually lying about this.

“Hey c’mon I was just messing with you! I helped, didn’t I?” Hudson cheerfully cried out.

“Whatever. Go to hell. I’m not thanking you for any of this.” Kalika grumbled.

She started on her way out but stopped into the door to Hudson’s operating room.

Without turning around to look at her again, Kalika warned:

“Touch a hair on Homa Baumman’s tail, and I’ll rip your entire fucking head off.”

“Sensitive to the plight of innocents?” Hudson asked jokingly. “I have no interest in her.”

“That better remain the case. Or you’ll make an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.”

“Whether enemy or friend– just remember, to take care of that arm for me, okay?”

Kalika hissed and continued on her way, leaving Hudson behind with finality.

Stepping back out into the street, thoroughly aggravated by what had transpired.

After spending the entire day, and being socially, verbally and physically manhandled, she finally had a working arm back. She could resume her duties with the Rotfront now, but everything was upside down. They knew other militants might be operating here; but enemy psychics too?

She would tell Erika that the Rotfront had some rival conspirators aboard the station.

Not that there was anything they could do about it quite yet. Their hands were tied for now.

They could not afford to cause a ruckus until their meeting with Kremina Qote concluded.

For all her big talk, Kalika herself was no great defender of the innocent anyway.

She had been helpless to do so even under the guidance of the “hero” Radu the Marzban

–and now, she felt just as helpless anyway with the naïve idealists of the Rotfront.

Staring at her arm in her sleeve, opening and closing her black, segmented hand.

There was always so much Ocean, deeper and darker and more mysterious, out there.

On any given day, she could meet with something too powerful to deal with herself.

Even with all the mysteries she had been inducted into, she could become a victim too.

“We have to get stronger. I have to– I can’t let the same thing happen again.”

Visions of beautiful memories forever burned in the pyre of violence and hatred.

Any moment, any wrong decision, and it could all happen again. She could lose everything.

She could not afford to be lackadaisical at all. Fighting until death was the Katarran way.

Thinking of it as a fruitless struggle that could meet an insurmountable wall and just end–

–was too cruel to consider.


Kalika made her way from Tower Eight back to the baseplate of Kreuzung core.

Homa had been right. The guards at Tower Eight did not care whether Imbrians, Katarrans or other races went in or out of Tower Eight as long as the Shimii’s movement was being monitored and controlled. She thought Katarrans had it bad– these conditions must have been so dehumanizing for the Shimii.

With that bleak thought in her brain, she located one of the hatches to the tunnels below the baseplate and took another elevator back down to Platform Town. It was about 22:00 in the evening by the time she got to the underground, so the surly guard at the door had been replaced by an indifferent-looking young woman with a hoodie. She gave Kalika a brief glance before proceeding to take her eyes off her again, briefly rubbing the butt of a vibrobaton clipped to her pants while leaning on a wall.

“Watchman told me to tell you that your ‘Premier’ is expecting you.” She said.

“What? She came down here?” Kalika asked.

“Yeah. Erika, right? She gave everyone stuff. She’s kinda alright.”

“Jeez. Thank you for telling me.”

“Just doin’ what the boss says ma’am.”

Kalika hurried into the ancillary tunnels and out into the exterior ones.

Hurriedly crossing the labyrinth to make it back to the room where she had left Dimmitra.

She saw yellow light coming from the door. Torchlight. So they were in there.

Kalika rushed into the room, and immediately heaved an exasperated sigh.

“Why are you down here? Do you have something against your own personal safety?”

In the middle of the room, between Dimittra, Chloe and her own bodyguard Olga–

A woman in a red greatcoat and hat, with long, smoke-blue hair down to her waist. Black horns protruding from the back of her head curled up, just a bit more rounded than Kalika’s rectangular horns. When she turned with a gently pink grin on her face and with a flourish of her slender arms, locking her mismatched eyes, blue and green, on Kalika’s own with such confidence. Beneath the coat, she had a skirt with a high waistband and a button-down shirt tucked into it, worn with tights and heels.

Soon as Kalika acknowledged eye contact, she tossed her hair.

And winked one perfectly shadowed eye. Incorrigible, stupid, reckless girl

Erika Kairos, Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the militant communist band Rotfront.

Whose name she recently declared was instead the Nationale Volksarmee.

“I’m staking it all on this, Kalika! I already said so! Hiding away ill befits a leader!”

“Getting killed ill befits a leader too!” Kalika grumbled.

“I’m stronger than that. Don’t worry about me. But now that you’re here, you can be on-hand for tomorrow, if you’re so worried.” Erika crossed her arms, smiling. “I’ve secured us an audience with some real hardcore communists, Kalika– I’ll be meeting with actual Union special operatives!”

Kalika blinked, briefly left speechless. If she heard that correctly– what was going on?


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.

Surviving An Evil Time [10.8]

“It seems hopeless right now, but we are beginning to turn the tide.”

Raul von Drachen reassured his bedraggled-looking intelligence staff, all of whom looked at him with dire expressions before returning to their tasks. Around him, every monitor had some scene of pure chaos. Dozens of dead bodies in failed frontal assaults on B.S.W. dock; some kind of Shimii-related altercation out of Tower Eight that led to tram hijackings and confrontations with the K.P.S.D; all of the concerted ship to ship and diver to diver fighting around the towers themselves which was already inflicting some infrastructure damage; and the continuing presence of armed forces in Kreuzung’s Core Pylon.

It was all darkness and no dawn thus far for them.

He would have described every front of this situation as “fluid.” In the most polite terms.

“Inform the K.P.S.D. that they will suffer retribution from the 7th Fleet if they harm the Shimii from Tower Eight.” Von Drachen told his subordinates. “I am but the messenger and that is my only role, but we have about 10,000 Shimii troops bound for here, and Violet Lehner is very fond of the culture.”

“Sir, the K.P.S.D is voluntarily withdrawing from the southeastern Kreuzung blocks.”

One of the intelligence agents described an unfolding situation–

“It’s probably a coincidence sir, but after the Shimii began their exodus from Tower Eight, a heavily armed group engaged the K.P.S.D lines in the western interstice. They have military grade weapons. K.P.S.D tactical teams are being moved to prevent them from escaping through the southwest main bulkhead. They don’t seem to be trying to stop the Shimii anymore sir. So we may not need to warn them after all.”

How serendipitous! Everything was starting to look up for the Volkisch!

At least, in the long-term strategic lens.

Anything that befell the K.P.S.D. was ultimately good for the Volkisch forces.

They only needed to hang on enough to prevent a total collapse of order in the station.

And only long enough for the rest of the Volkisch’s reinforcements to arrive.

“Interesting. A heavily armed group openly engaging the K.P.S.D?” Von Drachen said.

“There is a Cruiser size ship fighting out of the conveyor belt. It’s very strange.”

Because it was the K.P.S.D’s operational area, the Volkisch did not have good visibility.

Von Drachen would have to review the K.P.S.D. footage after this was all over.

“Why does the K.P.S.D not simply let them go?”

“Sir, I think the K.P.S.D is trying to justify its continued existence at this point.”

“What is your name?”

Raul von Drachen smiled at the female officer, a middle aged woman with beige hair tied into a bun and a very conservative approach to her uniform. She looked up at him bashfully from her chair and took a moment before answering. “Sir? My name is Josephine Reim. I’m– nobody important, sir.” She said.

“You are keen and a hard worker. I will be sure to put in a good word for you.”

“Um. Thank you sir.”

He turned to face the screens again. There was little they could do at Laurentius anymore.

Von Drachen had accomplished his tasks to their bare minimum. That was good enough.

All he could do was observe, with a great unearned pride in his calm inaction.

Now it was all up to Vesna Nasser to sort out the rest, in the waters of the Imbrium.


First and most immediately, she realized she was going much faster than she ever had.

Piloting a machine without battery-saving modes and impositions on fuel usage and parts wastage allowed Homa Baumann the freedom to squeeze every last bit of performance out of the components. As soon as she escaped Kreuzung’s core station and emerged into the waters of the Imbrium Ocean she plunged into an incredibly fast dive, unaware that her peak acceleration and slightly downward angle would carry her so far down so fast. Pulling back on her control sticks, she arrested her momentum quickly, the density of the water helping her to stop completely just above baseplate.

She realized that this machine felt entirely different to pilot than her Volker.

“If I can’t get the hang of this I’ll just get myself killed. I should do an equipment check.”

Homa was never unaware of the danger she was in. Off in the distance, her acoustic sensors passively warned her of the dozens of explosions, some of the largest of which generated shockwaves that carried even as far down as where she stood, gently rolling over the hull of her mech but still perceptible. Her combat computer overlaid large yellow targeting boxes on her screen to show her the estimated direction of targets generating large amounts of noise. Nevertheless, Homa stood still in the water.

Going through her controls, extending her arms, twisting the joints, moving the legs.

Boosting, briefly up and briefly back down.

She made a few adjustments to the control sticks and pedals now that she was in the water.

When it came to movement, she was fairly versed in it. She was also handy with Diver melee weapons.

She hoped it wouldn’t come down to shooting the gun– but she felt ready to do it if needed.

In a few minutes, she mapped the limitations and natural habits of the machine that she could observe from its reaction to her controls. It was heavier than the stripped-down Volker she piloted for old Bertrand, and yet, its range of movements was greater, its arms were more flexible, it could execute pretty tight turns, it could accelerate much more quickly to a higher top speed. She needed to know all of these things if she was going to effectively pilot it up above, where there was an actual battle. Homa had no illusions about winning battles, but at least she could take advantage of the agility she had to avoid danger and make her way to the Eisenhower as Kitty had told her. She could stop all of this.

Sitting back in her chair, breathing in. Sweat-soaked, tear-stained, fatigued, hurting.

Homa had never felt the enclosure of a Diver as much as she did in that moment.

Because Kreuzung had become forbidden to her. She could not go back where she came.

Docking at B.S.W. again was out of the question. And now that she was out here in this machine, she had become more of an enemy to the Volkisch authorities than ever before. Homa could no longer envision going back to Kreuzung. Materially, of course; but even psychologically as well. She had left home and could not turn back, not now. So she only had one direction in which she could go.

And therefore, no safety net. Only the walls of the Delta to keep the water out.

She raised a hand from her left stick briefly and put it to her head, sighing.

“Your longest day isn’t over yet, Homa Baumann. Concentrate. It’s all to play for now.”

She tried to psyche herself up, but there was no humor to be had.

This was the grimmest situation she had ever been in. It was nothing short of nightmarish.

That girlish impulse to make light of things and try to act cool couldn’t make a dent in it.

She saw herself briefly in one of the dark monitors, eyes distant, hair disheveled.

In her mind there was a nasty flashback– to Kitty McRoosevelt’s gory wounds–

Homa cringed. “At least I don’t want to end up like that. Let’s just go!”

Her destination was over a kilometer above.

At the site of the naval battle between the Republic and the Volkisch.

Homa slammed her pedals, pulled her sticks back, and the Delta launched skyward.

Water rushed past her, her main camera faced the endless, dark Imbrium. There was no sign of a sky, she could only tell she was rising because she was close enough to the main tower to see the steel structures on its exterior, the laser router contact points and the gates and bridges and berth doors and other landmarks, descending rapidly past her. Marine fog and tiny animals swept down at her. Held breaths as if any second she would see a change, as if the waters would part to let her through.

On the edge of the screen a flashing red box appeared noting the direction of an attack.

A flurry of shells detonated around Homa, forcing her to cease climbing and turn sharply.

Homa traced the intensifying lines of gunfire to a trio of distant Divers quickly closing in.

Each shell exploded into a shockwave that transferred gently into her body, not enough to rock her Diver individually but since there were dozens of shells the continuous shaking unsettled her. Grazes and near-impacts on her armor chipped away at it, not enough to penetrate, but in aggregate she was taking damage. Homa could not tell the caliber but each vapor bubble resulting from the detonations grew to about the size of her head in an instant before collapsing. Her cameras filled with water vapor from the detonations, over and behind and beside her as she swung a semi-circular turn out of her climb.

When the Divers came closer, Homa saw they were the Volkisch Sturmvolker model.

Volkers were known for their rotund armor that made them almost cartoonish, but the Volkisch Sturmvolkers made away with the bathyspheric chassis. Instead, rectangular plates of light armor were packed tight around the square cockpit, and square shoulders and hip joints were added to attach the arms and legs, the silhouette resembling her stripped down Volker. A new, sleeker, more aggressive head was used instead of the traditional Volker head, with more cameras and some helmet armor, and the whole thing was painted black and armed. Homa had seen them around Kreuzung on patrols and saw them on the news as well. She learned about them from a news program, in fact.

Those were not full-length, high-caliber rifles they were holding, but compact bullpups.

Despite this, the hail of automatic fire they were capable of had Homa on edge.

They had come in guns blazing and were repositioning to give chase as she tried to escape.

The Delta was in surprisingly good condition despite all the gunfire, but she couldn’t underestimate them.

Homa tried to give them a wider berth, using her superior acceleration to speed far around them and hoping to find an opening to continue her climb, but gunfire shadowed every meter that she gained on them. She could accelerate faster than them and had a higher top speed, but they were light and quick themselves, with good aim. The speed difference was not enough for her to simply ignore them.

She grit her teeth, feeling vibrations in her cockpit as the exploding bullets inched closer.

Her hands were both shaken and shaking on her control sticks.

She tried to twist suddenly from horizontal movement to vertical, shooting up–

Quickly aborting and diving away from further gunfire.

“Ugh!”

Those three figures existing in her cameras only as red boxes swerving in the water.

They filled her eyes entirely with the flashing yellow-red blasts of their shells.

Long lines of bubbles cut into the water before the inevitable explosions.

There were so many bullets, and they were beginning to coordinate their shooting.

All of the black lightless water turned to white vapor around her. Shockwaves intensified.

Explosions trailed closer and closer– a direct impact rocked her cockpit–

Her chest tightened. She was giving it everything– and she still couldn’t break free–

And the sky remained barred from her.

Chaos still unfolding; time still ticking–

She had to stop it! She had to!

“I’ve had it. I’ve had it! You asked for this!”

Homa quickly lifted her hands from her control stick and tapped a touchscreen.

On her magnetic strip, the “GA2 30mm Machine Gun” released.

She reached the Delta’s arm behind its back, taking the weapon into one hand. Its stock extended and locked into a slot on the Delta’s arm for stability in one-handed firing. A box-like weapon lock burst from around the barrel into the water around the Delta. An ammunition counter and heat indicator appeared on the weapon status monitor just below her line of sight as the weapon armed.

“I’m not fucking afraid of you!”

One fluid motion; Homa cut the acceleration suddenly and spun the Delta around.

Her gun sight traveled over one of the red boxes as she smashed her triggers down.

In seconds, the XM2 flashed and sent a barrage of dozens of shells slicing across the water.

Two of the Sturmvolker boosted in opposite directions away from the shells, but the unit in the center of the formation caught six high-velocity shells in its midsection, the barrage falling almost squarely on its position. From the distance she was firing Homa could not tell what kind of damage she had done, but the behavior of the unit told her everything she needed. Immediately ceasing movement, it drifted slowly downward and Homa’s flashing red enemy overlay contracted and separated from it to follow the remaining two units, ignoring the stricken one. Homa turned her attention away from it as well.

Her remaining enemies arced away from her in opposite directions, one soaring upward and one spiraling downward as if twin jaws trying to put her in a vice. All the while their guns flashed in the distance and continued to put dozens of tiny blasts near her. Homa tracked them only on her computer with just the faintest visual impression of their actual, physical forms on her various displays.

After firing, Homa charged at full speed while remaining between the two units, swerving from side to side and up and down while carrying as much speed as she could through her corrections.

Unlike them, however, she had the advantage of vastly greater firepower.

Her machine gun had a higher rate of fire, more ammunition and bigger shells.

In the middle of a quick climb to avoid the gunfire from below, Homa flipped the Delta, which had been facing down, such that it was now facing the opponent above while still moving at full speed away from it. On her back, gliding across the water at over 60 knots, Homa aimed for the center of the red overlay box drawn on her monitor, distantly overhead, and squeezed down the trigger for her machine gun.

A few seconds of pressure and her weapon erupted into bursts of dozens of shells.

She could see the lines cut into the water linking her to the target, the rhythmic booming of the detonating shells, the brief and far-off flashes of the ordnance and the water vapor expanding bubbles the size of her whole body. Her face flashed from the gun camera with every burst of gunfire, holding down the triggers and depressing when she felt it was enough. From that section of seemingly empty water that she had turned into a cloud, not a single shell answered her attack.

“One left. One left.”

Keeping the Delta facing skyward, Homa took the machine into a dive.

She twisted in a spiral motion and her enemy climbed in an attempt to go level with her.

Jerking out of the dive, Homa once again cut all speed and stopped with the enemy in sight.

“Get out of my way! You bastards are just making everything worse!”

Homa depressed her triggers–

This time, however, the Volker was within the 60 meters or so where Homa could see it.

It did not change that she ruthlessly opened fire–

But the results were immediately evident.

Firing until the machine gun’s 200 round pack magazine clicked empty and detached.

Watching the Sturmvolker distort under her brutal gunfire.

In that moment, Homa felt like her once-pristine soul had dirtied, the glass edifice of her inner beauty had a crack put it in. Blow after blow from her 30 mm shells, each of which was half the size of her arm and detonated into a blast bigger than herself. Pieces of metal went flying, holes punctured into the cockpit, the limbs of the machine were thrown in every direction, its head smashed to pieces, fading vapor clouds revealing the mangled thing drifting into the dark. A red mix streamed from inside the chest, perhaps lubricants, perhaps blood and gore or both. That violence had been so easy and instant to unleash.

Homa stood with her eyes wide open as the red targeting box vanished.

Breathing deeply, sweat trailing down her nose and lips.

She had killed them. She had killed them all. Fired on them and killed them–

Like they weren’t even human– they were just things in metal bodies– herself too–?

Suddenly another red box flashed at the edges of her vision.

Hitting all of her boosters in a panic, Homa threw herself out of the way–

As a sword sliced past her swung from a sleek, sharp, triangular chassis with a sharp face.

She barely had a moment to think before more bullets came flying in her direction.

Everything shook around Homa as several rounds exploded just off her cockpit.

Gritting her teeth, she slammed the pedals and thrust upward at an angle.

For a split second, she caught the assailant on her cameras, claws, sword, shoulder gun–

Second generation close combat model, Jagd, painted Volkisch black.

That one she had heard about in school– there had been a demonstration–

A roughly triangular, long-armed and short-legged, light and fast killing machine–

School was too distant to think about. It was life or death now.

Within the next breath, the agile Diver had shot up toward sky with her, and with the initiative and better control than the scared Shimii girl the pilot of that vicious machine got within distance again, swiping its vibroblade arm just below her legs. All the while the autocannon on its shoulder dispensed dozens of rounds of a smaller caliber, much like the bullpups that the Volkers had been carrying.

Homa’s armor could withstand the blows but she had already taken several shots and each one of them rattled her brains in her skull and caused her stomach to churn. Her skin brimmed with fear.

Then, with one mighty boost from all of its thrusters, the Jagd suddenly overtook Homa.

Like a predator lunging, pouncing, one shoulder reared overhead, blade coming down.

It was nothing like those bullets– one good swing on the cockpit and she would be dead.

Before she even realized it, Homa had already responded out of sheer instinct.

She withdrew her own melee weapon and instantly swung from behind herself.

The Delta’s vibroaxe engaged with just centimeters between the cutting edge and metal.

Chopping through the enemy’s arm and shoulder, across the cockpit, tearing the pod open.

Froth and gore and metal spilled over all of Homa’s cameras disgorged from the machine.

Resistance from the water arrested the Jagd’s swing, its edge bounced from her shoulder.

Leaving a scratch as the wreck slid back from her, sword buzzing with residual vibration.

Homa hung in the water for a second, watching the Jagd fall away from her sight.

As quickly as it had appeared, lunging out of nowhere’s shadow with naked aggression.

Gone, in a blink. It was a nightmare. It couldn’t be anything but a nightmare.

Everything that she had done, all of the evidence of her violence– it was gone.

They might as well have been phantoms. Attacking from outside her visibility, from outside the thickness of the water that prevented her from seeing farther than out than the length of Kitty’s yacht. Then falling back into it and vanishing. Aside from dissipating bubbles and water vapor, aside from the pits and dents on her armor, there was no evidence that she had enemies– that she killed humans.

“No. Please. No more.”

She was already hearing the familiar alert noise as a red flashing box appeared.

More enemies. Even more enemies–

One enemy.

In the distance, a ship was slowly approaching, sixty meters long.

A conical body with an angled prow and a straight, rectangular conning tower.

Only a few guns across the hull, all of them smaller even than the station defense cannons.

It must have been a Cutter from the patrol fleet, but it was headed right for her.

Had she been out on a gig for Bertrand it would have been a welcome sight, a sign that she was safe and watched over, but she was fighting and killing with the rest of the maniacs involved in this chaos and so she was its enemy, and it was her enemy. Another enemy barring the way up above. Homa almost wanted to stand in place, to be shot and die and disappear with the rest of them, to cease struggling–

On the touchscreen, her shaking fingers selected the “M78 LAW” missile on the backpack.

As soon as it spotted her the Cutter’s double-barreled gas gun opened fire.

Homa launched upward with a lick of solid fuel boost to avoid the attack and launched her missile.

The defensive guns were targeting her, so they failed to shoot down the exceedingly fast projectile.

Arcing out of her backpack and boosting toward the ship, crashing onto the top deck.

Erupting into an explosion unlike any Homa had seen. A vapor bubble the size of the Delta itself tore open the top of the Cutter while the shockwave caused it to bob in the water like a dying fish, rocked by the sheer force. Equipment, tearing armor pieces and unmentionable objects disgorged from the orifice.

The Imbrium’s hungry waters quickly forced their way through the Cutter. Homa watched as its once confident advance toward her came to a halt and its prow tipped toward the seafloor. Runaway pressure damage tore into the interior, nearly split the ship top to bottom as the bulkheads burst from inside out from the pressure. It careened out of sight, crashing into sandy crater below too far away for Homa to hear. On her main screen, the targeting box on the ship remained pinned on it for far too long.

And,

faster than Homa could fear of it

it flashed purple for a moment rather than red.

It was as if the ocean below Homa parted to show her a vision as clear as on land.

Without the veil of darkness she had an impossible, terrifying visibility.

A hideously beautiful, perfect sphere of glowing purple energy lit up the world.

Like the core of some otherworldly weather pattern.

Several alarm sounds, flashing alerts, boxes and overlays warned of the danger.

Homa was entranced, staring down at the approaching purple glow.

Spreading, rising, consuming–

It never got far enough to devour her. Somehow, it ran out of energy with which to hate.

Below her, a circular crater with its walls covered in a hexagonal shaped grid.

Revealed to her for a moment before the water drowned the sight again.

No sign of the ship, not anymore. A runaway agarthicite reaction had annihilated it.

Everything became silent. Homa clutched her necklace. She couldn’t get herself to cry.

“How many people staff a patrol Cutter? It’s like– It’s like sixty or seventy isn’t it?”

In her mind, Homa had killed a hundred– no, hundreds of people. Thousands of them.

Her shoulders and chest shook up. She thought she would vomit right on the controls.

We’re Sorry.

“No.” Homa’s lips trembled. “It’s not you. I– I have to get up there. I have to get up there.”

We Believe In You.

That almost made her weep. Almost. “Thank you. At least I– damn it. Damn it.”

Homa interrupted herself. She had to see this through to end. She had no other choice.

Without any further enemies to stop her, she launched skyward again with renewed haste.

Those words which she had cut off– she had almost said, “At least I know I can fight.”


“Ma’am, the John Brown is out of position! They are moving northeast!”

“God damn it. They’re fleeing– of course we couldn’t count on the fucking convicts.”

The crew held on their stations as a shockwave rolled over the hull of the Republic Cruiser Eisenhower, munitions from the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah detonating haphazardly in the waters around it. A fierce battle had begun over 100 meters above the crown of the Kreuzung Core station, its massive span and the gargantuan crater into which it was set, all forming the backdrop to the fleet’s dizzying exchange of shells and missiles. The Imbrian vessels strafed in a wide circle that prevented the Republicans from scoring direct hits with their static guns, but Republicans had six times as many cannons and rocked the waters around Kreuzung with enormous rolling barrages that shook their enemies’ bridges.

So far, however, they had not managed to slow them down.

Eisenhower was the lead ship of the expedition, and its Captain was decided by democratic vote to be second in command to Kitty McRoosevelt overall, and the overarching decision-maker when it came to fleet combat. But Captain Dianne Smith had little experience guiding entire fleets. As Captain of a Cruiser she was versed in leading her ship’s barrage. She had always taken her orders from others, and now, amid a chaotic situation, she found her focus was narrowed to her ship’s barrage alone, and that she had neglected to give anything but broad orders and communications to the rest.

She had expected the John Brown, largely staffed by the 808th Penal Battalion, to flee.

However, this brought attention to the overall positions of her fleet’s constituent ships.

In chasing the tails of the Greater Imbria and the Mrudah, they were beginning to move out of the range of their mutually supporting flak fire. They would become vulnerable to torpedoes and missiles if they did not regroup, even if some of the smaller ships might have a look at the enemies with their guns. Though it pained her to take the pressure off the Imbrians, she saw no other choice to survive.

“We need to recover our formation! Tell the Frigates to tighten up on us. Send the Divers out to harass the Greater Imbria. That should keep them off our backs until we can regroup!”

Eisenhower and its remaining three attendant Frigates began to reorient, making up for the loss of the escaping John Brown, while their half-dozen S.E.A.L. mecha made up a squadron and sortied, leaving the defensive aquaspace of their motherships. On the Eisenhower’s main screen, a map of the crater with the relative positions of their own Divers was displayed in place of the chaotic predictive imaging. Soon, information on the enemy Diver’s positions was collected and appeared on the screen too.

“The Greater Imbria deployed two Divers, and the Mrudah deployed two additional.”

The Eisenhower’s communications and sonar officers rattled off map updates verbally.

“We have the numbers on them.” Dianne said. “We just have to clinch it.”

Dianne bit the side of her gloved index finger, staring at the main screen.

As if her sheer concentration could change anything. Her heart stirred with anticipation.

Kitty, none of us had any choice, ever since we became trapped here.

All of them had unloaded their responsibilities and culpability on that woman.

And she had gladly taken it all. Even if it was resoundingly unfair. She suffered for them.

They were a fleet of cowards. Dianne could never have deluded herself otherwise.

But they were dangerous cowards. Cowards whom the Imbrians could not treat lightly.

“We’re almost there.” Dianne muttered. “If we get through this–”

“Ma’am! One Diver has broken off from the enemy formation and is headed for us.”

“Intercept it!”

Here’s our chance! Pile on them!

With the advantage of numbers and a haphazard Imbrian formation, they could–

“Ma’am– something’s wrong!”

On the main screen, their Diver squadron had intercepted and surrounded the Imbrian diver.

Its supporting units were hanging back, closer to the Greater Imbria–

In moments, the S.E.A.L.’s positions stopped and became fixed in place.

And the enemy unit continued to move.

“How is it possible? Tell them to destroy that thing!” Dianne cried out.

She turned to her communications officer and the woman turning pale in her seat.

Shaking hands clutched her headphones– staring at her monitor incredulously–

“Pass it through to me!”

Dianne gave the order and donned her own headset, tuning into the Diver’s feeds–

“Agh!! No! I can’t–! I can’t–!”

“We’re going to die–! We’re going to die–!”

“Please spare me! Please– I have a family!”

The Captain was speechless as she heard the cries of her Diver pilots, all of whom fell into a sudden panic, screaming and begging for their lives and crying helplessly without firing a shot at the enemy. They would not respond to being hailed. On the main screen the representations of their Divers, marked by their IFF signal, began to waver and disappear one by one, the audio feeds cutting one after another with horrific atonal feedback noises. In place of each one, the lone Imbrian unit that had moved out of formation moved closer and closer as if sweeping methodically through the S.E.A.Ls killing each unit.

That green and black Diver with heavy armor and winged shoulders–

Its implacable aura of death broke their souls as it marched toward the Eisenhower.


“Finally! Finally!”

Cresting over the top of the Kreuzung Core, the S.E.A.L Delta piloted by Homa Baumann paused to gain its bearing. There was no mistaking the presence of the combatants nearby. Far below, she could feel the heavy ordnance as vibrations, but above Kreuzung, she was struck by a greater force of the shockwaves, carried on disturbed water seeking a surface to crash upon. She quickly found that she had to keep mobile, or risk being shoved into the station’s ceiling. She could see far off flickers in the darkness, the explosions muted by the distance, the ships battling still out of her limited sight.

But the booming and roaring of the detonations felt clear and close.

Homa looked over the ceiling of the Kreuzung Core, a sight she never thought she’d see.

Inside that tower, Homa was confined to the lower levels and for all she knew, the higher ones must have been a gilded and pristine heaven. Looking at it from overhead, it was not so impressive. There were none of those terrifying domes exposing the inhabitants to the Imbrium. Instead the ceiling was an uneven but closed surface. Near Homa’s vantage there were hatches for vertical berths, as a well as a missile launcher that was facing the enemy’s way, but out of power. There were all manner of sensor towers, some with rotund sonar arrays, some with high-powered lasers. In another world Homa had thought of learning how to fix these to continue her education. Becoming a station engineer, helping to keep people safe.

She was maybe twenty meters above it, but she was above Kreuzung, for the first time.

Such dreams felt lofty and distant now.

She only here to prevent further destruction– not to feel sorry for herself.

“Eisenhower– I have to find the Eisenhower. It would be the biggest one, right?”

In the Delta’s imaging computer, there was a profile for an Eisenhower.

Homa made note of the appearance of the vessel. As soon as the Delta had it on camera, Homa would have a green box pointing out the way to go. With a judicious press of her pedals, Homa advanced into the fog of war, following the dim flashes of the detonating shells. Careful not too move too fast so as to not run right into enemies without time to react to them, but also to retain enough speed to respond.

Within moments, several red boxes appeared, overlaid on distant but approaching targets.

There were several models in the fight which she already knew of, Sturmvolkers and Jagds.

There seemed to be some skirmishing in the distance. Homa hoped not to get involved.

She quickly reloaded her machine gun and kept the weapon on hand.

Water rushed past her, and the yellow munition flashes became closer and larger.

Up ahead, in the parting shadow and marine fog, she saw an enormous green hull.

Like a wall of metal taking up much of her vision. Homa stopped– a green box appeared over the ship. It was a Republic frigate. A boxy hull with retractable fins, a square conning tower, thick cylindrical jets tucked between sixteen-section rectangular rear flaps in the stern section. Even as it moved past Homa, all of its guns were blazing, its dozen defensive gun emplacements firing at unseen threats, its prow-mounted cannons periodically unleashing fast barrages of shells.

Homa found it hard to stay near it– it was displacing so much water as it moved.

And there was so much ordnance flying off it that she was scared of being shot.

“Not the Eisenhower. But I better signal, just in case.”

Reaching for a few buttons off to the side of the left stick housing, Homa turned on her emergency signal. She flipped through the preprogrammed channels on her communicator, hoping she could interject in whatever chatter the Republicans had, but everything was encrypted and her Diver wasn’t decrypting it automatically, so she heard nothing but garbled noise. Homa had never worked with the kind of military communications gear that was in this Diver. She was not sure how to communicate with them.

“Hello! Hello! Please come in! Kitty sent me here! I have a recording for you!”

No response when Homa tried to call them– she really wasn’t able to get through.

Was it because they were in the middle of battle?

Or was she doing something wrong? Which dial or knob should she turn?

“Ugh! I’m such an idiot!“

Homa had to hope they would see the Republic distress signal and contact her instead.

“Maybe the Eisenhower specifically– maybe I can get their attention.”

Hoping that the Frigate in front would not shoot her, Homa climbed several dozen meters up, cresting the top of the ship’s boxy hull and dashing over the top deck. To her relief, none of the gas gun emplacements turned to shoot her. As she crossed over it, however, there was an enormous explosion off the port side of its prow section, and this time, Homa nearly lost control of the Delta.

An immense wave of water poured over the top deck of the Frigate as a munition struck.

Homa rocked in her seat, slamming her shoulder into the side.

She nearly tumbled from the force, expending solid fuel to correct with gritted teeth.

Her toes curled, her fingers gripped the horizontal sticks with all the force she could muster, fearing that they would get pried off their mounts on the sides of the pilot’s seat. Such was the force of the tremor.

Rushing up and away from the ship, she looked at the underside cameras.

Catching a glimpse of the Frigate beginning to sink beneath her.

It would not crash into the Kreuzung tower, thankfully, but this was so dangerous!

If it annihilated like the Cutter that Homa sank–

“Where the hell is the Eisenhower?”

Homa found herself among several enormous, vague shadows each of which floated at the edge of her vision. She saw the gargantuan hulls, each over a dozen times larger than her mecha. All of the hulls had a dozen or more points all along their surface that shone brief in quick bursts, flashing muzzles, sailing comets with tails of vapor, painting distant suns in the darkness. Within these unceasing, incandescent barrages of cannon shells, Homa felt smaller than a single LED in the endless shadows of the Imbrium.

In the dim cockpit her face lit up again and again, every second, with flashes of gunfire.

Rumbling and roaring and crashing noises pounded into her ears through the hydrophones.

She felt as if every single piece of ordnance shaking her cockpit was touching her gut.

For a moment she stood transfixed at the scene of titanic, brutal war before her eyes.

Giants armored in billion times her weight of metal, causing detonations that could vaporize her a hundred times a minute, inexorably moving through the water in such a way that the waves which rolled off them slammed and shook Homa’s armor. Pure engines of destruction. The Delta was big and strong, and she could fight while clad in it, but this was another level of magnitude altogether. There were only three or four ships fighting in this group, and just that was already dwarfing her with its scale.

She recalled Majida al-Khaybari’s words when she told Homa she could not stop this.

At that moment, Homa sucked in a nervous breath.

And as she exhaled, green targeting boxes marked all of the ships as friendly.

One flashed, dead ahead.

Homa immediately slammed the pedals and the Delta thrust headlong toward it.

“The Eisenhower! I found it!”

Amid the three other shadows, there was one vessel half a length longer than the rest.

The flagship, Eisenhower, with the most flashing red guns and searing white projectiles.

Filled with renewed hope, Homa rushed closer, heedless of the gunfire blazing before her.

Climbing over the vast, broad deck of the ship, avoiding the gas gun emplacements.

“How do I broadcast Kitty’s message to them? Come on, one of these systems has to–?”

Homa reached out to the communicator when her face lit up red.

Warning overlay box–

Split into eight–

“No! Oh no!”

Jerking back the control sticks–

Half-second breath held slamming the boost–

Fire, buffeting blasts one after the other–

Barely escaping, hurled from the deck by the sheer scale of the attack.

Within an instant, eight missiles crashed in brutal succession over the Eisenhower’s deck.

Punching a vertical line of craters along the top of the hull that compounded into a runaway fissure from prow to conning tower. Through explosive decompression and flooding the hull was almost split vertically in half. Disgorging massive plumes of gas bubbles, thousands of unmentionable shreds of metal and ripped apart bits of electronic gear, whole rooms and sections peeled like the guts of a deboned beast. Red foaming masses of human interstice within the ship’s effluvia, death, hundreds of deaths rendered impossible to prize apart from one another in the killing mass. Abstracted and turned brutally symbolic.

Absorbed as if into the Imbrium itself. The Eisenhower was gone, destroyed, in a blink.

“No. No way. No, no no no– NO– NO WAY– NO WAY–!”

That helpless Shimii in the stranded Diver slammed her controls, her fists turning red.

“Please no, please. They can’t all be dead– they can’t all be dead–”

She was not being rational. She had not been acting rationally for a very long time.

This was not something that she knew. It was not something someone could know.

When an idea became too big in her head, of course, it sounded the most necessary.

Not rational– necessary. It was necessary, for Homa to “stop this.” It was necessary.

Necessary to stop hiding, to stop running, to stop being manipulated, to take control.

And to confront it, to confront the looming thing and climb on it from the ankles up.

Homa had been used too much. She had felt too much dread, seen too much pain.

In such a state, it was necessary to fight. It was necessary to take control of her life.

Nobody else was trying to stop the tragedy, to stop the killing, to stem the blood.

Why? Why was it only she? And why– why did it end like this? Why did she fail?

“The Volkisch. They killed them all. They let all this happen so they could kill them all.”

Homa’s exhausted, panicking, self-hating, and fundamentally innocent mind, too distracted with punishing herself for her naivety, had never considered the idea that the Volkisch, through the sheer brutal violence of which they were capable of, would ultimately put an end to the battle themselves.

That they could take all the lives that were left to be taken, kill everyone that she had wished to save, and conclude tragedy with tragedy. She had been so focused on turning back the Republic assault, on “stopping Kitty,” on finding a peaceful means through which to reverse all of the violence– that she had simplified the presence of the Volkisch in her mind. But now they loomed larger than ever. Homa had failed to stop the fighting; they had succeeded in crushing all of their opposition through force of arms.

“I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid and helpless and useless and worthless.”

Punching her controls between every word. She was already in pain. She barely felt the strikes.

Floating among the debris of the Republic fleet in an Ocean that was suddenly silent and still.

Perhaps she could have saved them if she had been here sooner, been more skilled.

If she had gone to the authorities about Kitty when Imani would not do so.

Maybe if she could have done something about Radu and had secured Majida’s help.

And if she had been stronger. Someone stronger. Someone not Homa Baumann.

“What am I supposed to do?” Homa whimpered. Her strength had begun fading.

Without the adrenaline, she was just–

DANGER!

A burst of arms fire detonated around the Delta’s flank, rocking Homa in her cockpit.

It was a high enough caliber to cause damage and tore a piece off the flank armor.

“Please stop! Please! I surrender!”

Shameful words that she immediately hated saying escaped her lips before she could think.

Her hand shot reflexively to the communicator, slamming the broadcast button.

Jaw clenched, eyes finally finding tears again.

“Please. My name is Homa Baumann. I’m from Kreuzung. Please don’t kill me.”

She would go back. She would go back to Kreuzung clapped in chains.

Anything not to die. Anything to be lost in a million pieces in this cold cruel ocean–

“Remain where you are. If you lift your weapon, your life is forfeit.”

There was a voice responding, a woman’s voice. A slight accent– a familiar type.

In a moment, the Delta flashed a red overly off to the left side, and Homa turned to face it.

Her machine gun was still firmly grasped in her hand, but it was pointed below her.

Rapidly approaching, a Diver, green and black, fearsome, large and rugged.

Sporting the same symbols as Imani’s armbands, a black sun, a sword and a moon.

It had a broad chest which sloped from the center, like a rough, angular cone. Two thick shoulders bore a pair of missile racks which it discarded on its approach, as both were empty and dragging. Multiple hydrojets provided a lot of thrust for the bulky frame, with thick, armored arms and legs and a square backpack. Its head had a number of sensors arrayed around it that resembled a crown. Behind its back, the array of jets and control flaps looked almost like an abstract pair of wings.

Homa had never seen this model before. It was no wonder the Republicans had lost.

That machine approached and stopped within fifty meters of Homa. Terrifyingly visible.

“You say you are a civilian? What are you doing out here?” Asked the woman pilot.

“I– I panicked and stole this unit! I wanted to escape the station!” Homa replied.

“You are a terrible liar. But very well. It’s useless to interrogate you here. I’ll take you back.”

“Who are you?” Homa asked. “Are you with the Volkisch Movement?”

Head pounding, voice feeble, breath ragged. The wind had been knocked out of her.

It was all finished–

“Correct. I’m a Volkisch Standartenführer. My name is Vesna Nasser. So, drop your weapons–”

Homa’s eyes shot wide open.

Her head cleared like an explosion had sucked all the brain fog into its flames.

Fingers trembling, hands shaking, feet tapping on her pedals.

Brimming from the back of her neck, down her spine, into her hips.

Vesna Nasser.

Vesna Nasser!

Homa’s brain filled with weeping faces and grief-filled words–

Leija–

Imani–

Kitty–

So much suffering– so many people she had come to care about–

so many more innocents unspoken for that had been hurt–

“VESNA NASSER!”

The Delta lifted its arm while simultaneously boosting backward with all available thrust.

Homa crushing down the triggers as if she could squeeze more bullets from the gun.

With a roar the machine gun sent a chaotic burst of shells hurtling into Vesna Nasser.

Her machine lunged forward and arced up, an immediate response.

Absorbing a few shells but rising out of the way of the attack. She was fast!

“You’re not getting away! This is all your fault! I’m going to– I’m going to–!”

Homa pulled up the machine gun in the midst of firing, sending line after line of burning red trails chasing after Nasser’s wake, her machine rising, circling overhead, fast for its bulk. In her fury Homa turned with the machine but could never put rounds anywhere closer than around the feet, watching with frustration as the Vesna Nasser weaved overhead always a step in front of a long tail of vapor bubbles and yellow splashes of fire. In the midst of her attack, however, she realized an idea–

Suddenly, she boosted aside while firing the gun, leading the shots ahead of Nasser–

“DIE!“

One final onslaught from the machine gun before it clicked empty.

A storm of a dozen machine gun shells hurtling into the center of the enemy.

Nasser shot straight down into them, straight down at her.

Several shells crashed into her Diver’s shoulders and chest. Pits, cracks, dents–

Out of each explosion, the diving, rapidly accelerating machine came out undaunted.

Homa’s panicked reflex was to fire her remaining missile, but was it too close–?

Would she survive the explosion–?

Killing people is no joke–

Homa had killed– She could die for this–

I want to live

Her own pathetic voice in her own mind.

Homa’s hand froze on the missile trigger and retracted, wasting precious time.

“Damn it. Damn it!”

Vesna Nasser bore down on her, suddenly swinging an unfolded and active vibro-halberd.

The Delta’s hand came out from behind its back with an engaged vibro-axe.

Edge met edge, clashing in the water and spreading vapor and short-lived sparks.

Nasser swung her weapon with furious alacrity. Homa gave everything she had to match.

Two Divers in the middle of a cloud of water vapor and drifting metallic debris, blow after blow.

Their cutting edges smashed and blocked and parried in a vicious brawl–

Homa felt feedback from the arm transfer into the side of her cockpit. Harder each time.

She was being pushed back!

For a brief second, she lifted a hand off a control stick and grabbed hold of her necklace.

“I’ll give it everything. I’ll make you pay!”

As soon as her hand grabbed hold of her sticks again, she pushed both forward.

Hit both pedals, engaged all thrusters.

The Delta surged into a wild swing and caught the Halberd under its edge, pinning the weapon.

Slamming suddenly against Nasser’s Diver, the two of them grappling, grinding metal on metal.

Weapons up against their chests, sparks flying between them as the oscillators gnawed.

A contest of pure durability as their weapons and mechs wore each other to pieces–

You’re too weak, little-tail.

That voice did not belong to the “little guy in Homa’s necklace” that she fantasized about.

Too cruel, too cold–

It was Nasser’s voice– but she was hearing it in her head.

Homa was certain it was not the communicator. Nasser was speaking to her, to her mind.

Then,

the Delta suddenly pushed back, just enough to give Nasser room to swing.

Weapon rearing up, while Homa’s axe was to her chest, not even in a guard stance.

Homa had not moved it– and Nasser’s mech had not shoved more strongly than before–

How did she get knocked off-balance–?!

You never understood the difference between us.

Time seemed to suddenly stop for Homa.

She felt as if she was suspended, not in metal, but out in the ocean.

Standing across from the tall blond Shimii woman sneering at her in her pilot’s suit.

Homa had the vibroaxe in hand, in her own hands, holding it, feeling its heft somehow.

Nasser, too, had her Diver’s weapon in her real, physical hands, wielding it with ease.

But Homa couldn’t move properly. She was trapped in the instant of their collission.

Between them, hateful red color like a cloud consumed the entire ocean.

“I can feel the anger you have for me. I can see it. You want revenge.”

Nasser’s lips moved and Homa could hear her voice as if standing across from her.

Homa was furious, full of violence, full of dark desire, but–

She couldn’t find the strength to attack again.

In that instant, in this strange space in which she and Nasser were personified–

Nasser was a colossus. She had an overwhelming presence.

Homa’s sputtering wrath was like a candle-fire to Nasser’s volcanic aggression.

She felt like she was choking under the withering hatred of that woman’s gaze.

“You have spirit, but you lack a key element to challenge a King’s power, Homa Baumann. It is not enough to have virtuous words, a cause to fight for or even fighting spirit. A King must have domain over life and death. The power to kill. Not just fight; kill. I will show you the gulf between us, little tail.”

Around Vesna Nasser that nakedly aggressive red color turned immediately, starkly black.

Like the snuffing out of a light, an instantaneous smothering darkness.

Radiating from around Nasser and consuming all of Homa’s surroundings.

Her pitiful little red color was invisible in the pitch black sea.

Homa’s heart sank, her hands trembled, her legs shook. Her head felt empty and airy.

It felt like when Radu reached out his hand to her.

All of her rebellion, all of her emotion, all of her hope and vigor drained from her.

DANGER DANGER DANGER!

That pitiable little voice blared its premonitions on deaf ears.

Despite the urgency of the threat, Homa could hardly make herself move to respond.

Something was squeezing the strength of action from her, and she could only watch.

Vesna Nasser raised her halberd overhead, its edge lacquered in the same deathly black color..

In that instant she was both the woman and the machine, just as Homa was both.

Swinging from shoulder down with all of her strength and killing intention.

And,

as if through the clad metal protecting her

the black killing wave swept through

Homa Baumann

spraying out the weak red from her

causing immediate unfeeling

King’s Scorn.”

Homa’s held-up vibroaxe clashed with Nasser’s halberd to no effect.

Though the Delta’s weapon and the Muawiya’s collided out in the Imbrium Ocean–

An invisible violence directed the blow through the armor and right into Homa.

One brutal slash of furious black color running in a steep diagonal across her.

For an instant, she felt hot and crushing pain as if being hurled against a wall.

Then came the numbness–

Chills, the distortion of her vision, dissociation of her thoughts from her body.

Breaths escaped that couldn’t be caught. Smothering dark covered the edges of her vision.

Losing power over her limbs, releasing the Delta’s controls, spiraling into a descent.

Drifting, down like the debris of the sinking ships, down below the bottom of everything.

I’m going to sink and disappear. Just like the people I– I killed–

With her final strength, she lifted a hand, and it tore from her body, unable to reach anyone.

Vesnar Nasser was growing farther and farther out of that severed grasp.

The gulf between them had become as far as heaven and earth.


UNJUST DEPTHS

ANTHOLOGY II: WELTGEIST

You can unearth history while struggling alone.

But you will never change history on your own.


With the sinking of the Eisenhower, the Republican fleet’s dim and distant hopes of occupying the Kreuzung stations came to an end. The Greater Imbria and Mrudah along with the arriving Aleksandr quickly eliminated the remaining Republican forces. The Republic’s troopship surrendered, thousands of marines packed inside like sardines now becoming prisoner. The Volkisch’s assault troops sent another wave of suicide drones into B.S.W. and found no further resistance within. Republican ringleader Kitty McRoosevelt had taken her own life after being horrifically, fatally maimed by a Volkisch attack.

Inside the Core Pylon, the Alayzean special operations group was surrounded.

Once the fate of their comrades was made known to them, it shook their will to fight. A negotiator successfully argued for the release of the core technicians, but the exchange was a ruse to get the shooters to lower their guard. Volkisch troops attacked from all directions with vibroblades and riot shields, pressing the shooters in with their phalanx and practically hacking them to pieces. Standing atop blood and haphazard corpses, the traumatized technicians were made to resume their work. Within minutes of subduing the Cogitans, Kreuzung’s separated Core was again rejoined.

Power returned to Kreuzung and its outlying towers, making its way module to module, block by block. After about fifteen minutes the overwhelming majority of the station was back to normal functioning.

Civil authorities began to sound an “all clear” but extended the curfew as a precaution.

Throughout the station, the Volkisch took over for the battered K.P.S.D in leading the confused masses back to the status quo. With honeyed declarations they allayed civilian fears, playing up their own role in averting tragedy and defending the National Proletariat from a horrific threat. Investigations would be called, said the Volkisch press office, into the grotesque negligence and incompetence of the station authorities. They praised the great heroes of the nation who stood stalwart in the darkest hour.

Within hours, the Republic vessels over Kreuzung had been replaced by over 100 arriving ships bearing the “black sun” and “sword with moon” symbols of the 7th Fleet of the political troops of the Volkisch, the Stabswache. A particularly ethnic Fleet, it was uniquely made up largely of Shimii, exclusively Rashidun Shimii of Brennic and Diriyan descent, as well as a small regiment of Khedivate Loup who subscribed to Rashidist religious ritual despite their race. Collectively, these forces were referred to as the Zabaniyah— beasts that meted out the punishments of hell to those damned to the eternal fire.

Over the course of their disembarking, it was evident that they had been carried on a wind that would alter Kreuzung’s destiny. Thousands of Shimii in black uniforms and fascist armbands with assault rifles and anxious looks replaced the K.P.S.D. policemen on the streets. Block by block, module by module, they advanced, and the remaining Kreuzung police or guards stood aside, helpless to stop the march. In the Administration Block near the top of the Kreuzung tower, the old Governor remained silent. Those ranks of cat-like ears and tails in their black uniforms were slowly and steadily coming to greet him.

It was not for nothing that these once-repressed people were now part of the Volkisch.

There was talk of Tower Eight Shimii being allowed to live within the Core for the first time.

Talk of ending segregation in Kreuzung and of greater Shimii participation in the government.

And with these incentives, talk of getting the young and vibrant Shimii of Eisental to join the Volkisch Movement and become heroes of not just their own Volk, but of the National Proletariat as a whole.

Bolstering the Volkisch ranks at a time when they needed the assistance most.

Amid the commotion and the beginnings of change, the Ritter-class Cruiser Aleksandr docked into Kreuzung’s main seaport. While at the head of the Volkisch reinforcements, it had to wait a few hours before the troops disembarked and secured positions, before it could touch down on its new domain.

In front of the bulkhead to the Aleksandr’s offboarding chute, a tall woman in black uniform waited, her long, bushy tail swaying casually behind her. Long, honey-blond hair and tall ears trimmed of fluff, lightly tanned skin. Sharp and arresting facial features, exotic and photogenic. Athletic in build and somewhat boyish in her stance and expression, but for this occasion, made up in lipstick and pigments, wearing a pencil skirt and female dress coat with her military decorations. Arms crossed beneath her bust.

She had just gotten off a brutal battle where she killed hundreds of people.

But she cleaned up exceptionally well into the clothes and refinement befitting an adjutant.

Her eyes lifted from her feet when the bulkhead in front of her finally opened.

Unveiling the woman to whom, despite everything, she owed her own allegiance.

Flanked by a pair of armored Shimii, a shorter, distinctly Imbrian woman stepped into Kreuzung, slender with a soft face. Her hair was mostly dyed light blue but had a wide band of light pink, including some of her bangs and the hair covering her right ear and down the back. Her schirmmütze cap was decorated with silver cat ears, and she had one earring which boasted a flag-shaped decoration with the same bands of pink and light blue that dyed her hair. Her black uniform and cape was even more lavish than that of her surbodinates, heavily trimmed in gold. Upon meeting her counterpart, she eyed her figure closely; and the Shimii, so observed, seemed to allow the open lechery with a certain subdued glee.

“You’re looking fine as ever.” Said Oberführer Violet Lehner, grinning vigorously.

Across from her, the Shimii woman adjusted her glasses with a similarly gleeful expression.

“Have I ever looked less than perfect at your side, milady?” replied Standartenführer Vesna Nasser.


In the Old Iron block the water had begun to recede as the pumps regained power with the rejoining of the station’s Core. The level of flooding went down from waist deep back to ankle deep. Without repairs it would remain at this level, but for now, the threat of flooding the entire block was staved off. Aside from a few unlucky souls and a few corpses, there was no one on the streets.

No one except a little drone, the size and shape of a silver, hairless metal cat.

Walking with elegant strokes of its legs, despite the difficulty presented by the water.

Ankle-deep water was still half the cat-drone’s body, so it was a bit encumbered.

Nevertheless, it made its way up the street, and turned into the knocked-down door of a bar once renowned by the name “Majestic-12.” Its final days had come and gone, and its revival as a hub of conspiracy was quite short-lived. Now corpses were all that was left, corpses hours fresh but rendered quickly chill and gray by the cold saltwater washing in. Dead katarrans and–

–one unconscious girl, the contents of her heart kept closely guarded and unknowable.

It was the first thing she mastered when she studied psionics. She did it even in her sleep.

Navigating around the remains, the cat drone approached the sleeping Imani Hadžić.

Stopped, seated on its rear legs. Its tail extended around its body.

Attaching to her neck and delivering a drug to reverse her anesthetized state.

Within minutes, Imani’s eyes opened, and she stared, incredulously, at her surroundings.

“Master Hudson?” She looked down at the robotic cat.

From the cat’s neck a speaker responded in a tinny voice. “As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her situation slowly dawned on her. Imani rose to her feet.

Immediately, she felt her shirt and belt lighter than before. Her gun was missing.

“Homa.”

Imani’s fingers reached up to her lips. She started to make for the door–

“Time has passed. I’m sorry to say.” Hudson said. “All of the fighting is done.”

Nearly to the door, Imani paused. She reached out her trembling hand behind herself.

Showing Hudson the remnants of a powerful emotion. Dancing colors on her fingers.

An emotion that another woman had given her, and which had remained on her kissed lips.

Shaking its head, the drone’s unmoving steel face confirmed the worst.

“That aura– I’m afraid you won’t find it here anymore. Did she mean a lot to you?”

Imani did not turn back. Did not show her expression to the drone. Revealed nothing to it.

She ran out, as fast as her legs could carry her, and as far away, as if from misery itself.


Leija Kladuša ran as far as her legs could carry her back to Homa Baumann’s room.

I never found her! Majida never came back! What happened?

Once the Core had been linked, reversing the Core Separation, a group of Volkisch Shimii presumably under Imani Hadžić’s command had informed the civilian Shimii in the Kreuzung Core to return to Tower Eight and that they would receive emergency supplies soon, and more news in the coming days. These soldiers took over the manning of the checkpoints. Leija had been informed that her presence would be called to discuss the incident with the Shimii’s commander, again presumably Hadžić, but–

she did not care! All of her business with Kreuzung could collapse and she wouldn’t care!

Her heart heavy with regret, all she cared about in that moment was Homa.

Even after everything I’ve done to her. How could I have been so stupid? How?

Homa who had taken care of her drunk, worthless self even when she was just a child.

Homa who had helped her with her despicable affairs as an obedient young adult.

And now–

Homa who had given her worthless self a bed again, without cruelty or unkindness–

I failed her again and again and again! But she never turned me down! She followed my every word!

That poor girl, she terrorized her, she hit her, she got drunk at her, she swore at her–

Homa had never abandoned her. No matter how much she deserved it. Until– until now–

Elbowing past the people crowding back into the hall, rushing down to the door.

“Homa! Please! Are you back? Please tell me you got back safely! Please!”

Some part of her was prepared to find an empty room. To simply– to simply not know.

Instead, inside the room–

“Leija– I couldn’t protect her. I am sorry.”

Seated on the bed was a man in armor. His cloak burned and shredded. His chestplate burst inward and bloody. His legs shaking in heavy graves sliced and dented. His gauntlets cracked. His cat-like mask was broken, exposing one grey ear, singed gray hair, and a quarter of a face partially scarred by a patch of hexagon-gridded burned flesh, red-purple squeezing a mournful green eye.

Leija brought her hands up to her mouth.

“What do you mean? What do you mean sorry?”

She rushed to the bed and slammed her fists into the man’s armor.

“What do you mean you’re sorry? What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”

Radu the Marzban had no response.

He embraced Leija as she struck him repeatedly.

She beat him until her hands were bloody, until she had no voice, until her strength faded.

“Homa–! Homa–! Please– No–”

All she could do was cry and all he could do was bear it.


“Right this way! Right this way! She’s waiting for us! Make way, make way!”

In a sing-song voice, Katarran mercenary Xenia Laskaris escorted a young Shimii woman carrying several cases through partially flooded rooms below the baseplate of Kreuzung Core. While all eyes were focusing on the Core Pylon, the Administrative District in A-block near Tower One and the Shimii in Tower Eight, the baseplate was completely unguarded. In fact, Xenia had learned a juicy tip from a broker– the cameras to the baseplate sectors had all been shut off. Zero security down there, all day long.

“Making good money and getting out of this dump? I couldn’t ask for a better windfall.”

“Glad you’re feeling chipper, but she better be whole and hale, or you’re leaving in a box.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Calm down! She’s alive! That one’s the toughest Katarran I’ve ever seen!”

“She’s not a Katarran, she’s a Shimii. So you better have the right person, you glib crab.”

“Then she’s the toughest Shimii I’ve ever seen. Please just relax– I’m a professional.”

Xenia opened a door and bowed with a little smile, allowing Raaya Al-Shahouh through.

Raaya gasped as soon as the light from the corridor entered the dark room.

Huddled in front of an elevator into the old Kreuzung mines, was Majida al-Khaybari.

Collapsed on the floor, panting. Her chestplate’s ceramic layers were smashed, the armor still held together only because of the nanofiber chain-links that ran through it. Her face and hair were red and brown with caked blood, her arms limp at her side, her breathing heavy. Her tail had been cut in half, as had been her cartilaginous, fin-like ear. Only her Katarran armor was still intact.

When Raaya gasped, Majida looked up from her seeming stupor and smiled weakly.

“Don’t worry. It’ll all grow back.” She said, coughing, hacking up a bit of red phleghm.

“Majida! Majida!”

Raaya ran to the other side of the room, dove to the floor and grabbed hold of Majida.

Weeping profusely into the injured woman’s shoulder, holding her, screaming with agony.

Majida weakly ran a hand, heavy in its Katarran greaves, over Raaya’s hair.

“Ahh, so much love! Do not worry! Your nightmare is over! I’ll get you two back home!”

Xenia Laskaris gave the miserable couple a thumbs-up from the door.

“You might have to carry me.” Majida said, her voice rough and weak.

“Don’t worry boss! From the look of you, I expected that!” Xenia said cheerfully.

“Raaya, I’m really sorry.” Majida said. “I– I couldn’t even save the kid–”

“Idiot! You big idiot! You could’ve– You–” Raaya cried, continuing to embrace Majida.

Majida embraced her back as strongly as she could in her weak state, crying together.

They had gotten through this, but to Majida, it felt like the prelude to weather far worse.


Everything felt cold; numbingly, miserably cold.

Up above the white sky was completely covered in the branches of the great silver trees. They whispered among themselves with great worry, praying for the girl’s health. Trails of colors flew like paper streamers between the trunks, curling around branches and delving phantom-like into the great bodies. When the colors touched one tree to the next she could almost hear a sound echo distant and hushed.

“We just keep running into each other, huh.”

Someone knelt beside the body of the girl, on the pale muddy earth. A girlish face with red hair, eyes yellow on black. loomed over her and stared sideways down at her. A single black horn curled from the side of her head, and two smaller ones rose from her forehead, splitting her long bangs. She was pale, bloodlessly pale, and wore an ornate robe, closely fitted to her lean frame, with sleeves and a hem that both looked like streamers of greyed skin peeled from some creature. Over her shoulders and around her neck was a loosely tied string of crumbly, fleshy silverskinned fruits, like dry grey figs.

On that pale, beautiful face, thin lips spread into a monstrous grin full of sharp teeth.

She, the girl, the body who was being observed, could not move. She was as if suspended atop a pool.

Cold; paralyzingly cold. So cold there was nothing– not even a name in her.

“You are loved by them. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that is special– they love all of you Hominins. They can’t help it. It’s ancient history.” For a moment, the woman’s grin became a little smaller. Her eyes scanned curiously across the body. “But you can hear them. And that is indeed special. So you may yet earn yourself praise that the rest of your species hardly deserves.” Mockingly, she clapped her hands together slowly. “Congratulations. You have become a witness to the Great Silver Trees.”

Still clapping her hands, she sat, cross-legged, beside her.

Her gaze filled with the woman, whose enormous twice-split tail curled behind her.

“I am the God of this world, little Hominin. I am the Omenseer lord, Arbitrator II.”

Arbitrator II stared at her. She ceased to clap. When her hand outstretched, colors from the trees snaked around her. It was as if she was opening herself up to be bathed in them, as if the colors were delighted to come to her body and dance around it. Arbitrator II seemed to enjoy it. Some of the colors wafted up from her like vapors from hot water and washed over the girl, the body, wrapping her in fog.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes. Ali, I believe. Ali Ibn al-Wahran. An auspicious name. I know for a fact that meetings like this do not happen by coincidence. While I despise your kind, Hominins have ecological reasons to exist in my new world– albeit, maybe not in such numbers or such forms as you do now. There are many who would slander me, but I am merciful. I do not wish to strictly repeat ancient history. After all, for whatever reason, I could not win back then.”

For a moment, Arbitrator II stared at the body as if carefully examining her.

Then she stood, and walked to the body’s side, bending over her from a standing position.

“Out of my boundless mercy, I will grant you a boon. May it stir the course of things.“

Her pale hand grabbed hold of the body’s head and covered her face, transferring the colors.

She squeezed. Muffled screams as if from a sewn mouth. It hurt– oh God it hurt!

It was if Arbitrator II was trying to squeeze the brain out of the skull–

–yet it was also as if the pressure was not being applied by the physical force of her hand.

An unmoving body writhed beneath the touch of that hand, its soul screaming for release.

Then, instantly, the pain ceased as the hand retracted, and the colors retracted with her.

Over and behind Arbitrator II the colors spread, growing more intense, all-encompassing.

“I completed what you possessed. You can have your people’s Omensight— if you desire.”

That hand which had seized upon her face moved down to one of her cold, immobile limbs.

“Now, you won’t be needing this anymore. So in exchange, I will dispose of it.”

Without a sound Arbitrator II split her arm off above the elbow as if it was already severed.

Her vision swam as she saw the creature holding her jaggedly cut, bleeding limb.

And taking– hungry bites from the sheared flesh– sucking blood and marrow from bone–

Licking her bloody lips with an expression of euphoria.

“You’re delicious. I want more. I understand the omens here now. Seek me out Hominin– I’ll taste your blood and talk about the past. I feel like reminiscing. Hmm– but such a meeting requires a sacrifice worthy of the ceremony of it all. After all, Ali Ibn al-Wahran took a lot from me, and I do still hold a grudge. Tell you what– it’s not like you’ll be needing this either, young Great Tree Ascetic. I will take the price entirely in flesh and call the grudge settled. Descend into the Agartha and I will welcome you.”

Arbitrator II’s hand traced down the body to the leg opposite the taken arm.

Just as easily, she tore the leg off. Holding it like a fresh-caught fish by a gory tail.

Taking a loving red bite from the blue-tan dead flesh of the leg’s severed knee, savoring it.

The body screamed with all of her might, but her mouth made only muffled, weak noise.

She thrashed and thrashed but the brutalized body amid the trees only barely shuddered.

She could not move. She could not flee, could not fight, as she watched her flesh eaten.

“Tell everyone far and wide of my mercy– and do not squander what I have given you.”

Arbitrator II’s mouth then opened farther than should have been humanly possible.

Stuffing the remains of the plucked limbs down her throat like a snake swallowing an egg.

Savoring the taste of human flesh with unrestrained glee even as the trees watched her.

The colors became fog and overwhelmed all the body’s already fragile senses, in her panic.

Her sense of self had never been so shaken as now– she was made unwhole in spirit.

Was her body– already unwhole–? Had her limbs– already been severed–?

“Now: away with you.” Arbitrator II put her hand over the body’s eyes and made the world dark.


“Oh my god– she’s critical– so much blood–”

Distorted visions, like viewing a cracked screen with broken audio.

“Get me– she needs– stat!”

Metal walls, facsimiles of faces, hands, hands coming down on her.

“We’re cutting–”

Hands, thousands of hands touching every part of her, squeezing hands, sawing hands.

All of the hands of all the people she killed dragging her down.

Horrible faces climbing over her body and gnawing at her.

Teeth tearing muscle and bone. An imperceptible instant of the worst imaginable pain.

“It’s the only way–”

She bolted upright, gasping for breath.

Sweaty, breathing heavy, but her body did not hurt. She was not restrained, not sinking.

Her chest pounded. Her eyes darted around.

Nobody was attacking her.

Snapping in a blink from darkness to light was disorienting. She found herself in a plain-walled room. She had been laid on a bed, with soft gel pillows and a warm mattress, blankets. There was a line of other beds, all of which were empty. There was a table next to her bed, on wheels, covered by a blanket. There was a faint chemical smell, but the atmosphere did not feel hostile or uncomfortable.

Once comprehension finally came to her she realized she wasn’t alone.

There was a blond woman on nearby chair. Hair tied into a ponytail. Lipstick and makeup, a soft expression, handsome, beautiful. Button-down shirt, teal jacket starting to fall off her strong shoulders, a black pencil skirt and black tights. She had her hands on her lap, watching with eyes partially averted, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting with a lock of hair. She felt familiar somehow– and safe.

On the other side of the bed was a long-limbed, lithe woman, long hair wrapped in a messy bun behind her head. Dyed a few different shades of blue, with tidy bangs up front. She was dressed in a white coat over the same type of shirt and skirt as the blond woman. She had painted pink lips and a gentle expression and looked over with sympathy in her eyes. She had a badge on her coat, with a multi-pronged blue star with an internal red cross– she must have been a doctor, and this place a hospital.

“How are you feeling dear? Any pain?” asked the doctor.

“I– Where–?”

She paused.

She could not feel her hand. Not like before.

When she tried to clutch the blankets. Her fingers weren’t moving like she was used to.

A shiver of cold fear ran down her spine.

She slowly lifted her right arm.

All the while moving the hand that she no longer possessed.

In its place, there was a mechanical ring, like a coupler made of metal, attached to the remains of her elbow. Under a band of aggravated red skin fused to the carbon-fiber connective layer in the machine, ran cables, inside her, visible along with her sinews. When she tried to move her hand, the physical feeling of moving her hand ran through the arm phantom-like, and instead, the ring coupler moved, and tiny electromechanical elements inside of it whirred and poked out of holes in the contraption–

“I’m sorry. We couldn’t save the limbs. We have prosthetics ready. I promise that your quality of life–”

Homa Baumann suddenly broke down, first into sobs, and then into full-throated screams.

She was alive.

And in that horrible instant she was convinced that she should have died, and unsure how to keep living.

All she could do was hold her head with her severed hand and scream until it drowned out the mourning.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.5]

For a few minutes, Homa drifted in reverent silence through the open ocean.

Outside her cockpit, through the cameras, she could see the bubbles from her exhaust trailing up, she could see the water rushing as she descended, and the bodies of the towers growing larger and farther around her. So she knew she was falling. She had a smile on her face, she could not help but be happy. Encased in metal armor, out in the water, free from the station’s confines.

When the feet of her stripped-down Volker mech touched ground, she pressed down the pedals to engage the hydrojets and accelerated toward the base of Tower 7, where her target was.

Homa’s every muscle brimmed with excitement.

When she was in the Diver, she felt bigger, stronger, freer than ever.

Everything was quieter, too. But she wasn’t just alone with her thoughts. Controlling the machine with the sticks, the pedals, the switches, and triggers, glancing across her monitors and the instrument panels, switching cameras. She was engaged the whole time, working as if with her whole body in rapid succession, but the task was peaceful, almost relaxing, as it frequently occupied all of her faculties.

“Homa– you– hear me?”

Emma’s voice was scratchy, cutting in and out, but Homa could technically still hear her.

The headphones slotted into the fluff of her cat-like ears were connected to the Volker’s acoustic and laser-channel digital communications system. Depending on which could provide the most fidelity, the computer would switch between them automatically. The audio quality going to hell meant that Homa was far enough away now from the laser router at B.S.W to switch to acoustic data transmission. This was basically decoding long-distance soundwaves as a digital signal, from sound to bits and bytes.

Transfer rates over acoustic data protocol were atrocious.

“Barely.” Homa replied.

“Oh–”

Homa knew Emma well enough to fill in her characteristic ‘oh dear’.

She was Bertrand’s secretary, but she was a licensed sonar, radio, and laser/acoustic router operator, so when Homa went out on the Diver to work in the water, Emma was always the voice in her ears. For worker safety, Emma was supposed to fill in Homa on any weather updates from the station, or on any traffic that might be headed her way. But Bertrand cheaped out on his laser router, so most of the time, Homa could barely hear Emma unless the job was at base of the Kreuzung core tower.

Today, Homa was headed out to pry open a stuck runoff gate at the base of Tower 7.

Dockyards got jobs like these from time to time, dockworkers called them ‘gigs.’

Money was money. Getting a gig like this was more marks in her pocket.

Her rent was paid, but her conviction to leave Kreuzung was still as sharp as ever.

For that, she needed money and a lot of it. No two ways about it.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! I’ll finish this and be back soon!” Homa said.

She was sure only every other word of that got through to Bertrand’s.

Between the towers Homa traveled over slushy dirt, made up of the same raining marine biomass that made up the marine fog swirling around her. There were many animals, pale or transparent, soft-bodied, abyssal fish and crustaceans and worms, congregating on the remains of larger animals from brighter waters that had drifted from above and made it into the Kreuzung sea floor.

There was no way to move in her great machine without disturbing these natural sites. Clouds of fish and krill felt water displace around the area and leaped defensively away, before returning to the carcasses in which they made their livelihoods once Homa moved far enough way from them. Out in the water, there was so much more life than anyone would ever see just staring out the sea viewing windows in the Kreuzung complex. It was easy to think the world outside was entirely dead. Walking through the Kreuzung seafloor, Homa got a firsthand view at everything they shared the crater with.

Somehow, while the people were all trapped in ships and stations, life teemed out here.

And up above, from where all the food for these beings fell continuously from the sky.

Homa peered toward heaven, and all her floodlights illuminated was more marine fog.

Brown dust suspended in dark water, and the distant, looming shadows of towers and their bridges. Allah and the promise of heaven. It was far out of her sight, infinitely beyond her reach. At the bottom of the Kreuzung crater she was 2500 meters from the surface. To think, even then, that there were human beings even deeper. Some parts of the complex, deeper underground, went as far as 4000 meters.

Nothing habitable– just old maintenance tunnels and mining shafts, Homa had heard.

Sometimes, when she piloted, she marveled at the enormity of what surrounded her.

But she also felt strangely powerful. She felt a thrill in the center of her chest.

Because she was out here, walking this forbidden land in her suit of armor.

As bad as she sometimes felt for the fish– she felt better than ever about herself.

Closer to each tower, the muddy, biomass-heavy earth was replaced with the steel base plate for the tower. Some of these rings contained massive entrances into underground spaces, but others were just there to provide anchor points and power supply inputs for heavy equipment. There were slots on the floor in places, contact points where construction modules could be attached to power huge cranes or massive underwater welding gear which could be used to repair or replace exterior plates on the tower. There were ships that could repair station towers too, truly massive ones that plugged into the baseplates, Homa had learned about them in school. That was neither here nor there though.

For Homa, at that moment, it only meant she was gliding over steel, rather than soil.

Slowly, the marine fog lifted as she closed in on the structure and she could see the varied man-made geometry of the exterior of Tower 7’s base. The runoff gate she was commissioned to pry open was dead ahead, its indentation in the tower wall visible once Homa got close enough with her Diver.

There were four handholds on the exterior of the gate in case it needed to be forced open, but it was otherwise a door that slid out when enough water was pumped through the connecting chute to force it open. This particular gate, Homa was told, was one of the places water was periodically pumped out to in order to empty the station’s desalination pipelines so they could be cleaned or replaced. When it became stuck, the pipes and tanks couldn’t be fully emptied. It was a quick and dirty job to go out in the water and get it open, so it was contracted out to any company with a Diver. That way the maintenance crews in Kreuzung would not have to keep, train, or assume liability for any Diver pilots and their gear.

“I’m at the site. I’ll just get this cracked open and be back shortly.”

Fuzzy gibberish came through in response. Homa slowed and stopped before the gate.

Technically it would have been possible for Homa to connect to Tower 7 itself and route back to Bertrand’s that way. She could have talked to Emma and had any guidance whatsoever from her; but B.S.W would have assumed the cost of the data transfers and she would have gotten yelled at for it. So instead Homa just assumed nobody would hear her if she died screaming in the open waters.

Not that anything would happen at this point.

She pushed her sticks forward, engaging the finger switches to spread and close the digits on the Diver’s hand. She grabbed hold of two of the handholds on the gate door and pulled back her control sticks to pull with just the mechanical force of the arms. This had no immediate effect, the runoff gate remained shut. Homa angled her hydrojets away and slowly ramped up the thrust, pulled up and back, feet leaving the ground as the current cycling through the machine lifted her completely off the base plate.

Despite the amount of force being applied, the gate remained firmly shut.

“Ugh, this is really stuck!”

Bertrand didn’t want her to use the solid fuel boosters if at all possible. Solid fuel was a misnomer — it was just what people came to call power generation other than agarthic batteries. In this case, the “solid fuel” was actually liquid– they could burn anything that burned, depending on the kind of boosters equipped. Bertrand filled theirs with diesel because it was cheap, but cheap wasn’t free. With a few licks of solid fuel boosting she could have had this open in an instant. She was starting to think she had no other choice, however. She had not come with any tools, just the vibromachete on the magnetic strip.

Cutting through the runoff gate was of course not an option.

“Well! I don’t have a choice! Hey, Emma, if you can hear, I’m hitting a booster.”

Her left hand moved instinctually toward a button panel in front of her, in order to flip open a plastic cap enclosing the trigger that unlocked the solid fuel boosters. On normal Divers the boosters were immediately accessible from buttons on the stick or pedals, but Bertrand installed a mechanism to lock those controls and then put a plastic box over it to really make Homa think about using fuel.

As soon as she unlocked the booster, however, she was alerted to sudden movement–

On her monitors there was a flashing red box placed by the computer over the runoff gate–

Which burst suddenly open, ejecting a cloud of salt residue and water stuck inside.

Unveiling flashing red eyes and a long, eerie shadow–

Homa rapped the buttons on her sticks that engaged solid fuel boost and thrust upward.

She felt her cockpit rattle as something lunged past and slammed into one of the feet.

This threw her off but not enough to completely lose control. She tried to get her bearings.

Glancing at one of her secondary monitors showed her one of the underside cameras. On the feed, there was the long, dark form of a creature about twice the height of her Diver in length, but slightly thinner. A bulbous main body like a huge four-part jaw that attached to a sack for the eyes and brain, tapering into a tail with yellow biological lights glowing across it. Two structures on the rear end of the sack-like portion of the body ejected water and dirt– bio-hydrojets, fed water from the enormous mouth and from four sets of gills on the sides and top of the sack. That meant this eel-like being was a Leviathan.

Twisting around, its jaws and four malicious eyes atop its sack-body suddenly faced her.

“Leviathan! Emma! Leviathan!” Homa cried out.

Jerking her control sticks, Homa faced down the creature, trying to gauge its next move.

A red targeting box drawn around it by the predictive computer, labeled the creature.

Gulp-class, a “lifeboat” level Leviathan. Fourteen meters long.

Had it been hiding in the runoff gate? For how long? How did it get in there?

It must have been holding it shut until Homa disturbed it.

Now it was clearly aggravated.

Engaging its hydrojets and the muscles on its tail, the Gulp-class lunged at Homa.

Rows and rows of vibrating silver teeth gleamed inside its enormous, distending maw.

Monomolecular edges, each one, just like her machete.

They would shred the unarmored Volker. Homa once more launched herself aside.

“Emma! Emergency! Leviathan!”

Homa repeated words, rather than phrases, hoping something would get through.

But there was nothing but static on the acoustic network or laser messaging.

The Gulp-class lunged past her, but this time it slammed its tail at her as it went.

Her entire cockpit rattled and shook, Homa clinging to her controls with a deathly grip.

Gritting her teeth, eyes racing between monitors, heart pounding.

She could connect to Tower 7, but she needed her hands and concentration on avoiding the attacks, she could not work on the computer to swap connections and ask for help. After sweeping past her, the Gulp-class seemed to have learned something from its short-ranged and sudden leaps, and instead gathered momentum by swimming away into the marine fog and doubling back.

“No, no– this is– this can’t be–”

Homa’s vision swam, her undershirt clung to her cold sweating chest.

Her limbs tensed and shook, her feet shook hard enough to tap her pedals.

Shrill screeching roars sounded the violence hurtling her away.

As the monster threw itself forward, Homa shrank away from it with her whole body.

Forward boosters threw her aside the charging, snapping jaw.

Three vibrating teeth grazed the exterior forearm of her Volker, scratching the metal.

And the body disappeared again into the fog, twisting to resume attack.

Had those teeth caught on a pushrod she would have been without an arm.

“No no no no no!”

Was this how she was going to die? All alone out in the ocean, torn out of a Diver by a screeching monster, screaming her heart out without a soul to hear? Every centimeter of her skin was brimming with anxiety, she felt her heart like bass echoing through her pores, into her roiling gut. She could not unclench her jaw and her fingers shook wildly enough on her controls to make up a drumbeat. Flooding tears stung her eyes and clouded her vision. She could not feel her tail.

If even one of those teeth dug deep enough her entire body would be extruded–

Teeth–

–dug,

“I’m– I’m not going to die here! I’m going to escape this place! I’ll escape! Damn you!”

Homa shouted herself hoarse and drew her vibromachete from the magnetic strip.

It was just large enough to hold in both hands like a short sword.

On her monitors a red box indicated the resurgence of the Gulp-class and its heading.

Homa engaged all thrust, throwing itself into the Gulp-class’ charge.

Holding her sword from the shoulder and thrusting with all her might and momentum.

Crashing into the Leviathan’s fat snout and driving the sword between its four eyes.

Its distended jaw slackened from the attack and could not close around her Volker.

Hysterical, Homa pounded her feet on her pedals, tugged her sticks. “Die! Fucking die!”

Furiously tearing across the soft palate and nostril, Homa drove her sword back out. In the wake of her cutting edge issued a geyser of red biomass. The mildly buzzing vibration of the monster’s teeth died out, its jets sputtered and clogged with gore, the mutilated body sank slowly away from the Diver. Coming to fall upon the tower base plate, where curious, wandering krill and shrimp convened.

Homa watched, heaving breath, eyes incredulous, as all the tiny creatures invisibly lost upon the surface of the tower base plate showed themselves. Visible in contrast with the dark body of the Leviathan, they started picking apart the corpse. To them, it did not matter whether it fell to the brown earth or to the metallic plate surface. It was a needed injection of life-sustaining biomass.

Something about the sight of the creature that had brought her so much fear, being so easily colonized by the bottom feeders, left Homa speechless. That feeding frenzy of dozens of creatures the size of one of her fingers, playing about below. Her tears continued to flow, but she fell back upon her chair, releasing her sticks, her feet slack on the pedals. Catching her breath, holding her necklace reflexively. She had fallen back into the habit of doing that, from when she was a kid.

This Is Life.

Homa– did not think that.

It felt like it came from the place of her thoughts but–

It was as if– she heard a voice–?

A very gentle– very soothing voice–?

“Homa! Come in! We bought laser access! Are you okay? Did you say Leviathan? Homa!”

Emma’s voice. Homa was snapped out of her reverie by a crisp call from B.S.W.

She almost wanted to shout back for Emma and Bertrand to go fuck themselves.

But she valued her job– she needed the money.

Homa needed the money to get out of this hellish place. Before it killed her.

So despite the swelling emotion rushing over her body like a shower of stress–

She politely explained what happened.

“Solceanos defend you Homa! Oh gosh! We’re so glad you’re okay!”

Homa practically heard the next words said before they were spoken and braced for them.

“We’ll talk about the fuel and all that when you get back. Be safe, okay?”

Mildly different than what she thought, but still. She grit her teeth.

With the runoff gate forced open and the Leviathan killed, the job was done.

“Bertrand should try to wring some more money out of them for the Leviathan.” She said.

“Oh he will! Don’t you worry!” Emma replied cheerfully.

Homa engaged her hydrojets again, gliding just off of the sea floor. She could have moved faster now that Emma was paying to talk to her, since she would know if there was any traffic. But out of force of habit, she took her time getting back to Bertrand’s to have a stern, frustrating chat about her use of fuel to save her own life from a violent death. Another day at the office.


After Homa left Bertrand’s office and finally found a moment’s peace, she pulled out her phone and found a few messages from Imani Hadžić. She stared at the mails in disbelief for a few minutes. Because she could see the previews in the notification bubbles, she knew only two messages, the first and last, contained nothing but black hearts. However, the other mails had actual content to them, so Homa took a bathroom break in order to read them in private and respond.

“Ho~ma~” began the most substantial message, “During your work, please keep an eye on Kitty McRoosevelt for me. Make idle conversation and try to get her to speak on current events or local politics if you can. Let her run her mouth. If she asks you for any favors, such as hiding or moving things from her yacht, comply promptly and let her use you. Report to me any such events, as well as any names, places, or times she mentions, for example, if she talks about going on dates or being indisposed on certain times. Earn her trust, be compliant to her requests, but take care of yourself. She cannot be allowed to suspect you. If she tries to harm you, do anything that you can to contact me.”

That message, too, ended with a little black heart.

Homa typed up a quick response from the bathroom.

“Will do. Are you okay?”

By the time she was back outside, she would find that this message had been responded to:

“You’re sweet.”

Homa took that to mean Imani was indeed okay.

And despite her complicated feelings toward Imani, she felt relief, nonetheless.

All of the rest of Imani’s messages were just her being needy or sending black hearts.

For all that she said she wouldn’t demand immediate answers, Imani harassed her anyway.

Her slate would have been buzzing nonstop had Homa not been out in the Diver.

Despite having that near-death experience, she still had half the workday to go.

Bertrand’s profits stopped for no one.

“Homa! Our little hero!”

On the dockyard, seated atop barrels of ship coating gel and fluid next to Kitty’s yacht, Becker and Aicher cheered Homa’s return. Becker had one of Bertrand’s portables in hand and showed Homa the footage they extracted from the Diver. Homa felt her stomach turn for a moment at the sight of herself shouting ‘Die! Fucking die!’ while butchering the Leviathan. It was too surreal.

“Crazy piloting out there Homa! Schecter could have never done this!” Becker said.

“I’m glad he didn’t go out then.” Homa sighed. Imagining an even more tragic scene.

“My time on patrol didn’t coincide with a lot of Diver stuff.” Becker said. “But even I can tell Homa, your reflexes are amazing! And that charge? You’re made of stern stuff little lady.”

“I was just freaking out. I’d have really rather not had to fight for my life at all.”

“Well, look at this way. Yes, you cost old Bertrand a little bit money short term for all the fuel, but long term, you’ve proven you’ve got skills Homa! Bertrand won’t have to worry about sending you out anymore. I bet once his fuel cost is covered up, you’ll have a promotion coming!”

Becker’s continued gushing caused Homa’s ears and tail to droop in embarrassment.

“Hell, Homa should just take off of here and join the navy. Better money there!”

Aicher was joking, but Becker quickly shot him a glare.

“No, Homa shouldn’t go near the navy, Aicher! It’s not managed right these days.”

“Didn’t think I’d ever hear that out of you old Beck. I thought you loved the navy.”

Becker’s expression darkened. “Not these days. It’s not– it’s not run right anymore.”

Homa knew what he meant. She recalled their earlier conversation.

The Volkisch Movement was in charge of the Navy now.

But Homa didn’t know that she could agree that the Navy was ever “run right.”

After talking with Imani, she didn’t know whether any part of the world was “run right.”

And after today, she knew she didn’t want to be anywhere near a fight again.

Thankfully, Becker and Aicher ran themselves out of steam on this topic pretty soon.

Soon Homa was left to begin the work on the yacht.

First she was tasked with the exterior, which would take a few days. She had to remove any old coating in order to insure that any new coating was applied evenly. That meant dousing the exterior with a thinner chemical, using a plastic wiper to peel off all the coating; shining, polishing and painting the bare metal and filling any dents or scratches; and then applying the new coating in layers, waiting for each layer to set. Each layer would take, by Emma and Bertrand’s calculations, about eight hours to set. So that meant it took half as much time in reality– but it did extend the work schedule by several more days.

Staring at the massive yacht in front of her, Homa recalled Imani’s message.

If she was supposed to be snitching on Kitty, that meant Kitty was also alive and around.

So Imani and her had not killed each other on that night in Ballad’s Paradise.

Homa internally berated herself for having such a stupid idea in the first place.

Of course these spy games were a lot more complicated than shootouts in public places.

Donning a plastic mask and putting a pair of plastic sheets over her ears, Homa popped a cap off one of the barrels and firmly affixed a hose to it. That hose she connected to her chemical sprayer, and set herself to work, hosing down the stock livery of Kitty’s yacht and with it, the old layers of coating. With a 40 meter long and 13 meter tall yacht there was a lot of hull to hose down.

Her sprayer could launch a jet of chemical as high up as the yacht’s bridge and even higher, but to do things safely and smartly, Homa had the nozzle set very tight, and instead used a personal elevator to get up higher. Standing close to the hull, she lifted her platform to the section she was working on and sprayed a cone of chemicals at a low speed, to get a thin film over the hull, enough to wear away at the old coating without wasting product or spraying it everywhere. This method also took more time, which was probably the actual reason that the company did it this way.

When she was done with most of the port-side prow section, she elevated herself almost on top of the deck, and saw over it, in time to spot the bulkhead door into B.S.W opening and admitting a woman into the path toward the main dockyard. Heels clacked on the steel floor, and the approaching woman threw her blond hair and waved at Homa when she saw her over the yacht. On that day she was dressed in a blue blouse with a deep v-neck, and a tight, ruffled yellow skirt, but still wore her distinctive coat.

Kitty McRoosevelt, all smiles, had come to pay them a visit again.

“It’s fine if I look over your shoulder, isn’t it?” She asked, shouting up at Homa.

Comply promptly.

“It’s fine! It’s your money!” Homa replied. “But put on a disposable face mask!”

Safety first. Homa was spraying chemicals everywhere after all.

And she supposed it would be bad if Kitty McRoosevelt had to go to the hospital.

For Homa at least, if not for Imani Hadžić.

Now that Kitty was physically around and watching her from below with her back to a barrel of coating thinners with a little face mask on, fully integrated into the surroundings– Homa had to think about how she was going to get her to talk. Clearly Imani was not just going to come down here and cuff her. So there must have been something Imani wanted Homa to learn from Kitty before arresting her, or something that she wanted Kitty to do. But Homa had no idea, and she was not the biggest social butterfly in the world, so she had no idea how to extract it from her.

And of course, far be it for Imani not to be frustratingly cryptic and actually tell Homa anything.

“Have you ever thought of just blasting the side of the hull from down here?” Kitty asked.

“Huh? Uh, no, that’d be super dangerous. This stuff is really toxic.” Homa said.

She pointed a finger at her chemical sprayer, and Kitty nodded her head.

“Well, I’m glad they’re thinking about your safety around here.” Kitty said.

“I mean, yours too. You should back off a bit more. You don’t have a zip-up suit like me.”

Kitty heeded Homa’s warning and backed up from the yacht– but only a few steps more.

“It’s really impressive how you’re the only woman here. It’s such a male-dominated field.”

“Ah, it’s not really that hard. My co-workers are all super old guys. They can still do it.”

Despite trying not to feel flattered, Homa’s little tail began fluttering in its protective bag.

While Homa worked, Kitty remained near the site, often asking questions about the process or about the equipment Homa was using. These would be interspersed with questions about Homa personally, every so often. “So how old are you kid?” “How long have you worked here?” “How was vocational school?” “Do you guys get lunch breaks? You’ve been at it for a while!”

Homa had curt answers. She was engaged in work, and it was a little bit annoying.

However, she did feel a bit flattered. Even though it must have been part of Kitty’s scheme.

Few people ever took so much interest in what she was doing.

By the end of her shift, she had spent hours with Kitty, and she felt exhausted as she waved the crew goodbye and shambled up the ramp toward the elevator and the journey home. It was like she had done twice as much work today as normal. She almost forgot to account for the fact that she had survived being eaten by a monster. It had been an eventful day and the first many, as Kitty would start visiting the dockworkers every single day, punctuating Homa’s blurry days of eating, sleeping, and working with an intrusive but not always unpleasant or unwelcome burst of color.

Kitty was not alone in disrupting Homa’s life, however.

That afternoon, as Homa exited into the pavilion, she saw new digital signage up on every shop window, and the coming-and-going crowds of busy people began to pool in front of shops, some with their portables out, others asking strangers if they knew or had heard anything about this. On the shops, the signs read ‘Dynamic pricing in effect’. When Homa approached a shop that had sweaters for sale on the front window, she saw, for the first time, a price tag’s number fluctuate before settling on a slightly higher price than before. That sweater’s price rose by 26 Imperial Mark right before her eyes.

It was not a big change, and it did not happen often– Homa kept looking for a few minutes but did not personally see another price change that night, but she thought, it must be happening all over the shopping center, probably with more dramatic effects.

What did it mean?

On the tram, Homa sent Imani a mail. She was part of the government, wasn’t she?

“Imani, the shops in Kreuzung have ‘Dynamic Pricing’ now. Did something happen?”

She received an answer as soon as she got off the tram.

“Yeah, something happened.”

This woman–!

Gritting her teeth by herself on the elevator, Homa sent another message.

“Can you tell me what happened, Imani?”

This one did not receive an answer. Not right away, anyway.

Homa looked around the Shimii market, but there was no ‘Dynamic Pricing’ there– yet.

She stopped by Hasim’s for some more marrow bones and another bag of cabbage.

Paying careful attention to the condition of his wares– everything looked normal.

Those beef cubes must have really been selling out a lot.

“Hasim, has it been tough to source beef lately?” Homa asked.

“Ah, looking to pry into my business secrets, miss Baumann?” Hasim joked.

That was his good-natured way of suggesting she not ask that question.

Nevertheless, she satisfied her own anxiety. The Shimii shops weren’t out of goods.

Prices hadn’t changed either. Yet.

So what was happening in the core station? Homa felt perplexed.

After she returned home she immediately tapped on the wall twice to bring up the launcher and tapped the icon for the television. She already had the news channel playing. While she took off her jumpsuit a few commercials played advertising for Volwitz Foods’ latest ready-meals, for data plans for portables, Epoch Clothiers’ new line of all-vinyl see-through clothing, and finally, the news anchor reappeared on screen. Homa sat in her underwear, on the edge of her bed, ears twitching and tail swishing freely from the back of her shorts, awaiting any pertinent news.

Finally, after a few local puff pieces and some reminders that a murder happened recently, the anchor introduced a colleague who was at a massive wholesaler warehouse. Three enormous cargo elevators were packed full to bursting, and there were a lot of people buzzing around in the background as the camera panned over. The warehouse itself, for all the people in it, looked pretty empty of actual goods. Homa had never seen a place like this, but she assumed the stuff that got brought into Kreuzung from the agrispheres and factories had to be kept somewhere–

“We’ve never seen anything like this!” the reporter said excitedly, “Volwitz’ wholesalers all over Kreuzung have been posting massive delays in returning stock, and its led to a feeding frenzy of ship suppliers rushing in with their bulk orders. In all my years of covering the shipping biz I’ve never seen a warehouse this empty–” the reporter caught sight of a dark haired woman near one of the elevators, clipboard in hand, coordinating a series of forklifts full of crated-up food. He approached her, using a handheld remote to maneuver his drone camera around the other side of her. A dirty trick to make people feel trapped into an interview. Homa saw this often in this news channel.

“Ma’am looks like you made off good before the warehouse got ransacked! What’s your name? Do you work for a ship in port around here? Did you have any idea it’d be this crazy?”

“Um.” The woman stared awkwardly into the drone camera. She was rather pretty, her lips and eyes lightly reddened with makeup. Her uniform looked familiar too. She had a motherly sort of look to her, Homa thought. “I’m– Minardo. I am a ship victualer. I had no idea it would be this busy. I suppose I got lucky? I’m just trying to do my job here.” The drone camera hovered closer and she shooed it away.

Homa thought her Low Imbrian sounded pretty weird– definitely not from the region.

“Got any wisdom for the viewers at home on what these wholesale shortages might mean?”

Again the drone camera got closer to Minardo’s face– meeting a gaze full of killing intent.

Homa thought it looked like when Madame Arabie got mad–

“Leave me alone already!”

In the next instant the drone camera was on the floor and the reporter was shouting.

“No! I have freedom of the press! I was just trying to get some man-on-the-street–!”

As soon as the video cut away to an embarrassed-looking anchor in the studio, Homa felt a buzzing transfer through her bed, across the sheets. Homa realized the only person it could be and practically dove to the other end of the bed to pick it up. It wasn’t a call, however, but a mail, from Imani Hadžić.

She had responded to Homa’s earlier inquiry in much more detail now.

“Rhineanmetalle’s consumer brands have temporarily formed a cartel with Volwitz Foods and Epoch Clothiers, colluding to reduce output sold specifically to Kreuzung core. The cartel is trying to collectively turn the public against further labor strikes and break the strike in Kreuzung through economic shock. It’s a play by the fuhrer Adam Lehner using his influence over the capitalists. Volwitz and Epoch Clothiers were both majority-owned by liberal stakeholders who have since been targeted by the Volkisch. They are in no position to refuse for now. Supplies won’t run out entirely, one hopes, but prices will go wild.”

Homa read the mail twice, trying to pick apart every word for comprehension. She mostly understood it– a bunch of the big brands were refusing to sell to Kreuzung as revenge for the Rhineanmetalle strikes so that people would be scared off from supporting the strikers. Despite this, she still wrote and sent a mail to Imani, her skin tingling with anxiety, that read– “What does that mean for us Imani?”

Her eyes remained glued to the portable for almost ten minutes.

Fingers quivering over the cold metal.

What does that mean for her? Would she be okay?

Then, finally another mail from Imani arrived.

“Together, the cartel represents 63% of all goods sold in Kreuzung. About the Shimii in Tower Eight: a few people like Leija Kladuša have the authority and ability to import goods produced by Shimii in other stations per certain agreements and will continue to make these available. But doing some quick back of the paw math, 43% of consumption by Shimii in Tower Eight is of cartelized goods. There’ll be shortages, especially in food. Volwitz products account for over half the Shimii’s food consumption. It’s only in local textiles and hygiene products that we begin to see a gap in local goods over cartelized goods.”

Leija– that was Madame Arabie’s name. Leija Kladuša. Few people knew it.

Madame Arabie brought in poppy from outside Kreuzung and refined it into drugs.

Homa knew this was the most lucrative pillar of her criminal Empire.

Rich Imbrians loved the heroin and the even stronger and less cut up opium she produced.

That drug money funded a lot of the Madame’s less pernicious pursuits.

There was another buzz, and a third mail appeared from Imani shortly thereafter.

“Without goods to buy, money is useless. Restaurants will get more expensive soon. While you still can, buy a bag of flour, a thing of vegetable oil and buy zlatla. You know what it is right? Western Shimii love the stuff. Half cup water + zlatla + a cup flour, mix dough in a bowl, oil the dough, and fry. Three a day to stay alive. If you can’t fry, put the bowl near your room heater, add a bit more water, cover with a plate, to steam a dumpling. If you have meat or vegetables, eat a little a time with your cakes to ration it.”

Homa blinked at the instructions. Her tail stood up on end as much as it could in surprise.

Was she expecting some kind of famine? This was starting to become surreal.

“Can’t you do anything about this?” Homa asked. “You’re a big-shot, right?”

“Nope~” came the reply. “I’m just a soldier. It’ll get worse if we lose Kitty. So just focus up, okay?”

Upon mention of that woman again, Homa felt her frustrations with Imani resurface.

“What can she do to this station that’s worse than this?” Homa furiously typed.

Promptly: “Destroy the whole thing. Kill everyone. You and I included.”

Homa froze. That had to be a joke right? Nobody would– nobody could destroy a station.

Her eyes glazed over as she stared at the message. So curt and simple, but– terrifying.

Those were the most terrifying words Homa had ever seen on a screen in her life.

Destroy a station? Kill everyone– including Homa? No– that couldn’t be what Kitty–

Nobody would do that. Nobody would. It was completely insane. Out of this world insane.

Another buzz. Another mail. Homa’s shaking hands, her spiraling vision–

“Trust me and stay on task. Love ya~” it said.

A black heart to punctuate it. Homa’s fingers were shaking too much to form words back.

Imani was done talking to her, Homa knew it right then. There would be no more mails.

She leaped off the bed, turned off the television and rushed to her closet.

Throwing on her one good casual pair of pants and a shirt, along with her jacket, she walked back out to Hasim’s with her hands in her pockets and her gaze turned almost exclusively on her own feet. Focusing on walking and breathing while she could feel the walls warping around her. A bag of flour, a tube of cooking oil, and a can of pickles. She could swing that. And it would feel like doing something– in a moment where Homa otherwise felt like she had no control of her life.

There were a lot of things stewing in her brain. Too many things.

Bubbling up to the surface of her anxieties, however, was one question.

Was Kitty really capable of destroying Kreuzung? Was that even possible?


“Homa, what do you think about how the Shimii live here?”

Kitty’s voice snapped Homa out of a reverie.

She opened her eyes wide, suppressed a gasp. She looked down at her hands. She was done dissolving the coating on Kitty’s yacht, so now she had to repaint it to Kitty’s wishes. Her chemical sprayer, after a thorough cleaning, was performing double duty as a spray paint gun with paint canisters. Hefting the object in her hands, the world around her became clearer. She was at work; she had been painting.

Her head had been heavy, brain swimming in a thick stew of her concerns.

In cases like this, she liked to immerse herself in work and drown out the world around her.

Now, one of those worries that swam in her head was also present beside her.

Because the paint was not toxic, Kitty felt like she could stick closer to Homa.

She had been pretending to be interested in the painting, but she really just wanted to talk.

Homa turned her head and tried not to shoot her a glare.

“What were you saying?” Homa asked. Masking her irritation as best she could.

Whenever she looked at Kitty, Imani’s mail came to mind and upset her more than she was.

For her part, Kitty either did not notice or ignored Homa’s attitude. She was bright as ever.

“The Shimii in Kreuzung seem to have it hard– I just wondered how you felt about that.”

Homa grunted. “I mean– What is there to say? Yeah– it sucks. We just live with it.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Kitty said, gesturing with her palm up.

“No? I’m just an ordinary work-a-day girl.”

“Even ordinary people can make a difference! What if you campaigned for office?”

Homa fixed Kitty a look, as if trying to physically scrutinize how she could be so ignorant.

Kitty simply smiled at her. Ignorance must have truly been bliss. She was all smiles.

“I realize it would be difficult– but not impossible.” She said, as if realizing her mistake.

“It is impossible because Shimii can’t even vote in Kreuzung elections.” Homa said.

“I see. I come from Aachen. It’s different there.” Kitty replied. It sounded like it was true.

Homa’s ears twitched with a mild interest. “How much different can it be?”

Aachen was far in the north of Rhinea, on the edges of Eisental. Its waters bordered the Great Ayre Reach to the northwest and the Palatinate to the northeast, and Khaybar’s northern range wasn’t too far. Homa did not know much about it except that there was frequent traffic between Aachen and Kreuzung, both being major cities. When she started working at B.S.W, she would routinely see customers from Aachen, just because it was a major port that issued official papers, so it was a place ships could come from.

“Aachen has a more progressive culture.” Kitty said. “It’s a border station so you have Palatine big shots, Rhinean liberals, Bosporus transplants. It’s a travel hub so all kinds of people go there. There is a big shipyard there with a strong labor culture, and a technology university. And because it’s a border town, it’s a place where there’s been significant cultural exchange across its history. I like to think melting pots breed understanding and sympathy. I guess Aachen has a stronger activist culture than Kreuzung.”

Homa furrowed her brow, skeptical. “Are there Shimii there? Can they even vote there?”

“Interested now?” Kitty chuckled. “There are Shimii. And they can vote in local elections.”

“Do they have good jobs? Can they live anywhere? Do they get to go to the university?”

Kitty’s expression darkened a tiny bit. “They do have their own habitation there–”

“So they live in a ghetto.” Homa said. “Don’t mince words about it. I’m not a dumb kid.”

Words spilled out of her. She almost regretted becoming impassioned. But not completely.

Some part of her thought she should have shouted in Kitty’s face for being so naïve.

No matter what niceties the Imbrians let Shimii have– it was always like this in the end.

“I’m sorry, Homa. I am belying my ignorance, but I do think there is always hope for change. There are places where Shimii have it better– so the Shimii in Kreuzung have models they could follow and hopes that they can have for change in their own lives here. Their struggle isn’t for nothing.” Kitty replied.

“We already live in a ghetto over here.” Homa said. “So what’s there to aspire to?”

This was stupid. She was just trying to gain Homa’s sympathy for her own purposes.

While Homa painted her boat, she was just standing there spouting empty rhetoric.

But it was also the most that an Imbrian had really shown interest in Shimii specifically.

So Homa also felt a bit taken aback, and unable to be fully aggravated with her.

And besides, Imani wanted Kitty to win Homa’s sympathy anyway.

She couldn’t be too mad– but it was still frustrating. Voting? They had bigger problems!

“Why do you care about the Shimii all of a sudden anyway?” Homa asked.

She tried to sound gentle, but it did come off extremely confrontational.

Kitty did not appear offended. She smiled. “Because you are one, maybe.”

She winked. Homa scoffed. Did she think she was being charming?

“How shallow.” (She had to admit she was the tiniest bit charmed.)

“I was joking. You could say I am something of an organizer. Maybe I see an opportunity.”

“Don’t tell Becker that. He hates workplace rabblerousers.” Homa joked.

“Duly noted!” Kitty laughed again. “You know, I wish I could tell you how I really feel.”

“Huh?”

Homa turned off the paint sprayer, pointed it at the ground and looked over her shoulder.

What was this woman about to say–?!

Kitty took a deep breath. Those seconds felt like an eternity to Homa, who had far too many wrong ideas about what Kitty intended to talk about. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of things to try to change Rhinea, and the Empire, to try to do good for its people.” Homa practically deflated like a balloon full of anxiety but tried not to show it. Kitty continued to speak– her voice sounded a tiny bit more passionate than usual. “Not only in Aachen, but across the Imbrium Ocean. I know exactly how hard you have it, Homa. And there are a lot of people who wish it wasn’t so. I can’t say more, I just hope you understand.”

“It’s tough to see it that way from in here. But I’ll keep that in mind.” Homa replied.

What she really wanted to say, was something like ‘their wishes don’t help me any’.

But she thought, Kitty was trying to sound nice. So Homa should accept it for now.

Their conversation did stick in Homa’s brain for a little bit that day.

How did the Shimii live in other places? Was there anywhere that they were truly free?

And in the places where they were discriminated against– who was standing up for them?

In Kreuzung, it did feel like nobody was doing anything to help them.

Madame Arabie’s kind of help ran on favors and debts and commitments. It was crooked.

Imani was a member of the Volkisch. Was she really able to do anything from there?

On the way home, she thought about Radu the Marzban too. He was a hero, a living legend.

There were a lot of tales of him saving people in shipwrecks, delivering supplies during emergencies, killing Imbrians who committed heinous crimes on Shimii. They said that he and his crew of raiders wandered the seas righting wrongs committed upon the Shimii– but with all his strength, then, why did the Shimii still have to live like this? Couldn’t Radu the Marzban take down all the villains exploiting the Shimii? He saved Homa– but he couldn’t save her mother. He was a legend, flitting in the shadows.

But even their myths and legends couldn’t change things for them fundamentally.

“Could Imani do it? With all her money? With her Volkisch clout? But she isn’t–”

“Hey. You look pretty troubled.”

Homa arrived at her room and was about to head in when she noticed someone standing in front of the next room door over. In fact, this person was leaning against the door, with a small cartridge vaporizer in hand– one of the disposable models, not like Madame Arabie’s pipe. A faint smell of cinnamon wafted from her fingers. To Homa’s surprise, it was Madiha al-Nakara, her pale hair wrapped in a little bun, wearing a garish, flowery green shirt of a similar style to the last.

“I– I’m okay– Miss–?”

Madiha blew out a bit of cinnamon smoke. “No, not miss. Just call me Maj– Madiha.”

Homa stared at her for a moment and then stared at the door– the room right next door.

“Huh? You’ve been staying next-door all this time?” Homa asked.

“Since a few days ago.” Madiha said. “Our schedules don’t intersect much I guess.”

Homa blinked hard. “Is that girl with you too? You’re both staying here?”

“Parinita? Yeah? She’s worn out, taking a nap inside.”

Wait a minute–

Recalling that night, where Homa overhead–

impassioned sounds of lovemaking–

through the room walls–

had Madiha– with that petite companion of hers–?

up so late like that, and the yelling–?!

“Why are you making a face? Did Arabie tell you something distasteful about me?”

Madiha scrutinized her, while Homa took back control of her hanging mouth.

“No! Of course not! I have nothing against you. It’s– It’s really not that.”

“You look even more skittish now. Are you really okay?”

“Well–”

“C’mon out with it already. Tell Big Sister Madiha what the matter is.”

Could Homa really ask her to keep it down at night?

Would Madiha not immediately wring Homa’s neck if those words left her mouth?

Madiha openly sighed, discarded her vaporizer in a nearby trash chute, and walked over.

She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder– she was trying to be reassuring, but her grip–!

“Look, I’ve seen that troubled urchin look before. I can at least hear you out. Okay?”

Homa nodded. “Um, Madiha– what do you think about how Shimii live here?”

Ultimately it was impossible to ask her to fuck her girlfriend more quietly.

It was the fault of the shoddy construction here anyway.

So instead another topic that had been stewing in Homa’s brain came out in its place.

Madiha nodded sagely. “Ah. You’ve got money on the brain again– can’t blame you.”

Homa wished all she had in her brain was money troubles. It’d be so much simpler.

“Homa was your name?” Madiha asked.

“Um, yeah.” Homa replied. “Homa Baumann. I’m– I’m mixed.“ She added to explain her surname.

Madiha gave her a wistful look for a moment. She looked deep in thought.

“You’re a Shimii, Homa. Your parentage doesn’t matter.“ Madiha took in a breath. Homa had never been accepted so casually and confidently. It took her aback some, until Madiha started talking again. “Homa, no matter how bad it gets for us, there will always be dancing, weddings, big pots of stew and bread. Shimii use whatever we have to try to live through the era. We survived the cataclysm and live here underwater. We’ve been through much worse than this. Our religion was nearly destroyed, our people persecuted, our homes and names stolen, but we live. Our ummah pray for better times and live their lives as best they can. So to answer your question: we all know how things are. But why are they? That’s what I ask myself. Not how people live. I know that. They live as best as they can. So ask why instead.”

Homa was surprised. It was a more in-depth answer than she thought she would get. After throwing that dumb question out, Homa imagined she would talk about the food or about parties.

That was the kind of answer Homa expected out of someone much older than Madiha looked.

She had thought of Madiha as being another gangster like Arabie was.

Maybe she was something different. That look in her eyes, it was almost tender.

Homa could almost feel her sympathy wrapping around her like warm colors–

“So if you ask me what I think about Kreuzung; the Imbrian bastards here sicken me.”

She raised an empty hand to her lips, as if so distracted she forgot discarding her vaporizer.

This seemed to make her momentarily frustrated. She closed the hand into a fist.

“Madiha–”

Homa briefly hesitated. Her head stewing again. Kitty’s words; Imani’s words–

“Madiha, can anything change what’s happening to us here?” Homa asked.

“Fighting.” Madiha responded. Quickly; as if a quietly honed reflex.

She grit her teeth. As if it bothered her to have responded so quickly.

“Fighting?” Homa asked. “But– fighting who?” The Imbrians? All of them? How?

“Bah. I’m sorry. I just said whatever. Pay it no mind.” Madiha sighed.

“I’m not going to tell anyone, Madiha. You can speak your mind.” Homa said.

She really wanted to hear what Madiha had to say. She felt like she needed to hear it.

She was so intriguing. Was there someone around here with an actual answer to things–?

Madiha grunted. “Homa, I’m not going to tell you to fight anyone personally. We’re not all fighters. But just don’t be complacent, and never say thank you for the little crumbs you get here. If someone does resort to violence, do not rush to condemn them on that fact alone.”

Those words dropped like a heavy load of ingredients into the pot boiling Homa’s brain.

“I’m just trying to understand.” Homa said. Her emotions got away with her for a second. She started to weep. “You said fighting– but fighting who? How does living get better for us? For the past few months, everything here has been going to hell. Nothing feels certain anymore. I’ve always wanted to get out of here and go out into the ocean. But lately I’m thinking– what if there’s nothing out in the Ocean for me but more of this? Even if I survived all the trouble and got out? So what am I supposed to do? If I stay here I could struggle and maybe die; and it could be the same anywhere! What do I do then?”

She raised her voice, curled her fingers into fists, turned a red weeping gaze on Madiha.

For that instant, a repressed anger she couldn’t direct at Arabie, Imani, Kitty– leaked out.

And yet, the stranger upon whom this childish injustice was done did not condemn her.

“Homa, my answer to that is pretty bleak. I won’t sugarcoat it for you.” Madiha said.

“Then just say it. Nobody around here tells me the truth.” Homa replied, bitterly.

Madiha grinned at her. She crossed her arms, locked Homa’s eyes with a red glint in hers.

“There is no place in the Imbrium Ocean where you can go and lead a happy storybook life as a Shimii. You will run into the hatred the Imbrians project onto our flesh, their hatred of our marked bodies, their hatred of our worship of Allah. But I hate them in turn, and my hatred is a prayer of fire that will consume all of their works. Allahu ackbar. If you don’t want to fight them, Homa, I will fight for you. For every life the pacifists preserve, I will take ten to assure victory. We will kill as many as it takes.”

Behind Madiha, the door to the apartment opened, and a sleepy-looking girl walked out.

Dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long blue skirt, yawning.

Homa and Madiha both turned their smoldering gazes her way. She pointedly stared back.

“Ma– oh, that’s the girl from the other night? Are you troubling her Ma– Madiha?”

Madiha shrugged dismissively. “We were having a lively conversation about life.”

“Elocution is a gift from Allah to our people– and you used it to make her cry.”

“I wasn’t trying to– she just asked for my opinion, and I gave it candidly.”

Homa sighed, wiping her forearm across her face. Her brain steeping in frustration.

“No, it’s okay. I appreciated her candidness. I’m sorry for the trouble, Madiha.”

She turned quickly from them and opened her door, as fast as an escape.

“Hey, listen. If you need any help, you can come to me. But think about what I said–!”

Even if Homa did not want to, she would be thinking about it, even as the door shut Madiha out. Even as the door behind her closed, and her legs gave out, and she sat back against the door weeping. Staring up at the ceiling with hands over her face. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.


As-salamu alaykum.”

“Ah, Homa, welcome, welcome. If you’re looking for the marrow bones again–?”

“Hasim I can see it. You’re all out of them. Not even the smallest bones left?”

For days now the beef bones available had been shrinking, and less in the bag, but still–

There had to be something!

“Afraid so. It’s been tough, you know, I get these specifically from the Agrisphere in Suhar, from my Shimii cousins there, they work so hard, it’s the best quality in the whole country. Homa, when you go for quality like I do, it’s tough sometimes, sometimes you just come up empty-handed if you only get the best, but I promise you, Inshallah we’re going to restock soon, and you’ll be amazed at the quality–”

Homa was barely listening to Hasim’s little speech.

She cast disgruntled looks about the shop, taking stock of the potential soup ingredients. He was out of all the frozen vacuum bag meat he normally carried. His refrigerator and freezer were empty save for the frost. He had not done anything to cover them up, so he must have run out recently. He would probably get bony stockfish and throw them in there to look like he had something on hand. In his pantry section he had cans of stuff– there were cans of shredded chicken and ground beef. There was a can of green beans packed in water and salt. It wasn’t cabbage, but it would do. She couldn’t afford to eat restaurants, so she needed to cook with what she could get.

“Pleasure doing business as always, Homa. May Allah see you to safety.”

For want of anything to polite to say, Homa said nothing at all in response.

She walked out with a can of ground beef, a can of ground chicken and cans of green beans.

None of it was her first choice, but it would fill her belly.

She wasn’t at the level of eating fried flour with zlatla just yet.

The deteriorating quality of her lonac was not lost on her, however. It was depressing.

It was a week now since she last had beef cubes. Normally Hasim’s supply was steady.

Bone marrow lonac wasn’t bad– but Homa really wanted to have a nice meal again.

She had been working so hard! On Kitty’s boat– on snitching to Imani–

Didn’t she deserve a treat? But she couldn’t afford it. Especially with things getting worse.

For someone who had been taking care of herself like an adult for years now, she felt utterly without control of her own life. For days now, she had thought of begging Imani for the money to just eat at a restaurant without it coming out of her own pocket, so she wouldn’t have to be ashamed of doing so– but she was ashamed of asking Imani for any help. (And wary of the consequences.)

Everything felt more burdensome, more intolerable. She couldn’t just keep her head down.

As she walked through town, she looked around at the conditions of the other stores.

Imani had been right.

Epoch Clothiers, Volwitz Foods, Arleiter Tools, even Raylight Beauty–

All of the stores associated with Imbrian brands had closed early that day.

Signs on the window exhorted shoppers to subscribe to stocking alerts in their rooms.

Homa wondered if they had no supplies at all, or if they were still getting anything.

Volwitz Foods shops especially concerned her.

If they didn’t restock, all the “mom & pop” food shops would get hammered with orders.

There was an air of tension on the streets. People lingered in front of shops as if in a trance, as if uncomprehending. There were groups in the middle of the street passing around gossip and information. Homa almost wanted to tell them what Imani knew, but she had no idea whether it was public knowledge, or if it could be traced back to her and cause trouble. There were fewer smiles on people’s faces, fewer women in their best dresses going to dance, fewer lads at the pubs watching the football matches. Homa wondered how the Flowing Scarlet would look today too.

Was Madame Arabie still stocked up?

Homa trudged back home, feeling like she was dragging her own body weight.

At least she had the very last pot of bone marrow lonac to look forward to.

Her tail gave a sad little twitch in anticipation.

As soon as she rounded the corner to her own hall, her heart jumped–

“Homa!”

She hardly had time to react when a woman’s arms wrapped around her.

Pulling Homa tight into her chest.

Brown hair, emerald eyes, a brown blouse with gold-painted lines.

“Madame?” Homa yelled out in shock. “What–?”

“Homa, I’m so happy! I’ve been looking all over for you!” Madame Arabie was giddy.

Her breath– she reeked of alcohol. Her words were slurred, her eyes distant.

She was drunk!

At least she was smart enough not to be using the drugs instead–

But it was still a bad situation! Homa tried to extricate herself from Arabie’s grip.

“Madame! I’m– I’m happy to see you too! Let me go and lets– let’s relocate to my room!”

Arabie was so strong! No wonder everyone was so afraid of her!

Homa had never been trapped in a hug so difficult to get herself loose from!

“Homa~” Madame Arabie’s voice slurred. “You’re such a good little kadaif. So good to me.”

Kadaif? As in the dessert? Her brain was truly going out wasn’t it?

“Allah give me patience!” Homa cried out. “Why me? Just– please get moving this way!”

Homa began pulling Arabie’s weight step by step down the hall, over to her door.

Before any nosy neighbors stuck their heads out to watch– especially one in particular.

“Because–” Madame Arabie tried to answer Homa’s cries, which were not directed at her.

She choked up for a moment, her head leaning into Homa’s shoulder.

Her fingers caressed Homa’s dark hair.

“I don’t– I don’t have anyone else.” She mumbled.

Homa grit her teeth.

She managed to shuffle the drunk Arabie all the way into her room, through the door, which she locked behind her, and then finally cast her down onto her bed. Homa stood, breathing heavily, in front of the bed, with Arabie laying down on it. Arms spread, giggling, her chest rising up and down with steady breathing, legs hanging off the end. What was she supposed to do about this?

“Madame–”

“Call me Leija! I’m too young to be a Madame!”

Madame Arabie– Leija curled up her legs on the bed and shifted over onto her side.

Looking at Homa through cloudy eyes, making herself comfortable.

Her cheeks and eyes were red, and the pale insides of her ears were flushed too.

She was completely off the precipice from the alcohol.

Homa could only imagine the disparaging things the town aunties could concoct about this.

Hopefully not too many people saw Leija in this position. Or would see her with Homa too.

“Leija,” Homa acquiesced with a sigh. “Can you tell me what happened?”

Leija shuddered in response. Her brainlessly cheerful demeanor darkened.

“It was so stressful. So stressful Homa. I just want to hide. Can I hide from them here?”

“Them? Who is them? Is someone after you?”

The only reason Homa wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack was that Leija was so drunk she could have easily been making the whole thing up in her head. Homa had enough problems as it was without having to be caught in the crossfire of Leija’s mafia troubles, but also, nobody ever messed with Leija no matter how bad things got. So she assumed it mustn’t have been anything important.

And finally, Leija herself confirmed: “Problems. Problems are always after me.”

“Fine. It’s not use talking to a drunk. Do whatever you want. I can’t stop you.” Homa said.

“You’re so nice to me, Homa.” Leija mumbled. “So good and nice and lovely. My little kadaif.

Her words began to slur much more and to trail off much more quickly.

“Take it easy and sleep it off.” Homa said, trying to sound reassuring.

Leija did not run her own businesses, it was impossible for her to be at so many places or to make so many decisions by herself. She had managers and a chain of command, Homa knew this well from being part of her organization. Homa knew that Leija was not personally needed anywhere unless there was a dispute. She imagined the scenario in her head: Leija’s various cronies gave her the bad news about the shops and prices in Kreuzung, telling her that she would lose money and that things would be rough unless something changed. Feeling helpless about it, she drank too much to cope with it, and ran away from the Scarlet on some aimless anxiety impulse and went in search of someone familiar.

Now she was here, drunk out of her mind on Homa’s bed.

Things had never gotten this out of hand with her, but Homa never put it past her.

Though, she had once imagined that the day Madame Arabie personally came to her room, it would be to drag her out and shoot her. Not to get drunk and sleep it off on Homa’s bed. Out of those two nightmarish fantasies she did not even know which one she preferred. Once Leija came to her senses, she could still very well lose her temper at Homa over the whole thing anyway.

There was no winning with this woman.

Despite how much trouble Leija was causing, Homa didn’t want to disrupt her sleep.

She withdrew a spare gel pillow and a nylon blanket from beneath the bed and made herself a little nest on the floor to lie down on and stare at the ceiling for a while. She needed to decompress. Her stomach was growling for a bowl of lonac, but she did not want to move just yet. Life kept coming at her like hammer blows one after another. Breathing deep was all she could do to surmount it.

“Homa,”

Leija’s slurred voice sounded far less cheerful all of a sudden.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Homa.”

On the floor, Homa turned her back on the bed. Leija had not moved, but if she did, Homa did not want to look at her spouting this nonsense. She grit her teeth, and her ears folded against her head as much as they could, but of course, she could still hear the woman on her bed moaning.

“I’m sorry Homa. I never took good care of you. I even– when I saw you in the suit– I even thought it would be nice to sleep with you. I’m a rotten woman, Homa. I am destined for the fire. You are a treasure that Allah sent to me. I looked you in the eye and discarded you every time.”

“Shut up. I don’t want this from you.” Homa mumbled.

“Homa. I’ve been wanting to say sorry. Ever since he came back. I’m so sorry.”

He? Radu? What was she saying? Was it still all nonsense? Homa sat up.

On the bed, Leija Kladuša was nearly falling asleep. With the last of her strength–       

“Radu and Imani Hadžić. Those bastards– those bastards–” Her voice trailed off.


“Here you go! Everything went quite professionally, even for me!”

Deep in the Kreuzung Core station, inside a pressurized maintenance tunnel just under the rim of the baseplate. A woman dressed casually in a jacket, skirt, and tights, with orange-mottled gray skin and brown hair, handed Kitty McRoosevelt a small, handheld device, put together from parts.

An analog switch, an antennae, an electric circuit, a tiny system-on-a-chip, and the contacts for a crude little battery. When she said ‘everything went professionally’ she must have been referring to the preceding courier work to set it up, because the device itself had rather crude workmanship.

It was difficult to ascertain whether it was real in the dim, intermittent light in the tunnel.

“When you toggle this device on, you’ll have 12 hours to make sure everything is ready. I would suggest taking out the batteries right afterward– the signal is encrypted, and it will be sent to the drone faster than anyone can notice it, but if it stays on, it will keep transmitting and give you away. So just chuck it and step on it when you’re done. The drone will take an 8 hour journey to your buddies in the abyss of Masud. They are ready and awaiting the signal. Then, at full combat speed, the fleet will make it here in 4 hours. I informed them of the location of the B.S.W. dock– it’s up to you to have it secured.”

“Up to me?” Kitty McRoosevelt said. “You’re not coming?”

“Perimeter defense isn’t my thing. But I got you some big strong boys and girls for that.”

Xenia Laskaris smiled girlishly at Kitty and Marina McKennedy, their other witness.

Her dark-green, exoskeletal antennae rose slightly like arms spread in joy.

“She’s kept her word.” Marina said. “I never asked her to stand and fight with you.”

“I wouldn’t have gone this far for you if it’d ultimately lead to that. It’s just not my style.” Xenia said. “Marina will take you to meet the rest of the team. I need to start limiting my involvement because the local crews are skittish about outsider Katarrans. Apparently there’s a whole fleet from the Mycenean Military Commission stuck in Eisental, demanding mercenaries join them– it’s a whole thing.”

“But they won’t object to working for ‘Imbrians’. That is apolitical to them.” Marina said.

“Exactly. Don’t tell them you’re actually Cogitans by the way.” Xenia said.

“I never intended to. Well, I suppose if this thing doesn’t work, I’ll know who to curse.”

Kitty spoke gravely. Xenia seemed more amused by it than anything.

“Trust me, I want you to succeed. I live for this kinda shit. It’s job security for me!”

Chaos, she meant. War: destruction, killings, and upheaval.

Twelve hours away as soon as Kitty hit the button. The G.I.A.’s operation would begin.

Her fingers hovered over the switch. She did not flip it, not yet.

But now, the power to kill had been placed in her hands. Her empty heart unwavering.

She only needed one more day. Kitty would get what she needed from the Shimii girl.

“Kitty.“

Marina spoke up as they left the maintenance tunnel and Xenia Laskaris behind them.

“Think before you press that button. That’s all I ask.“ She said. With an air of grave finality.

Kitty scoffed.

“Marina. I’ve done a lot more thinking than you want to admit.“

There was a current driving Kitty McRoosevelt. The weight of ages, history itself given voice to haunt her.

Through her, through her grief, pain, ignorance and bigotry, it would conclude the inevitable tragedy.


Previous ~ Next

Surviving An Evil Time [10.3]

That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.

Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.

Once her vision settled, she could make it out.

There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.

It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.

Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.

Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.

It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.

Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.

When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.

With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.

First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.

“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”

His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.

She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.

Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.

Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.

It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.

“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.

That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.

“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”

Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.

Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.

For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.

Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?

“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.

Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–

Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.

She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.

“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”

No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?

With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.

It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.

Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.

“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”

Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.

Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.

Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.

Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.

Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.

“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”

She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.

Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.

She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.

That could very well be her soon–

In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.

“Imani?”

Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.

Another black heart from Imani. No other text.

“This woman–! Ugh–!”

While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.

All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.

Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…

Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.

“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”

While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?

Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–

“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”

Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.

On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.

And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.

From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.

Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.

There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.

Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.

No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.

So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.

On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.

She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?

From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.

There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.

Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.

“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”

As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.

“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”

When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–

–how long their tongue was,

and forked. And how–

how sharp their teeth were–

“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”

Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.

Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–

“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.

Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.

For this person not to do so was pretty strange.

“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”

Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.

“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”

At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.

This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.

There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.

But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.

They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.

“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.

Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.

“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.

Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.

She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.

Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.

Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?

“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.

Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.

“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”

She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.

Homa had enough of this.

“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”

They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.

“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”

They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.

“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.

Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”

The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.

“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”

“What–?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”

Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.

Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.

All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?

When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.

“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”

Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.

“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.

As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.

“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”

Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.

“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”

For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?

She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.

Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.

So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.

From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.

The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.

He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.

Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.

Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?

Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.

She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.

Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.

“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”

Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.

Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.

Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.

Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.

It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.

For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.

Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.


Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.

When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.

There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.

Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.

When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.

The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.

Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.

This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.

Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.

“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.

Homa looked around the room.

Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.

She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.

Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.

Homa picked up.

“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.

“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”

Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”

From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.

When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–

That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–

Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.

She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.

Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.

She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.

“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.

“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.

Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”

Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.

She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.

After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.

While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.

Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.

Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”

“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.

And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.

“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”

That question came as a shock, for no good reason.

Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–

“Um, yeah, about that–“

“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.

“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“

“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.

“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.

Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“

“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.

“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“

Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?

It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!

“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“

“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”

Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.

She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.

“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.

The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.

“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”

Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.

“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”

It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!

Lesbians?!?!

“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”

“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.

She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.

And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!

There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!

Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.

(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)

“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”

Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”

“That sounds a lot more doable.”

Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.

Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.

She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.

Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.

Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.

Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.

Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.

“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”

“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.

Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”

For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.

“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”

“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”

Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.

At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.

“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”

Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”

She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.

“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”

“Uh huh.”

When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.

The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.

“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“

Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.

“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”

Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.

Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.

Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.

Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.

“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”

Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.

This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.

“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”

Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.

It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.

She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–

–she really did look like just some girl.

Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.

Imani looked happy to see it.

After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.

“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.

“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.

“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”

“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”

Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.

“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.

Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.

Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.

After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?

“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t I?”

Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.

“Well–”

Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.

“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.

“Say it–?”

“I dressed up like this for you.”

“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.

Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!

“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”

In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.

She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.

“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.

“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”

Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.

One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.

To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.

It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.

Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.

“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”

“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”

“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”

“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”

“Uh huh.”

“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”

“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”

She put on a little grin.

Homa shuddered at the thought of it.

“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”

Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.

Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.

“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.

Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.

“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”

“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.

“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”

Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.

According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.

There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.

“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”

“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.

“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”

All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.

Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.

There was something about it that was a little painful, however.

Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?

Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?

“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”

Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.

“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”

“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.

“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”

“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”

Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.

And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.

In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.

“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.

“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”

“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”

Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.

Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.

Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.

“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”

Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”

“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”

Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.

At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.

Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.

Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–

She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!

Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”

As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.

Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.

Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.

A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.

Imani giggled as she swiped through them.

“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”

By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.

So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.

“Let’s take a few more!”

After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.

Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.

Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.

Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.

“It’s so cute!”

When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.

She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.

“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”

Homa nodded silently.

Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.

Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.

“Fancy.” Imani said.

She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.

After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.

Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.

Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.

Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.

“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”

Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.

Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.

“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.

Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.

Imani Hadžić.

They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–

In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–

Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–

Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.

“Imani, why–?”

“Hmm?”

Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.

With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.

“Um–”

Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.

Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.

“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.

There was an obvious tremble in her voice.

She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.

Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–

“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”

Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.

Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.

“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.

“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”

Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.

“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.

Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.

It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.

“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”

She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.

Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.

An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.

Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.

In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.

“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.

Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.

In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.

“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.

“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”

When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.

“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”

Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.

As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.

There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.

With that in the background, the music became frenetic.

“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”

She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.

Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–

–vicious.

“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–

“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”

Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.

Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?

“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“

She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.

Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.

Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–

“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”

Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–

–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.

With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.

About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.

And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?

But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.

After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.

Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.

And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.

“Ho~ma~“

For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.

Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.

Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.

Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.

“Ho~ma~“

When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.

Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.

Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.

Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.

But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.

Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.

“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”

Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.

The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.

Over several festive hours,

she had been nurturing affection,

for the girl Imani wished she could be.

It hurt.

“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.

Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.

“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”

Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.

If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.

Then at that moment–

Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.

Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–

–who saved the witch from her demons.


After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.

Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.

It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.

After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.

White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.

“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.

Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.

Then the dinner plates came in.

Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.

This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.

It really was like beefy butter.

Madame Arabie never stood a chance.

“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.

“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”

From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.

“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.

Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.

But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.

Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.

She had to move on.

“Thank you, Imani.”

“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”

She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.

Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.

After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.

That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.

As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.

Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.

Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.

A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.

That most brief glance–

–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.

Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.

Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.

Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.

Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.

That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?

Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.

Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.

Imani–

“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”

It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.

Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?

Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?

She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.

“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”


In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.

“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“

“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“

Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.

“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.

They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.

“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.

“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”

“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.

They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.

Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.

“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”

This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.

“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“

For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.

Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.

“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”

Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.

At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.

Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”

Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.

Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.

And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.

What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


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