Thieves At The Port [5.6]

Murati knew the history of the Empire and studied many theories about its economic system and social stratification. However, this was her first time seeing the Empire. Not only piercing the invincible front that the Union feared in Cascabel, but actually entering as an Imperial citizen would and setting foot within the steel colossi itself. This was entirely different than reading books.

It was the first step on their journey.

That immense mission, a quest so daunting they could hardly grasp its scope–

Serrano station would be their first step on this long, winding road.

Once the Brigand was fully docked into Serrano station’s central port, the cargo elevator descended from the rear of the hangar and touched down on the steel floor of the port landing below the ship, awaiting any goods “purchased” by the Brigand to be brought aboard. Each berth in the dock had thick glass and steel dividers that could contain the ship and either drain the water or expose the ship to water again, as well as the massive clamps that bore the ship’s weight. Everything was so gigantic, from the ships themselves to the berths that held them. Human bodies were utterly insignificant in mass compared to the fleet Serrano docked.

Steel paths with tall guardrails led from the ship landings to the port grounds.

There were warehouses and container parks for goods, a travel agency, and offices for the port authority and guards.

In contrast with the enormous architecture of the port, these places were eerily ordinary.

Murati, Shalikova and Zachikova descended with the cargo elevator.

Alongside them were two members of the security team.

Klara Van Der Smidse, the energetic platinum blond who had accompanied Akulantova to the meeting, swayed from side to side with excitement. Beside her was a second member of the security team, Zhu Lian, a long-limbed woman with a regal countenance. With her long black hair styled with even, blunt ends on her bangs and along her ears, and her easy, confident gait, she looked too sophisticated to be in the infantry with Klara. In the Union, of course, looks were very much deceiving in that regard.

Commissar Aaliyah had also come with them. She would be going in a different direction than the rest.

All of them were dressed in the Treasure Box Transports uniforms, with the teal half-jacket, white shirt and black pants or skirt. Aaliyah had left her peaked Union Commissar’s cap behind to better blend in. Zhu and Van Der Smidse had long jackets instead of the half-jackets worn by most of the crew. They concealed their pistols within the interior breast pockets of the full length jackets.

Once the cargo elevator touched down on the station, the metal and plastic scent of the treated air within the Brigand fully dispersed. In its place, the predominant scent was an herby pungency that seemed to waft from a nearby berth. To the right of the Brigand on the next berth over, a glistening, rotund crop transporter ship unloaded multiple plastic drums and steel crates full of what smelled strongly of pickled herbs. Dockworkers in light labor Diver suits were unloading this ship.

To the Brigand’s left, the next two berths were occupied by the same ship, just a bit too long for one.

That enormous ship was an Irmingard class dreadnought belonging to the Imperial Navy.           

“Do you think we miscalculated just a bit, docking here?” Klara asked, pointing at it.

“We didn’t have a choice. We docked at the cargo berth we were given.” Aaliyah said.

While everyone else would be taking the direct path out of the port, Aaliyah would walk the path to the right, alongside the agri-transporter ship and to the warehouses. Her own mission was to gather information, and the dockworkers were apparently on the Union’s side. She bid farewell with a twitch of her ears. “Good luck. Don’t do anything rash and get back safely.”

“Acknowledged!”

For a moment, the team watched the Commissar go on her way before they too set off.

Murati was filled with emotion.

Her expression was cool and collected, but her skin brimmed with energy as she moved, and her heart was beating fast. She was full of anticipation for a lot of different reasons. Her first mission as part of the Brigand’s crew; she had read and even written tactical theories for a lot of different situations, but this was the first big one. She had to put into practice everything she knew.

Not only as a member of a team, but as the leader of the team.

Everyone was counting on her. And she was confident she could succeed.

After all, it was an easy enough mission. An extraction right under the enemy’s nose. The Empire did not even know that they had to be watching. Serrano was completely normal. No alarms, no lockdowns, not a hint of suspicion. As they walked between the port structures, nobody paid them any mind. Not from the heart of the docks, and not even at the open maw into the station sprawl.

In those thick crowds ahead of them, there was no way anyone would notice them.

“Alright, this is as far as we go.” Zhu Lian said. “Nakara, take this with you.”

At the entrance to the port, where a small bridge connected the suspended structures of the port facilities with a sturdy city street, Lian and Klara stopped and fell behind momentarily. When Murati turned around to look, Lian extended her hand. There was a small bauble on her palm, with corners as if it were a cube but with round surfaces in between, nothing to indicate its purpose.

“If you’re in trouble, press down the surface I’m rubbing my finger on.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’ll come running to your rescue, my beautiful damsels.” Klara added.

She winked at them and showed them a little bauble of her own with a blinking light.

“Ours will blink faster as it nears yours. It’s a simple, concealable design.” Zhu Lian said.

“We’re good at playing hot-cold, so we’ll find you no matter what.” Klara added.

She gently bumped her elbow into Lian, who glanced at her from the side of her eyes.

Lian’s gently neutral face and Klara’s playful bubbliness painted an interesting picture.

“Thanks. Will you two be okay twiddling your thumbs here all day?” Murati asked.

“We better be. Orders are orders, you know?” Klara said, with a big happy smile.

“We’ll keep ourselves entertained somehow.” Zhu Lian added. “Don’t worry.”

“Hey Lian, we can play punch buggy.”

Zhu Lian smiled a tiny bit. “Let’s not, actually.”

Murati smiled too. They would definitely be okay. “Let’s go, Sonya, Braya.”

“Don’t first-name me.” Shalikova snapped.

Zachikova cracked a little smile.

“If you’re not going to call me mistress or goddess, only Zachikova will do from you.”

Murati felt suddenly foolish for wondering how well Zhu and Van Der Smidse got along.

Her mind returned to the task ahead.

Flowing before them was an absolute flood of humanity.

On that street adjacent to the port, alone, there must easily have been hundreds of people.

Murati fidgeted with her tie while she walked into this enormous, omnidirectional crowd.

For people used to pillar-type, segmented stations with numerous smaller floors and halls, the enormity of Serrano was a shock. City-type stations were something a Union citizen might never see since the Union only had two. In Serrano, the lower section of the station consisted of an enormous space encased in walls supported by massive steel and concrete pillars. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of discrete high-rise buildings crammed into this space and winding roads between them. Overhead, the sky was composed of massive arrays of lights suspended from the steel supports for the upper section over a hundred meters above.

Surrounded by tall, multiple-use structures on all sides, the streets themselves were bright with fixtures and the colors from video-signs, but they branched into gloomy, forbidding alleyways that the crowds seemed to avoid going through if they could help it. There were all kinds of businesses and shops that shared the same buildings and street access, and computerized directories outside each building helped passersby to know if any one of the nearly identical grey spires contained the services they needed.

On the surface, all cities had this kind of layout, or so the theories and histories claimed.

While she had read that the lower section of Imperial cities was where the less fortunate citizens lived, there was a lot of variety in the way people dressed and carried themselves around Murati. She saw fashionable youths in bold, translucent vinyl and high-grade plastics; men and women in suits and jackets; people wearing nothing but a branded t-shirt and plain pants; and workers in uniforms and coveralls. Murati had expected to encounter mainly white Imbrians in the Empire, so she was surprised at the ethnic variety. There were even a few Shimii and Pelagis. It felt as though the whole world could be contained in this one city.

Out of all the sights she saw, Murati was most captivated by the street vendors.

People on the side of the road, in simple clothing, manning carts or kiosks.

She was reminded of plaza table culture back in the Union — exchanging or gifting things you made yourself.

However, in the Empire, everything revolved around money.

Every kiosk, every crate, every car, every shopfront, had big bold numbers so you knew right away if you had the money to get anything from them. Some people were selling out of the backs of electric cars, or out of crates with improvised wheels, but everyone had their prices up as large as they could possibly write them. Five marks for a snack fried before your very eyes, ten marks for a bag of oranges, a thousand marks for minicomputers in a self-described “back of the truck” sale. Everyone who was selling was shouting at passersby to come look at their goods. And they all had wary, intense expressions.

All manner of goods were being sold, but the most common products were food items.

“Real meat, huh?”

Murati briefly paused near a kiosk where an older woman selling Milanesas.

Thin cuts of red meat breaded on the kiosk table and fried on a portable burner.

There was something bewildering about it for Murati.

Animals were a precious commodity in the Union. Nobody in the Union ate animal meat.

So to see a seemingly proletarian street vendor casually frying meat was so unusual to her.

Union cattle were heritage breeds from the Empire. They had been brought to the Union to serve as the backbone of diary production in the new colonies, for items like freeze dried bulk cheese and powdered milk that would then be sold in the Empire. The Empire did not get their diary in the end, but the Union kept the cattle and nurtured them. The Union enjoyed access to dairy products in the present day because they were careful with those original cattle and continued to breed them well. There was bulk fishing in the Union, but fish were not eaten. They were used to manufacture certain specific products like fish glues, fertilizer, skin patches, and ointments. Animals were too precious to eat. Everything Murati ate was made of plants, fungi or yeast.

It had been Murati’s understanding that even in the Empire, meat was for the wealthy.

Murati almost wanted to try one of those snacks, but she had no money, and it might have made her sick.

Instead she watched for a moment as the vendor exchanged one with a young man.

He gave her a single bill worth five imperial marks, and she fried the cutlet right there.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova appeared by her side; Shalikova had walked out of view before turning back.

“Are you hungry?” She asked.

“Oh, sorry, no.” Murati said, surprised. “I was just catching my breath here for a bit.”

“We should get moving before Shalikova decides to complete the mission without us.”

“I heard that.” Shalikova said, arriving at their side once again, arms crossed, fangs bared.

“Right. We can go in a second. Sorry, it’s the crowd. I’m not used it.” Murati said.

Though she was nowhere near tired, it was a more respectable excuse than the truth. She didn’t want to tell them that what she was actually doing was admiring a cheap snack kiosk and thinking about meat production and class politics in the Empire. Murati knew and forgave herself for what distracted her, but it was still a bit embarrassing to admit to in the middle of a mission.

Once the meat fried thoroughly, the vendor picked it up with a pair of tongs and laid it on a piece of plastic wrap. She wrapped the item and reached her hand out to the customer. He was about to take it, but right in front of Murati’s eyes, someone suddenly shoved in between them.

A young child wrapped in a hood intervened, snatching the croquette, and running past.

“You little shit! Get back here!”

The vendor shouted after the kid and waved her tongs, but the child was long gone.

Vanished into the crowd amid hundreds, maybe thousands of faces and bodies.

Sighing with frustration, the vendor promised to fry the customer another piece of meat.

Murati stood speechless for a moment.

Why would that happen? Was that child that desperate for a snack?

“Caught your breath yet, Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

“Yes. I’ll lead the way. Thank you for being patient with me.”

Murati started walking along with the crowd, keeping a cool façade but feeling a bit uneasy.

The Empire was different than she thought. In her reading, she had almost come to think of it as the Union but with a greedy upper class. Labor value was alienated from workers, who had to pay their dues to the Imperial government. Proletarians led humble lives while the Imperial aristocrats could have any luxury imaginable and as much of it as they wanted. Goods were exchanged for currency and currency was earned as a wage. Those technicalities were still true, but Murati was starting to ponder what luxury actually meant, and what kind of lives you could actually have on your wage in the Empire. That girl who stole; was that bit of meat so valuable as to directly harm another person for it? To steal their hard work and products so easily?

Murati knew that people in the Empire had to earn money for food.

Surely, anyone could earn enough for the measly five marks the vendor asked for?

How much was five marks actually worth then? It was troubling her.

In the Union, petty theft was nearly unheard of. Murati had a hard time wrapping her mind around the motivations because of this. Seeing that act transpire made her reflexively compare it to the Union context. She might have understood stealing from the aristocrats, but stealing from people in the community? And what for? For a snack? Maybe meat really was as valuable as Murati had thought and the vendor was actually much wealthier than she looked. Something was not adding up.

“I got a hold of a city map from the official Serrano visitor’s web page.” Zachikova said.  “The warehouses are to the northwest. There’s a small statue park between those two high rises,” she pointed ahead of them and to the right. “We can cut through there, less people, and it’s faster. The crowds avoid it, but those alleyways are supposedly cleaned and inspected regularly.”

“Statue park, huh?” Shalikova said, seemingly interested in her surroundings for the first time.

“Yes. There’s even a famous statue commemorating Serrano’s mascot, a stuffed pepper.”

“What? A stuffed pepper?” Shalikova’s eyes drew briefly wide in surprise.

“A stuffed pepper.” Zachikova said. She nodded her head solemnly.

Murati had not been paying much attention to Zachikova before; she wondered when she had time to look up all of this and how she had accomplished it without bringing a minicomputer along. Could she “see” data through her eyes? Murati had seen little digits flitting over the surface of cybernetic eyes in the past. Data was being downloaded to her brain technically, so maybe she had a “sense” that let her parse that data. That sounded challenging to do while walking, too.

Looking at Zachikova, she seemed completely untroubled and in command of herself.

Walking calmly and confidently, eyes forward and attentive.

She must have conquered any difficulties with her implants long ago.

They navigated the stream of bodies to an alley a block away and sneaked out.

Even in the alleys, there were people.

Delivery people bringing crates into the backs of shops from electric trolley carts, customers smoking near the side doors of clubs and restaurants after being asked to step out, workers throwing trash down chutes carefully hidden from the street view. In the gloomy world between the buildings, there weren’t crowds, but the tight alleys made every person seem like they took the space of ten. A group of three uniformed women stuck out amid scratched walls, puddles of nondescript fluids that had leaked, peeling paint and discarded refuse, and the rusty ductworks laid bare in places; but nobody gave more than a passing glance.

There were a few people who just stood in the alleys, back to the wall, as if asleep.

Murati thought they looked abandoned there. They looked as if forbidden to step outside.  

Serrano somehow contained a world so much more expansive than anything at Thassal, but also a second world much more confining and inhospitable than anything in the Union. There was a certain greasiness, a rusty smell of decay and neglect, that permeated these alleys. They were designed not to be seen. Even the poor, or at least, the non-ennobled, could be stratified like this. Some workers could be walking out in the streets or tending to shop fronts. But others did their duties in these alleys, away from the eyes of those massive crowds in the main street. Murati for a moment thought perhaps she was ascribing it too much significance and tried to check herself. As a student of history, Murati wanted to make everything a grand narrative.

To the people of Serrano, this was clearly just normal. It went wholly unacknowledged.

But then– why was there so much tension in the air?

Soon enough, the shape of that tension began to make itself clear to her.

Beyond the alleyways, the team made it to a little park which stood at an intersection between several buildings that were larger than average. The park was about thirty meters of sparse-looking green turf with a few statues on display. There was a tree, whether it was a synthetic air purifier or a real tree, Murati could not tell. And of course, the statues were indeed of a stuffed pepper with eyes and arms — a rather silly sight, but city mascots were not usually dignified.

However, this particular statue had company.

There was a group of people sitting on the green, at least a dozen scattered in different places. When they saw Murati and her group approaching three men began to wave at her. All of them looked a little shabby at first glance, but she became alarmed as she walked closer. Their clothes had seen some wear, and their shoes in particular looked completely worn out. Everyone was skinny, too skinny, their limbs and necks were too thin, and they had not had a shave in a very long time. Seeing them in such a state led Murati to accept their invitation and come closer.

“Nakara?”

Zachikova looked at Murati with confusion as the Lieutenant stepped on the green.

She kneeled in front of the men to try to make eye contact with them. They barely held her eyes with theirs. They tried to smile — they looked incredibly happy to be acknowledged at least.

“Hello, what happened to you? Are all of you okay?”

Murati asked what must have sounded to them like such a naïve question.

One of the men responded with a kind voice.

“What happened? Ah, this and that, ma’am. Everyone’s got stories. I was laid off for missing too many days of work. My head wasn’t right with me, you know. But right now, we’re just happy to see a friendly face. Me and the lads here, between the three of us we haven’t a mark to our names, nothing to eat. If you could spare anything for us, we’d never forget it.” He said.

Not a mark to their name? Nothing to eat? Did they not have a place to stay?

“You don’t have food? Do you have any place to go? We could escort you.” She asked.

“Ah, no ma’am, we appreciate it kindly, but we don’t have any place to go.” He said.

How could they not have shelter? Were they expected to sit out on the street forever?

“Are there any canteens around here that you could eat at without having to pay?”

Murati was still bewildered. All of the men gave her dejected shakes of the head.

“Hello? We have to keep moving.”

Standing a few meters away, Zachikova called out to Murati again.

Shalikova stood behind her, staring out at the people in the park in plain confusion.

Murati looked back at her over her shoulder and looked at the men again.

The man who had spoken kindly gave her a gentle expression, as if saying she could go.

“We understand ma’am. Thank you for blessing us with your pretty face all the same.”

All of them resigned themselves.

Murati was briefly speechless.

She stood fully upright and wandered back to Zachikova’s side, but not all of her was there. Her head was swimming with scattershot thoughts. She could not understand it. Why didn’t they have shelter? It was a station, under the ocean, what were they expected to do? There was only shelter and the inhospitable world outside, there should have been a place for them to go. If they didn’t have a room, if they were just laying around on the street– why? Why would it be like that? It didn’t make any sense to her.

She had read a lot about the Empire, their history, their strategies and tactical doctrines, monetary systems, the theory behind their social and economic systems. At no point did she consider that people could just lose their job and end up without food or shelter. She had spent some of her childhood as essentially a slave, and even then, the Empire fed her. Meagerly, but they did. They needed her and her parents to work, to be obedient. Didn’t they need to care for these men too in the same vein? These were workers!

How could they be abandoned here? Why?

“Zachikova, have you seen anything like this before?”

“Like what, Nakara?”

Zachikova had a relatively inexpressive response to the people at the park.

“These people don’t have homes or food.” Murati replied. “How can that be?”

“I’ve never seen conditions like this. It just doesn’t happen in the Union. That being said, we need to focus on the mission.” Zachikova said. “You’ve been terribly distracted all day. You must have a lot on your mind, but I really want to get back to the ship as soon as possible.”

Murati looked at her, feeling a little embarrassed. She had not been much of a leader so far.

“Contact the Captain for a moment.”

She looked at Zachikova with a renewed conviction. She had an idea in mind.

“Well. If you say so. But let’s step a bit farther away.”

“Agreed.”

Murati gestured for Shalikova to follow, and the three of them returned briefly to the alleys.

Zachikova tapped her finger on the side of one of her ears.

“Murati wants you, Captain.” She said, her tone hinting at reluctance.

Inaudibly, there was a response. Zachikova stared at Murati, prompting her to respond.

“Ask the Captain if we have any Imperial currency to bargain with.” She said.

Zachikova relayed the question. “She says we do have a stock in case it’s necessary.”

Murati pressed on. “Ask her how much.”

“She wants to know what for. She wants me to tell her what’s going on.”

“Tell her we found some people who need our help.” Murati said.

Dutifully, Zachikova relayed the situation as Murati explained it to the Captain.

gain, there was an inaudible response, but Zachikova’s body language clued Murati to its contents. Zachikova shook her head and crossed her arms. “She’s just sighing at you, Lieutenant.”

“Ask her how much money we have available.”

“Lieutenant, I don’t think–”

“Ask her.”

Murati stood her ground.

Zachikova sighed to herself.

“I see it’s useless to talk to you then. Okay– she says 3 million marks.”

Murati’s face briefly lit up.

“Those meat snacks were 5 marks each. It shouldn’t take much to feed them. Zachikova is it possible somehow that I can talk to the Captain about this myself? Can you patch me in?”

Sighing, Zachikova pulled out much of the structure of one of her antennae.

That long, flat-tipped, wrist-wide metal antennae that served as her “ear” came off.

She handed the piece to Murati, who held it up like a two-way handset.

Neither the mouth nor earpiece were clearly labeled, but Murati figured it out.           

At her side, Shalikova was looking at her with an unreadable expression on her face.

She stood close as if she wanted to try to hear what the Captain would say.

Murati spoke first.

“Captain–”

She did not get more than a word in before a loud grunt cut her off.

“Murati, the answer is no.” Captain Korabiskaya said through the communicator.

Murati closed her fist and grit her teeth.

“But we can help them. We can just buy them a little food or find them shelter.”

She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper, but she wanted to scream.

How could anyone hear of this atrocity and even consider turning away from it!

“Murati, it would attract attention we can’t afford. You will not do this. Move now.”

“It would attract attention just to give them money? Just to find them some food?”

“Yes. We shouldn’t discuss this much more. A bunch of encrypted traffic might–”

“How can you think of abandoning them! I admired you, Captain! You served in the–”

Captain Korabiskaya interrupted, frustrated. Murati had never heard her so upset before.

“This isn’t about me! I know it is unjust and I know it’s hard to ignore! Remember what we’re here for Murati! If you go off on your own to help a few people you could render us unable to help millions of people! Billions! You need to focus and do the job you were assigned!”

“What about getting them to shelter? Getting them a room? Is that so dangerous?”

“Murati, you don’t understand. Those aren’t just rooms on Imperial stations. All of that housing is owned by private people who sell it to citizens. A private owner can refuse to house people that don’t meet their standards. And food is also owned by private owners, who decide who they will sell to. You will be wasting your time trying to find someone who will give you a flat for beggars, because the landlords don’t want these people housed, and you can’t find them food because restaurants won’t sell to them! We are not in a position to help them directly, Murati!”

“How do you know this?” Murati asked, her voice rising almost to a shout.

“Because I grew up in the Empire!” The Captain replied. “I fought for the Union as a teen because I’d already had a childhood in the Empire! My family was stripped of our rights and deported! Murati, it is nothing like the Union. The Empire is not an entity that views its role as helping people who are hurting. Back then, men like these would have been deported to the colonies to work off their debts for life in mining or manufacturing. That’s what we’re up against.”

Murati listened, but she could not find it in herself to empathize with the Captain at all.

For the Captain to know of these people’s sufferings and still talk like this was monstrous!

“I can’t just stand here and do nothing, Captain. Those people will just die out here!”

“You will move from that location, and complete your assigned task, and that is how you will help them. This is an order, Murati. Think of the bigger picture, please, and keep moving.”

Murati felt something tug on her sleeve that drew her suddenly out of her building fury.

At her side, Shalikova wanted her attention.

“Lieutenant,”

She paused, briefly, finding it visibly difficult to say what she wanted.

“I understand how you feel.” Shalikova said at last. “But–”

Her eyes glanced back at the park with a sorrow that Murati could palpably feel.

Zachikova spoke up suddenly. “A public complaint was lodged on the station network.”

“A complaint? What do you mean by a complaint? What’s happening?” Murati asked.

“Citizens have reported the people in the plaza. Guards are being dispatched here.”

Murati’s eyes widened. She could not believe what she was hearing.

“Reported what about them? That they don’t have homes or food?”

Zachikova grit her teeth with frustration.

“I could read you the complaint verbatim but it’s useless, Lieutenant! We have to leave!”

“She’s right– Murati.” Shalikova added. “We can’t do anything to help them now.”

The normally icy Shalikova had such a mournful tone of voice that it shook Murati.

Murati felt so helpless then. She felt like an overgrown child, a stupid, powerless child.

A child who could not possibly do anything to affect the world around her. A child out of her depth, staring at a world cruel and callous beyond her imagination. Unable to form but the most amorphous idea of the wrongness she felt, or how she could possibly set any of it right.

All the theory she had read, all the things she understood about the Empire–

Those things leaked out of her skull like blood from a wound and emptied her mind.

Seeing those people abandoned to their deaths for no reason– Gritting her teeth with the frustration and pain of that moment– It was entirely different than anything she had experienced. Monumentally different than simply reading about capitalism. That formless, massive evil thing was flaunting its power and she was helpless before it. Her sense of justice was a bleeding wound.

“You’re right, Shalikova, Zachikova. I’m sorry for holding us up. Let’s go.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s voice came cross the handset one last time. “Thank you, Murati.”

Murati brusquely returned Zachikova’s antenna and started walking away before the rest.

Conspicuously she had not acknowledged the Captain in that final exchange.            

That child inside her who was screaming and crying as if told of death for the first time in her life hated the messenger who had forced her to acknowledge her helplessness and lack of depth. She felt a terrible, stupid, petty anger toward Captain Korabiskaya. The Captain was right; and Murati did not want to acknowledge it. She hated it. She hated her with a sudden, insane passion.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.4]

“Captain, is this correct?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, right, this situation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Korabiskaya balked. “Uncharacteristically–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

It made sense the military reflected that.

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

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

Everyone was different and everyone had different experiences and situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova averted her gaze.

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

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

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

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

“Alright, Ensign Sonya Shalikova!”

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova briefly turned a gaze full of violence to Murati.

With much consternation, she turned back to the group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her very fluffy tail swayed gently.

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

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

Khadija clapped her hands together again, keeping incessantly cheerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Unfortunately, Murati stole my girl from me–”

“–Huh?”

Ignoring Murati’s brief confusion, Sameera went on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lively bunch, for sure.

Everyone on the Brigand was a little eccentric.

Murati looked down at her roster again.

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

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

“Yes, thank you Lieutenant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova looked to be actively ignoring her surroundings.

Sameera was confused by everyone else’s response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aiden grit his teeth but said nothing back to her.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zachikova,”

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

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

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

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

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

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

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s her problem?”

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

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was really nothing to see.

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

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

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

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

It read: “80085”

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

Zachikova smiled.

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


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.1]

In a dark corner of Serrano station, packed tightly between nondescript storage buildings, a young woman stood over an older man and brought her hand down to his forehead. He stared up at her with eyes wide and blank in horror, jaw hanging. He could neither move nor speak to her. She could see in the crevices of his mind that he was a Union spy. She could not see enough to form a clear picture of his deeds and capabilities, but she could feel the texture of his identity. She could reach into him and feel the fingerprints of his soul.

Molecular control.”

Small tendrils extended from her fingertips which only she could see.

Like tiny currents of air, they curled into the man’s nose and eyes.

Something called to her with a deep, mocking voice. It was not the spy’s voice.

Wow, look at you! I’m so proud! Despite your disdain, you’ve truly mastered my “evil” methods!

“Shut up!”

That voice in the back of her head quieted, though not out of respect.

She had to make a concerted effort to silence it.

Had she been less gifted, she would not have been able to both control herself, and the man prostrated in front of her. She pried from him what she wanted — a way out of Serrano. A way out of the Imbrium Empire. It was not possible to escape to the Republic, and returning East was too dangerous. The ruined state of Katarre stood in the way of any possible escape through Skarsgaard so there was only one place to run to.

She had to escape to the Union to have any kind of future.

“You will do everything in your power to get me aboard the next Union smuggling ship.”

At her feet, the man under her control nodded his head.

Blood started dribbling from her nose.

Even though this was an Apostle’s ability, and despite all the power she had, it was not enough.

She could not sustain the control for very long.

All that she could do, she found, was plant in him a way to become involved with him.

“I have information for the Union. I’m a political refugee. Get me aboard their next ship.”

“I will get you aboard their next ship. No problem, doll.”

“Contact the Union to pay the smugglers. Set everything up like a real Union job.”

“I’ve done it a million times, babe. Just relax and I’ll take care of it.”

Under her hand, the man’s lips curled into a self-satisfied smile. Her control was flagging.

As satisfied as she could be, she tore her hand away and tried to look innocent as possible.

He kept smiling as he came to his senses.

He trusted her.

She had made his memories reflect that.


There was a figure, black and white, grinning viciously. Its eyes had a red glow around them.

A hand reached out to her, its fingers going right through the bridge of her nose.

Fingers became thick tentacles. Followed by a spectacular shower of blood–

“Aaah!”

Ensign Sonya Shalikova woke suddenly, gasping for breath, struggling with her blankets.

A nightmare– then, moments after she sat up and began to breathe, her alarm sounded.

Her back shot up straight, and her head struck the hard plastic privacy cover half-closed over her bed. Falling back onto her pillow, rubbing her head furiously, images of blood and brains still rolling over in her thoughts. Tears escaped from her eyes in a tiny trickle. Everything felt the most wretched that it possibly could. She smelled sweat and the stale metallic air of the ship; everything was dark save for a strip of light through a tiny crack below her door. She was cold. She felt the movement of the air in the room on her clammy skin.

She shivered, a cold tremor running down her spine.

“Fuck.”

It was 0600 hours. She was on a ship: The Brigand, a next generation “assault carrier.”

Nothing about it felt special. It was as dismal as any other ship.

Certainly, it had nothing on the Dreadnought she had fought with at Thassalid Trench.

Shalikova stood up from the bed. She was on a ship; nothing bad had happened.

Ambling to the other side of the room, she laid down on the second bed in her room.

On this bed there was a very well cared for stuffed bear, Comrade Fuzzy.

Shalikova took Comrade Fuzzy into an embrace, laying in that empty bed in her underwear.

As a pilot, Shalikova had the luxury of an officers’ quarters all to herself.

Though the size of the accommodations was the same as that of a Sailor’s, she did not have to share it with anyone which gave her more space to work with. A space that bunked eight people was more than roomy for a single young girl with two bunks. She never really felt lonely in there: being with other people, if anything, would have been worse in her opinion. Her meals in that noisy canteen were frequently annoying.

All she needed was Comrade Fuzzy to hug when she felt too stressed.

Soon, however, a second alarm sounded at 0630 hours.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

“Sorry Comrade Fuzzy. I have to go to work.”

Not that there was any work for her to do, but she was expected to be around.

She had been sailing with the Brigand for a few days since the attack of Leviathan ULV-96, in a battle she did not participate in. Her itinerary had been empty during this time since she did not have a Diver. Her Diver was due to be set up in a day. At some point Nakara would convene the squad formally.

Until then, they were just infantry, taking up space on the ship.

Shalikova therefore had a lot more idle time to look forward to.

What did one do on a ship with that amount of time to burn?

For Shalikova, that was something she discovered day by day.

First, she really needed a shower. Her whole body felt disgusting.

Why had she sweat so much? Why was she having nightmares now?

Of course, she was no longer on a station. So, to shower, she had to go out into the hall and walk into the bathroom. Aside from the toilet stalls it was an open floor plan. For the first day, this had been a mortifying ordeal. On the second day, it had been merely stressful. She expected that today, it would only be annoying. Thankfully, everyone on the ship received a vinyl robe with their bunk that they could wear to go shower and take off and on there.

Everyone respected the code of the vinyl robe — whoever was wearing one was going to shower.

Leave them alone.

When she walked out in her robe, there were very few people out and about.

The floor was cold, even with plastic slippers. She hurried to the bathroom.

While Shalikova lived in one of the least crowded places on the ship, that never stopped her from complaining, or feeling stressed out that someone might show up. And indeed, her worst fear was confirmed as soon as she neared the sliding door into the bathroom. She could hear the shower going, and worse, someone making all kinds of noise inside. She even recognized a voice.

Sliding open the door, Shalikova peeked inside.

On the Brigand the bathroom was split into two halves. An open shower spread out right across the door so that anyone coming in was bound to get an eyeful of breasts or someone’s dick — in Shalikova’s case that morning she saw both at once. To get to the closed stall toilets or the mirrors and sinks, one had to hit a left turn from the door. Shalikova found the design completely psychotic.

Their showers amounted to little more than a slightly angled bit of the floor plan with drains and showerheads on the walls. In Stations, the showers would mist your body to conserve water so that tens of thousands of people could have enough fresh water for their daily needs. The Brigand, on the other hand, was sucking in water all of the time and could easily desalinate enough for 200 people, so it had full showerheads and amazing pressure. It was the only upside to sailing.

“Good morning! Oh! It’s you Shalikova! You’re so consistent in the mornings!”

Alexandra Geninov immediately greeted Shalikova as she entered. A tall, lean young woman with broad shoulders, of course completely uncovered in the shower. Her honey-brown skin glistening wet under a gentle spray of water; rinsing her long, silky brown hair. Shalikova had met those odd eyes in the shower before. Alex seemed to like that time before 0700 to catch a shower.

“We should all be getting up by 0700.” Shalikova said, in lieu of any explanation.

Alex was playing with the soap in her hands. Moving it from one hand to the next.

“That’s where you’re wrong! This ain’t the Academy anymore! You’re an adult now, you can make your own schedule. As long as you’re with your work group by 0900 anyway.”

Alex turned a big grin on her.

Left and then right; she passed the soap between her hands. She wasn’t thinking about it.

When she brushed the soap bar against her skin, she used her left hand preferentially.

An observation Shalikova made, quickly, unconsciously.

“If you need to be ready by 0900, you can’t put much of anything on your own schedule.”

“You can get a couple good runs of Climbing Comrades in that time!”

“Maybe you can.”

Talking to Alex further would just be stalling. Shalikova wanted to be out of the shower.

With a heavy sigh, she began to disrobe.

Alex had never stopped looking her way. She had her back to the shower and water was falling over her head, but her eyes were wide open. She kept playing with the soap– did she realize how annoying she was being? Shalikova and locked eyes with her hoping to communicate her unbridled antagonism in that moment; but the happy-go-lucky Geninov was not so easily deterred. Was she just that thick, or did she enjoy this?

“Geninov, could you turn around?”

“Huh? I thought we’d built up a rapport! Shower buddies!”

“We really have not. I don’t build a rapport with anyone by showering.”

Alex turned around, so Shalikova was now staring at her ass rather than the rest.

“Didn’t you do this kind of thing at the academy too? We all had communal showers back then. Talking in a communal shower is kinda fun, it builds trust. Don’t you think so?”

“Clearly I don’t. Trusting you wouldn’t change this situation at all for me anyway.”

“You’re so shy! You know, we’ve got the same junk, we don’t need to be ashamed–”

“Shut up and stay turned around or we’ll see who paid more attention in combat training.”

Shalikova finally discarded her robe and bra at the edge of the shower.

She walked to the wall and turned the dial to start the water jet.

Something slid across the floor and struck her softly on her foot.

A yellow bar of soap covered in foam and a bit of brown hair. Hurled by Alex’s left hand.

“Need help washing your back?” Alex said, looking over her shoulder with a smile.

Shalikova picked up the soap and started to rub it against her own skin.

“Quit teasing or I’ll hurl this back at your face.”

Alex smiled. “That’s some serious hand-eye coordination! You ever play any games?”

Shalikova gave her a violent glare. “I’ve played enough to hit your head from here easily.”

Was she really getting anything out of peeping at and teasing a skinny girl like her?

Thankfully, she really did stop teasing her when Shalikova threatened to whack her.

Done rinsing her hair, again primarily with her left hand–

And yet, Shalikova was sure she had seen her use her right hand before.

Maybe ambidextrous? Not that it mattered. Just minutia her eyes couldn’t help but pick up.

Soon, Alex was gone with a tittering goodbye, seemingly untroubled by their interactions.

Shalikova stood under the water, unmoving, in silence, until she used her allotment of shower water. At that point, there was a beep and the shower simply stopped dispensing any more water. It took around fifteen minutes. It was blissful, quiet. Nothing to see and nobody to see her.

“Whatever.”

Without fanfare, Shalikova toweled off her white hair and with her pale skin still slightly wet, she put on her vinyl robe and walked back to her room, dripping slightly on the floor. On the way back, she walked across Alex in full uniform, who waved at her. She was probably coming back from her room after having dressed. Shalikova did not wave back; she just walked past her. 

She had been correct. It had not been mortifying or stressful; it was simply annoying.

Now she could go through the rest of her morning routine.

Once she was back in her room, she pulled out a drying shelf from a nearby wall panel and hung her robe on it. A gentle, warm fan would dry it off. She pulled tube off the side of the drying shelf and blew some warm air at her hair and face. Her underwear she dropped down a chute, where a pneumatic tube would deposit it in her clothes basket in the laundry room. Before donning a new set of clothes, she kneeled in front of her bed, pulling open the personal chest beneath.

From the chest, she dug out a box of patches, simply labeled E+.

Using a cloth, she dried up a spot on her rear and applied the patch there. She then took a big yellow pill from a bottle and brought it over to the wall with the drying rack. From a panel next to the drying rack, she brought out water-dispensing arm. Taking the pill into her mouth, she bent close to the waterspout and took a drink to swallow it. She slid the arm back into the wall.

Careful that her estrogen patch remained in place, she slid into her black bodysuit.

Using a tool to reach behind her back, she zipped it up tight.

Over the bodysuit she wore the black pants and white, sleeveless button-down of her new uniform. She had no opinion on it; a uniform was just a uniform. It was not what she would wear casually, but what she would wear casually was not that much different from it. She had a couple of things to complain about, and the uniform ranked low on that list. One thing she did take some umbrage to was that “Treasure Box Transports” was such a childish-sounding fake name.

She ran her hands through her white hair. It was damp, but not dripping anywhere.

For now, she did not put on the teal jacket, and walked out of her room without it.

Her next order of business was securing some rations.

Then she would think of anything else to do.

The Canteen was big enough to sit sixty people at a time on three long tables that each had ten seats on each side. In one corner there was the kitchen counter, behind which the ship Cook whipped up meals in big batches. There was also a table that always had broth, crackers and dried veggies set out for the crew, and anyone could take some if it satisfied them, at any hour of the day. Despite the size of the crew, the Canteen ran smoothly, and was rarely filled to capacity.

Shalikova felt like an actual breakfast that morning, so she approached the counter.

 There was another woman behind the counter with the Cook. A blond, green-eyed, and olive-skinned Shimii whom Shalikova had not met before. She had foregone a hair net and had her hair tied up in a ponytail instead. Those big, tall, yellow-furred ears probably complicated wearing the net just a bit. Shalikova noticed her hair was starting to go a little gray in parts, and there were hints of crow’s feet near her eyes she had gone to some lengths to obscure with fancy red wine-colored makeup. She was holding a big plastic spoon with a grip that resembled how a pilot would hold their control sticks.

When Shalikova approached, she was unnoticed by either of the women.

“…so I did tell him that I was not interested at all! But can you imagine, the nerve?”

“Hah, that’s brazen, asking someone out two days into the trip! Only sailors would do it!”

“I was flattered, but he’s so young. Maybe if it had been a woman I would’ve been–”

Shalikova frowned and narrowed her eyes at them. “Excuse me.” She mumbled.

“Don’t let the Commissar and the Captain hear you saying things like that!”

“Oh, then you didn’t know. There’s a bit of a juicy rumor about those two.”

“Really? Do tell, do tell! I won’t be in this kitchen forever you know.”

“Well, I met with them for menu stuff the other day, and the chemistry they have–”

“Ah, I see, I see! I suppose a Captain and a Commissar is a popular romance trope!”

“Oh, this is more than just tropes. I can tell those two have some saucy history–”

Every day, a few people were “volun-told” to go help serve food to the sailor and officers. This gave them a break from their other jobs and allowed the Cook to focus on cooking. Or in the Brigand’s case, fooling around. Shalikova realized the older cat and the Cook were very immersed in their discussion. Shalikova had met the cook yesterday: Logia Minardo, a chronically energetic older woman with short dark hair and elegant red lips, dressed in a white apron over her TBT uniform and a red bodysuit. She had her sleeves rolled back showing off some strong arms.

Logia Minardo had probably been in the infantry years ago. Whenever she got distracted while chopping vegetables, Minardo briefly flipped her knife as if she were going to thrust into an enemy combatant, with a brutal reverse grip. But she corrected herself quickly, maybe so quickly she herself did not even know she had assumed a combat stance for any amount of time. Then she would chop whatever vegetables. Nobody else seemed to be paying attention to that. Someone in the Union who left basic training and went on with their life would not develop such habits.

Not that it was any of Shalikova’s business and she certainly would not have made it hers. It was solely a curious observation which she made and then filed away, never to reference. Minardo chopped vegetables routinely, however, so it was not an uncommon sight in the kitchen. That was another habit Shalikova noticed while staring at her: she composed meals very lovingly. Some cooks just threw the ingredients into a pot and made stone soup. Minardo rehydrated the dried mushrooms for the day’s meal using a bit of broth, chopped, and fried them gently in oil.

Shalikova shook her head. This was no time to write a mental dossier on this lady.

Her stomach was rumbling.

“Hello! I would like the beans please!”

Shalikova raised her voice.

She pointed her finger at the tray of white bean stew behind the counter.

Both women suddenly glanced her way and then looked terribly embarrassed.

“Oh, I’m so sorry dear! I’m such an airhead. I’ll take care of you.”

That Shimii woman was all smiles now as she served Shalikova. Having heard her earlier talk, Shalikova now viewed her chipper attitude with suspicion and maintained an unfriendly glare.

“So, you want the white bean stew; do you want any mushrooms?”

“No thank you. I’ll take the white bean stew and the pickled salad sandwich.”

“Lovely! By the way, I’m Khadija. I apologize for not noticing you.”

Every meal on a Union ship or station was composed of a protein, a vegetable or fruit, and a carb, usually a bread. Breakfast was the lightest meal of the day and usually composed of a cup of soup and a small sandwich. It was entirely replaceable by the broth, dried veggies, and biscuits Minardo and Khadija had laid out for the crew to self-serve, but there was still a cooked meal. Small triangle half-sandwiches with pickles and dressing accompanied either fried mushrooms or white bean stew. Not much of a selection, but all of it looked appetizing to Shalikova.

Whatever their faults as people, these two old women could cook.

Khadija ladled soup into a cup and set it on Shalikova’s tray with two triangle sandwiches.

She winked. “You can have an extra. Don’t tell anyone.”

Behind her, Minardo sighed. “We don’t have so much that you can give out extras.”

“Just this once!” Khadija laughed.

“Fine, fine.”

Shalikova really wanted to say this wasn’t at all necessary, but to avoid further contact with Khadija she sighed and went along with it. Yesterday, the volunteer helper was Alex Geninov, and whatever one might say about her own issues with professionalism, she at least paid attention to what she was doing and followed the rules. Shalikova held firmly to her dim estimation of Khadija as she walked away from the counter, and the two women went right back to their cheerful gossip.

Her social energy already completely exhausted for one day, Shalikova found a corner with a three-seat gap to the nearest person and sat there so as to not be disturbed and hopefully not be accompanied. She set down her plate, picked up her reusable spork, and started to eat. For a moment she felt just the slightest bit thankful to Khadija for the extra sandwich because the savory, crunchy, oily bite she took was quite excellent. The stew was rich and creamy with a hint of tomato.

People started to come in and sit down.

Shalikova watched from afar.

Everyone always had some mannerism that they did that only Shalikova seemed to notice.

Whether it was the way Alex Geninov held her hands like she had a joystick in them when she was lost in thought, or the way the cook Minardo chopped vegetables or how Khadija’s tail swung faster when she was speaking about women than men, or the way that Captain Korabiskaya rapped her fingers on the table with one hand while eating with the other– there was no end of people coming and going in this hall, and so no end of things that Shalikova saw. Sometimes it fascinated her to watch them. She also sometimes feared they were all watching her too.

No one ever looked her way. But that did not stop her from being anxious.

If she could see them to this degree, could they look back and see the same in her?

She had practically been able to measure Alex’s torpedo in the shower.

So, was Alex staring back to that degree?

What would she think?

Did everyone see Shalikova as some kind of busy-body, or a pest? Did she have some little despicable habit that made all of them miserable? She tried her best to seem as normal as possible to everyone around her, and to be sparing with her words to avoid trouble. Perhaps in doing so, she seemed unsociable or unfriendly– hell really was other people! Shalikova sighed openly.

She tried not to think of such stress-inducing things again and focused on her food.

Soon as she had finished the last of her stew and ate both her sandwiches, there was a bit of a press of bodies in front of the counter. A large workgroup of sailors showed up, all at the same time. There were so many people, it really felt like a quarter of the crew had just decided to swamp the canteen that morning. A lot of them were covered in grease and looked rather bedraggled.

Owing to their lax pace before this surge hit, the two women behind the counter were nearly out of food and between batches. Sandwiches were found in a variety of stages of completion, and the careful touch that characterized Minardo’s cooking meant there were all sorts of ingredients in pots and pans but very little out on trays for people to get. And for a crowd this big that had been working hard, biscuits and broth were not an acceptable substitute for a good breakfast.

Khadija tried her best to charm everyone, but there was a bit of unease from the crowd.

Shalikova watched for a few minutes.

Visually, it was a terrible mess.

It was impossible for her to figure out where to put her eyes.

Just an absolute mess of limbs and heads. She could make out nothing from the crowd.

Nothing except how annoyed they were and how much stress she felt.

And the line was interminable. Something had to be done.

She felt an increasing pressure looming over her, especially as grouchy people started to sit closer and closer. Either she could leave, or she could try to do something about it. What would the rest of her day be like? Without piloting duties, she just had free time. She did not even have a workgroup to show up to. Short of personally asking Murati Nakara for work to do–

“Oh god damn it.”

Shalikova stood up from her corner and walked with gritted teeth over to the counter.

She slipped between people as much as she could and made it to the side door.

“Chief! Let me in. I’ll help cook for the day.”

Screaming at herself internally, Shalikova waved her hand at Minardo.

Minardo stared at her briefly, and then beamed at her.

“Oh goodness! Our heroine has arrived. Come in! Get an apron and get the soup going!”

She opened up the side door and Shalikova stepped in with her fists at her sides.

Khadija briefly noticed her, and her eyes lit up with a sudden happiness.

Shalikova avoided her staring, picked up an apron, and set about her day’s work.

“Idiot,” she mumbled to herself, stirring a pot, “can’t ever turn a blind eye, huh Sonya?”


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

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

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

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

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.

“Nothing.”

She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.


“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.


Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.


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