Bandits Amid The Festival [11.7]

Kreuzung’s Tower Two was an enormous supplemental seaport.

It was one of Kreuzung’s oldest support towers.

Even from the exterior one could tell apart the numerous seams for the closed steel doors to its berths. Originally it had been designed to accommodate a dozen cargo super-haulers that had become the Empire’s workhorse transport ships during the colonization period. Each of these vessels was almost the size of a station tier, so an entire tower was needed to accept them, unload their cargo, repair and maintain them, and send them back on their way.

Gradually, super-haulers began to disappear from the oceans around Kreuzung.

Not only because of the recent turmoil– since the Fueller dynasty took power, the Newtype Tower V station, much smaller and humbler than its predecessors, had become the leading form of architecture in the Imbrium. Any new station was a macro-stitched Newtype Tower V with an adjacent Nautilus II Separated Seaport block attached to the tower by tube trams. Sometimes a few small towers were linked to the seaport block, expanding capacity and creating a station complex. Each of these towers was roughly 2/3 the size of one of Kreuzung’s supporting towers, but depending on the interior configuration, they could squeeze almost as many people in poorer accommodations that were cheaper to maintain.

Huge stations like Kreuzung would never be built again. Perhaps in time only the rich would afford living in them, with all the poor segregated to smaller towers. At any rate: massive ships with the capacity to carry mind-boggling quantities of materials to a remote worksite were largely unneeded. This shift then led most current high-capacity seaports to convert many of their enormous berths to support the docking of multiple smaller vessels, increasing capacity for cheap to achieve greater profit on space they already had. While this came at the expense of the quality of service and safety at those berths, there was no turning back. Tower Two still hosted much of the Kreuzung Complex’s freight processing, but it was now also the most accessible seaport for private yachts and luxury cruise ships, ambulant resorts, and other kinds of pleasure vessels unwilling to deal with security in the Core Station.

On the tower’s northeastern side, a berth opened to allow a simple cylindrical vessel to exit the seaport and begin its journey. It was a workhorse private transport craft about fifty meters long and thirty wide, built for endurance and safety over looks, like a metallic-blue crate with hydrojets leaving streams of bubbles and distorted water in its wake. It climbed out of the Kreuzung crater and maintained a stable course close to the ground, over the rocky, sandy surface of the surrounding seafloor. It navigated away, bound north-west.

On its side, there was a stylized logo, depicted as if long beams and bolts of blue could be seen shining at acute angles across the cursive lettering that read: Raylight Beauty.

“Once we’re out of Kreuzung’s jurisdiction, set up an encrypted line to Aachen.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Use the Gladbach relay, not Kreuzung’s. Monitor the connection closely.”

“Understood.”

Kremina Qote left the crew behind and retired to her VIP quarters in the middle of the ship. Like the ship itself, it was not anything too extravagant. But it was private; she had her own bed, a door she could lock, her own desk, her own monitor to work with. She could be reasonably certain that nobody would interfere with her affairs, and she could shut out the world outside. Nobody would hear her. There were no adjacent accommodations.

She sat down on her bed and looked down at her own shoes.

Her jaw tense. Fist opening and closing.

By all rights, she had completed the mission that she had been given.

She had been sent to Kreuzung to meet with Solarflare LLC, but upon discovering the presence of Nagavanshi’s little guerilla mission, she was instructed to send them to Aachen, to join the United Front against the Volkisch. Redirecting them away from their suicide mission to Buren was necessary and useful, and their mission profile already included helping any resistance movements they found along the way. After all, that originally had been Daksha’s desire which Nagavanshi just twisted out of shape under clauses and subclauses, as she always did. No one could judge Kremina derelict on the basic facts of her mission. Not Gloria; not Daksha herself. Kremina had secured their assistance as instructed.

However, she had failed in her own personal goal.

As soon as she heard of the Brigand, she both feared and coveted their assistance.

She was of two minds approaching them, and she tried her best to navigate it– but–

Kremina did not account for the stubborn desire of the Brigand’s officers to remain free of Daksha’s command at any cost. Then she was completely blindsided by the nature of their alliance with that upstart Erika Kairos. She was not satisfied with simply putting them on course to Aachen. Kremina had wanted to either control them or sideline them politically. After they made their intentions not to join Kansal clear, diverting them to the Rotfront should have been the end of all her problems. But now Kremina was not sure about the rigor of her previous logic anymore. The Rotfrot was perhaps more ascendant than she thought possible. They had managed not just to ally with the Brigand, but to completely annex them.

Ulyana Korabiskaya could introduce new possibilities into the ecosystem at Aachen.

Erika Kairos could become more than a junior partner in the United Front.

Daksha Kansal’s influence could be explicitly upset by the Brigand’s actions.

And in fact– it could even be Ulyana Korabiskaya’s aim to overthrow her entirely.

“Daksha– what are you thinking–?”

When Daksha left the Union in the hands of that insipid idealist Ahwalia and that utilitarian brute Jayasankar, Kremina had followed dutifully because she believed in her. She owed her life and allegiance to Daksha Kansal. Only Daksha Kansal had the correct line– only she had the vision to save these troubled seas from themselves. Leaving the Sunlight Foundation had been the right move. Leaving the Union could have been a smart play as well.

Now though– Kremina was not so sure what Daksha was trying to do anymore.

That doubt, which she was so unfamiliar with, scared her utterly.

It scared her so much, that it made Ulyana Korabiskaya’s words feel like a threat.

A threat to an edifice that should have been impregnable, indestructible.

“Kremina? I’m glad you called. I’ve been worried about you. Gloria’s been saying things.”

At the appropriate time, the crew connected their vessel via laser to the Gladbach relay. Rhinea had the most developed inter-station network in all of the duchies. In addition to direct connection to the relays, there were many relay buoys that could be used to develop stable connections to the inter-station network even while in transit. Therefore, the ship could continue to travel at a relatively breezy speed, while the picture of Daksha Kansal, speaking in real time, hardly ever shifted in quality on Kremina’s screen.

She was beautiful– the most beautiful woman Kremina had ever seen.

Her long brown hair, even as it began gently fading to white; the sharpness of her eyes, even as the crow’s feet began to form in the corners; her easy smile, the warm color of her skin, even as the wrinkles had begun to appear; the figure of an adventurer, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, yet looking professor-like in her mock turtleneck and synthetic jacket. These days she wore bell-bottomed vinyl pants and heeled shoes, perhaps the influence of the fashionista now under her wing. These weren’t visible on the call, but Kremina knew.

Daksha was always visible in her mind, and in her mind she was always perfect.

She was beautiful– but she was also aging. Another thing Kremina did not understand.

Kremina never achieved immortality. She only delayed her own aging by a feeble amount through the use of exotic chemicals she no longer had access to. She was growing old too.

Daksha Kansal did not have to grow old, like her.

Daksha Kansal was one of the Immortals, and yet, she threw it all away too.

“How are you? Gloria is not upset with you, but I’m not happy about what she’s told me.”

Kremina’s eyes snapped out of the dream-like reverie of seeing her old master once more.

“I am not here because I value Luxembourg’s esteem.” Kremina replied. “Look, Daksha, I did what you asked. Nagavanshi’s pawns are now on their course to Aachen. Whatever else– was a product of their choices. All I did was give them information and set up contacts for them.”

Daksha smiled. “You can’t pretend as if that last episode with them didn’t happen.”

“I lost my temper. It’s irrelevant. They were never going to join us anyway.”

“I was never concerned about whether or not they would join us.” Daksha said. “I’m happy if it’s just you and me and then our allies. Now I’m afraid they might have the wrong idea and think that we set out to antagonize them. That might lead to unnecessary friction later.”

“Daksha, they should join you! You should throw your weight around more!”

Kremina was in a mood– so she let slip a little more than she usually would.

“Ah. I think I see what’s going on.” Daksha said. “Kremina–”

She felt like she had been scolded and it embittered her. “I know– I know–”

“Clearly you don’t.” Daksha said. She was not mad. She was giving Kremina a fond look, like long distance lovers catching each other’s gaze. Despite this, her words were firm. “Kremina. I deeply treasure you. This is why you’re the only person who is indispensable to me and the only person I trust to represent me. But this time, you went out of line– it is my fault, for not giving you a clearer vision of my goals. But the fact remains. You cannot conquer the Ocean for Daksha Kansal by yourself, in my stead– I don’t want you to do anything like that.”

Despite the soft delivery, Kremina still felt so stung. She couldn’t understand it!

“Daksha,” she was almost tearing up, “Why– why are you choosing to die?”

Any foolish or vain action on Daksha’s part was excusable if she was immortal.

That she was aging, that her time in the world was limited, made everything more urgent.

Kremina’s conversations with Ulyana Korabiskaya finally laid bare feelings of grief and anxiety that she had been burying for so long. Ulyana dared to say she could challenge Daksha Kansal. Because Daksha was no longer as powerful and invincible as she once was.

That open wound the audacious Captain unknowingly ripped open, now bled profusely.

Onto that room on the UNX Brigand, onto this ship and onto the screen.

“So that’s what this is about then.” Daksha said.

“Of course it is. Nothing makes sense because of that.” Kremina replied.

Daksha smiled again and took the tone of a professor delivering a lecture.

Kremina was left so speechless by the sudden turn in their discussion, she did not interrupt.

“Do you really know about the Immortals, Kremina? You never were allowed to be part of the inner circle, even though you were so devoted to me. You don’t know how each of them found their own immortality. Yangtze, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Potomac, Hudson and myself, formerly, Ganges. All of us are esteemed as geniuses who defeated death, but that is entirely empty techno-utopianist rhetoric. You don’t know the truths; I’ll tell you.”

When she spoke of them, Daksha betrayed a certain fondness as if telling old war stories.

“Yangtze cheated death by combining biomechanics with the Pelagis Process, allowing her to grow backup bodies in vats which receive a digitized education in the form of her memories, implanted into the biomechanoid brain of the new body. When I saw the results, as much as I wanted to work with her– seeing a new Yangtze born– it horrified me so much.”

She averted her gaze. “Meanwhile Potomac keeps herself eternally youthful and alive through her discoveries in pluripotent stem cell therapy and surgery. She grows and discards organs as needed. I can’t fault her for it– but it did make me question things. Same with Hudson. Hudson doesn’t purge her body of unwanted organs with new ones; rather, she has replaced her entire body with immortal cybernetics. And yet, she still longs for even more.”

Kremina continued to listen, her heart shaken and reeling with the weight of those words.

“Nile is infected with a cocktail of horrific and rare diseases. She did not choose to be infected with them, but the end result has kept her body alive for over a hundred years and counting; but if they are not controlled, she is a living apocalypse waiting to happen. Being infected with one of the diseases and not all would result in excruciating death, not immortality. She knows this and is ready– to take steps– should it ever be required.”

A dire and clumsily put insinuation.

“As for Euphrates herself,” upon mentioning her, Daksha sighed openly, “Euphrates is the only really Immortal person out of all of us. But she didn’t ask to be that way, Kremina. She was never so power-hungry. She was just born with some kind of condition. People, when she was born, where she grew up– they didn’t understand it. She was a medical guinea pig. It took the collapse of the surface world for her exploitation to end. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen her really vulnerable– I saw it when she baptized me with aether– an insinuation of the things they did to her.” Daksha kept pausing every so often and kept hanging on her words. Kremina knew this was all difficult for her to say. She sat astonished by it.

“Because of what I saw, I never asked her about the surface and I never will. Meanwhile, Tigris, she was a miracle for Euphrates. She imperfectly inherited Euphrates’ disorder through a spinal fluid transfusion. Her regeneration was enough to save her life. It was also the only time I have seen Euphrates so quickly disavow her own ethics. She must have really been madly in love. I thought, back then, we needed Immortality to safeguard our goals.”

Daksha shut her eyes. “So finally, there is me. You’ve extended your life a little bit, Kremina, but never found immortality. You don’t have Potomac or Yangtze’s technology, so all you could do is make yourself a little healthier. I don’t judge you for that– we influenced you after all. I influenced you. I was an Immortal. I found a way to prolong my life.”

Kremina hung on every word, eyes drawn wide, lips shut tightly together.

“Kremina, pay attention to the wages of my sin, and my greatest shame.”

She watched Daksha Kansal raise her hand in front of the screen, palm up.

King’s Chalice.

With trained precision, Kremina reacted, faster than thought.

Oracle’s Voice.

Red rings around both their eyes, as Kremina began to see in terms of auras, vectors, and other psionic phenomena in response to Daksha’s invocation. Kremina had never achieved the second and third gifts, but she knew about psionics and knew enough to protect herself as best as she could and dissect attempts to influence her. She could see that Daksha’s palm was not barren as it would be to the eye of an untrained person.

Instead, there was a flame dancing on her palm.

White and black flame that flickered with an eerie warmth.

From multiple directions as if drawn out of the walls, the little flame coalesced in her hand.

It had a soft texture, to Kremina’s eyes, and it gave her an almost nostalgic feeling, as if it was a pitiable little thing that deserved coddling. For Daksha to hold it, she had to focus black and white aura in halves over her own palm. Manipulating these types of aura was a skill that required a lot of emotional control. Black aura was the aura of death, the despair of mortality or the desire to kill, and trying to deliberately channel it could cause the user to lose control or succumb to perverse intentions. Meanwhile, White aura was often associated with the sublime, or the eldritch, or even with pure insanity. It was a sight beyond human that very few could actually experience. Daksha was unequaled when it came to Aetherics.

As Kremina observed the little flame, she also thought that she heard–

–voices, voices that sang of memories, and a glow in which Kremina could see figures,

and Daksha’s skin, illuminated by the ghosts,

lightening, hair brightening, crow’s feet softening, appearing as herself of yesteryear

beautiful, angelic until

her palm closed snuffing out the little life

aging and weakening again before shock-wide eyes–

Kremina teared up, her voice trembled. “Daksha. That is– is that–”

“It’s human life, Kremina. I used Aetherics to steal life from others for myself.”

When Daksha’s psionics dispelled, Kremina watched as the little flame of humanity she had gathered, presumably from people outside the room she was in, from people in the halls, maybe even from Gloria somewhere in the distance– all of it dissipated and began to trail back to where it was taken. Daksha had refused to absorb it into her own aura, and therefore she aged again, and again lost the gift of immortality, those black and white traces of life.

“Do you understand now, Kremina? Do you understand my change of heart, why I had to let go of the Union, of my power? Do you understand why, for my convictions, for the things I want others to believe, it is necessary that I became mortal? That I stop pursuing the same path that Yangtze and Potomac are on? That I age and die? It is important to me, Kremina, to be humble now. To lower my head to others. I became mortal because I must die. Clinging to the world has had perverse effects on my life. I have to let go in order to let others rise up.”

Kremina laid a hand over her mouth and shut her eyes, weeping.

“I know that this is galling to you. I’m sorry that I can’t be all-powerful for you.”

“No, Daksha.”

She stared into the eyes of her mentor, her lover, the colossal figure of all she believed in.

“I’m sorry.” She said. She didn’t try to equivocate it. She didn’t say anything more.

She was sorry. She understood. She had been wrong. She had been completely wrong.

All this time Daksha had carried such a horrendous burden, and Kremina never knew.

“We’ll talk more when you come back.” Daksha said. “I esteem you greatly, Kremina.”

Kremina nodded silently. She felt unbearably foolish and short-sighted.

“I’ll smooth things over with Ulyana Korabiskaya and her crew, and with the Rotfront. Don’t worry about that now. Please think about what I told you and reflect.” Daksha said.

“I will. Thank you. Please take care, Daksha.”

“Of course. I will be here for you.”

Daksha disappeared from Kremina’s screen, leaving a void reflecting Kremina’s face.

She stared into her own darkened eyes, feeling like a storm had swept by her.

Daksha–

More than ever, she needed Kremina’s protection, even if she didn’t realize it.

She needed Kremina to be smarter; to be craftier; and to fight harder than ever before.

Daksha Kansal was mortal and vulnerable. She could never be an Immortal again.

In her finite time in the world, it was her work that had to become immortal.

Kremina had to do everything in her power for Daksha’s revolution to succeed and spread.

For now, that meant that Gloria Luxembourg’s social-democrats had to either control the United Front or be the ultimate survivors of its near-inevitable breakdown.

Those upstarts with the Rotfront and their Jayasankarist allies could not be allowed to derail everything. Daksha would disapprove of this line of thinking, but Kremina was not going to openly act against anybody. Yet. For now she would be well behaved and demure.

She just had to control her temper; bide her time; and await the opportunity to intervene.


“Oh my! Such a fantastic cup of coffee. This is starting to feel like a vacation!”

Erika Kairos raised her plastic mug and cheered. The mug was full of plain, black coffee.

“Might a lovely maiden dream of a sweetener? Perhaps even creamer?” She asked.

“Let’s not get too greedy!” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied, smiling. Erika’s eyes drew wide from behind the steam coming from her mug. “I’m joking! Of course we can get you some.”

Olga took a sip of the coffee herself and nodded her head in approval.

“It’s a sight better than the cheap stuff in our rations. The grounds were not adulterated.”

Aaliyah looked down at her own mug, the coffee having been brewed by a very standard Union Soyuzkofe machine in the cafeteria. Her furry ears twitched slightly, and she took a sip.

“I knew living in the Empire was harsh; but I’m surprised in the ways that manifests.”

Erika smiled. “Well, we have to take what we can get, you know? When it comes to food, we usually have to either steal it, or go to smugglers whose products are usually low quality, or go to cottage industries that don’t have the means to make quality products.”

“Turning over an Imperial cargo ship is practically a holiday feast for us.” Olga added.

Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed gently with Olga and Erika.

On that morning, the meeting room Ulyana and Aaliyah were working out of lately, had instead become a little conference room for their first command meeting with Erika Kairos. They had formally agreed to become part of Erika’s Nationale Volksarmee, and swore to follow her political command as their new Premier. This was something of a shield against other political influences on the crew– but it was not a game to anyone in that room. It was a serious endeavor, and it required the establishment of a solid working relationship in all of its various particulars. They weren’t playing pretend– they wanted Erika to lead them.

Ulyana thought well of Erika and envisioned they would have a good relationship, but nevertheless, they needed to lay out how both sides typically operated. How Erika hoped to rule them; what the capabilities of each side were and how they could work together when combined; and other such things. For her part, Erika was treating the whole thing very casually and breezily. Ulyana imagined it would be so. She had not met all that many Katarran mercenaries, but she felt they must have operated a few steps below military standard in formalities, in order to work at all. But at least she knew Erika took theory very seriously.

As she requested, Erika soon received a little tray with cubes of creamer and sweetener.

These had been powdered and compressed for ease of storage.

She picked up a few of each cube and dropped them into her coffee, stirred, and drank. She smiled from ear to ear, flushing, even her horns looked a little brighter than before.

C’est magnifique!” She said, giggling a bit.

She quietly passed the coffee condiments tray forward. Ulyana and Aaliyah both partook.

Olga smiled and looked at the Premier fondly; but continued to have her coffee black.

“Alright. I greatly value the hospitality. But, back to business!” Erika said cheerfully. “I am planning to transfer my flag from the Rostock to the Brigand. I think that will help smooth out the early stages of our cooperation. Daphne, my captain on the Rostock, is well-respected and settled on that vessel, so I have no worries that she can handle everything there while I am away. I hope I can settle in here, and observe operations first-hand.”

“Understood. I have no objections. That will simplify our operational coordination a lot, actually.” Ulyana said. “I’ll have the lads stitch you a chair while they turn over the Bridge.”

“That would be lovely. Though, worse comes to worse, I can stand.” Erika said.

“Can you provide us information on your fleet and its operations?” Aaliyah asked.

“I could do so verbally, but I did not come prepared for a detailed onboarding.” Erika said. “I’m afraid I wasn’t expecting to gain a new ship. However, as soon as we get out to sea, we can connect to the Rostock and you can sync all of its data over at your convenience.”

“That sounds more efficient. We’ll talk about fleet integration at that point.” Aaliyah said.

“That can also be when you give us some of your data in return.” Olga said.

Aaliyah bristled a little, but Erika quickly dispelled those suddenly risen fears.

“We’re not after any classified information from the Union.” Erika said.

Olga crossed her arms. “We could at least use your stitcher blueprints though. Our lives would be so much easier if we didn’t have to free-stitch small parts to repair our stuff. It’s like rolling dice every time something breaks. You can help our capabilities long term.”

“Aaliyah, I want to be open with them. Do you have any specific qualms?” Ulyana said.

She looked at her Commissar, sitting beside her, compassionately but firmly.

In turn, Aaliyah briefly avoided her gaze. She composed herself quickly.

“Old habits die hard. You’re right, there isn’t really any reason not to share our data.”

“Thank you.” Erika said. “I understand, security backgrounds require caution above all.”

“We appreciate your cooperation, and we will follow all of your data security protocols. Access will be limited; we have all the hardware controls needed to insure that.” Olga said.

Aaliyah nodded her head in acquiescence.

Ulyana was glad everything was going smoothly. Olga and Erika were professionals.

“We don’t want to overturn your existing structure. I believe we can learn a lot from each other and slowly improve our doctrine together.” Erika said. “We should do the bare minimum we need to have cohesion between the existing Volksarmee forces and your own. I want to preserve the chain of command aboard the Brigand as much as possible, but only with myself at the top. I also respect that this is probably a contentious decision for you because of your extended chain of command to the Union. I do not want to imperil your relationship to your home country. So if there’s anything you need from me, please tell me.”

“I’m sure Nagavanshi will understand when she reads my report however many months or years from now after all of this is over.” Ulyana said, with a smile. “If we live that long.”

Erika laughed. “I fully intend to live that long, Captain. But of course, I understand.”

Aaliyah finally smiled a little too. “I’m quite happy with your proposal, Premier.”

“In terms of Volksarmee personnel aboard the Brigand, Olga and I require private lodging.” Erika said. Olga’s eyes popped for a moment. “I will be up front: we are lovers. It has never been a problem, and in fact has been a psychological aid for both of us. If the Brigand has an exceptionally strict rule against fraternizing, it will have to be waived for me.”

“Um, ma’am–” Olga began, but a sharp look from Erika cut her off and silenced her.

“As you can see, I still retain authority over her.” Erika smiled with forced innocence.

Ulyana grinned a little. Aaliyah glanced askance at Ulyana.

“Oh there’s probably tons of sex going on in this ship.” Ulyana said. “I won’t stop you.”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She raised her voice above the room–

“Strictly speaking– to the regulation– ugh, whatever.” She shrugged and gave up instantly.

Olga averted her eyes, a little bit embarrassed.

One more smiling glance from Erika got her to sigh and recompose herself.

“I’m not used to her being so forward about it, especially like this.” Olga admitted. “But like– yes, when we can die at any moment, and we’re crammed in these metal cans. You really can’t expect ship crews not to get each other off a bit, every once in a while.”

“It’s maybe more common among Katarrans than in the broader world.” Erika said.

“We’ll get you a room.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s move the conversation past this please.”

Ulyana noticed the insides of her ears had flushed a very bright red.

She tried not to smile. It would have definitely upset her charmingly uptight Commissar.

Erika was not troubled at all by the atmosphere in the room.

She had an uncanny ability to look cheerful or at least centered in any situation.

Even when Kremina had been berating her openly, she was still smiling just like this.

After Aaliyah’s request, the conversation returned to matters of organization.

“Besides Olga and I, Kalika Loukia will also remain aboard. She has many skills and is someone I know I can depend on to do almost anything. I think she is all the direct support I will need on the ship aside from Olga, and you will benefit from her as well.” Erika said. “There are a few other officers of mine whom I’m used to having at my disposal, but I think they can operate from the Rostock, maybe switching in and out as needed.”

“Alright. Kalika already helped us out quite a bit. We’ll be glad to have her.” Ulyana said.

“I believe next on the agenda we wanted to lay some groundwork on logistics.” Olga said.

“We were planning to restock at Aachen.” Aaliyah said. “Are you not also?”

“I’m afraid we can’t make use of the traditional markets for ship supply.” Erika said. “Victualing and replenishment markets are off-limits. We are forced to make use of smugglers or secondary markets, as I said. We also buy raw materials and stitch needed goods ourselves. But don’t worry about us– we want to know about your supplies.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged glances, worried.

“Can you tell us more about the situation in Aachen?” Ulyana said.

“We were under the impression it would at least be neutral ground for you.” Aaliyah said.

“Aachen is quite a bit nicer to non-Imbrian persons than Kreuzung.” Erika said. “However, there are still prejudices they must abide by. There are legal prohibitions against the replenishment of ‘cartels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘privateers’. Katarrans are targeted by these laws pseudonymously. And there isn’t a Katarran ship Captain alive who can fight a legal case arguing for her innocence. Aachen follows these laws, and we’re no exception.”

“Wait– they’re following Imperial law?” Ulyana asked, rhetorically. She was baffled by this.

She had thought Aachen was open to rebellion since the United Front was convening there.

“What is Aachen’s relationship to the Volkisch movement right now?” Aaliyah asked.

“Aachen, the city, is just trying to maintain a status quo.” Erika said. “It is governed by liberals and resists the Volkisch only insofar as to maintain the liberal line. Kreuzung itself makes that sort of argument about its own rule of law– it is a purely bureaucratic argument. So you can’t take for granted that Aachen will be completely safe or revolutionary. However, Aachen’s people have a strong organized laborer movement, and it is among them that the United Front’s insurrectionists have found a sanctuary. It is a complex situation.”

“What if we purchased the goods for you? We don’t care about the law.” Aaliyah said.

Erika smiled, this time a lot brighter than before. She seemed touched by the gesture.

“I appreciate your generosity greatly, my comrades. But I must decline. The Rostock is stocked up, and the rest of our fleet is in good order as well. We shouldn’t draw suspicion at Aachen. There will be time for us to teach you the Katarran way of getting goods.” Erika said. “For now, focus on procuring your own needs. After the meeting of the United Front, we may get access to Gloria Luxembourg’s purchasing power which would solve our problems.”

“Acknowledged. I have to say, though, I’m now a bit nervous about Aachen.” Aaliyah said.

“It’s easier to lay low in Aachen than here.” Erika replied. “Right now, all of us are violating the law here in Kreuzung. If we can take measures to protect ourselves in here, by comparison Aachen is a picnic. The United Front is assembling there with confidence.”

“If you say so. I will trust your judgment, Premier.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana could still see a shadow of her worries on her expression. She knew her too well.

“It’s not on the agenda, but since we’re on a similar subject, I want to ask about you yourself. We were not aware of an ‘Erika Kairos’ prior to our arrival here, though that is for the best overall. Can you give us more details about you?” Ulyana said, as cordially as possible.

“I’m open to it.” Erika said. She drew in a deep breath and straightend her chest. “My name is Erika Kairos, I’m 33 years old, I have heterochromia, my three sizes are 120 cm bust–”

“Premier, you can skip the ‘vital statistics’.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I suppose my request was a bit vague.” Ulyana said, smiling.

Her eyes slightly drifting to the new Premier’s chest and having to be wrung back.

“Oh! Okay. Well– I am a voracious reader! I like philosophy, and science, but I also like to read storybooks, and comics; I like films too! My favorite genre is actually hard-boiled detective mysteries! My favorite food is spanakopita. My likes and dislikes are communism and–”

“Thanks, Premier.” Ulyana said. This was so cute she almost didn’t want her to stop.

“Was that really what you were asking about, Captain?” Aaliyah replied, exasperated.

Erika looked a little bit flustered. “Huh? Is there anything you want to know specifically?”

“I guess I was more concerned with whether you’ve made any enemies?” Ulyana asked.

Olga answered in Erika’s place. “Everyone hates her. She’s an avowed communist.”

She sounded a bit frustrated by the question, as if everyone should have known this.

“Everyone?” Aaliyah asked. Erika looked flustered again.

“Saying everyone is a bit–” Erika began, and almost stuttered–

Olga sighed.

“Katarran mercs don’t like philosophers. They like to pretend they have no beliefs and will do anything for money. So they end up falling into a really conservative outlook and that’s what I mean. Mercenaries know about Erika and the majority of them dislike her for it.”

“They’ll still take my money when it’s on offer.” Erika said. She grumbled a little bit.

“As long as that holds true, I think we can accept the situation for now.” Aaliyah said.

“So no rivals or blood oaths or anything like that?” Ulyana asked, in a jovial tone of voice.

Erika crossed her arms.

“No names you would recognize. Yes, among the mercenaries in Eisental, I’ve crossed a few paths in my life. But nobody that is going to go out of their way to excoriate or attack me. Anyone with that level of animosity has already been killed by their own predilections.”

Ulyana whistled. “Has your vibrosword aided anyone’s predilections in the act?”

“We’ve had some episodes.” Olga laughing a bit. “There’s nothing to worry about there.”

“I can take care of myself and my debts, Captain. And I have.” Erika grinned.

“Fair enough. I understand. Thank you, Premier.” Ulyana said.

Erika nodded her head.

Her eyes wandered a bit– she seemed to quiet and think for a moment.

“How much do you know about the present situation in Eisental?” Erika asked.

“We’ve been keeping up with events as much as we can.” Aaliyah said. “We know there is a worker strike in one of the towers here, which is owned by the Rhineametalle corporation. The Volkisch are afraid of it spreading, so they’re manipulating the markets in Kreuzung to turn people against the strikers by blaming them for price hikes and erratic supply.”

“We thought of helping out the workers here, but when we learned of the United Front, we felt our focus could be best served there.” Ulyana said. “It’s horrible to have to pick and choose who to fight alongside, but we don’t know how the workers here would respond to communist assistance. We know the United Front is like-minded, and they’re also armed.”

“I agree with your choice.” Erika said. “You don’t have to justify it to me.” She settled back into her chair and began to explain the situation in greater detail. She sounded confident and spoke clearly and precisely. “You see, the workers in Tower Nine are trying to toe the line. They are part of the liberal current and they do not want to be seen as too radical. They fear the reprisals that the Volkisch are capable of; but they can’t bear the working conditions that have been imposed on them because of the civil war. They are trying to do something, but they can’t be seen as doing too much to a vulnerable Rhinea, so they went on strike.”

She continued promptly, never losing her pace. “But Rhineametalle has gotten a new hand of cards to play because of this situation. They don’t want the strike to be broken up too quickly. Rhineametalle is facing down the possibility of the Volkisch forcing them to produce more gear and sell it for less money to support the failing war efforts in the south. The Volkisch believe Rhineametalle’s profiteering is sabotaging their war effort. With the strike, Rhineametalle can just watch the Volkisch squirm, and remind them of who needs who. Lehner, their so-called Fuhrer, doesn’t have the ability to crack down on the workers any more than he is, without risking his influence over his own war industry if Rhineametalle reacts adversely to his actions, or the collapse of his front from diverting more troops.”

“So they’re all at a standstill right now.” Ulyana said, after a moment contemplating the Premier’s description. “Something has to give eventually, doesn’t it? The strikers do not have infinite supplies, so they won’t be able to physically hold on to their barricades forever. And with enough time, Lehner will find the troops he needs somewhere; or maybe even an innovative Volkisch commander in Kreuzung will find a weakness or undertake some daring raid that breaks through. It’s unlikely that Rhineametalle will fold to their demands too.”

“You’re right, Captain. There is only one thing that can save them, but it’s ancient history they dare not speak about. They should have prepared a ‘General Strike.’” Erika said. Ulyana nodded solemnly. That phrase meant something for someone who had been young during the mass deportations and enslavement that presaged the Revolution.

“Ironically, it’s the ghost of the ‘General Strike’ panicking the Volkisch now, isn’t it?”

“Right again Captain. It’s one powerful reason for the Volkisch to make soft moves.”

Everyone in that room knew the history. Prior to the Revolution, the most critical moment in the reign of the Fueller dynasty was the attempt, begun by Bosparan and Volgian activists, to stage a ‘General Strike’ across all productive industry in the Empire. Connections across the Empire, established by activists like the Nakaras, Daksha Kansal, Elias Ahwalia and Bhavani Jayasankar, threatened to link together and coordinate devastating work stoppages that would have ground the vulnerable machinery of the Empire to a halt at a critical juncture. Imbrian industry was overstretched in development of the colonial machine, overly dependent on slave labor conditions to make up the massive expenses that had been incurred moving civilization ever southward to the extreme ends of the hemisphere. With the incorporation of Veka being largely seen as a financial failure across the Empire, the Nectaris colonies had to be absolutely successful, ruthlessly efficient, maximally extractive.

But the General Strike never came to pass. Its actors were suppressed, one by one.

Enslavement in the colonies should have been a fate worse than death for them.

However, the failure of the General Strike led to the success of the Revolution.

And thus, ultimately, to the creation of the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice.

Ulyana could almost understand not wanting to casually speak those words, which were so dense with violent history. She believed Erika Kairos was correct in her assessment. The Volkisch must have been terrified of the possibility of the strikes spreading, so they had to play propaganda and not respond too brutally and too soon to the strikers. But the strikers were not planning to spread the strikes; ultimately, the Volkisch would win the standoff.

“There’s more too.” Erika said. “Eisental is a powder keg for other reasons. It’s the most productive region of Rhinea, with most of its mining, and production of primary parts and products for Rhinea’s corporations. It has a significant agricultural belt too. It is primarily a site of extraction. That also means it’s the most proletarian of Rhinea’s provinces. It has the most disenfranchised people, and the most poverty, but it has the smallest Volkisch presence. The Volkisch’s Stabswache political troops have been largely deployed to the interior and south of Rhinea to secure their power over the middle and affluent classes and to purge the intellectual and political liberals. That’s where their immediate priorities lay.”

“Interesting. I was wondering why we didn’t see more Volkisch day to day.” Aaliyah said. “They overestimated the value that the Volkisch’s ideological message would have among the poor in the industrial north. Popular opinion has not swelled massively in their favor.”

“Certainly they have their supporters in the so-called ‘National Proletariat’.” Erika said. “But Rhinea’s last election had a very low voter turnout– and this election was cast as being apocalyptic for burgeoning Rhinean democracy. Most people don’t trust in the government and are just keeping their heads down one way or another. The Volkisch miscalculated the level of local fervor in the north, so Eisental remains in tenuous liberal control.”

“That also means we will absolutely see a Volkisch military response here.” Ulyana said.

They had to be coming, and soon. Eisental wouldn’t remain an idyllic valley for long.

“I predict we will see quickly raised, ill equipped and poorly trained Volkisch militias from the south, at least at first.” Erika said. “I am hopeful we won’t see a Stabswache fleet. That would be the worst case scenario. The Stabswache are elite political troops, you see; but six of those fleets are already heavily committed, and the seventh is far from ready to mobilize.”

“Anything they raise will have to travel here too. We will have time.” Ulyana said.

“Right. And if these militias are anything like patrol fleets we can best them.” Aaliyah said.

“Volkisch militias are even less organized.” Erika said. “I sense an early advantage for us!”

“We shouldn’t toot our own horns too much.” Olga said. “Any enemy is a dangerous one.”

“But we musn’t be too careful either.” Erika said. “We can’t lose the opportunity they’re giving us to muster before their real strength can respond. It’s why the United Front has elected this time to get together and to begin our activities. It may allow us to push Eisental over the edge in a way that will destabilize all of Rhinea, before the big guns see the field.”

Aaliyah nodded her head. She seemed impressed with Erika’s casual ease with big topics.

Ulyana, meanwhile, couldn’t help but compare Olga and Erika to herself and Aaliyah.

They had a similar conversation themselves before ever setting foot in Eisental.

That thought warmed her heart– but she could not linger on those little fantasies too long.

“There is one more thing I need to touch on about Eisental– and myself.” Erika said.

Aaliyah and Ulyana nodded along in acknowledgment, interests piqued.

Erika took in and dispelled a breath. “There are two other factions in Eisental who could become involved. I’m sure you must be aware of Khaybar– a so-called mountain range so tall and winding that it splits the Imbrium. Eisental abuts Khaybar to the east. It is not well known to the public at large, but I have heard stories that there is an ancient Shimii abode within Khaybar. There have been sightings of pirate activity in the area as well. According to the mercenaries here, the pirates learned to employ the heavy Katov mass events in the area to intercept and loot Imperial cargo and convoys. The Fueller dynasty silently buried any official reports about the pirates, while also decreeing Khaybar off-limits to all commercial traffic. They hoped to starve the pirates of loot and bury them; but it didn’t work.”

“Of course it wouldn’t work. If you can cross the pass, it takes you half the time to get to Bosporus or Veka, than going around it.” Ulyana said. “Those pirates may not have as many victims, but they may still see a good business. It’s just too tempting to make that run.”

“Precisely.” Erika said. “Khaybar continues to see unregulated traffic to this day. I believe there are still fighters operating out of that mountain. I would like to reach out to Khaybar, and I think we can start by developing contacts with the Shimii communities in Eisental.”

“How do you figure the two sides are affiliated? Do they have exchange?” Aaliyah asked.

Erika smiled knowingly.

“I can’t say that conclusively, Commissar. But people that the Imbrium Empire has deemed outlaws are not always motivated by greed. This applies to you too, doesn’t it? Think about it: there are no lavish creature comforts the pirates could possibly be cultivating within their grim little mountain hideout– they are there because they are desperate, because the Empire gave them no choice. I have a hunch the ‘pirates’ are probably a Mahdist remnant. It squares with the legends people tell about Khaybar. And Mahdist Shimii are known to have very tight and lasting communal and familial bonds. Isn’t that right, Commissar?”

“I am not a Mahdist. I’m a secular Shimii. But I can see your logic now.” Aaliyah said.

“Was your family Rashidun?” Ulyana asked, suddenly curious.

“My family was secular.” Aaliyah replied sharply. Clearly this was a touchy subject.

Ulyana felt like she was leaning her foot over an industrial grinder and decided to back up.

“I apologize for my assumption.” Erika said, looking worried.

Aaliyah moderated her tone again.

“No offense taken. If I’m following your logic right, you think there must still be some Shimii out here who have contact with the Shimii in Khaybar. And it would be safer to make those contacts through them than trying to barge into Khaybar and causing a scene.”

Erika was clearly relieved to hear that ‘no offense taken.’

“Precisely. It’s nice to work with professionals. I feel afraid sometimes that I’m not being properly understood when I speak, but all of you seem to have no problem with my rhetoric.”

“We’ve had a lot of practice with rhetoric lately.” Aaliyah sighed deeply.

Ulyana smiled nervously. “So, we have Khaybar– what is the remaining faction?”

When the conversation started, Erika had led off by saying there were two factions left.

Erika’s tone turned a little more serious as she acknowledged Ulyana’s question.

“The Mycenae Military Commission.” She said. Her expression darkening.

“Wait, a Katarran warlord faction is operating in Eisental?” Aaliyah asked suddenly.

“I’m afraid so.” Erika said, solemnly. “We have Tagmata sipping tea in Stralsund.”

Ulyana felt, for the first time in the conversation, a sense of alarm.

“How did that happen? This is the first we’re hearing of this.” Ulyana said.

“The Volkisch have stopped publicizing anything about it.” Olga said.

“They were invited six months ago and arrived before the Volkisch takeover.” Erika said. “By blessing of the liberal parliament and as guests of the Rhineametalle corporation.”

“A Katarran warlord is openly purchasing Imperial arms?” Aaliyah said, scandalized.

“It’s Rhineametalle’s newest growth market.” Erika said. “Katarrans in our homeland mainly use either Republican weapons or smuggled Union weapons to fight in the warlord conflicts, but the Empire would be easier to buy from, if they started selling. Since the fall of the Palaiologoi, the Empire feared having anything to do with Katarre. But Rhinea liberalized; the all-mighty mark bill superseded the failing authority of the Fueller dynasty. With the retreat of the Emperor from politics it was only a matter of time before the Imbrians intervened.”

“There is a gargantuan amount of ocean between Mycenae and Rhinea.” Aaliyah said. “You’re telling me that all this time, the Emperor’s authority has been so weak as to allow this?”

Erika smiled. “It’s more like, the economic incentive, and Rhineametalle’s financial pull, was just that strong. Obeying the Emperor makes you zero profit, but looking the other way or assisting Rhineametalle and Myceanae directly, that confers money and favors.”

“But why invite them into Rhinea itself? It makes no sense to me.” Aaliyah asked.

Publicity, Commissar. Rhineametalle gets to show off all their high-end gear in the hands of a foreign client, legitimating their clout as the largest corporate power and a player in the broader world. Mycenae gets legitimacy.” Erika said. “Mycenae gets to be the only warlord power ever formally invited into the Empire, and invited into their trendy, rising financial center to make big money deals for advanced weapons. It makes them out to be the only warlord state that is actually functioning as a state on a national, political scale.”

“How strong is the Mycenae Military Commission here?” Ulyana asked.

“Something like a Union fleet combat group: a few big ships and their escorts.” Erika said.

“Their few big ships are Mycenaean dreadnoughts though.” Olga said with a grim tone.

Ulyana’s heart was rushing a bit.

Aaliyah was doing most of the talking– but even she looked nervous.

The Union was well aware of the status of Katarre.

They didn’t have all the details, but the Republic, who were deeply involved in Katarre, shared a lot of their information as a sign of goodwill. Out of all the Katarran factions, the Mycenae Military Commission was one of the most fearsome. Their regulars, the Tagmata, combined the ferociousness Katarrans were known for with sound military training and even a burgeoning research and development capacity for new weapons, not just war profiteer stock. It was possible that they had even developed a second generation Diver already, to match the Empire’s own R&D pace. Ideologically, they were retrograde nationalists, calling for the revival of the old Katarran kingdom– a message that inspired not faith in any of the flash in the pan warlord states, but in Katarran reunification— a nightmare for the Republic.

Mycenae’s presence was a massive and volatile factor they had to account for now.

“How likely is it that the Tagmata will intervene if we start taking action?” Ulyana asked.

“Completely unknown.” Erika said. “I have very little intelligence on their intentions.”

“We know the Volkisch are committed racists. Diplomacy between them and Mycenae will be complicated.” Aaliyah said. “We might have an opportunity– except, I assume that Mycenae will try to contact the Katarran mercenaries in this region. So they might learn about Erika; and if the mercenaries don’t like Erika’s program, I’m sure the Tagmata like it much less.”

Olga averted her gaze.

Erika breathed out a heavy sigh.

“It does feel like a confrontation with the Tagmata is unavoidable for me.” Erika said.

For once, she looked somber and downcast.

That shift in her cheerfulness made Ulyana want to support her– to protect her feelings.

“Nothing is unavoidable.” Ulyana said. “We’ll be smart and keep our eyes out. We’ll gather intelligence and examine the situation we’re in at each juncture. If we have to fight, we’ll fight; if we have to run, we’ll run; but if there’s a chance, we make peace. That’s all we can do, but Premier, the Brigand will support you. Aaliyah and I will be here to protect you.”

Ulyana extended her hand. Erika reached out her own and gave her a soft, girlish shake.

As a Katarran, she probably had to keep her strength in check for Ulyana’s sake.

“I had high expectations, and they have been thoroughly met.” Erika said. “I can see how the Union won its revolution, if there are more officers as sharp as you in their waters.”

“I’ve come away quite pleased with your character as well, Premier.” Ulyana said.

After they shook, Erika extended her arm again, to Aaliyah, who shook it as well.

“I already said as much, but I am impressed with the Premier’s assessments. I’m sure we’ll have our disagreements in due time, but if having the Tagmata on our backs is the price we pay for your stewardship, I would fight through a thousand Katarrans for it, Erika Kairos.”

“Thank you, Commissar! Those are such high praises. I will endeavor to sustain them.”

Erika looked to be almost glowing under all of the praise she was receiving.

She looked so young; smiling with a shining light of hope and idealism.

Ulyana had been too young and too hurt in the Revolution to pay attention to people’s characters too closely. She had been surrounded by all of the titans of communism in the Imbrium, once upon a time. And she wondered whether Bhavani Jayasankar had once smiled like this. Whether Daksha Kansal had ever looked this young. Before the falling outs, the splits, the backstabbings and blood. She hoped that Erika would be able to continue smiling, with a stout but gentle heart, even as the waters around Eisental turned murkier.

Erika had the right ideas. She had a sober outlook, and she was thinking ahead.

However, that look in her eyes, when she appeared so defeated at the prospect of having to fight the Tagmata, suggested that for all her clandestine maneuvering, she had yet to be tested in the hellish nightmare of outright war. She was daunted by a powerful enemy.

Ulyana would be at her side; she hoped she wouldn’t bear witness to a tragedy.


“Illya, I need you to sign this. It’s nothing bad. Just do it, okay?”

Shalikova laid a piece of synthestitched stone paper and a scratcher on the table.

Illya Rostova looked away from a surveillance monitor with a skeptical look on her face.

She glanced down at the paper, and back up at Shalikova, who stood stiffly opposite her.

“Huh?” Illya turned fully around, looked at the paper and the scratcher with which to write.

Shalikova’s keen indigo eyes wandered, briefly breaking her disinterested façade.

The Surveillance Room was close to the Bridge, and constituted one half of the security room, with its own door. It was also where they kept the locker for the security division’s guns, but Illya and Valeriya hardly ever respected the lockup process. In the middle of the room, a three section desk surrounded two chairs, with a tiny gap allowing the occupants to exit. On each wall faced by a section of the desk, there was a large multi-section monitor with a camera feed. Valeriya and Illya, of course, sat side to side or back to back in the middle of those desks, their faces lit up in blue in the dim room by the monitors.

On Valeriya’s desk section there was a partially stripped AK assault rifle.

Every so often, between watching the monitors, twiddling her fingers, and playing with locks of Illya’s hair, Valeriya would strip or put the rifle back together, expertly reassembling the firing mechanism, affixing the barrel, pushing the receiver cover into place. Union assault rifles used a small amount of pieces to be easier to manufacture, and Valeriya’s hands looked almost mesmerizing in their quick work. She had clearly done this a million times.

When she noticed Shalikova watching, Valeriya lifted her mask over her face and stopped playing with the rifle, or Illya’s hair. She just sat sadly behind Illya with her gaze averted.

Illya, meanwhile, also had her own assault rifle out of the locker and laid on the desk.

“Nope.” Illya said. “I am not signing this for you, sorry kid.”

Shalikova rolled her eyes, grunting.

“C’mon, it took you that long to read it, and you’re saying no?”

Illya turned the paper around for her to see it, pointing at the bar code near the top.

“Form 56A, Request Authority For Shore Leave, Location Approval.” Illya said. “This form has to be signed by your direct superior. I can’t believe you’re still trying to avoid the Lieutenant. I’m not going to lie to cover up for your cowardice. By the way, the Captain will also look at this, so you know, even if I could sign this for you it isn’t a done deal by any means.”

Shalikova felt both mildly embarrassed but still wanted to resist Illya nonetheless.

“I’m an Ensign! You’re a Lieutenant-Commander! You– you outrank Murati!” She cried.

Direct superior.” Valeriya mumbled from behind Illya.

“She’s right. Besides, I’m a Marine and you’re a Pilot, our ranks are different.” Illya said.

Annoyed, Shalikova snatched the form from Illya’s hands and looked it over again herself.

“I’m rated Chief Petty Officer.” Valeriya mumbled. “Illya is a Master Petty Officer.”

“Right. We have ratings in the ship’s chain of command, our Marine ranks don’t matter.”

In the fog of her newfound distress, Shalikova was barely listening.

Form 56whatever–

Shalikova had only filled it because she wanted to take Maryam out on a date.

She had overheard some gossipy sailor girls that people were planning dates to the next nearest blocks in the Tower. This gave Shalikova the idea to try to do the same, and she asked the sailors about the proper procedure for doing so– which entailed stitching out this form or filling it digitally. Almost all of the time the latter was preferable– but Shalikova did not want a paper trail to get to Murati, so she thought of having Illya sign a physical form on the sly. Clearly that had not worked– and her carnival date with Maryam seemed impossible now.

“Quit moping around and go talk to Lieutenant Nakara already.” Illya said.

Behind Illya, Valeriya nodded her head lightly as if to back up what she was saying.

Shalikova shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

She was paralyzed with frustration and indecision.

Maryam deserved to get out of the ship and have a good time.

Shalikova really wanted to do something for her, after everything they had been through.

But– there was just something–

–something in the way of talking to Murati– it felt so difficult–

“Listen, Sonya.” Illya said. “You have to learn to confront your officers if something is wrong and you want it right. You also need to have the courage to get scolded if you are wrong and they are right. But you have to hash it out. What you’re doing right now, I called it cowardly, and I stand by it. You’ll have to talk to this woman, it is unavoidable. So go do it on your terms, or you’re going to get it done to you and you’ll have no control and no leverage.”

Shalikova’s hand closed into a fist. She still felt stubborn about the situation with Murati.

“I know. I know.” She mumbled. A shudder ran its way through her body.

Illya looked at her for a moment, bowed her head and let out a low grunt.

“I’ll go with you. Okay? Stop moping. If Murati gets out of hand I’ll deal with her.”

Valeriya stared at Illya quizzically, playing with her mask as if trying to stay out of this.

Shalikova stood bolt upright. “No, no, no. That’s– that’s the last thing I want.”

“Okay, what’s really going on?” Illya said brusquely. “Do I need to go talk to Murati?”

A disaster, an unmitigated and complete disaster! Shalikova’s eyes couldn’t meet Illya’s!

Oh my GOD I’ve made everything so much worse! So much worse!

She had really done it– she had triggered this insane woman’s motherly instincts.

“It’s really nothing. I just don’t like talking to my boss.” Shalikova said in a shaky voice.

“What is that guilty face you’ve got on?” Illya said. “Sonya, talk to me.”

“You’re projecting! Look, you’re not my mom, you don’t need–”

“I told Zasha I’d look out for you. Did Murati do something to you?” Illya asked.

Shalikova couldn’t help but notice Illya’s fingers seemed to subconsciously play over the sleek, black carbon-fiber body of the AK rifle as she was speaking. Zasha had once likened Illya to a wolf in order to describe her to Shalikova, who had been learning about animals in school and was going to meet Zasha’s dear friends for the first time.

Illya was tall and gallant and very loyal and protective, Zasha said. By then, Illya was already a star student when it came to not just civics and basic sciences, but particularly in combat. Best shooter in her class, best hand to hand fighter. She, Valeriya and Zasha, as young adults, participated in exercises with older people and defeated them. They became Nagavanshi’s own hunting hounds– and Illya led the pack. Shalikova knew this as soon as she saw Illya’s steel eyes and silver hair, the confident little smirk she always had–

–and now, the restrained bloodthirst, the territorial barking, the alertness in her body.

It wasn’t as if Shalikova didn’t love her– but she didn’t love this, this way that she acted–

“Illya, what the hell are you thinking? Stop imagining whatever gross thing you’ve got in your head!” Shalikova shouted back in Illya’s face. “You need to trust me. Zasha is gone! I’m in my twenties, I’m grown! I’m a soldier! You don’t have to threaten anyone on my behalf! If you do anything to Murati for no reason– I’m going to hate you forever!”

Illya suddenly smirked at Shalikova. All of her dark presence washed away instantly.

“Good. Then go have a nice chat with Murati yourself and have fun on your date.”

She poked the monitor next to her on the desk–

her finger covering the head of a woman using a portable computer in the social area.

“I’ll know if you didn’t.” She added. This seemed to amuse her greatly.

Shalikova had been expecting the worst, so to see Illya bring herself back down so easily, perhaps she had misjudged this woman. Maybe it was not only Shalikova who had grown but Illya, too, had matured. Hell– maybe Shalikova was still just a stupid child and Illya was really the only adult in the room. She let out a breath that had been held in her chest for so long she thought it would turn into a stone. In front of her, Illya was completely calm again.

Talking to Murati did not seem so scary after all of this nonsense.

“Fine. Fine! You’re the absolute worst.” Shalikova said.

“Uh huh. If your date gets approved, come to our quarters. I’ve got something for you.”

“Huh? Why don’t you just give it to me–?”

Illya made a ‘shoo’ motion with her hands, dismissing Shalikova without another word.

She returned her attention to the monitors with something of a little sigh.

Behind her, Valeriya started to absentmindedly strip her own AK rifle one more time.

Exasperated with them, Shalikova stormed out of the security room and slammed the door.

“BLYAT! How did Zasha put up with these bitches!” Shalikova grumbled.

It was uncharacteristic of her to swear aloud, so in order to recompose herself she waited in the other half of the security room for a few minutes so nobody would see her so annoyed in public. Thankfully, the security team medic Syracuse had been drawn away from her usual spot near the security team armor lockup. Shalikova could be alone for a few minutes.

Certainly, talking to Murati felt just a little more possible after this fiasco.

Thanks, Illya, Valeriya, Shalikova thought sarcastically.

And perhaps also– a bit sincerely, too.

Shalikova found Murati sitting down in a booth seat on the left-hand wall of the social area by herself, like she had seen in Illya’s monitor. Murati had a portable computer and looked to be flipping through pages on the touchscreen. She was quite engrossed in the activity and did not notice Shalikova approaching. Shalikova scanned her aura– green and blue.

For a few moments, Shalikova stood ghost-like at Murati’s side. She observed that the lieutenant was searching on Kreuzung’s internet for things like ‘breath-taking places for an adult date,’ ‘most romantic destinations to bring your fiancé,’ ‘popular date ideas among young women.’ None of those really felt like they would be effective search terms. For one, she was not even specifying Kreuzung and so the search kept showing her other stations like Bremen and Thuringia and even the Imperial Capital of Heitzing. Her queries were also extremely literally written which Shalikova attributed to the Lieutenant having an–

extremely stupid and literal brain

“Lieutenant, please just search something like ‘Kreuzung date spots’.” Shalikova hissed.

Murati raised her head sharply from the portable computer’s screen.

As soon as her eyes met Shalikova’s a pair of red rings reflexively appeared around her irises.

Shalikova, in turn, also activated her psionics and nearly jumped as well from the shock.

“Oh! Ensign Shalikova! I’m sorry, you startled me!” Murati said.

“It’s fine! It’s fine!” Shalikova cried out. “Just be quiet and shove off to the side.”

For a moment people were staring.

There weren’t that many sailors, because most of them were working, but there were a handful, enough to constitute a scene– and Alex Geninov was at the pinball table with a smirk on her face, which was absolutely mortifying to witness. Thankfully, Murati slid deeper into the booth and allowed Shalikova to sit next to her, mostly out of sight.

Shalikova took in a deep breath. Murati looked completely taken by surprise.

“What the hell happened with your eyes, Lieutenant? How can I trust you now?”

Her tone came out extremely accusatory. So much so that Murati looked startled anew.

This was truly the best that Shalikova could think to say in order to breach the topic.

She thought of Illya’s demeanor on the way to talking to Murati and felt inspired.

Instead of confessing to anything, it was time to act like she was not guilty of anything.

For all she knew, Murati could have been going rogue and nobody else would know!

(Given Murati’s character, such a thing was outright impossible, but she could pretend.)

“Ensign! It’s not what you think!” Murati said. She held her hands up. “Captain Korabiskaya knows about it and trusts me. And I want to say, we both trust you too! I’m not even going to ask where you got the same ability. Really– all I want is to help and support you.”

Shalikova felt that kind of guilt she always felt talking to Murati.

Like she was being a burden to her stupidly earnest and overtly concerned Lieutenant.

“Why are you always like this? I don’t need your support.” Shalikova mumbled.

“It’s fine if you don’t. But you shouldn’t have to navigate all this alone.” Murati said.

“What’s all this? We don’t even have the same vocabulary to talk about this, do we?”

“Um,” Murati said, “Do you call it psionic powers? Or maybe omenseeing?”

“Omenseeing? Are you just making stuff up now? I don’t call it anything like that.”

It would help if she could successfully pretend she had always had psionic abilities.

And that the shock of seeing Murati had been exclusively from seeing another psionic.

Murati blinked.

“I’m sorry– I had no idea you were dealing with something like this. Look, I received this power from– Euphemia and Teresa. But you musn’t tell anyone else. Right now, its existence is on a need-to-know basis, until we can understand it better. I volunteered to be given the power, to see if we could trust Euphemia and Teresa. Once I know more about it, whether it is safe, how difficult it is to learn, how dangerous it is, I’ll debrief the other officers.”

Shalikova almost felt bad about lying to Murati. She really trusted her so fully and easily.

She had thought this conversation would be way worse. In her mind, Murati was yelling.

A version of Murati existed in her head who was so far from reality that it was shameful.

It made her feel guilty. But at least the current situation was not so volatile at all.

“What will you do with me then, Lieutenant?” Shalikova said, meeting Murati’s gaze.

She tried her best to make a pathetic sort of expression, like a cat that got kicked in the ribs.

Though she was very poorly versed in manipulating anyone, Murati was an easy mark.

Her own expression responded to Shalikova’s with an upswell of pity and reassurance.

“Ensign, it’s not just my job to correct your behavior, but also to make sure that you are okay, and that you can meet the demands of the mission.” Murati said. She reached out and patted Shalikova on the shoulder. Shalikova allowed it. “I never wanted to antagonize and drive you away. I apologize for that. I’m still new to commanding and I haven’t risen to the challenges yet, but I’m trying. I know I’ve been misreading you. I want to reassure you; you won’t have to answer to anyone. I’ll take responsibility. I’m not going to force you to do anything. I just want information on psionics– on our powers– to stay as contained as possible.”

Murati, you’re making this painful in such a different way than I thought it would be.

Shalikova would not crack and tell Murati the whole truth.

Not yet.

But her heart was bleeding– she really wanted to confess to her stupid, earnest Lieutenant.

I’m in the wrong here. But at least, for now, it’s a harmless lie, for Maryam’s sake.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Are there any specific conditions I should abide by?”

Murati smiled brightly. Shalikova was taken aback by her sudden and open cheer.

“All I ask Ensign, is that you continue to use all of your abilities in defense of communism.”

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and her brain filled with a cyclone of shapeless debris.

Idiot! You corny idiot! Don’t smile saying something so dumb! I hate you so much! UGH!

It took all of the strength in her body to lift up the corners of her lips in response to that.

“Acknowledged.” Shalikova smiled. In her mind’s eye, her smile was demented as Illya’s.

Murati continued to smile back. She looked so bright, so charmed and happy– UGH!

She let out a breath and put her hands over her heart. “I’m so glad we could fix things.”

“Uh huh. Anyway– I have stuff to do. Here, sign this for me and give it to the Captain.”

Shalikova deposited the crumpled-up Form 56A on the table and stormed off.

“Huh? Ensign? What happened to this form? Where are you going so suddenly?”

Leaving Murati behind by herself to uncrumple the paper as best she could and read it.

Murati didn’t have a writing implement but that was her problem to figure out now.

Shalikova’s face and ears were turning as tomato red as Maryam’s became sometimes.


Several hours after their meeting with Erika Kairos, Ulyana and Aaliyah found themselves burning the midnight oil in the exact same meeting room they had been so frequently occupying. They were metaphorically buried in paperwork, even though on the desk there were only two portable computers and a small stack of actual physical stone-paper forms.

“Everyone is asking for shore leave outside the block.” Ulyana said with concern.

“Maybe there is a problem on this ship.” Aaliyah said sharply.

“You know what Nagavanshi once told me about military relationships?”

Aaliyah returned a skeptical gaze. The insides of her ears were flushed again.

Ulyana smiled. She found her Commissar’s uptight attitude to be very cute.

“She told me the story of a Katarran brigade called the ‘Sacred Band’. They were organized in pairs of homosexual lovers. Their sexual and emotional bond was a prize for them, something worth protecting and fighting for. Something more than the glory and profit of the warlord who hired or enslaved them. They were apparently very effective fighters.”

Aaliyah’s eyes narrowed further.

“So you’re telling me we should encourage this behavior because codependency might increase morale. Is that seriously what you are suggesting, Captain?”

“I am not suggesting anything.” Ulyana shrugged with a delighted expression, eager and happy to be teasing her cute Commissar. “I was just telling you a story Nagavanshi told me about these sorts of situations. But think of this, if the now Commissar-General, back then, didn’t really care about enforcing this rule, then why should we go out of our way?”

“For the sake of order? To avoid unnecessary problems down the line?” Aaliyah said.

“Did you know– I’ve always suspected Nagavanshi is Premier Jayasankar’s lover.”

“What?” Aaliyah turned fiercely red. “What do you mean? How do you figure?”

Ulyana continued to smile, and a baffled Aaliyah stared at her and seemed to take the hint.

Aaliyah would have been six or seven years old during the Revolution, but Ulyana had fought alongside all of these characters and was part of their circles for some time. She would have known better than her who Nagavanshi was fucking and what attitude she had towards it. Their potential HR-level problems with sailors in love did not nearly reach the level of a problem that Nagavanshi and Jayasankar’s relationship would constitute if it was true.

But also– Nagavanshi wielded massive power with the full confidence of the Premier.

That type of loyalty perhaps arose– because perhaps she loved her, maybe even physically.

“We’re not rubberstamping these, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Aaliyah said, pulling out the full name with a venomous tone. “I refuse to approve dozens of potential sexual excursions based on your uncritical ideas. If we’re allowing this, we’re taking full responsibility for every one. We’re going to research every location, every time frame; evaluating each of the people involved, whether we trust their judgment; and approve or reject them case-by-case.”

A grim shadow settled over Ulyana’s once placid smile. “Well– It’s only right, I suppose.”

“Furthermore– I refuse to be anyone’s relationship counselor!” Aaliyah whined.

“I– I was never planning on that. Commissar, they’re adults, they can make decisions–”

“They better be able to! If their love problems interfere with their work, I’ll be quite cross!”

Ulyana stared at the almost childish consternation on display, and she wondered if there was some projection happening. Of course, she said nothing of the sort for fear of taking a hundred steps back in her own love problems with her dear Commissar. She simply kept smiling and promising to support her just as she had loyally supported her throughout.

On that night, they each grabbed a portable computer and set to work.

First they used the cameras on the back of the portables to digitize the paper forms.

Then the real work of going through each of the forms began.

“Look at this, Captain! The nerve of some of these sailors! These two want to go A-block? Imagine the Volkisch staring at two gigantic men holding hands in the middle of the most affluent district in the city! We would be all be crucified! These people have no sense!”

Ulyana could disagree with Aaliyah’s tone but not her intentions.

Looking through the forms, the sailors in particularly had very fanciful ideas of where they could be allowed to roam. Each form had a location, time frame for the leave, as well as guests that the requester would be responsible for. Because the sailors and officers did not know anyone but each other, each requester usually had one other member of the Brigand’s crew as a ‘guest’ on the forms– easily construed as their ‘date.’ Several people wanted to see the gardens at A-block, which were reserved for the affluent families that lived there.

Ulyana would never support the social hierarchy of Kreuzung, but the fact remained she had to abide by it to avoid suspicion and safeguard the mission. All requests to go to A-block were discarded outright, with messages prepared to inform the requesters they would be approved to go to the Alcor campus or Solarflare LLC and nowhere else. These were easiest requests to work through. By far the most complex were the ones that seemed reasonable.

“Alexandra Geninov wants to go to a seasonal street market on C-block.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah looked up the venue and event online. “Seems reasonable. It’s not that far.”

“Alex is annoying sometimes, but I think she can behave herself in public.” Ulyana said.

“Fernanda Santapena-De-La-Rosa is going to the same place.” Aaliyah said with a sigh.

“So they filed separately, but are going to the same place at the same time?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes. It’s very like them, isn’t it.” Aaliyah said. “Have they matured even a little lately?”

“Well, they’ve been living together for a few weeks without incident.” Ulyana said.

“Alright. We’ll approve them, and hopefully they won’t cause a public disturbance.”

For everyone, the forms required two signatures. First was the direct superior’s signature and then the captain’s signature for final approval. For Bridge crew, Aaliyah acted as direct superior, and the Captain then signed. For sailors, it depended on their section, but so far, it seemed that Lebedova and Cohen had signed everything without really looking at it– or maybe they were as lacking in sense as some of the requests Ulyana was seeing.

Murati was the superior officer for requests from the pilots.

“Murati commented every single form submitted by a pilot.” Aaliyah said, impressed with the work ethic. “It looks like she already took a look at the places her people were requesting. She suspects Khadija just wants to go drink alcohol even though she’s technically not supposed to; and she is afraid Aiden is requesting leave so he can run away somewhere.”

“Murati’s such a treasure.” Ulyana said, looking at the digitized version of the form for Sonya Shalikova’s leave request. It had been heavily crumpled up, but Murati had pressed it flat again. Comments on the form urged the approval of Shalikova’s request as a gesture of good will and reward for ‘coming forward about her problems.’ “I’m going to approve this one.”

About halfway through the endeavor, they began to see more complicated requests.

People with the audacity to request to stay in hotel rooms, and who wanted multi-day time frames with multiple locations involved, who requested additional Imbrian funds than their shore leave stipend for expensive requests, or other such things that warranted even closer and more involved research than previous requests. Aaliyah’s ears folded against her head with exhaustion and Ulyana had begun to yawn with increasing frequency.

Soon Ulyana was seeing double and had to put down her portable.

“We need to take a break, Commissar.” She said.

“No complaints here.” Aaliyah replied with a groan.

“Care for a drink? Alcor gifted me a bottle of liquor on my last visit there.”

“How will that make us any less sleepy?”

“It won’t, but it will be fun. I think we could use a little bit of fun.”

“I’d be lying if I said I disagree. Fine. Bring out the booze.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged sympathetic gazes, and Ulyana opened a small box that she had set on a chair in a corner of the room. Inside was a bottle of beet-sugar rum, Tuzemak, called Struh in the Imbrium. She had two drinking glasses as well, though both were made of plastic. Setting them down on the table, she poured the clear reddish liquor into the glasses. She pushed one toward Aaliyah, who took it in hand. They tipped their glasses together, cheered for health and the safety of the mission, and downed a shot at the same time.

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled rapidly, and she shut her eyes briefly. It was a strong spirit.

Ulyana was untroubled. She considered herself a champ when it came to liquor.

“I’m still surprised at how sweet it is for liquor.” Aaliyah said.

“Completely trounces the potato stuff doesn’t it? Want another shot?”

“Hmm. Oh– whatever. Sure. Hit me. We’re already breaking all kinds of rules anyway.”

Two more shots; down the hatch. Aaliyah’s tail stood up briefly stiff and straight.

Ulyana sat back down with the bottle on the table.

“It’s so good. Fuck. I’m having another.” She said.

“Hit me too.” Aaliyah said.

Third shot; and there it went. Ulyana and Aaliyah laughed and relaxed on their chairs.

Smiling placidly, the Captain turned her slightly wavering vision on her Commissar.

Aaliyah was such an appealing girl. Her medium skin tone, her shiny dark hair, the natural pinkness and suppleness of her thin lips. Her jewel-like eyes and the elegant curve in the shape of her cat-like ears. Her slender tail, and the slenderness of her body too. Ulyana could not help in that moment but to think of the height gap between them too– she could have bent forward and loomed a little bit– her body would have fit so perfectly nestled with her back to Ulyana in bed– she would have been so warm and soft, such a sweet little morsel–

A sharp sound– a drinking glass striking the table.

“Ulyana, another shot. I want to feel the fire in me.” Aaliyah said suddenly.

Her eyes were looking a bit cloudy, and her cheeks were beginning to redden.

Ulyana, with a little laugh, filled Aaliyah’s glass again, as well as her own.

The Captain downed another shot; her Commissar was slowly sipping hers, however.

“It’s unfair.” Aaliyah mumbled. One of her ears was upright, but the other had folded.

“What’s unfair?” Ulyana said, her voice starting to drawl just a bit.

Without prompting, she refilled the Commissar’s glass, and they both drank again.

Fifth round!

“We have to do all this work, and they can go out to play.” Aaliyah said.

“True, true. They don’t know how much we sacrifice for them.”

“They don’t! We just endure silently, there is no one to take care of us.”

“Right. It’s fucked. Commissar, if it weren’t for you, I would go insane.”

“Indeed, indeed, Captain. We are the only ones for each other.”

“To hell with the sailors!” Ulyana cheered, taking another shot and topping up Aaliyah.

Sixth round!

“To hell with the sailors!” Aaliyah paused, drank. “I’m gonna– I’m gonna deny, deny, deny!”

With each ‘deny’ Aaliyah tapped her glass on the table like a gavel.

“Hell yeah! That’s the spirit! That’s that Ashura brutality we all love!” Ulyana cheered.

She refilled their glasses. Aaliyah tucked the shot in quickly this time, shutting her eyes.

They broke out into laughter together, tapping their quickly glasses on the table.

Then, topping up once more–

Seventh round!

“We deserve a vacation too. Captain– I’m– I’m taking you out!” Aaliyah declared.

“That’s dangerous talk soldier! You really ready to ‘take out’ the Captain?” Ulyana said.

Both of them cracked up amid the slurred words.

Eighth round– Ninth Round– Tenth–

floating velvet colors– soft giggling in a gently swaying room– paradise–

“Don’t believe me? I’ll show you– Captain–”

Aaliyah stood suddenly, and made her way around the table–

However, she stumbled over one of the chairs on the table’s side and tripped.

This led her to fall on Ulyana, who had been sitting quite back on her chair. Both of them fell backwards together and ended up entangled on the floor. Ulyana had hit her flank and Aaliyah her gut, but between the shocked gasping for air after falling, they began to giggle airily at one another, embraced. They brought their faces close and rubbed noses together.

Ulyana stroked Aaliyah’s hair.

Even their legs had entwined as they laid on the floor, staring into each other’s eyes intensely with drunken euphoria. Ulyana had been right. Aaliyah was so soft– so warm–

Unfortunately for the two of them, those gazes wavered far too quickly for their intimacy.

And the most that happened was that they fell asleep in each other’s arms on the floor.

Lips just millimeters short of a kiss, sleeping gazes still held tightly together.

Overlooking them on the floor, a metaphorical pile of work on the table still undone.

All of the officers, at least, had had their forms looked through and approved.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was an additional and unforeseen problem too–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gula– her aura was– odd–

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

She might learn more by goading them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avaritia grinned again.

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

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

Olga had heard enough communist speeches to know that intimately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t aggrandize yourself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revulsion, anger, but maybe also hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olga reached around to stroke Erika’s hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana smiled again. She really appreciated this troublesome Commissar.

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

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

Aaliyah frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose so.”

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

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

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

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

Kalika smiled back and silently acceded to the terms.

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

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

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

Leaving room for the guests that would soon arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lovely to meet you.” Zozia said.

“Enchanted.” Ksenia added.

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe that was the pressure she was feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her responses began to feel–

–rehearsed?

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

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

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

“I’m afraid not.” Ulyana replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s enough.” Aaliyah interrupted.

“No, Aaliyah, let her speak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zozia crossed her arms and leaned back on her chair.

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

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

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

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

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

“And I’m a poser?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zozia was inferring something beyond the ideological differences Aaliyah cited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana, meanwhile, was already looking forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Her attitude yielded no escalation from across the table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kremina turned her head toward the doorway behind herself.

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

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

Upon catching the first glimpse–

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

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

Kremina did not acknowledge her silent greeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her lips curled into a wicked grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the last straw.

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

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

Ulyana smiled even as Kremina shouted venom in her face.

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

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

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

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

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

Ulyana knew exactly what was going through her head.

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

An Ashura-operated telemonitor–

Nagavanshi’s tactics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That trust that supercedes even the stature of Daksha Kansal.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Captain, may I have a word?”

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

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

She smiled awkwardly. Arbitrator I smiled cheerily back.

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

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

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

“Hey. Are you okay?” Ulyana asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving behind a very confused Captain.

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

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

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

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

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

Desperation swelled and spread in her like a cancer.

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

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

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

She could not lose another home.

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

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

Lift all locks on STEM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Array all data. Immediately.

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


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.6]

In a very dark and silent room, sounded a shutter, its report as loud as a gun.

On the middle of the far wall a circle of white light shone suddenly.

With the shadows just barely parted, five ascending rows of ten seats each became visible.

There was nobody alive sitting down in them; but every other seat was occupied by a stuffed animal.

Some were proud collectibles and limited editions in pristine conditions; others were patched up with much love and attention, having seen many hugs and absorbed many tears in their best days. It was these stuffies that gave off a tiny wisp of colors from their bodies, green and blue and the tiniest hint of black. It was these stuffies that could almost feel human in their aged dignity, in the visible scars of experience.

Below that circle of light on far wall, there was a small stage.

Footsteps; a woman climbed up on stage and briefly stood in the light to wave at the audience.

Of course, none of the stuffies waved back.

“Hello, hello!” She greeted. “My name is Polaris, super cute girl and genius wunderkind of the Shooting Stars! I need little introduction right? I joined the United Research Department of the Aer Federation at 13 years old! I’m a well-known prodigy who has written many papers!”

Polaris certainly no longer looked 13 years old.

She was a grown woman, pale, with her brown hair tied up in a ponytail. She wore a white coat which was full of custom-printed pins, each of which gave off the same feeling of humanity as the stuffies in attendance. The aura wafting from her pins curled over her left shoulder like a fleetingly visible rainbow half-cape. Her turtleneck and skirt had tiny coffee stains and were going slightly ratty. She had a flushed and girlish countenance; a slight roundness to her cheeks and nose.

She was still young– but worn. Her eyes had deep bags under them, and the fingers with which she operated the projector’s clicker and her laser pointed were bruised black and purple and red.

Her voice trembled very slightly as the audience of stuffed animals gave no response, and she resumed:

“Today, we are going to learn about the Aer Federation’s Threat Classification System. This simple system was designed as a way to categorize threats to public order in a way that their OS, the Aerscape system, can parse, assess and respond to– in theory, delivering contingency plans directly to STEM-equipped personnel in the form of detailed tactical, strategic and logistical info within minutes.”

Polaris fiddled nervously with the laser pointed in her fingers.

“Of course, that was– is, the theory. The implementation was flawed.” She mumbled to herself. “I think it will help illustrate the situation that the Aer Federation was– is–” she paused, “the situation it is in.”

There was another loud report from the shutter on the projector– an image appeared in the white light.

That image was a young man with a hoodie, hands in his pockets, avoiding eye contact.

“Contagio Civilis.” Polaris said. “Social plague’– but these titles were more than their literal meaning.”

A crowd of people all wearing the same t-shirt. Seemingly nothing else out of the ordinary.

“For the Aer Federation, this was also ‘civil contact.’ To watch for any organizing or group thought. It was– it is– currently– before–” Polaris paused and raised a hand over her mouth briefly then smiled and continued speaking. “It is a model called ‘zero trust society.'”

There were a few more reports of the shutter.

Images of thieves, graffiti artists on hoverboards, doomsayers on the street–

–a shadowy, tall man surreptitiously in an alleyway on a dark night,

a misshapen shadow in a suburban backyard, looming over a child with eldritch violence,

a woman putting up flyers,

“Contagio Civilis.”

She waved the laser pointed at each of the images.

“These were individual threats to highly localized areas. Next set of slides please.”

There were images of tornadoes, monsoon winds, black bloc anarchists, labor unions on strike,

a shadowy figure of flesh in a dark forest, maw studded with teeth, legs as thick as an adult’s torso–

a single bolt of purple lightning and a half-charred corpse disfigured with hexagonal missing flesh,

“Clades Regionem.”

A map of a coastal region appeared, red overlayed on a long strip of land containing many cities.

“I added that one slide– the purple stuff. But– that sort of thing was never officially acknowledged by the Aer Federation. Anyway. This is one level of threat over. Clades Regionem. It can be read as both ‘localized disaster’ and ‘regional conflict’. Clades Regionem were threats that affected a particular locale in the Federation. At first, national disasters were the main focus of this category, but over time, they came to encompass political movements and organizing efforts at city and state levels. Clades Regionem were threats that called for suppression, but response stopped short of total elimination. Next slides.”

Loud shutter report;

Dark computer monitors with white sigil text that read “Q – The Question.”

People staring at those monitors in rapt attention while a countdown played beneath the Q sigil.

Another shutter–

Young men and women with small arms, dressed in old-school Ayvartan communist uniforms.

“Continere Ruina.”

MRAP vehicles opening fire with machine guns and wire-guided missiles on a colossal, gangly red creature in a forested area, its long snout closing over a similar vehicle which was being crushed in its jaw and eaten. Under its shadow, pale human figures gathered. When the slide turned, it was a similar picture, except coast guard boats firing autocannons and torpedoes at a massive, serpentine beast out at sea.

Polaris looked upon the flashing images with what seemed like a growing sorrow.

“Continere Ruina. To the Aer Federation it means ‘continental devastation’ but it can also be taken to mean ‘contains ruin’ or ‘contains calamity.’ The obvious thing to draw from it, is that it’s a scale of threat that can affect an entire continent. But there were other interpretations: ideas that ‘contain ruin’ such as, in the Aer Federation’s eyes, ‘authoritarian communism’ were labeled as Continere Ruina level threats. This is because it’s an idea that can spread far and cause unrest. Even something like the ‘Question Conspiracy’, climbed in threat level as it spread across the internet and caused civil unrest globally. Threats of this nature were often required long-term, clandestine methods in order to oppose them. They had to be destroyed, but the level of damage also had to be hidden from the public as much as possible.”

Polaris’ laser pointed hovered over an image of an enormous, armored, snake-like being emerging from a cave, black exhaust seeping from jets along its side– clearly taken by someone’s trembling hand.

There was another shutter slide, another slide; a group of nine individuals, one of whom was Polaris.

There were Shimii, Loup, Nochtish, Nobilean, and Ayvartan members, all together in one place.

The Shooting Stars.

“Continere Ruina level threats were the first threats that called for elimination to be strongly considered over suppression. Elimination entailed hunting down the organization, or the organization’s assets, all equipment involved, and so on, with the goal of not just suppressing individual actors, but permanently uprooting all elements. These purges were expensive and time consuming. So, as the Federation weakened, it became possible to continue operations when marked at this level– if you were careful. Or if you were connected– the Federation was also– is also– notoriously corrupt and nepotistic.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the faces of the group in the picture. Her eyes watered just a little.

She grit her teeth and ran her arm over her face. “Next slides please.”

There was a picture of what looked like an advertisement.

It depicted:

A dog-like figure and a human-like figure; x-rays of them showed bizarre internal anatomies.

It read:

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

BIOMECHANICS ARE A THREAT TO HUMANITY. BIOMECHANICS ARE AGAINST THE LAW.

“Excorium Humanitas. Literally ‘to peel the skin off a person.'” Polaris said. “Excorium Humanitas level threats could harm people and society globally. Threats to ‘all humans’ such as the Great Ravages– pandemics that caused billions in loss of life taken together, and trillions in economic damages. Global Climate Change– but only the part where the planet was warming, not– all the other things–“

Polaris’ hands shook.

Her laser pointed briefly flitted across a picture of a massive purple storm cloud.

“But it was also understood to include, ‘threats that can change the nature of humanity itself.'”

New slides. A short, pale girl standing at the edge of a rural road at night, with a passing car stopping to offer her help; and then a slide of the inhabitants slaughtered, the girl eating them. A symbol of an eclipsed sun; a city under a barrage of purple lightning, tearing through buildings and streets, while at the edge of the storm a horde of dark, animalistic, monstrous figures were tearing into a crowd of riot police.

“Biomechanics conglomerates exploited the tensions between the Federation’s constituent states to gain funding from all sides to pour into dangerous projects. After a series of high-profile incidents, and the spread of hostile biomechanoids, the Federation responded sharply. After being declared Excorium Humanitas, it became impossible to buy even a clone of your deceased dog or a vita-stitched cleaning servitor. Even cybernetics started becoming Excorium Humanitas bit by bit. Alternatives to STEM-integrated implants or STEM-capable cybernetic augmentation controllers, particularly in the latter-day Federation, became targets. Even things like stitcher machines and biomedical organ growing began to be curtailed due to this ongoing backlash. There was even a move in conservative parts of the Federation to label ‘transgender ideology’ as Excorium Humanitas, but these were not successful, thankfully.”

Shutter; shot.

On the screen, a picture of herself, on a poster. Polaris. Margery Balyaeva. Nationality, age, gender, sex.

“No attempt to fully eliminate biomechanoids and biomechanics was ever successful. I strongly believe the Aer Federation’s ongoing– collapse– troubles– they’re not a result of just biomechanics in itself.”

It was visibly difficult for her to speak of this.

That sorrowful looking photograph of hers was surrounded by a circle of repeating text,

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS

and below the picture,

ALL MEASURES VALID. PROTECTING THE FEDERATION IS A CIVIC DUTY.

That said it all. Margery Balyaeva or “Polaris” no longer had rights as a subject of the Aer Federation.

“This is for my– I guess you could say, my current actions. Not that it means anything anymore.”

Polaris smiled at the audience suddenly. She pointed at herself glibly, digging fingers into her cheeks.

“Polaris, Excorium Humanitas, speaking. But it’s okay; you won’t have to pursue this evil villain to safeguard your falling world any longer. I’m sorry I can’t continue to provide a distraction.”

An involuntary sob; she sucked in air and steadied herself. “Next slide. Please.”

Shutter–

A woman huddling on a bed, flesh glistening as if fluid, pustules that seemed to writhe covering her skin.

“Raphtha, the plague of burning. The last and most horrific of the Three Great Ravages. Upgraded first to Continere Ruina, then Excorium Humanitas, and finally Aerae Nullius, when it caused the total collapse of Hispalis and Brittania.” Polaris said. “If only they would have responded strongly from the start.”

Shutter–

A wide shot of an island landscape and port infrastructure, a dark sky overhead, waves of people panicking and fleeing. A colossal serpentine monstrosity, nine eyes along its snout focusing seemingly on the picture camera with a cruel intellect. Gunfire seemed to fly at the islanders from protrusions along its length. From its mouth, an enormous gust of annihilating purple breath cut apart the land itself.

“The Horror of Dys, a biomechanoid that destroyed the Aer Federation’s man-made continent in the central Imbrium, ending their ambition to relocate their headquarters to ‘the center of the world.’ It is still at large, somewhere in the depths of the ocean. Hell– I might end up meeting it soon if I’m unlucky.”

Shutter–

A woman, her orange eyes hidden behind dark glasses, wearing a turtleneck and pants with her hands inside of a long coat. Her purple eyeshadow and lipstick added a splash of color to her monochromatic aesthetics. Long dark hair, and a regal expression, made her appear mature and queen-like in nature.

“Zabik, fellow Shooting Star. A major figure in STEM technology; and avid defender of biomechanics. I did my very best to protect her. But– Hmm. Actually I think she would say ‘I’m still here.’ I think she would.”

Polaris’ eyes lingered on the picture of this woman. She reached out as if to touch her– then drew back.

“We’ll still be here in our STEM data. We’ll be in the aether– and Zabik, you’ll always be with me.”

She pulled herself away from the woman’s picture and back to the task which she had given herself.

Shutter–

A bloodlessly pale red headed woman with a horn, dressed in a robe that almost seemed like a pair of demonic wings folded over herself, a spiked tail swinging behind her. Lit by a bolt of purple lightning, she laughed raucously with furiously red eyes. An image like– the last thing the camera ever saw–

In the distant horizon, the thick, raging sky blocked the sun like a total eclipse–

“All of these images represent the same thing.”

Shutter–

A picture of an Aer Federation flag, the globe surrounded by six hexagons in a hexagon pattern.

And a bloody X scrawled over that flag.

“Aerae Nullius. A threat rating that is rarely acknowledged. We can draw from the name that these were threats to ‘Aer.’ But how is that different from Excorium Humanitas? In truth, these were threats that could bring about the fall of the Aer Federation specifically, not to the planet Aer. For example, and this one is so perversely horrid: the Shimii and their religious conflicts were ultimately labeled Aerae Nullius.”

Polaris pointed her laser at a picture of a group of cat-eared and cat-tailed militants in hoods.

“None of us will ever know the degree of effort that went into preserving the Aer Federation. How many trillions of Ecos were spent in asserting Aerean sovereignty in the face of growing social conflicts? In controlling a planet ravaged by climate instability and historical pandemics? All of it while trillion eco conglomerates reaped vast profits!” Polaris’ fingers clutched her laser pointer more sharply than before.

“Excorium Humanitas.” She mumbled to herself. “All I wanted– was to preserve humanity. To save us.”

Her eyes glistened. She began to weep, to sob, her shoulders shaking. Ugly noises escaped her lips.

“Zabik– I’m– I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I failed; I failed everyone. Now– now there’s no going back–“

Throughout this display of pathos all of the audience was silent– including–

Gertrude Lichtenberg.

Frozen with her eyes wide, shaking, taking the place of a stuffed toy in the higher seats.

And at her side–

Red hair, a horn, a pale, grinning face, a tail so long it lounged over several rows of seats,

“Interesting. So this is where she fled to. Well– good riddance. Just another hypocritical hominin. You belong in this underwater prison. You deserve even worse. For what you did to us– to me–“

Arbitrator II suddenly lifted her hand to Gertrude’s face, covering her eyes,

and caused her body to burst like a smashed watermelon, ejecting colors from hundreds of wounds–


“Master? Are you with me? Hold my hand.”

Gertrude felt a warm touch, fingers gently squeezing the palm of her hand.

A wall of colors parted before her eyes to reveal a world that felt more substantial–

yet still airy around the edges.

Dim sights through fatigued eyes, half awake and half in dream.

She was standing in the middle of the Island-3 entrance, with that damnable STEM-locked door.

At her side stood–

Azazil An-Nur.

Gertrude was immediately stricken by her bewitching beauty, and the otherworldly presence she felt from the woman. She felt like these dreams felt, like the silver trees felt (what trees?), like the horned woman felt (horned woman?). She felt like the promise of sublimity that Gertrude only found in her delusions.

Pale and long-limbed with deep, dark orange eyes mottled with yellow, cybernetic perhaps.

For someone who called her ‘master’ so frequently, she looked strikingly regal, purple lips subtly smiling, her purple-shadowed eyes delivering a penetrating gaze. Her dress and half-cape, hugging her slender but curved figure, made her out akin to a noblewoman, lustrous silver hair fastidiously kept. Atop her head, she had two black animal-like ears, thin and tall and fuzzy. Was she a Shimii or a Loup?

“Master, how do you feel?” She asked.

Gertrude spoke perhaps the most honest words she had allowed herself to say in this entire expedition.

“I feel like I don’t know what is real and what isn’t.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled at her.

“What would be different, if this was a mere delusion? How would that change your position?”

Gertrude’s jaw trembled.

“I’m– I’m staking my future here–“

“Can a future not be built on emotions? Are emotions not real?”

“Emotions are not material.” Gertrude said. “I feel– I feel insane. I need to know this is real.”

Azazil turned to face the STEM-locked door to Island-3’s spire once more.

“Human emotions have left a mark on this place. I am merely helping you to experience these emotions. Perhaps the mechanism can be likened to a dream; but the feelings are true. They were felt here.”

In the next instant, shadows became visible all around the entrance to Island-3. These shadows were like negatives of a person, visible as the person-shaped empty space that stood between shimmering colors, blue and green, yellow and red, purple, black. These shadows moved naturally, gestured to each other, maybe even spoke, though not in a way Gertrude could understand. They never acknowledged her.

Tall and short, male and female (or at least, gertrude’s interpretation of gender markers).

They examined the door– one even burnt their hand exactly the same way as Gertrude.

Then– they cut out the panel and began to examine the interior of the wall.

“You can see it.” Azazil said. “Their feelings, traveling the path they wore through the aether.”

Gertrude recalled the feeling left in the tunnel. Norn’s world-scarring fury.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked.

“I am a humble servant who was created to take care of humans.” Azazil replied.

“You have power. Like Norn.” Gertrude said.

Everything felt so dream-like that it took a lot of effort just to speak.

Her thoughts felt so airy that she had to seize a firm hold of them to prevent herself from wandering aimlessly between all the different things she felt and wanted to say. Speaking itself was almost an act of rebellion, as deliberate and kinetic as throwing a punch. Speaking asserted a specific place, a point in time, an anchor in the middle of the maelstrom. That was how muddled and difficult her surroundings and her mind had become. Azazil felt like the only concrete thing, another lighthouse in this sea of fog.

“You have it too. You have a wandering heart, carried by the currents, longing to connect.” Azazil said.

Island-3’s main entryway disappeared around them, its colors blending back into fog.

Gertrude was startled, and took a few steps back.

Then she found a wall had appeared behind her. She was now in the interior of Island-3.

Around her the surroundings filled in like a sudden splash of paint on a canvas.

Shadows crossed the lobby and toyed with the finery and furniture that had been left there.

They climbed farther up into the living quarters, their experienced engineers methodically weaving a path through the ancient station. They brought their own crates of supplies, but found a gigantic, existing supply of food with the markings of a polity they did not know. They were surprised to discover the food in these crates was still good if rehydrated. They could hole up inside this place for a while– Gertrude began to understand these feelings the shadows had as concrete desires elucidating on their situation.

Then, Gertrude spotted a few of the shadows bringing up someone into the habitat.

Escorting her through the halls, showing her their findings as a worker would to a superior.

Unlike the shadows, this figure was distinctly a person, with the fullness of her shape. She was dressed richly, in a purple dress embroidered with gold and a silver tiara resembling a laurel wreath with gemstones ensnared in the branches. Her gaze was distant, confused, hazy. She was short and small, skinny even, with a long tail that trailed behind her. She was a child, grey-skinned and pale-haired.

Even in this clearly distressed state, there was still an air of regal dignity that Gertrude recognized.

“They’re Katarrans?” Gertrude said. Her eyes drew wide. “That– That’s Norn? Is it really?”

Her aura, even at this point in her life, when she must’ve been a child– it was so remarkably similar.

It felt like Norn felt, and the band of red that slithered weakly along its edge, it felt familiar.

Like a prelude to the fury that would characterize the grown woman this larva would become.

“There is a figure who is not just a shadow in the aether?” Azazil said. “Then it is as I suspected. I felt you had a deep emotional connection to this aura. Unlike you, I can’t see anything but shadows.”

“Norn was Katarran royalty?” Gertrude said. She could hardly hear Azazil now, her focus too narrow.

She wanted to see more, to understand more, and the aetheric visions seemed to oblige her.

Drawing her further into the station, and out of it– into the tunnel.

Shadows excavated the tunnel, created security measures–

“The Vizier wants Her Majesty to be safe here.”

“No harm will come to her here. She will be able to return someday.”

“Someday she will return the glory of House Palaiologos.”

“Someday. We will all return someday. She will take us back to Katarre.”

Not speech, but the thoughts contained in the feelings representing these shadows.

They worked hard and diligently to create what was almost assuredly a prison.

All the while saying to themselves that it was for Norn’s benefit.

But also for their own. That this little creature they were bricking up would return their glory.

Gertrude’s heart began to pound with growing dread.

She watched as they left her at the very end of the paths they had cut. Oxygen-pumping equipment and air purifiers and moisteners were affixed on the walls which were noisy and eerie but would keep her alive. Hers was the filthy room at the very end, that Gertrude had seen, where she had found Azazil trapped. It accumulated wrappers and food containers and other such things that nobody picked up, becoming like a nest of trash. In the middle of it, the little girl was fed once a day, only rarely seeing light.

At first she was fed the rations that the Katarrans brought with them, as well as rations from Island-3, like packaged freeze-dried goods of the defunct Aer Federation that somehow survived to this day, as well as algae and fungus from the aquaculture farms. However, this would change as the Katarrans began to forage, and Norn began to fed instead mostly on fresh-caught abyssal worms and bony yet gelatinous deep trench fish. Her meals had already been largely tasteless, but now they became actively disgusting.

Despite this, she was at the mercy of her retainers, so she kept her head down, ate, and waited.

Waited– but for what? Years passed without change.

In those conditions, her aura became– grey. A dismal fog that barely clung to her clammy skin.

Azazil’s fingers squeezed into a fist.

“They stripped her of all humanity. She forgot, for some time, what it was like to feel emotions.”

Gertrude watched the girl, growing into puberty and maturity and beyond, within this hole.

Slumped against a pile of plastic containers, her once beautiful dress now rags.

Her tail grown longer than her body, her hair overlong, lacking the energy to do anything.

Receiving only enough care to retain the shape of a human, but no more.

“Why? Why would they do this to her? She was important to them, wasn’t she?” Gertrude cried out.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her heart thrashed in her chest. She couldn’t understand it. She wanted to know everything, but the fullness of the situation was not making itself clear to her. She could only extract the stultified emotions of the little Norn wasting away in this hole. When another shadow would wonder in to feed her, it, too, had no emotions and could not be read or understood. Gertrude hands started shaking.

“They must have lost their own humanity as well.” Azazil said gravely.

“You were in the same room!” Gertrude shouted at her. “You must know why this happened!”

Azazil shook her head calmly.

“These events happened before my stay here. You can see more than I ever could.”

Gertrude turned from Azazil back to Norn and felt a heartache so strong it stifled her breathing.

“Norn– What did you want me to see here? Was it this? Did you know I would see this?”

Her voice began to tremble.

She tried to wipe her eyes but the tears would resume whenever she laid eyes on the little creature.

For how long had Norn suffered in this place? Why had she been confined here?

“Was it the end of the Katarran golden age? But then Norn would be over a hundred years old.”

Could Norn truly have been the remains of the house of the Palaiologoi in the old Katarran Kingdom?

Gertrude’s state of mind was still difficult to get a hold of. It helped to ask herself questions.

Anything she said felt more concrete than any of her surroundings. It grounded her in reality.

She felt like she was convincing herself of a narrative she could believe–

Then, suddenly– Norn locked eyes with her. For an instant, Gertrude felt fear like she never had before.

Can she see me? Can she tell I’m watching? Can she tell I squandered the power she gave me?

Far behind Gertrude and Azazil, the doors into the tunnel opened again. Someone walked into the tunnel.

Norn was not looking at the two observers. She was in her own time, staring at the intruder coming in.

“Oh, this is awful– but I suppose it’s safe, at least.”

Light shone in from the open door into Norn’s tiny quarters.

Gertrude had expected a shadow, but the woman facing Norn was rendered in the recollection as faithfully as Norn herself. Norn was a grown woman during this encounter, but her expression was as bewildered as a child confronted with something grander and vaster than they had ever seen. Drawn-wide eyes, tearing up from the light, fell upon the brown-haired woman at the entrance to the chamber.

She had professor-like presence that reminded Gertrude of Nile. Turtleneck sweater, white lab coat, and a pair of rugged pants that hugged her mature figure. Like Nile, she was quite comely; an inquisitive face with a gentle nose, red lips curled in a sad and worried smile, a pair of red glasses with thick frames perched in front of dark eyes. Her slightly wavy hair was worn long, her gait confident and casual.

“Greetings, little one. You can call me Ganges. I came from very far away. I wanted to see you.” She said. “I think you are very special indeed, aren’t you? Are you truly Astra Palaiologos?”

Norn blinked at her. She was no longer so little a thing as before. Gertrude could see the beginnings of that lean and strong body she had grown to fear, long-limbed and almost elegant, but in this moment, she was ill proportioned due to her mistreatment. Curled almost into a ball in her dark room.

She was a woman, but a woman with the mind of an abandoned child.

She spoke as if any word might rip her throat open.

N-Ναί.”

Norn barely squeaked out a little sound. It was an affirmation, in High Katarran, sounding like “nee.”

Her jaw trembled, teeth chattering. She could form only one more word.

Αστρα…”

Shaking fingers pointed at herself. Astra.

In response, Ganges reached into her coat and produced a plastic-wrapped object.

Norn drew back in fear, but then rebounded toward Ganges upon seeing the offering, suddenly curious.

Kneeling to Norn’s level, Ganges handed Norn the item, partially unwrapping to reveal a piece of bread.

“For you, your majesty.”

Norn snatched it from Ganges’ fingers and began taking tiny nibbles of the bread.

As if she did not want it to be gone so soon– but she still relished the taste.

While she ate, Ganges patted her head softly.

This was not done purely out of casual kindness. Gertrude could see colors drifting from her fingers.

Norn’s aura was growing redder and redder. The more she ate, the angrier she seemed to become.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She was so helpless, and so angry, so incredibly angry.

She had rediscovered emotion seemingly so she could hate the world.

And through the hand she was using to comfort her, Ganges could feel the shift.

Ganges sighed as she watched her. “I’m in a real bind. I think I did find our Apostle– and she’s in terrible conditions. But she’s safe and unmolested by the outside world. Ugh. Maybe this was all a mistake.”

Gertrude held a hand up to her chest, gritting her teeth.

“God damn it. I can’t even ask myself what Euphrates would do.” Ganges said. “I know too well.”

“Take her away from there. Don’t leave her.” Gertrude mumbled to herself, lips trembling.

“Was that what happened, Master? Is this figure freeing her?” Azazil asked her.

But Gertrude felt in that moment, that this wasn’t the case. That it wouldn’t be.

All of the emotions confined in this room told her a different story.

Ganges would ultimately leave Norn in her captivity for several more years.

Before the currents of tragedy and war would drag the world back to the cage of Astra Palaiologos.

Gertrude turned her head from the sight of the skinny, abused Norn eating the bread.

She couldn’t take it– she couldn’t imagine being subjected to that kind of pain.

Growing up a child incarcerated and made to disappear by all of the adults meant to protect her.

Those were her retainers, weren’t they? She was royalty– but more than that, she was just a child.

If they saved her from the collapse of the Katarran Kingdom, why did this have to happen to her?

Why did they hate her so much to do this to her? Why didn’t they just kill her then?

They could have left her to be killed by the burgeoning Warlords and it’d have been a kinder fate!

And why– why was Gertrude seeing something this horrible–

“Why did this happen to you? Why did they do this to you?” Gertrude set her jaw, closed her fists.

She had no answer to this; no answer was forthcoming.

It was just one of those unthought-of evils of the world. Children could know suffering too.

“God damn it. God damn it! GOD DAMN IT!”

Gertrude screamed her lungs out and struck the wall, her fist taking on the evil red color too.

Around her and Azazil, the colors twisted and turned once again, bringing them to a new scene.


Gertrude’s tears fell like yellow and green and black color into the floor below.

When next the aperture into Norn’s prison opened, Gertrude’s head snapped toward it.

She briefly saw red on the walls in the interior of Island-3, but it was not aura.

Blood and spatters of bodies had smeared over the pristine steel.

An enormous figure walked through the open door. Tall, burly, with a confident gait.

Covered head to toe in power armor, of legendary Katarran make.

Save for his helmet, which bore two cat-like ears– it was made for a Shimii.

It was the biggest Shimii Gertrude had ever seen, taking step by thundering step toward Norn.

As soon as Norn first saw the intruder and her tired eyes adjusted to the light, she scurried back.

Crawling on the floor– but stopping at the wall formed by the trash behind her.

As if some part of her knew it was filth, not to be touched by someone– she still had– dignity–

Gertrude covered her own mouth, her chest pounding and shaking.

Norn’s fear overcame her anger and the room suddenly became greener and darker.

Her overwhelming aura infected Gertrude with the monumental fear of death that Norn had felt.

Even Azazil’s hands began to shake– she linked them behind her back to hide it.

“Astra Palaiologos.” said the man, approaching. He was so large. Norn was like a larva next to him.

Suddenly, the man knelt, keeping his head raised but his knees bent like a knight before a liege.

“Your majesty. Blessings of the Prophet who is most worthy, and the Caliph who is the appointed successor of his excellence, be upon you. I am called, by His Excellency, Radu the Magnificent.”

His voice was soft and sonorous. He was still enormous. Still casting a deep shadow over the girl curled up in the corner. She stared up at him with eyes rendered large and cloudy from the fear that overcame her. She did not understand his overtures. But whenever the man spoke, he was so immensely obsequious, his voice so beautiful and his cadence so poetic. These elements made her feel something.

“Your majesty; I sought you like a pearl in the sand of humanity’s streaming aether, and I am overjoyed that my divinations finally bore fruit. The Imam of Imams himself, our Caliph, his excellency Mehmed the Great, wishes to extend to you an invitation. He greatly desires to meet you. You shall be treated as an honored sister, and protected from your enemies; taken from this heinous captivity and given the respect which is your birthright. You have a God-given power, Astra Palaiologos, which will sweep away all that has wronged you, and Mehmed the Great will lead you, hand in hand, to its utmost realization.”

Astra shuddered, as the armored man reached out his thick, gloved hand, its digits extended.

That metal claw could have ripped her skinny arms right out of their sockets.

She was like a little doll made of rags compared to the titan that had come to seek her.

And she didn’t understand; she didn’t understand almost anything he meant.

Just the mere fact of hearing words, so many words, difficult words; it terrified her utterly.

His voice was beautiful but everything he was saying was ugly, so ugly, in her mind.

All she could do when faced with that hand was shake and shut her eyes and grit her teeth.

“Princess; your condition is truly evil. But all of your oppressors have paid in blood. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will judge them now. They will never hurt you again. Come with me, Astra Palaiologos.”

She understood the sentiment behind those words. She must have seen it in his aura.

He had killed all of her retainers. Even the briefest thought of such violence drove her to tears.

He waited patiently with his hand outstretched, while Norn shrank from him in terror.

“Can’t you see you’re terrifying her, you bloated fool?”

Radu’s head snapped over his shoulder and he stood quickly, Norn crawling back in his shadow.

He faced the aperture from where he had come and found Ganges standing there.

Unchanged by the years.

She had a companion; wavy blue hair to her shoulders, wearing a jacket, vest, shirt and tie, long pants.

A young-looking face with a sharp gaze that seemed to have a presence beyond her years too.

This woman briefly surveyed the room and Gertrude could sense her disgust with what she saw.

“This is horrific.” said Euphrates, Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

Gertrude was certain that was her name– Norn’s emotions in this room coalesced powerfully around her.

“Well.” Ganges added. “I know what you would have said about it at the time.”

“No, you don’t. But we’ll talk about this later.” Euphrates glared at Radu.

In return, Radu reached over his shoulder.

The handle of a weapon snapped from his back to his hand. He drew it in front of him, and it unfolded into a polearm with an axe-like bladed head which began to gently buzz with microscopic vibrations.

Euphrates crossed her arms. “I don’t care what Mehmed is intent on calling himself now. This woman’s life is not his to toy with. I won’t let her become another tool for his schemes. Understood, Radu Yilmaz?”

Radu scoffed through this mask upon hearing his name spoken so casually.

“I should like to see how you intend to take her from me.” He replied simply.

Ganges sighed. “I guess I’m up, huh?”

“You’re responsible, aren’t you?” Euphrates replied calmly.

“Oh, so that’s what we’re doing? Fine then. You’re impossible.”

Ganges took two steps in front of Euphrates and put her fists up.

Radu stared at her. His face was unreadable due to the rigid snout-like shape of the mask.

There was something like a low chuckle coming through his respirator.

Ganges grinned at him. “I’m afraid that difficult bitch back there never fights her own battles, so you won’t get the satisfaction of beating her to a pulp and watching her pathetically demand more.”

Euphrates grumbled. “Ganges, this is nothing but slander–“

“Whichever of you gets cut in half first, it changes nothing.” Radu said, cutting Euphrates’ response off.

“Enough talking? Okay then. Madam Astra, please stand back from the bad man.”

Norn was now fearful enough to crawl back so far she wedged into cover amid the trash.

Gertrude almost wanted to run to her aid– but none of this was real– it couldn’t be real–

“Master, these emotions are real.” Azazil said. “Steady yourself and see it through to the end.”

Azazil reached out and held Gertrude’s hand. Holding it, Gertrude’s panic quelled.

She fixed her eyes on the combatants–

In time to watch Radu raised his halberd up with both hands.

Swirling black miasma crawling up his arms and along the length of the shaft, concentrating on the blade.

Spiraling around it until the halberd was engulfed in what looked like black heat-less flames.

Radu towered over Ganges like a demon and swung his weapon in a brutal overhead smash.

In response, the Immortal charged him with a grin on her face.

Rushing headlong, Ganges raised her fist over her head to collide with the immense axe blow.

Cutting head met bare knuckles, furious black aura colliding with that lazy candle-flicker of blue–

“Got you.” She shouted.

As the blade crossed the hazy blue color the blow softened to the point it slid across Ganges’ skin.

“What?” Radu cried out.

Ganges turned away the cutting edge and Radu’s arms pushed back as if his attack had bounced

Leaving his chest open and exposed to Ganges’ fist.

Her knuckles connected with his armor and a pulse of red expanded out from the impact.

Radu staggered back as if hit by a battering ram, smashing into the wall behind him.

Ganges reared back up to a full stand from her striking stance.

One fist glowing blue and the other red, in the same way as Radu’s weapon had been colored black.

Beneath the aura of both fists, however, was a rushing rivulet of dark red blood.

Ganges winced, still grinning, but clearly in pain.

“Damn. What do they make that armor out of?” She said, shutting one eye.

Euphrates frowned. “We’re not used to having enemies near our level.”

“Near?”

From the wall, Radu stood back up. His armor had a banged-in dent on the chest.

His arms steadied around his weapon once more.

“Near? You underestimate me at your peril, old engineers. I am a disciple of Mehmed the Great!”

Radu leaped forward, his halberd slicing the air in a brutal swing tracing a trail of black and red–

“She said near.”

Ganges’ fists both turned blue and collided with the blade.

Between the combatants, red and black and blue colors burst like sparks.

Ganges swinging her fists and meeting the vibro-halberd as if her hands were made of steel.

Radu swinging overhand, horizontally, diagonally, raining furious sequential hacking blows.

Then, from a horizontal slice, Radu pulled back his blade, threw his weight forward and lunged.

Thrusting the vibrating spike atop the halberd head toward Ganges’ torso with all his might.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment!

In the instant between Radu drawing back and charging forward, Ganges was engulfed in blue aura.

Closing her eyes, she stepped forward into Radu’s swing,

turned her chest aside, as if a dance move,

and with an open palm, turned away the blade from its flat.

“You’re no Mehmed the Great.”

Ganges opened her eyes, stepped, as Radu fell forward, unbalanced.

With her free hand she seemed to twirl his aura out of his person like ribbons.

And with the same open palm that struck away his blade, she struck his face.

Delivering her aura and his own back to him in a blow that despite its apparent physical softness–

–rang out like a cannon.

King’s Gaze: Dominion.

Radu was bodily lifted from the ground and thrown on his back, his weapon falling at Ganges’ feet.

All of this happened as slowly as a droplet falling from a high ceiling.

And as fast as a bolt of electricity.

Gertrude watched the brawl unfold in disbelief.

“What the hell is that hand-to-hand technique?” Gertrude muttered to herself.

“I said near for a reason.” Euphrates replied. “You have a lot of aura to throw around and mastered some complicated concepts, but you are just using it to butcher people. We’re more advanced than that.”

Ganges scoffed, standing in the some position she was left after the blow.

Breathing heavily, blood dribbling down her hands– and some out of one eye.

“I’d like to see you pull off what I just did, Euphrates.” Ganges complained.

“Part of good management is delegation.” Euphrates replied.

“Go fuck yourself.”

Quiet.”

Ganges’ eyes narrowed, and Euphrates’ shot back to the cave wall.

Slowly, but surely, Radu was standing back up to his feet.

Part of his mask had been broken by the force of Ganges’ strike.

Revealing an eye and a bit of boyish cheek, hinting at a young countenance.

Short messy hair, and a single exposed Shimii ear with hex-shaped scarring.

His shoulders were shaking under his armor. He was having trouble standing at full height.

Despite this and his heavy breathing, he recalled his weapon from Ganges’ feet.

Catching the handle in one hand, spinning the weapon partially, and catching it in the other.

He held the weapon in front of him, grit his face and screamed.

His roar pushed black aura across the room in overwhelming amounts.

“Be quiet. Don’t speak as if you’ve felled me, you worm-begotten whores. I will never fail my Caliph. I am his fortress and his sentinel; your fancy footwork can topple me a thousand times and I shall rise a thousand times. This blade will taste all the blood it needs to realize His ideals! Don’t mock me!”

His endurance surprised the two Immortals, and his growing determination was fearsome to behold.

Then, just as Ganges and Euphrates made ready to withstand a renewed assault–

Across the room, a wave of red suddenly overwhelmed the black aura that Radu had spread.

Euphrates and Ganges both turned their heads in surprise.

At the fourth person in the room whom they had all forgotten.

Even Gertrude had lost track of her while observing the battle.

At the back of the room, standing out of the trash in her discolored, ragged dress.

Norn walked forward, completely wreathed in the deepest, darkest red Gertrude had ever seen.

Παύση.”

She shouted with such force that Radu began to shake.

Red trails flew from Norn’s body like arrowheads on snaking bodies.

Aiming directly for Radu and piercing his body in a dozen places. Leaving no blood, no wounds.

Nevertheless communicating as much rage and hatred as a hundred of Radu’s strokes.

Subject to such power, Radu’s exposed eye went dark, his body slumped.

Radu the Magnificent dropped his weapon, fell to his knees, and collapsed with a sudden finality.

Παύση…”

Norn started to collapse as well, but Ganges rushed forward and caught her in her arms.

Euphrates finally moved from the entrance, quickly examining Norn.

And further examining the mess all around them.

“He’s not dead.” She said of Radu.

“Pity.” Ganges replied. “Well, he’s lucky I’m not as kill-crazy as he is. We need to go.”

Euphrates sighed. “Mehmed will keep coming after her. Violently. This is a mess.”

“There’s seven of us and one of him. Well– there’s six of us willing to do anything.”

Ganges cracked a grin. Euphrates put a hand over her own face.

“Please quit it. I– I’ll convene a discussion about Mehmed. Okay? But we need more information.”

“Fine. But what this one needs is to see Nile. Right away.”

“Agreed. Even under Nile’s care it will be a while before she recovers. Poor girl.”

Euphrates and Ganges both looked at the utterly exhausted Norn with great pity.

“She’s so light.” Ganges said. “This is too terrible. Damn it. I should’ve just taken her before.”

They carried her out and the colors swept after them, while Gertrude and Azazil watched.


Gertrude awoke with a start, lifting her head suddenly from Azazil’s lap.

Her breathing was heavy, and the world was spinning. She felt vomit rising to her throat.

She hugged herself, sweating, skin clammy under her armor.

Scanning her surroundings in desperation she found herself in the tunnel, in Norn’s old prison.

Gertrude recalled when she first ran into this place it felt like an endless maze.

Now there was only the large room, and a short hallway to the entry door.

It was dim and still filthy with plastic trash, but it didn’t feel so oppressive now.

Slowly, Gertrude’s breathing relaxed.

Behind her, Azazil gently wrapped her arms around Gertrude’s shoulders.

She could feel the warmth and softness of Azazil’s chest pressing behind her.

It titillated her just a little bit, and she did not want to acknowledge that fact.

“Master, do you understand better now?”

On the walls and floor, Gertrude could plainly see the damage from Ganges’ fight with Radu.

It was real. So she came to understand, or at least, she had a narrative in her head.

Norn had been a princess of the Palaiologoi, rulers of the old Katarran Kingdom in the Golden Age.

To escape the Warlords, she must have been taken here. They were lucky to find Island-3’s spire.

Then Norn was betrayed by her retainers, by the entire world she knew. Isolated for endless decades.

Terrorized and dragged out into the world during Mehmed’s Jihad, and ending up with a grudge against the Sunlight Foundation. She would ultimately become the Norn von Fueller that Gertrude knew.

Host to an incredible, world-consuming wrath; and an immeasurable pain.

Gertrude started to weep.

“What was the point of seeing that? If I can’t change it? If I can’t ever help her?”

Azazil clung more tightly to the back of the fallen night.

“Master, the emotions left in this place were entrusted to you.” She said into Gertrude’s ear.

Gertrude threw her shoulder forward to shake off Azazil’s embrace.

That ever-polite stranger behind her made no comment on this brutish reaction.

“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Gertrude asked brusquely.

“I’m Azazil An-Nur.” She said calmly. “I was created to take care of humans.”

“You keep saying that. Are you a human?”

Azazil smiled pleasantly, purple lipstick glistening in the dim light of the instruments around the room.

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She said easily.

“What? Debate by whom?”

Gertrude shook her head. She felt insane. Everything was completely insane and nonsensical.

“Forget it. Don’t answer that. How did you end up here? You arrived after Norn already left, right?”

“Correct. I never met the woman whose emotions marked this place. I had a purpose to come here.” Azazil said. “Unfortunately, the spire’s mainframe captured me by registering my STEM as a servitor and rewrote my purpose, so I have been tidying up here for a long time. I was forced to rid myself of my transport by the system in order to leave room for guests to arrive, so I became trapped in here.”

Gertrude looked over her shoulder and stared at her.

How did a computer capture a person? How did they– rewrite– a person?

But when Gertrude first saw her– she was in grave distress and asking for help.

And there was all that buzzing in her brain about– STEM reformatting.

It was a horrific thought, that she had become enslaved here. By a computer that could do such a thing.

Could she really have been telling the truth?

“Is that why I found you the way I did?” Gertrude asked.

Azazil nodded. “This Island-3 module is suffering system malfunctions after it was visited by a group of biomechanoids. As one of its servitors I began to malfunction as well. When I sensed the presence of guests, I called out in the hopes that I could reformat my command authorizations to become subordinate to you instead of to Island-3’s service fleet. As you can see, I was successful.”

“What the hell?” Gertrude cried out in frustration. “Are you or are you not a human being?”

“That question is the subject of much debate.” She replied again, still smiling gently.

“Are you a machine?”

“I am completely biological.” She reached out a hand. “I am soft and warm, aren’t I?”

She was– Gertrude knew that better than anyone now. Azazil felt like a woman.

“Then what the hell are command authorizations? How does a computer capture you?”

Azazil continued to speak easily and with frightening clarity.

“Via STEM, which was installed in me when I was created.”

“How? Explain how. What the hell even is STEM? The door had it– and you do too?”

“System for Token Execution and Management.” Azazil said.

“More than that! God damn it!” Gertrude choked down a desire to yell.

“STEM is a DNA-based storage and execution layer that hosts data Blocks as well as nanobiological instruction sets called Tokens. It is depicted as a helical chain of blocks in computationally important hierarchies called a stemchain.” Azazil said, still looking rather tranquil.

Gertrude felt a knot in her stomach. “That’s– that’s insane. DNA? So that was how– how you were–?”

Azazil continued. “To explain my situation further, the station installed a token at the top of my stemchain to control me. However, humans hold special permissions over my body as a safety measure, overriding any Autonomous Device. So you are the Master of this body now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.”

“How–” She wasn’t going to even touch the body stuff. “How do you know my name?”

“I learned it at the time you became registered as my Master.” Azazil said, smiling.

That made no sense– or perhaps Gertrude didn’t want to make sense of it.

“Who– who did this to you? Who created you?”

Gertrude was just barraging her with aimless questions now.

She knew it was all useless, but she was angry and lost and increasingly hopeless.

In response Azazil furrowed her brows. Her eyes narrowed. Her gaze wandered.

“Not gonna answer that one, huh?” Gertrude said in a petulant voice.

“One moment Master. I am resolving blocks deep into my chain.” Azazil said.

Her tone of voice was completely unperturbed despite repeated questioning.

“It just looks like you’re stalling!” Gertrude shouted. “This is all made-up isn’t it?”

In the next instant, Azazil smiled again.

“I was designed by Margery Balyaeva.” She said.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wide.

That name–

She had heard that name– she had seen it–

in a dream.

EXCORIUM HUMANITAS.

Those words rang out in her head again. Had that– had all of that been real?

Then– had that horned woman really eviscerated her body–?

Gertrude felt like throwing up as she was flooded by reminiscence.

Nothing made sense. She was torn between so many different visions and worlds.

“Master? Are you unwell? There are still medicines in Island-3 I can access.”

None of that was going to help her. She needed something concrete to focus on.

She needed the next link in her own long and tormented chain of experiences.

“No.” Gertrude grunted and forced herself to a stand. “Forget it. I’ll be fine. We need to find–“

What this one needs is to see Nile

Her emotions were all over the place, but one thing came to mind that felt certain.

Nile must have known something she wasn’t saying.

Azazil claimed her stay in Island-3 did not coincide with Norn’s. But Nile had met Norn.

It was time to ask her about this whole situation, and the mysterious Sunlight Foundation.

That would be her next step– find Nile, make her own up, even if it took brute force–

Then, Gertrude felt something stirring in a pocket of her clothes that distracted her again.

She reached into it and produced the trinket Nile had given her.

Stirring gently in her hand, vibrating with an otherworldly presence.

On its surface, the fluids formed a blue hexagon, its lines scratchy and irregular with vibration.

Gertrude thought she heard noises coming from it.

Brief bursts of garbled choppy audio that began to coalesce into brief gasping, wailing, moaning.

Suddenly, Azazil rushed to stand in front of her.

“Master, stay behind me. They mean you harm.” She said.

From her upper back, hidden under her cape, she withdrew an extendible riot baton.

She wielded it in one hand while extending her arm to cover Gertrude behind her.

“They?” Gertrude’s voice trembled. The room felt suddenly, bitingly cold.

And her vision swam, through a wave of fatigue worse than any she had previously felt.

For a moment, she thought she would collapse, but steadied herself on Azazil’s back.

And saw, over the woman’s shoulder, a figure moving in from the door.

From the door that had never once opened to admit anyone inside since Gertrude awakened.

“What is that– please– no– oh no– oh god–“

One of the most primal fears was the fear of conception in itself.

An ability to view an object with an inability to place its context within reality.

Shadows peering around corners only enough to be noticed. Distant, distorted figures coming into view. Person-shapes before the instant of recognition. Amorphousness, miscibility into the background. To allow for an instant, the existence of something before the mind could place it in the natural order of things. There was nothing there; the lens resolution was too low; the blob becomes a person in time.

In the instant before acknowledgment, there existed the possibility of the unknown.

When something was peered at by human for long enough without producing understanding.

Such a thing was called a monster. Excorium Humanitas.

Such a thing now stood in front of them. And even in full focus, it was impossible to believe.

“Master, I will protect you. Please leave these aberrations to me.”

Facing Azazil and slowly approaching, was a creature that was tall and seemingly thin, covered head to invisible feet in a long, raggedy blue robe or hood. Its face was covered by a mask, leaving no gap between the hole in the hood and the white of the mask. On that mask, moving like facial features but also etched as if cut right into the material, were two eyes like thick black lines and a jagged smile like the silhouette cut by a pumpkin with a candle inside. Its strange expression looked like a sleepy smile.

One arm was fully covered by blue cloth save for long bony claws specked with mold.

Mold also grew in patches around its worn robe and gave off bright blue spores.

Behind itself, the creature dragged an elongated, swollen arm with papery blue-black flesh growing even more mold. This arm and much of the creature’s body was tied in chains that seemed to fix its robes in place, but did not impede its movement, which itself was bizarre. It twitched from position to position, its motion blurring, its body elongating and shortening and sometimes even splitting in half or twisting into a knot as if Gertrude was viewing mismatched frames of animation rather than a real creature.

The same wailing, choppy noises that came from the aetherometer issued from the creatures as if they were living outputs for some deranged radio station. They didn’t have to visibly move to make noise.

Then like a static-torn message from a radio at the edge of its distance, Gertrude heard words.

This…first stone…my church…

There was a voice, a human voice, a

discernible, distinct,

familiar,

voice,

“M-Monika?” Gertrude said. Suddenly piecing together the speaker. “Monika’s voice? Why?”

One of the creatures, of which there were several, then made it close enough–

To lift its claw and swing with violence, its sleepy carved expression unchanging.

Blue color shone from its sharp white digits as it brought them to bear on Azazil.

Without hesitation, she swung her baton in return, purple color collecting around the shaft.

A sound like bone snapping– she battered away the claw as if it weighed nothing.

Instantly the creature in front of her disappeared in a cloud of spreading blue aura.

“Keep hold of yourself Master. Steel your emotions and do not fall asleep.” Azazil said.

Two more creatures slowly twitched into view, coming closer.

They clicked their silhouetted mouths, making impossible noises as they neared.

“I won’t let them touch you.” Azazil said. She looked briefly back at Gertrude.

Her orange eyes had bright red rings around the iris. Her aura thickened and flared.

Gertrude huddled behind her, speechless, eyes watering, feeling tired down to her bones.

For all she knew, she was already asleep. Because so far, nothing resembled reality.

Just as she got used to having her feet on land, she was suspended again in an instant of lunacy.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.5]

In the middle of the endless white forest, there was a tree with a trunk that reflected light like glass.

Images upon its length began as static, but cohered into something as the tree awaited a visitor.

Raised over an ankle-deep puddle, surrounded by its rising and falling roots that were like gnarled bodies half-interred and half-dug back up. She saw it in the distance, and she ambled toward it like an animal in an endlessly dark cave, as if her senses only allowed her to perceive and follow its light. Step by slow, plodding step, her mind a fog, while the trees sang around her, their colors drifting in the air like a sky full of ribbons. Cheering for her, encouraging her, warming her, lavishing her with their endless affection.

She stepped into that puddle and looked up at the reflection on the trunk of the tree.

There was a familiar environment. A window into a world of metal.

There was a woman, hair tied up in a brown ponytail, wearing a long shirt and pencil skirt and tights, and a long lab coat. She had a pin on her lapel, depicting a globe beneath a rainbow of falling stars, and a second pin beside it, at times clutched in her shaking hand, with a logotype: “Shooting Stars.” These tokens looked almost childish, and the way she was clutching them nervously even more so. It made her look too young, too new, particularly in the indistinct violence of her surroundings. Metal, dark and jagged and industrial, pipes and mechanisms, tubes, fluid, fuels, gases. She stood on a platform deep in the midst of a gargantuan mechanism, staring helplessly as it unfolded before her, loomed over her.

Staring as it seemed to menace her; as it seemed like it grew endlessly outside of her grasp.

And up above, emblazoned in the center of everything, a flag.

Linked purple hexagons around a tiny blue globe, accompanied by a logotype: “Aer Federation.”

That mystery woman in the reflection contemplated the flag, then turned her head over shoulder–

–and smiled, an expression so tragic that blood should have come out of her eyes as tears.

As if staring out of the picture in the tree; as if she could see the lost soul in the endless forest.

Across time, maybe even across dimensions–

Filled with an agony and mourning of incomprehensible proportion.

“I’m sorry. I know that this will trouble you greatly, but I have made my decision.” She said. She was not speaking into the forest, not speaking to the woman in the puddle, but to the owner of the memory. “I’ve failed Nobilis, I’ve failed Nocht, I’ve failed Ayvarta; I’ve failed all of humankind, every hand that gave me third and fourth and fifth chances.” Tears drew from her eyes and though she continued to smile it was clear that her heart was broken. “If there’s anyone left to remember me, it will only be as a dismal failure; but the thing I regret most is how I failed you. We’re the only two left; and I can’t make this decision for you. But I made it for myself. I– You’ll probably think I’m such a coward. But I can’t– I can’t keep–“

Suddenly, at the side of the woman in the puddle, who had been watching the memory–

–there was a second one.

Red-haired, horned– lavish white robe– a disdainful look in her yellow on black eyes.

“Interesting finding. Somehow, this graveyard keeps opening its holes for you subhuman scum. I wonder– who is she talking to? Maybe I will let you explore and see if you turn up more.”

She raised her hand, and the colors collected around it like tendrils–

“But not for this; not right now.”

–and the tendrils lashed out at Gertrude Lichtenberg and tore her entirely to pieces–

“There’s nothing I want to be reminded of less– than of that spineless bitch Polaris.”


Depth Gauge: 3503 m
Aetherometry: Blue (DISTORTED)

Gertrude Lichtenberg awoke with a start and ran her hands over her body in a panic.

Breathing heavy, checking that she had arms, legs, a torso, shoulders, breasts–

With the source of her panic rapidly fading, unable to piece together what she had experienced, Gertrude was overcome with exhaustion once again. She threw herself back on her back, kicked her legs, sighed.

Despite the nap Gertrude felt very little relief from her previous exhaustion. It felt like lying down in her bed only caused time to move forward and did nothing for her body otherwise. There was a thought that swam vaguely in her mind and started to drift farther and farther away in wakefulness and it infuriated her. Something she had to do? Something she had to be worried about? She grunted with anger.

“This is really starting to get to me. I’ll– I’ll talk to Nile again. After I come back.”

They should already be at the same depth as the suspected habitat in the rock wall.

She could not stop now. She had to see this thing through to the end– or to its next step.

Gertrude slipped out of bed, fixed her clothes and left the room.

She took with her the gadget that Nile had given her, lying on her bed, stowing it in a pocket.

She did not look at it.

Since she did not understand it anyway, she was not curious whether anything had changed.

She made her way to the Iron Lady’s bridge. At the door, she was immediately met by Karen Schicksal, who handed her a vitamin jelly pouch without saying anything. She looked more disarranged than ever before, with her hair uncombed and dark bags under her glassy eyes. As soon as Gertrude accepted the vitamin drink, Karen withdrew another such drink from her jacket and began to drink it. They were starting to go through these quicker than Gertrude could have imagined– everyone looked exhausted.

In addition to Karen, Nile was standing with her back a corner of the room, and Victoria was standing beside Dreschner near the central throne. Gertrude sucked her vitamin jelly while making her way to her own chair, nodding her head at Nile and Victoria along the way, both of whom nodded back. They both appeared about as haggard as everyone else, but standing a little more alert than some of the crew.

“High Inquisitor,” Dreschner said, by way of acknowledgment. He yawned, pointing at the main screen.

On the main screen, their next destination loomed in front of them, enormous in its scale.

Its size easily outmatched the enormity of the Iron Lady herself.

“What is this supposed to be?” Victoria mumbled to herself.

In front of them, the structure that had been partially embedded into the rock wall appeared like an enormous, metallic stack of four plates where each pair was stacked well to well, so there was a thinner “neck” between the two main structures. It was absolutely massive, at least 300 meters tall. Some of the outer armor showed signs of damage, like shearing and gaps in the plates, but miraculously, there was no wear from the saltwater. Certainly this structure could not have been new as it was the size of a larger substation and nobody could have built it in such a precipitous location, so one would have expected an array of creatures to have accumulated over it over time, and for the elements to have worn its surface.

“It fits much too snugly into the rock wall.” Nile said. “I’m no engineer, but this looks deliberate.”

She appeared beside Dreschner’s seat, standing in conference with the rest of them.

“Not one of yours, I take it?” Victoria asked, her voice exhibiting a hint of derision.

“I would have ditched all of you and gotten myself a nice can of espresso if it was my lab.” Nile said.

“Don’t get started, you two.” Gertrude grumbled.

“I have something of an idea regarding its provenance.”

Dreschner raised his voice to match the women beginning to argue. Everyone looked his way.

“Lady Lichtenberg,” he continued, “do you remember your father well?”

Gertrude shook her head. This was a topic on which she had no strong feelings.

She remembered Dreschner from her childhood more than she remembered her own father.

“He was a very busy man, and the years of my childhood which are still clear in my memory did not feature him prominently. Not to sound callous– that’s just how it is.” Gertrude replied.

Dreschner nodded. “I would never accuse you of being anything less than filial. At any rate: the reason your father was first employed by Leda Lettiere was not as a guard, much less as guard captain. He secured those positions due to his bravery in a clandestine effort. He participated in an abyssal expedition to recover an ancient technology. A surface-era technology. I never learned what it was, but your father told me of the existence of such ruins. There are allegedly even some under Heitzing. It’s not well known.”

Gertrude was not aware of this history, but in her somewhat addled state, she simply could not muster a lot of emotion about her father. However, there was one tantalizing bit of information there–

“Wait a minute– surface era? As in, over a thousand years ago, before– the Ocean?” Gertrude asked.

Dreschner nodded his head solemnly.

“Maybe even before the corruption.” Nile said suddenly. “He’s not wrong– such things exist.”

Gertrude and Dreschner’s eyes turned sharply to stare at Nile, who crossed her arms.

She looked as tired as everyone else there.

“They do– I bet your organization has unjustly pilfered many of them.” Victoria hissed.

“No more than you biofascist brutes have destroyed unknowingly in your pointless wars.” Nile snapped.

“Stop it already!” Gertrude shouted. “Don’t speak another word to each other. Dreschner– how do you know this structure is related to the surface? What did my father tell you about such structures?”

“That they did not decay, and they never lost power.” Dreschner said. “We have confirmed both. While this station has received seemingly random acts of violence, there are undamaged plates that look brand new. No wear, not even saltwater corrosion. Furthermore, we probed around the area with a spy tentacle and found that there is a lower intake which is still sucking in water. This structure has electric power.”

“Can we signal it with the laser? Do we get anything back?” Gertrude asked.

Karen raised her voice, having stood in the periphery of the discussion. “We attempted to connect to the exposed laser array near the top of the structure, but we kept receiving incompatible protocol errors. I even had the computer attempt a Free Interface Generation process just to see if we got something, but the Iron Lady’s learning computer could not figure out how to communicate with this system at all.”

“It might be designed not to respond even when passive.” Victoria said.

“It’s unsafe to make a system like that! If the human operators were all incapacitated, there would be no way to determine the status of the station and respond to emergencies!” Karen said, sounding helpless.

“That’s our safety standard, but not necessarily theirs.” Gertrude said. “Nile, how much do you know?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t much.” Nile said. “Our resident deep-divers were a pair of ladies by the names Euphrates and Tigris. I was not as much a woman of action. I preferred to stay behind and work in lab or clinic settings, not run around. That being said, we had friendly chatter about it. So I can confirm that the most peculiar characteristics of old era structures are their continuing access to power, pristine condition, and the difficulty in extracting anything from them. Euphrates never successfully recovered old era data from any of the structures she uncovered. I doubt we will be able to do any better ourselves.”

“We may want to consider turning back, Gertrude.” Victoria said, her ears folding slightly.

Gertrude wasn’t about that to heed that advise. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her or even insinuate that this had been fruitless. In fact, if this was a Surface Era facility, then Gertrude’s journey may even have become more important than ever before. She felt a sudden attack of grandiosity– Norn wanted her to see this thing. Norn wanted her to discover it. That meant there was a way inside, or there was something to see inside. There was something she had to uncover, something that she had to understand.

There was no force on Aer that would have made her turn back now.

That inferno, raging where her heart should have been, dispelled some of the exhaustion she felt.

“We’re not ascending.” She told Victoria. “And you’re coming with me. We’re going into that thing and we’re going to see what we find in it.” She then told Nile bluntly. Nile did not seem surprised, and simply hid her hands in her coat pockets. “Have we found an entry? Can we connect a chute anywhere?”

She was raising her voice. She did not intend to sound so angry, but she was– impassioned.

“I know we’re all exhausted and we’ve been working nonstop. We’ll have a break as soon as I return from that structure. But I don’t want to hear talk of turning back. We are not returning to Konstantinople empty-handed. I am grateful for your continuing effort. Now, remain alert!” Gertrude declared.

This time loud enough for the entire bridge to hear.

Dreschner averted his gaze. Karen shrank back.

Across the bridge, there were a few half-hearted nods and salutes.

“Let’s start working on a way in there. The boarding party is already decided.” Gertrude said.

Everyone on the bridge resumed their duties, and so, with a sigh, the expedition continued.


The Iron Lady neared the structure and extended its boarding chute, holding onto the surface around the suspected entryway via its magnetic clamps. A similar process to the entry into the Cutter was undertaken, but ultimately found to be unnecessary. The engineers brought a wheeled scanning array to attempt to predict the structure of the door, which would have subsequently told the engineers where to drill. However, as soon as the first few seconds of laser and sonar scanning commenced, the door simply opened, as if it detected the sound and light waves and responded solely to that level of activity.

Behind the door was a brightly lit corridor at the end of which there was another door.

This one, the engineers did not probe. They tested the environment for habitability and turned back.

There was oxygen, everything was lit up and temperate. They had power, heating– and a big door.

“The door seems to have an LCD panel for interaction. We figured you would want to look at it first.”

The engineers were clearly tired, and anxious about the structure, but holding back any criticism.

While Gertrude found the situation unnerving, it was not nearly enough to get her to back down.

At this point, nothing would be– perhaps not even certain death.

She tried to keep her crew in mind– but they slowly fell by the wayside of her obsession.

“As long as there’s breathable air, I’m going. I can delve inside on my own if that’s what it takes.”

Victoria sighed openly at Gertrude’s behavior– or maybe out of personal exhaustion too.

“I swore that I would protect you. Quit being so pig-headed. I’ll follow you in.” She said.

With the help of some of the girls from the security team, Gertrude and Victoria once again donned their armor and flip-up bulletproof glass visors. Gertrude had her club and vibroknife and pistol, but in addition, she had a trio of portable door-breaching charges clipped to her belt. These would do nothing to a bulkhead, but could punch through an interior sliding door’s locking mechanism and thereby force the door to slide open. She even convinced Victoria to carry an additional two on her own person.

Victoria and Gertrude were a given, but there was a third member of this particular sortie.

Her face was again covered by her special muzzle, but that and her collar, glowing green, were the only pieces of apparel that Nile had in common with her previous appearance. She had been forced to leave behind her turtleneck and coat in favor of a durable, long-sleeved blue shirt like Gertrude’s– along with a suit of K9 skirmishing armor. This resembled Imbrian composite riot armor, but it was lighter, and made up of more individual plate segments that could bend together with the natural curve of her body to allow greater flexibility and freedom of movement. K9 armor units also included a tail and ear section, as well as Loup-scale vibroclaws retractable into the gauntlets. It suited her height and physique perfectly.

Like Gertrude, her long hair was tied up to keep it out of the way. That detail, the long pants and boots, and her distant eyes, gave Nile a very rugged look in the armor. Gertrude thought it was quite attractive.

She was the picture of K9 excellence, armored, deadly, swift on her feet, and proud-looking.

And as a nod to Nile’s particular status, her armor had the badge of a K9 medic, and a medicine bag.

“You look handsome, doctor.” Gertrude said. “How do you feel? How’s the fitting?”

Nile shut her eyes and sighed. “Never in my life did I imagine myself wearing this kind of thing again.”

“Again?” Victoria asked, narrowing her eyes. Nile ignored her completely.

Gertrude chose to let the remark go.

“Might as well use stuff we have that we know fits and works. Gets around the issue Victoria had.”

“I’m not objecting. It’s just surreal. If you’re expecting me to sic on command, you’re delusional.”

Gertrude grumbled. “I’m protecting you! I outfitted you so you won’t die if you get shot or stabbed. I have no expectations of you as a fighter. You’re here because I need your brain, and I need it safe.”

“Here’s hoping there’s nobody around in there to shoot or stab me.” Nile said.

She made to put her hands in her coat pockets, and found herself wearing no coat.

Sighing again, she hid them behind her back, interlocking the fingers.

Meanwhile, near a Jagdkaiser with its cockpit open, Ingrid stood with her arms crossed, staring from afar.

Before setting off, Gertrude drew nearer to her, drawing her lover’s full attention.

“Ingrid, I really want to thank you for doing your job so diligently.” She said.

Ingrid raised a hand to hover in front of her mouth while she yawned loudly.

Her tail started wagging, just a bit.

“When don’t I, huh? I’ve always been your loyal dog that gets shit done.”

“I promise, after all this, I’ll make some time specifically for you again, okay?” Gertrude said.

Ingrid averted her gaze and grunted.

“I’m not a puppy, I don’t need you to placate me. I’m fine over here. I have nothing against what’s going on and I completely trust and believe in you. So just go, so that this whole mess can be over.”

Her tone was not agitated in the slightest, even though she looked slightly annoyed.

She was being so much more mature about all of this than Gertrude previously imagined.

“Thank you, Ingrid.” Gertrude said again.

She was so strong. If only Gertrude could have a quarter of her strength– or loyalty.

God damn it. It’s not like I’m cheating– I haven’t done anything.

And the two of us aren’t even– god damn it. God damn it, Gertrude Lichtenberg.

You’re a real bastard.

Her inner voice berated her terribly.

She closed her hands into fists and walked away. Feeling terribly guilty for a moment.

Personal issues had to be set far aside, however.

She had to make ready to tackle the supposed old era structure.

For everyone’s sakes. It wouldn’t matter what she and Ingrid were or felt, if she was still powerless.

That prospect of “old era technology” that might grant her an advantage was far too tempting.

Without some kind of forward progress, Gertrude was convinced she would lose everything again.

So she took her resolute and desperate and half-mad steps, one foot in front of the other.

Crossing the bridge suspended in the middle of the ocean, into the walls encasing the unknown.

Past the threshold from the Iron Lady’s boarding chute, the interior of the structure was exactly as simple as the engineers described. Plain steel walls that were nonetheless polished and unblemished, a wide lobby bereft of anything save for a single shut door with an LCD panel beside it. As soon as they crossed the the threshold, Nile turned around and looked at the ceiling over the door-frame.

“There are vents up there. If there’s vents, there’s potentially pumps. That might explain why this room is barren and has nothing but another bulkhead.” Nile said. “This room opens to the exterior, possibly when it detects radiation, admitting people inside. It’s not necessarily meant to be a secure bulkhead.”

“Why would anyone design it like that?” Victoria asked.

“It might be their safety regulations.” Gertrude said.

“Is that euphemism meant to mean ancient surface humans? Because I’m not convinced.” Victoria said.

“Skepticism is healthy.” Nile said. “Fearless leader, go interact with that door, and we can confirm.”

“I know. It’s not like there’s anything else to do.” Gertrude replied, grumpy at the teasing.

Gertrude approached the door with Victoria at her side and Nile following a few steps behind.

Up close, the door looked remarkably thick and solid. It almost appeared seamless with the surrounding walls, with only the thick doorframe belying its true nature. The LCD panel was crisp and almost clear enough to be a mirror, completely unblemished. It was about the size of a human head. Gertrude approached and laid her hand on the panel, because its size reminded her of a palm scanner.

Blue light filled the screen and began to display a picture in response.

White text on a blue background, a bit difficult to see.

“What is this? It’s all in High Imbrian?” Victoria said. “Then we can safely say it’s from this era, no?”

Nile shook her head. “It isn’t exactly the same grammar as High Imbrian.”

Gertrude stared at the letters, speechless.

Across the Imbrian Empire, the common language was “Low Imbrian.” Low Imbrian was a somewhat universal language in the Imbrium and its surroundings. Cogitan captives understood Low Imbrian to an extent; and their Imbrian captors, following another pointless battle for the Ayre Reach, could mostly understand their common tongue, Republic Common Speech. The Union spoke and wrote Low Imbrian as “Union Communication Standard.” Katarrans called it “Street Talk.” Hanwans understood it and spoke a frighteningly similar language they called “the Public Tongue.” This language must have had an ancestor that was common to all races and cultures of Aer, and its inter-legibility survived stalwartly to this day.

High Imbrian was not like this. High Imbrian was a highly rigid and formal language with a completely different structure to Low Imbrian (though Low Imbrian was littered with High Imbrian loanwords). High Imbrian was not spoken in conversation, but was often learned and used as an academic status symbol. Doctors like Nile would know quite a bit of High Imbrian; an Inquisitor like Gertrude was supposed to learn it rigorously because large parts of the legal code were written in it. There were other prestigious languages of this sort. The Shimii boasted a dying tongue called “Fusha” that their surviving religious scripture was written in. The Union used a lot of High Volgian and High Bosporan in the same way Imbrians employed High Imbrian. Hanwans spoke a tongue that Imbrians called “High Altaic.”

These were niche languages that had largely died in their cultures save for loanwords in whatever dialect of the common tongue was actually spoken by the masses. It was widely believed that the High languages belonged to specific ethnic groups from the surface and slowly faded, while the common tongue was evidence of a global network of cultural exchange that necessitated a lingua franca.

It was in this context that Gertrude experienced shock when she only somewhat understood what she was seeing on the screen, but understood enough to tell it was High Imbrian. She could not hold a very vivid conversation in High Imbrian, but she should have been able to read it. And she could, mostly, but there were some grammar stumbles, it was just different enough that it read stilted and wrong in her mind.

“My High Imbrian is deeply rusty.” Nile said. “But I think it is asking for a ‘signal’?”

“No, it’s asking for a ‘Token’.” Gertrude corrected. In her own mind, making some best guesses, it said:

Welcome! We’re sorry for the inconvenience. Only authorized personnel can access the Island-3 crown spire. If you are here by mistake, assistance has been dispatched for. If you possess a valid authorization token, please lay the flesh of your hand on the panel and we will scan for evidence of STEM activity.

More or less that was what Gertrude understood. It was just a little bit off, but probably not too much.

Gertrude took off her glove. Victoria shot her a sharp glare.

“What are you doing?” Victoria asked. “You don’t know what will happen.”

“It just wants to scan my hand.”

Gertrude laid her hand on the screen once more, the bare flesh of her hand against the cold panel.

In the next instant, she felt a burning pain and jerked her hand back on pure, naked instinct.

Crying out in pain, shaking it, as if trying to cool it off. But the pain was localized too.

It was not “burning” but something like thousands of hot needles pricking her hand.

Her heart raced as she held her palm up in front of her eyes, looking for blood.

“What happened?” Victoria shouted. “Gertrude!” She snapped toward Nile. “Take a look at her!”

Nile had been staring with surprise at the panel, and Victoria jolted her back to reality.

“Gertrude! Let me tend to it! Stop shaking it!” Nile stepped forward.

“It stings, god damn it!” Gertrude cried out.

But there was no blood, there were no wounds, not even the needle pricks she felt.

Nile gently took Gertrude’s wrist and looked over her hand. Her eyes narrowed, she was puzzled.

From her belt pouch, she withdrew a plastic pack inside of which was a soaked cloth.

“This has an analgesic and mild sedative solution. It will relieve the pain and clean– the area.”

She could not say wound– there was no visible wound, no blood, no damage to the skin.

Gertrude grabbed hold of the little cloth in her affected hand, squeezing all the healing moisture from it with a sudden desperation. Soothing cool sensations flooded over the hot needles that had once invisibly scored her flesh, leading to relief, both from the pain and the sense of panic. She grit her teeth, breathed deeply but in a controlled rhythm, slowly regaining her center under Nile’s comforting ministration.

On the door panel, the text had updated to read:

INVALID. TOKEN NOT FOUND.

INSTALL STEM AND A VALID AUTHORIZATION TOKEN AND TRY AGAIN.

“HURENSOHN!” Gertrude screamed at it in High Imbrian, as if the panel understood–

Please refrain from vulgar language or verbal commands will be disabled.

“Huh, it accepts speech? That said speech, right?” Nile said.

She was gently stroking the back of Gertrude’s “wounded” hand to try to soothe the Inquisitor.

Gertrude, meanwhile, was growing ever more irritated as the pain in her hand lessened.

“It said ‘verbal commands’.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Interesting. Was that option previously available?” Nile asked.

“We haven’t been talking in High Imbrian until Gertrude called it a son of a horse or whatever it was– so maybe that activated it.” Victoria said. “Can one of you two talk to it about how to get in?”

“We know how to get in!” Gertrude replied brusquely. “We need some fucking, token or whatever.”

Nile sighed through her respirator. “Calm down, Gertrude.”

She turned her sight on the panel.

“Well, lets hope it understands me through my mask.”

Nile called out to the panel in somewhat tormented High Imbrian, inquiring about “STEM.”

Almost instantly, before Nile was even done talking, the text on the panel updated once more.

STEM stands for System for Token Execution and Management.

STEM is the ground-breaking technology back-end supporting the advanced endurance, comfort and security that have made the Island-series a leader in colonization solutions for extreme environments.

“What the hell? Say more than that! Elaborate!” That last word Gertrude shouted in High Imbrian.

On command, the panel spat out a longer and more complicated explanation.

STEM is a zero-trust secmodel installed at a mechanical root operating layer or in a neurological subject cortex that allows the reading and execution of “rich data blocks” or the storing of permissions and contracts into “tokens”. A STEM token or block can be tied to biological identity with strict permissions, a model that insures only authorized personnel are able to employ the access and execute the code associated with that token or block. STEM and tokens bridge the gap between analog and digital by imprinting cutting-edge smart contract tokens and encrypted data-rich blocks onto both electronics and the personnel that use them.

“What the hell does this gibberish even mean?” Gertrude shouted. She just barely understood it.

“I’m having a truly difficult time parsing it. What is– what is a Sicherheistmodelle?” Nile asked.

“You’re supposed to be the genius scientist!” Gertrude continued shouting.

Nile stared at her dead in the eyes. Her ears erect, her tail straightened out.

Gertrude felt a chill from the directness of that gaze, the tightness of that body language.

Her fingers, which had been stroking the furious Gertrude’s hand, stopped moving over her flesh.

They pressed down, without causing pain, but the grip became firmer, less comforting and warm.

“This childish conduct ill befits you.” Nile said. “I am a doctor, and I am a doctor who talks to patients and reads books and writes papers in a language people actually speak.” Despite the muzzle, Gertrude could tell that Nile was setting her jaw. She was agitated. “I am doing my best. I will continue to do so. Now, if the two of you want to get through the door, you will ask it where you can get a ‘STEM’. From what I can parse, a STEM is necessary to be able to hold the “signal” or “token” to open the door. Clear?”

“Yes.” Gertrude said simply and promptly as a scolded schoolchild. “Sorry.”

Victoria grunted, averted her gaze and said nothing.

Nile’s fingers began to move over Gertrude’s afflicted hand once more, as gently as before.

“I know you’re upset.” Nile said, her voice returning to its soft register. “But from what I’m seeing, it’s unlikely the door meant you harm, and it is even less likely that any lasting harm will result. Your hand will be fine. I’m here to support you, Inquisitor. Keep your wits about you, or the little lady here will worry.”

“Hmph. I’m not going to worry over her.” Victoria replied. “But you’re right. Gertrude, please calm down.”

“You could stand to be at least a little bit gentler with me.” Gertrude mumbled.

“What was that? You need to speak up for the door to hear you. It’s not updating.” Victoria replied.

Did she really not hear, or was she just being a bitch?!

Gertrude sighed. They were right– she was being stupid and losing her temper at a computer.

But they had essentially confirmed it now. This place, Island-3, was not built by Imbrians.

While the door recognized a variant of High Imbrian, Gertrude had never heard of a “STEM.”

Whatever cybernetic system this was, it was used to delegate access controls.

Imbrians used biometrics like fingerprints and eye-scanners, but they didn’t call that “STEM.”

They also didn’t describe those systems in the same way, even factoring translation errors.

Gertrude caught enough strange words in the description of “STEM” to think it must have been quite different from standard biometrics. It wasn’t just making a key based on Gertrude’s retina or fingerprint. Maybe it was storing the key itself onto her. That might have been why it fried her hand– it needed to sample her skin or blood or something else, biological, to know Gertrude had a STEM inside her.

This was equal parts surreal, arresting, but also, exciting.

Had Norn explored this structure? If so, how had she gotten past the door?

And what was behind this barrier that was worth such a complicated security system?

“How to install STEM in myself?” Gertrude asked the computer in High Imbrian as she knew it.

Parsing request.

“Don’t get mad at it.” Nile said. She must have noticed the tension in Gertrude’s arm.

A few minutes later, the text updated again.

A STEM architectural administration location has been found near you!

Suddenly a garbled, glitchy-looking and unreadable map appeared along with a series of coordinates.

“That map is bunk, but the coordinates may be correct. That Z axis is 5000 meters deeper than we are right now. It might somehow know that there’s another ancient installation in the abyss.” Nile said.

“Five thousand meters?” Gertrude cried out. “So, what, we leave with nothing and dive deeper?”

In another fit of passion, Gertrude lost control of herself and kicked her steel-lined boot against the wall.

“Gertrude!” Nile scolded again.

Gertrude grit her teeth, ignored her doctor’s reprimand and readied to kick the wall again–

“Huh?” Victoria’s ears stood up, and her tail curled. “Over there. Something shook.”

Everyone turned to face the wall running alongside the door.

At the edge, the seam between the corner and the wall was beginning to widen.

“That panel might be loose.”

The trio gathered at the corner and found that the seem between the panels was indeed widening.

“This wall can’t be that thin?” Gertrude said.

“There might be electronics hidden behind this panel.” Nile said. “I don’t know why it would be so flimsy.”

“Gertrude, you believed Norn was hiding something in here, didn’t you?” Victoria said, crossing her arms. “If so, a brute like her probably has no idea what that STEM thing is either, but she may have forced her way in violently. We need to move this panel and see if there’s a crawl space or a gap behind it.”

Don’t insult Norn.” Gertrude said with a sudden sharpness. “But yes, we should try to move this.”

Victoria looked surprised by the sudden scolding.

Gertrude made to leave to get equipment, but stopped when Nile touched her shoulder.

“Leave it to me. I want to limit how many people we involve in this.” She said.

“Why?” Gertrude replied.

“Just be quiet, trust me, and get back from the wall.” Nile said.

Victoria stared at her with narrowed eyes, but took a few steps back.

Gertrude almost feared she would reach for her sword. She stepped back from Nile as well.

Nile turned to the wall. She let her arms hang at her sides, loosened up, moved her fingers.

“It’s been a while since I did this. I would beg Allah for forgiveness– but I’m beyond forgiving anyway.”

In the next instant, Gertrude saw Nile’s eyes acquire red rings around the irises.

She drew in a breath, and delivered a punch to the wall–

–that Gertrude realized stopped just short of striking.

Victoria’s eyes turned red as well– she must have been seeing it.

There was a brief flash of green across the panel, and it shook and fell loose from the wall entirely.

Nile casually reached out her hand and caught the panel before it collapsed on top of her.

“Help me move this aside.” She said calmly.

Victoria stood in place, wary, while Gertrude stepped forward with a troubled look on her face.

She had felt it, that hair-raising invisible pressure; this was the power Norn possessed.

When she beat Gertrude back on the Antenora, when she attacked so quickly it was as if time slowed.

That beating was replete with the colors and presence that Gertrude now felt again.

Wary, she helped Nile to move the panel aside.

Revealing, behind it, several electronics that had been rearranged away from a very narrow path.

At the end of which Gertrude could see a distant metal wall– was that the interior?

“We found our entryway. And perhaps also Cocytus’, if what you believe is actually true.” Nile said.

She looked at Gertrude, and found herself holding a narrow and serious gaze from the Inquisitor.

“Nile, explain what you just did. I want to trust you, but I need to know.” Gertrude said.

From a few meters away, Victoria lifted her hand from the butt of her sword and sighed.

Nile shrugged and began to recite in a professor-like voice:

“Loup call it Volshebstvo and its practitioners Zirnitra. They have a belief that these are knacks which can be obtained by feats of strength or the whimsy of spirits. Khedivate Loup and Shimii hold these arts to be forbidden by God, calling them Sihr. Practitioners are called Majus, which is a highly pejorative term for Shimiists of all sorts as it implies godlessness and idolatry. To them, these abilities are provided by Jinn, evil spirits or demons that bend light to create illusions that deceive and lure people away from God. Khanate Vekans believe that Bayatars attain these powers from taking in the blood of their monarch’s horse, or having sex with the monarch– they call it Id Shid and call its practitioners the Mergid.”

She cast a glance at Victoria as she spoke the last sentence, and Gertrude cast a glance over to her too.

“What are you trying to say?” Gertrude replied. “That you’re some kind of folkloric legend?”

“No. I am saying you have nothing to fear. People with this ability have always existed.” Nile replied. “It’s neither unattainable nor inherently evil. In fact, I could show you how to do it– provided we had time.”

“She’s correct.” Victoria said. “And, Gertrude, if she wanted to kill us, she had many chances to do it.”

It was surprising to see Victoria agreeing with Nile on anything, and that surprised lent additional tension.

“Taking her side now?” Gertrude snapped. She realized, immediately, how stupid that sounded.

Nevertheless, she had said it, and let it hang in the air, awaiting the crash–

“I’m on the side of being logical and not lashing out at people for no reason. Unlike you.” Victoria said.

Gertrude felt pure shame down to her bones with the way Victoria and Nile were both looking at her.

Nevertheless, there was also a rebellious little part of her that didn’t want to have to apologize.

“Whatever.” She mumbled. “Let’s just carry on. I’ll go through the opening first.”

Nile and Victoria stared briefly at each other, then at Gertrude, with defeated looks on their faces.


Gertrude, Victoria and Nile ventured deeper into the facility.

Crawling through the narrow gap in the wall that had been concealed behind the loose panel, they found themselves in a hall behind the STEM-locked door. Following that hall, the space opened up into a lounge that was two stories tall. A pair of staircases along the sides of the space led to a narrow walkway connecting a few doors, but most of the space was taken up by untouched furniture that looked like it was made of glass, but must have been some kind of carbon or plastic. There were tables, chairs, what seemed like a couch lacking any kind of soft padding, completely empty vending machines. A bar with a counter, housing machines for preparing food that were also too clean to have seen any recent use.

The entire room had a hyper-modern style, featuring many abstract shapes, swirls, curves, everything from the railings on the staircases to the hanging LED lamps, the handles on the doors and the armrests and legs on the chairs, it all seemed like an objet d’art more than a functional set of furnishings. Gertrude was silent and serious as she looked over the pieces. The trio tried a few of the doors; several were locked via STEM tokens, while the ones that weren’t appeared to be empty storage rooms or backrooms.

That the supposed people of the ancient era lived so much like the people now, did not once enter into Gertrude’s mind. Her archeological curiosity was purely self-centered and power-driven. She had no interest in this time capsule, even though she was now sure that it was such a thing. Rather, what mattered was the treasure at the end; and therefore, finding the road that led to the end.

“Someone picked this place to the bones.” Victoria said. “No food, no drinks, not even napkins or hand soap. The bar has nothing, the vending machines have nothing, even the furnishing looks like it should have padding or cushions but no longer does. But they also left it superbly clean. It’s surreal.”

“It doesn’t matter. There must be a way through here. I’m going to blow one of these doors.”

Gertrude reached for one of her breaching charges, but Nile bid her to calm down.

“Those panels are probably just blocking off executive offices.” Nile said. “This place looks like a corporate lobby. Those offices probably just have devices and computers with STEM interfaces. Let’s check upstairs and try to find a connection to a different area. We may have more luck if we can get farther up.”

“We should also keep an eye out for more damage.” Victoria said. “Our mysterious infiltrator may have made their own functional path through the structure. I’m positive they did not have a STEM.”

“That gap they made in the first room was meticulous. None of the electronics were damaged.” Nile said.

Gertrude did not have as much of a low opinion as Victoria did of Norn– but she was beginning to think it may not have been Norn who first discovered this place. It had to have some connection to her, or else Norn would not bother sending her to Kesar. Either Norn visited this place, or perhaps she was taken here, or found it in a classified file or something like that– but she might not have been responsible for it. That move with the hidden panel was not Norn’s style. She would have blown a hole through.

Norn was not surreptitious. She was direct. She had no motivation to lie; she had the power not to.

So this place had to mean something or she would not have sent Gertrude there.

But, perhaps she also didn’t make the paths herself either. She was not meticulous.

“Ugh. What a situation– fine, let’s check upstairs.” Gertrude brusquely replied.

Climbing the staircases, they found more locked doors, with panels as verbose as the one before all asking for STEM tokens– but of a slightly different type. These doors asked for “verification” tokens rather than “authorization” tokens. Gertrude knew enough about machines to know such a distinction was significant, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t about to let the door sting her again, she knew she did not have a STEM and therefore, it was fruitless to play around with the panels for too long.

There was a plant pot in each corner of the upstairs hall, next to one of the locked doors.

They had short, thick green trunks and long fronds, like “tropical-style” plant decorations.

Gertrude, on a whim, rubbed her fingers on one of the fronds and nearly jumped.

“This– this doesn’t feel like plastic!” She called out.

Victoria dipped a finger into the soil in the pot. She withdrew it and shook it, with wide-eyed surprise.

“It’s moist.” She said simply.

Nile crossed her arms. “Someone has been here recently, and they’re taking care of this place.”

“How the hell?” Gertrude said. “They won’t communicate with anyone, but they’ll water the plants?”

“Maybe they can’t actually operate the main computer; they’re not able to pay attention to a security system or acknowledge intrusion remotely.” Nile said. “They have no administrative ability, but can get around somehow and are trying to keep the spaces inhabitable as much as they can. So they are unable to respond to contacts from outside and can’t operate these locked STEM doors but they keep what they can reach clean, and have wound their way through the facility over time without causing damage.”

Gertrude couldn’t imagine this scenario, it was too farfetched.

“That’s insane, they would still need food and water. For what end would they stay trapped here?”

Nile shrugged. “I’m just guessing. I have no idea. But these are real plants, and someone watered them.”

“Whoever it is, they are fastidious. Everything is impeccably clean, it looks brand new, and it can’t just be because the materials are durable. It does fit a potential profile of our mystery infiltrator.” Victoria said. “There may be sources of food and water deeper in. I hate to say it, but it’s not so implausible.”

“Fine. That gets me no closer to anything.” Gertrude complained. “We need to find another path.”

Nile and Victoria stared at her again, but this time Gertrude did not stay put long enough to see it.

Though she felt their gazes in the back of her head. They simply vanished in the flame of her passion.

They looked over the lounge and bar area, as well as the upper story, a second time.

“Wait, I know.”

Gertrude had an idea. The front door panel had called this placed the “Island 3 Crown Spire.”

That did suggest verticality was important– it was like Nile said. They had to find a way further up.

Going up–

Maybe one of these doors had an elevator or a staircase but everything was locked by STEM and it was impossible to tell which doors were important and which weren’t. They couldn’t blow up everything for fear of damaging something important. It was likely the person or persons who infiltrated the front door ran into the same obstacle. They were on a landing though– so they must have tried going up.

Gertrude had been checking the doors and walls and the floor, on both the first and second stories–

“Nile, can you use your ability to try to disturb the ceiling panels?” Gertrude asked.

Higher up the spire from this “lobby”– to get higher up, maybe–

Nile nodded her head. She glanced at the roof.

Her eyes briefly lit up and red, and suddenly there was a series of loud knocks, dozens of them.

“Ugh! Be careful!” Victoria shouted, folding her ears down against her head with her hands.

Reverberating across the ceiling, Gertrude thought she could almost see the strikes on each panel.

Like waves of vague color rippling out from a center point in each panel.

Nile had not moved a muscle other than to give the ceiling a look.

Was her power even more impressive than Norn’s? That simply couldn’t be–

In the midst of her awe, however, Gertrude saw one of the panels shake and drop.

Along with a carbon-fiber rope ladder that stretched into the ceiling.

“There! God damn, we finally found it!” Gertrude cried out with joy. “Nile, you’re amazing.”

Nile shut her eyes and looked down at the floor but was clearly smiling behind her mask.

Victoria huffed. “I’m choosing to trust you for now, criminal, but I’m watching you. Every thing I learn about you makes you seem more dangerous, and Gertrude doesn’t understand it at all.”

“At least you’re choosing to trust me, that’s all I care about.” Nile replied.

“Hey. I understand perfectly what I’m doing. Quit your bickering. We can go up! Onward!”

Gertrude called out to the two, and ran to the ladder, which had come down in front of a second story doorway. She began to climb up into a crawlspace that separated the lobby from whatever was above. It was, like the interior of the wall hidden behind that loose panel, full of cables and vents and pipes, that had been carefully rerouted away from a tight path, at the end of which was a light coming down. It was another loose panel that had been completely pulled away, allowing exit up into a new hallway.

As before, the space was fastidiously clean. But it also answered a lot of questions.

After Victoria and Nile had made their way up to the new hall, which was a pristine blue steel like the other ones, they wound their way through several habitations and habitation-supporting facilities. Here, there was noticeable damage. STEM panels had been messily removed, and doors hung open with their sliding locks sticking out like limbs half-amputated. Aside from the door damage, everything was pristine, without a speck of dust. There was an area with bunks, dozens of them; a bathroom with showers; another lounge, with empty and open offices that also had their STEM locks disgorged; and an algae and mushroom cultivation room that was overgrown but tended, still producing food that must have been regularly consumed. There was a wall full of crates of material for both the algaea and the mushrooms.

Gertrude was amazed at the the size of the grow operation and the sheer amount of supplies in it.

“There’s decades worth of food in here. There must be a hundred crates of preserved material.”

“Some of these crates have Imbrian and Katarran national symbols.” Victoria said. “But there’s one in the corner that’s just blocking off a vent that has an entirely different symbol. I’ve never seen this one.”

That last crate was made of plastic slightly yellowed and had seen a lot of use. That symbol on its lid was barely legible, but appeared to be six hexagons, arrayed in a hexagon pattern, around a globe.

“Is that an old Republic symbol or something? What polity is that?” Gertrude asked.

Nile’s eyes were shut. She took in a deep breath. “I’m afraid it’s much older than that.”

“You know something, so just come out with it. We’ll believe any crazy thing at this point.” Victoria said.

Nile nodded. “It’s an ancient polity that spanned the surface. The Aer Federation.”

“Aer like the planet?” Gertrude asked, in mild disbelief despite Victoria’s assertion.

“Yes. In the Sunlight Foundation’s research on abyssal locations and recoverable old era technology, which has borne little fruit, I must add–” Nile sighed. “This symbol came up a bit. It’s on broken pieces of ancient vehicles that Yangtze and Euphrates studied. On old cargo crates, ancient debris, shipwrecks.”

“I thought you said old era things were untouched by time.” Gertrude replied.

“Structures, yes. They are made of an extremely dense and high quality form of agarthic alloy that we have no capability to reproduce. The amount of heat, material and time that must have taken to produce a structure like this Island-3 would be mind boggling to us, infinitely too expensive and we simply don’t have the facilities and logistics to do it. But even the surface dwellers could not make everything out of this material, so they left behind debris. Things like ancient shuttles or transport ships, maybe even cargo pods and escape craft, that were ultimately destroyed long before our time and lost in the depths.”

“And your people just happened to turn up their bits and pieces in your expeditions.” Gertrude said.

“Why is that the part you’re skeptical about? You just don’t understand the time scale the Sunlight Foundation operates on.” Nile replied. Her eyes looked suddenly wistful. “For us, it’s as if time stops, and we have infinity itself to accomplish our goals. With that outlook, scouring every centimeter of a deep ocean trench or a gorge or overturning every grain of sand in a Reach is not daunting at all.”

She looked at Gertrude in the eyes. “It’s only recently, that I’ve felt like my time is moving again.”

Despite her ardor and desperation– Gertrude recognized the humanity in those eyes, in that look.

She stopped questioning Nile. She began to feel like she just wanted to embrace her.

And she had to choke down some of that unneeded empathy. To keep going; to keep the fire.

“Let’s keep looking around then. We might be able to find someone– or readable records.”

Nile nodded her head in response. Victoria put down the box back where she found it.

If there were Katarran and Imbrian supplies stockpiled here, then there had been an intruder.

It was just as they thought– someone had gotten to this old era structure before them.

Norn? Perhaps with assistance?

What do you want me to see here? What do you want me to experience?

Gertrude’s obsession with the purpose of coming here– made her lose sight of other things.

She barely acknowledged the magnificence of what she had found– what she had learned.

Knowledge and experience in itself was useless to her. Unless it was actionable as power.

So she kept wandering through this grave of an unknown ambition.

With a weary mind and a hungry, reckless heart–

Please help me.

“Hmm?”

Gertrude looked around.

She thought she heard a voice.

They were just walking down another corridor with more empty rooms–

Please. I’m trapped. Please help me.

“Do you hear anything?”

That voice had such pathos to it– it really sounded like somebody was hurt or distressed.

There was a growing alarm in Gertrude’s heart at the voice. Nile and Victoria stared at her.

“Hear what? There’s just a bit of whirring, probably the vents.” Victoria said.

I can’t get out. I need to leave. I’m trapped in here. Please. You have to save me.

“How can you not hear it?” Gertrude asked.

Nile looked at the Inquisitor, quizzical at first, but then her eyes drew wide with alarm.

“Victoria, grab her–!”

Victoria had been far too late to realize and then to respond–

Gertrude had already taken off running down the corridor. She was convinced that there was somebody deeper inside the facility that was desperately crying for help and it awakened every bound-up and coiled tense muscle in her body to sudden action. That voice, which was filled with so much emotion, it reminded her of something that she felt suddenly responsible for, and it made her despondent and desperate. She ran and her eyes teared up and her chest hurt and everything began to change–

rippling mirrored images of emotional colors
walls warped into half-remembered vistas of dreams
moaning forests full of silver trees
puddles reflected ribbons of flying sensation
sky as crowns of world-spanning white branches
reflecting past present future roots digging through–

a woman surrounded by evil machines–

and the one whom she had been truly speaking to–

and what she had left behind–


There was loud slamming sound as an automatic bulkhead shut itself behind Gertrude.

When she came to her senses, she was in a dark, cavernous place with a damp floor.

No longer surrounded by metal walls, Gertrude panicked and clutched her chest and neck–

but she could breathe.

Her breathing was ragged, moaning, exhausted, but she could breathe.

She was outside Island-3. When she looked back, she saw a closed bulkhead, but everything around her, in front of her, over her, was rock that had been carved into some kind of tunnel. It was dark, but there were a few LED strips on the walls glowing dimly and intermittently on failing batteries. There was air in this tunnel– she even thought she could still hear the whirring of a pump somewhere. She was not cast out at sea and the pressure was not going to tear her apart. She was inside the gorge wall somehow.

Looking back over her shoulder.

How far had she gone?

Where were Nile and Victoria?

And where was the voice that had led her to run so desperately?

She was so shocked, she felt numb, utterly confused, so she walked forward, there was nowhere else.

“What happened to me?”

Soon as she stepped farther into the tunnel ahead, that pathetic whimpering returned–

Please help me. Please anyone help me.

Gertrude was also hearing something else– a static-filled and broken, horrifying voice–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

There was buzzing noise inside Gertrude’s head like she was a radio for some dismal frequency–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

“I don’t have a STEM. That computer said it.” Gertrude mumbled to herself.

It couldn’t be her STEM that was breaking down– she had none–

These weren’t her thoughts– they couldn’t be– they didn’t have her–

–texture.

Gertrude was certain she was hearing someone else’s internal voice, but inside herself.

“It doesn’t feel like Nile, or like Victoria, or like Norn–“

It wasn’t like any of those powerful presences she had felt in the past, but it had the same–

–texture.

Every time she heard it, booming inside her skull, it made her panic ever worse.

Please help me– Please, I’m trapped– I can’t take it anymore–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Gertrude grit her teeth, going from a brisk walk back to a headlong run.

Her own ragged breathing began to overpower the voices in her head as she sprinted into the darkness.

In front of her the shadows parted to reveal ever more and deeper shadows.

She ran and ran in the mounting and encroaching dark, her chest muscles tightening, her legs burning.

Indistinct rock sliding past her, the same flat shadow in front of her tears-warped vision.

She felt the walls enclose, the world tighten around her like black shackles, why couldn’t she advance?

Her chest tightened and expanded and every action was pain.

But she kept running, kept tearing at the indistinct shadow in front of her–

Until something broke up the once-changing sights.

Gertrude brought herself to a sudden halt, gasping with surprise.

In the middle of a circular room littered with debris. Ripped plastic and cardboard, wrappers, fish bones.

All surrounding a woman in a long, black dress, standing with her head bowed, arms hugging herself.

She twitched; a convulsion wracked through her body–

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING FAILED.

Her lips spread gently and she whispered. “Please help me. Please, anyone.”

Gertrude stepped forward. That voice was so soft, gentle, needful–

She reached out a trembling hand and touched the woman on the shoulder–

and felt a jolt of something hot and quickly-spreading, like electricity through her veins.

Her eyes immediately began to weep, blistering hot like they were melting.

Around her everything broke down and blurred away in copious tears.

In between blinking eyes, flitting in and out of focus before her she saw–

Oceans. Mountains. Skies. Trees (not silver, but reaching high). Roads. Buildings.

(A purple glow that flashed and burned.)

Metal hallways. Depth. Darkness. Pale bodies by their hundreds.

(A clicking sound like thrown dice. A feeling like an equation resolved.)

Duty. Order. Repetition. The same halls, the same tasks.

(A rising pillar, ambition, an eagle on a flag.)

A monstrous metal landscape that glowed and throbbed with sinew and bone as if alive.

“I’m sorry.”

Polaris.

“I made my decision.”

How could you abandon everything?

WARNING, STEM CRITICAL FAILURE, STEM REFORMATTING INITIATED–

REFORMATTING–

SUCCESS!

Welcome to STEM R12.2. Isolating corrupted blocks until bad block check resolves–

BAD BLOCK CHECK CANCELLED– WILL NOT RETRY.

Eyes with glowing blue hexagons around orange irises deep and bright as pools of fire,

swallowed Gertrude whole.

She was right in front of her–

grinning.

And when her fingers touched Gertrude’s head, it felt like her skull split open.


Her body was in a different position and there was now a dim light in her eyes.

Directly in front of her– no, she was supine, so it was the ceiling above–

It was all dark brown and black rock.

She was not lying on the rock. Her head was lifted a little bit, and rested on something soft.

Her vision was still swimming. Something slowly started to come into focus.

On the periphery of her vision; black, a long black sleeveless dress, a black cape; slim pale arms;

A pale woman with a soft and beautiful countenance, a mature and gentle expression, regal even;

long silver-gray hair; an ample, gently rising bosom; two tall, fluffy, black ears;

silk-sleek hands stroking Gertrude’s hair and shoulder, around her neck;

Fingers crawling into her shirt and massaging her neck and collarbone in a sensual way.

Her head was resting on this woman’s thighs.

Bright eyes colored a deep orange locked onto Gertrude’s own.

She felt comfort. She felt rest for the first time in a while. She felt, strangely, safe.

“Are you awake now, master?” The woman asked. She shut her eyes and smiled gently.

Her voice was very attractive– deep, sonorous, worldly.

“Where am I?” Gertrude asked.

“You are in the Island-3 Crown Spire, the VIP module of the Island-3 colonization project.”

“What does that mean? Island-3?” Gertrude mumbled, still recovering her senses.

“Island-3 was a project to explore the deep ocean trenches and expand humanity’s reach into the place known as ‘Agartha’ in search of energy sources. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve uncovered. Most importantly, master, what you are now is safe. Your body is so worn, and you are full of anxiety. Let me help.”

Her lips were painted a very slight violet. With her every word, they moved so tantalizingly.

“Who are you?” Gertrude asked. Her tense body started to loosen up.

“I am a humble caretaker of humans– of people. You can call me–”

She paused and looked up for a moment as if in deep thought.

“–it looks like you can call me Azazil An-Nur. I am Azazil An-Nur. I am here to serve, master.”

The woman looked around the room. She seemed puzzled by her own surroundings.

“Well– I suppose it cannot be said that you are in Island-3 anymore. Years and years ago, someone carved this tunnel, and trapped a girl here in the dark. They loved her because they had been born to love her– but their hearts resented her and wanted her shut away from sight. They were both ashamed and disdainful, grateful and proud; such is the dual nature of Duty. Those powerful feelings still linger in this place. They have become more important than Island-3’s original purpose. Do you feel it, master?”

Gertrude felt it. She could feel the entire room, beating, like it had a pulse, a pulse of long-lost voices.

There was a familiar texture that once felt so distant, but was now so plain, so obvious.

She could feel it so strongly that it was as if the colors in the room brought the woman to them–

Norn.

Norn had been here before. This entire room felt like her– abandoned, confused, angry.

So, extremely, horrifically, angry–

“Master, are you curious what happened here? I can show you– if you open your mind to it.”

Gertrude’s head still felt hazy, and there were a million alarms buzzing in back of her mind.

Despite this it only took her a few seconds to respond.

“Show me.”

Azazil An-Nur smiled gently again.

“It shall be done, master. Hold on tightly to your sense of self– I’ll hold on to it too.”

Around Gertrude, the colors that were previously dancing in their dimmest hues exploded with brilliance.

Azazil’s eyes glowed with red rings, and a whirlwind of emotion swept Gertrude away.

To the time of Mehmed’s Jihad– and before.

Depth Gauge: 3603 m
Aetherometry: Blue (ABERRANT)


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.3]

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

How did the people of Kreuzung live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One could also always join the Navy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My arm–”

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

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

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

“Hey,”

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

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

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

She gestured to her arm. Dimmitra nodded her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is Chloe anyway?” Kalika asked.

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

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

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

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

“Hmph.”

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

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

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

“I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are, are you?” He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“How much do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At first, she had been merely annoyed.

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

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

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

“Agh!”

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

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

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

A girl had bumped into her.

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

Thankfully nothing spilled and nothing broke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait.”

Kalika stretched out a hand.

“Kalika Loukia.”

“Um. Homa Baumann.”

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

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

“Medical devices? Um.”

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

“A prosthetic arm, huh–?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homa nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought there was–there!”

Homa animatedly called out and pointed farther up the street–

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

“Aww, man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t be. And furthermore,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From behind Kalika, a Shimii woman approached.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hudson shook her head. “I’m afraid she and I don’t have much contact these days.”

Kalika was not going to pry into it any further then. She felt it was pointless to push it.

While Kalika watched, Hudson opened the glass hatch at the top of the ferristitcher. Most of the operating table was taken up by the machine. She set the arm down in the center of the table and closed the hatch. As soon as she powered it on, lasers scanned the prosthetic and on an attached LCD screen a highly detailed wireframe model appear. Extruder arms and manipulator arms from the floor and walls of the ferristitcher box arrayed themselves around the prosthetic in preparation for the operation.

Hudson took a look at the LCD screen attached to the stitcher machine. She used the touchscreen to zoom in on the minute details, swished her finger over it. She made corrections to the default plan that the machine had drafted after scanning the arm and she gave new instructions to the machine. Once she was satisfied with her work, she turned back to Kalika briefly, her golden eyes cheerfully wide.

“We’ll spot-melt some of the imperfections and then spot-fill them.” Hudson said. She sounded almost like she was talking to herself even though she was addressing Kalika. “Once the structure is repaired, I’ll pull out the old elbow tensioner and the broken ligament, ferristitch new ones, and then ferristitch them into the arm.” Her eyes fixed on Kalika’s shoulder, twitching one ear. “As far as repairs are concerned, I’d be happy to fix it for you if it breaks again. Get in touch with Sunspot Health Cooperative and someone will help you. Failing that, you can ask Theresa Faraday from Solarflare LLC, based in Kreuzung.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. How much will I owe you?” Kalika asked.

“Owe me? Nothing. Don’t mention payment– I find it gauche, you know? I’m an artist.”

Kalika crooked one eyebrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t trust that you’re doing this for free.”

“Well, start trusting. I categorically refuse your money.”

Inside the ferristitcher, the arrayed arms began to work.

It looked almost like a swarm of rigid metal crab legs dancing all over her arm.

Barely visible sparks appeared, the contacts being made at such a minute level it was hard to imagine.

“Nothing in Imbria is given without an ulterior motive.” Kalika said.

Erika would have hated her for saying such a thing– but it was her natural reaction.

Charity — with a few exceptions — was a two-faced strategy, a conspiracy, however gentle.

In response to her skepticism, Hudson chuckled.

So far, for as long as Kalika had seen her face, she had a placid little smile.

Now she put on a grin as she gave her answer. Swinging her arms open in a grandiose fashion.

“Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing this for you because I care about you as a person. Anything I built, I maintain. There is a legacy, woven into the metal crafted under my watchful eyes. It is my DNA, my seed, my egg! You are gravid with my legacy, Kalika Loukia, and I would be remiss to be bias against you and allow the work which you have been blessed with to rot and become useless. That would invite others to say my craftsmanship was less than legendary– and I will never accept that. On my pride as well.”

Something about being gravid with anyone’s legacy made Kalika feel sick to her stomach.

Having to depend on people like this was so rotten. Everyone had some awful ideology.

At least this pervert was fixing her arm for free.

“Suit yourself then.” Kalika said. She averted her eyes, staring at the wall.

Hudson continued to grin to herself with satisfaction as the machines did her bidding.

“These tensioners are based on the same materials as the housing for vibroblade oscillators. One of my cleverer ideas. It’s lightweight but tough and can endure a lot of force being put into it. It supports depleted agarthicite nanowire muscles to achieve Katarran levels of biomechanical labor output. This is the only model of prosthetic that will suit a Katarran mercenary. You are quite lucky indeed.”

For a few minutes, Hudson ran her mouth about the prosthetic.

Until the ferristitcher stopped halfway through.

“Oh! Hand me a cartridge please. Use the one labeled Mixture III.”

Hudson pointed to a drawer just over Kalika’s shoulder.

She turned around, opened it with her good arm and pulled out the one cylinder left.

It was just a little annoying, not being able to use a second arm to pick the object up.

Having to pull out the drawer, stop, and then use the same arm– it was a little frustrating.

Missing an arm– was frustrating. That was how effective her prosthetic had been.

She was drawn back to the time shortly after losing her arm, trying to go without.

She hated it. It triggered feelings of anxious self-loathing she had not felt in a while.

Without a warning, she lobbed the cartridge across the room into Hudson’s awaiting hands.

Judging by the materials she was working with, Hudson really didn’t care about money.

“You said that has depleted agarthicite in it? You’d leave something that expensive here?”

“What’s the worst that can happen? Someone breaks in here, is not stopped by any locals or by Arabie’s enforcers, and makes away with nothing but a ferristitcher cartridge? It doesn’t matter to me. Plus I do think you overestimate how criminal the people around here are, nobody would bother.”

Hudson opened a hatch on the side of the table and pushed the cartridge into the underside of the table, where the spot-smelter was located that softened up the material so it could be piped to the arms. Once the machine was reloaded with material, it resumed ferristitching automatically, and within minutes, it had completely repaired the sunken-in part of her arm and the frayed metal near the elbow. Then, the manipulator arms separated the elbow mechanism and one ligament from the structure, setting them aside. Hudson opened the hatch into the main workspace, pushing the prosthetic arm out of the way of the manipulators and extruders. She then began to swipe and swish her finger on the ferristitcher’s computer using the touchpad, issuing updated instructions the machine began to follow.

Pecking and spinning and slicing across an axis– they were building something now.

“Do you ever feel dysmorphia for the body you used to have?” Hudson asked.

Kalika grumbled. “I don’t view myself as having lost my body.”

“But do you feel a phantom pain? Like now, with your arm nothing but couplers.”

“No.” It was a lie. Kalika felt terribly uncomfortable and eerie with a missing arm and the hanging couplers coming out of the remains of her arm. She could not help but ‘move her arm’, it was something unconscious and automatic, especially because of how restless Hudson made her.

Each time her brain and nerves sent that command, it just made the couplers shudder.

Whenever that happened it did unnerve her. It was an uncomfortable sensation.

“Did you know– once you become fully biomechanical, that feeling goes away. You are set to right; you reach an apotheosis.” Hudson said suddenly. Kalika narrowed her eyes at her.

Her aura shifted– her intentions– “Have you reached an Apotheosis, Kalika Loukia?”

Hudson absentmindedly raised her arm–

One of her hands suddenly launched from the wrist as if launched by a jet anchor.

It all happened so fast–!

Kalika dropped her good arm, releasing the knife hidden in her sleeve, catching it and swinging up.

One fluid motion– was it fast enough–?

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

Hudson’s hand, glowing yellow with a sickly aura,

met Kalika’s knife, burning red with furious conviction and deflected it,

sending the object to the floor in an instant.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Kalika shouted as the hand fell to the floor.

She had the knife in hand, held out in defense.

“Sorry, sorry! I just couldn’t help but check you out. I’ll stop now!” Hudson cried out, folding her ears.

There was a whirring noise, and Hudson’s hand was pulled by the cable back into its wrist.

She raised her fingers to her eyes, removing two lenses that had been covering them up.

Rather than gold, their actual color was a metallic, ice grey, with dozens of tiny digits and symbols visibly playing about the surface of the clearly mechanical orbs. When she smiled bright and wide, Kalika noticed, for the first time, the presence of the tiny seams around her cheeks like surreptitious plate joins. Her wrist, having fired its hand, now had a visible seam between the hand and forearm. And as if to further demonstrate the illusions of her body, that big bushy tail split into several mechanical, sharp-tipped implements, which quickly rejoined back into the original form of a bushy cat’s tail.

Kalika had never seen anything like it. Was her whole body robotic?

No– her body seemed soft on the outside. It was not just mechanical– it was biomechanical.

Just like a prosthetic– a full-body prosthetic.

“You used Saint’s Skin. Do you have the other two gifts too?” Hudson asked innocently.

“Fuck you.” Kalika said. “I’m not just going to forget you tried to attack me.”

“Then, how about you attack me, and we’ll call it even? I’ll resist only as much as you.”

“Give me back my arm. I’m leaving.” Kalika shouted.

Hudson’s expression darkened. Her eyes narrowed.

“No! Not until it’s repaired!”

Her cry boomed across the room and not just because she had shouted it.

Kalika hesitated to agitate her further but kept her guard up.

That punch she threw had been clearly imbued with yellow aura.

Saint’s Skin was not able to force that aether directly into someone else, but the addition of aether passively empowered any ordinary blow, necessitating aether to deflect it. Employing Saint’s Skin could change the ambient auras for the worse, slowly poisoning Kalika with its intentions and causing her emotions to shift unless she controlled them; but if it was King’s Gaze, being struck by the punch would have instantly made her feel sick. She may have devolved into a vomiting fit from just touching it.

Such was its awful power. The ability to force one’s aura, one’s emotions, directly into someone else.

Those who had the King’s Gaze had every other Gift by necessity.

She had not been paying attention and Hudson had concealed her intentions well. Without having prepared with Oracle’s Voice, she could not tell whether Hudson had used Saint’s Skin or King’s Gaze. Fighting someone with the King’s Gaze was incredibly dangerous and unpredictable. So she had to hold off for now in case that was a possibility and assess the nature of the situation.

Hudson’s aura was powerful. She was practiced in not just psionics but aetherics too.

When Kalika mentioned taking her prosthetic and leaving, Hudson’s aura flared.

That provocation triggered a band of undisguised, hateful-feeling black aura.

Nothing else the Shimii attempted had been done with killing intention behind it.

Kalika relaxed and laid back against the wall again, sighing deeply. No use in pushing it.

As if realizing she was being seen in a different light, the Shimii’s aura softened.

“Offer still stands, by the way.” Hudson said. “Give me a good hit and let’s be friends.”

“I’ll never be your fucking friend, you freak. Just hurry up over there.” Kalika said.

“That’s too bad.” Hudson smiled. “Maybe I can befriend that cute girl you were with–”

Snap. Inside Kalika’s self a taut and fraying string holding her back burst utterly.

In the next instant, a red flash; a swing of the arm; an error noise; the ferristitcher paused;

From across the room, a wave of force blew past that stirred the ferristitcher instruments.

Its wake a shining bloody red trail that started in a furious swing of Kalika’s vibroknife–

–and connected with Hudson’s cheek, splitting the artificial skin over the side of her face.

Kalika’s eyes flashed as furiously red as the harmful aura which she had hurled at Hudson.

Her brain screamed with pain that she ignored. Shaking, teeth bared in unremitting fury.

Struck by the red aura, and visibly wounded, Hudson’s aura started to take on Kalika’s anger.

Kalika realized what she had done and drew back. Stupid. Stupid move. God damn it.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.” In a second, the polluting red completely disappeared.

Hudson took direct command over her aura, preventing Kalika’s anger influencing her.

She sighed heavily, with one hand over her injured cheek. She then smiled again.

Her aura normalized completely. Blue and green, the colors of humanity. No red or black.

“So you do have the King’s Gaze! It really was so serendipitous that we met!” She cheered.

Absentmindedly, she restarted the ferristitcher. It completed the parts it was building.

Without paying Kalika further heed, Hudson opened the ferristitcher’s hatch and set the arm back on the center of the workspace. A manipulator arm took the elbow piece, and another took the new ligaments and the machine set about quickly reassembling these parts into the arm to make it complete. Kalika was speechless. She thought she would have provoked a horrific response from that attack.

Hudson’s joking threat had gotten the absolute worst rise out of her.

It had been stupid– but she could not have stood by for that Homa girl to be victimized.

Not on a whim– not on anyone’s whim. Kalika would not tolerate an innocent to be hurt.

But Hudson cleansed her own aura of Kalika’s infused anger so quickly and easily.

She was back to her unbothered self. It really was all nothing but a joke to her?

King’s Gaze is extremely rare. Mahdist Shimii once saw it as a sign of a divine right to rulership, without knowing what it really was and what it meant. And yet, a few people with this ability are on this Station right now. Who knows– maybe even somebody you met on the street today could possess great power. Kreuzung has become a place of destiny; I can feel it brimming in the aether itself.”

From the ferristitcher, Hudson withdrew Kalika’s arm and took it in her hands. While the synthetic skin was all gone, the carbon-fiber sleeve was a sleek shiny black, and all of the damage had been fully repaired. It looked brand new. In fact, it looked even better than when Kalika first received it.

“It’s fixed. Let me install it.” Hudson said. “Can I come closer?”

“Yes. Fine. I don’t want to spend another second here.” Kalika grunted.

She was so vulnerable. In an untrustworthy person’s “care.” It pissed her off.

To be treated like this– just because of what happened to her body.

When she should have been allowed to rest, instead she had to keep fighting.

“You better not try anything.” Kalika said.

“Okey-dokey. I don’t want to hurt you. Please trust me for a moment.”

Hudson ambled over to the other side of her room.

She gently gathered the couplers and led them into the associated ports in the arm. She pushed until the prosthetic locked into the steel ring bolted on the remains of Kalika’s old arm. Then she turned the upper arm ring until it locked the prosthetic tightly into place. Kalika could feel the couplers attached to the correct synthetic nerve bundles. When Hudson pulled back a step, Kalika could move her arm.

Once the deed was done, she slipped her arm back into her shirt and clipped it back up, closing it over the lacy purple brassiere she had to partially expose throughout in order to let her arm out.

She donned her jacket anew and put away her knife back into its trick sleeve.

Hudson smiled at her, with her synthetic skin broken, partially exposing the soft carbon-fiber muscle that formed part of her face. Kalika fixed eyes on her. This individual was extremely dangerous, no doubt about it. However, she did not seem intent on killing or causing injury, for the moment.

“You keep acting like this is all a big joke. What is your agenda?” Kalika asked.

“I’m building the greatest machine in the world. My greatest work of art.” Hudson said.

Kalika grunted. And yet, there was no sense that Hudson was actually lying about this.

“Hey c’mon I was just messing with you! I helped, didn’t I?” Hudson cheerfully cried out.

“Whatever. Go to hell. I’m not thanking you for any of this.” Kalika grumbled.

She started on her way out but stopped into the door to Hudson’s operating room.

Without turning around to look at her again, Kalika warned:

“Touch a hair on Homa Baumman’s tail, and I’ll rip your entire fucking head off.”

“Sensitive to the plight of innocents?” Hudson asked jokingly. “I have no interest in her.”

“That better remain the case. Or you’ll make an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.”

“Whether enemy or friend– just remember, to take care of that arm for me, okay?”

Kalika hissed and continued on her way, leaving Hudson behind with finality.

Stepping back out into the street, thoroughly aggravated by what had transpired.

After spending the entire day, and being socially, verbally and physically manhandled, she finally had a working arm back. She could resume her duties with the Rotfront now, but everything was upside down. They knew other militants might be operating here; but enemy psychics too?

She would tell Erika that the Rotfront had some rival conspirators aboard the station.

Not that there was anything they could do about it quite yet. Their hands were tied for now.

They could not afford to cause a ruckus until their meeting with Kremina Qote concluded.

For all her big talk, Kalika herself was no great defender of the innocent anyway.

She had been helpless to do so even under the guidance of the “hero” Radu the Marzban

–and now, she felt just as helpless anyway with the naïve idealists of the Rotfront.

Staring at her arm in her sleeve, opening and closing her black, segmented hand.

There was always so much Ocean, deeper and darker and more mysterious, out there.

On any given day, she could meet with something too powerful to deal with herself.

Even with all the mysteries she had been inducted into, she could become a victim too.

“We have to get stronger. I have to– I can’t let the same thing happen again.”

Visions of beautiful memories forever burned in the pyre of violence and hatred.

Any moment, any wrong decision, and it could all happen again. She could lose everything.

She could not afford to be lackadaisical at all. Fighting until death was the Katarran way.

Thinking of it as a fruitless struggle that could meet an insurmountable wall and just end–

–was too cruel to consider.


Kalika made her way from Tower Eight back to the baseplate of Kreuzung core.

Homa had been right. The guards at Tower Eight did not care whether Imbrians, Katarrans or other races went in or out of Tower Eight as long as the Shimii’s movement was being monitored and controlled. She thought Katarrans had it bad– these conditions must have been so dehumanizing for the Shimii.

With that bleak thought in her brain, she located one of the hatches to the tunnels below the baseplate and took another elevator back down to Platform Town. It was about 22:00 in the evening by the time she got to the underground, so the surly guard at the door had been replaced by an indifferent-looking young woman with a hoodie. She gave Kalika a brief glance before proceeding to take her eyes off her again, briefly rubbing the butt of a vibrobaton clipped to her pants while leaning on a wall.

“Watchman told me to tell you that your ‘Premier’ is expecting you.” She said.

“What? She came down here?” Kalika asked.

“Yeah. Erika, right? She gave everyone stuff. She’s kinda alright.”

“Jeez. Thank you for telling me.”

“Just doin’ what the boss says ma’am.”

Kalika hurried into the ancillary tunnels and out into the exterior ones.

Hurriedly crossing the labyrinth to make it back to the room where she had left Dimmitra.

She saw yellow light coming from the door. Torchlight. So they were in there.

Kalika rushed into the room, and immediately heaved an exasperated sigh.

“Why are you down here? Do you have something against your own personal safety?”

In the middle of the room, between Dimittra, Chloe and her own bodyguard Olga–

A woman in a red greatcoat and hat, with long, smoke-blue hair down to her waist. Black horns protruding from the back of her head curled up, just a bit more rounded than Kalika’s rectangular horns. When she turned with a gently pink grin on her face and with a flourish of her slender arms, locking her mismatched eyes, blue and green, on Kalika’s own with such confidence. Beneath the coat, she had a skirt with a high waistband and a button-down shirt tucked into it, worn with tights and heels.

Soon as Kalika acknowledged eye contact, she tossed her hair.

And winked one perfectly shadowed eye. Incorrigible, stupid, reckless girl

Erika Kairos, Premier and Commander-in-Chief of the militant communist band Rotfront.

Whose name she recently declared was instead the Nationale Volksarmee.

“I’m staking it all on this, Kalika! I already said so! Hiding away ill befits a leader!”

“Getting killed ill befits a leader too!” Kalika grumbled.

“I’m stronger than that. Don’t worry about me. But now that you’re here, you can be on-hand for tomorrow, if you’re so worried.” Erika crossed her arms, smiling. “I’ve secured us an audience with some real hardcore communists, Kalika– I’ll be meeting with actual Union special operatives!”

Kalika blinked, briefly left speechless. If she heard that correctly– what was going on?


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.1]

“–Copy. No sign of target. Standing by, over.”

“Keep it mobile. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“Got it. On the move.”

He turned off his communicator. She saw it go completely dark on the network.

Despite his claim on the radio, the K.P.S.D. officer did not move a muscle.

He remained with his back to the corner, procuring from one of his pouches a cigarette and a lighter. His grip was unsteady on both of the items, shaking. His submachine gun hung on a sling in front of his chest. Tactical armor, probably just nanomail and kevlar. No helmet. As he brought the cigarette over to his lips he dropped it, the nerves getting to him. It landed in the heel-high water below.

“Fuck me. This whole situation– those goddamn Volkisch queers should be the ones here.”

He reached back around to his pouch.

“Fuckin’ whatever. It’s overtime pay. God damn it– I know I had another one–“

In that moment, she saw an opportunity and stepped out of the shadows.

Rushing in from a dark recess shrouded in the wall, she made it to him in a few silent paces.

While he rummaged through his pack, she withdrew a diamond knife and engaged it.

When he heard the whirr of the sawing blade it was too late.

She wrapped an arm around him and wrapped a leg around his, pulling him back over her and to the ground with the leverage. At the same time, before they crashed into the water, she brought the diamond saw to his face. They struggled with their backs to the water only briefly. Blood spraying, horrific gurgling cries; the saw crunching his teeth, chewing his nose, ejecting blood and bone, the jelly of his eyes.

His neck, his chest, all protected, but not his face. She sawed indiscriminately through it all.

Sure that he was dead, Braya Zachikova slid out from under the body.

Gasping for breath. From the effort; had he been any bigger, she would have had to shoot.

He was just large enough that she could still take him down without gambling her life on it.

She felt nothing from killing him. People she needed to kill weren’t human to her.

Nothing except a little satisfaction. A wry grin across her face. A little bit of hope.

Despite the struggle, she had preserved stealth. All of the officers were dispersed enough to be operating alone. They were far enough away from each other that she could take them out without alerting others as long as their communicators were not broadcasting. And they frequently took their communicators and body cameras offline to slack off. Smoking, staring at things on portables. They weren’t taking this seriously. It was just a night out with their tactical toys to follow a suspicious report.

“Two down. Six to go. I need to be quick. They’ll start getting suspicious soon.”

Her foremost worry was that nobody had sighted the “target” just yet.

She was relying on their communications to navigate. While the Kreuzung Station Network itself was a tough nut to crack that she had to be careful with, these smaller police devices formed their own local network during independent operation. This separation from the station supercomputer allowed the police to falsify information for their own convenience– and allowed Zachikova to easily eavesdrop on them and breach their security. Thanks to her cybernetic enhancements, her own brain could insert into their network as an extremely low latency middleman while avoiding passive tamper detection.

It could also prevent them from talking to anyone outside their little party.

Zachikova was for all intents and purposes the web authority handling their messages.

So if the K.P.S.D. tactical team had not found the target, then neither had Zachikova.

That’s fine. That’s fine. As long as they don’t find her. I still succeed.

There was a note of desperation to those thoughts.

She pulled the body into the shadowed passage from which she had sprung.

He would not be found here for a very long time, possibly even if anyone thought to look.

Zachikova and the K.P.S.D. were both searching in the spacious storm sewers of the wealthy A-Block of Kreuzung’s core station. They were designed to provide ample siphoning of water if one of the higher blocks sprang a bad enough leak, and if necessary, to pump active floodwater down into E block and below, sacrificing the integrity of the lower modules to give the wealthier citizens and Kreuzung government room to escape or survive a catastrophe. These tunnels made up the interstitial point between A, B, C and D blocks and E, F, G, and H blocks. As such, the tunnels and tanks were tall enough to stand in, tall enough to walk in, wide enough to fight in– and large enough to hide within.

Arabella–

There was no use pining– Zachikova cut herself off and started toward the next target.

I have to find her. I have to find her– before they do. Or– rescue her from them.

She was dressed in a dense one-piece bodysuit and gloves lined with tough nanomail, with shoes designed to lessen footfall noise and a respirator over her face. Her tawny brown hair was tied into a spiraling ponytail that trailed behind her as snuck around the tunnels. Over her chest and back, she had belts with some gear, her knife, grenades– and an AKS-78u shortened assault rifle.

But her biggest assets were her cybernetics. Her tall, grey metal antennae, attached at an angle where her ears would be, and the accompanying mechanical cortex inside her skull, gave her an unparalleled ability to interact with networked devices as if she herself was a powerful and flexible computer.

“Hey shitheads. Some of you keep coming in and out on positional. What’s going on?”

“It’s the walls, chief, this place is thick as hell titanium, and we’ve got shitty little wifi.”

“Quit slacking off. Let’s do this and go home. The Volkisch want any excuse to criticize us.”

She spoofed the positions of the two officers she killed briefly and intermittently.

Just to make it seem like they were alive but just slacking off.

Unfortunately she had not recorded enough of their audio to convincingly fake messages.

I better hurry. They’re getting suspicious– they’re sick of loitering around in here.

Zachikova tried to pick up the pace, rushing down the identical-looking corridors.

Keeping an eye on the positions of the officers.

She could see the positional map, the layout diagram, in her mind’s eyes–

Swapping between whatever active body cameras–

“Hey. Hey. There’s something– Hey! Don’t move! K.P.S.D, don’t–!”

Zachikova felt like her heart sank into a hole in her chest.

Immediately and almost mindlessly, on pure instinct, she swapped to that officer.

He flipped his body camera on and crouched through the opening into a side reserve tank.

“Hey! Stay the fuck where you are or I’ll shoot–”

In the next instant, something struck the officer. There was blood, a gurgling noise–

His body camera went flying. Three down, five to go–

Zachikova took off running again.

She had seen it, running the video in her head– something like a scorpion’s stinger.

Arabella! Arabella!

“What the fuck? Everyone converge on Wilco! Wilco down, everyone converge!”

“Shit, shit he’s gone–”

Every blip had honed into the downed officer’s last position instantly.

They were freaking out and running pell-mell toward–

ARABELLA!

Zachikova took a corner and ran to intercept the officers that she could.

She kept an eye on the moving blips, grabbed hold of a grenade from her belt.

As soon as she heard the splashes coming in from a perpendicular hallway ahead–

Zachikova threw the grenade and slipped into a hole in the wall for a recessed grate.

There was a flash, an explosion, air sucking in, smoke billowing, and screams–

Frags sprayed against the walls around her and landed in the water, steaming, smoking–

“Fire! Fire!” Through coughing and shrieking with his last breaths–

“It’s sticking! It’s sticking!” Splashing, metal thuds from thrashing kicks–

In the hall ahead two officers caught fire and thrashed for their lives, but the burning fragments would not come off. Incandescent bits of metal instantly set them ablaze and anything that could melt on them melted to their skin. Zachikova ran past them through the smoke as their uniforms melted into their skin, her respirator mask allowing her to see and breathe while the burning men choked and died.

Arabella!

She tried to call out to her as she ran, just as she herself had been called to–

But there was no response. Arabella had not given her the power of psionics.

Please hold on! Please!

Three men left, all of them met up and began to advance toward the same position.

“God damn it.”

She checked the magazine for her AKS-78u as she ran.

Safety off, loaded, engaging the bolt–

Her own position was one corner away from the four blips.

Zachikova stacked at the corner.

Peeked once– saw them approach the open grating, guns out–

Stacked again. Assault rifle in hand, finger on the trigger–

Light ‘em up

Illya’s voice, still in her head. From a long time ago now, but–

Zachikova was alone. Illya and Valeriya weren’t there to shoot. Only her. All on her.

One step around the corner, rifle up, man on the right, another directly adjacent–

Automatic. Press, depress, press, depress– shifting her aim a few centimeters from the right–

A hail of deadly precise gunfire swept across the group from the flank. Three bursts, one turn to the right between each. A patter of bloody exit wounds sucked out one man’s abdomen and sprayed it into the wall. Right next to him, another man’s hip pack burst into pieces, blood sprayed from a graze that sent him stumbling with a hole on the side of his hip, a chunk separated off his body armor.

Nine rounds, five direct impacts.

Shit–! My shooting still sucks–!

“Gunfire! Back up, back up!”

“D.A.P, D.A.P! Depleted Agarthicite!” Cried the man who had survived the shots.

Zachikova put her back to the wall again. Dozens of bullets sparked against the metal.

“HQ! Reinforcements! We got shooting down here–HQ? HQ?!”

“Can’t get through! Fuck! Keep shooting!”

They were shouting for nothing. She had isolated them completely. But she was alone.

Dozens of rounds sprayed across the tunnel–

Arabella– God damn it– Please say something–

Alone with her gun to her chest.

Two men remaining. Couldn’t use explosives– she might harm Arabella.

Her position was known. There was no way to outflank.

How– How did it come to this?

Arabella– please–

Zachikova sucked in a breath, slipped her finger into the trigger guard.

Held the handguard tight and inched nearer to the corner.

Ducking her body, throwing herself low over the water, squeezing the trigger–

“Arabella!”

How had it come this?


Several days earlier...

At first glance, Treasure Box Transports’ Pandora’s Box was a heavy cargo hauler vessel with an old fashioned and unflattering appearance. Its hull was a cross between a cylinder and a box, all brown. While it was moving at a decent clip, it looked bulky and difficult to maneuver from outside observation. Its conning tower was an old style triangular fin. Its control fins were the first thing that would have caught an expert’s eye, as the designs looked exceedingly hydrodynamic and adjusted quickly. It was as if top of the line engineering resources had gone into hydrotunneling the control surfaces and nothing else.

In reality, the whole thing had gone through a hydrotunnel, and extensively.

It was, in fact, designed to look bulky, ugly and old, while being lighter, newer and swifter.

No one would have guessed from outside observation that the Pandora’s Box had a suite of hidden cannons of three different calibers, as well as torpedoes and other arms aboard; and most importantly, that it carried soldiers and mecha pilots of the communist Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. The Pandora’s Box was actually the UNX-001 Brigand, and its mission to foment unrest in the Imbrian Empire to support the uprising of the Bureni nationalists was going, by all accounts, awful poorly.

They were not in Buren’s waters whatsoever. In fact, they were across the hemisphere from their supposed ultimate destination. The Brigand was a half hour away from docking into the core station of the Kreuzung Complex, a vast multi-tower city in the northern province of the central-western territory of Rhinea. A variety of odd and unlucky circumstances had forced the Brigand and its crew to venture into the Imbrium through these waters. This despite the fact that Rhinea had fallen under the control of the fascist Volkisch Movement. However, it was only here that they could safely refit and resupply, thanks to the connections of the mysterious scientist Euphrates– that situation in itself was a storied mess.

“Murati, I’m going to be heading out soon on port business– what do you need?”

“Apologies, ma’am. I have to something to report I’d like to be kept between us.”

“You look awful serious. Alright– I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Ma’am– I think Sonya Shalikova is avoiding me because she has psionic powers.”

From the main hall of the top tier of the Brigand, Lieutenant Murati Nakara and Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya ducked out into a meeting room. They were a study in contrasts; Murati a brown skinned and dark-haired woman, young, with a lean profile and a sharp and unembellished expression; Ulyana a tall, fair-skinned, full-figured blond with a soft face, lightly touched up with makeup, that had already begun to show the first signs of the years that she had over the Lieutenant.

“Explain quickly, Murati.” Ulyana said.

“It was almost a week ago. Shalikova approached me, she wanted advice on something.” Murati said. “But then, I tried to look at her aura, to see what she was feeling. It was stupid of me, but I didn’t see any aura around her. And then, I saw her eyes glow red almost immediately, like a ring around the irises. That’s how you can tell if someone is performing psionics if you are psionic yourself.”

Ulyana sighed and raised the fingers of one hand to her forehead.

“Nothing could have prepared me to start having conversations like this.” She moaned.

“Ma’am?”

“Nothing.” Ulyana crossed her arms. “So you’re dead certain she has psionic powers?”

“I have no doubt.” Murati said. “But she’s been avoiding me ever since. She’s burned through almost all of her allotted personal sick days, tactically avoiding any meetings I set up. We had a huddle a few days ago to formally demote Ahwalia, and she wasn’t even there to back up my rationale, so it got heated.”

“I see. So that’s part of why things got the point where Khadija kicked him.”

Ulyana sighed again. She had been doing a lot of sighing over the past few days.

“I’ll be frank, ma’am, as a worker, I don’t really like reporting colleagues. I did my best for Shalikova’s circumstances.” Murati said. “But I feel like we need to do something about it.”

“Shalikova is not dangerous to our mission.” Ulyana said.

“I never said as such. I don’t think she is either.” Murati said.

“Then we’re in agreement about the most important thing.” Ulyana laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder and leaned into her a little, smiling. “Something you will come to learn about leadership, Murati, is that at times, you need to trust other adults that they will resolve their situations and pull through on their tasks when necessary. You need to give them space. It’s entirely possible Shalikova has been like this the whole time, and we just never knew– we didn’t have the capability to know her secret. Now we do.”

Murati blinked, silently, while Ulyana continued.

“Imagine how shocked she must have been? How long she had been carrying on like this was a burden only on her shoulders? But regardless of how much we speculate on her powers, Murati, Shalikova is a responsible woman, who has never faltered when we needed her. Meetings, and things like that, they can come and go, for days at a time, maybe weeks at a time. But Shalikova is still doing everything we require of her. I’m sure if she needed to fight, she would come out and fight to protect everyone. Sameera and Khadija and Valya don’t mind being standby pilots. Just give Shalikova room to figure things out.”

“I just wish there was something I could do for her.” Murati said. “I want to let her know that we can talk about it and that I am here to support her– and that I share her burden too.”

“You’re a lovely soul, Murati.” Ulyana said. “But being a leader entails a certain distance. Someday, you’ll be a Captain, and hundreds of people might look to you for support. It’ll be hard to have conversations with everyone, like we are having. Your lovely soul will hurt a lot. You’ll have to learn how to handle it eventually. But take it from me, for now– in Shalikova’s case, you need to give her space.”

Murati looked dissatisfied with the answer– but she deferred to Ulyana’s experience.

“Thank you. Sorry for holding you up, Captain. You should go get ready.”

“It’s perfectly fine. I’m glad you didn’t bottle this up for any longer.” Ulyana said.

Murati averted her eyes, as if to say ‘I don’t always bottle things up’ with her face.

But she did always bottle things up and basically everyone knew that about her.

She had been hoping for the Captain to dispense some wisdom about bringing Shalikova over to their side to talk. During the conversation, however, she felt a little childish about that kind of tactic. As much as it gnawed at Murati’s chest every time Shalikova shirked a meeting to avoid confronting the issue, Ulyana’s take on the situation still sounded the most reasonable. Murati would have to give Shalikova time to disclose, and in the interim, continue to trust in her pilot without pressuring her.

Anything else would require pulling rank– which Murati wasn’t quite ready to do.

She wanted to command– but not to be a snobbish officer who was always shouting.

Some part of her wanted to be respected enough for such problems to never arise.

In the same way that she respected her own superiors and always went to them first.

Shalikova avoiding Murati and keeping secrets, was a failure of Murati’s command.

Ordering Shalikova to disclose her psionic ability would not fix that fundamental issue.

That was how Murati came to see it– depressing as it was to live with that reality.

“No use beating myself up. Just keep things moving, Murati.” She mumbled to herself.

As the Brigand neared Kreuzung, the daily duties of the ship continued regardless. Murati had called for Euphrates and Tigris to meet her in the hangar, in front of the gantry holding the latest of the Brigand’s bizarre and impromptu technology acquisitions. A large and heavy Diver, broad-chested and thick-limbed with broad shoulders and all manner of technology hidden inside of its chassis.

Standing almost a meter taller than every other Diver, stood the next generation “HELIOS.”

Or at least, “next generation” was how its proud creators had billed it.

Murati made her way down to the hangar. With a ceiling over nine meters tall, it was the most open and spacious area of the ship. Gunmetal grey walls and a red floor, with eight hatches in the middle covering deployment chutes. It had been specifically designed for the purpose of housing, maintaining and deploying several Diver mecha, and its gantries were occupied now with a colorful array of different models– several of which were ruined remnants from their last battle, in the process of repair. Along with the Diver gantries, there was a surprisingly full-featured workshop area where mechanics could manufacture or repaired a variety of parts via an industrial Ferristitcher, along with traditional tools to smooth out any modeling errors or assemble complicated products from the ferristitched parts.

At the foot of the Helios’ gantry, Murati found a familiar pair of women waiting for her.

“Greetings, my dear apprentice.”

“Don’t give this bitch any reason to be smug, Murati! Tell her off immediately!”

One was calm, with a bright smile and a gentle demeanor. Her hair was a dark teal-blue color and cut to the shoulder, slightly curly and messy, framing her face. She wore the same uniform as Murati, button-down, tie, teal half-jacket, black pants. Her counterpart who was yelling and glaring had darker skin, red hair tied up in a long ponytail with a tall arch, and dressed in a grey jumpsuit, a mechanic’s coverall.

When touched, their skin had an otherworldly softness that hinted at augmentation. Both of them had bright eyes with numerous digital lines flitting across their surface. When they focused, one could see, for a split second, the mechanism focusing lenses. Cybernetic organs of that level of quality were expensive and rare in the Imbrium; but that was far from the only thing hidden beneath the surface of these two. While both of them looked almost younger than her, both were many, many times Murati’s age.

Euphrates and Tigris. Holding the title of “Immortal” in a clandestine scientific organization known as the Sunlight Foundation. It was these two in large part who were responsible for the Brigand’s current course. Kreuzung Station hosted one of their research campuses, and they offered to help refit the Brigand. They were also responsible for the Diver they were standing under, having designed and constructed the HELIOS. It was for that reason that Murati had called them together– to discuss the machine’s fate.

“She can call me whatever she wants as long as she’s being helpful.” Murati said.

Tigris crossed her arms. “That’s the thing, Murati! You have to put her in her place and have a healthy level of suspicion of her. Otherwise she’ll act all smug, and she’ll pretend like she’s being helpful. But in reality, she’ll tell you a bunch of useless stuff, and lead you on a wild goose chase, and you won’t be none the wiser. You’ll be tricked into earnestly believing all of her nonsense and waste all of your time.”

“I feel like I walked into something.” Murati replied.

“Firstly– I have never once done such a thing to her.” Euphrates said calmly. “Murati, you should know this woman has very little patience, and a lot of disdain for process. What she calls a ‘wild goose chase’ is my theoretical work and adherence to the scientific method, which is the foundation of any appropriate research. Furthermore, I am teasing you by calling you ‘my apprentice’, but this isn’t to ingratiate myself with you. It’s just to make fun of you in and of itself without ulterior motives.”

“I– Okay.” Murati took a deep breath. “Do you have any further bloviating to vent out?”

Euphrates narrowed her eyes. “How rude– I thought you were a nice girl, Murati.”

“Hah!” Tigris laughed. “You can be harsher Murati! You can be meaner! Get her ass!”

“I’m a girl with a schedule to keep. Unlike you two care-free souls.” Murati sighed.

A few minutes later, a fourth young woman joined them under the machine.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, hubby dearest!”

“Hubby dearest now, huh.”

Her teasing tone made Murati’s cheeks turn a little redder than before.

Karuniya Maharapratham approached with her hands behind her back, and an enormous, shining smile on her face targeted directly at Murati. Like Murati, she was a dark-skinned and dark-haired young Bosporan woman, but a good bit fairer in both complexion and hair color than her ‘hubby.’ Her hair was kept much longer as well and more orderly than Murati’s messy bangs and uneven sides.

Like almost everyone aboard, Karuniya wore the standard uniform of Treasure Box Transports, the fictitious corporation for which the Brigand’s troops pretended to work, which constituted the button-down and half-jacket. But unlike Murati, she wore a skirt and leggings with her uniform, rather than the pants. When she had a chance to express herself with fashion, Karuniya was always bold and bright, and even when she was just wearing a uniform, she carried herself as confidently as any fashionista.

A casual observer could have very well likened her and Murati to a traditional “butch and femme” type lesbian couple, though Murati did not style herself that masculine for a woman. It was an interesting subject owing to her gender transition– but Murati ultimately didn’t mind being the “hubby.“

“So, we’re all here.” Karuniya said. “What is this about, Murati? Why did you want to meet here?”

She sidled up to the Lieutenant and practically rubbed her cheek against her.

Murati pored over what to say, but there was no amount of rhetoric that could make the question more palatable. So she tried to be as direct as she could. “Karuniya– I know I asked you in the heat of the moment, back at Goryk’s Gorge, to pilot this unit with me. But now–” Murati paused briefly. “The HELIOS will always need two pilots. I don’t know if you’re comfortable with having to fight regularly. It’s not your job, and I understand that. So I wanted you to have the final say in whether we keep it.”

“Whoa!” Tigris interrupted. “You are going to keep it! I’m not taking it back!”

“Don’t be unreasonable, Tigris.” Euphrates said. “Murati is right to offer her this choice.”

Tigris crossed her arms and grumbled near inaudibly to herself while staring at Karuniya.

For her part, Karuniya continued to smile. Her bubbly behavior toned down just a touch.

She let go of Murati and looked up at the machine that towered over all of them.

“Jeez, Murati, all this time and you still didn’t understand my feelings at all?”

“Huh? I’m just– I’m trying to be cautious about your feelings! You’re a scientist!”

“I am also a soldier.” Karuniya said. “I agreed to help you pilot this thing and I will.”

“I don’t want you to feel coerced into this.” Murati said. “It’s not an emergency anymore.”

“Murati, I’m your wife.” Karuniya said. “I want to support you. Besides, now that you’re healed up, you’ll be doing all the fighting anyway, right? I’ll just be handling the computing stuff.”

“She’s correct!” Tigris said. “She doesn’t have to fight! She can just man the drones!”

“Now, I’m not that naïve either.” Karuniya said. “I’m not saying that I’m washing my hands of any violence Murati inflicts either. I’m in the machine; my hands will have blood too.”

Karuniya locked eyes with Murati.

In that moment, Murati felt a renewed admiration for her wife– and felt foolish, too.

She was very lucky to have such a strong and wise woman by her side.

Especially in moments like this, where she felt her earnestness caused her to blunder.

“Oh c’mon!” Tigris said. “Are you two keeping it or not? I’m scrapping it if you say no!”

“I apologize for her hysterics.” Euphrates said, shaking her head.

“Of course we’re keeping it. I’d rather Murati pilot the HELIOS than any other machine.”

Karuniya shut her eyes and flashed Murati a lovely little grin. She was so beautiful–

“We can triumph together or die together– really, what more could a military wife want?”

“I’m sorry, Karu. I shouldn’t have second guessed you.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Both of them gazed into each other’s eyes, smiling, laughing a little bit.

Tigris, meanwhile, inflicted Euphrates with perhaps the most antagonistic gaze yet.

“Anyway!” Tigris said. “Is that all? You just wanted to get enthusiastic consent?”

Both Murati and Karuniya stared at her, making the same disdainful expression.

Euphrates crossed her arms and averted her gaze. “I again, apologize, for her hysterics.”

“Shut up! I’d knock your head off if it wouldn’t just grow back!” Tigris shouted.

“Huh?” Karuniya stared between the two of them.

She was aware of most of their eccentricities, but not where it concerned Euphrates’ immortality.

That particular detail would definitely attract unwanted attention.

Shocked by the suddenness with which it came up, Murati quickly improvised a diversion–

“It’s just their PDA!” Murati said. “Please ignore them. I’ve told them to cool it down.”

Karuniya stared between the two of them. Her confusion seemed to only deepen.

“Murati– nevermind. Let’s just move on from this.” Euphrates sighed.

She and Tigris were now fixing the same disgusted glare at Murati.

God damn it. I can’t win today– I want to disembark and scream without an echo.

After a few minutes of silence, Murati finally collected her thoughts enough to continue.

“There were a few other things I wanted to discuss. For one, I want to rename it.”

Tigris shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“Okay? Just do it then, who cares. There’s no form you have to submit to me.”

Murati nodded.

“I want to call it the ‘Bhavani Jayasankar’.” She said suddenly.

“VETO! I’m vetoing that name! I am completely against it!”

Karuniya shot a hand straight up into the air like a student in a classroom.

“Overruled! Absolutely not!” She then cut Murati off again. “Not Mordecai either!”

Murati, who had been about to speak, fell awkwardly silent.

Euphrates laughed gently. “But it’s so typical of her to name it that? It’s quite charming.”

“I don’t care what you name it.” Tigris huffed. “Just agree on something already.”

“Fine.” Murati said. “If I can’t use the names of communist leaders– let’s name it ‘Agni’.”

Tigris’s head snapped up to look at her. “What? That name I don’t use? Why the hell?”

“I think that’s a lovely name.” Karuniya said.

“Why? Murati, I want to know– this isn’t some awful joke on me is it?” Tigris asked.

“Of course not.” Murati replied.

Ever since she met Euphrates and Tigris, Murati had been surprised by the two of them.

There was no particular way that one would expect members of a clandestine organization to behave. Both Euphrates and Tigris had lied to the crew of the Brigand before and in some sense, brought danger upon them. However, they were enthusiastic in making up the inconvenience.

They showed a strong sense of ethicality in the way that they treated the people around them, and humbly submitted themselves to work under others, despite possessing immense powers that they could have used to control or subvert the crew. With their cooperation, the Brigand had learned a lot of valuable information. And Tigris, in particular, was an incredible asset, as an extremely technically skilled and indefatigably hard working mechanic and engineer who was not afraid of dirty jobs.

Euphrates, too, was someone whom Murati had a certain admiration for.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, she had touched that woman’s heart, and the sorrow and pain she carried with her was so immense that it moved Murati to tears. She felt an intense drive to comfort and protect her. Even a percentage point of the suffering Euphrates had gone through would have ruined and embittered any ordinary person. She couldn’t explain it rationally, but she could feel it.

And Murati also got the sense that despite her prickliness, Tigris was truly devoted to her.

That devotion was something Murati could understand and admire quite easily.

In the end, Murati had grown fond of them. Even in the short amount of time she had known them.

“Agni is a High Bosporan name that means ‘fire’. I think it’s only right that the product of your passions be named after you and named like that.” Murati said, acknowledging Tigris as she spoke. “I admire your hard work and dedication, and how you’re so humble despite all the skills you possess.”

“Hey, c’mon.” Tigris shrank back. “I’m not doing anything to look good or get praised.”

“She only seeks praise from me.” Euphrates said.

“You fucking shut up. Nobody asked for your stupid input.” Tigris replied, wilting visibly.

Murati smiled. “See, the two of you– you really have made me feel like–”

A bit overwhelmed with emotion, Murati gesticulated vaguely with her hands.

Karuniya stared and nodded along. “Huh. You really left your impression on her.”

“You understand that?” Tigris said, pointing at Murati. “Because I sure as hell don’t!”

For a moment, Murati was truly unable to put her feelings into words.

Thankfully, everyone around her understood the sudden difficulties and gave her time.

Everyone agreed that henceforth, the HELIOS would be dubbed ‘Agni.’


Viewed from the outside in, Kreuzung Station was absolutely, monumentally massive.

To approach the station, any vessel had to first descend into the Kreuzung crater, which was an enormous maw in the earth, many kilometers across, over a thousand meters deep from the cliffs around it to the bottom with the tower baseplates. As the vessel approached, the imaging computer would struggle for a few seconds to capture it in its entirety. Staring down at this enormous machine — with its vast central tower surrounded by smaller, but no less grandiose twelve surrounding towers — conveyed the ultimate triumph of humanity over the circumstances which had driven them from the face of their planet and into the sea. It was a city in the seafloor, but for the people outside, it could’ve been a planet in space.

Kreuzung’s core station alone was a remarkable endeavor. There were perhaps a half-dozen other stations in the Imbrium as large as Kreuzung’s core. Spanning a few kilometers in width and over one kilometer in height, the cubiform station had the presence of a mountain. But unlike Solstice’s Mt. Raja, its deliberate construction meant there was no wasted space. In Mt. Raja, people could only live in modules attached to the central stab and whatever tunnels were bored in the rock, with a natural limitation beneath the rocky surface; Kreuzung was packed corner to corner with systems and modules. To construct it, the Imbrians hundreds of years ago worked slowly, building one corner of the central tower, and then another, and another, and then building up top– this meant that the modules closer to the baseplate were the more spartan lodgings for the ancient workers, while the modules up top, built upon this foundation, were the works of art in which the wealthy lived. Most of the population density lay closer to the baseplates.

All throughout the journey, there could be hundreds of other vessels of all sizes and shapes coming and going from Kreuzung, above the crater, down in the walls, between the towers. At the peak of traffic, there would be orderly lines of vessels lining up at the port entrances throughout the central tower, as well as the towers that could accept ships, of which there were about four with capable berths. Many ships had to access the station through exterior scaffold berths with attached deployment chutes, unable to pay for the privilige of disembarking from within the station’s ports at peak capacities.

Millions of human beings inhabited these towers, and every day, perhaps millions more could potentially visit and depart on routine business in the region. Visibly massive commerce flowed through here.

Upon descending between its towers, the visiting vessel would feel as if enclosed between walls of steel broken up by columns of ocean. It was here that the true magnitude of the endeavor became evident, as even the smallest towers dwarfed the largest dreadnoughts that were only hundreds of meters long and dozens of meters tall. For those working out in the water in pressure suits and divers, it would have felt like the towers framed the whole world, and there was only steel, rock, as far as the eye could see, dividing humanity from the unreachable heaven impossible to see overhead.

Tower baseplates dominated the seafloor with only a few regions of sand between, particularly near towers Seven and Eight which were closer to the old mines in the crater wall. Those walls of the crater visible between each tower gave the view a sense of connectedness as well, rock enmeshed with steel. There were were facilities in the crater wall and on top, mainly for industrial and military use. A dirty secret of the complex was that there were desperate people squatting some of the disused modules on the crater top and within the rim of the crater too– a touchy subject for immigration officers.

All manner of drama, tragedy and conspiracy transpired in this nexus of Eisental’s prosperity.

For the UNX-001 Brigand, calling itself The Pandora’s Box, there was safety in this sense of enormity and grandeur. Despite their secrets, they were only one vessel amid the many, all of which brought their own little conspiracies aboard this massive edifice. Even the brutal Volkisch movement had not yet taken full control of this enormous place, as they had in other, smaller cities across Rhinea.

Soon as the Brigand entered port, on every screen across the cruiser, appeared the round, cheerful face of Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova. Blond and incredibly pretty, with a soft, plump and ample figure, she was the idol of the Brigand, who delivered every important message with a lovely voice and a winning smile. Whether it was the daily announcements or periodic affirmations for the workers, when Semyonova appeared on the screen, everybody paid rapt attention to her voice and face.

“Attention all crew! Our vessel has just entered port at Kreuzung’s core station. We will have a roughly two hour ride on a conveyor belt in the station interstice, before the ship will be dropped off at Alcor Steelworks. It is vital that we go over how operations will proceed from here on out.”

Accompanying Semyonova’s face on the screen, was a map of a shuttle tram route from the H block of Kreuzung to its fifth auxiliary tower. That map was given to the sailors as a stone paper synthestitched handout for them to keep on hand. Workgroup managers for the sailors were handed additional instructions on paper by officers of the Brigand like Murati and Karuniya, while the briefing continued.

“For the next few weeks, we’ll be using Alcor’s facilities per a cooperation agreement between Treasure Box Transports, Solarflare LLC, and Alcor Steelworks Inc.” Semyonova said. “Alcor’s own workers will not be working on the ship, but they will be facilitating our use of their equipment and handling local permits and procedures. Only Solarflare and Treasure Box workers will be allowed to work on the ship. We will be allowed to travel to Solarflare’s campus in Tower Five as well as Alcor Steelworks’ workshops and campus in H-block, as part of shore leave. That means that Protocol Tokarev is in effect. Solarflare will handle our transportation, but you must adhere to Protocol Tokarev with more strictness than we did at Serrano station. As much as you may desire to do so, do not wander away from Solarflare’s minders, and let Solarflare and Alcor employees do any talking with the Kreuzung station’s authorities that may need doing. Treat Solarflare and Alcor representatives with courtesy and follow their kind instructions and directions, but do not disclose any information to them. All they need to know is your given name and your role. Workgroup managers can be consulted with any specific questions about this.”

There was a bit of chatter, but the sailors aboard the Brigand had been handpicked for their professionalism and trustworthiness and could be counted upon to uphold the secrecy doctrine, dubbed Protocol Tokarev. Tokarev was the “T” in the Union phonetic alphabet, and in this case stood for “Treasure box.” It meant that the sailors would be expected to uphold the crew’s cover story and guard their secrecy. Commissar-General of the Union’s Internal Security, Parvati Nagavanshi, had handpicked even the sailors for the Brigand’s mission, of which there were over a hundred. Once given appropriate instructions, even the rowdiest of the sailors would not dare betray their comrades and the mission.

“Operationally,” Semyonova continued, “this will be the most complicated mission that our crew has undergone yet, with technical, intelligence and social elements that will require precise and delicate coordination. All of these elements hinge on your judgment in the face of adversity and the unknown. Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya believes that all of you are more than capable of achieving success– and I believe wholeheartedly in all of you as well. Trust in your officers and managers, diligently complete your daily tasks and goals, and you will find that together, we will be able to safely depart Kreuzung fully repaired and provisioned in no time! Continue your work– the Captain will address the ship later!”

And thus, the little conspiracy that the Brigand brought to Kreuzung officially began.

As soon as the screens returned to normal, released from the control of Semyonova’s station in the Brigand’s bridge, the blond immediately bent over her desk and breathed a deeply-held sigh of relief. She pulled her headphones off and left them hanging off the desk by their cord. She let her half-jacket fall a little bit off her plush round shoulders while she openly sulked, kicking her legs in a silly fashion.

“Aaah that was horrid. I overslept again and didn’t do my makeup right.” She whined.

At her side, a dark-haired Shimii woman reached out a comforting hand, patting her back.

“Everyone thinks you are lovely, Natalia.” Said Fatima al-Suhar, sonar and sensors officer.

“Yes, Miss Semyonova! Your voice is as bewitching as the sirens of the deep!”

One station down from Fatima, was the electronic warfare desk of Braya Zachikova, who had not been the one to speak. Zachikova stared narrow-eyed at the walls, her tawny, spiraling ponytail twitching as if in precise indignation of the actual speaker. That errant comment had been made by a woman sitting with her back to the side of Zachikova’s desk. Long red and white hair almost below the back, and a bloodlessly pale face with sky-blue eyes which had been emerald-green yesterday, and golden yellow the day before. A woman with an unfathomable, alien beauty; and a long tail ending in a fork.

Arbitrator I, the “guest navigator” and newly-added threat to the peace on the Brigand’s bridge.

Zachikova reached down and flicked her index finger, striking the woman’s nose.

“Stop shouting on the bridge. You’re not twelve, behave yourself like an adult.”

At the site where Zachikova’s finger had struck, a deep, purple and black bruise appeared.

“Ah– I am castigated with such potent agony–!” Arbitrator I cried.

“Stop faking it! Change your skin color back immediately! I didn’t hit you hard!” Zachikova shouted.

That use of the word ‘castigated’ piqued the curiosity of the last person to have said it.

Across the room, a blond, skinny young woman with purple streaks dyed into her hair–

“Is that pale recusant now pilfering my advanced vocabulary?” pondered Gunnery Officer Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa. She briefly stared over her shoulder at the scene behind her.

“I hope not. One person talking like a roleplaying middle schooler is enough.”

Unprompted, the woman at Fernanda’s side offered her own commentary. Tall, dark, her brown hair tied up in a bun, cutting a dashing figure with her lean shoulders and long limbs, that mostly went disused– it was Torpedo and Missile Officer Alexandra Geninov. As soon as the words left her lips, Fernanda’s attention immediately switched to her recurring nemesis with an oft-heard cry.

“Not a soul here wished the curse of your voice upon them, GAMER!”

In the middle of all this chaos–

“Order on the bridge! Use your inside voices! Do you need the same spiel as the sailors?”

The Brigand’s bridge was divided into three tiers like a stepladder, each connected by sets of a few metal steps. Most of the officers were in the middle tier, about a meter below the top tier with the door, where there were stations for Communications; Sonar, Imaging and Sensors; Electronic Warfare; and opposite them, Torpedo and Missiles; Gunnery; and the Helm. Above and behind them, the top tier extended roughly between the lower stations so the Captain was raised but also somewhat central to the other stations. Below all of them were the four gas gunnery stations providing defensive flak fire.

While the polite and humble gas gunners heard all the commotion above and behind them, they were usually separate from the goings-on of the rest of the bridge, and even had their own manager down there. As such, whenever Commissar Aaliyah Bashara shouted at the bridge officers, it was implicitly understood by them that she was shouting mainly at Alex, Fernanda, Zachikova, and the like.

Astaghfirullah,” Aaliyah moaned, lapsing into Shimii ‘Fusha’ speech. In this case, it was expression of a mild shame at the frequent disorder around her. Her dark cat-like ears twitched, and her tail stood on end. Normally she wore a Commissar’s military uniform with a dark coat and pants, gold filigree, a red armband and a peaked cap on her long, dark hair, to command respect befitting the ship’s chief political officer– but in Kreuzung due to Protocol Tokarev, she wore the same uniform as everyone else.

She occupied the second seat of the top-center, in whispering range of the Captain.

Missing at the time– she was in a communications booth making calls to the station.

However, almost as soon as Aaliyah began to think of her–

Through the door, the Captain stepped onto the steel floor of the top tier.

“Captain on bridge!” Aaliyah declared.

She saluted, as did everyone else on the bridge– even the unruliest of the officers.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya smiled and took her seat at the head of the bridge. She was an impressive woman that easily caught the eyes, tall and mature with lustrous blond hair falling over her shoulders, lush red lips, bright green eyes and a tasteful amount of cosmetics. More than pretty, she was in good shape, with an excellent figure and physique. Her jacket was wrapped up and carried in one arm, revealing the sleeveless button-down of the Treasure Box uniform in full and baring her strong shoulders and lean arms. Her skirt and leggings accentuated her long legs and precise gait.

“Captain,” Aaliyah said.

“Commissar,”

Ulyana sat beside Aaliyah, and immediately upon doing so, slouched and breathed in deep.

“You look exhausted.” Aaliyah said. She had known the Captain intimately enough to tell.

“It’s been nerve-wracking.” Ulyana said. “Talking to all these Imbrians trying to hide how thick my Volgian accent is. Euphrates warned us that this place is extremely racist– it became the subject of a few awkward conversations I had to have with Solarflare and the station representatives. We’ll have to debrief everyone, especially the Shimii crew members. There’s legal segregation in place here, can you believe it?”

“Barbaric.” Aaliyah said. “But not unexpected. We’ll just have to be extra careful.”

“There was a cute Shimii girl working at the dock though.” Ulyana said. “Really short tail.”

“Bobtail usually means a Shimii is mixed.” Aaliyah said. “Maybe the Imbrians trust her more because of that. Or it suggests there’s a permit scheme– I’m sure we have options available.”

Aaliyah answered firmly and seriously, even though Ulyana had a teasing tone of voice.

Unable to get her cherished Commissar to respond to the provocation, Ulyana deflated.

“Right, it’s just, every request we need to make is one more chance to raise suspicion.”

Her voice began to convey more and more of her exhaustion.

Aaliyah surreptitiously stroked her hand, out of view of the rest of the crew.

“We can do this, Captain. I’m here to support you.” She whispered.

“Thank you. If I might trouble you for that support– I’d like to take a nap.” Ulyana said.

“I will keep the bridge in line as I always do.” Aaliyah said, with a proud little smile.

“And I don’t–? Nevermind– wake me up when we’re transferring the ship to a trailer.”

Ulyana leaned back into her chair. She procured her hat from beside her seat and dropped it over her head, using the peak to cover her eyes. On the main screen, there was nothing to see but endless walls of metal as the conveyor took them through the bowels of the station interstice.

A series of elevators and conveyors would slowly bring the “Pandora’s Box” to Alcor’s industrial module in the H-block several hundred meters up from where they entered. The Pandora’s Box was cruiser-sized, over 200 meters in length, almost 40 in height, and close to 50 meters wide. On the conveyor, however, it easily moved, if not from the conveyor belt’s power alone then with the help of jet anchors attached by awaiting Kreuzung workers to help the ship navigate the passages.

“The Kreuzung Station complex, huh.” Aaliyah said to herself, almost admiringly.

Such a vast place, so full of humanity– surely, they could slip under the radar here.

There could not be that much trouble in store for them, right?

And it was a chance for the officers and sailors to leave the ship and walk around.

Even if it was just between the Alcor and Solarflare campuses. Shore leave was shore leave.

For a time, the officers all went quiet, as there was nothing to do. All advanced systems had been shut off in order to keep the mechanisms and core cooled since they wouldn’t be cycling in as much cold water outside of the ocean until they reached their destination. Everything was running on battery and running lean until they could get water circulating again. The Brigand was quite useless outside the water.

Finally, brightening light from the main screen awakened everyone on the bridge.

One final cargo elevator lifted the ship into the light of an artificial sun. Blacktop roads and courts connected several enormous workshop buildings made of thick plastic walls, and a main office at the distant end of the road that looked like an art sculpture, with a swirling irregular façade and glass dome. Overhead, there was an artificial blue sky, enormous sunlamps hidden by tricks of the light.

And so the Pandora’s Box had made its understated entrance into Kreuzung’s H-block.

“How high up is that sky? It’s just lamps, right?” Alex asked, looking with wide eyes.

“It must be less than a hundred meters to fit into the block.” Zachikova said calmly.

“It just looks like it’s so high.” Alex said. “Like a kilometer or more. Like a real sky.”

“As if any firmament interred with us in this sea could ever be so far overhead.” Fernanda said. “Gamer, this castle in itself is at most a kilometer high. Is math another of your debilities?”

“Excuse me for trying to have a bit of fancy, oh princess dark and erotic.” Alex said.

“Gamer–!”

“Don’t start, you two.”

This time the reprimand did not come from the Commissar.

Instead it was the tired voice of Captain Korabiskaya herself, suppressing a yawn.

She sat up straight in her chair, pulled off her hat and ran her fingers through the waves of her hair. In the cameras, she watched with half-opened eyes as people and machines came out to unload the Brigand. From one of the tall workshops, an enormous trailer on super-thick threads trundled its way toward them along with four enormous cranes. Atop the trailer, there was a sturdy scaffold into which the ship would be balanced so that even the underside was accessible to workers during the refitting.

“So this is it, then. Alcor Steelworks.” Ulyana said.

Semyonova lifted her head off her desk suddenly. “Ma’am, we’ve got a call.”

In a moment, Ulyana took the call on a video screen affixed to a movable arm on her chair.

On video, was a woman dressed in a colorful yellow vinyl blazer with see-through sleeves that showed the shorter sleeves of the button-down beneath. She had skirt of the same material with similar see-through gaps along the sides. Her high powered executive fashion seemed at odds with the simple, rustic style of her long, brown-blond hair, tied up with a corny-looking neon-pattern cloth.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya I presume? My name is Amelia Winn, I’m an executive officer of Alcor’s Kreuzung branch. I hope that I am finding you well on this momentous day.”

“Thank you, Madam Winn. I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya. I am doing fine. A bit of travel fatigue.”

Amelia smiled. “I am calling on behalf of Alcor Steelworks to thank you for choosing us for a million mark project like this! Solarflare LLC has been a partner for us in Kreuzung for many years, and we are always glad for their business. Because of the sensitivity requested by all parties, I just wanted you to know I will be personally on site to insure your intellectual property rights.”

“Thank you Madam Winn.” Ulyana said. “We’re happy to be aboard as well.”

“As for your fatigue, you may feel free to avail yourselves of our executive campus! We have gel beds, hot baths, refreshments of all sorts. Allow us to warmly welcome you to Kreuzung! You paid for it, after all!”

Welcome to Kreuzung indeed, Ulyana thought, smiling awkwardly at the bubbly Amelia.


“Maryam, can I ask you something?”

“Always, Sonya!”

“What would you do if a previously trustworthy person was making overtures that you can come to them with your problems, in a way that made you uncomfortable spilling your guts to them?”

“Hmm. Well I think if I trusted someone, then I just I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking to them!”

Sonya Shalikova sighed loudly.

Of course, Maryam, because you’re such a saccharine, naive marshmallow!

She would have to discard that advice immediately.

Lodging on the Brigand was divided between Officers, who resided on the top deck, and everyone else, who resided below. Aside from some managers, like Chief Mechanic Lebedova, most people on the bottom deck lived in the dorms abutting the hangar. Each dorm room had 4 bunks, and each bunk had some storage space. That was it– very few amenities and no extra space. There were several dozen such rooms, and two bathrooms between them with an open shower plan and a few toilets. Comparatively, the officer’s quarters were a bit more luxurious. They lived two to a room, with beds big enough they could potentially hold two people together (which mattered for clandestine fraternization), and each room had amenities in the walls, such as clothes drying and pull-out chairs and desks for added comfort.

Supposedly, this separation was meant to reward Officers and furthermore to give Officers distance from Sailors so that they could enforce discipline without developing too many personal feelings about their subordinates. In reality, this was basically a post-hoc rationalization for continuing to build ships with the exact same internal structure that the Imbrian Empire used. Continuing the technology legacy of the Empire helped the Union to simplify construction by limiting ship plans to proven blueprints. Attempts to make ships with “equal” lodgings were rejected time and again as idealistic because of this.

In the end, what this meant was that Sailors led a more public life than Officers.

An Officer had a comfortable room to retreat to when they did not feel sociable.

Sailors got their dose of spaciousness from being outside their rooms. In their rooms they only had a gel bed bunk to look forward to. So the Sailors were more often out and about, they took any excuse to walk about the ship, they frequented the cafeteria, and they made thorough use of any public entertainment or social space on the ship. In stark contrast, a certain silver-haired, somewhat skinny young lady with indigo eyes had been making thorough use of the private spaces afforded to her as an officer.

Sonya Shalikova did not mind the four walls of her room at all.

Compared to the alternative, at least they were uncomplicated.

She laid down on her bed, stared up at the ceiling and sighed.

Her days confined to her room were made better, and bearable at all, by the presence of her partner, a pink-skinned, purple-haired young woman who had been taking up the other bunk of Shalikova’s room as much and as often as Shalikova took up her own. Dressed in a nun’s habit, the cuttlefish-derived Katarran, Maryam Karahailos, was unknowingly the center of Shalikova’s current worries.

Maryam was too kind, too soft– it wasn’t her fault. It was all Shalikova’s own fault.

She had been too careless. Those two passengers, Euphrates and Tigris, were psionic; and now Murati was suddenly psionic too. She had never imagined there would be more psychics aboard. She was not even flaunting the powers Maryam had given her. She had just used it once, because she saw Murati give off power– and that one time was enough for Murati to see it and understand it immediately.

“Ugh. Murati.” Shalikova mumbled.

It was already difficult enough to talk to Murati.

Not because she was unapproachable, but exactly the opposite.

Murati cared so much, in a way that Shalikova did not know how to deal with.

She always felt like Murati, the instant Shalikova appeared, would trouble herself over her.

It was often mortifying to deal with Murati’s overemphasized kindness.

And just when she had finally worked up the courage to try to ask Murati for help–

–the entire situation unfolded from there.

Now, it was mortifying to think of confronting Murati about it.

Murati’s circumstances did not matter to her so much. She was incurious about how Murati achieved her powers or who had given them to her. What was foremost in her mind was whether Murati had found out about Maryam, and then whether Murati might make Shalikova talk about Maryam’s involvement. It was the obvious question to ask upon confronting Shalikova– where did you get this ability? Murati had to know that someone else had to have given it to Shalikova. Nobody had come to confront Maryam, so on some level, the information was still under control and Maryam was ultimately safe.

And maybe nothing would happen– Murati didn’t seem like the capital punishment type.

But it was different now that Shalikova was involved with Maryam.

She worried about her and felt responsible. She couldn’t bear to risk her at all.

Shalikova loved Maryam. And that love warped how she could respond to this fiasco.

Especially because Maryam was so untroubled by the whole thing.

When Shalikova had brought it up to Maryam–

“Oh, yes, I did notice that the Lieutenant had awakened to psionics. Probably she received it from Euphrates. Euphrates was a member of my old organization. She is a good woman though. You don’t need to worry about her, I don’t think. She’ll teach that Murati lady how to do things properly.”

Maryam said that so innocently that it unnerved Shalikova.

She felt that she needed to protect Maryam from her naivety once again.

Hiding in her room was a childish way to do that.

It’s not like it blocked Murati in any way if she wanted to force her to confess. And it wasn’t a solution to the problem either. Time was just stopped– nothing was moving in any direction and nothing was being decided. But nevertheless, Shalikova still stayed in her room for days, only venturing out in the dead of night, avoiding Akulantova’s night patrols, to shower and grab some basic food items.

Every day, if there was an event scheduled by Murati, Shalikova would declare a sick day.

She would have demanded that Maryam shelter with her, but it wasn’t necessary.

Maryam mostly stuck to Shalikova’s side, and she was thankful for that.

Not only because she felt safer that way; but because she would have gone insane in her room alone for days without Maryam to talk to. During those days, Maryam had been her shining light.

Waking up to her girlfriend, across the room, gently breathing, her skin color shifting erratically as she dreamed– it was like nothing she had ever felt in her entire life. She began to love talking to Maryam about anything at all, just to hear her voice. Shalikova’s intention was not to breach any difficult subjects, and she mainly made small talk about food and passtimes– but Maryam always seemed to–

“Do you know about video games?”

“Hmm? Like the simulator you showed me?”

“Kind of like that. But just for fun. There’s stuff like that in the Union.”

“I see. We didn’t have things like that for fun.”

“How about for training? Simulators are pretty common for the Union navy.”

“Most Katarran warlords don’t really have simulator type things except for their really elite troops like their diver pilots or special operators. Infantry are cheap and the really good ones will survive and pick up skills over time. For most of us, we kinda, just fought each other with real weapons to train.”

“You fought with real weapons? What if you got hurt? That’d just cost the ship its troops.”

“Well, Katarrans are pretty tough. But if you die, you just weren’t good enough, I suppose.”

“I– I see. I should’ve guessed it’d be like that. Maryam, can I hug you?”

“Ah! I’d love that Sonya! Come here!”

Regardless of the content, just hearing Maryam’s voice set Shalikova’s heart aflight.

It was such a new feeling. It was so strange. And she didn’t wear these feelings on her face.

She allowed herself to feel it though. It was like her heart was softening and warming.

It was– it was strange. That was it– strange, but comforting.

In addition to talking among themselves, another common activity they shared during their self-imposed quarantine was practicing psionics. Shalikova felt determined to master the power Maryam had given her.

“So, this might sound corny, but psionics is all about your heart, Sonya.” Maryam said. “Your emotions play a huge role in it! Psionics starts in the mind, but it’s your emotions that have the greatest power to alter your perspective and affect how your psionics work. What you feel, will wash over your true intentions, and come out in the power, even if it’s not convenient for you. You remember the colors? Each color means something, and you have all of those colors in you. They will express themselves in your power. You could end up making a really awful mistake in a crucial moment because of your emotions. So, I think, what you should practice first is to act while controlling your emotions.”

She pitched an object across the room for Shalikova to catch.

It was a small but dense metal rosary on a plastic cord necklace.

Despite its size, it felt very solid and a little heavy in Shalikova’s hands.

“Alright, Sonya– try to lift that rosary slowly and gently with your mind. Relax and try not to let your emotions sway you while you control the rosary. If you feel scared or nervous, try to relax. If you feel frustrated, then don’t give in to your anger. And, the really difficult part is, if you feel pain, you can’t let it scare you or you’ll definitely fail. Breathe deeply, return to your center, and act very carefully.”

“Can you see what colors I have around me now?” Sonya asked.

Maryam shook her head. The tentacles that were enmeshed in her hair lifted in a little shrug.

“Nope! Your aura is not visible Sonya. So I can’t tell what kind of emotion will dominate.”

Right– Shalikova had this bizarre ability to hide her aura without even trying to.

“I guess I’ll have to feel it out without help. Okay– I’m going.”

Shalikova held the rosary in her palm and focused on it.

Even before this practice session, Shalikova had already been working on getting familiar with calling her psionics, in order to see auras, mainly Maryam’s aura. By the time the incident with Murati transpired, it was already fairly easy for Shalikova to take that first step and begin to summon the power to her eyes. But reading auras was somewhat passive, like a camera that automatically calculated the lighting for a picture. Moving something was a second-by-second decision-making process, it was active.

So she called the power, and the rosary stirred in her hands.

It did not lift, however.

Shalikova was immediately wracked with indecision.

She was being cautious not to use too much force, but not to apply too little, not to push or pull or squeeze the rosary too tight. Not to flick it or fling it, not to throw it to the ceiling. In that moment Shalikova imagined and then discarded every possibility, and so the little rosary shook in her hands but did not lift, did not go flying, did not do anything. As soon as she felt both a little bit of pain pricking the back of her head, and the frustration of inaction– Shalikova immediately stopped.

After shaking in the palm of her hand for only a few seconds, the rosary stopped moving.

“Even someone special like you can’t always win on the first try, Sonya!”

Maryam tried to console and encourage her, but it was undoubtedly frustrating.

“I take it then that you can control your emotions deliberately, Maryam?”

“Yep! You can see it, Sonya! Here– focus on my aura, and I’ll show you.”

Shalikova wordlessly invoked the power, putting on that filter over her eyes.

Focusing on the color around Maryam, that miasma of luminous aether called an aura.

For most humans, their common colors were green and blue.

Anxiety and peace, almost always mixed, for humans were never free of worry.

Red was also common to see, as most people always carried some frustration or passion.

Yellow, for injury, illness or sickness, was also common, at least a tiny band for daily aches and pains.

When Shalikova first looked at her, Maryam had strong, thick bands of blue and green, representing that basic state of human emotion. She had a very small band of yellow, which could mean anything from wounds to a stomachache; and she also had a band of purple in her little personal rainbow. Purple was associated with pride, but also represented a strong self-consciousness or self-absorbedness.

“Alright. Watch closely, Sonya.”

Maryam shut her eyes and clasped her hands together as if in prayer.

Saint’s Skin: Vestment.

Shalikova felt a near unintelligible psionic whisper coming from her girlfriend.

In an instant, the band of purple in Maryam’s aura spread to engulf every color.

Until, in seconds, the cuttlefish nun’s entire aura was lustrously purple as her long hair.

Shalikova had never seen an aura change so suddenly and completely.

Wrapped in that gaseous purple color, Maryam opened her eyes and spread her arms.

Her lips spread into a self-satisfied little grin.

She stood from her bunk, walked up to Shalikova, and leaned forward into her.

Throughout, her aura remained steadily purple.

“It’s not a trick I can really teach you, but you might be able to discover it!”

In the next instant, she tipped forward and took Shalikova’s lips into a quick but full kiss.

When she drew back, smiling at the dumbfounded Shalikova, her aura started to distort.

Returning the rest of the colors as the purple receded.

Shalikova blinked, tasting Maryam on her tongue for just a moment.

She smiled back– she couldn’t help it. “You’ve become really wily huh?”

“I always have been! You just haven’t been on the receiving end of my cuttle-tricks.”

In that way, the two lovers spent their days together. Despite Shalikova’s strange moods, Maryam was never anything less than comforting, and she quietly acquiesced to the unreasonable attitude that her lover had taken up lately. They remained in their little room, passing the time together.

Unperturbed, apart from the public world of the ship.

Soon, though, they would have to disembark. Shalikova had to confront the issue.

An issue which she herself created, and which she herself supported with her fears.

“Maryam, I’ll protect you, no matter what.” Shalikova said.

“Hmm? Of course, Sonya! And I’ll protect you with all my strength too!”

She loved her so much.

So much she was afraid to lose her. Like she had already lost someone else before–

Shalikova was stuck in her own head for days, unable to make a decision.

It was a mood unlike any she ever had. She did not know how to deal with it.

Until, on the fateful day–

“Sonya, open up. You’re not keeping this door closed to me, missy.”

Shalikova and Maryam had been lying in bed dozing off the afternoon–

“Illya?”

That voice belonged to someone quite familiar.

Someone Shalikova had not considered at all when it came to her current affairs.

“You’ve been in there for days. You’ve got shore leave. Open up.”

“She’s coming out! Don’t worry!” Maryam called out cheerfully.

“Maryam–!” Shalikova grumbled.

“We want to see you, Sonya.”

A low and deadpan voice joined Illya’s– of course, Valeriya was there too.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

There was no avoiding this. Those two would put a breaching charge on the door if they had to.

Giving Maryam a quick dissatisfied glare that the nun did not have any response to, Shalikova got up from bed and walked the few steps to the door. Standing dead center in front of the door frame with her arms outstretched, Shalikova ran her hand across the touch sensitive wall of the room, which became a context-sensitive digital button. The door slid into the wall to open, right in front of Shalikova.

“You’re alive then. That’s good. I almost suspected the nun had killed you.” Illya said.

Do not joke about that.” Shalikova said, practically growling.

“Sorry~”

Illya raised her hands in self-defense, with an amused little smile.

At her side, Valeriya shook her head and sighed.

She curled a bit of Illya’s long hair between her fingers– only Shalikova seemed to notice.

From inside the room, Maryam waved innocently at the women gathered at the door.

“Anyway. Now that we’ve got proof of life, I’m dragging you out.” Illya said.

“I thought I had shore leave. I’ll go when I want to go.” Shalikova said.

“We have an all-Officer’s meeting about the shore leave. You can fuck back off after that.”

Both women at the door were quite familiar with Shalikova, and Illya certainly acted like it. In the absence of her only remaining family, Illya had practically become something of a big sister to Shalikova. Like Shalikova, Illya Rostova was a silver-haired Volgian, but she was taller, with more defined muscle in her lean limbs and strong core, and she carried herself with a confident brusqueness that Shalikova could never have hoped to match. Normally she wore the security team’s padded bodysuit armor and carried a rifle, but under Protocol Tokarev, she wore the Treasure Box uniform. Like Shalikova, she dispensed with the jacket and bared her shoulders. Unlike Shalikova, she had decent shoulders to bare.

At her side, stood an expression-less, long-haired blond woman with a soft face and a demure stance, arms around herself, averting her gaze. Valeriya Peterburg, another close friend of Shalikova’s departed older sister. Wearing a skirt and leggings instead of pants, with her hair grown long to almost her waist, she was the perfect match for Illya, whisper-silent where she was loud, reserved and distant where Illya was confrontational, seemingly more feminine where Illya was more tomboyish. For as long as Shalikova had known them, they had been together. She thought of them almost as soulmates.

“We were worried.” Valeriya said, again in a near-whisper.

“It’s really none of your business–” Shalikova started to say, but Illya leaned in close.

“It is absolutely our business. You didn’t call me auntie Illya for like 8 years as a kid, for it to not be my business now. I promised Zasha I’d look after you if anything happened. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because you never tell anyone shit. But we’re responsible for surveillance, and we were worried sick that we practically never saw you around anymore, and you’ve used all your sick days in a row.”

“I’m fine. It’s nothing. I just want to be alone. I can take care of myself.” Shalikova said.

“I don’t care, Sonya. If you behave like this, I’m intervening. Always. So get used to it.”

Illya poked Shalikova in the cheek. Shalikova cringed away from her hand.

“Fine, fine. There’s no use trying to say no to you two.”

Shalikova crossed her arms and turned her cheek.

“You’re acting like I’m bullying you.” Illya sighed. “Collect your girlfriend and lets go.”

Shalikova’s heart was full of anxiety that she tried her very hardest to restrain.

There was no use– ultimately, Illya was right. Illya was right that this was stupid of her.

It took Illya coming here and shouting at her for her readily admit it to herself.

She had been a fool– but she was still not going to talk to Murati unless forced to.

Now she was a stubborn fool instead. She still didn’t feel ready to spill her guts.

Ugh. Get your mess under control, Sonya Shalikova.

She berated herself, but it brought her no closer to controlling her emotions.

So she remained as stuck in her own head leaving her room as she was inside of it.

Shalikova and Maryam followed Illya and Valeriya down to the hangar, where all of the ship’s officers were assembling in the center, between the gantries that held the unpowered Divers upright. One of the deployment hatches, the farthest and rightmost, was propped open and there was a ladder going through it, guarded by Akulantova. The Brigand must have been set up in drydock at the station– Shalikova had heard something about that in Semyonova’s announcements but had not paid that much attention. The officers, the sailors’ managers, were arranged in short lines, waiting for the Captain.

Immediately, Shalikova spotted a head of shoulder-length, dark and messy hair.

Thankfully, Murati had her back turned and Shalikova slipped to the back of the group.

Illya and Valeriya stayed off to the side of the lined-up officers.

So in the back, it was Shalikova, Maryam– and a woman Shalikova suddenly bumped into–

“Oh? I’m glad you’re alive, devushka. I’d wondered where you’d been.”

Shalikova had been focusing on evading the notice of Lieutenant Murati.

She had not been paying attention to whom she was sidling up to in the group.

So she hit someone, and–

A sultry, mature voice with a teasing laughter that oozed confidence snapped her to reality.

She was taken in by her appearance. Voluminous, wavy sandy-blond hair with fluffy bangs, tied into a ponytail with a purple ribbon that matched the sophisticated wine-dark color of her eyeshadow and lipstick. Tapering cat-like ears, dark-yellow with white fluffy inner-ear fur; and a lustrous, velvety tail to match. Lean limbs and a busty figure; a refined beauty, vibrant olive skin with the slightest hint of crow’s feet around the eyes, and a vivacious, self-assured smile, keen green eyes. There was no doubting it–

–Shalikova had foolishly bumped into Khadija al-Shajara, ace of aces among their pilots.

There should have been no missing her. Khadija was one-of-a-kind. Shalikova admired her!

But she was so distracted.

Normally she was far more perceptive of her surroundings. She felt quite embarrassed about this.

Khadija was deserving of an apology, but thinking about the situation, Shalikova went mute.

Because Khadija was also a pilot and an officer, she must have known about Shalikova’s absences.

So then, what would she think about it? Did she had a low opinion of her now?

As Shalikova hesitated, Khadija turned her head a little just to wink and grin at her.

“Don’t be so stiff. You don’t need to excuse yourself to me. I’m glad you’re well.”

Khadija looked across from Shalikova at Maryam next to her and waved with her fingertips.

Maryam waved back with an innocent smile.

Of course– nothing bad happened at all. Shalikova felt even more foolish.

“Attention! Captain at the head of the meeting!”

Shalikova’s flushed face snapped from Khadija over to the front of the assembled officers.

Staring around the side of Alex Geninov, who was taller than Shalikova and blocking her view in front, she saw Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara. Thankfully there was no whiteboard or other accompanying presentation tool that Shalikova had to be able to pay attention to. It looked like the meeting was just for the Captain to debrief them before they were allowed to disembark.

There was a camera drone floating in front of the Captain too– Shalikova realized the meeting was being broadcast. Only Officers had been summoned, but sailors would be watching through monitors.

“Good afternoon, my precious and illustrious crew!” Captain Korabiskaya. “We’re once again very lucky to have received a chance to disembark the ship and walk solid ground within a station, thanks to the courtesy of our allies Euphemia and Theresa and our new technology partner Solarflare LLC. However, unfortunately for us, Kreuzung is a station that is far less welcoming to people like us than Serrano was, and so we must take special care to follow the laws here, distasteful and rightist as they are.”

“Kreuzung has a deep history of racism and segregation,” continued the Captain. Her tone of voice sounded audibly embittered compared to before. “Most of us have thick Volgian accents and will get odd looks from the Imbrians. We will need to mind our speech, and who we speak to. But anti-Volgian racism is the least of our concerns. Unfortunately, this place has a much deeper history with Shimii.”

“Because of the segregation regime in place on this station, we will need all Shimii crew to visibly wear permits on lanyards.” Captain Korabiskaya delivered the new with a grave tone of voice. “Cecilia Foss, our legal adviser from Solarflare LLC, is working on procuring papers for us. Until they are approved, I’m afraid that any Shimii crew will have to remain with the ship. Pelagis crew members are a notable grey area. Certainly there is no shortage of racism toward Katarrans in the reactionary Imbrian Empire– but we will only know on a case by case basis whether the authorities take issue with our Pelagis comrades because there is no codified segregation of Pelagis, but there are ‘anti-crime’ laws that racially profile Katarrans. Our legal guidance for now is to await IDs and treat our Pelagis crew and guests the same as Shimii.”

“With one exception,” Commissar Bashara added. “Maryam Karahailos has the natural ability to alter her appearance, so as long as she looks like an Imbrian woman, she won’t arouse suspicion.”

Shalikova eyed Maryam, feeling a stab of personal indignation at this injustice.

To think she would have to disguise her beautiful and unique appearance–

Maryam, however, looked completely unbothered by it.

“Don’t worry Sonya. I can fake being a blond, blue-eyed doll no problem!” Maryam said.

Maryam– you’re too nice. Shalikova patted her on the shoulder.

“As a token of solidarity, Alcor Steelworks’ executive Amelia Winn will be bringing fresh food to crew members on the ship every day.” The Captain continued. “It will be brought aboard by Zhu and Van Der Smidse of the security team. We’ve requested strictly vegetarian fare. We will also be setting up encrypted channels to Solarflare’s campus network so you can connect to the station safely and get access to digital content from the Imbrium. Just have some common sense with that– don’t let the Commissar catch you with any anti-communist films or you’ll be spending some time in reeducation.” The Captain said that in the tone of a joke, but beside her, the Commissar had her arms crossed and looked dead serious.

“Unlike in Serrano, we have some special guests this time around.” Commissar Bashara now took the reins. “We debated how to balance our security with their personal rights, but we ultimately decided to place them in the custody of officers who have shown interest. First, Sieglinde Castille will be in the custody of Khadija al-Shajara. She will only be allowed to leave the ship with Khadija– however, because Khadija is a Shimii, neither are allowed to leave the ship until our permits arrive. Sorry about that.”

Shalikova looked surreptitiously beside herself and found Khadija glaring daggers at a woman standing about a meter distance off to her side. A regal-looking woman with a soft face that was almost as meticulously rouged as Khadija’s, and richly wavy blond hair. She stood taller than almost anyone on the ship except Akulantova, and had an athletic, broad-backed physique that seemed rare in a pampered noblewoman. Shalikova had not been in the loop too much about this individual, but she knew they had picked her up from the Diver battle back at Goryk– once upon a time, she was Sieglinde von Castille.

“I’ll be watching. Just try something. I dare you.” Khadija muttered.

“I– I’m not–” Sieglinde murmured back, averting her gaze.

That was Khadija’s problem now, and Shalikova avoided catching either of their gazes.

Commissar Bashara continued. “Arabella, our guest navigator, will be in the custody of Braya Zachikova. She is only allowed to leave the ship alongside Zachikova. Finally, Maryam Karahailos is under the custody of Sonya Shalikova. She is a Katarran, but she possesses a natural affinity for disguise. If she maintains an Imbrian appearance, she can disembark with Shalikova without issues. And those are all of our special guests. Euphemia and Theresa will freely come and go. As for the rest– I don’t want people to be too suspicious, but because of the circumstances, if you see something unusual, please report it.”

There was a natural bit of staring going around at the people who were mentioned.

In front of her, perennial shower room pest Alex Geninov and a shorter blond woman with a purple dye-job stared over their shoulders back at Shalikova with smiles on their faces. Shalikova tried to stare around them and not engage. She had her eye out for Murati to wander over and start trying to get Shalikova to talk but– no such thing ever happened during the meeting or afterwards.

Captain Korabiskaya resumed speaking after the Commisar was done, delivering some final remarks.

“Aside from that, we will follow normal disembarking procedure. If you are working on the ship, obviously you cannot take off whenever you please, but we want you to have fun too. We will rotate workers, and if you are on free time, you will have free travel to the Alcor executive campus no questions asked; but visiting Solarflare LLC will require permission from your manager if you are a sailor. Officers are trusted to go to Solarflare and back of their own accord. Venturing anywhere else other than Alcor and Solarflare’s campuses, will require individual approval from either myself or the Commissar. We will go through these requests once a day, at night. So submit requests prior to that each day so we can get to them.”

“Put Protocol Tokarev ahead of all other concerns.” Commissar Bashara added. “All of our lives depend on it. We’re not here to play around, but take care of yourselves and balance work and life while you can. We’ve been through a lot and have earned some luxuries. Apply your best judgment, be on your most exemplary behavior and report any problems to a manager or Officer. Salute; Dismissed!”

Everyone saluted the Captain, and the group dispersed; their adventure in Kreuzung was underway.

And despite all of her anxiety– nobody questioned or hassled Shalikova at all. Her secret remained safe.


Because they had arrived late enough in the station’s day/night cycle, nobody actually went out of the ship on the first day the ship spent at Kreuzung, despite all the hubbub. Ulyana and Aaliyah had a lot of last minute business on the ship, so they were seen almost all day rushing between teams and meetings. With the resources of Alcor, and Tigris’ and Euphrates’ support from Solarflare LLC, the ambition of the crew now became to “finish” the Brigand. They had been in operation over two months now, and the sailors and mechanics had found all kinds of things they would change, and many officers had opinions about tuning up the ship as well. Now they had the facilities and resources to fulfill these wishes. Not just to repair all the damage properly and clean up the outside– but to add additional capabilities.

With Alcor’s tools and Solarflare’s specialized labor, there was a lot they could do even in just a week.

There were a lot of proposals, but none of them conflicted with each other. It felt like the sailors had organized their vision for the ship before putting them forward. However, there was a lot of material to look over and approve, and a few things felt unrealistic. Ultimately, they could not afford to tear the Brigand apart completely, but there was room to upgrade many systems, tighten up others, and to make use of some of the ship’s eccentricities, like the agarthic circuits running through the armor, the extra jets in the back, and the vertical launcher on the top deck. What poor Zachikova had not been able to accomplish with software, they could make a reality with an actual overhaul of the hardware.

By nightfall, Ulyana and Aaliyah were confined to a meeting room together, trying to read through as many of the proposals as they could before work started in earnest tomorrow, and to come up with a detailed work plan so that the sailors and engineers could hit the ground running. In the middle of this task, the large screen in the meeting room flashed on and Semyonova’s smiling face appeared.

“Ma’am, you have a call from Solarflare LLC. It’s Madam Euphemia.” Semyonova said.

In Kreuzung, they had to take care to use Euphrates’ professional identity in ordinary conversation.

However, they had ways of speaking confidentially as well.

“Put her through and encrypt the call. Have Zachikova watch the network like a hawk.” Ulyana said.

“Acknowledged, Captain! I’ll route the call!” Semyonova said.

At her side, Aaliyah laid back on her seat and stretched her arms. Her tail and ears also stretched.

They had both been working hard and sitting stiffly– this served as a bit of a break from paperwork.

Semyonova vanished from the screen, and the dark blue-haired Euphrates appeared in her stead.

Calling from behind a false wood desk with several physical books stacked on one side.

“Good evening, Captain, Commissar.” Euphrates said. “I just got back to my office.”

In ordinary communication, Aaliyah was now an “adjutant,“ but the call was reasonably secure.

“Evening.” Ulyana said. “I take it you haven’t had time to put your affairs in order yet?”

“Not at all. However, I did find an affair waiting for me that I wanted to pass along quickly.”

Ulyana blinked, interested in that choice of words. “Something that concerns us?”

“Yes. It involves Ganges– Daksha Kansal.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both, at once, snapped to tighter attention on the screen.

“Did you find her, that quickly?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates shook her head. “No, but an associate of hers wishes to meet me. Her codename is Tamsa, but you may recognize her by another name. Kremina Qote. She left an encrypted message using a Sunlight Foundation specific code-language, stating that wished to speak to me in person, among other things; but with your blessing, I can put the three of you in touch. You would have much more to say to her than I; I think that would be more productive, and it would advance one of my promises to you.“

“Kremina?“ Ulyana said. “She was Kansal’s Chief of Internal Security– but she retired with her.“

“I was not aware that Qote departed the Union. I thought she had just retired quietly.“ Aaliyah said.

“They are attached at the hip.“ Euphrates said. “She must be involved in whatever Ganges is currently doing. The Union believes that Ganges is adventuring out in the world to bring revolutionary justice, isn’t that right? I can absolutely believe she is doing just that– and Kremina must know more.“

Ulyana felt a nervous pang in her chest.

How much of Kansal’s government was involved with Euphrates and the Sunlight Foundation?

The existence of the Sunlight Foundation was not so impossible to believe if they thought of it as an illegal syndicate. A mafia-style underworld existed everywhere in the Imbrium, and in places at a very large scale. However, that truth became far more painful to deal with when Ulyana started to wonder if perhaps the Union’s founding had something to do with a conspiracy by a clandestine organization–

“I can already sense your trepidation.” Euphrates said, unprompted. “Which is why I think you must talk to her, in order to start clearing the air. I personally think Ganges is a good person– but you’ll have to determine for yourself what you believe, because she did hide many things from you. But I also think the issue Kremina wants to meet with me about, suits your interests and skillset far better too.“

“That issue being what?“ Aaliyah asked as soon as Euphrates brought it up.

Euphrates grinned a little. “She wanted to talk to me about a resistance movement forming in Aachen. She called it The United Front. I have little to contribute to such an endeavor, even with Solarflare’s resources. So, what do you think, Captain– should I set up a meeting tomorrow?“

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged glances. They narrowed their eyes, felt their shoulders heavy.

The United Front.

A resistance movement, in Aachen? Here and now?

And Daksha Kansal was involved?

So much for their untroubled time at Kreuzung station.

This was not something they could run away from or ignore.

That wave of change which was sweeping across Kreuzung and Eisental– would sweep them up too.