Surviving An Evil Time [10.3]

That morning, Homa was awakened not by her alarm, but by a pulsating red glow.

Her groggy eyes partially opened, and on the opposing wall, she saw the red lettering.

Once her vision settled, she could make it out.

There was, on the wall, a brutally flashing Rent Due notice.

It was not due that specific day. And when she acknowledged it, the message went away.

Soon, however, it would begin to flash permanently as the rent drew nearer.

Those bright letters in the pitch dark room, twisting and turning in her confusion.

It brought back a certain memory. Pitch darkness; a message just out of sight.

Her hands instinctively reached for a necklace she did not wear all the time anymore.

When they came up empty– there was a brief moment of frustration.

With a heavy sigh, Homa got herself off the bed, turned on the lights, and began her day.

First she cleaned up her multicooker pot and set it back on its element, and using the dim blue touchpad, she set it to searing mode. This would heat up the thick steel bottom and sides of the pot rapidly in order to render fat and to brown meat. For the things Homa knew how to cook, this was an essential feature. She had picked this multicooker especially for its searing ability. It was adequate at the task.

“When you don’t have a lot, you have to bring the best out of the ingredients.”

His voice, still reverberating in her head sometimes. Deep and booming through his helmet.

She set three of her marrow bones down on the heat. She had been soaking them in a bowl overnight to get the blood out of them, so they introduced a bit of stray fluid into the element, but that was okay. Its evaporation let her know that the pot was getting nice and hot. Homa used a spork to flip over the bones and pressed them against the hot walls of the pot. When the pink bone marrow began to exhibit some surface browning and the stray bits of meat and fat on the exterior of the bone began to cook out and render, she squeezed in some tomato paste from a tube, swirled it on the searing hot bottom of the pot, around the marrow bones. She threw in her cabbage, emptied her can of beans in there, topped it off with water, and seasoned with Zlatla. Then she turned the pot temperature down and sealed it.

Another day, another slowly cooked lonac. Homa was sure that it would be delicious.

Sizzling and smoking of meat on steel– there was something nostalgic about that too.

It brought back a memory about the single time she ate roasted meat around an actual, burning fire. Her recipe for a simple lonac that was both tasty and nutritious, she learned from none other than a bandit. A famous bandit known as the “Marzban” for his deeds. Despite his ignominy, he saved her life, and in a brief journey, taught her a lot of lessons about living. Within the rocky core of a mountain, with carbon sticks and liquid fuel, he ignited the first real fire Homa ever saw, and cooked some tough beef for them.

“Look up. On the cave ceiling.” He had said.

That day– the fire illuminated the crevice, and Homa could see the pool of water just off of the rock they were camping out on. The air pressure inside the mountain kept the water from rushing in through the makeshift moonpool. And overhead, the fire and smoke revealed letters, old letters in an old tongue, lit up in the dark like signals. Homa had never seen them before and never again since.

“We were here. We’ll always be here. We will learn to survive and keep living.”

Homa shook her head. She hated feeling anything about that man. It made her feel small.

Radu the Marzban. Legendary raider and local hero of the Shimii in Eisental.

For someone who had met him, Homa did not feel like she had become a strong hero.

Kids who got saved by really cool guys, became really cool themselves right?

“That’s just in fucking stories, nowhere else.” Homa grumbled.

Fat chance she would ever be a hero– she had learned to cook and traveled around a bit–

Then Old Radu just dumped her in Kreuzung for Madame Arabie to order around.

She was still just a useless girl getting jerked around. “Surviving” was all she was doing.

“Whatever. He’s gone back to being a legend and I’m just working day by day.”

No grand destiny for her. Heroes didn’t have to make rent, did they?

With a sigh, Homa left the side of the multicooker and caught a quick shower.

It was a Sixthday, and it was 7 o’ clock, so she had time to think idly before setting out.

Time to think about what she would wear– to her date with Imani Hadžić.

“It can’t just be a date! She’s just teasing me. It has to be a stakeout or going undercover.”

Out of all her clothes, Homa’s fanciest set was clearly the waitstaff clothes that Madame Arabie had given her. While it was just some nice pants, a shirt, and a waistcoat and blazer, Homa felt initially out of sorts about dressing up like a waiter to meet Imani. Would she know–? But then– she imagined that the Standartenführer would probably just show up in her atrocious black military uniform.

Did military people ever take their uniforms off? Homa briefly imagined them being like toys that only came with one type of outfit and you never saw them out of it. You buy a doll, it comes with a dress; you buy a little soldier, and he’s in his uniform. An Evil Volkisch Officer Imani Hadžić doll with Homa-bothering action! It only came with her devilish black uniform– Homa’s anxieties briefly allayed at the thought. There was no getting around that her nicest outfit was a waitstaff uniform, but it was a nice one.

Instead of the blazer and waistcoat, she would wear her one good brown jacket to round it off.

Looking herself in the mirror while brushing her ponytail, she thought she looked sharp.

Though some part of her wished that the Homa doll had come with a nice dress.

“I’m always dressing like this– oh well.”

She tried to recall whether Imani’s uniform had a skirt or pants. Not that it mattered.

Out in the hall, she noticed that the door right in front of hers had changed what it displayed on the front. There had been a little fake plant in it. Now there was a sign– the Imbrian company that rented these habitats was looking for a new tenant and left a digital address to which a mail could be sent with requests. She narrowed her eyes at it as if she could lay a curse on the landlord.

She did not know her neighbors well– but she still felt bad for the person who had to leave.

That could very well be her soon–

In the pocket of her pants, she felt something buzz and make noise.

“Imani?”

Homa withdrew her handheld and saw a new message there.

Another black heart from Imani. No other text.

“This woman–! Ugh–!”

While she had the handheld out, Homa searched for directions to Ballad’s Paradise.

All room computers had pretty similar interfaces, and portable computers mimicked them too.

Just tapping on the wall brought up a white “window” with further options, all of which were packaged as discrete little “applications” which the room computer ran. Everything from the clock to the television, to a music player, it was all kept in there. Using the handheld felt like holding one of those windows, having plucked it from the walls of her room, but all the icons were different. It had all the same amenities, she could touch to tune in to television channels with streaming video, she could pull up a music player, but they were laid out and branded differently. She was figuring it out, but the big blue and silver R-shaped logo of Rhineanmetalle on every application felt like an indicator of who to blame…

Mildly frustrated, Homa started to walk to the elevator.

“I’ve got to take the tram into Kreuzung anyway– I’ve got time to figure this out.”

While on the elevator herself, her struggle became that, in a room interface, most of the swipes were left to right, while on this handheld, most of the swipes for various features were right to left, and the left to right swipe in an app did something different than she expected. Similarly, pinching seemed to be inverted, with spreading the fingers making things smaller and closing them making things bigger– was Rhineanmetalle’s portable computing team full of wacky sadists? Why would they do this?

Coming out of the elevator, she nearly ran into the tram guard’s box, slate in hand–

“Hey twerp, watch where you’re going. Don’t bust your nose on my booth.”

Homa gritted her teeth. She tried to ignore the guard’s laughter while walking through.

On the tram, she finally figured out the Kreuzung map and how to get A to B directions.

And how to keep the direction she was in centered on the screen so she could follow it.

From the pavilion shopping center that always greeted her upon entering Kreuzung, she took an elevator up four whole tiers. She stepped out onto a plaza, with a sweeping green hillside, trees, freshly moistened earth that smelled strangely pungent. White stone paths led to benches and fountains, and there were flower bushes and trees that were not encased in bubbles, and Homa was tempted for a moment to try to smell one closely– but she pondered whether it was even legal to touch the plants.

Overhead was a simulated sky as fake as those in Tower Eight, but it didn’t matter.

There was so much green, there was so much organic matter, trunks and leaves and mud.

Irrigation systems cast sprays of water at the greenery, leaving glistening dews.

No one else around was trying to smell the flower bushes. No one was stepping on the grass either, nobody wanted to feel the dirt or climb the hill. There were less people than in the shopping center, which was unbroken crowds every which way– but still, there were dozens of people walking the plaza paths. Not one of them seemed interested in the grass, the flowers, it was such an arresting site for Homa but everyone treated it so casually that she felt she had to as well. Like she was not allowed excitement.

So as much as her curiosity at that moment had peaked, she made herself move on from it.

On the opposite end of the plaza she took another elevator. Now she was deeper into the station than she ever had been, and everything was absolutely brand new to her. To reach Tower Twelve, she had to skirt around the edges of the core station, circumnavigating it from 8 o clock to 12 o clock, all through outer halls and straightforward thoroughfares, none of it could have been called adventurous– to reach Ballad’s Paradise, she had to go toward the 4 o clock, deep into the station core, each step taking her farther and farther opposite than she ever had been of her home in Tower Eight.

She had learned, from the description on the map and from searching online, that Ballad’s Paradise was marketed toward couples. It had restaurants, lounges, theater, an aquarium, and nature park, among other attractions meant to be enjoyed with someone around your arm. This radically altered her perception of what Imani Hadžić wanted with her. Maybe– was it actually a date?

From another elevator, she arrived at a long and wide hallway flanked with glass panels with a view of murky seawater. This was in the depths of the core station, so the water was from tanks, but it was still dark and dangerous-looking as any. There were screens on the walls showing news programs, lines of vending machines supplying not only food and drinks but even changes of basic clothes.

There were long benches, studded to deter rough sleepers from crashing on them. It was some kind of lounge, there were people coming and going, and taking up the benches, resting from day trips.

Ballad’s Paradise was just one more elevator away, but as she started to walk, she found her eyes drawn to someone who began shouting in the middle of the long hallway all of a sudden.

“Friends, humankin, all! Have you prayed to mighty Solcea for health today?”

As Homa neared, she saw them, their whole appearance was quite androgynous, short-haired with a round jaw and an aquiline nose, completely pale, bloodlessly pale, with a very conservative white robe covering their entire body. They had no religious accoutrements on their person, no books to sell, no crosses or charms, no literature to hand out. They were just there, preaching without any scriptures.

“It was by her grace, her light, a million years in the making, that you can appreciate the beauty around you, that you do more than draw breath and devour protein! She brought you out of the murk, gave you a soul and made you human! Even after you destroyed your world, she still seeks your salvation! Today, take some time to think about Great Solcea, to thank her, for the light of your consciousness, for the ripples of thought emanating from you to fill the world with color! Seek her mind in the cosmos!”

When they spoke, Homa noticed, coming closer and closer–

–how long their tongue was,

and forked. And how–

how sharp their teeth were–

“You there! Your aura is beautiful! Might you come near? I have a blessing for you!”

Homa paused– they were staring directly at her.

Their face was friendly and their tone was quite polite. They didn’t look frightening–

“I’m not a solceanist, so, no.” Homa said.

Almost everyone assumed that all Shimii were Rashidun (or Mahdist) by default.

For this person not to do so was pretty strange.

“Ah, but it is not about religion! This is an ancient truth of the world!”

Homa narrowed her eyes at the preacher. She continued walking.

“Homa Baumann! Can I at least look at the necklace you are wearing!”

At first she couldn’t believe she had heard her name come out of that sharp toothed mouth.

This led her to pause, just a few steps away from the preacher, and they slinked to her side. Though they did not interpose themselves between Homa and the path forward she realized then that in hesitating to leave them behind, she had committed to dealing with this person in some way. She did not want to scream for a guard and make it a whole issue– so she pulled up her necklace from out of her shirt.

There was not much to it. From tiny links in a chain of silver-polished steel hung a small vaguely cylindrical object with beveled edges that gave it a roughly diamond-like shape. Once upon a time this object probably shone, but it no longer did. There was a bit of rough wear to its otherwise smooth exterior. By sliding her thumb over it, she could lift half the object from the rest and reveal a core of white and silver silica, unpolished, just a splinter that flew off a rock in a mine, just ore, nothing special.

But the preacher looked captivated with the tiny splinter of silica in the necklace.

They leaned in to look at the necklace as soon as Homa begrudgingly unveiled it.

“Homa, did you know? A million years ago, this was part of a living being.” They said.

Now that they were close, Homa thought their clothes smelled like fish.

“How did you know my name?” Homa asked.

Against this freak, she fancied her chances in a fight. She was lean and had a mean hook.

She was not physically threatened, but she felt disturbed by them in general.

Something about them was off and unfamiliar and dangerous.

Imbrians and Shimii and Loup and Katarrans– they occupied this space, they had their tensions, but they belonged in the picture of Kreuzung station that Homa was used to seeing. This person felt like someone truly outside that relationship. She could not predict what they wanted, what they could do– her “street smarts” stopped dead under the shadow of this preacher, who instead of alms or selling literature, only wanted to look at her necklace and “bless” her. Who knew her name? Who were they?

“You felt like a Homa Baumann! It’s all over your aura. The pious can tell these things.” They said.

Homa narrowed her eyes, glaring at the preacher. They only smiled in return.

“Take care of it.” Said the Preacher, after Homa made no immediate response. “Cherish that little life in your hands, Homa Baumann, and it will become alive enough again to whisper comfort to you. It once loved us all with all its strength. It must have nothing but good things to say about you. Listen to it.”

She looked down at the necklace, closed the compartment and let it drop against her chest.

Homa had enough of this.

“Okay, who the hell are you supposed to be? Do I need to call station security?”

They raised their head as if to look over Homa’s shoulder.

“Oh you needn’t call them. They’ll be here soon.”

They clapped their hands together and gave Homa the most absurd smile she’d seen yet.

“My name– Six. Enforcer VI. ‘The Sloth’.” They said.

Homa could hardly process the nonsense she heard. “The hell does that mean? The Sloth?”

The Preacher’s voice lowered, their eyes darkened. Their smile twisted.

“Of course– what is more slothful than seeking blessings from God, after all?”

“What–?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you? Get away from her!”

Homa turned back to the corridor. A blue-uniformed policeman had rounded the corner.

Without another word, ‘Six’ took off running down the hall.

All the while, they were smiling and laughing– was all this some kind of prank?

When the preacher took off, the guard made a half-hearted run from his end of the hall, but he stopped just a few steps from Homa and waved his truncheon impotently in the air. ‘Six’ was gone around the other end of the hall, and there were quite a few places they could take off to from there, whether by elevator or staircase. It wasn’t any kind of chase, the guard just scared them off.

“Ma’am, was that guy bothering you?”

Homa looked at the guard and shook her head.

“They were just saying weird stuff. Maybe they’ve got like a mental illness thing.” She said.

As soon as he heard her talk, his attitude became a bit rougher.

“Right.” The guard clipped his truncheon to his belt’s magnetic strip. “Listen, you have to call for help if you see that guy again. Even if he’s not bothering you, I’m sure no one around here wants some freak talking to them out of the blue. If you play along with him you’ll just encourage him. Got it?”

Homa nodded her head demurely. She didn’t understand where this tone shift came from.

“Good. Now I need to see your papers, before I let you go.”

For a moment, Homa felt her chest tighten. Why did he want to see her papers?

She was legit– she was legit in every way, but he could. He really could demand this.

Shimii weren’t supposed to be in Kreuzung’s core station without their papers.

So she had to comply, or she would get a beating, or get thrown in jail or worse.

From the pocket of her pants she withdrew the lanyard with her ID cards.

The guard procured a portable scanner gun from his belt and ran it over the cards.

He then looked at the cards themselves. Slowly and methodically turning them over.

Such quiet deliberation extended the icy cold several seconds of Homa’s emotional torture.

Was he really going to arrest her? For talking to that weirdo or being a Shimii or what?

Homa almost wanted to protest, but it would just make everything worse.

She kept her hands at her sides, made no movements, said nothing.

Made herself unthreatening as she could while the guard pored over her papers.

“Hmm. Fine. You’re good to go. Remember what I told you, okay? Stay out of trouble.”

Unceremoniously he handed Homa back her ID cards.

Then, without another word, he walked past Homa and continued on his way.

Her legs felt like jelly. Her breathing was troubled, her head cloudy.

Watching him go, she really just wanted to run back home to Tower Eight.

It had only been minutes, but too much had happened in them. She almost wanted to cry.

For her to get moving again from that spot took a monumental amount of willpower.

Deep breaths, sighing, fighting back tears. Feeling utterly humiliated.


Ballad’s Paradise was an experience from the moment one first entered.

When the elevator doors opened up, an ivy-tangled wooden bridge with white tiles led over a false river into what looked like an absolutely massive, beautiful ultra-modern villa upon the riverbank. A multi-section triangular roof with colored glass windows and portholes topped walls of lacquered silver brick with wooden doors. Dark grey tile formed the floor off of the bridge and inside the villa proper. There was a board off to the side of the entrance with a map, which showed that the villa was only a visitor’s center, and that there were more attractions in the cylindrical interior, under the waters of the false river.

There was an entire, massive aquarium module, a small petting zoo, a theater, restaurants– etc.

Everything had a couple’s discount, and you could get a picture taken and loaded into your portable by any of the many cameras on the bridge, in the lobby of the villa, or in any of the various attractions. Entry into the villa was free, but the visitors were encouraged to meet up with their partners and go downstairs together if they wanted to do more than sit around and admire the architecture or the pristine waters of the false river. There were a lot of people everywhere, it was almost as lively as the pavilion shopping center. Homa felt completely overwhelmed at first, there was so much to see around her.

When she got used to the space however, she realized what people saw in this place.

The atmosphere was incredible. Everything smelled earthy and sweet, and the air was nice and humid, unlike the stale, dry air around the rest of the station’s utilitarian corridors. Even though there were a lot of people around, the visitor’s center did not feel crowded, there were no lines to get into anything, nobody was elbow to elbow with a stranger. It was well designed for space. Inside the visitor’s center the softly painted walls and the warm LED lights on the roof fostered a calm atmosphere. There was a front desk with a receptionist eager to make recommendations to the visitors, and a bank of vending machines for a quick snack or drink. There were portable terminals and bathrooms available to the public.

Soft, sensual violin and brass piped into the room.

This really was a place purpose built to set the mood for later in the evening.

Thinking about that with regards to Imani made her want to run away again.

“It is a nice place, and maybe she’ll treat me.” So then– whatever. She would play along.

Homa looked around the room.

Her eyes went over anyone she saw wearing dark clothes and a hat.

She had no sense of what Imani’s style was, she still assumed she would be wearing her uniform to the date. So she focused on finding that dark blue hair color, Shimii ears, or a black uniform and hat that would have made anyone frightened to be around her. This led Homa to stand around quite uselessly for several minutes, staring intensely at several random people who looked nothing like Imani.

Then she heard a buzz in her pocket. It was an actual voice call from Imani.

Homa picked up.

“Where are you? I’m in a corner in the lobby.” Imani said.

“I’m in the middle. Which corner–?”

Her voice was a bit dismissive. “Never mind, I see you.”

From somewhere behind Homa in the crowd, she did hear the voice as Imani disconnected.

When she turned around, Homa saw those round, fluffy cat ears briefly poking out over the shoulders of a gaggle of Imbrian women. Imani navigated the crowd and patiently approached Homa with a completely neutral and calm expression on her face. For an instant, Homa saw the black coat and cap on her, the dirty symbols of the violent Volkisch movement emblazoned on her sleeves, but–

That was not how she was dressed at all. In fact–

Homa could not help herself but think that Imani looked pretty.

She looked quite down to earth in a lightly ruffled lime-green blouse, with a dark blue knee-length skirt and tights, and brown heels. Over her shoulders, she had a cardigan, colored a soft, warm orange that was not too bright or bold, it blended well with the rest, unassuming. She had the cardigan over her shoulders, but her arms weren’t in the sleeves. Her hair was down, and as orderly and shiny as before. Homa thought she looked like an Imbrian student on the way to a university course at the Rhineanmetalle science academy– had it not been for her tail and ears and mismatched eyes, of course.

Upon meeting Homa, Imani walked right up to her and laid a kiss on her cheek.

She smelled like lavender. Her hair smelled sweeter than the perfumed objects in the room.

“You look shocked. Didn’t think I could clean up?” She said.

“I thought you’d wear your uniform.” Homa admitted.

Imani pushed up her glasses. “Why ever would I do that? I’m off the clock.”

Homa was so taken aback she almost asked aloud if this was really a date after all.

She knew, however, that it would be a pretty boorish thing to throw back on Imani.

After all, she really had cleaned up exceptionally nicely to meet her at this lovely place.

While the invitation had been blunt, shocking– Homa couldn’t deny this girl to her face.

Her face was just too captivating in that moment to say ‘no’ to.

Imani’s eyes glanced up and down. “You look cute. I thought you’d wear something more casual.”

“I only really have work clothes and formal clothes.” Homa said.

And as far as formal clothes, she didn’t own much variety.

“Do you prefer boy’s clothes, or do you not own any girl’s clothes?”

That question came as a shock, for no good reason.

Homa had not brought up the gender stuff with Imani; she naively assumed it would fly under the radar. Who would ask someone like Homa on a date if they were going to get offended about it? She looked pretty feminine, she thought, but there were always signs of gender stuff, depending on what someone was judgmental about. If someone obsessed over her shoulders or her waist or her neck, or, well, judged her by her voice, which was not necessarily feminine at all. Not that there weren’t plenty of women with all those exact traits as hers– it was so unjust! Her mind was racing now to craft a response–

“Um, yeah, about that–“

“I can feel your face getting twenty degrees warmer. Don’t be so nervous.“ Imani interrupted.

“Uh. Well. I don’t own any girl’s clothes. I’ve– I’ve been like this for a few years, but–“

“Do you want to shop for some girl’s clothes?“ Imani said suddenly.

“Maybe not today.“ Homa said nervously.

Imani nodded. “Fair enough. Just so you know– I think it’s really cool. Fascinating, even.“

“W-What is?“ Homa said in a breathless voice. She was so embarrassed. She wanted to disappear.

“The gender stuff, duh. It’s interesting. It feels– really modern. Science fiction type stuff.“

Why did she phrase it exactly like that? Why did she say gender stuff?

It made Homa twenty six times more embarrassed than before!

“Well– thanks. I get more judgment than praise for it, so I’m a little taken back.“

“I know that feeling.” Imani said. “Anyway. I hope the walk here wasn’t too troubling.”

Homa would not tell her about the preacher and the guard.

She was afraid Imani might actually try to do something to get revenge for it.

“It was nice. There was a park on the way that was really lovely.” Homa said.

The change of subject was very welcome, however. She would not ask what that feeling was to her.

“Kreuzung is a lot more spacious and developed than I realized.” Imani said. “Anyway, we’re lesbians today. Take my arm and let us go have breakfast, I’ll treat you, I’ve already got a brunch reservation at a nice place. After that, we’ll go to the theater, the petting zoo, and maybe stop by the live music venue; then we’ll ride the couple’s tram into the aquarium, take themed photos, have authentic Imbrian cream beers with lunch, visit the model village, go shopping, eat dinner, get some souvenirs–!”

Imani was talking so fast that Homa’s head started spinning.

“Hadž– Imani, hold on. You want to do everything in this place?”

It really was a date? It really was one?! She just wanted to hold hands and shop?!

Lesbians?!?!

“I planned this meticulously! I’ll be really busy starting tonight! We won’t get another chance!”

“I think a theater performance is like, two hours by itself isn’t it?” Homa said.

She was laughing internally because the situation was too ridiculous to cry over.

And also– because free lunch and dinner with a cute girl was no punishment at all!

There was nothing to fear! This wasn’t a troublesome situation at all!

Even if that cute girl was probably a murderer who usually smelled like a dentist’s office.

(But she smelled sweet now– and looked even better–)

“I’m just asking you to be realistic.” Homa added. “We should prioritize some stuff.”

Imani sighed with disappointment. “Okay, my must-haves are the theater, the petting zoo, the couple’s tram car ride, the model village, and a nice dinner. We will accomplish those today.”

“That sounds a lot more doable.”

Homa offered her arm, and Imani immediately clung close to her.

Having someone’s warmth so close to her was an unfamiliar feeling.

She still felt there had to be some ulterior motive involved– Homa didn’t trust so easily.

Play-acting a couple still felt exciting, nevertheless.

Homa had never gone out to a nice place and had a meal with someone in that context.

Under the visitor’s center, there was essentially a mall that had brick and stone, ivy covered walls and warm lighting to convey a sort of “rustic” mood like a castle upon a prairie.

Homa thought that no actual place in the world had these kinds of walls or this sort of “countryside” atmosphere, everything everywhere was made of metal or plastic. But because these kinds of things survived in stories, they could be fantasies for people’s day trips. Having said that, the home and hearth type atmosphere was disrupted by the fact that between those walls and behind the fake wood doors there were all these fashionable shops, souvenir stores, even a spa and a makeup place. As they walked arm in arm, Imani seemed to make note of the shop brands they passed by.

“I expected they would have a Sunvale Atelier down here, since it’s supposed to be old Imbrian style– but it’s just another string of Epoch shops. I wanted to buy a Dirndl or something like that. Not even the souvenir store looks like it has old Imbrian costumes for sale. Such a pity.”

“They had a bunch of neat little floral wreaths you could wear.” Homa replied.

Imani scoffed. “I’m not wearing anything on my head now, and I’m not planning to.”

For a moment, Homa wondered whether she took offense to hijabs for some reason.

“Ah, sorry. Was that why you were playing with your hat that time?”

“Uh huh. Even with ear holes, it’s just annoying to me.”

Homa had to admit to herself it was pretty cute when Imani pouted over this.

At the end of the little mall, they sat together at a bench table within a ‘traditional Imbrian tavern’ lit by fake torches with walls projecting a stone and wood interior. It was a bit dim and moody inside, but the waitstaff were not dressed for the part whatsoever. Their table was quickly attended to by a slim young waiter with long, dark blueish hair in a braided ponytail, and a soft, smiling face. They were dressed in a white button-down shirt with a bow tie, and black suspender pants. So they looked like any ordinary waiter, rather than a rough and tumble Imbrian barkeep or something else fantastical in nature.

“May I recommend the charcuterie platter?” They said, all smiles. “It’s the special.”

Imani did not even look at them. “I have a meal reservation. It’s under Hadžić.”

She stared at the table, tracing her fingers over the red, false wooden surface.

“Oh! Right away ma’am! Says here you have a special gift with it also.”

“Uh huh.”

When the waiter came back, they brought with them a little cart, on top of which was a rack with the biggest chunk of meat Homa had ever seen. Thicker up top, it tapered into a bone upon which it was propped up on the rack. Its exterior surface was reddish brown and visibly thick with dried spices.

The waiter handed Imani a small white box presumably containing her “gift” which she stuck into her purse, and then they picked up a long, curved knife from the cart. They slid the knife across the surface of the meat, easily peeling away the top layer of the skin and setting it aside, unveiling a richly dark red meat speckled with tiny lines of marbling. The waiter proceeded to cut dozens of thin slices of the meat, purple and red like a rich wine, and expertly folded them upon a pair of plates, which they laid on the table.

“Your lady has impressive taste,” the waiter told Homa, “this is our house air dried whole leg of beef. We hang it for 186 days, richly spiced. The taste will speak for itself. She also ordered,” they returned to the cart, and withdrew from it case of pre-cut cheeses, nuts, crackers, dips and what looked like fruit slices, “the accompaniment. House-made aged cheeses, buttery crackers, honeycomb, spice-roasted nuts, and fresh fruit grown in Kreuzung. And with all of that, two glasses of our finest cider. Enjoy your meal.“

Homa was in awe– the plate was extremely simple, nothing was “cooked,” but everything was bright, fresh, premium, and laid out before her, it really looked like a lot of food for such a simple breakfast. It felt like the morning meal of a decadent emperor who could pluck the finest fresh foods from every corner of his lands and have them at a moment’s notice– a king’s treasures from a hero story.

“Homa, don’t just reach for the meat. You eat it like this, watch.”

Imani took one of the slices of meat and wrapped it around a piece of a juicy yellow fruit. She topped it with a thin slice of hard, honey-yellow cheese, and topped that with a tiny spoon of smooth, golden honey from the accompaniment plate. Then she slipped the combination into her lips. Her ears twitched with satisfaction, and she shut her eyes, as if focused entirely on the pleasure of the taste.

Doing as she was shown, Homa popped an exact replica of that little morsel into her mouth.

Immediately her taste buds felt overwhelmed with sensations.

Just that thin slice of meat was so beefy, it had such a strong, savory flavor, more than a whole beef cube, but it was kept in check by the juicy tang of the fruit, the mellow sweetness of the honey and the salt and funk of the sharp cheese. Each element practically disintegrated when chewed, everything was so soft and yielded its flavors so readily to the taste. Imani was right– by itself, the meat would have been a spectacle, but the fruit and cheese were wonderful supporting acts, elevating the morsel as a whole.

“It’s truly delightful. I don’t know how I’ll go back to wurstsalat and knackbrot after this.”

Imani pulled another slice of beef from the plate.

This time she had a few walnuts and some mustard with it from the accompaniments.

“Combine something yourself Homa. There’s all sorts of stuff on the plate.”

Imani smiled at her as she said this. It was a soft smile, uncharacteristically gentle.

It was the first time Homa wondered if maybe Imani was around her own age.

She was a little bit taller, and she looked more mature in her uniform, but without it–

–she really did look like just some girl.

Homa topped a cracker with a slice of meat, pickled celery, and cheese.

Imani looked happy to see it.

After their simple lunch, Imani took her arm again and they resumed exploring.

“What was the gift that you got?” Homa asked.

“It’s just a souvenir. You get it for buying the expensive charcuterie set.” Imani said.

“You have a lot of money to throw around huh?”

“Uh huh. My family had a lot of wealth. It’s my wealth alone now.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

“Don’t worry about it. Anyway. Aren’t I catch? Beautiful and loaded? Do you feel lucky?”

Imani clung closer to Homa and fixed her a mischievous look.

“I can’t deny that.” Homa said. She wasn’t entirely lying about it either.

Wealthy, a member of the Volkisch– Imani had a lot of freedom for a Shimii.

Homa had always thought that Shimii were allowed nothing in the world.

After meeting Imani, the world felt intriguingly larger than it had before. It was easy to think about the world in terms of races, as many Imbrians did. Homa had always thought that the Imbrians hated her for being different– in the same way many Shimii hated her for being different too. Was Imani as hated as she was? Did she have to struggle for the privileges she had? Or was there something more?

“You’re looking at me so closely. I really do look lovely, don’t it?”

Her eyes had drifted over to Imani and held her gaze for too long.

“Well–”

Imani stopped Homa in the middle of a hallway, flanked by shops full of people.

“I want to hear you say it.” She said, grinning at her.

“Say it–?”

“I dressed up like this for you.”

“Oh, that. Of course: you look beautiful, Imani.”

“Thank you.”

Smiling, Imani pushed her to start moving again.

Homa was more careful with gaze from then on. What a difficult woman!

“You know, I’ve been kind of a sheltered girl. So I appreciate you taking me out like this.”

In that moment of strange melancholy, it was impossible for Homa to criticize Imani.

She got the sense that they had entirely different fantasies about the situation.

“I think the theater will take the longest. Why don’t we save it for later?” Homa asked.

“If you say so. Then, let’s see some of the other attractions.”

Ballad’s Paradise had all kinds of things which accommodated only two people standing side by side. In this way, they catered especially to couples, and so Homa got to feel Imani clinging to her side in a variety of places and situations. From the mall, they first went down to the petting zoo, which did indeed possess live animals! The venue had a blue ceiling and green walls and some fake turf, and there was a narrow, false dirt path so that Imani had to cling tight as she had been while they walked around enclosures with small animals in them. There were goats, chickens, cats and dogs, birds, and lizards.

One could reach into the enclosures to touch the animals. That was the big selling point.

To enter the venue, Imani scanned her bank card at the entrance, and automatically paid for them both.

It was also this way at some of the restaurants too. Homa noticed the gate devices in some venues.

Once they were allowed in, they began exploring together, chatting idly as they walked.

“Homa, do you think we have anything in common with those animals?”

“Huh? I mean, no? We’re humans, not animals. Even if we do have some of the features.”

“There’s scientists who say Loup and Shimii are a different species, Homo Miacid.”

“Is this an Imbrian saying this? Is it a bunch of Imbrians?”

“Uh huh.”

“Imani, I think those scientists are just racist. I wouldn’t bother thinking about it.”

“You’re right, but what if I’m a Homo Miacid supremacist?”

She put on a little grin.

Homa shuddered at the thought of it.

“I don’t think it becomes a positive thing all of a sudden even if you are.”

Imani giggled. “Fair enough.” She kneeled down next to the enclosure with the baby goats.

Before she even reached her hand, they all began to back away from her.

“Something must’ve startled them.” Homa said.

Imani remained kneeled in front of them, smiling.

“No, I’m just terrible with little animals. Kids too; they can tell I’m a bad person.”

“Aww, c’mon, don’t say that.” Homa patted her shoulder comfortingly.

“Heh.” Imani stood up, dusting off her skirt. “You’re sweet, Homa. Thank you.”

Another similar (but more expensive) venue was the model village. It was also a narrow path that was surrounded by the attraction, but in this case, the attraction was quite fascinating even to Homa, who did not much care for the petting zoo. The Model Village was built up all around them as they walked, there was a variety of landforms, there were buildings, little figures of Imbrians in traditional costume.

According to informational screens on the walls, this was a recreation of how Imbrians lived on the surface. There were tall mountains with little Imbrians bringing things down in electric carts to small lakeside markets where people bought all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and meats in the open air. Computers tallied up and kept track of all the transactions and held all the money.

There were enormous model fields of wheat and corn and tomato vines, flocks of model cows, all tended to by huge, detailed machine models driven by figurine Imbrians or controlled by their computers. In the air, the educational text said, wireless signals were far more powerful, and so the surface Imbrians had powerful wireless technology they could not bring into the ocean, where the medium of water and cramped metal spaces with thick walls rendered obsolete their ancient wireless technology.

“I don’t think this is correct.” Imani said. “This wireless battery stuff sounds silly. But it’s true that we don’t really have the technologies the surface people once had; or not in the same form anyway.”

“How did that happen? Did they not bring all of it down here?” Homa asked.

“That’s part of it, but it’s complicated. The Time of Ignorance cost humanity its development as well. After the lost years, industry had to rebuild and prioritized military gear and construction of habitats. Civilian luxury and entertainment consumption only overtook heavy industry in the last hundred years.”

All of the models around them had a fascinating level of detail. It was very beautiful.

Wall to wall, a charming tiny civilization surrounded them. A happy little fantasy of cute dolls.

There was something about it that was a little painful, however.

Looking at the careful, loving craftsmanship that went into these light skinned and blond dolls made some part of Homa wish that the Imbrians could have seen her as a person worthy of such recognition as well. There was not a single cat tail or cat ear to be seen among the little models. Was this really the world the Imbrians lived in on the surface? Was the presence of Shimii and Loups and even the Volgians like Korabiskaya or the Katarrans, an exclusive imposition of the current state of the world?

Or– was this model just as bias as the Imbrians in Kreuzung themselves?

“Imani, do you know if we lived among the Imbrians on the surface?”

Imani fixed Homa with a curious look.

“One would suppose if we cohabitate down here, we probably cohabitated up there.”

“I thought so. There’s no Shimii in this model. It’s a little sad, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Imani said. Her ears drooped a little bit.

“Ah– I’m sorry. Now I’m the one being a downer, aren’t I?”

“Hmm? Not at all. You’re just a very observant and sweet girl. I like that.”

Once Imani was done both admiring and criticizing the level of detail in the model village, they looked at the time together and reevaluated their plan for the day. With most of Imani’s “must haves” taken care of, and it being only noon, they found they had time to add some other activities back to the list.

And one of those was authentic Imbrian cream beers along with a light lunch.

In another little venue with similarly fake wooden walls as the tavern, the two of them sat down to eat.

“You are legal drinking age right? I just assumed, but–” Imani said.

“Of course I am!” Homa said with a pout. “I’m twenty-one, I’ll have you know.”

“My, my! Well, my age is a secret. You’ll always be my~ little~ ho~ ma~!”

Homa was almost positive this woman was maybe a couple years older than her at most.

Fifteen minutes after ordering, the waitstaff dropped off two comical-looking tankards of false wood filled near to overflowing with a frothy golden beer. Homa did not drink often, so she was unused even to the mild boozy sting of a light beer, but she appreciated the sweetness. She could taste something of a cream flavor. It reminded her of cream soda. With the beers, they had a pair of comically large pretzels with three different sauces: a chicken rillette, beer cheese fondue, and a garishly red, hot, and sweet paprika and tomato sauce. Homa was most attracted to the red sauce, and indeed, it made the soft, warm, malt-y pretzel taste a bit like the broth for her lonac. She also enjoyed the rillette, creamy and fatty with a very concentrated dark meat chicken flavor that was perfect for scooping up with the pretzel.

Imani took her time savoring the beer, looking increasingly disappointed with it.

“My alcohol of choice is usually red wine. This is unfortunately not as complex as I hoped.”

Homa’s ears twitched. “Red wine is haram though isn’t it?”

“Can you cite the passage off the top of your head that says I can’t drink red wine?”

“Huh?”

“I’m being sarcastic. In short: I don’t care if it’s ‘prohibited’.”

Homa felt like a dork. She was not even that religious to begin with. She just reacted.

At least Imani seemed amused with her. It gave her something to make sport of.

Once they had eaten their pretzels and drank their beer and rested off the tiny bit of a buzz that Homa began to feel after emptying her tankard, they were off again. Next on the agenda was the themed photo booths, brought back to the timetable at Imani’s insistence. Couples paid a fee to enter a room that was basically a huge wall to wall screen with strategically placed cameras. They could set the surroundings on the wall to shoot cutesy couple photos and could even play clips from trendy songs and shoot short videos together. These could be printed onto a datastick for viewing on any device or stitched onto a pixel sheet and put in a frame or mailed to a room or to a personal account via the station network.

Homa thought this was kind of silly, but–

She had never seen Imani so enthusiastic about anything!

Imani pushed her up against a wall, arranged her how she wanted, and with the biggest smile Homa had ever seen on her face, she began to cycle through all the photo themes by swiping on the wall’s touchscreen. “Stay like that! Smile when it says to! There’ll be a timer for the photo!”

As if by magic, their surroundings changed to a three dimensional representation of one of those humble farms depicted in the model village. Blue skies, a bright yellow sun, green grass beneath their feet, and a field of wheat with one of those electric threshers in the background. Of course, nothing actually changed, it still felt like she was in a cold metal room, but it could make for a cute photo.

Imani grabbed hold of Homa’s hand, intertwined their fingers and smiled.

Homa was caught off-guard but managed to smile when the countdown reached zero.

A few moments later, the burst of photos taken by the cameras appeared for their review.

Imani giggled as she swiped through them.

“You look like such a nerd.” She said. Homa grumbled. “Oh, this one’s handsome!”

By the end, it seemed that Homa had composed herself enough to actually smile.

So one of the photos at the end of the burst had a cute giggling Imani clinging to a handsome and confidently smiling Homa. Imani selected that one as the one they would keep, and even put in an order to have it printed on a pixel sheet so they could both keep a physical, plastic copy of it.

“Let’s take a few more!”

After that enthusiastic shout, Imani grabbed hold of Homa again, and they took several more bursts of photos. A broadly and warmly smiling Imani and Homa suspended in the ocean; in the middle of a plaza surrounded by beautiful fountains and a static crowd shot; standing in front of the Imperial Palace at Heitzing; on top of an Irmingard class dreadnought; and finally in a small chapel surrounded by stained glass windows depicting the robed, searing red-haired Solceanos under a yellow sun disc.

Homa realized it was a wedding photo and felt another knock of surprise in her heart.

Again, she caught herself in time for the last photo.

Imani had the other sets mailed to her personal account, but this one she had printed too.

“It’s so cute!”

When the clerk in the lobby handed them their printed pictures, Imani was ecstatic.

She stared at them with such joy and determination, it was like she wanted to memorize the images. Homa looked at both of hers and put them in her pocket. She did not know how she felt about posing as Imani’s husband for a photo, but at least she had a souvenir to remember the day a rich girl took her out to a really nice place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime level of event and– she was having fun.

“Alright, I feel like sitting down for a bit.” Imani said. “Too much activity today for a homebody like me. Let’s go to the theater now, then the couple’s tram and dinner to cap off the day.”

Homa nodded silently.

Two stories down from the mall, they entered the theater.

Contrary to what Homa expected, it was not a traditional theater that put on plays in a big stage, but a movie theater. However, rather than having large seating areas with an enormous movie screen that sat a hundred or more people, there were pods that sat two, and this is where the movie was shown. Imani bought them tickets for a movie with a rather abstract poster. The pod theater contained a red couch, and the movie played on a massive, curved screen on the wall opposite the couch, with a table between them that was already stocked with a cola dispenser and a sleek popcorn kettle with flavor packets.

“Fancy.” Imani said.

She inserted a butter flavor cartridge and a popping corn tube into their appropriate slots on the kettle.

After a few minutes, the top of the kettle opened to unveil a large amount of golden, buttery popcorn. Homa reached out and plucked a few from the top. They tasted nicely salty– it was not often Homa got to taste popcorn, especially freshly popped. While she was enthralled by the popcorn kettle, Imani plucked two disposable cups from a drawer in the table and dispensed some cola for the two of them.

Then, she tapped on the table’s touchscreen to start the movie and sat back close to Homa.

Behind them, the door into the pod sealed shut, and the lights dimmed.

Homa could see the wall opening up to reveal the screen, and the elements of the surround sound system above, below, behind and in front of them. This pod was about the size of her room, if it was circular rather than square, the couch was probably around the size of her bed.

“I hear this is quite an audiovisual experience. Not so much a traditional ‘movie’.”

Imani giggled with anticipation as the movie began to play.

Audiovisual experience was the right set of words, because of Homa did not really get them and she did not really get the movie at all either. There were a lot of scenes of crowds, daily life, machinery, set to a very eclectic soundtrack, moody at times, strangely triumphant at others. Homa had only ever seen movies about heroes and villains with adventurous stories. She thought there was a pattern developing where the more industrial scenes had harsher music while the nature scenes had sad melancholic tunes, and maybe that was saying something– but then there was an entire scene of a ship departing port that had strangely uplifting music and Homa ceased to be able to tell what was happening.

“Hmm. Hmm? Interesting.” Imani said, captivated by the movie.

Rather than what was on screen, Homa kept sneaking glances at her date instead.

Imani Hadžić.

They had a lot of fun, but being alone in such an intimate setting–

In this place, huddled together in the dim pod with only the movie lighting them up–

Feeling Imani’s warmth and weight at her side, seeing her eyes lighting up–

Homa’s heart could not take avoiding the question any longer.

“Imani, why–?”

“Hmm?”

Imani looked away from the movie, fixing eyes on Homa.

With the light and shadow of the room playing about her face– she looked stunning.

“Um–”

Homa hesitated. Because she felt if she said what she wanted, Imani might hate her.

Or she might end up having to hate Imani instead.

“What do you think the movie is about?” Homa finally said.

There was an obvious tremble in her voice.

She immediately knew she had screwed up and been caught in the lie.

Imani narrowed her eyes. Homa thought– they looked briefly red. They had a red glint–

“That’s not what you wanted to ask me!”

Her tone was briefly confrontational. Homa’s words caught in her throat.

Imani did not press her. Her expression softened, she sighed, and her voice became gentler.

“But I’ll answer anyway.” She said. “It’s not about anything, but rather, I think it’s asking us to examine our place in life, by setting common scenes to music.” She paused, gazing up at the screen in silence. Homa felt her heart skip as the melancholy music of the scene played over their silence, as the blue of the screen washed over her face. For a moment, she looked again beyond Homa’s years. While the movie portrayed a calm sequence of murky ocean footage, dusty dancing marine fog.

“I think it’s introspective.” She continued. “When this movie was being filmed, it was probably months ago, maybe a year ago. Back then, the Emperor was ill and had retired from public life, there was rioting in the schools in Bosporus, squabbling among the nobles in Rhinea against the nouveau rich capitalists– the world was in flux. There was still an Imbrian Empire, it hadn’t broken, but everyone felt the fall coming. This film was made in that type of situation. I feel like the scenes beg me to think about what life means in this era, and maybe to imagine a different world, where we feel different things even about unchanging vistas. We will always be surrounded by water and encased in metal stations. But do we feel joy at our conditions? Do we feel despair? These same images could be recast differently for each of us.”

Her gaze gently parted with the screen and once again her eyes met Homa’s in the dark.

“What did you really want to ask me? I want you to be brave and say it.” She said.

Homa felt the piercing red sanction of that gaze again– it was impossible to lie to her then.

It was frightening, tense. Maybe the most anxiety she ever felt about a question.

“Imani– why are you with them–? With the Volkisch–? Why are you a soldier for them?”

She hesitated several times but she managed to say it.

Those words were almost painful– because they acknowledged the evil in Imani.

An evil that Homa wished she didn’t have to see, from this beautiful, soft-spoken girl.

Like taking a knife to those pretty pictures of themselves that they took.

In response, Imani tipped her head with a little smile.

“Homa, what do you think the ideology of the Volkisch movement is?” She replied.

Homa blinked, briefly without words. She had not expected that response.

In fact she almost expected Imani to simply laugh and shrug it off without engagement.

“Ideology? I don’t think I understand what you mean.” Homa asked.

“What do you think is their justification for what they do? For how they are?”

When the question expanded like that, Homa didn’t need to think about it for a second.

“They think Imbrians are better than the rest of us and deserve to rule the world.”

Imani made a little buzzer noise and clapped her hands together with great joy.

As she did, the movie entered another scene with a triumphal score.

There was a vast crowd of people in a station hallway, a time-lapse of bodies on the move.

With that in the background, the music became frenetic.

“Bzzt! Wrong! Fascism, Homa, has no ideology! It’s is nothing but aesthetics! There’s no deeper meaning behind the Volkisch Movement! The only thing uniting the Volkisch ‘movement’ is fighting the same enemies for the benefit of a temporarily allied set of elites. Religion, nationalism, folk moralism, it’s all empty rhetoric. Behind the symbols and sloganeering there is nothing but fantasies of killing and death.”

She declared this breathlessly, with great girlish amusement.

Homa felt her chest tighten again. Imani’s expression had become so–

–vicious.

“Imani–? I don’t–” She didn’t understand, but–

“Homa, the point is, that I am nothing like them. You should ask yourself what my ideology is.”

Speechless. There was nothing Homa could say to her in that moment. She barely understood what Imani was so quickly and loudly declaring, the sophistry that hurtled from her lips without pause, the wild fervor in her eyes. There was no debating this, even if Homa had the education that Imani clearly did– because she could tell from the woman’s candor that this was something she had already decided for herself so very completely, that she must have had every argument in mind already. This was a script to her.

Even though Homa felt defensive, like she wanted to argue something, what could she even say?

“You want to know why I have the rank of Standartenführer? Because it is convenient. How did I receive the rank? It’s because the Volkisch covet my abilities. Nothing more than that. They need my wealth, my education, and my leadership. In return, I have a direct line to the Rhinean state for manpower, equipment and lucrative positions. If you accrue enough power, Homa, then even the most racist Imbrians will be forced to cooperate with you. The Volkisch are not almighty. They are fractuous, and Rhinea is in a tenuous position because of them. Current events are rife with opportunity, that’s all.“

She reached out a hand, tipped Homa’s face toward her own, fingers gliding over her cheek.

Smiling with great satisfaction at the bewildered girl in her grasp.

Locking wild eyes as the music and the images on screen reached a crescendo–

“Homa. I am fighting for you; I want to protect you. That’s my reasoning. That’s why I will prevail.”

Homa felt both an eerie sense of relief that Imani wasn’t some kind of Imbrian racist, but–

–she also felt an ever greater confusion about this woman and about the world around her.

With that confusion, there was also a growing concern. She was worried about Imani.

About what happened to make that soft spoken girl join this violent organization.

And what would end up happening to her? What really was her ambition?

But Homa realized their lives would only intersect in this brief, bizarre moment.

After today, Imani would return to her life of violence, and Homa to the streets and grimy corners.

Homa finally understood what Imani had wanted out of this date, all of this time.

And just then, Imani’s face softened. Those fixed eyes became tantalizingly gentle.

“Ho~ma~“

For a moment, she leaned forward. Laying her hands on Homa’s lap, entering her space.

Homa did not stop her. She couldn’t– it felt like denying a drowning woman breath.

Imani grazed her cheek, nuzzling her briefly.

Eye to eye, noses within millimeters. Her hair was so soft.

“Ho~ma~“

When she spoke, Homa felt the warmth of Imani’s breath mix with hers.

Imani pressed the weight of her chest upon Homa, tipped her head just a little, and kissed her.

Briefly, Homa felt Imani’s warm lips on hers, the closest she ever felt to another human being.

Homa’s response was awkward. She had never kissed before. The embrace of their lips was clumsy.

But Imani did not look disappointed when they parted.

Her mismatched, icy eyes never wavered.

“Thank you for coming out with me Homa.” She said. “I’ve had a lot of fun. Let’s do this again.”

Homa thought, with a crushing, surreal sadness, that Imani went on this date with her so that she could become the soft-spoken girl in the cute clothes for just a few hours, before returning to her own world. And with that thought, the realization that Homa could do nothing more for her than to distract her from what she had chosen to do, what she was choosing to do, what she would not shy away from doing.

The realization that Homa could not rip that evil uniform from her and give her peace.

Over several festive hours,

she had been nurturing affection,

for the girl Imani wished she could be.

It hurt.

“Most people go on dates with strangers, fall in love with strangers, and depart as strangers. Don’t be a stranger, Homa. Keep your heart open to me. Who knows? Maybe after all this is over, you might get an inkling of the world I want to build and decide to seek strength and follow me.” Imani said.

Homa held back tears. She forced that handsome smile from the photos with all her strength.

“I’m not a good fit for the military life. Even if you make an interesting recruitment pitch.”

Imani smiled again. Homa hoped she sounded as cool as she wanted to.

If Imani wanted to be the good girl who could take cute pictures with a handsome partner.

Then at that moment–

Homa wanted so strongly to be a cool hero resisting a witch’s temptation.

Particularly because she couldn’t be the cool hero–

–who saved the witch from her demons.


After the movie, Homa and Imani rode the couple’s tram through the man-made aquarium. The tram was a little submarine-shaped pod on a rail, and it traveled slowly through an enormous tank filled with brilliant, colorful fish of many shapes and sizes. Everything was pressurized and climate controlled appropriately– Homa thought it must have been difficult to collect the fish, because they did not look like abyssal fish to her. There were squid and jellyfish too, and clouds of shrimp and krill.

Imani looked absolutely worn out at this point. They had been walking around all day, and she had gotten pretty excitable throughout their date. On the tram, she leaned into Homa’s side and rested her eyes. Every so often she would point at a fish and tell Homa what the scientific name was– Homa would not be able to remember a single one of them, but she appreciated it in the moment.

It was nice– just quietly existing alongside her. Peaceful and comforting.

After riding the trams, they headed to one of the nicer dining venues for dinner.

White tablecloths, silvery cutlery, black tie waitstaff uniforms, a chandelier overhead.

“Now here’s where I really get to spoil you.” Imani declared.

Homa wondered idly whether she could do better than Arabie.

Then the dinner plates came in.

Small bowls of chicken consommé with shreds of dark chicken meat and small burst tomatoes provided a clean, delicate appetizer to the main course. Beautifully seared, heavily marbled steaks topped with a decadently creamy and rich butter that, according to the wait staff, was prepared with bone marrow and fresh herbs. Homa could not believe the tenderness of the beef. Her knife practically glided through the fibers. When she tasted a piece, she finally understood what it was like for beef to melt in her mouth.

This was a common description of high-end beef, but Homa finally experienced it.

It really was like beefy butter.

Madame Arabie never stood a chance.

“Imani, this must have been so expensive.” Homa said after a few slices.

“Uh huh. It doesn’t matter to me, so don’t worry about it. Speaking of expensive, here.”

From a purse, she withdrew a little plastic card embossed with numbers.

“It’s a card from my bank with a limited balance. You can pay your rent with it.” Imani said.

Looking at the card, turning it over in her fingers, Homa almost wanted to give it back.

But she wasn’t in a position to moralize to herself about what she was doing.

Or to keep feeling pain on someone else’s behalf.

She had to move on.

“Thank you, Imani.”

“It’s been fun, Homa. I’ll keep in touch– for our business, but hopefully for pleasure too.”

She reached out a hand across the table. Homa shook it, smiling back at her.

Somehow– that handshake felt more dishonest and weirder than the kiss they shared in the theater.

After dinner, Homa parted ways with Imani Hadžić. Imani’s journey to Laurentius began via an elevator on the opposite end of Ballad’s Paradise, while Homa was leaving the way she came. Homa had time but did not really even consider offering to walk her home. Walking her back to her military base would have been too strange a place to have their parting. Instead, they held hands at the lobby, smiled, said nothing, and went their separate ways. It was fun, and they both enjoyed it. Homa tried to keep that in mind.

That was the right place to leave the day behind, like a bittersweet dream.

As she walked down the wooden bridge back to the elevator, Homa took one last look back at Ballad’s Paradise. That picturesque and beautiful visitor’s center. Small crowds entering and leaving for whom Homa and her gaze did not exist. Brighter lights and bigger spaces than practically anywhere in Tower Eight. She patted her hands against her cheeks and felt the sensation of it, so she was not dreaming.

Sighing to herself, she readied herself for the long journey home.

Her hair blew on a simulated breeze.

A passing stranger caught her eye then, as her own golden hair blew the opposite direction.

That most brief glance–

–became a full turn of the head for a bewildered Homa.

Her eyes drew wide as she caught every little detail.

Fur coat, tight, shiny black pants, walking down the bridge like a runway model.

Breeze-blown blond hair, long, golden dark, just a little wavy and messy.

Homa stood dumbfounded on the bridge.

That was Kitty McRoosevelt making her way to Ballad’s Paradise, right?

Her eyes could not be deceiving her. It was exactly that woman– and she was alone.

Going alone to a trendy couples’ spot where Homa and Imani had just spent the day.

Imani–

“That was her intention all along, wasn’t it?”

It was stupid to be offended about it. Homa had always suspected an ulterior motive. And she thought it was impossible for Imani to feign the feelings she had shown today. Not all day, not the ways they had mutually felt. She still felt that way about Imani. Despite those rational impulses, she stared at Ballad’s Paradise as if it was about to be hit by a missile. Imani was not leaving, not yet. Homa felt the black cloud of death that followed Imani everywhere, the violence in her eyes, it was waiting inside and this Kitty McRoosevelt, whatever her business, would have no idea. Something was about to happen.

Homa thought to run in and– and what? Try to dissuade Imani from fighting?

Grab her hands, tell her to leave all this behind and run away with her, to become her girl?

She grit her teeth, balled up her fists– and turned around and left for home instead.

“Don’t be insane, Homa Baumann.” She mumbled to herself. “You can’t be the hero here.”


In a staff-only maintenance room in the interior of Ballad’s Paradise, a group of four met in secret to make an exchange. Holding the metal case with the goods was Kitty McRoosevelt, brimming with the regal confidence of an underworld queen. She had accomplices in the venue, and everything was going to plan so far. At her side was the accomplice, a smiling youth with dark hair in a waitstaff uniform from one of the taverns. Kitty handed them the case. They brought it forward to the purchaser.

“So nice to meet you again, Warlord! I love supporting the righteous Khaybari cause. By the way, the name of the business has changed– I am going by Kitty McRoosevelt now.“

“Very funny. I’ll never understand you G.I.A. freaks. Here’s your check.“

Holding her own suitcase was the purchaser. Dressed in a flowery shirt and plain pants, silvery hair tied into a tidy ponytail, black sunglasses perched on her nose, an odd Shimiii woman with a strong stance flashing a deadly white grin. Beside her was a young Shimii woman in a sundress, white-framed sunglasses, an innocent little smile on her face. Confident in the presence of her partner perhaps. In Kreuzung, they were going by Madiha al-Nakar and Parinita Al-Mukhairi. Madiha stepped up.

“By the way, who is this guy? A new Imbrian boytoy, G.I.A? You trust him so easily?” Madiha said.

They’re a chaste little enby actually. But they’ve been quite handy around here.” Kitty responded.

“Ah, jeez, alright. Sorry about that, kid. You looked pretty ambiguous.” Madiha said.

“That doesn’t really make it right Madiha.” Parinita admonished. “Forgive her rudeness.”

“I’m actually a Katarran too, point of fact. So you got me all wrong.” Said the accomplice.

They smiled nonchalantly. Madiha looked bewildered by their appearance suddenly.

Kitty rubbed a finger on the back of the waitstaff-dressed accomplice. In return, they opened their case, within which were four purple, crystalline rods of Agarthicite each the length and thickness of a human leg. Encased in protective equipment emitting magnetic fields. Madiha unveiled her own case full of money, Imbrian paper marks, before closing it again and inspecting her purchased goods more closely.

“That case battery has six hours of charge for the magnetic field. Set it down somewhere stable before then, and don’t fuck with it too much. This isn’t the shitty low grade stuff we usually trade. I got something special for you. This high-grade stuff can run in a reactor for literal years before you have to change it. It’s what they use for Irmingard ships.” Kitty winked at Madiha. “Think of it as a loyalty bonus.”

This had not been part of the plan, and the disruption was immediately unwelcome.

“You better not be cheating me, G.I.A.” Madiha said, taking a confrontational step forward. “All of this is starting to look too fishy. You asked me to come to the core station, which we never do; you’ve got some stranger who I’ve never dealt with; and what, now you’re trying to upsell me on the product too? If this is some kind of op, you won’t like the result, I can guarantee you. Even alone I’ll go through your G.I.A. teams or Katarran mercs like fire through wax. Don’t test me, ‘Kitty McRoosevelt’.“

For a moment, the nonbinary, Imbrian-passing Katarran looked very slightly nervous.

Kitty meanwhile smiled affably and pretended to raise her hands up in defense.

“Whoa! Relax! You’ll get to walk out with it. I just needed you to understand that a few things have changed. I am not just here to sell you these rods. I would like to sell you on deepening our alliance.”

Throughout, the accomplice in the waitstaff uniform said nothing and made no move.

At Madiha’s side, her own companion’s ears drooped, her tail waved nervously.

Madiha grunted. “I’m listening but I’m not promising you shit. The only reason I’m even giving you a chance is that you’ve been good to Khaybar in the past. So spit it out: what are you up to?”

Kitty crossed hear arms and casually responded. Wildly, confidently smiling, her sharp gaze unwavering.

Madiha and Parinita’s eyes drew wide with shock and horror. The accomplice smiled to themself.

And overhead, a fifth person, listening in, grinned with bloodthirsty satisfaction.

What the G.I.A. agent had so blithely declared was,

“I’m going to initiate a Core Separation in Kreuzung station. Will you join me, Warlord?”


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.5]

Maryam Karahailos crossed her legs, seated atop her bed in Sonya Shalikova’s room, and laid her hands on her outer thigh. She shut her eyes and saw a swirl of color behind her sealed eyelids. Predominantly red and black like latticework, with lightning bolts of yellow and green and a rolling blotch left by the LED clusters on the roof, swimming over the rest, meandering between colors. She took a deep breath, focusing on the physical feeling of her lungs filling, her stomach pushed down, her chest rising.

It felt like she was becoming decoupled from context, existing only as sensations.

She let those colors dance in front of her eyes unmitigated. Like everything, those colors were created by something, and that order would soon enough enforce a pattern that she could follow. In time, those colors became roads, they began to lead to something, constructed of their own. They went on winding paths that had meaning. Maryam’s body became a thing of air, a thing of flesh without the weight of bone, a thing no longer seated in its place but able to fly like a kite through the colors of Aether.

What are you looking for?

Faiyad Ayari’s voice. This was the realm in which he now existed. A shade in the Aether.

His voice gave her form again in flight. She was a purple-haired, pink-skinned katarran girl.

He was a Shimii, lean, long-haired, with the soft and pretty face of the peak of his youth.

They were standing amid the colors, which floated like jellyfish and turned like worms.

“Norn is moving, Majida is close by in Khaybar, I’m here– and I think Elena–”

Maryam was almost talking to herself. It was difficult to piece apart herself and Him sometimes.

“Are you looking for the Apostles?”

“I just want to confirm, so I can tell them.” Maryam said. Her tone took on a hint of sadness.

“Tell them?”

“I’m supposed to be helping them. Helping Sonya. I want to find information for them.”

“You don’t owe them anything. They lied to you! They promised you safe passage–!”

“I lied to them; but it doesn’t matter. I’m staying for Sonya. She and I are partners now.”

His expression darkened. He was no longer any part of her in that moment.

He was cleaving himself from her, separating his thoughts from hers.

So that he could make her do things. Manipulate her.

“Maryam you have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. You will die or be killed by them.”

“No, Faiyad. I’m not like you. I don’t abandon people that I love to save my own skin.”

Faiyad Ayari grit his teeth. He closed his fists. His ears and tail bristled with anger.

In Maryam’s recollection of him, he was dressed in robes, priest’s robes, prophet’s robes.

King’s robes from a time just after the four Shimii Apostles led their people below.

A lesser king with little respect from his people in the modern era, but nonetheless a king.

He was used to getting his way. He was used to control. His power was made for it.

“I will not let you slander me. If you won’t cooperate, I will take control of you Maryam.”

Maryam waved her hand, and a current of air smashed Faiyad Ayari’s chest.

He tumbled backwards across the void, dragged by air as if fighting against ensnarement from a giant squid’s tentacles. His hands struggled with nothing, wind gathering around his fist to retaliate but unable to disperse the writhing shackles which Maryam had created. In his frustration with the grappling thing he cried out, his voice broken like a crying child’s. Maryam watched him with grim eyes.

“I’m stronger than you now.” She said. “You won’t ever make me do anything again.”

Her words came with a secret mourning.

She remembered being a scared and aimless child who knew nothing of the world.

When he first spoke to her, she was able to take her first steps to being free.

To becoming herself: and not simply a navigation aide for the warlord Athena.

Not simply a captive of Millennia Skarsgaard nor a pawn of the Sunlight Foundation.

She could not deny– that he did help her escape from such things.

Now she had to escape from him.

As she watched someone who had cared for her once, now struggle and curse her.

Secretly mourning, but ready to commit violence against him.

“Why?”

He gave in to the ensnarement, finally, allowing the wind to pin him to the ground.

His words came out as defeated whimpering as Maryam overcame him.

“Why am I always defeated? God is with me! God has always been with me!”

Maryam closed her fist.

“I am innocent! No– I am the victim!”

He was growing hysterical as his aetheric form weakened under Maryam’s attack.

“I’m sorry.” She said.

He screamed one final time as Maryam crushed his aetheric form.

Colors blowing out of him in every direction like blood spatters until he melted into a puddle.

A splash of red, yellow and black seeping into the surroundings.

This was not the end between the two of them– there wouldn’t be an end to that.

She was born the Apostle of Air.

And because of Faiyad Ayari’s will to keep running, he would haunt her forever.

From the beginning of the Shimii’s history, to his great betrayal, to the present day, forever.

Always running, from death, from justice, from the curses upon him.

“You encouraged me to run, and to keep running from pain and violence and bad things, Faiyad. But I’ve found a place I want to stay, and that I will not run from. If you can’t accept that, then I will crush you as many times as it takes. Your past is not a thing that Maryam Karahailos can run away from. I will stop running and live my own life. Sonya wants to be together with me despite everything.”

She smiled. She wished that that smile could somehow reach him– but she doubted it.

Maryam Karahailos was a big girl now. She had found love and a place where she could fight for her own dreams. She was not running anymore. And so, full of that determination, she sat back down, and sought the paths of clairvoyance anew without Faiyad’s interruption. Feeling in the aether for myriad truths.


Sonya Shalikova was discharged from the medbay after an overnight observation and headed back to her room. Her footsteps and posture carried a sense of airy joy and also a sense of trepidation. She hesitated in front of the familiar sliding door, wondering if she would be in there waiting. Usually, she was– and Shalikova had been annoyed by her persistence at first, tell her to calm down or be quiet. But–

–but now Shalikova wondered whether her girlfriend, her partner, was waiting for her.

She felt a warmth in her chest at the thought, but also a quiver in her shoulders.

Things would be different from now. It was a bit crazy to think about it.

They had only met a few days ago!

She was a civilian from the Empire that Shalikova was supposed to protect!

And she had a few secrets– some of which Shalikova knew could even be dangerous!

She was overthinking things, but she couldn’t help doing so. It was just how she was.

All of her heart and soul still loved Maryam Karahailos, no matter what.

That was the truth that her keen eyes could no longer shut out.

Waking up from a medicine-induced sleep in the medbay bed, Shalikova had missed her warm smile, her sunny little voice, calling her ‘Sonya’ so eagerly every morning. She missed the relentless affection. She felt like she couldn’t live without it now. She was being selfish, she thought. This was a military mission, it was her duty, she couldn’t afford to get distracted– but Maryam had become someone that she fought to protect, someone who made her want to return alive with all of her power to see her again.

“I’ll tell the Captain properly sometime.” Shalikova told herself.

For now, however, all that she needed was just her and Maryam.

Maybe Maryam was as scared as she was– but they would explore this new future together.

Shalikova crossed through the doors and tried to smile.

She did not greet the purple-haired, pink-skinned, tentacled girl in the black, long-sleeved habit, however. Maryam was seated on her bed with her legs crossed, eyes shut, and arms at her sides. Her chest stirred gently, her breathing was steady. She looked like she fell asleep sitting, but the position made Shalikova think that this was deliberate on her part. Was she meditating or something?

In an instant, Shalikova mentally switched on the psionics Maryam had awakened in her.

Maryam’s aura was a stark white. There was a texture to it like a breeze caressing skin.

Her expression looked exceedingly peaceful.

Instinctually, Shalikova had matched the white aura color to “euphoria” or “joy” but there was also a sense of the divine, to it, or perhaps more accurately the sublime. She felt that it was not necessarily a positive emotion, but an alien state that could be provoked by witnessing the awe and mystery of psionics. There was a sense that a part of Maryam wasn’t there, but not in a dangerous way. She was traveling, maybe. Dreaming. That blowing breeze, and the calm that she evoked, led Shalikova to feel she would be safe.

Her gut feeling was that this was not a dangerous state to be in, but it was also not normal.

Psionics was complicated– it had introduced a lot of complicated feelings to her life.

None as complicated as this purple marshmallow herself evoked, however.

Whatever it was that she was doing, Shalikova wanted to support her.

So quietly, and gently, so as not to disturb her, Shalikova sat down beside her.

She laid her hand atop one of Maryam’s own and closed her own eyes.

Not trying to do anything particular– her own psionic mind was completely dormant.

Just taking a moment to close her eyes, listen to the hum of the air circulator, and relax.

Beside someone that she had grown to love a lot more than she ever imagined.

After a few minutes, she heard: “Oh! Sonya! How long were you waiting?”

Shalikova, smiling and amused with herself, opened one eye, and looked at her side.

She found Maryam’s W-shaped pupils staring back at her from dark, wide-open eyes.

“Not long. Don’t worry about it.”

Maryam and Shalikova both stood up, turned to face each other, and immediately averted their gazes. They had moved with such synchronicity that they were both embarrassed by it. Now that she was face to face with her, Shalikova was feeling just a little bashful. She couldn’t blow her off anymore– when she looked at Maryam, she was actually, truly captivated with her beauty. She was the prettiest girl in the ocean. From the fins atop her hair to the tentacles among the purple strands, her exotic eyes, her gentle face with her small nose, soft lips– Maryam was so beautiful it made Shalikova’s blood run hot.

“Maryam, uh, how’ve you been? Did you get along fine last night?”

“Everything was fine. I was discharged shortly after you got admitted.”

Both of them turned back around and looked each other in the eyes again at the same time.

Chromatophores in Maryam’s skin briefly flashed a white and grey wave across her body.

Then they settled on a redder pink than Maryam’s usual skin color.

Shalikova felt stupid for all the feelings rushing to her head–

–but even stupider for keeping so quiet!

In a rush of nervous energy, she stepped forward and took Maryam’s hands into her own.

“Maryam, I meant what I said to you yesterday! It wasn’t just that I’d just come back from battle and was acting crazy, okay? It wasn’t random! I really want you to be my girlfriend! I’ll tell the Captain and our relatives properly– I guess just Illya and Valeriya for me– but yes– I’ll do everything properly!”

Did Maryam even have family Shalikova could “properly” talk to about dating her?

Words had come tumbling out of her lips with barely a thought–but she managed to say it.

Maryam looked at her for a moment, her head fins slowly firming until they were entirely upright. Starting with her cheeks, Shalikova could see in slow motion as the individual tiny cells of her chromatophores turned from pink to red in a wave that ended on her nose and around her mouth. With her hands squeezed inside Shalikova’s own, she began to smile, and then narrowed her eyes and began to giggle. Her face was turning red as a tomato, but she looked very amused and laughed gently.

“I’m serious!” Shalikova said, her heart wavering, briefly mortified. Did she offend her–?

“I know you are, Sonya! You’re always so serious! That’s a very charming part of you!”

“What do you mean?” Shalikova was turning red also. “What do you mean ‘you know’?”

“I’d love to be your girlfriend Sonya! And you can be my girlfriend too!” Maryam said.

“Okay! Well– fine then! I guess it’s just settled and we can– we can stop being bothered.”

“Oh I’m going to be bothered for a good long while I think.” Maryam said, still giggling.

Shalikova averted her gaze again and slowly peeled her hands off Maryam’s own–

–off Maryam’s own soft, comforting, extremely squeezable little hands.

I love her so much. God damn it. I’m such an idiot. I’m– I’m your idiot now, Maryam.

“Don’t worry Sonya, things don’t have to change much. You just have to kiss me now!”

Maryam sounded like she intended it as a little joke, but Shalikova still took her chance.

Before Maryam could take it back, Shalikova leaned in, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her into a kiss. Hungrily, more than she imagined she would be, Shalikova took those soft, inviting lips into her own. Maryam’s w-shape eyes opened wide; once again a wave of colors flowed across her visible skin, but even more chaotically, now a gradient of every possible color rushing in every direction as opposed to a tidy wave of white and grey. For a moment, she was a strobing rainbow caught in Shalikova’s lips.

Shalikova parted from her and reopened her eyes just in time to see Maryam’s surprise.

“As long as you keep being this cute, I’ll keep kissing you!” Shalikova declared.

Nonsense, she instantly thought. I am saying pure idiotic nonsense.

Once Maryam recovered enough, she began to giggle again.

Despite her sheer embarrassment, Shalikova could not help but join her laughing.

She put her forehead to Maryam’s own, still holding her shoulders, and they laughed.

“I love you Sonya. Thank you– thank you for having feelings for someone like me.”

“Hey, don’t put yourself down. What’s this ‘someone like me’ business? You’re amazing.”

“Sonya– Well, I– I’m a–”

“Do I need to kiss you again? How many times, until you get it?”

Faces mere millimeters from each other, looking eye to eye, the two of them laughed again.

It was something Shalikova had never felt before.

A mix of love, pride, desire, a gravitational pull– attraction.

It was not like any love she had ever experienced. It was not how she felt toward her comrades or toward Illya or Valeriya, or even how she had felt toward her sister. And her taciturn and withdrawn nature made some part of her want to reject this new kind of love. It was irrational, it was distracting, she had a mission, she had no right to be happy— but that last voice, that cruel thought, she quieted with great force. She understood, she really, finally understood now, that her sister would not have wanted her to be unhappy. Her sister did not lose her life in battle to be mourned until Shalikova’s own passing.

Zasha would have wanted her to find her own meaning in lifting the Union’s torch.

They were fighting for what it meant to be human, to live with dignity, to live fully and passionately.

And for Shalikova, it was fine if part of that was fighting for the love she had found.

Shalikova lifted her hands from Maryam’s shoulders and pulled her into an embrace.

One hand behind her back, one hand around her head, feeling the silky softness of her hair.

“Sonya,”

Maryam embraced her back. Shalikova felt an inkling of her Katarran strength in that hug.

“When I first met you, I was really surprised and impressed by how sharp you were. It was a silly thing to be attracted to, and I knew it, but I thought that you felt really dominant and strong, like a Warlord. I wanted to be on your side, to avoid making an enemy of you. I still think that, too– I feel really safe with you. You are strong. I feel something great slumbering inside you. But I’ve also learned that you’re not like a Katarran warlord. You are kind and just, and you are always aware of others around you. Your eyes aren’t full of dominance, but actually full of empathy and maybe a little sadness and loneliness. That’s what I meant, when I refer to myself as unworthy– my feelings for you are really selfish and ignorant.”

Shalikova was briefly speechless. Maryam looked at her, craning her head just a little bit.

“I want to make you happy, Sonya. You listened to my dream, and you didn’t tell me it was silly or impossible. I know you’ll help me chase after it– but I want to support your endeavors in turn. Those feelings are not as wonderful and selfless as yours, but they’re my genuine feelings. I love you, Sonya.”

Maryam showed a clear worry in those strange, beautiful eyes of hers.

Worry that she had revealed too much of herself, things that she had held back.

But Shalikova did not hate her for it– that was not possible.

“I’ll accept your feelings, no matter what. I’ll accept them for you, Maryam. I love you too.”

Shalikova smiled at her and Maryam smiled back, a visible relief softening her expression.

“And who knows,” Shalikova winked, “maybe I will prove myself as strong as a Katarran warlord.”

Maryam had a little laugh. She relaxed, clearly relieved that Shalikova saw humor in her perspective.

Some part of Shalikova was flattered. And she found Maryam’s feelings so incredibly cute.


Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa was a late riser, and even after waking, loved to spend at least an hour lying in bed before she stood up even once to truly begin her day. As one of the “perennial late-shifters” she was expected to come to the bridge later than the rest. Furthermore, the gunner hardly ever did anything aboard a ship. It was a job that entailed long and difficult hours in very infrequent chunks because combat was not an everyday occurrence. So it afforded her time to kick back and relax.

On most mornings, it was her and the portable terminal, and a massive collection of books.

Lying back in bed, holding the lightweight LCD screen, her face lit only by its dim light.

While she was in Serrano, she had restocked her supply of culturally relevant novels via the network.

She did not have the personal funds to transact in professional Imperial literature, but she knew that, just as in the Union, there was a vibrant culture of freely available and shareable independent fiction, and this was where she always struck gold. It was where the real treasure trove of fiction lay, where the actual and true artiste refused to self-censor their most lurid and sensual fantasies for mass appeal.

Recently she had started a new series of this type, “Blind Princess And Kind Retainer.” It was a fantasy story set in a world which was also underwater but had much larger and more beautiful stations than anywhere on Aer, which had lush vegetation and beautiful castles. Not exactly realistic, but she could suspend disbelief. In this world’s primary nation of Centralia, there was a monarchy, and the youngest daughter of the ruling family was a blind princess. Originally, Fernanda had been keen to see a story told from the perspective of a blind girl, but in reality, the primary point of view was the Kind Retainer, a young maid assigned to serve the Blind Princess. As such, it was a much more traditionally told story.

Fernanda continued reading despite her disappointment.

After all, even if the world and prose were not very original, the characters might save it!

And oh, did the characters save it.

As in many such stories, the Kind Retainer was a lesbian, or at least, interested in women. From their first meeting, she was taken in by the beauty of the Blind Princess, who, lacking the ability to correctly determine her own appearance, thought she must have been ugly, while her retainer must have been beautiful. It was a cute dynamic– maybe just a tiny bit ableist but Fernanda could set aside some small problematic details. They were a study in opposites, the Blind Princess preferring to keep to her quarters and listen to music or audiobooks while the Kind Retainer was very spunky. Because she was sheltered and fond of fiction books, the Blind Princess had odd speech patterns and mannerisms, which the Kind Retainer had been tasked by the royal family with disabusing their daughter of. However, the Kind Retainer was herself an odd duck, who enjoyed things like video games and tabletop roleplaying.

Both of them hit it off and went through many amusing scenes and misunderstandings.

Then, one night, as in all such stories, they both felt a shared drive for physical affection.

And finally, there was a scene from the Blind Princess’ perspective! It was the sex scene.

As the Kind Retainer undressed her gently, kissed her shoulders and neck, asked her where it felt good to be touched, traced her fingers on her skin– perhaps this scene was from the blind woman’s point of view so the author could be flexible with their descriptions. Clever use of prose, Fernanda thought–

“Hey, Fern, I’m coming in. It’s Alex. I’ve got permission so don’t freak out, okay?”

“GAMER?”

Fernanda shrieked at the top of her lungs, dropped her portable terminal on the bed and wrapped herself up in blankets as the sliding door suddenly opened. She had not been expecting anybody, so she was dressed in personal clothes– a frilly, gothic, nearly see-through black camisole and matching underwear with a winged pattern. Her makeup and blond hair also were not done– she was not ready for guests! But the door had indeed opened for Alexandra Geninov, so that could only have meant that– No–!

“What are you doing here? Explain yourself right now!”

She could have perhaps said that in a more refined way, but she was not being her best self.

Standing just a step inside the door, Alex was dressed in her company uniform, and had a suitcase of personal effects with her, along with an overstuffed gym bag slung over her shoulder. Looking as she usually did, tall and lean, almost lanky, her long brown hair tied up in a bun with a few bangs loose. She stared at Fernanda with a completely blank expression before moving toward the empty bed on the opposite end of the room and setting her things down on it. Fernanda began waving an arm in protest.

“Absolutely not! What do you think you’re doing? What has gotten into you?”

Alex turned to face her again. With her arms flat at her sides, she briefly averted her gaze.

Her light brown skin was developing a bit of spontaneous flushing.

“Why– why are you freaking out so much. We’re both girls, you can stop hiding.”

Even Alex realized immediately what a stupid thing to say that was.

Fernanda gritted her teeth and looked about ready to throw a pillow at her.

“That has nothing to do with it! Why are you in my room?”

“We’re roommates now. It wasn’t my idea, so please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you–? WHAT–? No! I– I hate you!”

In a split second Fernanda seemed to go through every conceivable human emotion as she processed Alex’s words from the nearest to the farthest of that one very vexing sentence. She was so aggressive in her response she actually threw her arms up, which sent her blanket flying off her chest, exposing her camisole and some of her abdomen. Realizing this, she very quickly covered herself back up again, all the while staring at Alex as if she did have a sealed eye power which would kill the gamer instantly.

“This hot-cold routine is turning chaotic even for us.” Alex sighed.

Fernanda averted her own gaze. In the back of her mind she knew that this was something that could have happened. There was a communique to all officers with the minutes from a long meeting interrogating several figures which had come aboard the ship recently. Those notes addressed the very real possibility that room assignments would have to be changed in order to accommodate new long-term personnel. And Fernanda knew that she sat next to Alex Geninov, that they had a moment recently, that– she thought about her semi-fondly sometimes– so there was always the possibility–

“I know this isn’t your fault– ahem–this fate was not of your own making, gamer–”

Alex smiled at her in the middle of code switching. “Hey, nice save–”

“Silence, knave.” Fernanda sighed. “I am against this– but there’s no fighting it–”

“Believe me, I don’t want to bother you anymore. But if I live in the hall, the Captain will notice.”

Alex made a comical little shrug, winking at Fernanda, who stared at her dead seriously.

There was truly no way around this. Short of a harassment incident, room assignments were final.

“Fine! Then we must draft bylaws to insure a harmonious coexistence.” Fernanda replied.

Of course, she didn’t want to have to live with this gamer and her stupid handsome face–

–there was just no fighting the Captain’s orders! So she just had to learn to live with it.

–she was not excited in the least! In fact, she was quite angry!

“You will swear an oath upon your very life to remain on your half of the room unless exiting by way of the door or upon receiving an explicit invitation to my side of the room.” Fernanda said.

“I mean, I’ll swear it, but like– I didn’t expect you to ever invite me anyway.” Alex said.

“Of course I would not! I am merely being thorough in my oath-binding!” Fernanda said.

Alex stared at her with a little grin that Fernanda did not like whatsoever.

“And you had best become acquainted with my preferred routine, and furthermore, you shall take no offense at my laughter at any point. You shall not call my laugh ‘goofy’ or any other such thing!”

“I’m fine with your laugh now. I hear it literally every night. It’s totally fine.” Alex said.

“You had better be! Or a pox upon you! Furthermore–”

She was about to ban video games from the room. She was quite close to saying it.

But she knew that would have been too cruel for Alex, and some part of her didn’t want to hurt her.

Fernanda noticed that she was pretty bored in a lot of their night shifts. Sometimes that boredom led her to be annoying, but she could also be sociable. This is why she always asked about Fernanda’s novels even though she just made fun of them or wouldn’t really read them. Despite Fernanda’s misgivings about her lack of culture, she didn’t slack off, and the captain never had to reprimand her about her work or being at her post. She could be annoying, when she was at her post, but she was good at it.

There was something admirable about it– only mildly! Only the tiniest bit admirable!

However, it meant that it would feel unjust to try to force that condition on her.

After all, for better or for worse, she was a (filthy!) gamer.

“Mind the cacophony of your damnable children’s toys. I demand to read in peace!”

Fernanda set her very gentle red-line, after finding herself unable to truly torment Alex.

Alex immediately smiled. She turned around, quietly opened her suitcase, and withdrew a little black box. There were two joysticks plugged into it. It used a serial port for power and interfacing, and storage came from a memory stick slot on the side. This was a somewhat recent Turnir video game console.

“Want to play a round of Climbing Comrades before work, roomie?” Alex joked.

Fernanda narrowed her eyes at her. She sighed, but waved Alex’s hands away gently.

“Perhaps– upon another moon. Just unpack yourself already and be quiet.” She said.

She did mean it– maybe someday, but certainly not today, tomorrow or next week.

Certainly not! No matter how much that damnably good-looking, dreadfully mannered gamer asked!


Since the events of the interrogations, she had been avoiding a heavy question.

Am I– or are things– fundamentally changed.

Murati Nakara did not mention psionics to anyone. It helped that no one who knew asked.

In those two days, she learned how to shut the auras out. How to flick the light switch off.

When she was first baptized, everything had an aura.

Seeing that all day, from everyone around her, would’ve driven her insane. She first learned how to completely shut it off when she returned to her fiancé that same night. When she saw Karuniya’s face, after all of the terrifying things they had gone through, she almost felt like crying. At that point she realized she was going to see Karuniya’s aura, to read her feelings, to have this strange insight into her thoughts– and she hated it completely and utterly. She did not want to have this knowledge.

It felt–

–violating,

So she managed by force of will, to completely shut out the power. No auras anywhere.

Not Karuniya’s and not anyone else’s– at first she was scared she had lost the power.

But the next morning, when she wanted them back, the auras reappeared.

She could avoid them, ignore them, close her eyes to them. She had power over them.

But it meant she was changed. Her psionics would always return when she bid them back.

Then the next feeling that overcome her was guilt. She felt guilty about having this power.

Having this ability to peer unjustly at people’s emotions, without them knowing.

It was an order not to disclose it; and Murati understood why that was the case.

Despite this, she wished she could come clean. She wanted to be ordinary again.

For a day after her baptism she avoided people and crowds. It made it easier to deal with.

But she couldn’t keep hiding– she was an officer. She had duties to attend to.

So she became determined to at the very least tell Karuniya and then swear her to secrecy.

When Murati entered the Brigand’s lab she found herself greeted there by two completely identical conniving smiles that filled her weary heart with dread. She knew that Karuniya would make that face if she had some evil ingenuity she wanted to carry out; and Euphrates was probably just putting on the exact same face just to be a jerk to her. Regardless, it felt daunting to move any further.

“Oh hubby~” Karuniya said, drawing out the sound for a moment. “So happy to see you!”

She stepped forward with a drying module for the mushrooms held up against her chest.

Which she clearly now intended for Murati to take from her and set up in her place.

“Karu, hey,” Murati fidgeted, tapping her index fingers together, and then began to gesticulate while speaking “I uh– I wanted to talk to you. Alone. Can Euphrates go do something else?”

“Ah, young love.” Euphrates said, her voice grandiose. “I’ll see myself out.”

Murati stared daggers at her as she passed by while Euphrates simply smiled with a smug contentedness. She was clearly aware of her own role in all of this, and maybe even aware of what Murati wanted to have a conversation with Karuniya about. But she had not of her own will approached Murati for any further discussions about psionics yet. She was being hands-off and letting Murati twist in the wind.

Whether or not Murati preferred that to the alternative, she was not yet even sure.

Once Euphrates was out of earshot, Karuniya had put down the mushroom grow module and pulled up an adjustable stepladder she used when tending the gardens. She sat on top of it in lieu of a chair, so that she was closer to the eye level of an upright Murati. Kicking her feet gently, smiling, she still had a bit of an air of mischief while Murati stood oppsite her, wracked with anxiety. She had run through the conversation in her mind a few times, invented a few horrible outcomes to it and fully experienced the destruction of her relationship several times within her own head. Her heartbeat was thundering.

Murati sighed deeply. “Karuniya, there’s no easy way to say what I want to say to you.”

Karuniya’s smile disappeared instantly with those words. “Hey– Murati, I thought this was you being silly or withdrawn like normal. Is something wrong? Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me.”

“It’s something really insane.” Murati gesticulated vaguely. “Like this insane.”

“Uh huh. That doesn’t change anything for me. I’m here for your insanity no matter what.”

Her fiancé always had a preternatural gift for reading her vague gesticulations.

And the vague worries that she wore so plainly on her face.

“Karuniya. I have psychic powers. I can– I can move things with my mind and–”

“Hmph! I can’t believe you!”

Karuniya huffed. She crossed her arms and turned her cheek, kicking her legs harshly.

“I was really worried! I thought you had bone shards in your spine or something!”

“Karuniya I’m not joking with you! I know it sounds stupid! But I’m not making it up!”

Murati glanced at the grow module that Karuniya had put down.

She thought she would demonstrate by lifting it and gently levitating it into her arms.

For the first second, perhaps, it did lift and move toward her in a controlled fashion.

Then, Murati felt a sudden, snapping pain in her head, like a rubber band whipping against skin but inside her own skull. She was startled and lost control of the grow module. Instead of dropping, however, the grow module seemed to experience a sudden shock and snapped through the air toward Murati. That plastic and glass enclosure crashed into her and knocked her to the ground right in front of Karuniya. The Chief Scientist gasped, practically leaped off her chair and rushed to Murati’s side to help her.

“Oh my god! Oh my god are you okay? What the– what the hell happened?”

Shouting; Murati was on the ground, groggy. Her vision spun, she struggled with breathing.

That module had been pretty heavy, and it hit her chest and shoulder like a serious punch. Despite that the pain in her body could not compare to the pain inside her head. She felt a searing, slashing hurt in her skull, over her brain. For a moment the colors were floating around the laboratory like wisps and fairies in a children’s film, and every time she saw one it made her want to ‘feel’ it and exacerbated the pain. Her pain lessened when she ‘shut off’ her psionics and shut out Karuniya’s aura from her vision before she could feel too much of it– but it had sapped a lot of her physical strength in mere moments. She was as exhausted as if she had run at a full sprint for a few minutes. Out of breath, everything swimming.

Was that what happened when she overexerted her psionics?

And was the limit of her psionics really a six kilogram grow module?

Euphrates had not told her about any of this– about anything!

“Murati is that– your nose is bleeding! Here, let me–!”

Karuniya got down on the floor with Murati, wiping her noise with a synthetic cloth.

Red spatters of blood, just a tiny trickle. Murati barely felt it coming out of her nose. Where had it come from? It made no sense as an injury, it wasn’t like her brains could leak out of her nose. She felt momentarily insane, trying to wrap her head around something so surreal, new, and impossible.

Psionics conformed to nothing she could possibly understand. It violated everything that made up her reality, creating movement and force from nothing, draining her strength, and creating eerie wounds and phantom pains that defied sense. Even the actions that she had conditioned herself in her mind to take, that ‘flipping’ of the psionic switch, was so insubstantial and ludicrous as to feel like insanity–

“Murati, talk to me! Can you see me? Hear me? Are you all there?”

Overhead, the weeping face of her fiancé came into stark relief, an angelic image.

She did not want to make her cry or worry– she kept promising that and failing to keep it.

With a great effort, Murati fought back the panic, and threw her arms around Karuniya.

“Karu, please, you have to believe me. Just please– let me explain, okay?”

For a moment her fiancé did not respond; then she felt Karuniya’s hand stroking her hair.

“Of course, of course Murati. I’m really sorry– I’ll let you talk. Take your time.”

Slowly, Murati worked herself up to explain the events of the interrogation as best she could. She glossed over some items quickly that made Karuniya draw her eyes wide in confusion, like the Omenseer aboard, but spent at least ten minutes explaining in detail about Euphrates, about auras, about baptism and her newfound telekinetic ability. When Euphrates’ role was mentioned, Karuniya shot a look out to the hall as if she personally wanted to wring the woman’s neck for what she had done to Murati.

Karuniya helped Murati up, and they sat on a table near the bubble with the ship’s tree.

After Murati recounted her tale, her fiancé stared at her with a soft, sympathetic expression, but unnervingly quiet. She poked her own lips, crossed her arms, shifted her shoulders, thinking with her whole body. She raised her hand as if to say “hold please” a few times. Murati gave her space to think.

“When you tried to pick up the grow module, it hurt, didn’t it? It hurt you.” Karuniya said.

Murati nodded her head. “It did, but I’m fine. I should’ve figured there were limits to it.”

“You don’t look fine. I’m worried– but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious about your power.”

Karuniya looked ashamed to have admitted it. Murati reached out and stroked her hair.

“It’s okay. I want to show you too. I’ll try it on something small. Oh, I know!”

On her belt, Murati undid the plastic lanyard loop holding her officer’s ID card.

Murati put the card on the table– she figured it’d look too much like a corny magic trick if she held it in the palm of her hand or told Karuniya to hold it. She glanced at the ID card, in its place on the table, and blinked her eyes. Murati could feel the thin, ephemeral warmth of the red rings around her irises, and in the same way she felt the flick in her mind, flipping the “switch” or perhaps pulling the “trigger” on her psionic powers. It was extremely binary, extremely quick– one second there was nothing, and the next second, there was a world of supernatural information, stored in her in the same way as the instinctual and instant access she had to the movement of her limbs, to the recall of visual information.

It was as if she had grown a fifth limb, the phantom hand with which she could pick up the ID card and lift it from the table, into the air, with full control. The effort was so different as to feel quite strange.

With the growth of that limb came the secret information no human could explain aloud, the instructions for how the limb moved, how the limb felt. Unbidden and automatic, the neurons, the veins, the sinewy muscle of the thing simply performed the required task. If there was a period of command, it was infinitely small, it moved at a speed faster than light. When a human stretched an arm, when they flexed their fingers, did that action feel deliberate, was there a moment of real choice? For Murati, as soon as she had called upon the psionics, her understanding of how to use them simply happened to her, that fast.

“It’s even easier now. Even faster than the first time I did it.” Murati said.

Her dryly spoken observation accompanied the ID card, floating in front of a stunned Karuniya, doing a little pirouette in the air. Karuniya’s eyes followed the ID card on its tiny orbit over the center of the table with rapt attention. She reached out a curious hand and Murati brought the card lower and closer; this led to Karuniya slowly leaning back as it approached, as if the card was dangerous to be too close to.

“I just want you to see that there aren’t wires or devices or any tricks involved.” Murati said. “This is just me, Karuniya. I can just do this now. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but I told you I would not be keeping my feelings secret from you and I am keeping my promise. I know you’re shocked right now, but I’m still the same Murati that you know, and I hope that– that this doesn’t freak you out too much.”

Karuniya blinked. She took the ID card out of the air, and Murati let it go.

She put it down on the table and reached out her hands to grab hold of Murati’s hands.

“Of course you’re still you; an absolute dummy.” She said, smiling. “Nobody else would speak so mournfully about how they’ve been granted incredible superpowers that I don’t really understand at all. You’re right, I am a bit shocked, but I also really appreciate that you didn’t just try to hide this. It really feels like a kind of thing the old Murati would’ve taken to the grave because the captain said so.”

“C’mon, I wasn’t– I wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hide stuff that was that important from you.”

Murati, her hands still firmly held in Karuniya’s own, averted her gaze with a bit of shame.

“Your feelings are extremely important to me, and you hid them all the god damn time.”

Karuniya winked at her, laughing a little bit as she teased her. Her tone was comforting.

Silly wife-and-“hubby” style banter made the situation feel a lot less alien and uncertain.

Looking into each other’s eyes, hands held in promise. Murati felt silly for being anxious.

Of course Karuniya would love her and accept her. This was her beloved Karu after all.

“I will keep your secret.” Karuniya said. “You’re my hubby and I love you to bits and that won’t change so easily. Frankly, after the initial surprise of seeing things just float without being grabbed by anything– I have to admit the power seems kind of weak and useless doesn’t it? No offense or anything, but maybe a sailor would get some utility out of it, like if she wants to get at a bolt that’s out of her reach or something. For the leader of a Diver squadron it’s not much of a weapon is it?”

Murati felt almost defensive about it for a moment.

“Maybe I’ll learn to throw things faster than the muzzle velocity of the AK rifles.”

“The AK rifle doesn’t get nosebleeds.” Karuniya joked, squeezing Murati’s hands.

“I suppose you’re right.”

In a way that was mildly more comforting. To think that this wasn’t so groundbreaking.

“Thanks, Karu. You’re the best.” Murati said.

“Hmm. Would you baptize me if I asked?” Karuniya winked at her.

“When I’m more comfortable that I wouldn’t blow your brain up.” Murati said.

“Fine, fine.” Karuniya suddenly put on a pouty but clearly mischievous face, her thumbs digging over the skin of Murati’s knuckles. “Say, since you’re up and about against your doctor’s orders anyway, there’s another, far more entertaining way that you could be blowing my brains out too.”

“Tonight.” Murati said simply and directly.

Karuniya grinned and leaned forward. “But your wifey is feeling needy right now.”

Murati smiled. “Euphrates is out in the hall, wifey dearest.”

“I can be quiet.” Karuniya winked again.

No, she absolutely could not. Especially not when Murati got serious. She was a screamer.

“Wait until tonight and I’ll make you cry out like a demon.” Murati said in a firm voice.

Karuniya licked her lips in a sultry fashion, smiling lasciviously. “Deal~” She cooed.

Soon, and far more productively than Murati could have imagined, everything was settled.

Murati agreed to keep Karuniya in the loop if anything happened with what they were furtively calling ‘the powers’, but Karuniya would pretend like she did not know anything until the Captain deemed it appropriate to tell more personnel about the issue. Murati also asked Karuniya not to treat Euphrates differently. Euphrates was psionic, and she was responsible for Murati having psionics, but Murati thought Euphrates was a good person, undeserving of scorn. Karuniya agreed that she would treat her as she normally did– she was already planning to prank and tease her and would just do so.

Both of them, of course, loved each other too much to ever see each other differently.

“You can stare at my aura if you want.” Karuniya said. “I have nothing to hide from you.”

Murati smiled. “I would really rather not– but thank you for allaying my fears.”

She had a lot of anxieties about this conversation, but they were now distant and they felt silly in retrospect. Murati should have realized right away that her own Karuniya Maharapratham would have never deserted her, no matter how strange the situation had become. And Karuniya was right– her powers were not so alien or powerful. If this was all psionics was, Murati was not so special.

Out in the hall, when Murati finally made to leave, Euphrates had been waiting.

Back to the wall, arms crossed, smiling. She looked quite satisfied with herself.

When she lifted her gaze to meet Murati’s, her irises were glowing red.

“You were eavesdropping, weren’t you.” Murati said. She wasn’t offended or angry.

“I understood everything I needed to from social cues alone. From the satisfied look on your face when you walked out, I see things turned out well.” Euphrates said calmly. “She loves you very much– you found a soulmate, miss Nakara. She can’t shut up about you around the lab, you know?”

“What are you doing? I see your eyes– you’re using psionics.”

Euphrates nodded, and her eyes returned to normal.

“I am not doing anything special right now. I just wanted to see if you were keeping sharp.”

“You didn’t tell me it could hurt to use psionics.” Murati said.

“I wanted to play it hands off for a bit.” Euphrates said. “I was curious what you would do. I’m not just being cruel, you know– psionics is strongly influenced by self-conceptualization. Just like we impart our aether on the things around us, it’s too easy to cultivate in someone a carbon copy of your own psionics. I want to see what psionics you can grow, with your own convictions, rather than copying mine.”

That made some kind of sense to Murati– but it was still a bit too hands-off for her taste.

Euphrates seemed to realize this. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Murati’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. I won’t abandon you. But you may find my teaching method a bit anarchic.”

“Oh, I hate the sound of that.” Murati replied, smiling. “I’m a Mordecist, you know.”


“What do you think Braya? How do I look in hominin clothes?”

“You look– whatever. Why do you say ‘hominin’ anyway? Isn’t it ‘hominid’?”

“Hominin is strictly for species like homo sapiens; Hominid includes all great apes.”

“And you’re not a homo sapiens?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I hate how you pretend to be stupid sometimes, and then act erudite at others.”

“Mmm-hmm! Maybe I have very good reasons! And maybe I am stupid!”

Whatever. I’m over it.”

In Braya Zachikova’s room, a scene transpired that onlookers would have described as unorthodox, considering what they knew of the participants’ social predilections. It was not so troubling to have seen Arbitrator I trying to cling to Zachikova, which she did at every possible opportunity; but for Zachikova to practically be wearing her like a coat and saying nothing about it would have been seen as uncharacteristic, for those who did not understand her. Should she not have been yelling at her, calling her a pervert, and telling her to go die? In fact, Zachikova looked to be quite comfortable.

They were both in the same bed, with Arbitrator I against the wall, her long tail curling off the bed. Zachikova was seated closer to the edge, leaning back against Arbitrator I’s chest and between her legs, tapping away at a portable terminal. Arbitrator I looked over her shoulder, and frequently wrapped her arms around Zachikova’s waist, and sniffed her hair. There were blankets around the two. Despite the familiarity with which Arbitrator I was making use of Zachikova’s body the latter did not mind. She was immersed in her work, and there was an implicit understanding between the two of them.

Arbitrator I was dressed in the treasure box transports outfit, same as Zachikova.

They both left their coats on the side of the bed, so when Arbitrator I wrapped her arms around her Zachikova could glance down and see the bloodless pale skin of those sinewy, skinny limbs exposed by the sleeveless shirt she wore sans bodysuit. She was not fooled by the vulnerable appearance Arbitrator I was subtly putting on– she knew quite well that this creature could change her form. She could make those arms thicker and tougher when she wanted. But she wasn’t afraid of that anyway.

She knew killers and killing, and she felt that, for now, Arbitrator I was presently harmless.

Zachikova did not want to admit it– but she kind of felt at ease around this creature.

This was as alien as the concept of her warping her own flesh and having psychic powers.

That she could feel so good to be around. Despite being noisy, touchy, and needy.

It wasn’t the same as she felt for Arbitrator I’s leviathan form. That a boundary was broken between them made the situation much more immediate — it was not just a fantasy that she could be “together” with her “Dancer” and have some kind of relationship with this creature. With this new proximity, came the complexity of maintaining and developing such a relationship. It was unknown territory.

Despite this, Zachikova enjoyed the closeness to some degree— but would never admit it.

And her profession required her to exercise a certain, healthy degree of paranoia.

Paranoia was not a dealbreaker for Zachikova.

In her mind, people who were stricken with fear simply needed to prepare themselves to surmount the object or event that was the source of that fear. Zachikova was therefore fully prepared to kill Arbitrator I in a number of ways. Not because she wanted to, she was fond of the creature; but because it gave her the confidence to avoid causing Arbitrator I any harm and allowed them to live together peacefully. To Zachikova this was only logical. She was afraid and unused to living with someone, so she would prepare countermeasures, no matter who it was, to make sure that she could fully welcome them.

At the Captain’s request, she had disabled the bomb collar on Arbitrator I’s neck.

But she had other ways– such as a neurotoxin dart tazer she had on her person at all times.

Another special forces gadget for killers, smuggled in without the Captain’s awareness.

So, with her physical security assured, Zachikova didn’t care how much Arbitrator cuddled.

She would allow their cohabitation– and maybe even secretly enjoy it.

There was no disabusing the alien of her sense of entitlement toward Zachikova, anyway.

“My little Braya~”

Arbitrator I leaned close to Zachikova. She could feel the alien’s breasts against her back. Her arms wrapped around Zachikova’s chest, and her head nestled on her shoulder, her tail curling in closer. Red and white hair fell over her. When Arbitrator I nuzzled against the side of her head, Zachikova briefly felt the horns grazing her antennae. They were quite solid, like a pair of long knuckles on her head.

“What are you up to? Is there any way I can help?” She cooed.

“I’m logged into the supercomputer remotely, and from the supercomputer I’m logged into the HELIOS remotely. I’m working on an architectural profile of the HELIOS’ computer system, from both a hardware and software-centric point of view, collecting benchmark data. There’s nothing you can do to help. You can just sit there looking pretty. Those fat pillows on your chest are suitable assistance already.”

Zachikova cracked a little grin. Arbitrator I’s face rested placidly on her shoulder.

“I see! Hominins have really come a long way.”

Arbitrator I looked up at the sky. Zachikova glanced at her over her shoulder.

“Did ‘Hominins’ not have access to computers during your last period of lucidity?”

“They did, but they were much smaller. Yours looks much more robust and impressive!”

Zachikova looked at the device she was holding. She would have considered her portable terminal pretty standard in its size. It weighed about 1 kilogram, with a 27 centimeter screen. Miniaturizing put an extra burden in manufacturing, so the Union tended to make chunkier equipment– but even the Empire’s portable terminals would not be significantly smaller. Making it any smaller seemed absurd. She wondered how long ago Arbitrator I last saw a computer– but it was pointless to ask her to explain.

“Little Braya~”

“Mm-hmm?”

Mostly ignoring her, Zachikova began to lay out a table with the results from a variety of different tests ran on the HELIOS’ computer as a way to benchmark its performance. Zachikova had run a standardized battery of tests that would allow her to gauge the HELIOS’ abilities in multi-threading real world tasks, solving complex algorithms, rendering real-time graphics, and indexing vast sets of data, among a variety of other critical issues. The Union ran these tests on all systems. This information would then become part of a larger slide deck which she would present to the Captain. It was surprising how much of a computer scientist’s work was still in the form of making slide decks for less technologically literate people to read.

There was a certain artistry to making a slide deck that Zachikova enjoyed, however.

She chose the colors and template carefully, and laid out the slides with an eye toward the pacing.

Even the font was important, it had to be professional, legible, attractive in different sizes–

“Braya, I have to tell you something that must remain between us.”

Arbitrator I’s breathy, low voice whispered into the audio inputs on Zachikova’s antennae.

She felt the warmth of Arbitrator I’s breathing close to the nape of her neck.

There was stark change in the atmosphere. She felt a tingling electricity down her back.

“What is it?” Zachikova said. She did not turn around to meet the alien’s gaze.

“I am positive if you tell the Captain this, I will be liquidated immediately. But you need to know it.”

“Fine. I’ll keep your secret. Just say what you want to already.”

“Do you trust me? Do you really?”

“You’re just a piece of equipment. I’m not afraid of you. Stop dragging this out already.”

“That’ll do then, I suppose.”

Zachikova felt Arbitrator I’s grip tighten on her. One arm around her lower abdomen, and the other around her chest. Her tail curled around her legs. Her fingers rested, unmoving, over one of Zachikova’s breasts. She felt a certain kind of eros from being cradled in such a way– Arbitrator I was holding her in a very possessive way. Not yet to the point of feeling her up, but definitely feeling her in some way.

“Braya, I realized today that this ship does not carry any raw meat.”

“You idiot, you really had me going for a second–” Zachikova sighed. “I can’t believe you’re being this dramatic about the food! Yes, you’re correct, Detective Columbus, there’s no meat aboard! The Union doesn’t have a meat industry. It’s wasteful and inefficient. Eat your soy cutlet, you’ll live.”

She heard a breathy little laugh– she could almost see the smirk in her mind’s eye.

“I’m afraid that if I don’t get any meat– I might actually lose my mind, Braya.”

“As much as you pretend otherwise, you’re not some animal. You’ll live without meat.”

“No, Braya, you don’t understand. I need the meat; I’ll have to get it one way or another.”

Zachikova looked over her shoulder again. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the nervous expression which Arbitrator I had on. As soon as she turned to face her, Arbitrator I’s arms around her clutched her even more tightly, and her head descended on Zachikova’s neck. That once steady breathing on the nape of her neck began to hasten. She could feel a rising heartbeat transfer through their shared touch, Arbitrator I’s pounding chest closer than ever to Zachikova’s skinny back.

On the edge of her vision, Zachikova saw those eyes glowing a dim, eerie red.

“I’m afraid you might not understand the depth of this problem–”

“Then explain it already!”

Arbitrator I bowed her head closer.

“Braya, my ambition is to bridge the world of the Hominins and my own people. That’s the impossible dream that began my journey through the ocean– I have been searching so long, but you are the first Hominin I ever saw who showed me affection. Your mind is so gentle, so curious. I wanted to meet you, to talk to you, to be able to love you and be loved back. I want to begin to mend the violence but– but–”

She let out a low gasp into Zachikova’s neck. Her legs tightened a bit around Zachikova.

Zachikova listened to her confession quietly but with keen interest. Something was wrong.

“–even Shalash of lost Lemuria, the First Beast, cannot escape– the need to devour–

For the first time, Zachikova felt her heart gripped by the ice-cold tendril of mortal fear.

Surreptitiously, instinctually, she moved one of her fingers to the neurotoxin gun in her pants pocket–

“Braya– my people eat your kind. But I’m different– I swear can be different– If you–”

Hearing her rising, impassioned tone Zachikova carefully lifted her hand out of her pocket.

She laid it on Arbitrator I’s own hand, over her own chest, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Empty of the lethal weapon which she had briefly considered turning on this poor woman.

“What do you need?” Zachikova asked. “Just– tell me already what it will take to fix you.”

“If I can’t have bloody red meat– I must have blood. I can calm myself with your blood.”

“My blood? Good god. I can tell why you don’t want the Captain to know about this.”

Zachikova sighed. It was only that. She wasn’t going to attack her or anything more serious.

“I swear– I swear I don’t want to be violent toward Hominins anymore–”

“I believe you. If you wanted to kill us you’ve had a million chances.”

Arbitrator I sounded like she was weeping. Her voice was wavering, choked.

It must have been genuine. Her desire to avoid the violence she claimed inherent to her species. If she was so torn up about this, it was not just her playing or acting. Her species, if it was related to the Leviathans, it was certainly possible to argue they had done a lot of violence to the ‘hominins’. And Leviathans did eat people– so then, it might not have been such a stretch that these ‘Omenseers’ had a history of eating people too. A real history that Arbitrator I wanted to overturn.

“Then– will you help me staunch my barbaric need–?” Arbitrator I whimpered.

“You’re a piece of equipment. I’m going to fix you. Where do you take the blood from?”

She unbuttoned some of her shirt, pulling it off her shoulders, thinking it’d be easiest–

In the next instant, Arbitrator I’s lips spread over Zachikova’s shoulder, close to her neck.

Zachikova flinched, feeling a brief instant of panic, but calmed herself in time–

–for the sting of a pair of incisors breaking skin on her shoulder and drawing blood.

Even though Zachikova expected the bite, it took an iron resolve to keep from reacting to the pain initially. Arbitrator I’s arms clutched her tightly, her chest pressed against Zachikova’s back, her tail bound her. Caught in her grasp, she was bleeding, it was painful. Seconds passed– but she mastered herself. She relaxed in Arbitrator I’s grip and stroked that hand that was clutching her breast.

Arbitrator I’s bite was desperately needy– but there was a certain tenderness to it. Blood lapping into her tongue, the sucking of lips on skin, and the careful precision of the teeth, such that Zachikova felt the punctures but no tearing, only the briefest violent instant. It was not like an animal’s attack, even though Arbitrator I’s description of the act had been as primal, barbaric sin. There was an unavoidable physical titillation Zachikova felt as the act progressed. Maybe there was something seeping back into the wounds from the creature’s mouth– an anesthetic– or an aphrodesiac– the pain began to feel–

–cathartic, a release of tension, a rushing of endorphins to the brain,

clouding vision, an erotic dream lit dimly by the blue light of the portable screen,

teeth that opened her and bared blood but carried no violence, spreading a form of joy,

joined in skin penetrated by bone fulfilled in the blood penetrating back into those lips,

–she gasped, caught in the throes of a euphoric and erotic madness.

Zachikova found herself smiling, breathing heavy in the rawness and physicality of the act.

When she felt Arbitrator I’s fangs lifting gently out of her flesh, releasing the wounds–

A woman who once considered herself nothing but a cold machine turned sharply around–

Gazing intently into drawn-wide feral red eyes and a mouth caked in the ichor–

And she kissed deep into those red streaked lips, tasting the iron of her own blood, the dripping liquor from fangs which had penetrated her. Sucking, hungry kisses until her own blood dripped down her lips.

Shirt half fallen from her, her brassiere askance, her eyes shut, losing herself in the passion and touch.

Everything that was warm, everything that was soft, the heavy drumming of the circulatory system beneath the skin, the moist feeling of another’s tongue, the pull of hungry lips and the brief graze of the teeth that had painted her shoulder red. A tight grip upon her back, the press of the woman’s legs, and the moistness between her own amid the act. Losing herself in what was flesh and blood like she had once immersed herself in what was steel and electric. Her mind crashing in a haze of pleasure.

Alien machines beginning their journey to reconcile biologies long ago divided.


“To surviving hell!”

“To beating the odds!”

Shot glasses touched with a satisfying clink, the fluids in them briefly sloshing against the rims before streaming through parted lips. Tuzemak, an indie beet liquor, with as sweet a taste as spirits could have and a gentle, boozy bite. It was warm down Ulyana Korabiskaya’s throat, it was warm in her chest. Aaliyah Bashara’s charming cat-like ears vibrated lightly as the booze went down. She was clearly a bit of a lightweight, Ulyana knew that from personal experience. She would not tease her about it.

“Want a second?” Ulyana asked.

“You only live once. Hit me.”

Aaliyah smiled at her, uncharacteristically gregarious that night.

Ulyana refilled the shot glasses on the desk, which they were using as a table together.

They picked up the glasses, tapped them together, and drank once more.

Both were in their night clothes, plain white camisoles and cotton shorts of a standard design.

Their recent business was taken care of. Until they arrived at Rhinea, things would be quiet.

Ulyana decided to take a chance and offer Aaliyah to celebrate together in private.

Surprisingly, the usually stiff and guarded Commissar relented, and there they were.

On opposite ends of the little writing desk in their room, in their night clothes, drinking Tuzemak.

It had only been a few weeks since their departure, but they had come such a long way.

Though they were nowhere near close to accomplishing their mission, they had surmounted danger and proven themselves capable of surviving the ocean in this chaotic era. They and their crew had been tested to their utmost limits and found worthy. Maybe it was the liquor, but it felt significant.

Setting out was a gamble; none of them truly knew if they had ability to fight and win against the Empire– not the Union itself writ large and not the UNX-001 Brigand specifically. Now the Brigand had been bloodied against monumental catastrophes like a High Inquisitor and the Praetorian herself.

They had bested a mighty Irmingard dreadnought and outmaneuvered a legendary Fueller enforcer.

It would be those kinds of terrors that would hound a subversive group in the Empire.

And not only did they stand a chance against them– they had also acquired precious allies in the process.

They had unearthed hidden powers, uncovered secrets– becoming legends of the ocean.

Maybe that part was a bit of the liquor talking as well. But it really did feel– legendary.

“We’re going to be legends! They’ll write us into the history books!”

“We can’t get too excited yet,” Aaliyah said, “but still. It’s worth celebrating our victory.”

“We sent Norn the Praetorian herself packing. If I can’t celebrate this, what can I?”

Without asking, Ulyana poured a third shot for each. Aaliyah took it without objection.

“Fuck it. Why not.” Aaliyah said. “To the thousand generations that live in us!”

“Hell yeah!” Ulyana said. “To the slaves and exiles’ proletarian revolution!”

They tapped their glasses together, and the two drank almost at the same time.

Aaliyah exhaled contentedly after taking her drink. Her tail swayed gently behind her.

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah from across the table, holding her head up with one hand on her cheek.

Her soft olive skin, dark hair and orange eyes, the small sharpness of her nose, she was lovely.

That night she was bathed in a glow that was so comforting to see.

“Did you ever think it would turn out like this, Commissar?” Ulyana winked with one eye.

“Not even in my most incoherent dreams. But things change.” Aaliyah replied.

She gestured with her shot glass forward. Ulyana smiled. “Oh, feeling bold tonight?”

“No teasing, Captain. Just pour me another. I can control myself.” Aaliyah replied.

“Of course! I trust you completely.” Ulyana refilled both their glasses. Another toast.

For this one, they did not call out to honor anything specific.

Glasses tapped together, they drank.

Throughout their eyes remained fixed on one another. This was a toast to “us.”

To what they had accomplished as Captain and Commissar of their beautiful crew.

And perhaps to more than that– though neither of them would vocalize such things yet.

“It has been a pleasure.” Aaliyah said. She did not say what or whom. Ulyana knew that.

“Indeed. Serving with you has been an honor of my life, Aaliyah Bashara.”

Both of them smiled. Ulyana put away the bottle and washed the glasses.

“We’ll need to send Nagavanshi a report.” Aaliyah said. Her voice was slightly slurred, but she retained her faculties quite well. “We’re so close to the surface now, no worries about the thing getting lost. I’ll write it up tomorrow. I’ll write up what we send. I’ll keep out– all the stuff from it. Like– like this stuff.”

“Acknowledged.” Ulyana said. “I’ll tell Zachikova to program a data transfer munition tomorrow.”

“Good. Say– say Captain– Ulyana.” She hesitated, briefly. “I want to say– Thank you.”

Aaliyah put on a bigger, brighter smile than ever. Ulyana hardly knew what to say in return.

“Let’s do this again. In Rhinea– let’s get a good vodka just for us.” Aaliyah continued.

Ulyana finally found her words a few seconds later. “Oh, of course. I’d love to.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand to her. Ulyana thought it was to shake–

Instead, Aaliyah took the hand Ulyana stretched to her, and held it again in both of hers.

Caressing it, first with her fingers, and then lifting it against her cheeks and nuzzling it.

A little purr escaped from her. Ulyana savored the moment. Just for a few quiet minutes.

Perhaps the most tender touch she had ever felt.


“Knock, knock!”

Elena lifted her head up from the portable terminal in her hands. Displayed on the screen was a book, authored by a “Levi Mordecai” and co-authored by “Daksha Kansal.” It was titled “Mordecai’s Writings On Capital: A Digest For Students.” Elena’s attention to the large print and many diagrams was beginning to waver when she saw a flash of dark hair peek through the door, partially covering one eye and tied to a handsome smile. It was a certain Marina McKennedy, with whom she shared the room.

“You can come in. This is also your room too, you know?” Elena said affably.

“I know, but recently we’ve been apart a lot– I figured you might be used to more privacy.”

“It’s more and less privacy than I’ve ever had.”

Marina walked through the door with a casual step. She had refused to wear the Treasure Box Transports uniform unless absolutely necessary, so she still dressed in her G.I.A. issue dark-grey suit jacket and pants, her shirt only partially buttoned beneath. She really liked to show off that scar on her chest, in between the cleave of her breasts, so she wasn’t wearing a bodysuit underneath anymore.

“I see they’re turning you into a commie already.” Marina said.

Elena raised the portable terminal to her chest to prevent Marina from looking any more.

“It’s fine, sorry.” Marina laughed. “Honestly, I’m happy to see you’re all getting along.”

“What if it’s more than just getting along? What if I do become a ‘commie’?”

Elena stared at her with narrowed, serious eyes.

Marina raised her hands defensively. “Jeez, you don’t have to treat me like that.”

She was smiling– nervously.

For a moment, Elena realized she was being over-combative and breathed in deep.

“Sorry. We’ve had a bumpy ride lately.” She admitted.

“It’s my fault. I wanted to apologize, actually.” Marina said.

“No, it’s not just your fault. I– I tried to hurt you. I got out of control. I’m really sorry.”

Tears started to well up in Elena’s eyes.

She had been meaning to apologize, but what she did felt so disgusting she almost felt it would have been shameless to ask for forgiveness. By all rights, she though Marina should just hate her forever.

“Hey,”

Marina kneeled to her eye level and grabbed hold of Elena’s face, squishing her cheeks.

She let go once Elena’s expression started to go from sad to indignant once again.

“I’m not crying about it Elena, so you don’t need to.” She said. “I’ve also been an asshole. I’ve been the biggest asshole here. I treated you like a package I was delivering– I never considered your feelings. I kept telling myself that I was doing this for so many different people, but you. And your feelings are the most important ones– you’re the one still living after all. I’m so deeply sorry.”

“You saved my life.” Elena said. “I never thanked you for it.”

Marina laughed. “I don’t need thanks. I care about you. I just need to show it more.”

She backed off and sat on the edge of the opposite bunk, folding her hands over her lap.

Like Elena, she filled her lungs deep and breathed out long.

Then she fixed Elena with a serious gaze again.

“Your mother was a truly life-changing love for me. I am happy you took her name. That bastard Konstantin’s never suited you. I respect your decision to abdicate.” Marina’s gaze drifted, as if she was reading from a mental script and needed to turn the page. Her next words left her lips with great difficulty and hesitation. There were many pauses. “I just wanted to ask, if you’ll have me– if I could still advise you, and protect you. You can say no– I’ll just work for the commies for a while and then find my own way. The Republic can go fuck itself, but I’m no fan of Bhavani Jayasankar either. So I’m not joining them.”

Elena put down her portable terminal, and stood up from bed. She walked a step and reached out to Marina’s hands, taking both of them in her own. She softened her expression, tried to smile.

“I don’t want you to go. I want to get to know you. I don’t want you to advise and protect me as either as a G.I.A. agent or someone beholden to my mother. Let’s just be friends– I want to care about you too, like you care about me. But I don’t want servants, or protectors, anymore. I don’t want anyone else to be hurt on my account, or to devote themselves to me. Can we just be friends, Marina McKennedy?”

Marina stared at her for a moment. Speechless, blank faced at first.

She then pulled her shaking hands away from Elena.

Laughing– but there was a bit of that shaking in her tone of voice as well.

“Friends? Sure. Why not? I don’t have a single other friend anyway.”

Marina forced a little smile at her.

“Oh no! I’m so sorry! I touched you without your permission!”

Elena covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at her own carelessness.

“It’s fine. It’s fine. If it wouldn’t have been I’d have kicked you or something.”

Marina was clearly struggling but trying to take it stride.

“Oh, I’m such an idiot–” Elena grit her teeth. “I mess everything up, even being earnest.”

“We’ll get better together. I haven’t even cursed once in this whole conversation.”

She reached out her hand. Elena looked down at it. It was her turn to be uncomprehending.

“Is it ok?” She asked, staring at Marina with concern.

“Of course it is.” Marina said dismissively.

Elena reached out gently and shook Marina’s hand.

“Friends, then.” Marina said, grinning.

“Friends! We’ll make it through all of this together.” Elena cheerfully replied.

Once-guardian and once-ward shook hands and started anew as peers, as friends.

A terrible and deep tension seemed to lift off their shoulders then. Those chains of obligation which once bound them in tragic acrimony now became like a crown of flowers they were affectionately tying together. A sense of lightness and an almost ridiculous humor fell upon them, now just friends.


Now that Alexandra’s room was cleared out, it became the residence of the Brigand’s new, enigmatic guests, Tigris, and Euphrates. (Their ex-employee Xenia Laskaris was sleeping in the social lounge.) The two of them had little in the way of personal luggage aboard the Brigand. Both had Treasure Box uniforms and neither were using their own personal terminals, as the Brigand’s supercomputer now had access to the Helios system, so they could review anything they wanted via Union terminals.

“Thank everything we decided not to bring Eden aboard during this trip.” Tigris sighed. “We would have had a universe-load of tedious explaining to do if they got their hands on that thing.”

“It’s fine. Things turned out okay when you think about how much worse it could have been.”

“Things are the opposite of fine, Euphrates. Everything can always be worse, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We couldn’t have known Arbitrator II was holed up down there. At least we’re not too inconvenienced.”

Euphrates was calm, despite everything. She truly believed there was some element of destiny to all of this. For them to be left stranded repelling an attack from Syzygy, then picked up by the Brigand, only to then confront Norn, and to set out against Yangtze. A seismic shock like this was a long time coming. Ever since Mehmed, these events were inescapable. Euphrates now had no choice but to accept it now.

Deep down, she was grateful to Murati Nakara and the Brigands.

If the Empire was going to fracture– maybe it was time the Sunlight Foundation resolved its own contradictions as well. Euphrates was thankful to Norn too. Norn made sure she couldn’t keep running.

“This was always going to happen. I deluded myself with my wishful thinking.”

Both laying down on their opposite bunks, the two women had little to say to each other. Through psionics, they had already been conferring privately since they joined the crew. So being able to speak physically alone in a room was not much different, no more private than before. They already knew each other’s intentions and concerns. Voicing them was just a comforting redundancy. Small talk.

“Why didn’t you tell them about Maryam?” Tigris said aloud.

“I like Maryam, don’t you? She’s a good kid. If she’s not telling them, I won’t.”

“I like Maryam too– fair enough. We’ll have to teach them about apostles at some point.”

Euphrates responded coolly. “That’s a very advanced topic. If we have the misfortune to meet Norn again, or even Majida, I’ll tell them about the Apostles. Though I don’t think Maryam is ready contend with either of them. We would need to train her– but I’m still not going to violate her trust so easily.”

“You’re so principled when it comes to other people.” Tigris said in a mocking voice.

“Well, it’s because the unmatched, beautiful genius Tigris hardly needs my sympathy.”

“Hmph. I’ll accept your backhanded praise. But this situation is so bad right now.”

“I’m sorry to have dragged you into my mess. But I truly need you.” Euphrates said.

Her tone of voice was calm and confident as always, but she really meant it.

Tigris was her devoted partner. She followed her everywhere. She supported her.

Euphrates knew Tigris would follow her even into certain death. Kill or die for her.

It made her as guilty as she felt about Norn, Yangtze– and now, maybe, even Murati.

“Bah. I didn’t take your freak blood into me so I could live forever doing nothing.”

“Thank you for being reassuring, even when I don’t deserve it, my love.”

After that, the room went quiet. They had both, long ago, implicitly accepted each other’s adventures through life. Uncertainty about the future had a different character for the immortals.


The UNX-001 Brigand continued its voyage through the sunlit seas, remaining above the Upper Scattering Layer where, with Arbitrator I’s assistance, they encountered no enemies. It was not a journey completely without danger, however. Cameras picked up Leviathans of all shapes and sizes, some curiously following the Brigand but barred from attacking it, others circling from afar as if awaiting a chance, perhaps testing Arbitrator I’s authority– no one knew, but since the Omenseer acted unconcerned, so did the bridge crew. They did not formally “witness” these Leviathans.

There were other fauna as well, some of which were undocumented. These fish were not Leviathans, as they lacked hydrojet propulsion. Some of these appeared entirely normal. Other animals, like whales and dolphins, were covered in hex shaped scars. Still a few more had patches of purple, dusty skin as if they had accreted agarthicite on themselves over many years. Even stranger were the completely mutated species, fish with hexagonal body plans, jellyfish and siphonophores with agarthic patterns. Karuniya Maharapratham had never seen anything like it and lamented they could not stop and study them.

Other phenomena infrequently encountered solidified the fact that this paradise was too close to the alien realm of God. With forewarning from Arbitrator I the crew avoided eerie currents that twisted water in on itself, forming curling vortexes, zig-zagging jetstreams and unnaturally angled whirlpools. They skirted past the remains of islands that remained as if blasted underwater and severed at their roots such that all that was left were constellations of rocks with smooth hex-shaped patterns over their crust, anchored to a space by no visible force, some with warped, fleshy vegetation still affixed.

Every so often they would come upon a darker patch of ocean, where the surface was deeply clouded and great, roaring flashes of purple lit the plane of heaven above. On some of these encounters, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara agreed to have all cameras shut off and to navigate by computer with Arbitrator I’s assistance, to allay any possible panic of the crew at large. The Sailors had been informed, but their exposure to the phenomena of the surface was kept as limited as possible. They were told that their ability to navigate the photic zone was due to a classified device.

A little over a week after their circuitous route from Goryk began, over the Khaybar range, constantly shifting course to avoid the various dangers that made a direct route impossible, the Brigand finally entered the Imbrium Ocean, the seat of the oppression gripping the world’s western hemisphere. They were crossing to within the borders of Rhinea and could soon begin to chart a course to their next destination, in the far northwest of the former duchy. To a place called the “Kreuzung Station Complex” in the region of “Eisental.” It was known, apparently, for its mining, metallurgy and heavy industry.

“Solarflare LLC’s headquarters are located in one of the Kreuzung habitats. We have a humble installation within the fifth station tower. We can take care of finding the ‘Pandora’s Box’ a drydock so we can work on it and keep ‘Treasure Box Transports’s situation on the down-low during our stay. Maybe even give all of you a few days’ worth of a station vacation, on the company’s dime.” Euphrates said cheerfully.

“My, how generous.” Captain Korabiskaya remarked skeptically. “I’ll consider it, I suppose.”

“At the very least, I invite your crew to our corporate lounge. We can host sixty at a time.”

“If Yangtze hasn’t taken over the company by the time we get there.” Tigris interrupted.

“I’m not as much afraid of Yangtze doing that as the Volkisch Movement.” Euphrates said.

Whether or not they would get to throw a party was the least of the Captain’s concerns.

Nevertheless, at least they had a concrete direction to take for their next journey. Soon they would be back in the shadow of humanity’s new home, leaving behind the sunlit heaven through which they had been soaring. There was no love for it which had developed, only the eerie sense that having left the only world they had known, they would now be descending into it from a height once thought impossible.

In the middle of this, sometime after they set out but sometime before–

“Murati.”

Sonya Shalikova stopped Murati Nakara in the hall and pulled her aside for a moment.

Murati looked quite elated. Her reserved subordinate rarely reached out to her.

“What can I help you with, Shalikova?”

“You don’t have to look so happy about it! I just– I want to ask your advice on something.”

“Of course, always. What do you need advice about?”

“Umm–”

In that moment, the two looked into each other’s eyes and saw a flash.

Psionic power coursed through both of them in an instant.

In Shalikova, deliberately summoned–

From Murati, almost a reflex, out of curiosity–

Murati saw red rings appear around Shalikova’s eyes and Shalikova saw the same in hers.

But Murati could not see any aura around Shalikova whatsoever. Even if she focused on it.

While Shalikova could see the basic human state of green and blue aura, along with what alarmed her. An expanding band of white, along with a thin band of borderline yellowed red. Murati’s aura firmed up, it felt for a moment “prickly” as if it was erecting a defense, or maybe “sharp” as if it was ready to cut. Murati expressed physical surprise, a little reflex, a drawing back from Shalikova, that the latter fully captured with her keen eyes, fully understood within an instant that Murati was taken aback.

“It’s nothing! Sorry to bother you! I’ve got work to do!”

Shalikova panicked and ran around Murati and took off down the hall–

“Shalikova! I– I’m sorry– It’s really fine! Come back!”

–disappearing into an elevator down to the hangar before Murati’s words could reach her.

Standing out in the hall, Murati looked on at all of the dim but living auras around her.

Wondering what exactly was different about the suddenly psionic Sonya Shalikova.

And how she would approach the girl, who was clearly trying to read into her psionically.

She sighed deeply– realizing she still had a ways to go as a leader.

In this strange new era, the drama of which they had only begun to uncover.


In the eyes of Carthus von Skarsgaard, Erich von Fueller was the most beautiful being in the world. A golden-maned, sleek warhorse of a man, both lean and strong, androgynous as if carved into the world by delicate, sturdy hands to platonically represent beauty. Perfect in height, perfect in build, measured and balanced in all things. Beyond his body, his mind was rich and keen, his voice strong yet melodic. He could speak eloquently on the arts, on politics, on war, and entertain guests with aristocratic largess. He was neither too elitist nor ever crass. He was meritocratic but understood the context of a noble upbringing and the advantages it brought. Nothing was missing in his beloved Erich.

Carthus himself was described as a very beautiful young man, but next to Erich, he felt as the orbiting mercury to the grandiosity of the sun that humanity lost. And he felt welcome in such a role, and savored being at Erich’s side during the various social functions which they had been attending. Erich was struggling to set right the Palatinate so that he could begin his military moves– but there were unexpected setbacks. His enemies stronger than he expected; his allies weaker than he thought.

Erich was forced to rely more and more on untrustworthy individuals with foul powers.

Though he wished he could do more, all Carthus could do was be a comforting witness.

He was powerless– his sister Millennia had taken over his kingdom and established a theocracy that now warred with his beloved Erich and the rest of the world, The Holy Kingdom of Solcea. In terms of personal retainers, Carthus had few loyal subjects left. He was still wealthy, for his name still carried worth to the people keeping ledgers, but aside from hiring Katarran mercenaries on credit from the Palatine’s royal banks he could do nothing for Erich’s war effort. It pained him– but he had the emotional intelligence not to panic over it. He did what he could for Erich and he trusted Erich loved him dearly for it.

What he liked to do most for Erich was sing to him. Erich loved his singing voice.

There were many nights when, after a high profile meeting, Erich would return to his quarters and Carthus would be secretly there, dressed in a loose robe, and he would sing to him, and they would make love after, if Erich felt up to it. Sometimes he would just sing to him and take pleasure in how calm and at peace he was with the singing. This felt like his life’s purpose. To support Erich in all things.

One such night, Carthus had been singing, but could feel, throughout, Erich’s anxiety.

He hardly wore it on his face, as if he was hewn out of stone and had no expressions.

But Carthus could tell, from having been around him enough, for years and years now.

“Is something the matter?” He asked. “You can tell me anything.”

Erich had been clearly waiting for the matter to be brought up.

“I almost hoped you wouldn’t ask.” He said. There was a strange gravity in his voice.

“Of course I ask. I care about you. It’s been hard for you lately, hasn’t it?”

“Syrmia is useless, and Norn is uninterested in the affairs of state. The bureaucracy in the Palatine has been withering since my father’s retreat from politics. Yes: it’s been tough on me, Carthus.”

Carthus nodded. He had misgivings– particularly about Norn. But he kept quiet.

He knew if he said ‘Norn seems more interested in destroying the state’ that Erich would simply brush it off. Despite frequent anxieties that he would have to fight Norn someday, he did esteem his “aunt” — far more than he esteemed his actual blood aunt, Syrmia von Fueller, whom he had refused to allow to marry Norn to canonize the current Fueller leadership. Not that Norn would have accepted such a thing either. Norn was a brute, in Carthus’ eyes, a vicious, uncaring, violent person. Syrmia may have been ‘useless’ but at least she was human. Carthus could not keep away the feeling that Norn was a monster.

Erich seemed to truly feel something for his aunt Norn. Entrusting her with troops and technology. He did not shy away from improving her capability to one day undo him. Perhaps he saw it as a challenge, like his father once saw the Imbrian nobles– or perhaps Norn was his only competent “ally” left. Her status was therefore unimpeachable. Carthus could not insult her. It would have done nothing.

But that was beside the point. It was not just stress which was bringing Erich down.

And it was not just about Norn or Syrmia. Carthus could tell this was personal.

“It’s about me, isn’t it? Am I holding you back, Erich?”

“No. Of course not. Never.”

They were together in Erich’s bedroom on the Irmingard, a grand and lavish room for a ship, with an exquisite four-post, ceilinged bed, the walls highly decorated with flowers, silk curtains, golden accents of carved wings. All of the room was painted wine-red as a main color to better fit the golden trim. He had a computer terminal on a desk near his bed, consisting of a box tucked away in one of the drawers with the only visible parts being the main screen and the touch-board. They had been together in bed.

Erich stroked Carthus’ cheek and stood from the bed, dressed in a blue and green robe.

With his back to his lover, Erich finally spoke up about his anxiety.

“I have a difficult decision to make. A decision I have been delaying. This is extremely selfish of me, but I want you to evaluate my reasons. I have been keeping things from you Carthus. I want to induct you into the truth of the world which I know, and then ask you to decide something for me. You, who are purer of heart than I. Your soul is not yet blackened as mine as is. You will tell me if I must do this.”

Carthus was both shocked, but also happy to be taken into Erich’s confidence.

Of course, as an aristocrat, he was aware that Erich would keep secrets from him.

Great Men could never give the whole of themselves to any single person after all.

“I am listening.” Carthus said from bed. “I will support you no matter what, Erich.”

His heart swelled thinking that Erich needed him in such a fundamental way.

“Very well.” Erich said. “EDEN, it is time. Display on the main screen.”

On the wall in front of the bed, a thin wall panel slid aside to reveal an even larger screen. Carthus imagined the main screen was the one on his desk, but he had been wrong. Taking up much of the wall, it was like being in a private theater. At Erich’s command, the main screen lit up blue, with a sigil of a sun appearing briefly on the screen. Then, something like a wavelength occupied it, again quite briefly.

Finally, a woman’s dispassionate face appeared. Shoulder length blue hair, messy, very lightly curly and wavy, with very pale skin, dressed in a vest, shirt, and suit. There was a bit of a glow about her features.

She opened her eyes, which were clearly mechanical.

Was this a computer graphic in real time or a video of someone? Carthus could not say for certain.

“Carthus, this is EDEN, an archive of every sin recorded by a group of ageless demons.”

Looking at Erich, Carthus noticed that something like a globe had appeared on his hand.

It was see-through, like a bubble, but vaguely geometric rather than smooth.

By interacting with the holographic globe, he seemed to be able to command this EDEN.

“EDEN, summarize ‘Norn von Fueller’.” Erich commanded.

On the screen, the woman began to speak, her voice deep and erudite.

“Norn von Fueller, alias of Astra Palaiologos. Also known as Norn Tauscherer. Codename Cocytus. Pelagis race, Katarran ethnicity, Panthalassan subrace. Pelagis process donors include panderichthys and tiktaalik DNA. Main human donor was Aegean Palaiologos III, former monarch of the Kingdom of Katarre. Gender/Sex– she made a crude drawing of a fish. Age was recorded as 43 years old in 935 A.D., but psychological development in 935 A.D. was noted to be regressed far below her biological age. Summary: Once an Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation. Apostle of Water, but her power was seen to quickly degrade to exclusively Cryokinesis, so she is called the Apostle of Ice. Along with Mehmed Khalifa, one of the most powerful psionics recorded– but her power since degraded to far below Mehmed’s peak level. Crucial element of Project Deicide, the Immortals’ successful intervention against Mehmed’s Jihad. After Mehmed’s Jihad, she entered the service of the Fueller family and left the Immortals permanently.”

Carthus hardly understood half the words the machine had said.

“Erich, what is this?” He asked, his eyes fixed on the dispassionate woman on the screen.

“It’s the truth, Carthus. Truth that was hidden from us.” Erich said. “Around twenty years ago, a criminal codenamed ‘Asan’ aided a G.I.A agent by the name of Blake McClinton in a plot to assassinate the Emperor, by providing high-tech equipment funneled through a biological research firm. The equipment was surreptitiously paid for by Leda Lettiere. ‘Asan’ also connected the G.I.A. to mercenary fighters in support of their plot. Norn intervened in the plot, and put a stop to it, capturing McClinton and Leda Lettiere. During these events, I came to acquire this device, the EDEN, from Asan herself.”

“Twenty years ago?” Carthus said. “You would have been a child.”

Erich cracked a little grin. He was clearly impressed with himself for owning this device.

“I was a child, yes– But old enough for a lot of things, dear Carthus.” He said. “I have burned with the drive and intellect to exact my revenge for even longer than that. Ever since the murder of my mother at my father’s hands, I sought answers to my suffering. Leda Lettiere’s assassination plot gave me the chance to attain my own power and knowledge, separate from my father. However, without Norn, I would not have been able to coerce Asan into giving up this device in exchange for her life. Norn wanted me to have this, so don’t worry– the information you are seeing is not anything she fears me knowing. This version of EDEN is significantly out of date with modern events. But it contains more than enough.”

“So there’s a system out there with more information? Is that it then? Do you desire it?”

“No. It’s ancillary– I merely wanted you to have context for what I’m about to say next.”

Erich paused for a moment. His fingers played about the globe shining in his hands.

In the main screen, the woman bowed, and in her place, an image appeared.

A slender man, extremely pale, with angular cheekbones, smoldering red eyes, and very long white hair, dressed in a coat like an old fashioned dandy. It was not in fact one image, but as soon as Carthus realized, the man appeared in other settings. Wearing a crown, a royal scepter and a red and gold cape. Standing at the head of great processions. Upon a throne, in a room Carthus recognized quite immediately as the throne in Heitzing, in the Palatinate. In all subsequent images, his face was utterly deemphasized, either his crown, his hair, or even hoods, pulled up over him, masking his features.

“Azazel Nocht.” Erich said. “Founder of the Imbrian Empire. Our very own Emperor Nocht I.”

There was a certain vitriol in his voice, as he added additional epithets.

“Perverter of our world’s history. Deceiver of our people. Architect of all our tragedies.”

As if on cue, another image of Azazel Nocht appeared–

Standing between what looked like the blue-haired woman in the EDEN, and a second, dark-skinned and dark haired woman. All three of them in white coats. Azazel Nocht did not appear as much of an Emperor in these images. He seemed like a rather ordinary man in this context. There was a computer behind them, and each of them had a globe in their hands like that which Erich was holding in his hands.

“Azazel Nocht used his authority to invent the history of the Imbrian Empire from wholecloth. All of the customs, bigotries, and contradictions which we suffer are a result of his twisted imagination. At gunpoint he suppressed the true history of our world. He elevated himself to Emperor through force and ended the Age of Strife with weapons we consider ordinary in our time. But back then, the idea of warring with each other underwater at the scale in which he did it, was alien, to the little warlords and despots that had arisen from the fall of the surface world. Nocht is the demon at the heart of our original sin. And these harlots who lived through it either gave him the power to do so or stood aside and watched.”

Carthus was again unable to speak. What could he say to this?

His beloved Erich was more impassioned than he had ever seen him.

Erich trusted him to support him, entrusted him with this secret–

But it had to be madness, sheer madness. This whole situation could not possibly be true.

One man did not an Empire make. Not without subjects; not without some consent.

There was no grand conspiracy that could have buried history wholecloth to this degree.

Azazel Nocht was taught to them as a legendary figure, near-mythical. But never alone. He mustered his Royal Guard and the Imbrian Carabineers. His forces suppressed the bandits, ended the era of warlords, and it was him and his Council of Lords, not him alone, who founded the Imbrian Empire. Chosen to lead by his peers; vanished from the world when his time came, leaving his sons to guide the Empire.

Was that history truly an invention? Then why did it make more sense to Carthus than this?

“Carthus, if Azazel Nocht can do this, why can’t I? Why can’t I tear down the false history which he created, and recreate the true history of the world? Superimpose truth over his falsity and return order to the world he brought chaos to? All that I need are the conditions that allowed him to create history. My own Age of Strife, and the unquestionable military power to end it on my terms and write the history myself. My father’s Reformation failed because he did not grasp that the very root of Imbrian identity is a lie, a wicked lie of hundreds of years, supported by generational trauma and brutal, elitist power.”

“Erich–”

Carthus’ eyes started to tear up. He did not understand what was happening.

Had something changed in his beloved Erich? Was the pressure finally getting to him?

He didn’t understand, and his frustration came out as gentle, vulnerable tears.

Erich hardly noticed this change in his countenance. He was smiling– bound up in passion.

“Carthus, in the fragmented memories contained in the EDEN, I pieced together the truth myself. The truth as witnessed by the craven people who stood aside and allowed Azazel to toy with all of our lives. The Sunlight Foundation, an ancient conspiracy bent on restoring the surface world– but they don’t understand. As they obsess with the sky outside the ocean, they don’t realize that the true history can be recreated right here. If Azazel created a false world in the Imbrium, why can’t I create a true one?”

His fingers deftly moved about the globe, generating a different image.

EDEN, the woman on the screen, briefly appeared, bowed again, and an image of the globe appeared. A speculated map of the surface world as it existed over a thousand years ago– despite the sheer seismic potential of such a discovery, it did not seem a daunting proposition to Erich, who looked upon it as if he was seeing a work of art that he fully grasped the meaning of. It was a map of an alien world. Rather than the multiple polities of the ocean that Carthus knew, this ancient map of the world had the names of a few places and continents, but politically, it was clearly labeled to contain one overarching entity.

An entity called “The Aer Federation.”

“Carthus, I have been waiting for so long to tell another soul about this. This knowledge does not trouble Norn or Yangtze, but to me, I see this perfect world, and I despise the fragmented image of it that Azazel Nocht gave to us. I despise him for using his power for his own selfish ends to divide and conquer the week, and not to unite our world as he rightfully should have. Carthus– will you join me, in recreating this world? The One World Government of the Surface– the Aer Federation. I know you have a pure and innocent soul. Do you accept the truth that I want to create, and reject the falsity in which we now live?”

There was nothing Carthus could say to that.

He was shocked, he did not know what to believe. But he still wanted to love Erich.

So with an addled mind and a whole heart, he meekly replied.

“Of course, Erich. I trust you– you are the finest of Lords. Follow your heart. I will do so as well.”

Only half understanding what had transpired– but unable to ever give up on his love.

And that was all that Erich needed to hear. He had permission from his angel now.

All of the evils, real or imagined, that he wanted to slay, would have quivered, at the grin which he wore at that moment. Erich had the face of a man who had achieved a pivotal victory, despite no battle having been fought. Or maybe a battle was fought and Carthus could not see it. He began to fear he had tipped the scales in a battle inside Erich’s self. And that he did not know the effect of his words and actions.

With a dismissive wave of the lord’s hand, Eden disappeared from the main screen. Erich left the side of the bed and instead sat down at his desk, and tightening his robe around his chest, made a call.

Carthus pulled a blanket around himself, but he was not visible on Erich’s screen.

He barely saw the screen. There was a round face, light brown, with long dark hair.

“Yes? What is it?” There was the voice of a woman. “Yangtze said you’d call but–”

Erich interrupted her. He spoke coolly and with great confidence.

“Potomac. Go to Schwerin Island and start a Core Separation. We need the origin pylon from it.”

Carthus’ heart leapt. Schwerin, the imperial summer palace of legend and tragedy–

Separating the Core Pylon from the station would require its total destruction.

“After you’ve separated the core, transport it to Bremen to begin the Gryphon Project. Are we clear?”

On a corner of the screen, something appeared–

–like a diagram of a ship, cylindrical, winged, built around the core?

Potomac sounded casually annoyed, as if this was busywork and nothing grand.

“Ugh. Fine. Whatever. But this will take months. You better not keep breathing down my neck.”

She cut off communications at that point.

Erich looked– so satisfied with himself.

Like a shackled man once freed, realizing he will not sleep in a cage another night.

At that point, Carthus felt, for the first time, that in his quiet and supportive love for Erich, he had made an incredible mistake. And that he lacked the courage to say anything to reverse it. That perhaps, he had the entirely wrong influence, on the Great Man with whom he wished dearly to go down into history.

What would that history even look like from now?


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.4]

This chapter contains a reference to suicidal ideation.

“All of us trust Murati Nakara. So let me show her the truth.”

Murati stood at her edge of the table, speechless, as Euphrates reached out her hand.

Colors floated off her, at first like wisps of vapor from the end of a vaporizer pipe. They spread and grew, and it was difficult to understand the dimensions of them, the breadth and depth, even the composition. Sometimes they felt like lights, an aura, or a rainbow that if touched would have no interaction with the skin, but at other times, viewed in different angles, it seemed like the gas of a nebula from images of outer space passed down through time by the remains of surface scientific discoveries. There were other feelings associated with the colors that did not even relate to Murati’s visual recollection.

When she focused on them for too long, she felt–

Sounds (soft and whiny like a tinnitus)

Textures (impeccably smooth like cellophane)

Tastes (chalky, salty, like putting sand in the mouth)

— there was no way to square these with the fact that she was still, only, looking.

Murati briefly licked her lips; she closed and opened her hands. She was not scared, but enthralled. Those sensations came and went with the intensity of the colors. Sometimes in focus, in sharp relief; sometimes gone as if they had never been there; but her mind wanted to chase them. She felt like a child staring at the world for the first time, wanting to see, longing to understand, boundlessly curious.

“What are you seeing, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Is she surrounded by colors?”

“You can see it too?” Murati said, turning to face the captain, to see her response.

Ulyana nodded. Aaliyah closed her orange eyes, rubbed her fingers over them.

“I’m seeing something too.” Aaliyah replied. “La Hawla Wala.” She whimpered after.

Murati did not understand the Shimii speech, but the sentiment was clear to her.

Everyone in the room was seeing something. It wasn’t just her– she wasn’t going insane.

“Fantastic. Colors are what you should be seeing.” Euphrates said with a smile.

“We know those colors as Aether.” Tigris explained. “For us jaded old hags, it’s really difficult to describe these feelings to someone– it’s easier if you can come to grips with it, Murati, and tell everyone else how it feels to you. That’s what Euphrates is getting at. She’ll teach you all about it– and Omenseeing will make a bit more sense to you. But what we do isn’t Omenseeing, so take it with a grain of salt.”

“If it’s not Omenseeing, what is it?” Murati asked.

“What Omenseers call ‘Omenseeing’ we refer to as psionics.” Euphrates said.

“Psionics? Like mind reading and clairvoyance? That’s all fantasy!” Ulyana shouted.

“She just moved an object in front of you without moving a muscle!” Tigris objected.

“That’s–”

Ulyana could hardly formulate a reply to that. She was just lashing out emotionally.

“You’ll see that it isn’t fantasy– if Murati Nakara accepts my proposal.” Euphrates said. “You can say all you want about us and what we are doing. You can claim that it’s all tricks, that we have gotten co-conspirators on-board to rig the room, or that we have prepared special devices– I’ve heard all kinds of explanations in the past from people who won’t accept the truth. But if Murati accepts, I can show her immediately how to access the same power. Would you believe Murati is faking it?”

“What if this is some kind of wild escape plan?” Aaliyah joined Ulyana in shouting.

“They couldn’t escape– they’d be in the photic zone without Arbitrator I’s protection.”

Murati’s was the calmest voice in the room. Though it was she they were all addressing and putting under pressure, there was something in the back of her mind that prevented panic. It was an almost nostalgic feeling. As if these sights and sensations weren’t entirely unfamiliar. She tried to recall– had she seen the colors before? Had she felt the presence of psionics, like she now felt from Euphrates?

Was that sensation of synesthesia she got from the colors truly alien to her?

There were no concrete recollections– but there was a feeling. A feeling kept her steady.

“Correct. Psionics isn’t exactly like Omenseeing. I’m not trying to escape.” Euphrates said.

“We can’t even put a toe out of place right now anyway.” Tigris said.

She vaguely gestured behind herself.

Illya and Valeriya had the two of them in the sights of their assault rifles.

“By any chance can you call off the hounds? I’m worried about accidents here.”

“It’s our duty to keep this crew safe. Be a good girl or I’ll shoot.” Illya said.

“I told the two of you to stand down. I wasn’t just shouting at the wall.” Aaliyah said.

“We’re all tense here, but we’re not shooting each other tense just yet.” Ulyana added.

“Okay.” A sad little monotone voice.

Valeriya stepped back, raised her rifle, and reached out a hand to pat Illya on the chest armor.

Begrudingly, Illya did the same a moment later, withdrawing from the confrontation.

Valeriya then lifted a mask over her face and averted her gaze to the door nearby.

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad at you, so don’t worry.” Illya said to her.

“We’re going to have to talk about you two getting some problem-solving skills that don’t involve killing people, if you’re going to play a bigger role in this security team.” Ulyana said. She sighed, exasperated, almost grunted. “Murati this situation is insane, but I want to hear from you.”

Now everyone in the room was staring Murati’s way rather than Euphrates’ way.

She was not unused to this sensation either. After all, she delivered so many petitions.

In all of those petitions, she had to get up in front of a crowd, and then explain something which was deeply emotional to her in very rational terms. She had to make her aspiration to heroic military deeds and her belief in radical military action toward the Empire sound reasoned and cost-effective, and not just like the inner workings of a grandiose, self-indulgent fantasy. It was not so different here.

Murati was calmer than she thought she might be and thought she could explain.

“Captain, Commissar; I think I trust Euphrates. She came to visit me in the medbay to talk about my parents. She knew them– she also knew Daksha Kansal. I’d never heard anyone talk about Kansal the way that she did– she even compared me to her a few times, which I found very touching. I don’t know a lot about my parents, but I’d like to believe if Daksha Kansal is a name that comes out of a person’s lips with such affection, rather than scorn or slander, then that person is probably worth listening to.”

“Murati, Euphrates wants to do something to you, who knows what.” Aaliyah said. “You want to trust her because she spoke glowingly about one of your role models? Don’t you agree that’s a bit facile?”

“I’m glad that all of you are worried, but if it’s my choice, then I will talk to Euphrates.”

Murati turned to face Euphrates. She felt her heart stir, but she was determined.

When she first fired a gun, when she first learned to pilot, when she first killed–

In each of those situations Murati was also unlocking powers of the mind and emotion.

There was a frightening sense, each time, that the world would be very different afterward.

She felt shivers when she first touched a gun, first entered a Strelok’s cockpit.

When she took aim and put out a human life, it was an earthquake of horrific feeling.

But at no point, did she cease to be Murati Nakara. Each time, she did what she found just.

After each of these things, she could weep, she could laugh, she could live and love.

And her goals, passions, the duties she accepted and people she loved, did not disappear.

“Euphrates, you say I can access psionics immediately with your help?” She asked.

“All I need to do is touch your forehead for a minute.” Euphrates replied.

“Explain the mechanism by which this will work.” Murati calmly said.

“Of course. Those colors that you see around you, the Aether, are imprints of human emotional and mental activity, left upon the world by our existence.” Euphrates began to explain. Nobody interrupted her. “Aether will resonate more strongly with people who are psionic. We leave our aether not just in places we go to, but even in objects we have an attachment to, and even in people who care about us. Eventually, those people’s minds will develop their own psionics and begin to see our aether, whether fleetingly or in full, via a process we call Aether Baptism. I can accelerate that process.”

“Wait a moment.” Ulyana said. “Can we see your aether, then, because of Arbitrator I?”

Murati knew that what she was actually asking was–

–when did we change? Are we fundamentally different than normal people, and if so–

–when was the crew of the Brigand baptized by Aether if Euphrates is speaking the truth?

Euphrates in turn looked almost excited to be sharing this information.

Her tone was animated, friendly, calm. Even despite the evident tension in her ‘students’.

“It takes a long time for baptism by environmental aether to awaken a person’s psionics. What I’m about to say is pure speculation, but there are a few possibilities: very traumatic and sweeping emotional events, like the Union’s revolution, could have awakened tiny kernels of the power. The Sunlight Foundation has observed that Shimii and Katarrans, who suffered massive ethnic hardships, have more psionic potential. So it is possible that Union folk are also ‘more psionic’ than others. Maybe you also had parents or colleagues with powerful psionics. Contact with Murati would certainly do something— I didn’t choose her solely for emotional reasons. Korabiskaya and Bashara would be more difficult to baptize. Korabiskaya, you, particularly– I can tell you have a near-impenetrable will. Even Norn couldn’t overcome it.”

Ulyana blinked, with Aaliyah staring at her momentarily.

“A near-impenetrable will, huh?”

“Norn was psionic too then?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah looked like pieces of something were falling into place for them.

“We should evaluate the narrative here only after we have a concrete demonstration.”

Zachikova spoke up, uncharacteristically interjecting in the course of events.

It was a rational enough point. Euphrates had set a condition by which ‘psionics would be proven to be definitely true’ — clearly Aaliyah and Ulyana wanted to believe it was true, more than they wanted to be skeptical. But in terms of the scenario, they needed to confirm things before devolving into wild speculation. Not only that, but Murati would have been able to prove that ‘psionics work exactly as Euphrates said’ by having access to psionics herself. In that case, there was only one solution.

“Does everyone trust me and trust my decision?” Murati said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other and spoke up at almost the same time:

“I thought that was self-evident.”

“Of course we trust you Murati.”

The two of them looked at each other, smiled, sighed, and acquiesced visibly.

Murati nodded in acknowledgment. “Then I accept the terms as discussed. Once I have been given access to psionics, I’ll try to explain what I felt and demonstrate its use, and depending on what happens, we’ll decide whether we believe all or part of Euphrates and Tigris have been saying.”

She didn’t really know why– but she still felt that burgeoning confidence in this task.

Just like learning to pilot, learning to shoot, learning history, learning military tactics–

–and an even more salient example, learning about communism and capitalism.

All of these things fundamentally altered Murati’s perspectives and abilities.

She was not afraid that Euphrates would change how she viewed the world.

In fact, there was a part of her that was excited. A part of her that realized before the rest of her faculties that she might become part of uncovering a great, hidden truth about the world. Communism became a clearer and clear example in her mind of a paradigm as magic as this. She imagined Mordecai in his study, when he first drafted a history of productive relations that had been physically present in the world but never named, never truly observed in an analytical way, and explained to people.

Murati thought he must have felt the same way as her.

Trepidation about the world that would follow; and a determination to change it anyway.

In a world before Mordecai, capitalism might as well have been a force of nature.

Things that simply existed; things that were simply done. As invisible as magic was.

When that hidden power was finally exposed and surgically understood–

It created a paroxysm of revolutionary grief at the injustice of it all, lasting to this day.

Understanding communism as an alternative to capitalism could change someone’s world.

And perhaps that knowledge could drive the person a little insane.

But to build a better world, the truth had to be exposed, understood, analyzed.

Murati had to peel back layer of reality– she would not back away from this truth now.

It might even expose something that could help achieve her ambitions.

“It’s the duty of a communist not to shy away from reality. Euphrates, I am ready.”

Murati stepped forward, closer to Euphrates.

With the consent of the room, Euphrates stood, and raised her hand to Murati’s head.

Putting her palm on Murati’s forehead, the fingers gently brushing her hair aside.

“Whether your eyes are open or closed, you’ll see and feel things. Let them come and go.”

For an instant, Murati saw Euphrates’ eyes flash with red rings around the irises.

She felt something push against her, for long enough for her body to record feeling but too quickly to contemplate it. For that infinitesimally small instant of sensation, she felt hot and cold, wet, and dry, and in the next instant, her vision was clouded. She was overwhelmed by color and could not see Euphrates, or the room around her anymore. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, and tight bands of black and white at the far edges, sweeping toward her like a tidal wave so tall that Murati could see nothing but the body of those great bands of color, near and far, rapid, and slow. She was submerged in them.

Then — she did not know when, could have been minutes, hours — she was drawn back.

Rather than a tidal wave, now the colors appeared as a great vortex in a black, empty space.

As her vision focused on it, and she realized the length and breadth of the phenomenon and the notion of the space around it, she began to see trails far above that fed into the vortex, like the clouds that were known to science but impossible to see from humanity’s new home. These trails fed into the whirling body of the vortex. And the more she focused, the more Murati could see thousands, millions, billions of trails all individual, each its own color. It was not an object, but a mass– made up of innumerable lines.

Murati felt a great shame that she had not known it was so complicated at first.

Now she felt a desire to see, not just each individual line, but how they all connected.

They were a mass, a community, a language, in contact and interaction, communicating.

She wanted to understand– she wanted to know–

if the system was just, if it was worth maintaining and if it needed to change,

if there was someone to help, if there was a battle that needed fighting,

if there was a pain, and if there could be healing, if there was need, that she could fill,

It was difficult to think, to keep her thoughts from drifting, but–

Euphrates had said to let them come and so she did.

Her soul screamed for understanding, justice, and redress.

Suddenly the vortex flashed as if in response to her desires, overwhelming white.

In the blink of an eye, Murati saw out of her eyes not a void but a world.

White walls, white lights, but steel enclosures, LCD screens, beakers, fluids, artificial light. Machines and the logic by which they were operated. She saw humans; she saw, primarily, a man in a coat, shirt, red tie, shiny brown shoes. He approached an enclosure where there was someone trapped, a woman. Her skin was mottled with red rashes and yellow pustules. She was starkly naked and reclining against the back of the enclosure. There was scarring across much of her face, but her mouth could still open, and she had one eye and half a head of pristinely blue hair which was strikingly beautiful.

“Good morning, doctor.” She said. Murati understood the language.

But she also understood it was not her own. There was a strange texture to the words.

Her soul knew what they were saying– not her ears.

Outside the enclosure, sickly green and yellow colors surrounded the man.

While the woman was clad in pristine, euphoric white despite her physical condition.

“Good morning, Euphie.” He said.

That unmarred half of the woman’s face stretched, with visible effort, into a smile.

“It’s dire outside, isn’t it? Your troubles follow you in. I can see them.”

“Everything is dire, Euphie. But you’re doing good. You’re our little miracle.”

His aura writhed as he said those words. Clear, painful lies filled with regret.

There was an increasingly black band filling the edges.

“You’ll cure it soon. You cured the last two. We’ll save the world, doctor.” She said.

She heaved a tired little sigh and closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I can’t keep fighting it. Death. I’ll talk again soon. Once I’ve recovered.”

Murati stood uncomprehendingly as she saw, for a brief second, what she thought were lashing tentacles or worms bursting from the pustules on the woman’s body and striking the enclosure. Blood and fluid splashed on the glass of the enclosure and the woman’s body grew limp inside. Then, she vanished in a cloud of white gas released inside the airtight chamber that had become her grave. There was still something writhing inside– but before Murati could truly understand the horror of it, she, too, vanished.

Disappeared in a white flash and ferried somewhere else.

Above her, there was suddenly a ring of blue sky.

In the distance, seething fog that pulsed bright purple with frayed red edges.

There was a mass of people. Screaming, crying, fighting against a line of armored men.

On the edge of the sky, and the edge of the ocean, there were great, enormous structures, metallic struts and scaffolds of vast size, imprinted with symbols of patriotism that Murati did not understand, flags and insignias. There was an unbroken line of people moving shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow, into the great machines. There were colors everywhere, vaporous, and furious, red, and yellow and black, deep and broad black auras, everyone was certain of death, and everyone was afraid of death.

Amid that crowd, a woman with blue hair stood out from the masses.

Wrapped up in a thick coat and fedora, gazing over her shoulder mournfully.

She forced herself to look forward, shook her head, and kept walking to the machines.

“I have to keep moving forward. That’s my curse in this world.”

And she knew, and now Murati knew as well– it would be her curse in the next world too.

For all that she suffered fighting for humanity.

She would be spared the bliss of death.

Murati’s world shifted again, the sight before her eyes–

–dimming

–darkening

She smelled oil and smoke, soot, and concrete dust in the air. Yellow air that dried the mouth.

Amid the ruins of some place, a habitation of some kind, roofs and walls, shattered streets.

Overhead the sky was grey and below the earth was muddy and strangely yellowed.

“We killed more of the civilians than anything. This is a god damned mess.”

Two men in black uniforms with masks over their faces trudged through the mud.

Red armbands on their sleeves contained a strange symbol like a lightning bolt.

“How much gas will it take to kill two million Ayvartan troops?”

“How many did this take out? A battalion? We’re fucked. I’m not even reporting this.”

“We have to say something. Lowball it. Say it was a squadron or something pathetic.”

“That won’t work. They’re dead set on this. They’ll say even that much is progress.”

“Fuck me. We can’t possibly keep doing this shit, can we?”

“Wait–”

The two men paused for a moment. It was impossible to see their faces under the masks.

However, their emotions were not inscrutable. Murati could see the colors wisp from them.

They were surprised and shocked– and there was a brief flash of death in their eyes.

“Is that a kid?”

They walked forward, into a dilapidated house. Murati could see inside it.

“This is– she looks clean as a newborn baby. How the fuck did she survive this?”

There was a girl. Svelte, maybe malnourished. Her little dress was in tatters.

Skin pale as pearl, untouched, not a nick on her. Breathing gently, as if asleep.

Her hair a shocking, pristine blue, long, and loose, lightly curled.

“I– I don’t know. But we can’t just leave her here. Help me with her, quick.”

“Messiah defend, there’s not a scratch on her. She’s breathing. And what’s with her hair?”

“Forget her hair. Look. Her feet have blisters, from the poison in the mud. The rest of her is fine. There’s corpses everywhere. Everyone else around her died. How did she survive the shelling?”

“How would I know? Let’s take her to the medics, we’ve got bigger problems.”

In the distance, Murati heard a whirring noise, and she saw the clouds parting–

Numerous machines, flying high in the air, explosions following in their wake–

As she vanished into a white light with the surroundings she knew Euphrates survived this.

In the next instant–

Metal walls. Vanishing colors.

No texture, except the smoothness of her uniform when she touched it.

Just to feel something– something familiar.

Smell– treated air, circulated by machines. Vaguely sweet, inoffensive.

Surrounded by people and silence.

And the comparatively low pressure of 300 meters of water above them, threatening to crush them any second, with the only comfort being that the ship was used to surmounting over a thousand meters more and could survive close to 8000 meters deep in total. She was back on the UNX-001 Brigand. She was Senior Lieutenant and First Officer, Murati Nakara; she was alive. She was back in her own world.

On the shoulders of Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara, she noticed wispy bands of green color with a little band of green and yellow. Aaliyah had just a little bit of red at the edges. These things communicated to Murati’s mind, she understood them as if they were facial expressions or body language. They were waiting, afraid that something had happened to Murati. Aaliyah was trying to restrain her anger that this situation had taken this turn, struggling to take control of it back.

She realized that her eyes felt warm. She knew that there were red rings around the irises.

Though she couldn’t see them she knew that this was the case.

Murati turned around from them and quietly faced the woman in front of her again.

Euphrates retreated back a step, having withdrawn her hand.

“How do you feel?” She said gently.

Looking down at her–

There was a flash in Murati’s mind. Visions of a blue haired girl, lonely and in pain. Tortured endlessly. Places whose forms sat just on the edge of her memory, speech in a language she barely understood, some events in motion like a grainy film with frames missing, her mind had the texture of these things, but the complete form was just out of reach. There was an outpouring of them in her mind’s eye.

Murati’s warm auburn eyes began to weep uncontrollably. Her lip trembled. Her body shook.

She bowed slightly and grabbed hold of Euphrates suddenly, embracing her tightly.

Weeping profusely on her shoulder, stroking her hair, wanting her to feel any comfort.

“I’m sorry!” She shouted. “I’m so sorry! What they did to you– I’m– I–” Murati wailed with an agony she did not understand even in part. Words cascaded out of her lips that sounded less connected to anything concrete with each passing second, channeling the formless pain of another body, as the things she saw and felt in the aether moved farther and farther from the mind but remained in the heart.

Euphrates, smiling, weeping gently herself, silently returned the embrace.


“I apologize. I acted too familiar.”

“That’s quite alright. It just tells me you have a very big heart, Murati.”

Murati sat back down on the table, raising a hand to her chest to feel her pounding heart.

She was red in the face and feeling a little nervous after everything that happened.

“How are your faculties, Murati?” Ulyana asked. “Anything feeling off?”

“I had a strange experience. I went to places and saw things– but I can’t really tell you all of the substance of it. I had visions– I think I saw bits and pieces of Euphrates’ life, maybe.” Murati said, stumbling over words just a bit. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing what I can recall unless she allows it. However, I think I am actually ready to try to move an object without touching it.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms. That red portion of her colors got just a little bit wider.

Murati turned to Euphrates, who walked over to Murati and bent close to her, looking over her shoulder. She took Murati’s hand and guided her to stretch her arm out toward another, intact pen which also sat in the middle of the table. It was out of Murati’s reach and away from the other pen which Euphrates had allegedly collapsed into a sphere of carbon, still sitting at the far edge of the table.

“Alright, Murati, focus on the object you want to move. You’ve seen the Aether auras, the colors, around other people now, right? Did you focus your eyes on them to make them sharper?”

“I think so. I think I can do that.” Murati said. She had done so with Aaliyah, she thought.

At first the “auras” were just colors and a vague understanding.

If she focused on them, she could appraise them better. She realized this now.

It was like the trigger of a gun. She could pull it with her mind to set off the effects.

“Now, try to focus on this object, using the same method. Compel it to move away from you. Trace a line to where you want it to go. It’ll get easier, but for the very first time you attempt this you will really need to focus. Create from nothing a reality where this object is moving.” Euphrates said.

She stepped back from Murati and took seat next to Tigris again.

“By the way, if you want to relay anything you saw in the Aether to the Captain and Commissar, you are free to do so. Those memories are irrelevant to the world of today, and I do not let them govern how I live my life in the here and now. But thank you for the hug. It was very warm.” Euphrates added.

Murati nodded her head. She breathed in deep and then reached out her hand to the pen.

She tried to focus on the pen. She spent a few seconds staring at it.

Move. Move. Move.

She felt like when she was assigned to a psychologist at school, after her biggest protests.

Ink blots and mental exercises– stuff that felt too abstract for her to get a hold of.

It felt silly, talking in her own head like she was talking to the pen.

As the seconds passed, she began to fear she had created a reality where the pen had not moved, and one in which she did not know what would happen next. After all this anticipation, they would be going back to grilling Euphrates about this, trying to prize from her what was real and false about her, about her intentions, her narrative. Murati really wanted to spare her any more pain.

She could not remember in exact terms what she had seen in those visions.

But she knew that Euphrates was extremely old, ancient despite her pretty face, and her long life was filled with such pain that Murati couldn’t even imagine feeling. She felt compelled by her own humanity, even if this feeling was not fully substantiated, to try to do what she could to help Euphrates, to absolve her of other’s doubts and suspicions. Murati’s skepticism told her that it was possible Euphrates was now deceiving her. It just didn’t make sense though– the medbay visit, the HELIOS, all of this.

Meeting her was perhaps serendipitous. One of the greatest coincidences of her life.

Murati had the feeling, however, that Euphrates was not a malicious person.

Even had they never met, even though they disagreed philosophically about certain things.

Euphrates was following her convictions and doing what she believed was right.

Move, damn you!

In the next instant, the pen did not just move at Murati’s command.

It sailed to the opposite wall like a projectile and shattered upon striking it.

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at it, speechless for a moment.

“Oh. I think I have the hang of this a bit.”

Murati shifted her gaze to the sphere that Euphrates had crushed the other pen into.

She reached out her hand and compelled to move toward her instead.

A microsecond later, an instant of thought, and the little ball shot toward Murati.

Striking her in the chest, and then dropping on the table with a series of little thuds.

Murati grabbed hold of her chest, wincing with pain. Gunther turned to check on her.

“Agh! Damn it!” She cried out.

She had just told her doctor her ribs were okay, and now her sternum hurt like hell.

It did not feel like anything was broken, but she nearly doubled over from the pain.

That would almost certainly bruise.

“Be careful!” Euphrates said cheerfully at the unfolding theater. “You don’t know your own strength. But you’re a very fast learner. You applied the concept of moving the object away to pull the object toward you! Not everyone figures that out within seconds of their first telekinetic thrust. You’ll be learning about vectors in no time with that level of conceptualization– I knew you’d be impressive, Murati.”

“Hmph. I learned it pretty quickly too, you know.” Tigris butted in.

“Yes, and I praised you for it in the moment– many, many, MANY years ago.”

Euphrates laughed and Tigris scowled at her and turned her back once more.

“Hmph!”

Murati could hardly see the humor in the situation because her sternum was still hurting.

“Murati, do you need to go to the medbay?” Ulyana asked.

She glanced toward her officers, trying to appraise their current emotions.

All of the red and yellow had melted from both the captain’s and commissar’s auras.

In their place, thin bands of purple and white appeared to compliment the blue and green.

Pride, Murati thought. Pride and awe or euphoria.

They were both anxious, but they also were starting to realize, perhaps–

–that their worlds had changed a bit too now.

Murati shook her head, in response to the medbay comment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah almost at the same time brought their hands up to their faces.

“What is this even going to look like in a report?” Ulyana lamented.

“It’s not.” Aaliyah said. “I am not going to report any of this. What would I even say?”

“How is this possible? I want to wake up from this.” Ulyana continued to lament.

Zachikova had her arms crossed, deep in thought. Gunther looked quietly shocked.

Euphrates sat back, clearly less tense now that she appeared to be getting her way.

“You are free to disclose any information I’ve given you to your authorities. However, I won’t be able to provide physical evidence of anything at this moment, so I recommend to withhold your reports for now. I do have a condition I must set for myself and Tigris’ continued support, however.”

“Hey, don’t assume I’ll just do anything you want. I’m pretty pissed at you.” Tigris said.

“I would be heartbroken if my irreplaceable partner left me.” Euphrates said.

Tigris’ shoulders tensed. “Ugh. Shut up. Fine. I’m in for whatever, then.”

Ulyana ran her hands over her face, through her long blond locks. She tossed her hair.

Resetting herself. Letting off a bit of steam.

After heaving a sigh, she responded, clearly frustrated. “What do you want, Euphrates?”

“I want to hire all of you. I promise I won’t interfere with your ‘mission profile’.”

“Hire us? Like the original agreement we had with Solarflare LLC?” Aaliyah asked.

Euphrates reached out a hand across the table, symbolically.

“Exactly. Take me to Rhinea and help me investigate Yangtze’s actions. I need to confirm her true intentions. All of us need more information to determine our next moves. Yangtze has ties to the Imperial factions, so ultimately, if you help me, you’ll gain a lot of juicy information on some very bad people. While we are there, you can continue your own activities. I’ll support you as a consultant, and this lady here will help maintain the HELIOS, and help out around the ship. She’s handier than she looks.”

“You’re the one who looks, and is, useless!” Tigris cried out. “They know I’m helpful.”

“Both of us can teach Murati Nakara more about psionics,” Euphrates continued speaking, ignoring Tigris, “then you’ll be able to determine whether it is safe or useful based on her progress. You don’t trust us completely, but Murati is someone you know for sure that you can trust, right?”

Ulyana and Aaliyah exchanged a look. Both of them stood up as if to speak definitively.

“Murati has nearly died for this crew multiple times. Of course I trust her.” Ulyana said. “To be clear– you’re quite right. I don’t trust you anymore, Euphrates, but not because of your actions. I still want to be able to trust and cooperate with you. However, too many unknowns have been introduced.” She paused briefly to gather her breath. “So I’ll tentatively agree to your terms because I don’t have much choice. However, if you step out of line, I am quite ready to shred the paper and do something about you.”

Aaliyah’s ears and tail stood up, tense; but her eyes smoldered with determination.

“I agree with the Captain. This whole situation has gotten out of hand. We’ll have to think carefully about what this means. Psionics, Aether, Omenseers and the Sunlight Foundation– all these capital letter terms hint at a world we were not prepared to tackle with our own resources. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how much of this I’m even prepared to believe. I’m ready to wake up at any moment. But in the material reality of the here and now, we have few choices. However, there’s one whale in the room here.”

Ulyana glanced over to Aaliyah, looking a little bit surprised.

“I think I understand what you’re going to ask. Go ahead.” Euphrates said.

Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to breathe deep and sigh.

“You must have known all along, Euphrates, but we are soldiers beholden to the Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. We are on a Union mission. Your Sunlight Foundation has stayed hidden all this time, but now you are sharing all this knowledge with us. It seems to me that you are desperate for shelter from your organization, so you need us. In that case, I have conditions of my own. Everything you have told us will have to be formally told to the Union government. All these secrets have to be confirmed and reported.”

Murati scanned Euphrates’ face for any sign of concern. There were none.

She was calm as she ever had been, and her aura was as soft and pristine as before.

“Of course. I understand. Here’s my response: help me find Daksha Kansal. I trust her and I want to talk to her about the Union. Depending what she and I decide, we can make formal disclosures to the Union.”

Euphrates truly had a gift for saying things that rendered the floor speechless.

Ulyana raised a hand to her own lips and grinned to herself, laughing a little at the prospect.

Finding Daksha Kansal, the first Premier and legendary hero of the Revolution–

“Daksha Kansal left the Union to foment revolution in the Imperial territories, many years ago. If she’s still alive– well, it could actually be very useful to our mission as well to find her and see what she has been up to all these years. However, none of us have any idea where she could be right now.”

“We all want to believe she’s alive, but we can’t guarantee that.” Aaliyah said in support of Ulyana.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find her. Let’s just tack that on the agenda as an item, then.”

Euphrates stood from her chair, reaching out her hand for a shake, still smiling affably.

“Do we have a deal then? Make Rhinea our next destination, and I promise you with your military power and my knowledge and resources, we can absolutely find Daksha Kansal, investigate and overturn Yangtze’s ambitions, and tackle the next phase of your own mission, whatever that might be.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana exchanged another glance, but both of them smiled. Hearing the name Daksha Kansal, and perhaps having the thought of finding her again, clearly lifted their spirits. It was insane, but it was perhaps the least insane of all the things they had talked about today. It was insanely hopeful.

“You better not dare to betray us after all of your theater, Euphrates.” Aaliyah said.

“Bah, if she steps out of line after all this, I’ll be the first one in line to kill her.” Tigris said.

Euphrates laughed.

“I feel excited about this partnership. I think we will do fantastic work together.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked around the table and shook hands with Euphrates and Tigris.

They had sealed a deal of absolutely monumental proportions, brought together by fate.

A casual handshake between the material and supernatural worlds.

Murati could hardly fathom where this would lead them all. Those colors eluded her.

Looking down at the little ball, spinning rapidly atop her palm, at her mental command.

Everything felt terribly ominous– but she couldn’t turn her back from it.

Just like when she first understood communism, imperialism, and the war for the heart of the world.

If the world was bigger; then there was more of it to fight for, more of it to liberate.

If there were more enemies; then she would still take them all on as they came.

Her ambition was to set things right. Short of achieving her justice, she knew she would not stop.

“We need to get you a room, then. Maybe move Fernanda and Alex together.” Ulyana said.

“Whatever you decide is fine. Oh, and whenever you’re ready, Captain, we can go over the data from the HELIOS too. First, though, I want to check up on our little empath over here and see how she’s doing.”

Euphrates left the captain’s side for a moment, and given freedom to move, went to Murati’s side.

“Are you asking yourself right now, ‘why me’?” Euphrates said, smiling, patting Murati on the shoulder.

Murati looked up at her, wearily. She saw the colors around Euphrates, calm and unmoving.

She shook her head, smiling a bit herself. “I’m just asking myself what happens now.”


While the Brigand at large put another eerily quiet day in the photic zone behind them, the Captain and Commissar completed their inquiries about the previous run of events, to what was a satisfactory conclusion for the two of them. Both of them agreed to the following immediate terms:

Marina McKennedy’s final G.I.A. rank of Ensign would be respected, and she would hold a position on the Brigand as an intelligence analyst with the rights of any other officer. She agreed to support the Brigand’s endeavors until the formal end of the Brigand’s mission or until they could secure passage for Marina and for Elena Lettiere into the Union. She would work in the conference room next to the bridge, and she would have main screen access from there, to prevent the bridge from becoming too crowded.

Arbitrator I was inducted into the Brigand’s crew as Petty Officer Arabella Oikonomou, a Katarran surname as her appearance could be easily explained that way. As far as the sailors were concerned, she was rescued in Goryk’s Gorge, and anything else about her was classified. She would consult on navigation. While she was also initially meant to work in the conference room with Marina, she demanded to sit down on the floor near Braya Zachikova’s station. This would block one of the four-step staircases up from the gas gunner’s tier below the main bridge floor, but her cheerful insistence wore the officers down.

“I don’t mind it. If a fire breaks out, I’ll throw her in it to open the stairs.” Braya Zachikova said.

“Don’t.” Ulyana Korabiskaya replied.

Zachikova grumbled. “It was a joke.”

“She’s so funny.” Arbitrator I smiled. “Braya! We’ll get to work together every day!”

Euphrates and Tigris were each given the rank of Specialist. Euphrates was placed under Karuniya Maharapratham, formally as a laboratory assistant. Karuniya, who was not privy to the interrogation, stared quizzically at her new charge, instantly recognizing her– but quickly grew fond of the idea of having what she described as a “minion.” She vowed to make Euphrates work hard and earn her keep.

Tigris was subordinated to Chief Mechanic Galina Lebedova, who was happy to have her.

“Ah, fantastic! She was a real workhorse during the repairs.”

Tigris puffed herself up with pride. “Good to be back ma’am. What’s there to fix?”

Unbeknownst to Ulyana, the two of them had really hit it off.

They chatted away like old friends about all the menial maintenance work there was to do.

In this way, their new acquaintances would be able to quietly integrate into ship life.

However, as part of the terms, both of them were also asked to reveal their “actual” names.

“We’re not going to use Euphemia Rontgen and Theresa Faraday. Tell us your real names.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah clearly still felt somewhat slighted about being lied to by them.

“We’ve gone by our codenames for so long it really doesn’t matter. But sure, for you.”

Euphrates was actually Euphemia Levi, while Tigris was Agni Pradesh.

“Levi? That’s an Eloist surname, isn’t it? Pradesh sounds North Bosporan.” Ulyana asked.

“Pradesh is just the High Bosporan word for ‘region’, I didn’t have parents.” Tigris said.

“Eloim is how they are known now.” Euphrates said. “But that surname is as old as I am, so it is as irrelevant as its origin. Humor me, Captain: does the word ‘jew’ mean anything to you?”

“Fine. I get your point. But I’m putting both these down on the roster, end of story.”

“How old is this lady supposed to be, anyway?” Aaliyah mumbled to herself.

“It’s a new world out there, Captain, Commissar! Free of the contrivances of the old and replete with its own. Let’s agree to focus on the things that matter in this world.” Euphrates winked at them.

Aaliyah and Ulyana shared annoyed looks with each other and agreed not to ask her to elaborate.

Xenia Laskaris, meanwhile, was fired by Euphrates and Tigris, which didn’t surprise her.

Ulyana and Aaliyah promised to let her go in Rhinea with enough supplies to tide her over.

Shrugging, the Katarran mercenary simply went back to reading what looked like old issues of fashion magazines. She talked back while her eyes were peeled on pictures of trends from years past.

“I won’t say no to free food, but don’t worry about me. I wouldn’t have cut it as a merc if I didn’t plan for this type of sitch. It was worth it to take this job to see Illya and Valeriya again, even if I didn’t get paid much. Besides, I get a free ride to Rhinea– I hear there’s a Katarran warlord stuck there on a business trip who’s supposed to be a big deal. Don’t tell anyone I told you– but I’ll get another job soon.”

She winked. Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes at her casual behavior.

Clearly, she wanted to be dropped off at a specific place, then.

With that smart mouth of hers, it was a wonder she ever got any work.

“How do you know Illya and Valeriya, exactly?” Aaliyah asked.

“That’s classified. Ask Parvati Nagavanshi– or better yet, don’t.”

Xenia smirked at them. Both Captain and Commissar dropped the subject, for their mental health.

There was one final, unrelated task the two of them had to take on that day.

It was a discussion where there wouldn’t be a committee.

Ulyana and Aaliyah made their way to the brig. Because of the soundproof cells it was always quiet even when there were multiple people being kept captive. However, with almost all the occupants released, the brig felt emptier and more disused than it had been when the two of them last visited. There was one last prisoner whom they had to speak to that day: this one they left for last because it was one to whom they had no connection, and they had to be delicate with her. She had not made deals with them, fought alongside them, or saved them from a major catastrophe. Quite the opposite in fact.

They did not know, for example, how some of the more gung-ho communists among them might react to her presence on the ship. Or even worse– how Khadija al-Shajara might have reacted to her based on their tragic history. It was their duty nonetheless to evaluate whether Sieglinde von Castille was a serious defector, and what her agenda was. There were processes surrounding defectors to the Union, but these were drafted for the border forces to induct refugees, or for surrendering vessels. A single aristocrat who turned in the middle of the battlefield fell largely to the discretion of Captain and Commissar.

Complicating things further was the fact that this escapee was the famous “Red Baron.”

At the door, Ulyana and Aaliyah met with Klara van Der Smidse and Zhu Lian. Since the crises of the past few days, the two amicable security girls had been kitted out for combat on a daily basis, wearing armored suits consisting of neoprene bodystockings with interlocking, flexible Kevlar and ceramic plates over the chest, arms, shoulders, and legs. They had been armed with shotshell shotguns, which they wielded with deadly seriousness, fingers off trigger, held at an angle away from people when idle.

Only Illya and Valeriya were formally trained and licensed for safe handling of AK-pattern assault rifles inside ships, so in a situation where the security team was allowed lethal force, but could not risk damaging ship infrastructure, the junior security girls were given shotguns armed with lethal shot. On a Union ship, it was seen as an extraordinary circumstance for security officers to bear lethal arms. It was not viewed the same as arming marines or sailors to secure a station landing.

But after all, they had been guarding a lot of strange individuals– like an imperial ace pilot.

These measures were not overkill when it came to such an unknown situation.

And especially now that Ulyana and Aaliyah had to worry about psychic powers too.

They were both ultimately glad that they decided to open the armory to these girls.

Even if nothing had happened–yet.

“Stay here, we’ll call out of anything happens.” Ulyana said.

She patted Zhu Lian in the shoulder, and the security girls nodded their acknowledgment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah walked into the brig, to the first door. They undid the sound-proofing both ways and opened one of the sliding plates on the door, allowing Ulyana to see inside. The Red Baron sat on the bed, her long blond hair flowing down her back. Her pristine uniform coat she had folded and set down as an additional pillow, exposing her skin-tight, long-sleeved under-shirt. She was a very tall woman, fair skinned, blond, with strikingly pretty face. Ulyana thought she had the build of a fencer, tall with lean, strong, long, and flexible limbs, but her features were like an idealized Imbrian princess.

She reminded Ulyana a bit of herself– not entirely by way of self-flattery.

However, Sieglinde von Castille was apparently Ulyana’s senior by two years.

“Baron, apologies for the delay. We would like to speak to you. We are opening the door.”

Sieglinde nodded her head, stood, and remained at the back of the cell.

Fully upright, she really was taller than Ulyana and Aaliyah.

Her countenance was so strikingly fair and regal, even as she avoided their gaze.

“Sieglinde von Castille, correct?” Ulyana asked.

“Correct.”

“During the battle, you retreated toward our side and broadcast that you were defecting.”

“I did.”

Her responses were quick, but more than enough to communicate her mournful tone.

She sounded on the verge of tears. Her voice was coming out of a ragged throat.

“I couldn’t bear serving that ravening beast Lichtenberg any longer. I felt disgusted with her.”

“And you are looking to replace servitude to her with what? Servitude to us?”

Sieglinde looked at Ulyana in the eyes and seemed to realize the trouble she was in.

“I won’t defend that dreadful Inquisitor; if it was up to me alone then I would be happy for you leaving that volatile tinpot tyrant behind and seeking brighter waters.” Ulyana continued, “However, the tricky thing about defectors is that our first and only impression of one is who they have betrayed. For the sake of my crew, I need to know more about your story and about what you are hoping to accomplish. We have a few people aboard who have good reasons to be wary of your presence, Red Baron.”

“Please don’t call me that.” Sieglinde whimpered.

“That is who you are. You are the Red Baron and you can’t avoid that.” Aaliyah said.

Her tone was rather more biting than Ulyana would have wanted in that situation.

Sieglinde’s gaze dropped to the floor.

“It’s– It’s not who I want to be. I swear to you. I would do anything to put it behind me.”

“And put behind you the lives that you took also?” Aaliyah said.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Ulyana said. “Not unwarranted but– harsh.”

Aaliyah crossed her arms and fixed her eyes on Sieglinde.

“All I’m saying, is that she can’t just run away from the title of Red Baron. Sieglinde von Castille fought with the Empire as the Red Baron. She killed our comrades in the revolution, she served Norn and Lichtenberg, fought against us, and endangered our pilots. She has to be held accountable for those things. She can’t run away from that and pretend she can be righteous from today onward by looking the other way. I might be acting harsh, but that’d be a bit too easy for a murderer, don’t you think?”

Sieglinde remained quiet for a moment, avoiding Aaliyah’s gaze.

She raised her hands up to her face. Rubbing her palms over her eyes, digging her nails.

“She’s right.” Sieglinde said. “I’m so sorry. I wish I could be born again today free of this sin, but that will not happen. I want to change– but she’s right. I’m the Red Baron, and I’ll never be able to give back the lives I took. But I want to face justice for what I’ve done. I– I’ve thought about taking my own life.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana both drew their eyes wide open at that statement.

“Absolutely not!” Ulyana said. “That would not serve justice! Nobody here wants that!”

“I do not wish death on you!” Aaliyah added. “Forgive me– I really was being too harsh!”

She really meant it. Ulyana could actually hear the contrition in her voice all of a sudden.

“I– I want to tell you my story then. I’m not actually of noble stock.” Sieglinde said suddenly. She clutched the fabric of her bodysuit over her breast as if to feel her heart through her fist. “Please hear me out. I was an orphan, but I was blond, fair, and blue-eyed, so I was adopted by the Castille family. They were a rich military family with a heroic lineage, but they were recent Peers, and had been stricken by many tragedies and left without young heirs. But because my race could not be confirmed, they knew that the Imbrian aristocrats would be prejudice toward me unless I earned achievements equal to the Castille name.”

“Your parents pressured you to fight in the war. So the aristocracy would accept you.” Ulyana replied.

Sieglinde nodded her head solemnly. Ulyana could hear the bitterness in her voice.

“I was eighteen during the Colonial War. I was a Diver pilot, I became known as the Red Baron, one of the very first Imperial aces. But it wasn’t prestigious. They expected us to die at any time and treated us badly. Every time I sortied, I was terrified. I was killing people out of fear. I was doing everything I could to survive without a point to it all. I couldn’t turn back for fear of being killed by my superiors for cowardice or disowned by my parents for retreating. After the war, they glorified everything to save face.”

Aaliyah averted her gaze. Twenty years ago– she would have been seven years old, just a kitten.

Ulyana had fought in the Revolution herself. She had been sixteen years old back then, even younger than Sieglinde. She understood all too well what it was like; in the moment, there was no killing for righteous reasons, there was only killing. Ideology was ascribed to her battles before and after. In the lead-up to a battle, it was righteous, and after the battle, it was liberatory. In the middle of battle she was killing to survive. It was still very different from Sieglinde’s plight, however. The communists didn’t have a home to return to if they failed. Their meager homes in the colonies were the ones invaded by the Empire.

In her mind that did not diminish Sieglinde’s tragedy, however. Ulyana was sixteen, and this woman had been only eighteen. Both of them had been children, compared to their leadership. Sieglinde had been thrown into war, used as a tool by every authority in her life. She was told that treading upon slaves and peasants was righteous, that it would clad her in honor and make her worthy. And she had to wear that cloak of blood to be legitimate, or her life as she had been raised to know it would end.

“That war taught me that the aristocracy has no ‘nobility’. It was not justice. We were not protecting our families or homes, we were fighting for the greed of the imperial landlords. I hated myself for my participation in it; but I convinced myself there was no changing the path life had given me. I was the Red Baron. Eventually my parents died of illness, the pure blood aristocrats kept me at arm’s length, I fought even more wars that I did not believe in– and I told myself each step of the way that all I could do was conduct myself personally with honor, even as I was surrounded by injustices. I wasted years like this.”

Sieglinde started weeping again. She sank against the back wall of the cell.

One fist held up over her eyes. Her lips quivering with fresh sobs.

“I wasted twenty years. Lamenting, pitying myself, but doing nothing to absolve my sins. I even fought for people like Lichtenberg– I told myself I was doing it to save Elena, but the princess was right to turn away that demon of an Inquisitor. But these past few weeks have been my life in miniature. A servant of evil.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah remained quiet, allowing Sieglinde to continue speaking as she wept.

“I’m so sorry. I know this is pathetic. I know that it is too late. I know I can’t reverse the evil deeds I committed. But even if I’m never forgiven, even if I am always hated– I can’t continue to live in self-delusion, believing my self-justifications while fighting for such depraved agendas! I can’t go back!”

Sieglinde raised her voice and was finally overcome by her tears.

Sobbing too profusely to speak, she slouched her shoulders, covered her face in her hands.

It was difficult to watch this woman so visibly overcome with a lifetime of agony.

She had looked every bit as regal as a princess from a storybook before.

Mixed with a bit of the gallant knight that usually saved such princesses.

Her story showed the ugly reality of such pretty fables. It was now written on her suffering face.

In the Imbrian Empire, princely knights like Sieglinde fought and died for the avarice of callous overlords who would never accept them as equals. Honor and justice were concepts they used exclusively to fool girls like her into protecting the wealth and power of the rich. People only had as much use to them as what they could be used for, and Sieglinde had been used. All of her life, since she was a child, to the current day, made to murder innocent people. Justifying the lies she was told, to live with herself.

For Ulyana, who had been born into the Empire, it was certainly possible she could have ended up the same. If the Imbrian Empire had not purged masses of Volgians like herself, she, and many more people like her and Sieglinde would have been raised to support the Empire, to fight and to die for its values.

Had she not been repressed, Ulyana would have not learned of repression, and rebelled.

The Imbrian Empire had seared into her skin and eyes the will she needed to fight them.

That was the only thing that dictated their opposing sides in the Revolution.

Back then, she wasn’t a communist yet. She was a scared kid fighting for her only home.

Sieglinde wasn’t an imperialist. She was a teenager, in over her head, pressured to fight.

Now despite her privileged position, Sieglinde moved closer to understanding exploitation.

Ulyana did not want to deny her a chance to break free of the Empire’s control.

But it was not so easy. Sieglinde had done their country and people several injustices.

“We will let you recover for a moment, Sieglinde, and then return.” Ulyana said.

She did not want to call her Baron, or Red Baron, or von Castille– not after that story.

Aaliyah nodded her acquiescence and followed Ulyana out of the brig, to the adjacent hall.

Zhu Lian and Klara van Der Smidse entered the brig and stood guard over the cell.

“What do you think?” Ulyana said. “She’s in pieces. I feel really sorry for her right now.”

“We shouldn’t let an Imperial officer’s life’s story sway our decisions.” Aaliyah said.

“Aaliyah, she was just a kid. They raised her like this– and she still turned her back on it.”

“She’s more admirable than other Imperial officers, you’re correct.” Aaliyah sighed.

“I understand your hesitation. It might cause a stink. She’s not a civilian, not G.I.A, not innocent.”

“Everyone saw her come in here on an enemy Diver and get arrested. She’s the Red Baron.”

“Right. But Aaliyah, out there– there’s nothing but Imperials, you know? You said it yourself, before.”

When they were discussing the mission previously, their positions had been reversed. It was Aaliyah who was advocating for working pragmatically with Imperials, even the Volkisch, if it would enable them to diminish Imperial power and support the anti-Imperialist revolution. They did not have the luxury to hold their allies to perfection. Ulyana at the time thought that it was impossible to work with Imperials. She was a communist revolutionary and could not trust them. In the abstract it felt so difficult, such a bitter pill to swallow, to shake hands with an enemy. Now, Aaliyah was confronted by a ghost of the old war, and she was hesitant to accept such cooperation, while Ulyana finally put a face on those nebulous dissenters she was supposed to help nurture, and she felt an emotional connection to their plight.

“I know, Captain. But I wager very few Imperial dissidents actually fought in the Revolution.” She said.

“You don’t know that. We can’t be that picky either. Let’s think of it pragmatically: what matters now, is that she wants to work with us. She wants to take concrete steps to fight against the Empire. She feels duped, she has no path forward, she insinuated suicide— we should welcome her aboard, Aaliyah.”

“She could just be acting.” Aaliyah replied. Her argument sounded feebler than before.

Ulyana smiled at her. She held back the urge to laugh at her pouting Commissar.

“We’ve seen better actors, haven’t we? We’ve been lied to a lot lately.” Ulyana said.

“I can’t disagree with your logic Captain. But I also can’t deny my own anxieties here.”

Aaliyah’s orange eyes met Ulyana’s green eyes. She was ashamed, indecisive, struggling.

Commissars were a visible symbol of communist orthodoxy. They were supposed to be “the best of us.” Learned in theory, law, and philosophy, good at speaking, good with people. With their every step and their every breath, wherever they went, the spirit of Mordecai was supposed to follow them. Aaliyah was a bit of a party girl, and her relationship to her religion was probably a complicated factor in her upholding the secular mores of the Union’s Mordecism. Therefore– could she really work with an imperial soldier?

But above everything– she was a good person. With a kind heart and a clear head.

She wanted to be kind to Sieglinde von Castille. She just forced herself to be harsh.

Commissars locked up imperialists. Imperial soldiers were symbols of reaction, counterrevolution.

But Aaliyah was not just a Commissar. Ulyana understood what she needed to do.

“You don’t have to be responsible for her. I will clean up the broken plates, don’t worry.” Ulyana said.

“Captain– But– I–” She looked surprised at that declaration. She stumbled over her words.

“That’s why there’s two of us, right? Each of us can handle what the other one cannot.”

Aaliyah’s serious face ceded to a very small smile. “Well. I can’t exactly disagree with that.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her. You can hold me accountable for my bad judgment if she betrays us.”

Ulyana reached out a hand as if to shake in order to strike a deal with the Commissar.

“If anything happens you can pass judgment and you can decide the issue. But please– trust me.”

In response, Aaliyah suddenly reached out with both of her hands and squeezed Ulyana’s hand.

The Commissar smiled brightly at her. Her cat-like ears folded ever so slightly, her tail quivering gently.

Her voice was so placid. For a moment, Ulyana was taken aback by Aaliyah.

“Of course I trust you. Ulyana, you are better Captain– and person– than I ever gave you credit for.”

Her fingers squeezed Ulyana’s hand gently before retreating slowly back to her sides.

She was overcome with emotion. Allowing it to wash over her soft face.

Absolutely beautiful. It was impossible to turn her eyes away. Ulyana was stricken utterly.

“I will support your decision. You are right– I was being overly emotional.” She said.

Her tone of voice shifted, she was trying to sound less elated than she was before.

Perhaps she realized how absolutely cute she looked before. Ulyana could’ve kissed her.

But she would not– not right now. She was happy enough to have seen Aaliyah relax.

“Thank you. Commissar, let’s talk to Sieglinde again, and come up with a plan.”

“You take the lead then, Captain. I will be at your side as always.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah returned to the brig with renewed energy. Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse must have been wondering why they were returning to the brig with such big smiles on their faces given everything that was going on. With the officers coming in, the security girls moved to stand by the door again. The Captain and Commissar reentered Sieglinde’s cell, where she was seated back on her head. Her eyes and cheeks were very red from the violent fit of crying that had wrung through her.

She looked up at the two of them, silently pleading. Ulyana spoke first.

“Sieglinde, we apologize for the treatment so far. We want to welcome you aboard.”

Aaliyah quickly added context.

“There are conditions. We will be monitoring you, and you will work to earn our trust.”

Ulyana clapped her hands together with satisfaction. Another situation resolved!

“You will be formally debriefed at a later date. We’ll move some folks to give you a room.”

Sieglinde stared up at the two of them from the bed, initially speechless.

For a moment, there was silence between the cheerful officers and the awestruck captive.

Then Sieglinde’s eyes filled with tears again.

She threw herself to the floor and bowed, putting her head right to the ground.

It was stunning– at that moment, she was no longer an Imperial noble.

“Thank you. I am overcome by your mercy. I swear I will right my wrongs. I am oathbound to it.”

When Ulyana and Aaliyah were about to tell her to get up, Sieglinde lifted her head again.

Her tear-stained red eyes pleaded.

From the floor, her voice trembled. “I– I apologize but– I also have a request. To meet with someone.”


It happened that evening in the cafeteria.

Because it was time for the sailors to change shifts, there was a decent size crowd in the cafeteria. Nothing like the rush hours that sometimes overwhelmed the poor Chef Minardo, but at least two dozen people, enough to occupy a sizeable percentage of the cafeteria seats. These folks were eating, and making merry, happy that the ship seemed to be faring surprisingly well in the photic zone.

At the Captain’s suggestion, Minardo released some of the ship’s liquor to diners that night.

As such, Khadija al-Shajara found herself sitting on the edge of the cafeteria, turning over in her hands a small square can of corn wine. Shimii religious scholars had lively debates over the legitimacy of liquor-drinking. For hardliners, all alcoholic drinks were haram. However, there also were those more liberal mufti who believed that the prohibitions extended only to grape wine, not grain liquor. Grape wine was an indulgence of the devil, delicate and sensual, that tempted people to sin. Corn wine was just booze.

Khadija, a lively woman who enjoyed a good party, naturally sided with that camp, and popped the top of her can. She took a sip. It was sweet– possibly sweetened to hide the blandness of mass production.

However, it had a nice boozy bite to it, and it would certainly fuck her up.

And getting fucked up was all she wanted in that moment, inshallah.

“Um. Excuse me.”

That voice within the din of the crowd was not as familiar as it should have been.

Before she could chug the contents of the can and try to finagle any more out of Minardo, however, someone had appeared at the side of her table. Khadija looked up, but from her seat, it was tough for her gaze to make it up any higher than a sizable pair of breasts in a button-down synthetic shirt, without staring directly up at the LED banks on the ceiling. Trying to be polite, she stood up from her table, still holding her drink in her hands, and found herself closer to the face of her sudden guest.

Fair-skinned, long blond hair, bright eyes, a striking countenance. Tall, taller than her certainly.

Teal half-jacket, button-down white shirt, black pants, red tie. The Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Khadija’s teeth spontaneously grit together. Her hand squeezed the can she was holding.

She was standing in front of– that shameless bitch

Sieglinde von Castille. Lower lip quivering, shoulders unsteady, face flushed light red.

“Khadija al-Shajara, Lion of Cascabel– I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ll– I’ll do anything–”

She started to lower her head to bow–

In the next instant, Khadija’s hand cracked across the air like a whip.

Slapping Sieglinde across the face with such force it nearly knocked her over.

Leaving a red impression of her fingers on the woman’s pink-white cheek.

Without saying a word, Khadija stormed off, her own cheeks almost as red as Sieglinde’s had been left after the attack. Sieglinde watched her go with a dumbfounded expression, while everyone in the cafeteria and in the halls, literally everyone, stared directly at the two of them, held in suspense.

Standing opposite the cafeteria, Ulyana and Aaliyah covered their faces with their hands.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.13]

“Huh, what’s going on over there?”

There was a strange commotion across the hall. At first it had only been a few students who had stood around to ogle the girl at the end of the hall, until more and more people realized what had happened back there. That she had chained herself intricately to the handles of the sliding door. This could not by itself prevent the door from being closed or open. It was an automatic door that could be remotely operated and even pressurized under emergencies, so the mechanisms boasted a lot of strength.

But if anyone tried to force the door to open in this situation–

–the criss-crossed chains around her chest and belly were arranged so they would tear the girl apart.

So it was unconscionable that anyone would do so.

Anyone who did would be recorded as a child murderer instantly.

“What a morbid idea! But it’s clever, I suppose. I wonder how she got the chain?”

Karuniya Maharapratham, a preparatory student in the science program, joined the throng of onlookers. Something like this had never happened that she knew about. Certainly there were students who misbehaved but they did so in much more ordinary ways. They talked back or cheated on tests or skipped class. They pulled harmless pranks on the teachers sometimes. This was new. She was curious so she managed to squeeze and slide closer. She was not very tall, but she got a glimpse of the perpetrator.

Chained to the door was a girl with brown skin and long, messy dark hair down to the shoulders, in a slight bob with bangs almost over her face. Her auburn eyes stared out to the crowd with strange intensity. She had on the long-sleeved blue and green uniform of the “young pioneers” of the military program. As far as Karuniya understood it was worn for ceremonial purposes — an interesting choice.

What she could not help but focus on, however, were the eyes of the delinquent girl. She was staring intensely at the crowd with unwavering auburn eyes. Arms crossed, standing straight despite all the cold gazes coming her way. She had so much confidence and determination for a teenager!

Or maybe she was scared stiff and witless. Karuniya couldn’t really say one way or another.

She wanted to think though that this gallant delinquent was being brave rather than foolish.

“Murati Nakara!”

Behind Karuniya the sea of gossipy students parted to allow a pair of teachers through.

They approached Murati Nakara and stood between her and the ring of onlookers.

“What is the meaning of this Murati? You’re blocking the way to the simulators!”

“Yes, I know exactly what I’m blocking, thank you.” Murati said coldly.

Both teachers looked at each other in disbelief. As if they had not expected that response.

“And the ‘meaning of this’,” Murati continued, “is a protest. It’s a form of protest.”

“Murati, this is highly irregular! If you have issue with something you need to–”

“Lodge a formal complaint? I’ve lodged three separate ones. All were thrown out.”

“Still–” the teachers looked quite nervous. “Murati, you simply can’t–”

Murati put on a little grin. “It’s impossible to remove me without killing or hurting me, so I will list my formal demands.” She began to rattle a series of grievances with remarkable strength behind her voice.

“This Preparatory purports to train young adult students for acceptance into college programs, but its military track is an absolute joke! We do all kinds of stupid paperwork and study but have no means to gain practical skills except by running simulations, to which we have limited access! Yet the assessment test for the non-commissioned officer program in the Academy requires us to pass a practical examination! So who is it that gets into the NCO track, and therefore gets shortlisted to make Junior Petty Officer upon graduation? Do they have to know a guy who knows a guy to get significant time in a cockpit before college? The Simulations room is barely used, so why is access so limited?”

Everyone stood speechless. Murati continued, barely allowing a pause between.

“You want to know the ‘meaning of this’? I demand 24 hour simulator room access for all students! There is no reason to limit entry! And there is no reason to limit entry specifically to a paltry 3 hours a week of simulator time on average! Less paper testing, and more practical study! That’s my demand! We need to be prepared not just for the military practicums but to fight against the Empire in case of emergency! I demand improved readiness, equitable access to resources, and better training! And I will block the simulator room off until I can negotiate with a qualified administrator! End of story!”

For the first time, Murati closed her eyes and laid back against the door.

Surprisingly, none of the teachers tried what Karuniya would have done in that situation. Nobody smacked her upside the head or kicked her or otherwise got physical. Surely Murati had to have the key to her own chains on her person. Or they could have subdued her long enough to take a diamond sabre to the chains. Karuniya thought up all kinds of practical ways to remove the delinquent.

Instead, they ordered everyone to get back to work and ignore Murati.

And perhaps Murati knew it would turn out like that. Maybe she really did have it all planned.

For the next three days, Karuniya saw her in that same hall of the Preparatory every so often. She always stopped to look, though Murati rarely acknowledged anyone who passed by the hall. Sometimes she would see her nibbling on a protein bar. She had hidden pouches of water in her uniform too that she took small, practical sips from. Several students were randomly cruel to her. Most of them jeered but a few went so far out of their way as to throw pens or other things at her every so often.

Despite this, Murati never even replied to those provocations. She just stood there, alone.

That tall slender girl in her gallant dress uniform simply brooded her in corner.

It was the most interesting thing that happened in school in all her years, and Karuniya wished she could have seen every second of the girl’s resistance, if only for personal amusement. In her mind, in that week, this Murati Nakara she had never met possessed something raw and powerful that Karuniya herself could never possibly have. But of course, Karuniya had classes and was busy. She couldn’t stand there staring.

All she had was the passing thought: “could I ever be this dedicated to something?”

Eventually, people met with the girl, there was a lot of talking, and she was removed.

Karuniya did not know, at the time, what happened to her. They lived in different worlds.

Next semester, however, Karuniya noticed some changes in simulator access and use.

There was 24/7 access, and she herself was not just allowed but required to participate.

Casually and without really considering why or how, Karuniya learned to pilot a Diver.


For the central government in Solstice, it was important that everyone in the Union see Mount Raja at least once. It became a symbol of the Union. There was a glitzy tour infrastructure in place to facilitate these trips. The centrality of the Union’s Military Academy in the education of various personnel was one way to get people to Mount Raja. But even the newest cafeteria worker at the most far flung station of the Union could easily check off Mount Raja from their bucket list given nothing but time.

And it was a sight indeed.

Mount Raja was an underwater mount with a peak at 900 depth but that was mainly accessed at 1600 depth on the benthic surface, with facilities spanning the range from the peak to almost 2100 depth underground where the main structure of the Core Pylon was located. Mountain stations such as these were a marvel of engineering that once allowed the Imbrian Empire to create a few cities that were almost as vast as those of the Surface Era colonizers first reshaping the ocean floor for habitation.

Using an enormous borer ship, the Imbrian engineers settling the Nectaris stabbed through Mount Raja and ultimately mounted their Core Pylon at its underground base, with the bored “stab” running through to it creating the first shaft out from which modules could be expanded. Made up of a series of enormous cube-shaped modules radiating out from the central shaft and capped with a sensor tower disguised as the mountain’s peak, the Raja Arcology, as it was technically named, was one of the few places not designed as a prison or barely-habitable factory for hated slaves and servants, but as the center of extraction and management for the Imperial bureaucracy and aristocracy of the colonies.

Boasting over a kilometer of vertical pressurized space, with each of its modules stretching several hundreds of meters around the central shaft, Raja was designed to support a million Imperial bureaucrats and nobles and now supported several million Union personnel. A secondary substation in an adjoining lesser peak a kilometer from Raja’s base was dug into and reachable by tram, adding even more capacity over the past decade. Raja Arcology was the heart of the Union government and the Naval Headquarters.

Elevators and staircases close to the shaft linked the modules vertically. Each module had a similar size when accounting for its space within the rock, but the internal layouts could vary. Some modules were quite novel for station-goers, with high ceilings and only one internal story, such as the module containing the main government building and the Premier’s office, which just had a giant open park surrounding it. Other modules were essentially massive buildings which just read as halls and rooms when one walked out of the elevator. A few popular spaces made use of open stories to have vertical malls with various shops and recreational facilities built encircling some monument or piece of art.

It was this latter type of space that Karuniya Maharapratham found herself in one cool evening in year 971 A.D. Overlooking a post-modern sculpture shimmering with neon lights that caressed her honey-brown skin. Leaning against the railing with a sly smile, trying to show off the fullness of her breasts in her most fashionable polycarbon dress, off shoulder, with flank and hip gaps and a belly window.

She was 20 years old, in the middle of her undergraduate education and on a date with a cool, handsome upperclassman whom, it was rumored, boasted out of this world dick game.  Karuniya was living.

She glanced aside, hoping to see her date checking her out through the gaps in her dress.

Instead, Murati Nakara seemed to be contemplating the twisted steel sculpture.

“The spirals and lights remind me of DNA. It’s a very biological piece of art.” She said.

Karuniya smiled. Sidling up closer, side by side looking down from the railing.

Her eyes moved from Murati’s soft slips to her sleek back to her plush, firm ass.

She looked amazing in the Academy’s blue dress uniform. Interesting choice for date wear.

I wonder if she would let me peg her. Karuniya thought, mischievously.

She kind of read her as the taciturn quiet service top but she could have been versatile!

If Murati took the lead though– Karuniya certainly wouldn’t mind getting taken down–

“You’ve been really quiet. I hope I’m not being boring.”

Murati glanced at her with a small smile, they made eye contact.

“Oh no! Everything is fantastic. Should we–”

Karuniya began to reply but–

“You look gorgeous.”

Murati said that in such a sudden, disarmingly casual way that Karuniya almost jumped.

That short messy hair; that sleek handsome jawline, in the multicolor glow of the sculpture.

Karuniya had fallen hard for her since they first had classes together over a year ago.

That odd smoldering loner girl from preparatory had really grown into a prince!

This was her chance– she had to turn all of her distant pining into some real intimacy!

“It’s almost time for our reservation.” Murati said. “Thanks for inviting me Karuniya.”

“Thank you for coming, Murati. It’s going to be amazing.”

Le Traiteur was a co-op restaurant with very limited seating, even despite the backing of the Cultural Ministry as a way to “elevate Union food culture to world standards.” As soon as Karuniya got wind of it she immediately made a reservation. At first she had thought of going alone, simply to treat herself nice after Exams period. But then Murati surprisingly turned out to be receptive to the invitation.

All they had done so far was meet up at the elevators and pass the time.

Karuniya had been nervous, in the days leading up, in the minutes since they met–

Now she was confident though. She looked her best; and Murati was happy with her.

Plus Murati gave off a vibe that was a bit naïve and hall monitor-esque– she always had.

Karuniya thought she could definitely turn this physical if she just played to her charms.

God I am so– I am so embarrassingly pent up. But it’ll be worth it!

Inside the restaurant the walls were tiled a light beige and there were several separated red booths enclosing the tables. Through a narrow central aisle, Murati and Karuniya were led to the farthest booth near the back, and the door was opened with a keycard from one of the staff. Inside, the ambiance was a little more romantic. Metal walls projected the appearance of sultry red silk curtains, and a fake candle-light flickered in the center of a table with two opposing but close seats.

Murati on one side, Karuniya directly across.

Looking into each other’s eyes with faces lit dimly by the wild false fire on the candle.

Karuniya leaned forward a little with a smile.

“So, Murati, I’ve seen you in some of my required military and humanities courses. What is your concentration? I assume you’re not in the Science Corps like me.” Karuniya said, breaking the ice.

“My concentration is in Historical Development of Naval Strategy but I’m not pursuing an academic career.” Murati said. She looked like she had been distracted by the ostentatiousness of the room and caught lightly off-guard when Karuniya actually demanded her attention. “Right now I’m angling for ship Captain. After a few successful campaigns I might parlay that into a role as Commander for a fleet section. But for now I’m just focusing on Captain as solid start. So I have to graduate as a Junior Petty Officer.”

Karuniya blinked. You’re 21 years old? And your goal is already in fleet command?!

“That sounds quite gallant. I’ll definitely be rooting for you.” Karuniya said.

In an environmental impact study that Karuniya had extensively researched for a paper, there was a small factoid that felt relevant here. With Premier Ahwalia having slowed shipbuilding during his first term, the Union was barely on track to complete 27 military ships in 972, even with all of the cheats that modern Union shipbuilding used, like the industrial size Ferrostitchers at Sevastopol and Kashgar stations. In the best case scenario there would be 27 military Captainships open next year when the 27 ships formally launched, since they would need to be inspected, trialed and commissioned.

The Union had something on the order of 50 million people and growing and there were over 900,000 personnel in the Navy and growing. There were hundreds of people more senior than Murati who would be tapped to become Captains ahead of her. And she could forget about becoming a Commander too. There would far less of those promotions available in her career lifetime and far more applicants.

Mathematically, nearly everything was against Murati’s ambition there.

And yet– this only made Karuniya feel fonder for Murati, who spoke so confidently.

She’s a dreamer for sure. I kinda like that. There’s more to her than meets the eye.

For someone who just did all that analysis in her head, there was a certain attraction toward a woman who could just bluntly state that extraordinary things would happen by force of will. And Murati was no fool– she probably knew the odds were against her. It was impossible to be in the career track that she was and not knowing this. And yet, she not only dreamed, but declared it without fear.

“What about you Karuniya? From afar you always struck me as a really driven person.”

“I did? Well, I have pretty humble ambitions actually, I’m just pursuing a PHD.”

“That’s pretty ambitious!” Murati said. “Not many of those are made each year.”

I could say the same for your crazy dreams! Karuniya shouted internally.

“My goal is to become an Oceanographer. I’d like to study the health of our seas.”

“I see–!”

At that point, the aperitif arrived, and Murati offered no words of praise or support like the ones Karuniya had given her. Her attention shifted immediately and fully to the food, and Karuniya could not tell if it was just something she didn’t care about or if she was just that easily distracted. There was a part of her, a bit of pride, that felt slightly wounded. Just an ‘I see’ to her own ambitions, huh? She turned her cheek.

That being said, the food was lovely.

Their starter was a faux shrimp cocktail, the shrimp biostitched from red algae and proteins. Karuniya had never eaten real shrimp, but the taste of these was savory, briny and delectable, especially with the sharp, vinegary tomato sauce in the cocktail. Quickly after it was followed by a faux tartare made with specially seasoned plant proteins and chopped pickled vegetables, served with crusty bread and the kicker– real, fresh egg cracked raw over the raw patty and mixed in. No wonder it was a hassle to get a seat.

“It’s so delicious, but it’s gone in a few bites.” Murati said.

“Yes, but the craft is incredible, isn’t it? It’s worth it while it lasts.”

“Oh, it’s magnificent, I just think their logistics have to be really tight to serve so little.”

Logistics huh? What’s going on in that head of yours, Murati Nakara…

Karuniya found her extremely charming.

“Everyone’s been talking about this place, so hopefully the Cultural Ministry will see how much people love it and invest more in restaurants in the future. It took me months to get seats. And when I said I was bringing another person they nearly cancelled. It’s kind of a miracle we’re eating together.”

She made an expression as if to demand Murati’s gratefulness.

To her credit, Murati responded quickly– though with her own little surprise.

“Karuniya, you’re absolutely amazing. I’m completely thankful. I could’ve never gotten this.”

This time, however, Karuniya would not be so easily disarmed.

Play hard to get for a bit.

“Of course I’m amazing. I’m glad you noticed.”

Murati stared at her, nodded quietly, and finished her tartare. No reaction or comment.

Karuniya smiled to herself politely. It’d be fun to tease her more.

For the last course they had a slightly larger plate than the rest. Pickled artichokes arrayed thoughtfully around a biostitched soy cutlet that was white and flaky with shreddable “meat” like the flesh of a lean fish just barely roasted, swimming in a sauce of kelp bubble “caviar” and garlic oil. While the vegetables and the meat alone did not look that novel, the addition of the kelp orbs and infused oil added a new and savory taste profile and a super-modern aesthetic. Karuniya had never seen anything like it.

With their meal, they were each served a tumbler glass of a strong corn wine.

And the bottle was there– so Karuniya felt like making the most of it.

So she immediately downed a whole glass, to Murati’s astonishment.

When their conversation resumed, Karuniya’s speech was loosening a little bit.

“What do you think of Oceanography, Murati?”

“Hmm? I don’t really think anything about it, I suppose.”

“As a future captain you don’t have an opinion on it?”

“Environmental policy is environmental policy. I don’t think I’d ever be a part of it.”

Maybe it was the alcohol, but she wanted to poke fun at Murati a bit more.

“Murati, you said I struck you as driven before. So, I take it you’ve been looking at me?”

Karuniya grinned at her over steepled fingers.

Murati blinked for a moment. “Um, I mean– we did that group project once.”

She is cute. I really want to tease her more.

“You’ve been looking, so what do you think? Ladies love it when you flatter their ego.”

There was no hesitation. “I think you’re really amazing, I already said it–

“Amazing, huh–?”

“I was actually surprised you invited me.”

“Murati,” Karuniya said, delighting in spelling out every syllable, “I’m going to need you to say more than four or five words at a time you know. A lady loves to hear herself talked about in exacting detail.”

Murati laughed a little. “I’m a lady too you know.”

“It’s the principle– it’s the principle of the thing, you understand.”

“Sure. Alright, Karuniya.” Murati, smiling, lifted a finger to her lips and seemed to think for a moment. “You always struck me from a distance as someone really organized, ambitious, a go-getter, someone who always gets what she wants. You always left class with a bunch of other girls, and I’ve seen you in the halls with big chatty groups. You’re always really fashionable too, even in school. So, I always thought you were a really popular girl, a queen bee.” Murati said. “I didn’t think I merited your attention.”

Karuniya giggled. She reached her hand across the table and briefly poked Murati’s.

She is cute, but she’s such a dork. How does she not see herself in the mirror?

“I’m flattered, I’m flattered. Then let’s have a toast! To Karuniya Maharapratham!”

She clinked her glass of corn wine to Murati’s own and took another long drink.

Murati raised her glass as well and took a drink too.

“Thank you so much Karuniya. It was an amazing meal.”

“Indeed, indeed. We have to finish this though– it’s good stuff.”

Karuniya swirled her remaining corn wine in her glass.

“Of course. But then you have to let me walk you home. You’ve drank a lot more than me.”

Murati had something of a look to her. Maybe it was Karuniya imagining things but–

She looked determined again.

That face– that expression that would not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Karuniya didn’t think she had drunk that much, but it wasn’t actually a tough decision.

Wherever Murati wanted to take her, she would go, until there was a definitive parting.

All of the sordid, sexual plots in her mind had washed away with the alcohol.

She was having fun just being with Murati. They were breaking the ice. It was lovely.

Karuniya wouldn’t push it any further than that but– she wanted to savor it a bit more.

So they drank, and they made more small talk about school.

Once their plates were cleaned out, the two of them were quickly but politely ushered out of the venue by the staff. There were people waiting, after all, and not very many booths to eat in. Plus the restaurant only opened for a few hours on a few nights– very exclusive. Having gone through the experience Karuniya almost felt it was dream-like in memory. Colored lights, lovely smells, sumptuous tastes.

And she had been through such a special event with none other than Murati Nakara.

Ever since she had that class with her– no, even before that.

That one time when she was the preparatory school’s terrifying delinquent.

Karuniya had always wondered what she was really like– whether she was nice–

–whether she would kiss her if she asked.

Childish fancies rekindled because of how small a place Solstice truly was.

As they walked to the elevator close to the main shaft, Karuniya raised her voice.

“That was lovely, don’t you think?” She said.

“It had a great atmosphere.” Murati said. “I hope they are able to expand.”

Karuniya glanced at the neon lights on the sculpture, meters away off of the railings.

Her heart fluttered a tiny bit–

“It might sound silly, but I had actually been meaning to ask you out for a while.”

“I’m happy to hear that– honestly, I’m surprised, I thought I was kind of plain.”

“I’ve had my eye on you for a while. I hope this won’t be our last date, Murati.”

Murati looked quite taken aback by that. Karuniya giggled and grabbed her arm.

“It’s that casual confidence of yours. You’re always so blunt– it’s pretty attractive.”

“I’m flattered. I– I really don’t know what to say. I would love a second date.”

“Did you know there’s rumors about you among the girls at the Academy, Murati Nakara?”

Was it the alcohol? Was it bringing out the sadist in her? Why did she say that?

“Now you’re just teasing me.” Murati said, looking a bit worried.

Karuniya brought her index finger close to Murati’s lips. “Maybe I’ll tell you– after I confirm.”

“Well, if you say so.” Murati smiled awkwardly. “So, where are we headed?”

“I have a single on the 6th level.” Karuniya said. “I live alone.”

Murati nodded. “Now I’m really glad I’m not letting you stumble down there by yourself.”

“I am not stumbling, Murati Nakara.” Karuniya said, her feet just a tiny bit slippery.

Close to the shaft, they took one of many glass elevator tubes from the 8th Tier down to the 6th and stepped off. Rather than an open space, they were immediately met with a long hall. There were vending machines with broth, bread, and dried vegetable packets available, and a small cafeteria that served out of a window, now shuttered for the evening. From there it was all internal halls, long series of doors into rooms. There was soft synthetic carpet beneath their feet, plastic plants on the corners.

This was home, for Karuniya, who wanted to get a grown-up space quickly and leave the dorms.

“I haven’t drunk that much, you know.” Karuniya said. “I have all my faculties.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m still seeing you to your place. What’s the number?” Murati said.

“Thirteen.”

Murati dutifully accompanied her down the hall, to the left and to her metal door.

Karuniya put her ID on the door, the surface of which scanned and opened.

She didn’t really think about it, but she walked in–

–and Murati walked in right behind her. She stepped past Karuniya as the door shut.

“So, tell me more about these rumors.” Murati said, an arm outstretched to the wall.

Keeping Karuniya from advancing past her. Smiling with a devilish little glint in her eyes.

Oh, you do have some hidden depths, Murati Nakara?

It was clear from their expressions what they both wanted.

Without words, they drew closer together, and Karuniya personally confirmed the rumors.


Idiot! Meathead! Stubborn fucking–

Karuniya’s subconscious had started off yelling at Murati Nakara.

On the heels of a deeply uncomfortable, hurtful scene about their new ship assignment–

She started to feel as she stomped over to the botanical garden in Thassal Station, that she was yelling almost as much at herself as she was at Murati. For her presumptuous foolishness, for her selfishness. Yes, Murati had yelled at her and acted unreasonable and aggressive. Nobody liked to get yelled at, not especially by their partner. Nobody responded happily to that– but on some level, the monologue in her brain that had begun excoriating Murati also sounded more and more like it was about her.

Stupid, selfish, presumptuous fool. You ruined everything. You.

“I was just afraid she would abandon me. I thought–”

She thought that she could solve all of their problems in one fell swoop.

Alone.

Murati wanted a ship to command, Karuniya wanted to pursue her science career.

They could both have gotten what they wanted and stayed together if–

No. I would have gotten what I wanted. I never even thought about Murati.

Karuniya raised her hands to her eyes, stifling tears in the middle of a hall. She was the one in the wrong, she told herself. Afraid that her time with Murati would end too soon, that their relationship would shatter. Their bond that had so far taken them together all the way from Solstice to Thassal.

Soon it would separate them. It had to. Murati was a real soldier, and she was just a scientist.

She had been so afraid of that. She had not even considered how Murati would feel.

Now– had she made the biggest possible mistake? Had she been the one to tear them apart?

“I’ll apologize. I’ll dress up and go to her place and apologize. That’s all I can do.”

Despite everything, Karuniya really and truly loved Murati.

It was that love which caused her to act rashly. Love– and a distant feeling of inferiority.

“I can’t get in her way again like this. I’ll talk to her and if she wants, we’ll make things right and call the expedition off. I can’t– I shouldn’t have tried to do this. I was being selfish– I really hope she’ll take me back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to end things like this. God damn it, I’m an idiot.”

So Karuniya dressed up, visited Murati that night. They made up; their story continued.

However, Karuniya came to understand– she and Murati existed in different worlds. This colored her approach to Murati. She couldn’t presume what was right for her or she would hurt her again like she did at Thassal. And she couldn’t afford to fuck up with Murati like that again. She wouldn’t be able to bear it.

Even after ending up on a warship together nevertheless– it was in the back of her mind.

Would she hurt Murati again? Would their divided worlds continue to tear them apart?

How could she truly, deeply support her– what did that look like, between a soldier and a scientist?


“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”

What kind of question was that? Who did this woman think she was?

Theresa Faraday stood in front of Murati and Karuniya in the infirmary, waving her arms, grinning, dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls with a white coat over them, her red ponytail dancing behind her as she gesticulated wildly– what did she think was happening here? Did she not understand the current situation? Ever since she spoke with Rontgen earlier Karuniya knew something was off with them.

They were plotting something. Maybe it was benign, but they were still plotting.

“I’ll need you to expand that question before I answer, Faraday.” Karuniya said.

“I agree.” Murati said. “What business do you have with these love quizzes, Faraday?”

Karuniya felt a bit relieved that Murati was not offended by her response and supported her so quickly.

But of course, they were both more mature than that. Karuniya should have known.

Without losing one iota of energy, Theresa Faraday resumed speechifying.

“At this very moment, this ship is facing a crisis the scope of which neither of you could possibly understand.” Theresa said. “That Antenora sails the seas with the backing of many powerful and shadowy forces. It contains elite soldiers with highly advanced technology that you can’t hope to match. In order to even the odds, you’ll need every single advantage you can get! I’m here to provide another!”

Murati and Karuniya glanced at each other and back at Theresa Faraday.

“What do you mean by advantage?” Karuniya asked.

“You two going out there and fighting the good fight! And this young lady too I guess.” Theresa suddenly pointed to a baffled Sameera in the adjacent bed, who watched the argument quietly. “Right now, your squadron is down its best pilots isn’t it? You can’t hope to win in this condition! You need to sortie!”

Murati narrowed her eyes.

“This advantage you offer us– does it concern Solarflare LLC’s ‘intellectual property’?”

Theresa grinned broadly at Murati’s question. “Indeed, indeed. You are perceptive! But– let’s just say that there are some open source components in there which you’ll be interested in, Murati Nakara. It’s based on something of value to you. After she met you, Euphrates started planning to part with it–”

“Euphrates?”

“Yeah, yeah. Our names are Euphrates and Tigris. Let’s move on from that though.”

“So you were lying–?”

“Of course were lying! Your Captain must have suspected as much throughout.”

“Forgive me for wanting to think the two of you had more character.”

Theresa– Tigris, crossed her arms and pouted.

“Euphrates’ character is the entire reason for this whole mess so don’t give me that shit. She has such a deep and boundless character that this is as much as I could possibly do for you without upsetting her. Listen, in due time, we will turn ourselves in and confess to the truth of everything. But right now, for her sake, and for your own sakes, I need you two to listen to me and get ready to go out there. Okay?”

“You’re talking awful fast for someone who might be sending us to our deaths.”

Murati glanced over at Sameera. With a knowing look, Sameera stood up from her bed.

Dressed in a medical smock, she approached Tigris cracking her knuckles.

“Please listen to her, Ms. Tigris.” She said her firm but gentle. “I’m only in bed to assuage the doc’s feelings here. I can still get a bit rowdy. You’re not calling the shots here. It’s time to quit acting like you’re the boss and start listening to the superior officer here. Are we understanding each other now?”

Sameera cracked a little grin.

Standing over a head taller than Tigris, she did cause the smaller woman to cow a bit.

“Okay, okay, whatever! You win!” Tigris said. “Look, I’m not the bad guy here!”

“You’re not.” Murati said. “Good response. Stand down, Sameera.”

“Heh, you know, I really thought you wanted me to smack her, squad leader.”

“Bah! We’re wasting time!” Tigris sighed. “What do you want from me?”

Murati sighed openly.

“Tell us what your plan actually is for starters.” Karuniya interjected.

“To put it really simple: I have a Diver you two can get into! I have a super cool state of the art Diver that you can use to fight! And like I dunno the cat can get into hers too and be a big hero as well, I don’t care! But I’m not giving my Helios to anyone else but you two. It needs reciprocity between its pilots, otherwise it won’t work properly. And since you,” Tigris pointed at Murati, “are injured, it’ll have to be her,” she pointed at Karuniya, “who does the most piloting! Does that need any further clarifying?”

“Do you want me to crawl behind her seat?” Murati said. “What are you talking about?”

“My machine boasts a two-seater cockpit! It was designed for me and Euphrates as partners!”

Karuniya scoffed. “Designed for her? I thought this ‘Euphrates’ was a pacifist.”

“That’s precisely the point of it.” Tigris said. “You’ll see when I show it to you.”

“Hold on.” Karuniya said, raising a hand. “This is going too fast. I’m not sure about this.”

Her voice trembled just a little. That idea– piloting a Diver with Murati. It felt–

“I’m not a great pilot, you know. I’m pretty crummy with Divers.” Karuniya said.

“You’re better than you think.” Murati said suddenly.

Karuniya turned to face her. Something crawled in her stomach. “Murati, I–”

“I’m not saying you have to do what Tigris says.” Murati said. “I’m just saying.”

She smiled, in a gentle and disarming way that Karuniya could not really place.

“Murati–”

“You both should really just do what I am saying to do.” Tigris interrupted.

For a moment they looked at her, and she seemed to stare at them quite intently.

Really consider doing what I’m telling you to. You really want to, I swear.”

Karuniya thought she saw a weird glint in her eyes– but maybe it was just her imagination.

There was a brief silence, and then Tigris turned around with her head in her hands.

“Can you please deliberate faster. Asking as a buddy, as a pal.” Tigris moaned.

“She’s a real bundle of energy, huh?” Sameera said, still standing guard beside her.

“Ignore her for a bit. Murati, how do you feel about this?” Karuniya asked.

Seated in bed on pillows as comfortable and fluffy as Karuniya could make them, still smiling at the group, Murati closed her eyes briefly as if to think. All this time that she had been in the hospital, Karuniya never thought she had seemed reduced in any way, she was no smaller or weaker or more vulnerable. But there was something about that smile that seemed like an inkling of who Murati was that had been missing for a moment and had suddenly sprung back. Karuniya had seen that expression before.

That smile– and the smoldering, determined gaze when her eyes next opened.

“I believe entirely in my pilots. I believe that they can accomplish this mission. I have the utmost confidence in them, Miss Tigris.” Murati said. “I don’t think that you need to worry about them. I think they could find a way to succeed. There might be casualties, but they can pull it off.”

Tigris snapped back around with her hands in the air in frustration.

“Are you serious? Don’t be facile! If it’s a war, you use everything you have to win!”

“I was getting to that.” Murati said. “I wouldn’t make this decision without reason.”

She turned her attention to her side, to Karuniya instead of Tigris.

Reaching out a hand to Karuniya’s own and laying her palm over it.

“I want to protect my comrades. That’s how I’ve always operated. But I’m not responsible exclusively for the lives of others. One hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that I’m also responsible for my own life. And furthermore, you are asking Karuniya to be responsible for her own life, my life, and the lives of others. Tigris, maybe in your mind, we’re just units in the calculus of a battle, that you can slot into your gear to make it move. But Karuniya and I need to make this decision. I am not going to do it on my own.”

“Alright! Let’s give them some space then.” Sameera said suddenly, reading the room.

Tigris stood speechless for a moment as Sameera ushered her out into the hall.

Leaving Murati and Karuniya alone for a moment to make their decision.

“How do you really feel about what Tigris said? About us fighting together?” Murati asked.

For a moment Karuniya contemplated her answer. She didn’t want to be impulsive.

Did Murati really need her? Was this the best way? It wasn’t just about Karuniya’s feelings.

When Murati went out to fight that Leviathan weeks and weeks ago, recklessly, forcing her need for heroism onto everyone until they let her go. Karuniya had been terrified. How could she not be? And then, Murati decided to take the whole fight against the Iron Lady into her own hands and got herself put in this infirmary in this condition. Karuniya felt mortified about it. She really thought, for the first time, that Murati might have died. She had to grapple with that feeling– with possibly being left behind, alone.

No matter how much she wanted to protect Murati, how much she didn’t want to let go–

She still felt conflicted now. What if– what if she just got in Murati’s way again?

She couldn’t just pretend that it was the best choice because she wanted to do it.

It felt selfish of her. It felt like there had to be a better choice. One that didn’t involve her.

“Murati, I’m no pilot and you know that. No matter what gadget Tigris gives me.”

“I understand if you want out of this situation, but don’t put yourself down.”

“I’m trying to be realistic! Murati, I’m just not as strong as you. I’ve never been!” She said. It was difficult to put into words. It sounded so childish coming out of her lips. “You’re extremely brave, you’re a good fighter, but more than anything you are impossibly stubborn. You throw yourself at life like a bullet. I’m not capable of acting as crazy self-assured as you can be. I can’t just follow you out there.”

I can’t really say it to her, but I’ve always felt like I can’t stand on the same plane as her.

When the two of them first started going out, their relationship was a bit noncommittal.

Karuniya almost wanted to think of her as a best friend she had sex with more than a girlfriend– because their relationship was characterized by a parting that was sure to come. Their positions were so separate. She wanted to study the waters of the Union and push for reforms in Union water policy, while Murati wanted to lead a war. She never said it, but that was tacitly what she wanted to do. To end the war with the Empire by her own hand. To become a grand commanding savior of the Union Navy.

Someday Murati will leave me– these words stained her love and admiration.

It was different now. They were together. They had made commitments to each other.

And yet, the conflict was still present. Murati could still leave her forever.

They did not stand on the same plane. Karuniya was not entirely Murati’s equal.

Because she could not follow Murati as a “soldier” into battle. She was no good in a fight.

It was selfish to think she could do so, when she hadn’t a fraction of Murati’s strength.

“I know how your head works. I know you don’t really mean all the stuff you said to Tigris. You will absolutely just go out there because you want to fight alongside your squadron. That’s who you are. You’re a soldier; arguing about that with you is pointless. I’ll let you go; the captain will have to let you go. Since you’re going to disobey the doctor anyway– you should just take Sameera with you. Forget what Tigris said, she’ll buckle and hand over the keys to Sameera, she has no choice.”

Karuniya got it out of her chest and sighed deeply, feeling more than a little pathetic.

What she wanted the most in that moment was to support Murati. Despite that, Karuniya loved, respected, admired Murati enough to know that if Murati needed a partner in a fight, that could not possibly be Karuniya, right? She was a spreadsheet nerd while Murati was a big strong hero.

They would always have this separation. Murati was the fighter, Karuniya could never–

“Karuniya, you’re incredibly strong too! You have no idea how much!”

Murati grabbed hold of Karuniya’s hands and lifted them, taking them fully into her own.

With tears in her eyes, she stared straight into Karuniya’s own.

Seeing Murati’s emotional expression made Karuniya want to tear up as well.

“I always felt like I didn’t deserve you. I was just some stupid meathead always being stubborn and causing problems everywhere I went. When we started dating– it was really unfair to you, but I always thought ‘Karuniya deserves so much better than this’. I thought I was selfish for wanting you for myself. Because you were this amazing and smart and dedicated woman with a real goal you were pursuing. And I was just a fool who wanted to fight. I told myself I had an enemy only I could destroy– but I’ve seen the face of it now. I can’t fight it alone. I really do need your kind of strength too, Karuniya.”

Her hands gripped Karuniya so tightly, like she was afraid to let go.

“You’ve always told me how amazing I am. And I have tried very strongly to internalize it. I wish there was something that I could say to you that could convey how much I love you and what an amazing person I think you are in return. You are so much stronger than you think. You have an enormous enemy to confront as well, and you have shown me the incredible conviction you possess to fight it. You have sharpened your own weapons against it: your theories, your intellect, your sensibility, your empathy, and your optimism, your unwavering hope in a better world. You’re incredibly strong, Karuniya.”

Murati briefly dried her eyes. “Karuniya, you told me some time back that you admired the woman who didn’t give up on her dreams no matter how crazy they were. And that seeing me inspired you to get a bit crazy too. If so, then forgive me, but I’ll say what I feel completely selfishly and without filter. I do want to go out to fight. I want to protect everyone. I feel ashamed to be stuck in here helplessly– and I want you to come with me. I have a hunch I’m not the only one who lied to Tigris about my true feelings.”

Karuniya shut her eyes, cutting off the tears for an instant. She laughed a little at herself.

God damn it. I hate that you saw through me. I’m absolutely going to tease you for it.

“Murati Nakara, you really are selfish, and a stupid meathead too.” Karuniya said.

“Huh?” Murati was briefly taken aback, until–

Karuniya reached around behind Murati’s head and pulled her close.

First touching foreheads together affectionately–

Then taking her into a kiss. A gentle kiss, held like an embrace for a few warm seconds.


“Um. Well. How to summarize the situation?” Chief Akulantova shut her eyes and crossed her arms.

She was on a video feed from the hangar to one of the secondary partitions of the main screen of the bridge. The Captain awaited her explanation while the entire Bridge crew watched with varying degrees of interest and confusion. Finally she spoke. “Fifteen minutes ago a loud red-head showed up here kind of doing and saying whatever she wants. Theresa Faraday was it? Murati Nakara, Sameera al-Shahouh and Karuniya Maharapratham came in with her. They got all the sailors hooked on some heroic scheme, and they’ve all hastily pried apart one of Solarflare’s containers. There was a Diver inside it.” Akulantova looked over her shoulder. “Chief Lebedova is kind of torn on what to do, and I personally don’t relish having to beat the paste out of a bunch of sailors who are just really worried about the situation. I think we should just let everyone go about their business and punish their unruliness individually later.”

Akulantova smiled cheerfully at her own suggestion. She looked truly unbothered.

On the Captain’s chair, Korabiskaya was holding her head in her hands with frustration.

Then the whole bridge rattled– a munition from the Antenora had gone off nearby.

There was no way they could discuss this with the length it required.

“You and Lebedova will take full responsibility for the hangar! I can’t divert my attention!”

The Captain dismissed Akulantova and returned to commanding the bridge.

Alexandra Geninov looked down at her own station with increasing concern.

It was truly unfair. That Antenora–

How could an early game boss like this have such intense final boss energy?

A boss battle–

She was wracking her brain to come up with an answer. How could she use what she had to defeat her enemy with pure gumption and systems mastery? You could pull off incredible upsets in video game battles by knowing the systems really well. That had to be true for real battles too. Alex took stock of her own loadout. She had her skills as a gamer– and she had torpedoes of a few different payloads.

Torpedoes had not worked previously.

Probably torpedoes could be counted on to keep working the same if nothing else changed.

Her skills as a gamer were her wildcard. Difficult to harness, but powerful when deployed.

(“Okay but what the fuck does that even mean?” she screamed internally at herself.)

Now she started holding her own head in her hands much like Ulyana had been.

“Firing 150 mm guns and starboard 76 mm guns!”

Alex peered beside her at Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa’s gunnery station.

Then she peered at the main screen.

Three 76 mm guns and the double 150 mm guns on the turret fired on the Antenora.

By the time the tracking items appeared on the predictive imaging the shots had already landed.

“I’m starting to be able to pick up the sound of that shield of theirs when ordnance crashes into it– it’s distinctive. It does remind me of a distant and subtle agarthic annihilation.” said Fatima al-Suhar, the sonar operator, with a downcast look. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we had an effect on target.”

“Curses!” Fernanda cried out.

“Biomass levels from the Gorge are beginning to surge. We’re breaking 80 Katov.”

Braya Zachikova spoke up in a droning, robotic voice from her own station.

“Calculating the peak– potentially close to 250 to 300 Katov within twenty minutes.”

“When it rains it pours!” Captain Korabiskaya said in frustration. “Brace for communications issues and keep shooting! I want torpedoes and gunnery to keep pressure up on the Antenora! If you can’t put a round on the target then detonate just off of the hull! The shockwaves will at least rattle them!”

Rising biomass introduced a sense of desperation. Soon their sensors would be clouded.

Ship predictive imagers and rangefinders used a combination of various sensors to correct each other and ultimately generate the best possible predictive data out of various data sources. The primary arrays for generating imagery and collecting targeting data were acoustic/SONAR and LADAR. LADAR briefly flashed extremely powerful but short-lived lasers to gather its data. These laser effectors were installed on the deck and underside of the Brigand for the fullest possible coverage of the surrounding geography.

For a LADAR scan, the key elements were power capacity and optic quality. By 979 A.D. the power output of the laser effectors and the quality of the optic lenses allowed effective range in perfect conditions up to a kilometer. For the laser arrays to image farther out in water with less scattering, they needed to consume more power and put more strain on the equipment. More power and a longer imaging period were necessary to get a higher resolution image and thus a better prediction. So it was a tradeoff between these elements to decide how good of a picture you needed to get and how often it needed to update. In open combat, using the LADAR as the primary imager could put a lot of strain on it.

One helpful innovation was the use of computer algorithms to synthesize different kinds of sensor data. First a powerful LADAR scan would create a “master image” which would be altered moment to moment using fluid data, acoustic data and complex mathematics to deliver “best guess” predictions. This allowed the LADAR to be run less in ship to ship combat where the variables of where the enemy could move were more limited. This was the venerable standard on ships– and led to a few superstitions among officers as to whether the prediction was any good, since machine learning introduced potential errors.

That was the magic of predictive imagery and how it allowed humans to kill each other underwater.

This of course assumed perfect water conditions: water turbidity levels of less than 25 Katov scale.

At 100-150 Katov of red biomass concentration in the water, continuing to image with the LADAR array would require outputting more laser power, straining even the exotic matter lenses and agarro-lattice effectors of the Union’s current imaging LADARs to their uppermost limits. They would definitely need to service the sensor array after the battle was over to prevent a breakdown later down the line.

At 300 Katov there was not an imaging system on the planet that could continue to present a clear image without burning all of the sensor equipment out. This would ultimately affect the ability of the main gunner to target enemy ships. Without LADAR to correct against the raw acoustic data, in a battlefield this noisy with munitions from the Divers and the circling ships, they could find their guns near-completely blinded. Soon they could be in a situation where it was impossible to put a 150 mm round anywhere near the Antenora. Torpedoes could work by using camera navigation, but not well.

On the bridge the tension was palpable. They could barely follow the Diver battle because everyone had scattered and Zachikova did not want to risk exposing the drone too far off the seafloor. Meanwhile the Antenora was putting a ton of pressure on them. Now the rising biomass put them on a clock too. If they could not do something about the Antenora before the area became saturated, then the initiative would fall to the enemy. With their shields and higher speed, they could close in with impunity within the biomass cloud, absorbing any retaliatory blindfire, trapping the Brigand and collecting their prize.

They weren’t faster than the Antenora, they could not withstand anywhere near as much fire, and they did not know what the situation could be like if they were crippled and boarded. Right now the only reason the Antenora couldn’t just run right up to them after shrugging off all their fire was that the Divers were in between them, and that the Antenora needed to be careful to collect their VIP. Even with that handicap they were still schooling the Brigand– it was at this point no contest between the two ships.

Alex had even overheard the captain of the Antenora was a stone cold badass from how Korabiskaya and the Rontgen lady reacted to just talking to her. That Rontgen started hemorrhaging even!

All they did was call this lady for a few minutes!

Alex bit her finger, thinking.

If someone didn’t come up with a plan soon, they were fucked.

But they didn’t even know the properties of that defense system.

So how could they do anything about it?

Alex took in a deep breath.

She tried to center herself, to dig deep into the palace of her mind.

Big screens, the latest graphics, the roar of the crowd watching her compete–

Video games.

They were not just a stupid pass-time. Video games required tactics and discipline. Alex would not be half the soldier she was without video games. Nobody believed her, but she truly thought they had taught her many things. Hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, the ability to read systems and see patterns. Fuck, her reading level would probably be shitty without all the RPGs she had played and all the time she spent arguing about the best characters on the BBSes. Video games had molded her into who she was.

Most of all, they gave her something she wasn’t useless at.

Everyone needed one of those.

Think, Alex. This is a game. What are the systems? What can you do?

And more importantly– what haven’t you done yet? What’s the unexpected trump card?

She and Fernanda held the ship’s direct combat power in their hands.

If anyone was going to break that defense it had to be them.

They had all this ordnance, and they had fired it at the enemy to no avail–

Video games, video games, there had to be something–

Wait.

Fernanda.

Of course!

Fernanda was the key! She had been the key all along!

“Combo attacks! That’s it! We haven’t tried combo attacks!”

“Huh?”

Fernanda stared as Alex shouted and threw her hands up. Then quickly retracted them.

“Combo attacks are a staple in video games.” Alex replied, lowering her voice to Fernanda.

Despite her clear skepticism, Fernanda played along and spoke only between themselves.

“Have you even the merest inkling of the situation we’re embroiled in?” She whispered.

Her drawn-wide eyes looked at Alex with a fathomless disgust.

Fernanda had no respect for her as a gamer. She had no respect for gamers whatsoever.

However, maybe, she had a little respect for Alex as a person.

Otherwise, she would have just told the captain that Alex was being gamer-y next to her.

And maybe in this situation Alex wouldn’t be scolded. But in others–

Nevertheless. Alex felt she was on the right path.

She finally had enough relationship points with Fernanda to whisper to her.

And this allowed her to open the route where she and Fernanda could execute–

–a sick combo attack.

She realized then that she should not tell this to Fernanda in that particular way.

Or else Fernanda’s small amount of favor toward her might be completely incinerated.

“Fern,”

For a moment Alex waited for Fernanda to object to the nickname. She did not. Weird.

Alex continued, “Fern, we need to try hitting the same spot together at the same time.”

Fernanda stared at her for a moment. “Coordinating a torpedo and shells simultaneously?”

“Uh huh. Cool idea right?”

“You have no idea how impossible it is to time that, do you? My shells are a hundred times faster than your torpedoes. There is no possible way that we could land the shots at the same time.”

Alex noticed she was not saying this in a cutesy complicated way. She didn’t bring it up.

“Going on like this won’t work either.” Alex said. “We have to mix it up!”

Fernanda resisted. “We may yet be able to pierce their armor with enough ordnance.”

“I don’t think individual shells are going to work. They haven’t worked yet. But if we cause a really, really huge explosion right on top of the shield, in the same place, maybe we can overload it or something. We don’t know how it works– but we know that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, Fern! I have an um– a real strong gut feeling about my plan, you know! Can it hurt to try something different?”

“It’ll hurt in the sense of lost ordnance and time.” Fernanda said.

“I’m not joking around, I’m being serious. I believe in this– would you please trust me?”

Alex’s tone of voice went from confident to almost pleading.

Reflexively, she reached out a hand to Fernanda under their stations.

Fernanda stared at the hand below, and then at her.

They had started off on a wrong foot, but across countless night shifts–

Alex got to know her a little bit– and there was one thing she really did like about Fernanda.

“Fine. I will trust you just this once. Don’t get used to it, gamer.”

When it counts, she is really good-natured.

Under their stations, Fern’s hand gave hers a brief but firm grip.

Alex nodded her head in acknowledgment. She felt a bit hyped up– and anxious.

I– I can’t disappoint her now, right? It’d be such a bottom move.

“I hope you two had a productive conference!” the captain called out. “Keep firing!”

Alex and Fernanda looked back over their shoulders nodded and turned back to their stations. In order to satisfy the captain they each fired one more barrage as ineffective as the last few had been. The Antenora was not quick to retaliate, giving them a bit of breathing room. While their weapons cooled down they reconvened in whispers, huddling close to each other in order to enact their new strategy.

“So gamer, enlighten me as to the rest of your conspiracy?” Fernanda said.

Alex smiled, cool and collected.

“First, I’m going to DM Zachikova and ask her to crunch the numbers.”

Fernanda sighed, but she did not protest.

From her station, Alex wrote a quick text to Zachikova’s station and sent it out.

“Yo! Can you run the numbers to get a torpedo and a shell to land at the same time?”

A text message quickly returned: “Don’t @ me ever again. I will headbutt you.”

Fernanda stared over Alex’s shoulder with narrowed eyes.

“You’ve become maestro to an orchestra of irritation whose song has spread quite far.”

Alex did not comment on Fernanda resuming her flowery speech.

“Allow me to scribe the message before your plot is utterly buried in this gorge.”

“No, no, I got it.” Alex replied. “Your guns will cool off soon, fire another barrage.”

“If you say so, gamer.”

That hint of vinegar returned to the tone with which she said ‘gamer’.

Alex returned to her screen and typed a new message.

“I’ll let you into the bridge to play with the drone all you want if I’m night shift.”

Moments later a message arrived with an attachment. The accompanying message read:

“Deal. I can’t program something on short notice but try running her station clock like this.”

That attachment contained instructions for setting up their clocks to help them time the attack and how to carry it out, along with a tiny doodle of Zachikova in a graduation hat pointing at the explanations. Because Alex’s torpedoes were the slowest of the two, Alex would fire a torpedo at consistent maximum speed and Fernanda would use her station’s clock program to run a countdown and aim at an agreed upon location. She would then shoot at the appropriate time– and the shell should strike on time with the torpedo hitting the target. This execution was sort of what Alex was thinking too.

She ran the instructions by Fernanda quickly, who sighed.

“While I am a gifted witch of many arts, I am also only human, possessing only human reflexes.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem if it takes you a tiny bit to react to the clock and shoot right?”

“On the contrary, gamer, with these timings, any hesitation on my part would bring about our failure.” Fernanda sighed. “Nevertheless, since we are reduced to merely shooting torpedoes and shells into a mountain at this point there’s no reason not to try this imaginative scheme of yours.”

“Right. Right. Thanks.”

Alex felt a shiver inside her. They really were going to do it– so it could fail.

In fact it was much more likely to fail than succeed. That drove a spike of anxiety into her gut.

This wasn’t entirely about winning or losing, about a gamer’s pride, or whatever, but–

–rather,

Fuck, can I please get one thing right? One thing right in my entire life?

Her head started to get scrambled. She was near to having a meltdown, so much anxiety–

She drew in a breath, tried to fight off all the thoughts–

But everything came crashing down on her shoulders for a second.

Who was she kidding? In this situation all she could do was panic.

She was a loser– a useless loser. Always a loser.

No matter how many competitions she won and how much she touted herself.

She couldn’t ever win where it mattered.

All her trophies didn’t make up for all the things Alex had failed at.

Academy, society, family–

All the people she had let down– all the things she had run away from–

Video games became an escape in more than one way.

It was the only place she ever won anything. The only thing she felt good at.

All the pressure– how much she was pushed and how little she was accepted–

She still heard the shouting in her head. Her father, her teachers, her superior officers–

Everyone knew she was a loser! A born loser! Everyone could see it!

Despite everything she knew, the competence she had shown with torpedoes, the fact that she was on this mission– none of that made up for all the scorn of her family, her failure to achieve, and how no matter what she did, how seriously she did it, everyone always thought of her as just a weird clown. But this time– it wasn’t even about herself! If they didn’t win they’d be dead.

And that’d be the end– no more deferring her life and responsibilities, she’d have none.

I don’t get how a lot of shit works, but I don’t want to die–

–and I don’t want any of these people to die because I fucked up!

I can’t fuck up that colossally can I? Everything else would be tiny compared to that.

Thinking about the type of situation she was caught up in, she thought she’d cry.

She probably looked like a nervous wreck and a coward all the time. Nobody liked her.

It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter! Snap out of it. We can’t give up.

But she really was doing her best. She was just doing everything she could to keep calm.

Alex Geninov couldn’t help but run her mouth. She needed the story that she told of herself.

I’m the big damn hero of a weird game. A weird, sad game with a lot of ups and downs.

Telling herself this, and trying to put out of her mind all the creeping evil thoughts–

I won’t fail this one. I won’t say I sat here and did nothing. I won’t run away either.

“Torpedo out!” She declared, grasping her joystick with firm determination.

“You can do it, Geninov! Strike true!”

The Captain’s voice was so supportive. She didn’t know how much Alex needed it.

“I won’t let you down ma’am!” She replied.

At her side, Fernanda ran the clock. The plan was on.

“Port sidepod.” Alex said. Fernanda nodded, not taking her eyes off her station.

At maximum speed the torpedo would hit the Antenora in less than a minute.

Please, please, please.

On the main screen a blurry, lagging prediction of her torpedo appeared.

The Antenora circling hundreds of meters away. That little blip neared and neared.

Her torpedo felt so insignificant, like Alex herself–

Like someone who could do nothing in the face of that evil juggernaut–

No, no! Come on–!

Focused on the screen, guiding the projectile–

Through the stream of fire from the Antenora’s support guns–

Because Alex was pretty tall and the stations so close together, she brushed her leg against Fernanda’s again in the anxiety of the moment. Normally this ticked off Fernanda, who in a calm and ordinary situation wanted the least to do with Alex that she could. But at that moment, Alex felt something back– two pats on her leg. Not to tell her to retract it, but– in support of her–?

Impulsively, Alex took Fernanda’s hand into her own.

Squeezing those slender, soft, warm fingers.

Her grip was not rejected. Maybe there was a shared comfort.

On her station, the broad side of the Antenora loomed massively in front of the camera.

Her eyes felt hot. She thought she saw for a brief moment a flash of color–

Fernanda’s hand conveyed her pulse and Alex felt receptive to it.

For a second, Alex thought she understood her– they felt alike, reciprocal emotions.

We won’t fail.

There was a moment of synchronicity. A brief flash of shared joy and misery.

Holding hands, fighting together despite everything–

Now!

“Firing main gun!” Fernanda declared.

By the time Alex turned to the main screen the shot would have already hit.

On her station camera, with a short lag time, the torpedo sent back its last message.

A skin-crawling instant while they awaited the result–

“I think it’s a hit!”

Fatima al-Suhar half-stood from her station, gripping the earphones against her ear fluff.

“I think– I think I heard a blast and then water rushing!” She cried out.

On the main screen the prediction updated — effect on target. Breach on the port side.

For a moment the bridge was completely silent.

Then all at once the officers cried out with the realization of what had happened.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Ulyana Korabiskaya shouted out.

At her side, Aaliyah Bashara patted her back as if urging calm.

Fatima and Semyonova held hands and began to jump up and down near their stations.

And over on the gunnery stations–

Alex and Fernanda, holding hands, stared at the screen speechless.

“Damage assessment!” Korabiskaya called out.

“Confirmed unmitigated breach on the Antenora’s upper port sidepod.” Zachikova said.

Tears began to flow from Alex’s eyes.

It worked. It really actually worked.

“That was a brilliant shot you two! I have no idea how you did it but keep it up!”

Captain Korabiskaya hailed the gunnery section with an enormous grin.

“Keep your eyes peeled and keep up the pressure! They’ll be desperate now!”

On her screen, the last picture frozen on the moment of impact showed the shell from Fernanda’s gun entering the picture like a blur from out of nowhere. Beneath the ordnance, the purple field briefly split. Only a tiny hexagonal fracture could be seen but in Alex’s mind, she thought she imagined the whole latticework collapsing inward, allowing for the hull to be breached on that side.

Her whole body began to shake. A stupid idea from her loser brain had actually worked.

“Good job.”

She felt a hand pat her on the back.

Small and warm like the one she was still holding.

“Don’t get a big head. There’s work still in need of doing, hero.”

Fernanda’s fingers slipped out of her own.

Alex felt her heart shiver.

“Right. Thanks.”

She thought she would hear a ‘don’t get too far ahead of yourself’ or something.

But Fernanda had the tiniest smile on her face as she returned her attention to her station.

And for a moment, Alex couldn’t help but look at her as if with new eyes.


Shit, which direction is it coming from next?

Dominika Rybolovskaya was caught in a vice.

Between avoiding the shots from the Volkannon sniping at her and keeping up with the Jagd that was giving Valya Lebedova the run-around, she was going around in circles with no way to retaliate. There had already been too many close calls with both of her assailants, and she could hardly coordinate with her remaining ally to do anything about it. Valya was as overwhelmed as her, and they had no idea what was happening with Shalikova, McKennedy or al-Shahara. Dominika was a sitting duck.

Waiting to react to the next attack, alone in the water until something came out of the fog.

Sweat trickled down her face in long thin streams. Her breath caught in her chest.

In the dim light the chromatophores on her chest glowed bioluminescent green.

Caught in a fog of anxiety, her thinking sluggish, her arms raw from effort, mind blank–

Her eyes scanned around, in the silence and stillness of this dead patch of ocean–

Movement in the rear camera–!

I’m dead! I’m dead! I wasn’t sharp enough–!

“Ma’am, this guy bothering you?”

From out of nowhere–

An enormous saw-sword cleaved into the Jagd that had come rushing from behind her.

Chunks of metal tore from its shoulder, arm, and hip before it retreated once again into the fog.

And its place, at her back, was the Cossack of Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun.

Briefly speechless, Dominika wandered if she was dead and dreaming.

Katarrans shared common myths about soldiers or mercenaries whom, having died, began dreaming in the instant of their death about whole lives of battle and glory. Success, victory, and joy flashed in the last moments of their biological life. Brains slowly shutting down in reality but wanting to believe that they were alive and victorious. Cold tears drew from Dominika’s eyes in that moment–

–as Sameera’s smiling face appeared on one of her secondary screens.

“Miss, can you indulge me being a romantic bonehead just this once?” Sameera said.

“Fuck you. You’re such an asshole. I could just about kick your fucking ass.”

Dominika started sobbing. Gritting her teeth, she raised her hand to her eyes.

She was so thankful– her heart was soaring with joy. She could kiss that idiot dog.

“Music to my ears. Tell me what you need, Nika, and I’ll do it with flair.”

Sameera smiled. Despite herself, Dominika found herself smiling back too.


Where the fuck did that thing come from? What the fuck is it?

Gertrude Lichtenberg stared speechlessly at the enemy that suddenly barred her way.

There was always something. Always something in her way to Elena.

She climbed over so many corpses for that radiant girl always a step farther away.

Her unblinking, stunned eyes pored over the newest stone in her path.

Suspended in the water ahead of her was a Diver with a dark gold paint job. From the body plan it suspiciously resembled a Magellan like her own Diver. She could see it in the beveled edges of the shoulders and chest, the rounded, cylinder-like construction of the forearms and forelegs, rather than the predominantly angled, square shapes of the Streloks or the S.E.A.L. from before. The head was different, however. Instead of the cyclopic hood of the Magellan it had a visored, helmeted humanoid head.

Everything was just a bit thicker-looking than the Magellan however– more rugged.

To start, it was just a bit taller than her Magellan, closer to 7.5 meters.

Over the cockpit, the armor was more solid, with a thicker upper chest that thinned toward the angled skirt. Each hand was like a thick gauntlet that extended back over the arm, the wrists mounting what were clearly revolving projectile launch tubes of some kind. On the shoulders there were thick, square guards that vaguely resembled the drone mounting points of Selene’s Jagdkaiser. Instead of accepting the drones atop the shoulder however they seemed to be able to go inside it. There were two flat delineations upon each shoulder, probably the bays for the drones or projectiles– these were probably disc-shaped rather than the long cylinders launched by the Jagdkaiser, judging by the space involved.

Propulsion seemed pretty standard. There was a backpack with intakes on the shoulder, hull and hip, jets in the legs with intakes on the knee, verniers for additional solid fuel thrust. There appeared to be six jets in the backpack, like a Second Generation Diver. On each of the intakes there was a thick cap. A red biomass filter? For weapons, it wasn’t carrying a rifle and Gertrude couldn’t spot a sword on it either, so perhaps it had internal weapons like a Jagd. What was this thing? Where did it come from?

How had these mercenaries gotten a hold of it since they last met?

On the chest there was a logo, a sunburst– and the word HELIOS inscribed.

“These mercenaries are clearly backed by someone powerful. To steal Elena from me.”

Everything was starting to make sense. After their last battle, the mercenaries must have received some kind of resupply from their masters that included this thing. For a moment she feared Elena might have been taken from these cowards and that this battle was all a ruse to ferret her away– but she could not think that way. Maybe the appearance of this unit meant Elena was still there and a prize worthy of protecting with everything they had in their arsenal. It was impossible to know the truth.

All she could do was believe.

Believe that all her sacrifices had been worth it.

Every humiliation, every instance of bloodletting, everything– for Elena.

“Get out of my way, you piece of shit. I’ll kill anyone I have to! I’ll get her back!”

On one hand she unfolded the Magellan’s advanced XM-979 rifle.

On the other, she flashed the futuristic silver vibrosword that had come with the machine.

This Magellan was the strongest machine she had ever piloted. She could absolutely take it to victory. Norn had conferred her this armor so she could become Elena’s knight. She would not fail. She could not fail. There was nothing left for her if she lost Elena here. Gertrude’s heart pounded, her whole body shivered. Her lips drew apart slowly in a bloodthirsty grin. She was ready to do anything.

Her mind was a breathless turmoil of all she had suffered and all the suffering she’d inflict.

For Elena’s sake–

Compared to all the monsters at Gertrude’s back, these mercenaries were nothing.

And compared to the monster baying for blood inside her, it was they who needed to fear.

“I’ll rescue you, Elena. I’ve always been your prince charming. I promise. I promise.”

Her unblinking eyes focused on the tiniest instant of movement from the enemy.

She had to be aggressive, the instant it put a toe out of place–

Bubbles blew from the shoulders and Gertrude charged with all her might.

Four disc-shaped drones flew out of the shoulders in opposite directions.

Gertrude expected gunfire, but if she was fast enough–

The “Helios” suddenly reversed, thrusting backward but still facing her.

From its shoulders, its jet anchors flew out at her. It had attacked with them before.

Gertrude ducked under the anchors.

She could have cut the cables, but if she pressed on she’d be inside the enemy’s guard.

With a quick kick of vernier thrust, she threw herself forward, continuing her pursuit.

In response, the “Helios” raised its arm.

A stream of bubbles blew from the seam between the gauntlet and forearm.

There was a flash–

Like a jet anchor– suddenly that closed fist went flying at her on a cable.

Speechless, unable to halt or dodge, she met the vernier-powered punch chest-first.

Her entire cockpit rattled as the punch struck her, stopping her charge in its tracks.

Gertrude tumbled, her Diver’s hull pushed back while its jets were still going.

Briefly out of control, she corrected with a quick spin and went into a controlled dive.

Overhead, she avoided the jet anchors recalled by their cables to Helios’ shoulder pods.

“What the fuck is that thing? What the fuck is it doing?”

She checked her monitors. She was shaken up, but the hull was relatively stable.

In front, the Helios ceased reversing, but rather than take advantage and attack, it resumed its wary stance right in front of her. Arms out at its sides, jets engaging only to correct its depth and remain in orbit between Gertrude and its mothership. Did it not intend to fight for real? Was it just buying time? Why did it keep shooting anchors at her? Were they trying to capture her alive?

“Is it stalling? But what the fuck is it stalling for? Do they have backup coming?”

In battle the Antenora and the Pandora’s Box were both letting off sonar pulses.

Norn would detect anything coming from a dozen kilometers away.

There was no sign that the Antenora was backing off. So a ship couldn’t be coming.

Or at least, it couldn’t be coming in a time frame that would benefit the Helios at all.

“Maybe the pilot is hopeless, and they’re making up for it with the tech.”

Circling under the enemy Diver, Gertrude raised her rifle and put the Helios in her sights.

She spontaneously opened fire, ready to gauge the reaction of the pilot as a dozen rounds tore through the water between them. With a clumsy boost, the Helios tried to dodge aside– but quickly found itself back in Gertrude’s line of fire as she corrected for those spastic, predictable movements and began to lead her shots into the Helios’ path while sweeping around its flank, now climbing.

Vapor bubbles and gas bloomed around the Helios, several shots making their mark.

Tongues of gas blew from the dented and pitted armor of the Helios.

Through the smoke, it lifted an arm, and from one of its gauntlets launched a projectile.

Gertrude climbed and backed up at full speed, out of pure reflex, but the projectile had not been aimed at her. Instead it exploded into a cloud between her Magellan and the Helios.

Dark particulate matter danced in the water, slowly dispersing through the marine fog.

“A smokescreen?”

Soon the chemicals began reacting with the water, almost like they were boiling it.

Frothing bubbles began to expand haphazardly to obscure the Helios.

Dozens of pops of color– a chemical flare? A corrosive cloud? What was it?

Gertrude’s computer was not equipped to analyze chemicals in the water.

As the effect of the munition continued to spread through the water she continued backing off from it. Her fingers tightened on the controls, teeth grit, furious. This thing was clearly just buying time, but what was it buying time for? Was the Antenora losing the battle? That could not be the case. She could not possibly have come this far for nothing. She couldn’t stand to walk out of this empty handed.

Her mind started to spiral, caught in a sudden heartbreaking madness.

Gertrude would save Elena or die. There was nothing else for her.

All of this time, ever since they had met in Schwerin, ever since they went to school together–

Elena was her light. She was the only thing making Gertrude’s existence meaningful.

That dirty little guardsman’s girl in her muddy overalls, she was nothing, lower than a beast.

Born to no one, known for nothing, denied any pleasure of living. A peon; a faceless slave.

Without the princess’ hand, if that touch had never been extended, Gertrude would be nothing.

Her life would have been meaningless.

Dead, less than dead, invisible, nonexistent, as particulate as the marine fog.

It was her love of Elena that made her anything. That made her human; worthy of living.

I can’t lose her! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!

Without Elena von Fueller what would be the meaning of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s entire life?

Heedless of the nature of the cloud ahead, Gertrude threw all her weight into her sticks.

She would break through this final barrier– she would kill everyone between herself and Elena!


“She’s just gonna charge right through it huh?”

“Called our bluff– don’t worry and just keep it steady. We’ve got options.”

“How is it going on your end?”

“We’ll need to buy a bit more time. Sorry.”

Karuniya Maharapratham sighed.

Soaked in sweat, breathing labored, her fingers hurting as she gripped the controls.

Surrounded by metal, suspended in the deep, dark ocean.

Operating a machine, seeing only through cameras– it was unfamiliar.

Knowing that she stood between Murati and death was all that steeled her wavering mind.

Occupying the front half of the Helios cockpit, Karuniya was taking care of most of the piloting. The two-seater cockpit had Murati directly behind her, with her own set of controls that mirrored Karuniya’s, along with her own screens, though she had less of them than Karuniya did. She could look over Karuniya’s shoulder too, but she was not doing so. She was mostly busy with her part of the plan and could only advise– and maybe, she respected Karuniya enough to trust her with the present situation.

This only made Karuniya even more embarrassed at how outmatched she felt.

“I would feel so much better if I had even an ordinary rifle.”

She cycled on the touchscreen through the equipment on the Helios.

Back at the hangar it had been a whole episode trying to get this thing launched.

“What do you mean it has no weapons? Why the hell would we launch it then?”

Chief Mechanic Lebedova and Theresa– Tigris began arguing immediately.

“It’s designed for Deep Abyss exploration, so it doesn’t have built-in weapons, and it doesn’t use Union hands so it can’t wield your weapons without a conversion. However it has a lot of advanced systems and gear and it’s built extremely sturdy. Murati Nakara already has a plan for it, so just trust her!”

Behind the firebrand Tigris, Murati, with a chest brace to keep her ribs steady and walking herself on a crutch, smiled and waved passively while the scientist and mechanic screamed at each other for several minutes. Until finally the machine was allowed to launch on the condition that Tigris allow herself to be arrested and removed to the brig along with the strangely afflicted “Euphrates” for later interrogation. With that negotiated, Karuniya had taken this machine out into the water and traded a few blows in order to secure Marina McKennedy’s escape– as well as time for Murati to execute her strategy.

“You’re doing well Karu.” Murati cooed.

“I don’t believe you– here she comes!”

“Don’t panic! You’ve got room to react!”

Charging through the smokescreen, the enemy, dubbed a ‘Magellan’ by the targeting computer, covered its approach with gunfire while advancing with all of its thrust toward the Helios. Karuniya pulled back hard on the controls, launching the Helios up and back, but not fast enough. Gunfire rattled the cockpit as several shells impacted with the armor, detonating and tearing off pieces, and the Magellan corrected its path and resumed pursuit very swiftly. Karuniya had not moved fluidly and lost her momentum.

She was at a disadvantage, slowed down while the Magellan sped up.

Seeing it hurtling toward her again and again made the situation terrifyingly clear.

Karuniya was in the middle of combat. This was an enemy trying to kill her.

In this place, in this moment, she couldn’t sidestep a fight by saying “I am just a scientist.”

Murati’s here with me. This time– I have to protect her.

Thinking quickly, she selected one of the Helios’ built-in equipments–

As the Magellan appeared in all of her forward cameras, swinging its sword–

“Launching canister!”

From the gauntlet erupted a utility canister, like a barrel-shaped grenade.

The Magellan cut through the canister, scratching the surface of the retreating Helios–

–unleashing a gelatinous, quick-hardening mass of breach patching gel that stuck to its sword.

“Now’s your chance, Karu!” Murati shouted.

“I don’t know whether I love or hate your backseat driving!”

Karuniya pulled the Helios back, while striking the activation triggers for the jet anchors.

While the Magellan struggled with the bundle of concretized gunk that had affixed to its sword and hand, the Helios’ jet anchors launched like a pair of tentacles. The Magellan threw itself into an ungainly dodge to avoid the jet-powered tungsten hooks, punching the breach sealant mass repeatedly with its free hand while the jet anchors retracted and launched again and again, repeatedly whipping the water at its flank, around its shoulder, nearly smashing off a piece of the flank armor. Cracks formed and pieces began to fall from the sealant mass, soon freeing the Magellan’s sword arm from most of the gel.

In a clear fury, it swung its sword to eject any remaining matter into the water around it.

Charging forward, it swiped at the Helios, Karuniya boosting down and then to the left to avoid the close range blow. Pressing its advantage, the machine swung furiously, forcing Karuniya on the defensive. Raising the gauntlets, she managed to deflect a strike by blocking with her arms, the sword leaving a wound in the thick wrist armor but failing to cut through or destroy the launchers– the Magellan must have read this desperate guard as an attempt to parry or grab its sword, because it briefly backed off.

“Any more ideas?” Karuniya said, swallowing a lump she had held in her throat throughout the melee.

“I’ve almost got it!” Murati replied, “Just a little bit more! You can do it! You’re holding it off!”

“I’m really starting to doubt our chances here Murati!”

While they were shouting, Magellan leaped suddenly skyward with all of its thrust.

Karuniya was momentarily stunned– as if this was somehow different than how it had moved before.

Of course these machines could move in any direction in water she knew that– but she had been trying to stay on a roughly even plane to react to the Magellan more easily as it attacked. All of a sudden it was above her and she felt like she was moving with a second’s delay trying to figure out where the Magellan was going to come from, its angle of attack and the distance it needed to cross–

At the peak of its ascent it suddenly dove at her with all its weight on its sword.

Karuniya moved to intercept while desperately flipping through the available equipment–

And the briefest glimmer of a grin appeared on her face.

“This–!”

A bit of Murati had rubbed off on her somewhere. She felt a wicked thrill as she reacted.

Karuniya was unused to thinking in terms of combat, but she knew that their objective was not necessarily to return with all of this machine intact. There were parts of it that were expendable if it would preserve their lives. Furthermore, she knew that their objective was also not to sink the enemy machine necessarily, not by themselves. She needed to buy time for Murati’s plan. So she finally had a good idea.

Murati– I understand you a little better now.

Narrowing her eyes as she watched her plot unfolding–

That finality as she depressed the triggers and sticks. She was captive to that moment.

In that microsecond span of time that lasted an eternity, suspended between life and death.

She thought of Murati– and how dearly, how much, with all of her might, she wanted to bring Murati back safely to the hangar from this horrific event. How much she didn’t want to be out here, how much she didn’t want to fight. But also– how much, with Murati in danger, she would fight, and scrape and claw helplessly at the metal of the enemy machine if it would release Murati from any suffering.

That must have been how Murati felt every time she went out to fight.

All of the people who stayed behind and depended on her. Like Karuniya herself.

Now, literally behind her, it was Murati who was depending on her to save everybody.

So with this fire in her heart, she released a canister from inside the gauntlet’s launcher.

Grasped it into the machine’s jet-anchored fist between palm and fingers.

And threw a steel punch across a dozen meters to meet the Magellan’s charge. Leaning into her sticks as if it would cause her physical pushing to actually push the fist faster on its vernier thrusters.

Gritting her teeth and ready to scream in the next instant. As if piloting with all her body.

Set on its violent course, the Magellan drove its sword down to slice through the digits in the fist.

But right before the crash–

That fist clenched and squeezed the canister it was holding.

Exploding into a cloud of anti-flooding agent that froze into a bubble-shaped ice block.

With the Magellan’s sword, both arms and chest frozen into it in the act of cutting through.

Got you!

Karuniya let go of the cable. Sacrificing the Helios’ hand to watch the enemy slowly sink.

But behind the Magellan, its hydro-jet thrusters worked furiously.

Instantly the ice began to crack, the Magellan struggling with all its mechanical strength.

Thrashing like a rabid monster, its cyclopic eye livid red. But it was too late–

Inside the Helios, the monitors began to brighten.

“Karuniya, you’re amazing! It’s– It’s doing something now!” Murati cried out.

Across the walls of the cockpit, began to glow lines of circuitry with a rainbow gradient.

There was a glow, coming from below and behind her–

Karuniya realized quickly, it was she herself, and Murati. Glowing with strange colors.

On her main screen, a large square symbol that she realized was a stylized setting sun appeared.

Along with text briefly appearing over the user interface.

ARRAYS ESTABLISHED. NETWORK ONLINE.

HELIOS INFORMATION SYSTEM: May the light of our bonds create our own sun.

Outside the four drones expanded a network of bouncing laser and acoustic signals through their unique arrays that covered the entire battlespace and this picture appeared on the visual monitors.

For the first time, the imaging prediction was seeing every unit, their exact positions on the battlefield, and establishing links between each friendly machine to allow coordination. The clearest picture Karuniya had ever seen of an underwater battlefield. Their maps were updated, and even the camera feed was more legible. Those squat, fat drones loaded into this machine held something truly special.

The Helios’ equipment panel showed that a pair of antennae had risen on the head.

Then one of the ancillary screens showed something playing– a video.

Murati gasped behind Karuniya. They were both seeing the same on their own monitors.

Two people appeared on the video which appeared to be taken with a portable camera within some kind of workspace. Holding the camera, facing it toward himself, was a dark-skinned man with short, dark hair. Behind him, smiling, was a woman, her skin a bit lighter brown, and her hair dark but brownish as well. They were dressed in slightly greasy work coveralls, and there were parts lying around them.

In the woman’s hands was a large, thick, disc-shaped black drone.

Smaller than the Helios’ but undoubtedly a similar design.

“We don’t know where these little ones might end up on their long road,” the man began, “but I thought it’d be significant to document where they started, for posterity.” At that point the video became slightly distorted. Next, the two were together, both their faces close to the camera now. “This is Helios,” the man continued, “Tentative name. Inspired by a friend. It’ll hopefully get us all talking together. Even where there are no cables and no networks that serve the rich men, Helios will let us shine our own light.”

It was the woman who started speaking next. “It’d be naïve to think this will solve anything by itself. Just us two, all we can do is scratch the surface of the injustices and oppression in our world. But if this project can connect even one person to someone they can help, if it can get even two people to meet and protect each other from being exploited, they will have done everything we could have hoped for.”

At that point the woman paused, collecting a tear with her fingers. “I really do think if all of us who have borne the pain of hunger and the weariness of work could truly understand each other, if we could communicate and organize at a large scale. We are all so divided by individual stations, individual nations, thousands of kilometers of water separate us. With this, maybe we can take a tiny step toward bridging those gaps outside the control of the Empire. Maybe we’ll see nothing come from it– but I hope at least that in the future, even a fragment of what we left behind can help our children build a better world.”

They tilted the camera then, perhaps meaning to, perhaps by accident.

Showing that the woman on the video was pregnant.

“A thousand generations live on in us — and a thousand more will follow us.” The man said proudly.

At that point, the video cut off. Those two smiling, optimistic folk disappeared forever.

Karuniya did not have to turn around to realize how much Murati was crying.

She thought in her mind’s eye that she saw Murati, tears streaming down her face.

In fact, she thought, for a moment, that they were face to face.

Suspended in a void surrounded by colors.

She could reach out, touch her, and wipe the tears herself.

They would be really happy with you, Murati.

I’m really happy with you too, you know.

Despite everything that’s happened, I am grateful to share this ocean with you.

Murati smiled at her, cloaked in a euphoric white light.

Karuniya blinked. In that span of time she was back at the controls–

And a flashing red box drawn over her camera feed alerted her.

The Magellan excavated its arms from the frozen water, having lost its rifle and sword.

Despite its condition, it continued to fight.

Reaching around its back, it produced a grenade.

“Murati, brace yourself!”

That grenade left its throwing arm and there was a flash as its rocket engaged.

Karuniya once again readied to dodge–

Mere meters from the Magellan, a burst of gunfire set the grenade suddenly alight.

Taking the machine’s hand clean off and knocking it back from the shockwave.

Into a Strelok with an assault rifle raised to the Magellan’s backpack at point blank range.

“Sorry! I made it right in the nick of time!”

Over a video feed, Karuniya and Murati heard the voice and saw the crystal clear smile of Valya Lebedova, their glasses slightly askew, face glistening with sweat, salmon-pink hair thrown about. They looked almost embarrassed on the screen. “Got it under control I think. I’ve been kicked around a lot today and felt like a huge useless fool– so big thanks Lieutenant for giving me a little moment to look cool.”

Murati leaned down toward Karuniya, patting her shoulder gently. “Thanks for coming Valya.” She said.

There was a brief moment of tension but–

Wounded, out of weapons, caught off-guard, the Magellan slowly raised its damaged arms in surrender.


Dominika and Sameera floated back to back, keeping their eyes peeled for the enemy.

“That Jagd is too slippery, even with damage.” Sameera said.

“I can’t find that sniper either. We’re going to have to make a move.” Dominika said.

“Okay. I’ll rush out and make a big fuss. You try to pick out one or the other.”

“Such a boneheaded move– but it’s really all we got, huh? Fine, I’ll–”

“Wait–”

At that moment, something connected to Dominika’s machine via laser.

In an instant, her map of the surroundings and the ancillary monitors with her sensor reads update with all kinds of blips, terrain data. Her cameras looked like an entire dreadnought lined with station-size floodlights had suddenly navigated overhead and lit up the entire ocean. This was a filter, based on predictive imaging, but whose? She hadn’t gotten an update from the Brigand in a while– and all those blips! They were definitely the mapped positions of every unit. Was this really correct?

Enemies were profiled– she could quickly spot the Jagd and the Volkannon.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” Sameera asked.

Dominika was, but for a moment she could hardly comprehend it.

In terms of information, it was like taking off a blindfold from over her eyes, and where she was previously stumbling, she was now able to see every step she was taking. For a brief moment the light was almost blinding, and there was so much to see. She immediately found the position of the sniper, trailing below and awaiting a laser mark from the Jagd, which itself she could now follow, a blip on the sensor map.

She had full targeting data, as if there was a laser mark being shone on every enemy.

It was almost like sniping in station combat. Seeing through open air across a vast distance.

But where had this windfall of intelligence come from?

If questioned it any longer, she would lose the opportunity to take the enemy unawares.

There could be no more hesitation.

“We’ll have to trust it! Let’s disperse and take them out before they heed the radiation warnings!”

“Acknowledged!”

Sameera rushed out into the water, not haphazardly, but with a purpose. She too was seeing her enemy.

Dominika hefted her sniper rifle and aimed precisely at the Volkannon.

Its outline appeared distantly in her sights, the camera feed enhanced by the predictive imaging. Its coordinates displayed in her scope perfectly matching the data that was being fed into her sensors. There was no mistaking it. She had the enemy in her scope, she had every advantage. She held her breath.

First at one shoulder and then between breaths at the opposing shoulder.

With two quick presses of the trigger she sent two 50 mm shells into the enemy Diver.

Two hits, in a second, dead on the mark–

Both its shoulders blew apart, sending its cannons floating away in pieces, tearing its arms.

Its rotund hull went rolling down to the seafloor.

Had it even seen what took it down? It was in the same position she had been.

In less than a moment, she had completely turned around a situation that had felt hopeless.

Behind her, Sameera met the Jagd with an alacrity that seemed divinely inspired.

Having traced its exact path, the close-combat Cossack intercepted the Jagd at top speed.

With one swing of her sword she took out its remaining arm entirely.

Battered by the attack, the Jagd twisted in the water, briefly out of control.

Then with an almost dismissive butt of her flat, Sameera sent the hull careening toward the seafloor.

Both enemies were completely disabled. In one sudden swerve, they gained the upper hand.

“Capture or finish off?” Sameera asked. “They could have valuable information.”

“I went easy on it at first– but maybe we shouldn’t take chances.” Dominika replied.

They had no idea how long this information windfall would last. They had to act quickly.

Ruthless, Dominika swung her Strelkannon around, quickly aiming her sniper rifle at the Jagd–

“Stop! Stop fighting! Everyone must stop right now! I’m begging you!”

As crisp as if it came from right beside her, a voice sounded from the communicator.

The pleading voice of a violet-haired girl who then appeared on Dominika’s monitor.

“This is Princess Elena von Fueller! Please stop fighting! Please!” 

Rather than merely from heeding the message–

Sameera and Dominika stopped fighting because they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.11]

Even with floodlights the creature loomed menacingly as if in shadows of its own making.

“It’ll kill her if I don’t do something.”

She felt so small, weak, useless in the cockpit of the stolen Strelok, its seat much bigger than her, the controls difficult to turn, tuned for a grown adult rather than a skinny teenaged trainee. Taking breathless glances between her monitors as if one of the cameras would offer a solution, flipping through her weapons on the touchscreen as if begging for a grenade launcher or torpedo to appear.

Between the thick steel struts holding up the substation the creature danced, snaking its way around the captive Strelok in its thick, slimy worm-like body. Hundreds of tiny crab-like legs flailing needlessly as most of the control was provided by long dorsal fins like black curtains swaying off its thick blue segmented hide like it was both crab and eel. All of its thrust came from pairs of hydrojets coming out of its body on adjustable limbs. Its snake-like head peeled back to reveal fangs that unfolded like four extra pairs of crushing legs, tentatively scratching the surface of the mecha in its grasp.

Around it was a cloud of sheer malicious black gas that Shalikova could not place.

Perhaps it was exuded by the hydrojets? Was it corrosive?

It was not the fear of what it could do that stilled her, that forced her to watch helplessly.

It was the fear of it that paralyzed her completely, irrationally. Drowning her in evil emotion.

She thought she was brave.

She thought she could come out here and save everyone. That she would be the big hero.

That she would kill the bad guy– if she could shoot, she would kill it–

“Zasha– It’ll kill her– if I don’t something, it’ll kill her–”

They were only supposed to be training! Nothing was supposed to go wrong!

Suspended in the ocean immobile in her prison of steel.

Shalikova watched the creature squeeze, the fangs scratch curiously on metal.

She could have pressed the trigger.

She could have moved the sticks.

She could have killed it– she needed to kill it–

Done anything but sink gently centimeter by centimeter on idle thrust.

But despite all her training and all her ambition she was frozen in place.

“Sonya! Stay back!”

Reacting on impulse as if the voice had activated her paralyzed muscles, Shalikova pushed the sticks forward until her arms and shoulders went sore, slammed the pedals down until her legs could stretch no further. Her fingers twitched on the trigger and the Strelok began firing wildly as it charged the monster in front laying down a spray of explosive rounds on the back of the beast’s hide drawing blood the thickness of mud and gore a bright red color that seemed unreal to bear witness–

Six eyes fixed on her that seemed to expand to cover her entire screen–

Alien malice-filled eyes showed killing intention–

Until there was nothing around her not even steel but eyes and black cloud bloodlust–

Screaming, Shalikova found herself transition without pause to a place all white.

She felt her blood rush, her skin brim, but she was seated, she was weighed down.

Thick blankets had been put over her body. There was a pillow behind her.

She was in an all-white room in the medbay, in her own bed. Shaking. She began to weep.

Looking around–

–there was no ocean, no cameras, no metal, no guns, or monsters.

Through foggy eyes she saw two women seated next to her.

Wearing tight black pilot suits with green uniform coats loosely draped over the shoulders.

One was a blond, long hair, soft but avoidant expression;

One silver-grey haired like a proud wolf, cold pink eyes with a smile bittersweet;

They were both looking at her with tears in their eyes. Hesitant to speak.

“Where’s Zasha?”

Shalikova’s words made Illya Rostova bring a hand up to her own face.

While Valeriya Peterberg averted her gaze and whimpered, “It’s not your fault.”

Drawing her eyes wider and wider, her jaw slackening, her shoulders quivering.

That young girl in the bed felt her whole world crashing around her.

“You’re lying.” Shalikova said. “You’re lying Valeriya. It was my fault.”

Shalikova clapped her hands over her eyes, weeping, shaking, she screamed.

“It was my fault! It was my fault! It was my fault!”

Screamed helplessly and beat her own head as she realized rather than save Zasha–

“Sonya, please!” Illya said. “Please don’t. Please don’t hurt yourself.”

“It’s not your fault!” Valeriya whimpered again almost as helplessly.

Both of them leaned over the bed and grabbed Shalikova into their embrace, each of them grabbing Shalikova’s arms to prevent her from hitting herself anymore. Held in their strong grip, watching them weep on her almost as strongly as she herself was weeping, unable to run from it all–

Shalikova felt more helpless, useless, worthless, than she could possibly imagine.

She was no hero. It was her fault that Zasha was killed.


Around the enemy the cloud of colors and textures and feelings intensified.

Shalikova felt a strange heat in the back of her eyes that drew tears.

For a moment she was chilled in place by the sight of the enemy Diver.

It had taken Ahwalia apart like he was nothing– how had he not had any time to react?

She had to be careful around it. She felt– She felt power from it.

It was an insane thing to feel, but this was no Volker, this was not piloted by a patrolman.

There was no sense to thinking such a thing, she had fought soldiers before!

And still she could not deny that this enemy felt different, despite her rational self.

Around the machine some forty odd meters away a cloud of black, red, and purple roiled and seethed. Larger than the Cheka by nearly a meter, with the sleek design of the Jagd that made the shoulders and chest seem like a single unbroken triangular piece, armed with beastly claws, an autocannon, and a strange projectile on the shoulder opposite the gun. Rather than an integrated water system it had some novel-looking external jets affixed in wing-like mounts on the shoulders, hips, and legs.

Rather than a symbolically humanoid head it had an animal-like, pointed face.

She could feel sounds and thoughts sloughing off as if the machine was broadcasting, as if its eldritch signals were so powerful that they could not help but affect the surrounding waters. Without bidding the help of her nascent powers, Shalikova felt as if the machine was drawing out her psionics–

–maybe even pulling her paranormal sixth sense into its orbit.

Hah! I’ll make you bow before me too, you and the pretty little toy soldier you’re riding!

Again, a girl’s voice–

From the machine’s right shoulder, a 20 mm autocannon flashed.

With that, battle was joined. The enemy made the first move and Shalikova had to react.

It was the same kind and caliber as the defensive gas guns on ships, and in an instant dozens of vapor bubbles the size of a head began to burst all around Shalikova, forming chaotic gas bubbles and sending shockwaves rattling into her machine. Shalikova took the Cheka into a sudden dive to avoid the attack and shook her head to clear out the airy thoughts the machine had momentarily provoked in her.

She had to think about maneuver, she had to focus– build up speed, plan her attack–

Behind her, the machine pursued her, diving toward the sea floor at her back.

Despite its bulk, it was a sleek shadow when it moved, quick and agile.

Water ejected behind it in great waves that made it seem it wore a shimmering cloak.

Shalikova’s fingers tightened on the controls. “It’ll catch up if I don’t do something.”

Khadija hadn’t just taught her to move quickly but to move effectively for the situation.

In this case, the most effective move to seize the initiative back was–

Shalikova swung her sticks back and to the side and shifted pedals from the accelerator.

Without thrust, the density of the water very quickly halted her movement.

Executing a fluid turn, she came to face the enemy.

In that instant, she had her rifle trained right at the center of the approaching machine.

It was a game of chicken that the enemy unit gave up by losing its nerve.

Correcting itself haphazardly due to the suddenness of the Cheka’s stall in front of it, the enemy machine lost its own momentum and became a prime target for a few seconds of focused gunfire.

Shalikova held down the trigger on her AK-96, and firing two-handed from the hip, she sprayed a long burst of over a dozen 37 mm shells that impacted and exploded in rapid succession, obscuring her target in a cloud of bubbles and vapor, and burst shockwaves in the water.

Her sharp sight picked up nearly instantly that she had not destroyed her target–

–but its actual status bewildered her, nonetheless.

What she saw as the gas slowly wafted away from the enemy machine was its dimly glowing outstretched left arm, digits now spread radially around a palm with what seemed like the mouth of a mechanical lamprey in the center. Held out in front of it like a shield, the hand was entirely undamaged. Shalikova quickly ran through the filters on her cameras and realized that the hand was generating heat.

It was electrified or energized somehow– was it some close-in defense system?

“She just stopped and took all the shots dead-on.” Shalikova whispered to herself.

Let’s stand around staring! I could do this all day! Don’t you feel helpless?

The voice again– but it wasn’t entirely coherent because it wasn’t speech, it was thoughts–

It wasn’t that the enemy pilot lost her nerve to chase.

She wanted to prove that such an attack would not even faze her.

Shalikova could feel her heart pounding and her veins pulsing beneath her own skin.

This enemy was different — she felt less like a soldier and more like she enjoyed killing.

Like a monster–

Head pounding, fear pulsing in her veins, Shalikova took off running again.

Moving in a sweeping zig-zag to avoid gunfire that did not come.

Within seconds Shalikova realized the enemy had not charged full-tilt after her.

But her keen eyes detected the tiniest bit of movement–

That projectile from its shoulder detached and took flight through the water on its own.

Shalikova saw it arc around her flank at a devastating speed.

For an instant, swimming alongside her, there was this silver cylindrical object the size of a torpedo. She could see a small jet and some hydrodynamic surfaces on its hull, but no cables or things that she could recognize as sensors. How was it guided? Had it been anyone else that would’ve been chalked up to the imagination, but Shalikova had an eye for details, and if she could not see a cable in that moment, there had to be none. But then, how was that unit being controlled wirelessly with such responsiveness?

Nothing about this projectile made sense to her, not its speed, not its design–

Then as she almost doubted she was even seeing it the projectile it turned its nose to face her.

Arrayed around its cylindrical nosecone were four barrels that began to spin up.

Buzzing and booming like the cry of a beast barely muffled by water.

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, and she pulled on her controls–

As dozens of 37 mm projectiles flew from her side in a furious spray of metal.

Slicing the water over and around her, low booming as the shockwaves buffeted her.

Shalikova launched her Cheka skyward and hurtled abruptly out of the fire with every bit of thrust she could find leaving dozens of seething orbs of vapor and gas behind her. With miraculous dexterity she prevented the Cheka from being overwhelmed and escaped with barely a scrape– but behind her the lines of supercavitating gunfire paused only briefly as the pursuing gun executed a turn.

It darted behind her with incredible acceleration almost as if it was unaffected by the water.

Once its nose swung her way again its barrels started to flash once more.

Bursts of exploding shells firing with control and precision, tracking her, firing ahead and behind and around her– trying to suppress her? Alter her movement? Shalikova jerked her sticks, thrusting up and fluidly arcing back down in a dive, swinging from side to side, losing the enemy’s fire only briefly before the flashing barrels sent the next burst crashing her way creeping closer and closer.

Had she been in the Strelok that slightest loss of maneuverability would have cost her dearly.

She was barely staying ahead, barely surviving– “It’ll kill me if I don’t do something!” she thought.

Waiting until she was in the peak of an ascent–

Shalikova dove and in the same movement, turned on her heel.

She fired her rifle behind her, spraying in the direction of the autonomous gun.

As soon as she rapped the trigger she knew she was not going to hit.

Aborting from that maneuver she threw her weight forward into a dive–

And jerked back, pulling so hard she felt the joysticks would tear off their mounts.

Her forward cameras filled with bubbles and gas for a split second.

As the glowing red claw on the mecha’s right arm sliced through the water right in front of her.

That claw belonged to a beast– an alien beast that was filled with intention to kill–


All of you are getting written up! All of you! I have so many complaints!

Dominika Rybolovskaya was seething.

Never in her life had she worked with such a collection of rockheaded martyr complexes!

She could understand the squad leader feeling responsible for Ahwalia, but the rest–

“Lebedova, up front!”

With McKennedy, al-Shajara and Shalikova having dispersed suddenly, Valya Lebedova in their Strelok was all that stood between Rybolovskaya and the remaining enemies. Lebedova, having been given lead of the squadron, was probably deliberating in their cockpit– but the enemy would not wait. Just moments after the two of them were abandoned a Jagd swept out of the marine fog to attack.

Rybolovskaya hefted the heavy rifle in her Strelkannon’s hands and fired a timed shot.

Despite the chaos she managed to land the shell right where she wanted–

A vapor bubble bloomed between Lebedova and the Jagd, forcing the latter to disengage.

At that moment Lebedova seemed to realize the danger and began to fire on the Jagd.

Lines of supercavitating rounds sliced across water, making a lot of noise without effect.

The Jagd fluidly recovered from its failed attack and took off to circle around them.

That sleek, slippery mech was going to be a problem, and one that could kill them all.

She needed Lebedova to be more aggressive! She had to chase it off!

Shit. Shit. I can’t believe I wish that idiot was out of the hospital and out here with me.

Supporting fire underwater was almost a cruel joke.

Despite all the firepower she was laden with, Dominika could not target anything too far away.

Passive acoustic detection on Divers was not very precise at long ranges. It could, basically, alert the pilot that a target was coming and posit a rough angle of attack, but it was not something she could target with in any precise way. It was just a big warning box on the screen showing her in which direction something could have been coming from based on low fidelity sounds. The only way to get a precise lock in order to shoot from a long distance was a target paint from another machine. Short of a laser effector painting a target for her, all Rybolovskaya could rely on to aim her weapons was her sight.

Her sight was an extremely poor substitute for a full-fledged targeting sensor package.

In the water, Rybolovskaya’s vision was theoretically effective out to around 50 meters, and this did not account for the sub-cameras having a significantly worse resolution than the main camera on the mecha’s head, so a lot of the time her vision was essentially 50 meters in front and 25-30 behind. This was also in perfectly lit conditions– normally she was only seeing what she had her floodlight cluster pointed toward, because the rear LED effectors were far less bright than the forward floodlights anyway.

In essence, when Rybolovskaya stared at her monitors, she saw mostly a dark blue environment, made slightly brownish by the marine fog, in the direction of her lights. Otherwise everything was black. In this cone of well-lit vision she could see the figures of the Jagd and the Volkannon that had remained to fight them, but the Jagd, which was in motion, quickly darted up and over the range of the main camera, and as it circled around, the sub-cameras could barely capture it. Rybolovskaya’s Strelkannon was too heavily burdened to chase or dance with the Jagd, so she needed to anticipate its attack and then throw herself away from it with a shot of the vernier boosters. This is why she needed an escort!

“Lebedova, I can’t avoid its attack! You need to engage it!”

“I’m trying! I can’t overextend, that Jagd is fast!”

Lebedova was technically proficient, but they were hesitating due to the circumstances.

Sticking to the orbit of the Strelkannon, trying to interdict the Jagd, it became a game.

That Jagd began circling around them, taunting, making as if it would approach before backing off and going up or around them, keeping a distance of just over 30 meters as the bubbles in its wake outlined the cage that it had trapped them in. It knew the limitations of the mecha it was preying on.

The Jagd could always face them as it dove and banked around its prey, allowing it to make full use of its lights and sensors while its enemies had to rely on passive acoustics and lower resolution subcameras to track it. It was making full use of its speed and the fact that it possessed the initiative. If Lebedova never challenged it, the Jagd could simply bide its time, pick a moment and attack from any direction.

Rybolovskaya wanted to shout again and again for Lebedova to go attack it but–

She understood all too well that one could only fight in the ways one was motivated to.

They’re just not up to it. I’d be asking them to go get cleaved. No, I have to do something.

“Firing 88-mm anti-ship torpedo!”

Lebedova cried out. “Wait what? I didn’t give an order though–!”

Aiming at the empty ocean around the Jagd, Rybolovskaya loosed a single torpedo.

“Lebedova, dive down!”

Lebedova obediently launched into a dive, while Rybolovskaya took her mech climbing up.

Within the confines of the Jagd’s cage–

Its prey escaped in opposite directions, and a massive explosion went off in the center.

Caught while circling close to the center, the Jagd paused suddenly and pulled away.

For a brief moment, Rybolovskaya had her floodlights and main camera trained on it.

One snap shot from her 50 mm rifle–

There’s no shot!

There’s a shot!

In the smallest possible unit of time Dominika adjusted her aim just before executing a full press of the trigger; the tiniest movement of a muscle prompted by the briefest movement of her eyes; signals processing and acted upon in an impossible instant of human action; there’s a shot!

Like the simultaneous step and strike of a trained sword fighter, acting within thought.

One supercavitating shell cut right through the center of the explosion and struck.

One of the Jagd’s arms severed, splitting just below the shoulder, ejecting metal.

Dominika felt a rush but could not savor the victory for long.

Her cockpit monitors flashed a rare warning: a radiation effect had been detected.

That could only mean–

She was painted for an attack! That Jagd was painting her!

In the next instant, a round from out of sight impacted her shoulder, nearly destroying the missile mount that was set upon it. She was lucky it didn’t blow– she was forced to detach and abandon it.

“That Volkannon!”

After chastising Valya in her head for their poor performance, she got drawn away by that Jagd and ignored the presence of the Volkannon– now she couldn’t even see where it had gone after shooting! She had no idea where it had come from! With one hand she set the flank camera about tracing the angle of the shot from its footage, a subroutine already programmed into it, while the other hand remained on one stick, taking the Diver in a steep diagonal dive away from the Jagd, anticipating more shells.

“Valya, sniper!” Dominika shouted.

“Can you go after it? I’ll try to put any pressure I can on that Jagd!”

Can you go after it? They were supposed to be the leader!

Everything had gone to crap! Dominika could hardly believe this turn of events.

“But I’m also completely helpless here!” She shouted back. It was painful to admit.

Around her there was only the vast, dark expanse of the ocean.

Even Valya was beginning to disappear from her cameras.

She could expend some or all of her ordnance to take out the Volkannon if she knew where it was located. That would render her unable to attack the Antenora with anything but her rifle, but the plan was already cocked up. If they could at least the disable the enemy’s escorts then they had more room for the Brigand itself to become their weapon against the enemy ship, freeing Dominika from this burden.

Dominika grit her teeth. Everything was too quiet, too dark.

Alone, she was useless.


“Let Gertrude and Samoylovych do most of the work.” Norn had said. “You have nothing to prove to me, but Gertrude Lichtenberg certainly does. You’ve got one cartridge loaded by the way. Don’t use it unless I tell you to. There’s no need for you to push yourself for this mob, so don’t overdo it.”

Selene grinned and giggled to herself. Swelling with emotion and expected triumph.

Why would she leave anything to those two muscleheads?

In the water, she was the mightiest– she would fight to her heart’s content.

Norn always warned her about the cartridges, but at this rate she would not even need one. She had already taken apart one of the mercenaries and she had the other one cornered like a lab rat in an experiment box. Selene Anahid, pilot of the Jagdkaiser, was luxuriating in the sense of power that the Jagdkaiser fed into her mind. She knew who she was now: a perfectly created specimen.

All that was left was to demonstrate her superiority to one meager prey after another.

“You’re only alive because I only have one Option left, little mouse.”

That machine quivering before her was certainly interesting.

Its profile and performance put it strikingly close to a Magellan class mecha, sleek and fast and with a pilot who was no slouch, but there was no comparison between it and the Jagdkaiser. It was workman-like compared to her mighty steed. And of course, that pilot, crafty as they had proven in the few blows they had traded, could not measure up to Selene’s vast psionic abilities in the slightest.

Pirouetting about in the water to avoid the Option’s line of fire.

That pilot didn’t understand Selene’s intentions.

Corralling them about the water by denying space, Selene had trapped them into melee.

Now they were meters before her, in the grasp of her claws. She dodged once–

“It’s over, little mouse!”

Selene’s antennae stood on end, dimly glowing with sinews the colors of a rainbow.

With her mind, she guided the Option and controlled its weapon system, a four-barreled chain gun firing 37 mm rounds. Its maximum rate of fire would empty its enormous magazine in twenty seconds, so Selene fired it in quick bursts of 20-30 rounds at a time. Even this seemingly small amount of rounds was far more impressive than the 5-10 round bursts from an ordinary 37 mm rifle. Her enemy would see enormous slashing lines of gunfire chasing them across the ocean, saturating the water around them with orbs of gas and fire creating a no man’s land wherever they dared to move, trapping them.

Not only was the Option controlled psionically, but with a thought, Selene could push it with kinetics in any direction easily overcoming water resistance. Between efficient control surfaces, tightly packaged thrusters and a bit of psionic aid, the Option could turn in water with alacrity unknown to any man-made weapon or even any native of the sea. It was the ultimate psionic weapon, entrusted only to her hands. Its only small flaw was that it could not shoot while being pushed, or it would misfire. Irrelevant.

Her superheated claw slashed at the little mouse with passion and ferocity.

Dancing to the flute song of Selene’s violence the mecha thrust itself up over the claw.

Trails of frothing vapor rose from the red-hot digits nearly slashing the mecha’s leg.

With a grin on her face and a fire in her chest that burned hotter than the claws, Selene sent a snap thought to the Option and swung it in a tight spiraling turn. Circling around her, rising in the water column above even the enemy and then snapping its nose to face the little mouse in a space of mere seconds. She was trapped, no place to escape, the Jagdkaiser below, the gun above.

Lines of slashing bullets–

And the rising, surging claws of the Jagdkaiser–

“You’re mine now mouse!”

No matter which direction they fled to–

Down–?

Suddenly the mecha threw itself down at the Jagdkaiser.

Selene impulsively swung the heat claw and found her digits digging into the metal–

of an assault rifle–!

That mecha slammed rifle into claw slowly melting it into a blob over the sharp digits–

–and got past it, into the Jagdkaiser’s guard, with a burst of solid fuel thrust.

Her head camera was taken up fully by the shadow of the mech bull rushing her.

Then all of the fire from the Option came raining down upon them.

And as it did, the enemy boosted out of the Jagdkaiser’s embrace and around her flank.

A dozen rounds crashed upon the Jagdkaiser’s armor, pitting the thick hull, and severing a chunk of the shoulder with the Option’s mount, smashing a sharp bit of plate off the skirt, before Selene could spin down the guns. Gritting her teeth she ordered the gun to circle back around to the other side while she turned in place and slashed behind her, aided by a lick of solid fuel thrust on the shoulder and arm to overcome the water. A curtain of vapor swept in front of her and the molten assault rifle slid off her claw but she caught no more metal as her disarmed enemy backed just enough away.

“Damn it! God damn it! Psynadium, now!”

On command the tubes connected to the back of her neck pumped the drug through her.

She felt power surging through her like hot glass slicing through the veins in her brain. She gritted teeth, enduring a brief instant of the most horrific pain but rewarded with the clearest view of the ocean any living creature could possibly have. Her eyes glowed not red but with a rainbow gradient that matched the colorful sinews of her antennae. The Aether trails flashed and swirled before her in the sea.

Within the water she saw the outline of the enemy like a shadow in all of the lights.

Selene awaited a flash of insight as to its next movements.

The Jagdkaiser’s homunculus enhanced psionic power, along with the boost of Psynadium.

When her antennae were loose and connected to this system as well, her clairvoyance became so powerful she could vividly see everything her enemy would do before they even tried to do it. Their emotions and thereby their intentions fed into her through the aether seconds before their bodies took action. The hands of fate gesticulated for her eyes only, and she read the sign language to deadly effect.

“A cunning little mouse.” Selene cursed to herself, furious, near breathless.

This time the trap was the same, but rather than a vertical snare the two mecha stood on a horizontal plane before the fateful blow. Her enemy before her, the gun at its back and the claw to its chest. Once she charged the enemy would move up or down– she did not need to guess or use the logic of battle because she would have the truth of it. Whatever it decided in the next second she would know.

Not only that but it was disarmed of its rifle. There was no weapon at its disposal.

Clever athletics would do no good. It could no longer inflict any damage.

She was almost positive it was about to move any given microsecond of thought–

When it did–

That little mouse turned around to face her and launched– something–

Acting before thinking, Selene raised the Jagdkaiser’s special claw.

Glowing with an electric field, it deflected the projectile launched at her.

Causing it to arc around the Jagdkaiser’s body harmlessly.

Rather than being heated, the larger, rotating claw that held the muzzle for the agarthic cannon possessed a powerful magnetic field generator in the wrist with effectors located beneath the digits. While the claw could be swung as a large, sharp piece of metal it was far less capable of slashing than the heated, vibrating claw on the other arm. Designed to shape the agarthic energy from the cartridge away from the Jagdkaiser’s hull, Selene pioneered using the magnetic field on this claw defensively.

In this way bullets could be made to arc away from the claw and explode uselessly.

Instead of a weapon it became her unbreakable shield.

Selene felt momentarily like a genius, however–

It was not a bullet which she had deflected around her flank.

Her enemy had launched a grenade.

She realized it within a split second of the projectile exploding at her side.

Her cockpit vibrated wildly as she tore herself away from the blast leaving in the water a small chunk of the Jagdkaiser’s flank and a strip of the shoulder and arm plates. Wild eyes snapped to each camera looking for that enemy mech and finding it suddenly rushing her directly from the front.

“Why? Why couldn’t I see that?!”

Her head was foggy with rage, her whole body shaking as more of the drug injected.

In a rush Selene positioned the Option like a knife to the enemy’s back–

Plunging and driving the blade, the blades–

Spinning up in half a second the bullets came flying in dozens–

That enemy mecha still unarmed rushed her fool-hardy–

Selene had expected a blade but–

Mid-charge the enemy feinted her, throwing itself into a dive to avoid crashing into her.

And leaving her once again exposed to her own gunfire.

“Using me as a shield?! God damn it!”

Her own bullets arced around her claw and exploded around her harmlessly.

Again the gun spun down, again she forced it to arc to the enemy trying to take her back.

“You won’t get away! You won’t! I’ll tear you out of that cockpit and melt your guts–!”

Selene lunged behind herself opening and snapping her heat claw, trying to snatch the enemy.

A vortex of vaporized water briefly burst between her fiery claws as she seized nothing.

She could have sworn– she could have sworn it would be there–

Why wasn’t she seeing–?

On one of her monitors, something she wasn’t used to paying attention to.

Her acoustic system painted a red targeting box to alert her.

As soon as her eyes snapped down to the lower camera and back up to main.

That enemy had flown under her, behind her, and to the side in quick motion–

She had deluded herself as to its trajectory thinking that a vision would come that did not.

And in the next instant, a diamond sword swung and sliced clean off one of the metal digits.

In that brief instant in which it had gone cold after her last attack with the claw.

I’m not a lab rat! I’m Sonya Shalikova! You think this is fun? Are you enjoying yourself?

Thoughts broadcast into the aether. A girl’s voice– a girl just like her– no. Not quite.

Selene raised a hand to her glowing eyes, slouching her shoulders. Her heart leaping.

Grinning. Laughing. From the absurdity of it. So her little mouse had fangs? SO WHAT?!

This girl was clever, and apparently psionic too, a worthy opponent perhaps– but INFERIOR.

Selene’s eyes burned as her emotions surged in her chest like white-hot flames at her core–

The name of your killer is Selene Anahid, she projected, and you’ll die one order evolved, kitty!


Everything was quiet, orderly, there was a sweet scent and gentle lighting.

“It’s so peaceful here. I’m sure she loves it.”

Zasha Shalikova felt a sense of trepidation as she sought out the right door, walking down a special hall in the middle deck of Sevastopol Station. The Children’s Hall was cozy and earthy, made up with very fake wood panels and relaxing yellow light and the walls had beautiful posters with colorful characters. The posters in the hall exhorted the children to be kind to each other, to be on time for tasks and appointments, to eat their fill and instructions for using the computers to hail adults for help.

It was the year 966 AD. She was twenty years old and her sister was ten years old.

Her sister–

Yes, it was her sister who lived in a warm little room in this children’s hall.

Just beyond one of these doors. She told herself, it was important to remember.

She was a sister now, and Zasha was beyond happy for her.

Her trepidation did not come from that change in their positions.

Rather, Zasha was always afraid that Sim–

Sonya. Yes, Sonya. She was named after their mother now, not their father.

Anyway– Zasha feared that Sonya would be– too independent, perhaps?

In the Children’s Hall, the kids were taught to be responsible for their environment and toward each other. They did their own cleaning, they made their own beds, they were responsible for dressing themselves and going to their classes. They could even, once or twice a week, prepare their own meals. They could call adults for help at any point and the help would be given easily and cheerfully, but the Children’s Hall was supposed to be like their own little enclave that taught them to value the home and to value community with each other, to take care of their own space and make use of their own time.

It was part of the ideology of their ex-Premier, Daksha Kansal.

In honor of her, the current Premier, Elias Ahwalia, continued the practice.

The government wanted children to not be beholden to parents or caretakers entirely.

So the default was for children to live in children’s halls or at specific school dorms.

Parents had to beg for exceptions if they wanted to exclusively raise their children.

And if the reasons weren’t good enough, then they had to gracefully accept separation.

Zasha gracefully accepted separation. At least, outwardly so–

She had always been very protective. So it was hard to let go, but it was for the best.

There were many visit days on the calendar, but Zasha had been busy.

Hopefully, her Sonya would not resent her as she took her first visit day in a year.

Producing a portable terminal from her bag, Zasha double checked the room number.

And she found herself in front of it. 102417. She approached it and took a deep breath.

Before she could knock on it, the door opened– her perceptive sibling had noticed her.

Sonya had always had keen senses.

“Zasha! I heard you shuffling behind the door! It’s so nice to see you in meatspace!”

Sonya smiled brightly, her bright indigo eyes shining, her soft little cheeks turning up.

Zasha laid a hand on her silvery-white hair and patted her head vigorously.

“Are you being a good girl, Sonya?” She asked.

“Hee hee, you called me a girl, Zasha.”

“Of course I did! You’re my sweet little sister.”

“Ahh! I’m so happy Zasha!”

“I’m glad. Everything feels ok, right? No stomachaches or anything?

“No! It’s great! I love the medicines. Now I can be as cool as you are!”

Zasha laughed a little. What an impressionable kid– but Zasha always trusted her choices and let her have what she wanted. That was the ethos of the Children’s Hall after all. When Sonya confessed on a video-call about being Sonya and sent her a digital pamphlet about hormone therapy that a caretaker had given her, Zasha was nothing but pleased. It was important to her, more than anything else, that Sonya Shalikova got to have a say in who she was. That she wouldn’t be funneled down a path that anyone else wanted or expected. If that meant taking hormones, then Zasha was happy for her.

And if it meant living away in the Children’s Hall, then that was fine too.

“I suppose I’m so cool, you definitely needed a doctor to help you catch up.” She joked.

Sonya’s eyes stared at her wide and round. She then made a bashful little pout.

“Oh no, Sonya, I meant nothing by that. You’ve always been very cool you know?”

“I knooooow.”

She was such a sensitive kid too sometimes.

“Come in. My room is so huge!”

Zasha smiled. It really was not. And it looked like she was sharing it too.

Rather it was a standard Union single, but for a kid, it was a lot of space. And they really went all out on the kid’s decorations. The walls of the room were projecting a fake wood texture but if one touched any of them it would feel like a smooth resistive touchpad, which it all was. There were two little desks, for Sonya and a roommate, along with a combination shower, toilet and wash basin accessible behind a retractable wall panel. More colorful posters decorated the walls too. A Union single, but for kids.

“I have a roommate, Klob Hondros, but I gave her one of my recreation tickets and a bunch of credits so she would go see a movie or stuff herself or do whatever for the afternoon so we could hang out alone, Zasha.” Sonya said. “I don’t use the credits for anything, and I get them all the time.”

“I see.” Kids were paid a small wage for going to school, and bonuses for exceptional behavior.

Zasha was not concerned by Sonya’s money habits, which didn’t matter, but rather–

“I would have liked to meet your friend.” She said gently.

“Klob? I wouldn’t call her my friend– we study and do stuff together I guess.”

She was still so antisocial. They would have to work on that somehow.

“Well, maybe I’ll stick around long enough to meet her.”

“Ehhh, if you want to. She’s kind of cool I guess. She’s a fish I think. She has horns.”

Sonya sat on her bed kicking her feet happily while Zasha looked around the room.

“If you have enough money to bribe her to leave–”

“–It wasn’t a bribe–!”

“–then you must be doing really well academically.” Zasha said.

“Oh!” Sonya smiled again. “Yep! I’m doing so good. It’s like crazy how good I am.”

“Keep working hard!” Zasha said. “I’m so proud of you!”

“What about you?” Sonya asked. “Did you kill any bad guys?”

“There’s no bad guys to kill. And that’s not really what I do, you know.” Zasha said.

She cringed just a little bit– she did not want Sonya to have such bloody-minded ideas.

Nevertheless, as a child who lived through the revolution, it was inevitable.

Death and killing were always going to be part of her mind. Sad as it was to think about it.

She had not been old enough back then to understand what was happening with any nuance.

“Zasha.”

Sonya’s voice turned serious. Zasha turned around to make eye contact. She had been looking at a shelf where one of Sonya’s sewn stuffies was sitting. It looked like a big purple blob of a cuttlefish, a simple beginner stuffie. Zasha dearly wished Sonya would do more sewing and less thinking about war.

“Yes dear?”

Looking her eye to eye, Sonya stood up and seemed to be trying to look tall.

“I want to be a hero like you!” She declared.

“I see.”

Could she say ‘no’ to that? Had Sonya finally done something utterly unacceptable?

“In your own words–”

“–huh? you sound like my teacher–”

“–what does it mean to be a hero, Sonya?” Zasha asked with a firm tone but a smiling face.

Sonya’s bright round eyes glimmered with excitement.

“A hero is like, strong! They know how to fight really good and kill the bad guys!”

“Hmm. Why would you kill the bad guys though?”

“Because they’re bad, duh?”

“Not quite.” Zasha said.

She bent down a little and stroked Sonya’s head gently.

“Sonya, if you want to be a hero like me, first, you must be kind and responsible. You must make friends and help people. Take care of your tasks and avoid hurting others. Those are the important things that makes your big sister Zasha cool– it’s not my rank or being in the navy, and not ‘killing bad guys’.”

Zasha would defer telling Sonya that she had been inducted into the special forces.

For as long as humanly possible now, given the circumstances.

It would give her some funny ideas about this lecture.

Still– she wouldn’t say no if Sonya wanted to join the armed forces.

It was not in her nature to tell Sonya not to do something. Even something like this.

But she had to do it for the right reasons. She had to really understand it.

“Don’t you need to fight to be a hero?” Shalikova asked.

“Hmm, not quite!” Zasha smiled. “There’s all kinds of ways to be a hero. Heroes aren’t only those who fight. The lady at the cafeteria is a hero; your teachers are big heroes too.”

Sonya puffed her cheeks up a bit. “Big nags, actually.”

“Sonya~”

“Okay, okay. But you fight bad guys, or you train to fight bad guys, don’t you?”

“Well, yes–”

“Then why do you do that? If it isn’t to be a hero?”

Zasha continued to smile. Sonya was asking the right questions. “In my case, Sonya, I want to fight so that other people don’t have to. Fighting isn’t something soldiers want to do. But we will fight so that the cafeteria lady, and your teachers at school, and even you yourself, don’t have to do that. So you can do other things that help people more, like cook or sew cute stuffed animals.”

“You don’t think fighting helps?” Sonya asked.

There was a tiny little shudder in Zasha’s heart, but she never ceased to smile.

Whatever Sonya wanted to do– Zasha would support it with a smile and proper guidance.

“I think that we need to be really careful about fighting.” Zasha said. “We need to think a lot about why we do it and most of the time we need to find ways of sorting things out that aren’t fighting. That’s part of my job too, you know. If you can think of a really good reason to fight, Sonya, and you find that fighting is the only way that you can help or save people, only then should you fight.”

Sonya looked determined and smiled. “I’ll fight to protect you, Zasha!”

Zasha suddenly took Sonya into a tight embrace.

For some reason she felt tears in her eyes. Tears for everything her sister had been through.

“Sonya, you’re full of love. I know you’ll understand my lesson someday.”

She whispered this almost to herself, holding her fragile little sister in her hands.

And praying that everything would really turn out well for her.


Zasha

Being a hero– what Zasha had said it meant– Could Shalikova really–?

Cold sweat built on her sharply rising chest. Her breath came in fits.

Thoughts unbidden. She was getting emotional, she was swimming in pure emotion.

Everything was so desperate that she had begun to think about her sister.

After trying to push her out of her mind for so long.

What would Zasha have done? What would Zasha had said?

It was painful to remember– but the confrontation was forced–

Emotions flooding, cascading in brilliant colors, inescapable–

Black and red, she was wreathed in the ferocious void-fire of killing–

Was that her only emotion too–? Was she only colored with intention to kill–?

“Focus! Tight focus!” Sonya Shalikova told herself, trying to break free of this spiral.

She would need every neuron she could spare to survive let alone achieve any victory.

“Zasha, I have to fight.”

For the difference in power between their machines, Sonya had been doing admirably.

The Cheka had only taken a bit of cosmetic damage– and one melted rifle.

But that enemy machine had not lost any speed or power from the damage that it took.

Its armor was pitted and shredded in places, but it was still moving like a juggernaut.

Shalikova had not intended to do much damage with her tricks anyway.

She had planted a seed of possibility. That keenness she couldn’t escape had guided her.

Now Selene would nurse an expectation of how Shalikova would move in reaction to the projectile’s gunfire. If Shalikova tried to use her as a shield again, would the reaction be different?

Would she shoot at herself, or reposition it differently, or make a more adverse move in response? Any wrong move and those molten claws would destroy her completely, or she would be shredded by that flying chain-gun but when this fight had started, she was far more helpless than now.

She had an opportunity. But she had to convert it into a way to disable that machine.

Or at least try to disarm it. If only her sword could have cut that entire claw off!

“She wants to kill me. She would love to. That’s the feeling I get in the aura, but–?”

All that bleak anger and hatred radiating from that machine–

Was it really a window into the heart of the person inside?

Was Selene Anahid a monster as ferocious and evil as the one that had taken Zasha?

“No. She’s a human being just like me. I can stop her.” She said.

Selene was clearly psionic, however. Since she learned about psionics, Shalikova had been dimly considering the possibility that they might confront someone who knew about psionics too. As much as she hated the thought of relying on this strange new power, Shalikova had to give as good as she was getting– and the machine’s wild aura told Shalikova that psionics was involved here.

Remembering what Maryam had shown her–

Shalikova pulled the mental trigger and her eyes felt hot from inside.

That irregular cloud of colors in front of her came more sharply into focus.

“So I was right–”

As she had been fighting Selene she had felt that an attack was coming and this was heralded by the intensifying of the machine’s red and black aura. It was like she could feel the decision to attack before Selene made it. This allowed her to be somewhat more confident in taking risks with very tight timing, like dropping into and escaping from the machine’s grasp in order to lead its attacks into itself. It was something she only acknowledged after the fact– in the middle of things it just felt like she really good instincts and coordination. Now she recognized the source of those instincts clearly.

Because now she could see the patterns in the water among all the other colors.

Trails of red and black slowly dissipating behind their machines like scars of their battle in the aether– and trails of possibility extending ever so subtly from the machine like tendrils ready to imprint the next scar of their violent fate onto that ocean-spanning cloud of human emotions. It was tricky– she was seeing the aura shift this way and that as if nothing in the future had been settled yet.

Was Selene seeing this too? Shalikova recalled something else– Maryam’s fortune telling.

“That’s it!”

Sword in hand, suddenly inspired, Shalikova drew the Cheka back to provoke a reaction.

In the next instant Selene’s claw swiped right in front of her.

A cloud of bubbles and vapor from the superheated claws hid her intention. A burst of 20 mm bullets from the autocannon on her right shoulder kept Shalikova at bay, popping one after another in little bursts of vapor and metal. Shalikova could not see the sea floor but she knew she was close to the bottom now and so she dove further with the space created by the last exchange of attacks.

If she could drag Selene to the benthic surface there would be one less plane of movement.

Normally that would be an enormous disadvantage, but Shalikova was counting on that.

And counting on Selene’s reaction to having a sudden, seemingly massive advantage.

In response to Shalikova’s dive the flying chain gun appeared at her side.

Following her with alien ease and agility, the machine spun up its barrels to attack from her flank.

With Selene above and behind, chasing, the chain gun could safely attack from the flanks.

As soon as she saw it, Shalikova struck a button on her joystick that had been glowing green.

“Sorry Murati and Gunther!”

On a supplementary screen, the Cheka’s Energy Recovery System status appeared.

Gathered power deployed from hidden battery cells and supercharged the water system.

In an instant, the Cheka began moving much faster than it had been.

Selene’s gunfire flew right past her, not even close–

Dozens of flashing red status warnings popped up for every conceivable system.

Everything was overheating or stressed, nothing was handling the increased power well.

Shalikova began to plea silently with the machine, hold together, hold together, hold–

Below her, she could suddenly see the grey, sandy rock of the Goryk plain dominating her vision.

She had been diving headfirst, but when she saw the ground Shalikova twisted her body around and glided across the dusty surface– with her back to the ocean floor and her head and chest facing up at the machine approaching. Its horns glowing with all the colors of the rainbow, veins of color playing about its hull, and that demonic red and black aura growing thicker and thicker as it approached.

And as Shalikova glided over the surface, her water jets kicked up all the loose sand.

There was sediment! There was enough sediment–!

For an enormous cloud to blow over Shalikova and for a few dozen meters all around.

Just as she hoped– as she planned.

WHAT? GOD DAMN IT.

Shalikova heard a psychic wail emanate from the enemy machine.

She stopped, briefly caught her footing, standing up the Cheka inside the cloud.

Praying that she was right– and with each passing instant believing in her observations.

Though her cameras were blinded by the cloud seafloor deposits she could still see the enemy machine’s aura. Hovering overhead, losing initiative, moving slower and with less confidence–

Selene couldn’t predict her movements.

GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT GOD DAMN IT–

Psychic screams of frustration, the red and black aura began to grow a sickly green stripe–

Maryam had said–

“When I tried to read you I couldn’t see any surface thoughts at all,”

That machine was generating such an intense amount of emotion that it stirred the aether.

Shalikova had put everything together, she knew she must have been correct in thinking–

She generated no ambient emotions for Selene to pick up. She was invisible to psionic senses.

Unless she deliberately broadcast her emotions to Selene, her enemy could see nothing.

Just like a certain powerfully psionic cuttlefish had failed to read her before too.

“Maryam, when I get back I’m going to kiss you!”

Shalikova leaned on her controls with a burst of determination.

Overhead, the machine and its projectile positioned themselves over the center of the cloud.

Within seconds, massive amounts of gunfire burst from the chain gun and the autocannon.

Since they couldn’t see her, they made use of the high ground to furiously bombard the seafloor.

Got you.

That last thought was Shalikova’s– and she made sure not to broadcast it.

Selene had already seen how fast the Cheka could dive with E.R.S. on–

–but she had no idea how quickly its horizontal and vertical maneuvering would be–

As Shalikova burst out of the cloud, still on the sea floor, right behind Selene’s machine.

Launching up nearly forty meters in just over a second as her systems cried from the strain.

Almost instantaneously the alien projectile’s chain gun snapped up from the sea floor–

Hesitating.

Selene must have realized–

–that once again she was between Shalikova and the gun.

So she made a correction.

Throwing the gun into a climb so it would shoot over her at an angle on Shalikova.

Exposing the chain gun to retaliation.

Soon as Shalikova’s keen eyes spotted that cluster of aura rising separate from Selene–

From her shoulders two jet anchors fired on their rocket boosters, cables instantly cut.

They sailed over Selene like a pair of thrown daggers.

One crashed into the center of the chain gun barrels.

Second dug between a control fin deep enough into the chassis to hit the magazine.

Shalikova knew instantly that while it could still move that gun would never shoot again.

Feral psionic screams erupted from her enemy.

As Selene furiously swung the machine’s bulk around to attack her, Shalikova threw all of her weight and thrust into a two-handed, overhead swing aimed down the middle of the mecha’s shoulder.

She only ever attacked with this claw and the shoulder cannon–

Destroying the machine was out of the question–

But if she could disable its weapons–

Shalikova’s sword plunged smashing and slicing through the new style thruster on the winged mount atop the shoulder guard and biting through to the housing for the autocannon. Diamond teeth ground furiously, chewing through the metal and composite and churning debris from all ends of the wound glowing red hot and irregular, gnawing cabling, electric cells, armor, inner supports and tubes–

For an instant it caught within the steel of the arm suspension–

Chewing up its teeth hot, violence briefly stopped–

Please, cut through, cut harder, cut deeper, push! Push!

Shalikova begged and pleaded and cried for the sword’s deadly jaws–

Her eyes welled up hot vapor streaming from her tears–

If she could only sever that arm– she could stop all of this–

“I understand, Zasha! I understand now! I just need a little more strength!”

Shalikova physically could not kill this behemoth. Had she tried she would be dead.

Aiming for the cockpit hull would have done nothing. It was thick enough to shrug off an explosion.

But the arm– she felt like if she gave everything she had she could disable that arm–

Then she would not need to kill Selene. She could make her surrender, take her prisoner–

“I don’t want to kill her! I don’t want to! I want to– I want to save her!”

Answering Selene’s cry with a determined scream of her own that sent her aura flaring–

Spurring the diamond jaws to a snap instant of violence severing the entire shoulder.

Exiting shattered ejecting the diamond chain in pieces as Selene’s gutted arm descended.

The Cheka’s entire hands snapped from the pressure and ceased to respond, letting go of what was left of the diamond sword. All of these instruments severed from their masters and descended gently out of sight onto the cloudy seafloor, the sword, the hot-clawed arm and its shoulder cannon, and the chain-gun, suddenly losing power. A silent cloud of metal debris drifted in the marine fog.

For an instant Shalikova found herself in total darkness.

Abusing the E.R.S. had downed all of the Cheka’s power. She stood blind and in silence.

Then the power came back on– and Shalikova reached for an air mask.

On the diagnostic screen, she saw that the E.R.S. had burned out the main turbines.

Smoke began to seep into the cockpit. Propulsion completely died.

She donned a mask from the emergency supplies, giving her about an hour of life–

And then glanced through her cameras in a panic.

But the enemy machine was not moving. It could not take advantage.

Shalikova sank back in her chair, sucking air through her mask while her mind reeled.

You can’t– You can’t possibly– I was born, I was made, stronger than you! I was! I am!

From the enemy machine the cloud of colors became tinged with all shades sickly and sad.

A roiling vortex that had it been physical looked like it would have crushed the machine.

Selene’s panicked, morbid, self-hating, self-hurting thoughts cascaded out of the mecha.

I’m complete, I’m perfect, I was made perfect, how can she be stronger than me? Mother, why?

Shalikova’s own thoughts poured painfully out of her own soul in return–

Please stop. Please just surrender. I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.

Within the clashing aether where all human hurt and suffering had left its mark.

Shalikova felt like crying– she was crying– there was so much pouring out of her.

She knew it was irrational, but she was so affected by the emotions she felt from Selene.

As if that keenness which had haunted her eyes all her life was haunting her mind now.

All of those emotions were so much more violent than anyone could possibly feel.

And she felt them so keenly, as if they were her own, flashes of pain and insight–

Cold, indistinct halls–

Distant people’s words hung with enormity never understood–

Authorities she rejected– figures she refused to let herself rely upon– so much to prove–

Shalikova had never seen an aura like it. Even Ahwalia driven to attack Illya because of their past. Shalikova had seen that anger. She had even seen intention to kill, from when Valeriya struck Ahwalia back that same night. Those were human emotions pushed to their limits, but Selene’s intensity led Shalikova to think maybe the machine was doing something to Selene Anahid inside. Making her worse.

None of those people wanted to powerfully, so strongly, to kill, to hate, to commit violence.

None of those people had been so purposeless in their pursuit of tragedy.

We don’t have to kill each other. We don’t. Selene, please.

Above all what she felt from Selene was a great, exceptional loneliness and isolation.

There was a hole inside Selene that had been filled inside Sonya.

Thoughts of her sister Zasha and all the hurt and inadequacy that she felt came to her unbidden.

All of these years she had run away from it.

It was painful, forcing herself not to think about Zasha while living without her, it was so painful.

It was painful, pain beyond any, to accept that she was gone.

To accept she couldn’t save her. That jumping in that mecha and killing the monster did not change anything. Suspended in the middle of the ocean having fought a battle to a violent standstill, Shalikova finally stared sharply into years old scars that she had been scared to acknowledge. Zasha was gone. She had failed to save her. But she wasn’t alone– Shalikova still had everything Zasha ever left to her.

Had it not been for Zasha–

For Illya and Valeriya–

For Murati and Khadija–

For that kind and gentle Maryam Karahailos–

For what purpose or meaning would Shalikova have been comitting violence and taking lives?

Would she have been in Selene’s shoes, roaring with self-assured but morally empty anger?

Heroes kill bad guys.

Superior beings triumph over inferior ones.

Those childish things which they had both thought– had they been so dissimilar at all?

Selene, I want to save you–

Shalikova’s eyes drew wide, lit up purple in the dim cockpit. An agarthic radiation warning.

Camera filters drawing a flashing purple box around Selene’s mecha as she lifted the remaining arm.

Hitherto unused except as a defense system, Shalikova had thought it wasn’t a weapon.

Claws separating radially around a hole in the palm creating a magnetic field.

Vapor vented from the thicker part of the arm closer to the shoulder as it generated heat.

A furious, rising, incredible heat– and a purple glow through a wound in the arm’s plates.

Tongues of agarthic energy each the width of hairs leaped across the surface of the machine.

“Sonya Shalikova. You are the one who needs saving. Not me– I am the strongest of us.”


Previous ~ Next

Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.10]

“Khadija al-Shajara, Strelok ‘I~bis’, deploying!”

Setting her jaw and shoulders stiff so as to not betray a bit of a shake as she dropped.

She was an old hat at this– she was not about to let the situation scare her.

There was an altogether different feeling than the last time she deployed, however.

Back then, she had been so prepared to die, to do anything to throw her life at her enemy like a fireball that would engulf everything, including herself. Now, as her camera feed transitioned from the metal of the deployment chute to the misty water of the Nectaris, her enemy hidden somewhere in the thickness of the marine fog and the darkness of the deep sea, she could not help a bit of anxiety.

It was so much more difficult to live than to die.

Her whole body still ached from days and days of training, but it would ache regardless.

She was old. Something always ached.

Her fingers around the sticks ached, her ankles ached as she pushed them down on the pedals, her back was hurting, the back of her neck hurt, her shoulders throbbed, the muscles on her chest and belly. The muscles connecting her ears to her head hurt, her tail hurt where it attached to her lower back. And yet those fingers effortlessly guided her way, those feet exerted graceful control of her thrust, and she sat on the chair not hunched and half-broken but upright and proud. She was ready to fight.

As soon as Squadron 114’s formation began to move she could already feel the improvements that had been made to this Strelok over the basic model. Khadija had rejected the machine at first, because part of her advantage was the intimate knowledge she had over every movement an ordinary Strelok could make, and this allowed her to be precise — but that wily Shalikova knew how to get to her.

“If you don’t take my machine I’ll give it to Aiden Ahwalia.” She said.

Incredible. What an evil-minded little girl– Khadija had no choice but to accept it.

Thankfully it was not so different from a Strelok that it hindered Khadija’s piloting style.

The weight distribution was similar, control response exactly the same, it was like piloting a Strelok but getting more from it. Khadija could tell immediately she could push it harder, she could get more thrust and get it quicker, she could make slightly tighter corrections due to the improved hydrodynamics. She tested here and there as the formation charged out into the ocean, quickly getting a feel for it.

Then–

“That little fucking worm!”

Shalikova went after Aiden Ahwalia after he brazenly took off from the formation.

Leaving her to lead it temporarily. Khadija hardly wanted that responsibility–

And she would not have it for long.

Seconds after Shalikova split off from the group, the 114th Diver Squadron caught their first glimpses of the incoming enemy. Four enemy figures appeared shrouded in the marine fog. Probing fire flew from both sides, rifle rounds briefly lighting the pitch black ocean, vapor bubbles blossoming randomly where each side last saw the enemy. Both groups broke through each other, momentarily seeing each other in plain sight as they sped past each other. Different machines then split off to probe different angles of attack, some sweeping up, some dropping down. Khadija tried to make out the models–

In that instant, Khadija caught sight of that mecha once again.

And this time, it was painted red, as if begging for her acknowledgment.

That new Diver model that had fought in defense of the Iron Lady.

Her computer had wanted to label it a Jagd before, but they had come to name this model after its pilot, Red Baron, when they updated the data on their predictors. Its triangular body plan resembled the Jagd, but it was sturdier, with swept pauldron shoulders, a helmeted humanoid head, thicker arms and legs. Unlike the hyper-aggressive Jagd built only for raw speed and close combat, the Red Baron could have replaced the Volker as a sturdy main-line grunt unit, in the same way as the Cheka was likely to replace the Strelok. It was archetype of a new generation; a new body to vanguard the imperial cause.

Clad in striking red, it looked ever more like Khadija’s recollection of her old arch-enemy.

“Valya, stick to Rybolovskaya and command her fire! I’m going after the break-aways!”

“Ma’am–? Are you passing me lead?”

“Yes! Go!”

Those were the last words of leadership that Khadija issued over the squadron’s communications before she rushed full ahead after the Red Baron. Following that red shadow up into the thickening marine fog, firing her assault rifle at the figure who immediately took her up on the offer to dance. Valya would have to contend with the rest. Khadija always knew this time would come, sooner or later.

Shalikova was nearly killed by her, Murati too. It could only be her who put an end to this history.

I’m the only one who can stop her. She’ll run circles around the rest of them.

The Red Baron thrust higher up the water table and Khadija gave chase.

Both of them breaking off from their formations, leaving their squadrons behind.

Khadija kept her main camera trained on the Red Baron, her eyes fixed on even the slightest movement by the machine. She fired one-handed from the chest in semi-automatic mode, one shot per one trigger pull, the Red Baron skillfully sweeping from side to side to avoid the explosions of the 37 mm rounds. In turn the Red Baron fired her own rifle behind herself and forced Khadija to dodge in the same way.

In the net neither gained nor was able to escape from the other, and the two Divers appeared like opposing poles spiraling within a cylinder of their own making, vapor bubbles from stray explosions foaming in their wake. Dancing as they had danced before, each a mirror of the other.

It was not that either of them was an excellent or inept marksman.

Rather they were so equal to each other’s skill and their equipment too near performance.

Khadija knew that this dance could not last, and her counterpart must have known also.

This was a distraction, buying time, making space, probing, trying to find an advantage.

Two masked killers in the final ballroom, watching each other dance with hidden knives.

It’ll be decided in melee. We both came up in a time where melee decided these fights.

She was ready to take up the sword at any second–

Drifting perhaps a hundred or two hundred meters above the battle below–

When suddenly a cloud of bubbles blew into her and blinded her.

The Red Baron had run an emergency routine and blown oxygen through her jets.

Doing so stalled her, but she fluidly executed a complete turn out of the stall–

Attacking through the cover of the cloud to forestall retaliation.

Khadija recognized it as a ploy and pulled everything back with her front leg verniers.

Throwing herself down and to one side as a wave of renewed gunfire swept past her.

She began trading fire back as the Red Baron tried to circle her with the trigger pressed down.

Lines of supercavitating shells cut through the water between them at near intersecting angles–

Still moving as opposing poles–

but the circle they formed began to tighten–

in a brief instant within the dance of evasion and counterfire–

Khadija realized first that she was within range of a charge.

Holding her rifle in front of her chest like a shield, Khadija threw herself at the Red Baron with abandon.

Through a series of explosions the size of human bodies, spreading wildly around her–

Bits of metal sheared off her shoulder, arm and leg plates–

She burst through the fire and smoke with a defiant battle cry.

Everything happened too fast for any aiming and shooting, so it became a show of dumb blunt force at arm’s reach. Boosting herself into the Red Baron’s attacks, Khadija turned a close range shootout into a melee. Swinging the broad side of her assault rifle like a battering ram, she smashed the Red Baron’s rifle, forcing the digits to release lest they be ripped from the hand and tossing the weapon aside.

Disarmed of her rifle, the Red Baron drew and dodged back in one stroke.

Khadija dodged back in turn, avoiding the wild counterslash of the hastily drawn vibroblade.

Now I have you.

Instead of drawing her sword in return she grabbed and threw a grenade.

Between the two of them an enormous shockwave spread from a growing bubble of hot gases.

The Red Baron, awaiting a melee, beat a full retreat from the ensuing explosion.

Parts of her own armor tore off from the push and pull of the blast and her own escape.

Khadija, dashing down apart from her, created a gap of two dozen meters between them.

Now it was a proper shootout again and she had the advantage.

She still had a working assault rifle in hand and her target was in a vulnerable position.

Thrown off by the shockwave, dashing back in a panic, The Red Baron was lit up in her sights–

Tasting blood Khadija pulled the trigger–

Click.

Her empty magazine immediately detached from the AK-96 having been fired empty.

It’s always something.

She immediately, desperately reached for a new magazine but–

About forty meters away, on the edge of visibility, the Red Baron suddenly stopped moving.

Sword drawn but pointed aside, her mecha posed like a regal knight suspended in the water.

An invitation to a formal duel, perhaps. Or a call to parley.

Both had been bloodied to an even degree, each attack had been perfectly answered.

Out of a sense of pride, Khadija acquiesced and tuned her communicator to the liaison channel used during the old war. There she heard the voice of the Red Baron, cutting in: “we’ll both die for–”

“Come again you miserable lout? I want to hear your last words clearly.” Khadija taunted.

“I am saying, if we keep fighting, I’m confident that we’ll both die for nothing.”

“You’ll be the only one dying if you have such little confidence in yourself.”

“We need to stop fighting. I’m not the only monster on my side. We’ll all kill each other without reason.”

“I have plenty of reason to reduce you to ground lamb in your cockpit.”

Khadija thought she heard a sigh, maybe even a sob, crackling over the low quality audio.

“You are the Lion of Cascabel. Why must we keep fighting? Both of our lives ended twenty years ago.”

Even with how distorted the channel was, Khadija still thought she felt the emotion in that voice.

She was no longer so shocked to hear it, she understood that the Red Baron was a human being, that they were both flesh and blood and not just machines when they fought each other in the past. Now she found herself facing another revelation. There were humans who though flesh and blood made themselves machines, cold and ruthless, remorseless, murder incarnate. Even if she could believe the Red Baron was human, Khadija conceived of her as inhuman in this way, in order to keep hating her.

This woman was challenging that notion. All of that emotion in her voice, almost uncontrollable.

“If only I had never met that damned woman, we could have left everything in the past.”

This girl who sounded like she would cry over the acoustic communicator–

Could she possibly be the same Red Baron? But if she called her The Lion, then she knew.

And with the way she fought, it couldn’t possibly be anyone else.

But now Khadija was thinking to herself: how did I imagine this confrontation would transpire?

Khadija responded almost out of impulse. “If you are afraid to die, then surrender to me!”

Surrender? That those words came out of her mouth at all only signified how pathetic the Red Baron sounded to her, tone a prostration, a bowed head, and slack shoulders before Khadija. When she thought of her she no longer thought of an iron pillar full of blades dressed in a grey uniform. There were the features of a girl forming in Khadija’s mind, despite the fact that they were nearly the same age.

“Lion, since we last fought, our time has been frozen in Cascabel. You and I are the same.” She said, her voice almost cracking again. “Our paths are set into stone. We can neither change the past nor can we alter the future. There is no possible way that us meeting again, can end in anything but our mutual deaths. I know we will find some way to kill one another. We fought in a ruthless age, out of desperation. Now we are meeting with the weight of our pasts on our shoulders. We will both die here the same.”

Khadija clutched her fingers tight against the control sticks. She felt pain, frustration, anger.

How dare this woman come to her with this childish sophistry?

When all Khadija wanted was a snickering evil monster to kill! To put behind them that rotten past!

“I gave you an alternative! Surrender! If you have remorse then put down your weapons!”

There was that word again. Surrender.

There was a brief pause– then the Red Baron’s voice became void of emotion. That voice and the words that it spoke finally sounded like an old and embittered soul, rather than a scared, weepy little girl. She felt she could see a face like her own now, eyes staring into the distance, ears ringing with death.

“It’s impossible for me to make amends to you. I can’t surrender– what would I even do?”

Khadija smiled bitterly to herself. “So be it, Red Baron. We can only kill each other then.”

For a moment Khadija stewed in how much she hated that in her mind’s eye, the Red Baron’s face was coming to resemble her own. In total silence, she tried hard to put the image out of her mind.

Then they raised their weapons, engaged their hydrojets, and resumed the dance of death.


I’ve let too many fucking people die. Too many. I can’t– I can’t fucking lose her too.

“Marina McKennedy, Soldier of Enterprise and Liberty: deploying!”

Leda, if you’re watching over me, give us a miracle.

Marina McKennedy considered herself an absolutely middling Diver pilot.

Nevertheless, she was useless inside of the ship during a naval battle, and the communists needed absolutely every gun they could put out into the water right now even if they didn’t realize it. God only knew why they weren’t throwing everyone they could possibly get in a suit out with them, they had like eighteen of the fucking things aboard didn’t they? Some misplaced sense of ethics? Marina did not fucking know. All she could do was throw her own body too with everyone else willing. There was no use trying to change how they operated at the last second. She just had to nut up and fight.

Taking a deep breath, remembering all the times she scraped by on the skin of her teeth.

She had been shot, blown up, stabbed, tied up and whipped, had a knife put to her cock–

Going out in a Diver was good clean fun compared to all of her previous escapades.

Somehow, she was starting to psyche herself up a bit. These commies had beaten the Iron Lady before, against all odds. Maybe if anyone could Norn a black eye it was these brainwashed fools.

“McKennedy.”

Once she got out into the water, she received a transmission from the ship.

It was the Chief of the Brigand’s mechanics, Galina Lebedova, on the main video feed.

A fairly big lady with a pretty face; soft-cheeked, long hair in a braid– god those shoulders, those arms though, the sleeveless overalls really flattered her. Not an unwelcome sight whatsoever.

“We haven’t touched your weapons, but we don’t have any Republic supplies aboard, so we had to ferrostitch some extra magazines for your rifle based on the spare you brought aboard. Don’t expect them to be flawless, but they’ll fit, and they have thirty rounds of Union 37 mm loaded in.”

“Copy. I can’t say anything but thanks to that — I’d be fucked with just one mag out here. Say, Chief, when I get back can we get a coffee together? No one’s properly shown me around this boat yet.”

Lebedova smiled a little but shut off the video in response.

“Worth a try.” Marina said to herself.

Beneath the ship, she formed up around the Brigand’s other Divers, awaiting orders.

Once they sallied forth she quickly got the hang of piloting her S.E.A.L. again.

Movement was probably her strong suit. She had used this S.E.A.L. on a few infiltrations.

All of them leading up to Vogelheim.

It’s not going to be a cock-up like that again. I won’t let it turn out that way.

All of this was for Elena. Even if she’d fucked up communicating that to her thus far.

“I can’t die regretting how I left things off with her.”

Last time they looked each other in the eyes, Elena had completely broken down. Marina herself had been in bad shape. She could barely remember what happened afterward, but it was an awful, hurtful confrontation. Since then they avoided one another. She thought eventually Elena would come around but maybe that was gutless of her. She had to come back and actually show she cared.

“There’s too much you’d leave undone if you died, Marina McKennedy.”

She smiled bitterly to herself, her reflection in one of the dark screens.

She looked so tired.

As much as she sometimes wanted to join Leda and Bethany and be in peace–

Marina had to see this through. Everything was for Elena. Everything left of her.

This must have been what it was like, being a parent.

Having a commitment you couldn’t just walk away from when it was inconvenient.

She had not been thinking too much about the formation until the Ahwalia kid ran off–

Then everything went into a tailspin. The squad leader ran off, the Shimii started yelling–

“I thought you commies were supposed to be disciplined?!”

Marina hardly had time to ask who was in charge when the enemy finally appeared.

In an uncanny turn the enemy formation was much like theirs. Two close combat mecha, one strange silvery-white unit, formed up around a Volkannon with a sniper rifle that was lagging behind them. The instant that the two sides saw the very faintest outline of each other, targeting computers lit up with warnings and assault rifle fire saturated the battlefield, creating a brief chaos. The Shimii communist ran off to chase a gaudy red unit on the other side– but the Union formation remained tighter than the enemy, who split off in every direction as if probing the flanks or trying to encircle them–

Marina tried to cling tight to the Katarran with the Strelkannon to guard against that–

Until she realized that one enemy unit had just charged right past them.

Heading straight for the Brigand.

“Shit! They’re not flanking, one’s going for the ship!”

It was that silver-white unit!

Marina hardly had time to communicate any further before she reacted.

Leaving Valya behind with the Strelkannon, Marina took off after the unidentified unit.

Their plan wouldn’t matter if the enemy took out the Brigand and stranded them–

–and killed Elena along with them.

“I’m going after it!”

“Huh?”

Ignoring the cry from Valya Lebedova, Marina launched herself in full pursuit.

Her head was pounding. You’re no good at this. That’s a new model. You’ll die.

You’ll die.

There was too much left to do to die now.

But if Elena was hurt it would all be meaningless, all of it.

Leda.

Bethany.

They all poured their love into Elena. Everything they did was not just for each other.

Marina still had that unfulfilled promise to free Elena from Konstantin von Fueller.

So Marina leaned into her sticks and slammed her pedals down with all her might.

And the S.E.A.L. took off with all the thrust of its jets and boosters to gain on the enemy.

A wild barrage of fully automatic fire blazed from its M480 assault rifle, launching 37 mm bullets that cut the gap between the silver-white enemy and Marina in an instant, bursting into vapor bubbles in a chaotic pattern around the enemy diver and forcing it to acknowledge pursuit. It fired its own rifle from around its flank, backwards, but Marina easily avoided the counterfire and pressed her attack.

Her reticle danced around the aiming screen, the yellow targeting box around the enemy unit beginning to turn red, a proximity alert blaring as Marina neared and neared. She reloaded her gun and reopened fire, doing everything she could to put that reticle on that silver-white figure looming larger ahead but holding down the trigger for automatic fire, knowing she didn’t have the aim to snipe it down.

It could no longer run away, in seconds they would be practically chest to back–

Folding its rifle in one shocking instant, the enemy turned around on a dime–

Marina halted with all possible counterthrust just in time to avoid the edge of a vibroblade.

Slashing directly in front of the main camera in a swift arc out of the turn.

“It’s fast!”

She gasped for breath and held it.

In the next instant the enemy rushed her, lifting a shield held in its other arm in front of itself.

An enormous ballistic shield the right size to cover the Diver, with a thick block in the center for–

–the short stub barrel of an 81 mm launcher.

There was a thumping noise and a discharge of gas as a rocket-propelled grenade flew from it.

Marina thrust back narrowly avoiding the explosion.

Barely centimeters from annihilation as the ordnance went off.

Struggling with her controls as the explosion sent shockwaves bashing against her cockpit, while the vaporized water bubble expanded and contracted warping the water directly in front of the SEAL. Everything rattled, her cameras were blocked by the vapor and water, and hot gases got pulled into her intakes which briefly stunted her hydrojet thrust. She lost sight of the enemy machine.

Marina thought it must have been a distraction in order to get her to give up the chase–

When from over the rapidly dispersing gas bubble the machine reappeared.

Vibrosword in hand, it dropped down with a two-handed slash, its shield affixed to its arm.

Drawing her vibroaxe in an instant she caught the blade at the last second with its thick, sturdy head.

That brief second of struggle as the sword dug into her axe–

Gave her the closest look she had at this new model.

Sleek, rounded and beveled white and silver armor, rounded shoulders, lots of smooth interlocking plates, it was as if the model had been cast in this form and not assembled out of a collection of individual segments. Marina knew no Imperial, Union or Republic model with such a high quality and sleek design. Those jets on the shoulders, she had never seen their like. And its performance was incredible.

That pilot, too, was no joke.

Shooting an 81 mm shell that close, to make space for a melee attack, it was nuts. It took balls.

In that moment, clashing blades with this grand and mighty paladin, Marina had one bitter thought.

Grinning in her cockpit, face lit up by the bright freedom-blue of the SEAL’s user interface.

Shit, I’m going to die here, aren’t I?

A steel knight with a red glare like death– had it come to finally punish her sins?


Ulyana Korabiskaya stood up from her chair for emphasis as the battle began to escalate.

“Report! What’s happening with the Divers?” She shouted.

“Pure chaos.” Zachikova replied.

Up on a side panel of the main video feed the projected positions and trajectories of the Divers appeared, having been found and tracked through periodic weak sonar pulses launched by the drone swimming along the edge of the cliffs. Ulyana watched them with some consternation as it appeared that they had broken up from their units and launched individual attacks instead.

“What the hell is going on?” Aaliyah asked. “Why are they so dispersed?”

She stood up at once, standing beside Ulyana in support.

Zachikova turned to face them with glassy, half-gone eyes. Her concentration was split.

“Ahwalia did something stupid.” She said, in a belabored drawl, her mind split between her body and the drone. “Shalikova had to correct. Then the enemy broke through our formation. We are chasing breakaway individuals to prevent them reaching the Brigand. Battle has been successfully kept to over a hundred meters away from the Brigand itself. We have not visually acquired any of the Divers.”

“At least they blocked them. Fine. We have to focus on what we can do.”

Ulyana sat back down and with a flourish pointed at the main screen.

“Focus all our efforts on attacking the Antenora! Gunnery section, fire main guns!”

“Acknowledged!”

Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa responded in maybe the briefest sentence she had ever spoken.

The Antenora was closing in between 1.5 and 1 kilometers away, but it was not moving directly toward them. Like the Brigand itself it was trying to snake around the flank, hoping to maximize not just the proximity of its weapons to its target, but the ability to hit a broader part of the ship for more damage.

In ship combat, the ultimate objective was to inflict enough damage on the enemy that would breach several sections of the ship, hoping to overwhelm the flood mitigation systems to compromise the ship. If possible, attacking from behind could also cripple a ship by destroying its hydrojets. Attacking from below could potentially destroy the ship’s highly complicated water system, which would at the minimum slow or stop it as ships relied on pulling the water into themselves and ejecting it out to thrust.

At its worst, it would eject the ballast and make the ship uncontrollable.

In effect, the ships were circling in orbit of the Diver battle, each hoping to take the other’s tail or flank.

Whether the Antenora or Brigand would have the opportunity depending on their helmsmen.

“Kamarik, keep us steady but slippery!”

“Don’t worry ma’am, I’m more finely tuned than ever to how this lady dances.”

Kamarik was experienced, and he kept them unpredictable, applying variable thrust to create opportunities and deceive their enemies as to their movements. The Antenora was not acting so surreptitious. It maintained a roughly even thrust, as if it had an advantage and did not need to resort to any trickery to win. Perhaps Norn the Praetorian was correct to be so unbothered by them.

But it was Ulyana’s job to find a way to rattle Norn– from her bridge and to her grave.

As the sharks circled, their weapons trained on one another.

“Main gun ready! High-Explosive Cluster round firing for effect!” Fernanda declared.

Atop the Brigand, the dual-barrel 150 mm gun turret rose from out of hiding and acquired the Antenora as a target. From Fernanda’s station, the firing solution and type of ammunition was selected.

In this case, Fernanda was firing a ranging shot with wide, spread explosive effect.

It would be optimistic to kill with this shot, but it would acquire valuable data.

Within an instant, the firing prediction appeared on the main screen.

This was the bridge crew’s window into the war they were fighting.

They were not out in the water, and even there they would have hardly been able to see anything in front of their faces. What they did see, the video put together by the ship’s supercomputer, was a best-guess prediction created by using several sources of sensory data, ingested, and interpreted by several complicated programs in a span of seconds. That blue, visible ocean, the figure of the Antenora in the distance, accompanied by an overview map that showed the terrain and all actors in semi-realtime, it was all the creation of a computer. It could be wrong, but it was more than their eyes could ever see.

War waged through screens, unfolding before them like a movie in a theater.

A movie of the circling Antenora and the cold, black ocean around them.

The projectiles had already launched by the time the screen updated.

And the hits were registered in an instant. Supercavitating cannon rounds were incredibly fast.

On the screen two explosions were drawn around the figure of the Antenora.

Broad circular bubbles with information about the predicted and recorded impact.

“No effect! Targeting data reacquired, gun draining and priming!”

Fernanda was never as professional as when she was shooting, it seemed.

“Recalibrate and get back on it.” Ulyana said. “Torpedo section, I want one fire, record effect!”

Alexandra Geninov in the torpedo section lit up with excitement.

“Yes ma’am! Firing Torpedo!”

Within moments of receiving the order, Alex triggered the launch of a 120 mm explosive torpedo from the Brigand’s forward tube. Using the control stick on her station, Alex directly guided the ordnance via a fiber-optic wire, allowing her to potentially snake it around the enemy’s close-range gas gun defenses. She had a camera on the torpedo and that feed appeared on her screen, but it was subject to a slight delay. A skilled torpedo officer had to make whatever use they could of that visual data and its delay.

Torpedoes could reach a speed of over a hundred knots, much faster than a Diver’s max speed.

Less than a coilgun round’s incredible speed, but much more precise.

Alex could currently put a round on the Antenora in somewhere under thirty seconds.

That was enough time for maneuvers. And it was enough for Ulyana to be able to watch the little blip of the torpedo on the sonar picture moving farther and farther away. It was almost maddening every time she glanced at it, and heard the rattling of Alex’s stick as she made a series of snap corrections, trying to send the torpedo on her desired path toward the enemy vessel and avoid the defensive fire.

Within 50-70 meters, Alex would be able to see the Antenora visually on the cameras.

And then she would have around one and a half seconds to react before it smashed into it.

One and a half seconds without accounting for the delay.

“Huh? What the fuck? Ma’am, something’s up!”

Alex turned from her station in a snap as the main screen despawned the screen with the torpedo video feed. That side panel became dynamically populated with a different video feed. Losing its place of semi-prominence because its camera exploded. No impact registered; as the torpedo specialist protested.

“What’s wrong now, Geninov?” Ulyana asked.

In that precise moment, the main screen flashed an alert–

And an instant later, the Brigand shook enough to rattle the crew in their chairs, struck by the Antenora’s 150 mm guns. It was a testament to the construction of the ship and the brilliance of Union engineering. Despite the violent shockwaves which rippled across the surface armor, enough to be felt on the bridge and to have caused any freestanding personnel to lose balance, the lights barely flickered, and the main screen picture remained up to the second accurate and streaming new data in flawlessly.

“Status report!” Ulyana shouted.

“No direct hit!” Semyonova reported. “Very minor surface damage off the port side!”

“God damn it! We just got done fixing the port side!” Ulyana lamented.

Aaliyah interrupted. “Captain, Geninov had something to report.”

“Right,” Ulyana said, turning to face Alex again. “Report Geninov, what’s going on?”

In any other situation, and with any other look on Geninov’s face, Ulyana might have just dismissed whatever Alex had to say as to probable nonsense. However, rather than looking scared or smug, Alex had a befuddled look on her face, as if she had seen something completely incongruous, which was an expression Ulyana was not used to seeing. And indeed, Alex had seen something odd.

“Ma’am, the instruments on the torpedo send a final snapshot just prior to impact. This has final camera data but also has data from the other sensors. According to this, we did impact the Antenora, because we exploded inside the minimum range of the gas guns, which would’ve had effect. This is recording we blew up like two meters above the armor, but it had zero effect on it, we can tell, it shot us right after.”

“Put the image on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

Alex nodded nervously, and she swiped her finger at her touchscreen to move the image over. For a moment, it shared prominence with the video feed on the main screen. Everyone who saw it looked speechless for a moment. Most of it was taken up by the silver-grey armor of the Antenora as one might aspect from an impact camera on a torpedo. But there was a purple flash captured also. Like a sheen of agarthic energy warping over some of the armor close to the center of the image.

“What the hell is that?” Aaliyah shouted. “Is it some kind of close-in defense?”

Ulyana’s heart sank. She remembered Theresa Faraday’s demonstration before the battle.

About a potential next-generation armor system that the Brigand could possibly have.

And she now began to fear the Antenora possessed a functioning example.

What can I possibly do about this?

“Semyonova, where the hell is Theresa Faraday? Order her to the bridge now!”

Semyonova ran a search, using the computer to locate Theresa through the cameras–

She turned around suddenly. “Ma’am, she’s in the hangar! She’s– something’s deploying?”


What am I doing? What am I doing?

Sieglinde von Castille labored for breath, feeling a passenger in her own body.

Watching as if from over her own shoulder as her body pushed the sticks as far forward as they would go and rammed her pedals, throwing the Grenadier into a full speed attack upon the Lion of Cascabel. Sword in hand, rifle damaged and discarded, the Grenadier cut the distance to the Lion near instantly and swung a ferocious horizontal slash that forced the Lion to launch deeper down to avoid it.

Despite her keen reactions, the Lion was unable to counter, as Sieglinde flowed out of the horizontal feint with a sudden downward slash with both arms, engaging the booster on the blade itself as well as the shoulder boosters for added thrust. The Lion lunged suddenly to the side, the Baron’s vibrosword slicing the control fin on her Strelok’s shoulder clean off as she scarcely evaded the attack.

Why am I fighting? Why am I here? Why can’t we stop?

Her own internal voice grew more desperate and distant.

And yet her downward slash flowed smoothly into a dive, giving chase to the Lion.

Their machines were face to face, the Lion jetting down, unable to turn her back without giving up advantage, while the Red Baron lifted her blade as she bore down on the Lion. Like figures in a biblical painting, a wrathful god with a thundering blade captured amid descent, and a defiant human gazing at the firmament with stolen fire in her hands, a terrible collision imminent. All around them, the dark blue of the depths, such that they were alone in battle, and nothing could be seen but their aggression.

Fully automatic rifle fire went hurtling past the Grenadier, tearing off one of the arm joint plates and chunks of skirt armor but not enough bullets struck where needed, there was no time to aim. Undaunted the Red Baron fell upon the Lion and brought her sword barely centimeters from the cockpit slicing across the plates keeping her opponent out of water and laying upon them a deep, smoking scar.

I’m going to kill her!

Like fencers stepping forward and back, the two mecha became ensnared in a melee.

Sieglinde swung again from her last successful attack, pressing her advantage.

The Lion had to pick a direction. Sieglinde read her as diving deeper, it was easiest–

Instead she thrust upward, and as she did she fired her assault rifle down at an angle.

She’s going to kill me!

Sieglinde turned out of her attack and jerked her sword up in a desperate slash.

As the Lion opened fire the Grenadier’s vibrosword sliced across the barrel of the rifle.

An explosive round went off just outside the chamber and against the blade.

Chipping the edge of the Baron’s sword and bursting the Lion’s rifle in a miraculous turn.

Please stop, please turn around, please.

No matter how much she begged herself, Sieglinde was fighting as if automatically, as if without control of herself, a passenger in her body’s war. For a brief instant she thought she might have been under mind control, but she wasn’t, she knew she wasn’t. This was not something to blame on magic or monsters or on anything but the damnable, monstrous machinations of her own fate. She was fighting despite the pounding of her heart, the tears in her eyes and the cries of her humanity because there was no other place for her to go, no other future for her to seek. Her time had frozen; this was all she had.

Her eyes could only seek enemies to fight.

Her arms could only wield weapons of war.

Her legs could only take her from one battlefield to another.

Her chest could only draw breath to keep her living from one kill to the next.

She had no power to stop the atrocities her body carried out.

No matter how much her heart hurt. This was the legend she bore: the Red Baron.

The Red Baron would continue fighting her war until it took her from the face of Aer.

As soon as she saw the opportunity to attack, she took it with a devastating finality.

The Lion was off-balance, stunned by that one-in-a-million occurrence that disarmed her.

Converting that miracle to further tragedy–

The Red Baron threw everything she had into the charge, her final charge.

Sweeping under and behind the Strelok and using all the momentum of that graceful arc.

Her signature slash went weaving across the back of her foe at an unexpected angle.

Where it was caught instantly between two sets of grinding jaws–?

What?

Sieglinde could not comprehend what had happened. Sweat streaked down her blank face.

Her sword arm drew back instantly, her entire self disbelieving–

As she saw in all of her cameras a Strelok holding two chainsaw-bladed “diamond swords” behind its back in a cross that had briefly caught her blade in the middle of its arc and nearly snapped off the already damaged tip from it. Such a sword catch as she had never seen executed, never thought even possible in all of her years of fighting, in all of her training and with all of her experience of war.

She drew back instinctively from her failed attack, creating distance with her boosters.

The Strelok turned and faced her, wielding in each hand a revving, furious diamond sword.

“You’re so predictable. I knew I could bait you into doing that move.”

Over the communicator the Lion spoke again. Her voice was just a bit shaken, but–

“War flattered your image, Baron! That flip of yours would catch any pilot off-guard the first time they see it. And fooling them once is all it takes for you to kill them and preserve your secret. However, if a pilot lived twenty years ago and survived that attack when your technique was in its infancy– well!”

She laughed. The Lion was laughing. Her voice sent shivers down Sieglinde’s back.

“You say you haven’t changed, Red Baron? But I’m still learning!”

The Lion’s Strelok charged with roaring blades and the Red Baron froze in response.

Sieglinde’s eyes darted between cameras. She had no time to close the comm channel.

She was looking for her opponent’s sword arm– but there were two!

The Strelok swung both swords horizontally from opposite sides like a closing vice–

Sieglinde threw the Grenadier down below the Strelok to try to avoid and counterattack–

Dodging out of the counterstroke, the Lion’s Strelok dove past her flank, circled quickly around her back and thrust up again. Trying to follow the dizzying attack, Sieglinde turned and slashed behind her, then she boosted down and back for space and sliced above herself, but the Lion was still moving, constantly.

Circling her diagonally in a way that made full use of the fact that they were suspended in water, a three-dimensional space in which they could move in all possible angles around each other. Sieglinde was speechless, eyes rushing from camera to camera hoping to predict the opponent’s next move–

–then the Lion inverted the arc she was taking at its peak, diving suddenly, and she appeared where Sieglinde had not been looking. Launching both blades in a powerful swing with all of the momentum they had built and clubbing the Grenadier in the flank. It was more of a smashing attack than a slash, delivered with such brutality there was no time for the blades to cut into the armor, and it sent the Grenadier tumbling down in the water. Pieces of armor chipped and sunk in, and a part of the skirt went flying. Sieglinde rattled in her cockpit, gritting her teeth involuntarily, her stomach turning.

This Strelok is faster! How is that possible? Or did I get slower?

It was not just the slightly upgraded Diver model– nor Sieglinde’s own weakness–

The Lion herself was faster, stronger, swifter than in Cascabel.

She had gotten stronger! But how was that possible? How had she changed so much?

As if their minds were attuned to this realization, the Lion answered.

“I am fighting for something, Red Baron! If your time froze at Cascabel, then what are you still fighting for? Can you even say? Why did you come here? Are you fighting for an Empire that has broken into pieces? Are you trying to recover colonies that you’ve completely lost? Say something!”

Too much was happening too fast.

“I– I–”

Sieglinde’s voice caught in her shuddering throat before the Lion’s next blow.

Bubbles blew overhead from the diamond swords as they displaced and evaporated water.

Engaging her boosters Sieglinde quickly corrected herself out of her ungainly dive.

The Strelok had briefly stopped moving to attack! This was her chance to counter!

The Grenadier pressed back, both hands on her sword, hoping to slice off the Strelok’s arm–

One of the Lion’s blades caught her attack on the flat piece of armor guarding the chainsaw motor.

And the second slashed across her cockpit, leaving the same scar she had left on the Strelok.

Sieglinde was reacting so fast, she was still reacting as if the opponent had one sword.

Her reflexes that had been perfected in the Colonial War– became nothing but a hindrance!

“You’re just refusing culpability! You’re a coward! Red Baron! A miserable coward!”

Again Sieglinde retreated, her diminishing solid fuel boosters worked to their limits.

Creating space, opportunity, buying time, desperately, as her eyes sought any weakness.

The Lion’s coordination was astounding. Most pilots were much clumsier with one sword let alone two, but the Lion maneuvered her blades ambidextrously, covering any weakness, any gap, able to attack and defend swiftly. She was taking full advantage of the greater strength and stability offered by mechanical arms. Not only that, but despite the fact that they were only boosting around each other in short range, her movements were nonetheless fluid and three dimensional without hesitation.

Sieglinde needed her to make a mistake, but–

There was no opening! She could find no means to attack her!

Sieglinde’s will was flagging, and the Lion was completely focused.

All she could do was live second to second, reacting without initiative, without a plan.

Sieglinde found herself forced to draw back her sword up in front of the Grenadier as a makeshift shield, desperately blocking blow after brutal blow from the Lion’s Strelok, smashing from every direction against the flat of her vibrosword. Bubbles blew and water displaced in the violent wake of the Lion’s relentless assault, creating a cloud of exhaust and vapor within which the onslaught took place.

“You had a choice! You always had a choice! What brought you to this ocean to fight me except your own damned choices? And you want to blame fate for this? That’s far too convenient!”

Her swords slammed against the Grenadier’s sword driving Sieglinde back with each blow.

There was no opening to retaliate, no place where she could breathe.

Sieglinde watched the blows rain down metal on metal, helpless before the sparks.

 “I’m not like you! How dare you say that? My time was never frozen! I still have something to fight for! Despite everyone begging me to retire! Teach here, train there, let the new kids have a shot, you’re a symbol, you’re the Lion of Cascabel they all said! I’m 42, unmarried, I have no partner, no kids, no legacy! But my time is still moving! I’m still alive and my story is still being written! I won’t give up!”

While between strikes her words sliced open Sieglinde and laid her soul horribly bare.

She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!

The Red Baron had lost all control. Staring death with empty eyes and trembling lips. Tasting her own sweat and tears that ran in rivulets. Her monitors screamed about the degrading condition of her blade, of the mech’s wrists, the draining vernier fuel, and she felt the whole cockpit shake with each strike.

No! I can’t die here! I can’t! I can’t!

Out of a raging biological instinct to survive Sieglinde burned the very last of her solid fuel thrust in one desperate burst of bubbles and heat, throwing herself straight forward into the middle of the frenzied attacks, slamming into the Strelok with her whole body. Chainsaw blades tore great gashes into her shoulders, tearing out jet anchors but digging no deeper where water could enter.

Her mood swung as chaotically as the blades against her: I caught you! I can still fight!

Flushing more of her oxygen into the water system, Sieglinde kicked off enemy machine and laid a cloud of bubbles. In the momentary space she created with this maneuver, Sieglinde drew her vibrodagger.

On one hand her weapon of last resort; on the other her full-length vibrosword.

Roaring with the desperation of a cornered beast, she threw herself back into the attack.

Just like she had seen the Lion, she swung both weapons to meet her opponent’s own–

–and misjudging the length of the dagger, found a diamond sabre sawing through her arm at the elbow.

On her monitor, all of her boosters signaled empty, her only thrust coming from the hydrojets. Her sword arm sank toward the bottom of the sea, a hull integrity warning flashing. In the middle of that oppressive cockpit, the synthetic fiber of her regal uniform clung to a sweating chest, hands shaking on the controls.

She watched helplessly as the Strelok’s arms reared for a strike against her midsection.

To slice her cockpit apart, expose her to the sea and kill her.

She watched as the twin cruel-sawed blades–

–drew back and swung forward the famous claws of the Lion of Cascabel,

and pointed at the Grenadier’s chest and flank, just short of plunging into its iron flesh.

Diamond-toothed jaws revved and seethed just centimeters from her but no violence followed.

“I won’t satisfy your idea of fate. I won’t let you die and escape justice.” The Lion said.

Sieglinde sat speechless. Her arms lifted off her controls and hung limply at her side. The Red Baron, legend of the Imperial Colonial War, had been utterly defeated. Her heart pounded, her breathing labored. She struggled for something dignified to say, after how far her honor had plunged, how much the Lion of Cascabel had torn the clothes off her manicured self-image and broken her down.

She had been left with nothing. The Red Baron was practically dead even if Sieglinde lived.

Just as she began to speak, to try to absolve herself, her eyes became drawn to something.

She became mesmerized, by a streak of unnatural colors that flashed in the distance.

The Lion’s Strelok also turned to face it. She was seeing it too, the explosion of colors.

And the glowing outline of the Jagdkaiser and the Cheka locked in combat within them.

Furious reds, evil-feeling black, and the texture of an open wound in the middle of the sea.


Karuniya Maharapratham sat in the medbay, a chair pulled up next to the bed of Murati Nakara.

She held on to her partner’s arm, gently, as the ship rocked from an explosion.

On the wall, the bearing monitor and a communication screen showed data and footage of the blast.

“All that rumbling.” Murati lamented weakly. “I wish there was something we could do.”

They were in the middle of a battle, even in their isolated little pod they could feel it.

Murati turned to Karuniya with a small smile, a helpless little expression.

“If there was– I would support you, no matter what, but–” Karuniya said.

“Thank you. Don’t worry. I won’t do anything dangerous, for your sake.”

“For my sake, huh.”

Karuniya sighed. She recalled a conversation that happened not long before the battle began.

Out in the hall, between a certain Euphemia Rontgen and herself. After their conversation had petered out, and Rontgen left the room, Karuniya had gone as well since Murati had wanted to rest for a moment. At that point, she found Rontgen still in the hall, as if waiting specifically to be able to talk to her alone.

“From scientist to scientist,” she asked, “would you ever fight for Murati Nakara’s sake?”

At the time Karuniya had brushed it off. “That’s far too vague.”

“Interesting that it wasn’t an immediate yes.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s an immediate yes — if it’s really necessary. If she truly needs it. I worry about her, but I’m not going to do something stupid and get in her way. I trust her. Murati’s always been the fighter. She doesn’t need me or anyone to protect her. It’d have to be an extreme situation.”

“I see. I’m glad Murati Nakara can have such a mature relationship.”

“Tch. Weirdo. Is that all you wanted to say?”

She was starting to get irritated. Ever since she saw her in the hall.

Euphemia Rontgent was pleasant enough, but she was being deliberately cryptic.

And Karuniya was hardly in the mood to be stopped in the hall for cryptic question.

“My answer is far more cowardly. For Theresa– I wouldn’t fight. I reckon myself a pacifist of sorts.”

Karuniya glanced at her. She almost wanted to say something nasty.

Something about how they must not have been so close if that was her response.

“However, know this– because of who Murati Nakara is and the path she’s chosen to take, it’s a question that’s much more important to you than it would ever be to me.” Rontgen said by way of parting.

Some time later Karuniya returned to medbay, sat beside her fiance and tried to pore it over.

How did she really feel about fighting? Murati had very strong opinions herself, but–

–aside from silly disagreements how did Karuniya really feel? Did she had a serious opinion?

Her mind went in a loop, unproductive, without a point.

But quite suddenly, the question returned in human form.

In the middle of the battle, Theresa Faraday suddenly visited the medbay.

Dressed in a mechanic’s garb with a white coat over it, some kind of tool in her hand.

Her red hair tossed as she reared back and asked, with a grin and a surprising amount of levity:

“Karuniya Maharapratham. Are you ready to fight for this woman’s sake?”


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