Innocents In The Stream [6.1]

After a short journey from western Sverland, the Irmingard class dreadnought Iron Lady made it to Serrano Station in the south and was cleared for a double berth in the lower docks. The absolutely massive craft required delicate and patient handling to enter its berth gently, without smashing into the confines of it from any retained momentum or striking any of the vast quantity of ships sailing around them. For what seemed like fifteen minutes the vessel inched its way parallel to the berth walls. With its skilled crew and experienced Captain, there was no danger.

Once it was secured and drained, the crew received a transmission from Station Security.

Such was the urgency of Serrano’s authorities that they requested to speak to Gertrude Lichtenberg as soon as possible on the matter for which they had called her and requested to bring their prisoner to her; and such was their indelicacy that they left her waiting for hours even after requesting she descend alone. And so a sullen young woman in uniform stood aimlessly in the docks, crossing her arms, tapping her feet, glaring furiously at the guardhouse in the distance. Sometimes she walked to and fro. Halfway through her vigil, food and water was sent down to her.

Nevertheless, she spent an insulting number of hours simply waiting, by herself.

Official business was usually beset with setbacks. Gertrude was not unused to waiting for a contact.

But she hated that she was given time to think of where she was and what she was doing.

Serrano was preceded by what felt like an interminable chaos after the fall of Vogelheim.

There was so much discord raging across the Empire that Gertrude’s Inquisition reeled in its attempts to get a hold of any of it. Several states made explicit declarations of both disregard for the central authority of the Empire, and willingness to take violent action against one another. The Inquisition was ultimately not a military authority, it did not have the power to go to war. It had impressive weapons, which were used to pursue and prosecute criminals in the Empire ranging from anarchists springing up on college campuses, scheming nobles with private security forces, and katarran bandits who snuck into the Empire armed to the teeth and pushing guns and drugs.

As a Grand Inquisitor, Gertrude made a careful statement that her loyalty to Imperial rule of law had not changed. She had hoped to remain neutral, and to do her best to continue to protect the common people from opportunists during the unfolding conflict, but the rival political factions immediately came to treat the Inquisition as part of Erich von Fueller’s camp. She was explicitly not allowed to operate in their territories by the new governments of Rhinea, Bosporus, and Skarsgaard, so after leaving the Imbrium to help quell banditry in the weakened southern Sverland, she found herself “stuck” in the Nectaris Ocean. Unless she took her chances through Rhinea, or snuck through the Khaybar Pass, she could no longer return home to the Palatinate to link up with the Prince and his forces.

Even in Sverland, she was friendless, as in the Emperor’s absence the national parliament, the Council of Lords, had joined the Royal Alliance. What could she do when the basis of the law she followed was also just heedlessly throwing itself into partisan war? Not that it mattered. Gertrude was merely filling her time to avoid thinking and feeling. When she told Prince Erich of what happened to Elena, he had no sympathy to show. She hated his cold, pragmatic reaction, and could not support him, not wholeheartedly. The Volkisch were animals and freaks, braying for violence. She wanted them all dead. And the rest? The so-called Royal Alliance, the “Vekan Empire,” the anarchists, all a farce.

Gertrude was moving, in mind and body, purely because stopping brought back the pain.

In reality, she felt lost. Her body was driven only by the tiniest, most demented of hopes.

Everything she held dear, everything she wanted to nurture and protect, was destroyed. Hunting bandits at least prevented innocent people from becoming prey. It was just something to do while she struggled with what she really wanted to do: whether a hopeless search or a bloody, screaming vengeance. Could Elena really be out there? And if not, could Gertrude avenge her?

Now, however, she was drawn back into the fulcrum of the Empire’s new age of strife. She had been called to Serrano to deal with a “sensitive prisoner” at the Station. As the only vestige of the central Imperial government left in the area, Gertrude accepted. It was her duty. And so her ordeal in Serrano stretched on, her lonely, aggravating ordeal. Waiting, alone and unstimulated.

She contemplated returning to the ship. Her mind was starting to wander her many wounds.

Then a lorry painted white and blue arrived just around the corner and deposited several official-looking men and a few uniformed guards. At the head of the group was the Serrano Defense Commissioner, Arberth Hoffman, who had contacted her when the Iron Lady berthed. As his entourage approached her Gertrude wanted to give them an earful. However, she was given pause by the figure in their escort, and the state in which they dragged her along.

She was a tall woman, taller than her captors, long-limbed and lithe. Her shining blond hair trailed behind her, tied into a voluminous ponytail. She rarely lifted her sorrowful, tear-stained blue eyes from the ground. Her perfectly proportioned figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a sleek, fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold.

Her facial features were partially hidden behind a Loup muzzle, but she was not a Loup. Her hands and feet were also shackled, and the chains met with each other, and then attached to a shackle around her neck.

Gertrude recognized this woman immediately. Anyone in the military would have.

“Baron Sieglinde von Castille.” Gertrude muttered to herself.

Her shock would have been forgiven but nonetheless, she hid her feelings behind a mask.

An Inquisitor’s unreadable, taciturn expression to meet Sieglinde’s sad, frustrated eyes.

What did you do? Gertrude wondered silently. How had this war hero ended up here?

And more importantly: what did they want Gertrude to do to her?

Rather than waiting even more for these people to walk to her, Gertrude met them halfway.

She reached out a hand to the Commissioner and they shook. Everything was cordial despite Gertrude’s personal displeasure toward the group. The Commissioner was sweating and had a friendless look to his face that made him look much smaller and more pathetic than his pristine uniform would normally suggest.

“Inquisitor, apologies for the delay in meeting you.”

“I’m sure you’re quite busy, Commissioner. I’m curious why you have a member of the nobility under your custody, and in such a humiliating position. Frankly, it makes me quite upset.”

She pointed past the Commissioner at his entourage of guards and their captive.

“Milady, it was all we could do to pacify her, I’m afraid. You don’t know her strength, nor her resolve to escape from us. I’m afraid we have all had good reason to fear her these past days.”

Gertrude’s expression darkened. Her annoyance with this man was boiling over to hatred.

“I know her strength perfectly well, Commissioner. She’s a decorated and exemplary war hero and more importantly bears a peer title. It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to have her in such restraints. Maybe you’ve forgotten such things with the times. Before any further discussion, I demand that you release her from those horrible bonds and treat her with dignity.” She raised her voice such that Sieglinde might hear her. In the background, the men guarding her became startled, and Sieglinde’s eyes looked up from the ground for the first time since she had appeared.

For a moment, the Commissioner seemed to silently weigh his options, but the growing petulance in his expression belied his helplessness in this matter. Gertrude had all the power in this situation. Never mind that she had the power and access to military assets needed to potentially seize him by force for any grave offense he caused her; she could also just leave. He called her because he needed her, and therefore he needed to follow her terms so she would help him.

He turned to his subordinates and nodded his head in Sieglinde’s direction.

Two men behind her back with electric prods stepped back, while two other men undid the shackles on her hands and feet. They disconnected the chains which connected these shackles to her neck shackle, and undid her mask, but she would not allow them to remove the shackle around her neck completely. Or at least, she gave them a very stern look when they returned to her orbit to try to touch the nape of her neck. So this particular shackle simply remained as part of her look.

When the mask came off, it unveiled a youthful, strikingly beautiful face even for the brooding, petulant expression upon it. For someone who fought in the Colonial War, Sieglinde looked remarkably like she could be Gertrude’s age, and with only the barest hint of makeup. Her soft nose and sleek cheekbones gave her a royal appearance, and along with her blue eyes and golden hair, she was the ideal of Imbrian aesthetics. Moreso than the dark-haired, swarthy-skinned Gertrude — not that she was envious. Nobles worth their salt were simply unmatched in beauty.

Nowadays most nobles were not worth their salt.

“You are Baron Sieglinde von Castille, correct?”

Gertrude shouted past the Commissioner so the captive would hear.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Sieglinde responded simply, in a deep and rich voice. She was rubbing her wrists each in turn where she shackles had been and stretching her arms. All of the guards gave her a wide berth as if they feared being slapped away by accident for being near her as she moved. It was quite a ridiculous scene. One woman surrounded by armed men who were all terrified of her every move.

“Then I humbly request you join us, Baron.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner sighed heavily as Sieglinde stepped forward and stood at his side.

She glared at him sidelong before turning her full attention to Gertrude.

“Commissioner, did you catch the Baron in an act of wrongdoing? Are there witnesses?”

It was then the Commissioner’s turn to glare sidelong and up at the taller Sieglinde.

“I did not, and we have no direct witnesses. Allow me to explain the matter–”

“You’ll be allowed. But first, I have to say, even common criminals deserve a chance to prove their innocence if they have been accused without witnesses. Why was she restrained?”

“I confessed.”

Sieglinde spoke up. Gertrude turned to face her with sudden interest.

The Commissioner cleared his throat.

“To elaborate, she confessed to the murder of the entire bridge crew of the cruiser Oathkeeper.” The Commissioner waited for Gertrude to have any response to this, but she was using all her power of concentration to avoid having a reaction to such a ludicrous scenario, and so said nothing while studying Sieglinde’s unshaken expression. While the Inquisitor silently questioned the brooding Baron, the Commissioner continued. “It is my understanding that Oathkeeper was ordered by the Grand Western Fleet to serve as part of the Rhinean Defense Forces in case the Republic’s forces penetrated the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach. According to the Baron, the bridge crew hatched a plot to defect to the Volkisch Movement forces in Rhinea. She ambushed and killed them in a melee and commanded sailors to sail the ship to Sverland where she hoped to turn herself in to the Royal Alliance. Clearly, she’s no helmsman — she was wildly off course, never made it to the Yucatan gulf, and we caught her here instead.”

Sieglinde closed her eyes and set her jaw, clearly bothered to be spoken about like this.

“Where is the Oathkeeper now?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s berthed in Ajillo substation with the rest of the Southern Fleet’s inoperable craft.”

“Inoperable?”

“When she surrendered, we struck its jets and towed it. We couldn’t take any risks.”

“But you confirmed the deaths of the crew?”

The Commissioner nodded his head. “We found the bodies in the ship morgue and no attempt was made to clean the Bridge. All of their wounds were consistent with a chaotic brawl. You can review the evidence yourself, but everything ultimately matches the Baron’s own testimony. She did not hide anything from us, Inquisitor; however, she believes her monstrous act is justified. Several times after we took her into custody, she attempted to escape judgment, once she realized we would not simply agree with her that an entire Bridge crew had to be slaughtered.”

Sieglinde scoffed loudly.

“I misjudged you as men of honor, when you are clearly the same type of rats as the Volkisch.”

“Baron, you will keep silent for now. You’re in enough trouble.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner took a step to the side, creating more room between himself and the Baron. He then addressed Gertrude once more. “Inquisitor, we would like to transfer this prisoner to your judgment. She surrendered herself to us, but as you are well aware, we can’t render the appropriate punishments because of her circumstances. Furthermore having custody of her puts us in a difficult position with regards to the current events. I hope you understand the situation.”

Gertrude was keenly aware of the Commissioner’s problem.

When the duchies rebelled and declared their intention to separate from the central Imperial government, it had a profound effect on the aristocracy. Every duchy had long lineages of noble families, and differing attitudes toward them. In Rhinea, a highly capitalistic and industrial state, the aristocrats were just old money. They were not seen as special or remarkable individuals. The disparate Volkisch movement had several anti-noble factions. Similarly, the anarchists in the duchy of Bosporus and the communists in Buren were united in their hatred for the nobles.

Veka’s nobles were largely bankrupt save for the ruling ducal family, and easily cowed into submission.

Skarsgaard’s nobles had small institutional power compared to the might of the church, despite their coffers.

Erich von Fueller expressed no interest in retaining a relationship with the aristocrats writ large. He had not declared himself Emperor and had not called for the aristocracy to join with him against the usurpers. He had already carefully cultivated his personal allies and was extending no other hands. Some aristocrats even accused him of fomenting the attack on Vogelheim to kill their heirs.

The Imbrium Empire had codified rights and privileges for the aristocrats, but many had wasted their wealth, fallen into debt, and failed to adapt to the economy of the modern Imbrium. In many states, there had been a mass transfer of wealth from the aristocracy to an industrial class of rich “new money” capitalists. Access to capital, workers, industries, and innovations trumped the privilege of one’s title or the worth of one’s ancient holdings, particularly when the real value within those duchies had become the protected, private property of the capitalists and not the nobles.

All of this led to the creation of an additional faction in the civil war: The Royal Alliance, formed by the coming together of like-minded aristocrats from across the Empire who wanted to preserve and even expand the privilege and power of the aristocracy. Or who simply needed a place to hide from the persecution in their home duchies. Taking all the assets they could run away with and leaning on their old money siblings and cousins who had achieved high positions in the old Imperial Navies; they gathered and began to build a resistance in the Yucatan Gulf to the northwest.

Sverland, which was still essentially an underdeveloped colony and had little autonomy from the central Imperial government, became the chosen ground for their own movement, as it had no ability to defend itself from them.

Knowing these developments it was easy to see how Sieglinde was a problem for Serrano.

As a noble and a war hero, Sieglinde would be highly valuable to the Royal Alliance. As a killer of men who swore themselves to Rhinea, the Volkisch would want her dead. Both these factions were descending on Sverland. Serrano had no means to oppose either of these factions and could not simply assume they would have reasonable reactions to Sieglinde’s presence there. More than likely, it would give each side an excuse to act more punitively.

By transferring Sieglinde, they would have a simpler position toward whoever appeared.

“What is the status of the Southern Border Fleet?” Gertrude asked.

“Essentially disbanded.” Said the Commissioner. “Lord Admiral Gottwald started the year with maybe a hundred functional ships. A quarter of the fleet was already just stuck in Ajillo and Pepadew awaiting a fleet overhaul that never came to pass due to the Emperor’s passing. After the death of Lord Groessen, and Lord Gottwald’s failed punitive expedition, only a handful of ships returned. Some incorporated into our patrol fleet; but we also lack supplies to maintain readiness.”

“So if the Volkisch Movement invaded southern Sverland, what would be your plan?”

“Surrender, obviously. But you see, the Baron’s presence could complicate that process.”

“Understood. I will take the Baron into custody. Do not expect any further assistance from me. If you’re not looking to fight, then I will be organizing some of those men for my own purposes. Erich von Fueller pays a damn sight better than you lot do, at this point, so it shouldn’t be hard. I expect to receive the patrol roster before I depart.”

“Very well. You have our support to do as you please with, Lady Lichtenberg. Good luck.”

The Commissioner had a truly bitter look. At his side, Sieglinde almost looked a bit smug.

He and his entourage departed with their heads hanging low. Their future was bleak.

Gertrude did not envy them. She escorted Sieglinde back to the Iron lady and stopped her just before the cargo elevator. Gertrude was quite tall for an Imbrian, man or woman, but Sieglinde was almost 190 centimeters. To lock eyes with her meant looking up at her, and this was foreign to Gertrude. She suppressed a hint of bitterness toward the tall, perfect noble who was constantly giving her such a childish, petulant expression, as if caught drinking underage and scolded. She looked like– like a princess pouting when things did not go her way. An ignorant demeanor.

“You are incredibly lucky to have the protection of your family title.” Gertrude said.

Her hand reached out, and she jabbed Sieglinde in the chest sharply. Sharper than intended.

Gertrude’s aggression toward the noblewoman was starting to boil over too rapidly.

To think, while certain others were dead through no fault of their own, this fool was–

“I won’t accept pity for my family circumstances. Try me as you would any other.”

Sieglinde spoke up, cutting off Gertrude’s train of thought. She found her words offensive.

“You led a massacre on your own ship! I’m not unsympathetic to your reasons, but if you were any normal person Serrano’s guards would have simply killed you where they found you! But you’re the last scion of a noble title. Whether you like it or not, your adopted name is why we are talking. You need to have some perspective here, Baron. Your conduct has been erratic and naïve, and that childish face you’re making belies your foolishness.”

“Inquisitor, I do not care what you make of my character. So what will you do to me?”

“I guarantee the fullest extent of the law will be carried out upon you.”

“Then mete out justice however the law says you should. When I drew a weapon on those scoundrels, I was prepared to face any torment that befell me for it. That is the righteous thing–”

Gertrude slapped Sieglinde across the face. Her anger had swelled for a tragic instant.

“These are not righteous times, you imbecile! Are you just throwing away your life?”

Tears.

Tears welled up in Sieglinde’s eyes. Her cheek red where she had been struck.

She raised a hand to hold down the reddening flesh that was once so pearlescent.

Gertrude realized how far she had gone and felt horrified with herself.

Not as a matter of privileges; Sieglinde’s privilege did not matter to her.

But as a matter of humanity. Since when had she become someone who abuses her charges?

Sieglinde looked to all the world like that hand had cut across her very soul.

Weeping openly, teeth grit with frustration. A woman nearly ten years Gertrude’s senior.

“What is it about my face that invites so much abuse?” She whimpered, sobbing openly.

“Baron, I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. “I was frustrated, and I got out of hand with you.”

She raised her hand gently but lowered it immediately when she saw the Baron flinch.

“I will accept my punishment, Inquisitor. But if you think you will earn my respect and cooperation by beating me, no one has, and many have tried.” She grit her teeth. “If you presume to lecture me, then put away your hands! Otherwise, you will have to shackle and muzzle me again, like an animal, because you will turn me into an animal. Send down your damned elevator when you’re ready, but do not speak to me until your pointless anger abates!”

Sieglinde stormed off toward the Iron Lady’s cargo elevator without awaiting a response.

Gertrude watched her go, silent, ashamed of herself.

Her eyes went down to her feet and her fists were at her sides. Everything was in pieces. She felt suddenly that she was deluding herself. What authority did she even have? There was no law that could try Sieglinde. And maybe Sieglinde’s was the right attitude. In this horrifying maelstrom, Sieglinde did what she could to fight back. Even if it cost her life; her life was cheap. All their lives were cheap. What was Gertrude judging her for? That she lived when Elena didn’t?

Gertrude was the one who had failed.

Standing alone in the lowest docks of a backwater southern port, unable to affect anything in her life. She was unable to save the person she loved when it mattered. She had no power to save the citizens of the Empire from the civil war that was brewing around them. She could barely keep them from the depredations of bandits and opportunists. An Inquisitor who served a Justice that had fully collapsed, who struggled for a life she had lost in the span of a night. Leader of a crew that was adrift, far from home, without a master to serve or any ability to return.

Maybe Sieglinde still stood for something. And maybe in this era that had become naïve.

At that moment Gertrude wanted to raise her head to the steel sky and scream.

Then her eyes met with the eyes of a stranger, stealing away on a cargo elevator.

Ascending into the belly of a nondescript old cargo vessel, like a pearl lost in the sand.

For a moment, the world stopped moving. For an instant, Gertrude was transfixed, frozen.

Her time had stopped. It stopped the moment she randomly, fatefully, met those eyes.

She felt as if she had glanced into a broken seam that once stood between her lived reality and an impossible otherworld. Her eyes pored over the figure in that cargo elevator that was slowly, slowly disappearing, and with a ravenous hunger snatched every single detail about her that they could. Was it really her? Could it possibly be her despite everything that had happened?

They saw each other. Gertrude knew that her longing gaze had been reciprocated.

Those bright indigo eyes, full of intellect, magnificence, regality. Her skin, pearlescent and untouched, her features nymph-like, delicate, with soft lips and cheeks. That perfectly silken hair that fell down her back like a cascade, luxurious even when painted black. That lithe, ethereal figure, fairy thin even with her small shoulders draped beneath a sleek business-like suit.

It couldn’t be.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wider. Her breath caught. Her heart stopped. Obsessively, feeling insane, her eyes followed that woman until she disappeared. It couldn’t be. Elena was gone. Gertrude had lost her. Gertrude had failed her. Gertrude, the tragic fool, the puppet of fate, who had dared to surpass her station and taste the forbidden fruit. Who had dared to love an Imperial princess condemned to a beautiful bird cage in Vogelheim. In those eyes, in the soft skin of her hands, in the delicate flesh between her legs, Gertrude found heaven. But God had cast her down from that heaven. It just could not be Elena; it was insane to think so, because Elena had to be gone.

She had to be gone for Gertrude to suffer, for Gertrude to be punished forevermore.

This was some random woman she was obsessing over– but those eyes! Those indigo eyes!

Gertrude, whose fate had been defined by those gorgeous indigo eyes, could not turn away.

She recalled the maids, those survivors of Vogelheim who said a strange woman took her.

Did she dare dream? What would Dreschner or Ingrid say to these wild fantasies? How could she possibly prove that woman was Elena? How could she even prove Elena was still alive to begin with? How did she survive the tragedy that Gertrude had brought upon her? There was so much against her, so much of her logic was strained, but Gertrude wanted– needed to believe. She needed an inkling of hope so she could take a step forward in any direction.

Dumbfounded, she watched for what seemed like an eternity, until the ship began to move.

Her entire body shook with fear and frustration and elation and madness, sheer madness.

“Dreschner,” Gertrude tapped her ear, breath ragged. “Call the tower– the cargo ship– the one there–”

She couldn’t speak as she watched that ship of fate disembarking from the port.

Elena was alive. Someone had taken her to this ship. Elena was on board.

That ship was leaving the port with Elena in it!

How could they have taken her? Was Vogelheim entirely a plot to steal Elena?

Were they working with the Volkisch? Where were they taking her?

“I’m sorry, Lady Lichtenberg, you may be breaking up?” Dreschner replied.

Gertrude watched with wide open eyes, moving as if in slow motion, suspended as if in the water outside of the station, cold and crushed with the pressure of what was happening. That cargo ship transferred through its berth and started on its way. Where could it possibly be going? Whoever took Elena from Vogelheim, they already had a chance to deliver her to the Volkisch or to the Royal Alliance if they were in Sverland. But they bypassed Rhinea and the Yucatan Gulf and traveled this far south. If they were in Serrano, what places could they possibly take her to–

“Veka.”

Those words rose to her lips like hot bile. Could it be the Vekans?

Was it– was it anything to do with Victoria? Victoria who had become van Veka?

Gertrude had confirmed that Sawyer was present at Vogelheim. So then, could it be–

Her head was racing, but a terrible clarity emerged to tie together disparate pieces.

As if all of the naivety of their childhood had resulted in this evil time they were living in.

“Dreschner, I want Schicksal to gather as much information as she can on that ship, that cargo ship that just left from the berth next to us! I believe they have a VIP hostage! We must prepare to depart right away and go after it! We’ll need boarding parties, Divers, cutters– we have to catch up and detain them! Understood?”

Anxiety brimmed under her skin like electric bolts as she awaited Dreschner’s response.

“Of course Inquisitor, it shall be arranged right away.”

He did not question her. Of course, Dreschner would never question her.

She was Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg and nobody on the Iron Lady would question her.

Even as she descended with all of her fury on some cargo ship, purely out of wild emotion.

“I’m insane. I’m going insane.” She mumbled to herself as soon as she was off the line.

With a trembling jaw and tearful eyes she looked over to the cargo elevator.

Sieglinde had her back to her, head bowed, awaiting her fate.

Gertrude drew in a breath, purged her face of emotion, set her jaw, straightened her back.

Maybe she was going insane. But she was driven by an inkling of the radiance she had pursued all her life and thought lost forever. For the warmth of that light, she would do anything.

More than justice, it was that light which held the meaning of her life.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.1]

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

Molecular control.”

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

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

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

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

“Shut up!”

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

She had to make a concerted effort to silence it.

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

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

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

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

Blood started dribbling from her nose.

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

She could not sustain the control for very long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kept smiling as he came to his senses.

He trusted her.

She had made his memories reflect that.


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

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

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

“Aaah!”

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

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

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

She shivered, a cold tremor running down her spine.

“Fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova grit her teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave them alone.

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

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

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

Sliding open the door, Shalikova peeked inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex turned a big grin on her.

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

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

An observation Shalikova made, quickly, unconsciously.

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

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

“Maybe you can.”

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

With a heavy sigh, she began to disrobe.

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

“Geninov, could you turn around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her next order of business was securing some rations.

Then she would think of anything else to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her stomach was rumbling.

“Hello! I would like the beans please!”

Shalikova raised her voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just this once!” Khadija laughed.

“Fine, fine.”

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

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

People started to come in and sit down.

Shalikova watched from afar.

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

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

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

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

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

So, was Alex staring back to that degree?

What would she think?

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

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

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

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

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

Shalikova watched for a few minutes.

Visually, it was a terrible mess.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh god damn it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.5]

That night, the uppermost echelon of the Brigand’s officer cadre met for the first time. Nagavanshi convened twenty-five of the officers at the uppermost point of the Naval HQ. She had a movable podium, a screen, and a flurry of charts, data, and mission objectives to give them all.

“All of you are here tonight because I selected you personally for the skills and experience that you bring to this crew. Tonight, all I hope to do is to instill in you the objectives of this mission. The strategy and tactics, I leave to you; all of you already understand the gravity of our situation.”

The Commissar-General was a poor presenter. She barreled from point to point. There was a list of names and places, maps to follow. All that Murati could gather is that they would move first through the Nectaris Ocean to Sverland in the Southern Empire, down to Campos Mountain for some reason, before moving up to the Imbrium, first in the Central Imbrium, and then back down through the Duchy of Veka and toward Solstice, and finally around the Eastern Imbrium from the Duchy of Skarsgaard to the Duchy of Buren. The Palatinate and Bosporus were not on the travel agenda.

Or at least, that’s what she thought was the route.

She supposed it could change.

After all, any situation where a ship infiltrated the Empire was subject to unplanned chaos. She had an inkling of why the Commissar was leaving the strategy up to them. There was no way that this mission could be planned conventionally. Ultimately, it would be up to the crew to make it work.

“All of this information will be programmed into the computers, but I wanted to go over it tonight as well in case you have any questions.” She said. But nobody attending seemed equipped to ask her any questions.

Murati and Karuniya had arrived together at the Observation Spire. As the First Officer, Murati was third in the succession of command after the Captain and the Commissar. She had never been afforded such a high position before, and the meeting felt like a chaotic whirlwind to her because of it. She could not fully concentrate with a mind filled with worry.

Between the magnitude of the mission, and the high degree of responsibility she would bear in the successful completion of that mission, Murati was almost reeling with anxiety.

At least Karuniya was probably paying closer attention.

She was promoted to Chief Specialist and was in charge of scientific consultation. She had a lab and everything to show for her status.

“Don’t worry, I have a great memory. Ask me anything when she’s done.”

Karuniya whispered, perhaps sensing Murati’s discomfort.

Standing next to Nagavanshi during the entire speech was the appointed Captain, Ulyana Korabiskaya. She was one of the few things that captured Murati’s attention. Murati was impressed by her on looks alone. She really got a sense of clean-cut professionalism from Korabiskaya. Her blond hair was perfectly kept with a hair claw, and her makeup accentuated the softness and openness of her facial features. She had an ornate uniform with many awards, and it was a perfect cut for her, making her appear lean and fit beneath the coat and skirt. Murati could even see some definition beneath the skintight suit over her exposed legs. She was a real veteran.

When she was called on to introduce herself by Nagavanashi, her voice was rich and confident. Murati was convinced she was an exemplary Captain.

“Greetings, comrades. I am Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya. Our mission is one of historic, revolutionary character. The sea is vast, but I hope to inspire you all to adapt to any difficulty.”

“Were her words a little slurred?” Karuniya whispered.

Murati scoffed. “Not at all! She sounded perfect.”

“Hmm, you sure look excited.”

Karuniya gave her a look.

“I am glad we have an experienced Captain. I hope to learn a lot from her.”

This seemed to satisfy her fiancé.

“I feel like I’ve heard her name before. I can’t put my finger on it though.”

“We can look up all her awards.”

“You do that then. I’m too happy about having my own lab to complain.”

After Captain Korabiskaya, the Commissar for the ship was introduced. Her stunning eyes, cat-like ears and tail marked her as one of Shimii ethnicity. She looked delicate compared to most of the people in the room, save perhaps Karuniya, but she was agile and elegant, evident even in the easy gait with which she took to the podium before everyone assembled.

“Greetings comrades, I am Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. Should you ever waver in your commitments, do not hesitate to come to me for guidance. More than enforcing discipline on the ship, it is a Commissar’s duty to insure everyone is motivated and committed to our cause. A thousand generations reside in us. Do them proud and fight for justice in our world!”

Murati felt a chill as she heard the Commissar speak.

Her conviction was palpable and moving. It lifted Murati’s spirits.

She had not realized that they were going in order of the chain of command.

So next, Nagavanshi called on Murati to step up.

For a moment, her head went entirely blank.

Karuniya gave her a gentle push. That got her going up the steps to the podium.

Standing before everyone, all Murati could think to do was stiffen up and salute.

“Comrades! I’m, uh, well, I’m Murati Nakara! First Officer and Diver Leader!” She went through her titles then thought of something to say. “Um, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle! Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, um, they always stood in opposition! And that fight, uh, it’s now open!”

Raising her voice several times during the speech, Murati ended up practically yelling and spitting at those in attendance. In the audience, there was a lonesome clapping from Karuniya that was awkwardly joined by Captain Korabiskaya moments later. Murati stepped down, turning beet-red in the face with embarrassment, and shambled back to Karuniya’s side.

“There, there,” Karuniya patted her back gently. “You were wonderful.”

Going by order in the chain of command, after the Captain, Commissar and First Officer came the Chief Security Officer. From one of the lower tiers, someone not among the assembled audience walked almost reluctantly up to the podium. Murati recognized who it was once she stepped on the podium. She was a woman nearly 200 cm tall perhaps, with broad shoulders and a broad chest beneath her uniform. Her skin tone was interesting. Her face was a slightly paler grey than her visible neck and hands, which were almost dark blue-grey. She had a sharp nose and tired eyes, and her long, white-blond hair was tied up in a sleek, tidy ponytail.

Murati recognized a curious physical feature. Atop her head there was a small, fin-like bump of cartilage peeking through her hair. She had a pretty voluminous amount of hair on her head, so the fin was partially hidden. Similarly, her earholes were hidden by tufts of hair, but the rainbow-colored, fan-shaped cartilage fins in place of the ears were partially visible.

“Good evening. I’m Evgenya Akulantova.”

She spoke with reluctance and scratched her head.

Her fingers were webbed together, and she was moving them idly.

“I’m the Chief of Security. I have some experience with this.” She said after a pause. Then she paused again. Every time Nagavanshi seemed like she was about to cut her off, she would start talking again with a sigh. “I’ve been in Security for 10 years. I’m not trying to hit anyone, you know? I’ve never had to hit anyone before. I think people look at my gentle face and calm down. I hope to continue deescalating conflicts. If I do hit you, you will not enjoy it.”

She stepped down from the podium with another long sigh.

Murati felt a thrill of excitement again.

That gentle, grey face was absolutely familiar to her.

Chief Akulantova was a Pelagis. Murati had met her, specifically, before aboard another ship. She was glad that Akulantova continued to have a career. The Pelagites were a very hard-done people, and it was heartening to know that they were represented in the military. As her appearance suggested, she was a human with fish-like characteristics. Murati carefully avoiding thinking too much about where she might have come from. It was usually a depressing story; and there were many varieties.

“Chief, chief,”

Murati walked to the edge of the crowd and tried to get her attention as she walked down.

Chief Akulantova was surprised to have been hailed and turned her tired eyes on Murati.

“Remember me? I was a Diver on the Comrade Kunduz.” Murati said.

The Pelagis’s thin blue lips and soft cheeks curled into a smile, bearing many sharp teeth.

Kunduz was a fun one. I don’t remember you, but I hope you have a nice evening.”

She then continued walking toward the back again, where she slunk out of sight once more.

Karuniya took up Murati’s side again. “Friend of yours?” She asked.

“Acquaintance.” Murati replied, slightly defeated.

“Not everyone’s job is to keep up with your vast exploits, you know?”

Karuniya tried to comfort Murati, who turned her attention back to the podium.

While there were around twenty people in attendance, the chain of command extended only five people down: Captain, Commissar, First Office/Diver Leader, Security Chief and finally, the last rung in the chain climbed up to the podium. It was the Helmsman, a tall, dark-skinned, spindly young man with short, frizzy black hair. He had a pair of shaded sunglasses perched atop his broad nose.

Despite the audience, he was quite collected.

“You probably won’t ever need to talk to me much, but the good lady wants me to get up here, so I am. I’m Abdul Kamarik, the helmsman.” He shaped his hands into what seemed like it was supposed to be a boat. Or so Murati thought; really the gesture could have meant anything. The way he was rocking the figure he made with his fingers, Murati supposed it was a boat. “Like that. I’ve brought dozens of ships safely back to port over my career. So, just don’t sweat it. I’ve already got all the mission maps memorized.”

He spread his arms, bowed, and walked off the podium.

Nagavanshi took the podium again to address the audience.

“We will depart as soon as possible. I recommend you all make any needed arrangements in the next few days. I have done everything I can to give you a ship, crew, and equipment for your success. In the end, however, your choices will decide the fate of this ship. I believe in you, so be confident.”

On that enigmatic note, Nagavanshi left the podium herself and adjourned the meeting.

There was an eerie silence. Perhaps everyone, like Murati, felt that things were moving too fast. This may well have been par the course for the new era they were entering. After all, Thassal had come under attack from imperial forces very suddenly, so suddenly that it felt surreal. And the distance that Murati now felt from that event, as she proceeded to move on to the next stage of her life, and the next battlefield– nothing was more surreal than that. As she watched the people file out in a nervous confusion, it was the presence of Karuniya beside her that provided comfort.

“I think, despite everything, this might be destiny for us.” Karuniya said.

“Destiny?”

“It might not be materialist, but it’s what I’m thinking. After all, if we had stayed in Thassal, it’s not like we were going to have an idyllic married life for too long. You said it yourself to me: our war with the Empire is inevitable. With this though– it feels like I’m doing something.”

“Taking matters into our own hands.” Murati said.

Karuniya smiled at her.

“It’s better than trying to pretend like nothing has happened.”

Murati knew she was correct.

They were soldiers, and communists. There was no avoiding a Union war with the Empire. If this is the form it took; maybe it was destiny.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.3]

“If this is what married life might look like, sign me up right now!”

Karuniya leaned back until her head came to rest on Murati’s lap.

“We are trying to sign up. It takes a while.”

“Oh, shut up. You know what I mean!”

She looked up with those precious emerald eyes, full of warmth. Setting aside her mini-computer, Murati caressed Karuniya’s hair, returning the wide, beaming smile that her girlfriend gave her. She put her back against the wall adjacent her bed and sighed contentedly. She did know exactly what Karuniya meant. Their feelings were entwined more than ever.

Something about surviving certain death cast new light on what was profoundly important.

One part of their resolution from the battle at Thassal was that they had to spend more time together. Once Murati got out of the hospital, they immediately put their date back on the calendar. Both of them had committed to the Reserve due to the intense fighting they saw in Thassal, and due to the arrival of more experienced troops from Solstice. So they had nothing but free time.

For this date, they agreed to take it a little easier than they had during their last rendezvous.

They gathered everything they could want for a lazy afternoon.

Rented mini-computers, and the proper cables for a direct LAN connection; beet-sugar sodas; and a big bowl of toasted corn and peanuts, drizzled with a little bit of oil and yeast flakes. They could eat snacks, watch and listen to different media, maybe even play some video games.

There was also another pressing bit of business the computers would allow them to tackle.

Once they were ready, the two of them convened in Murati’s room with fluttering hearts.

They booted the computers they had taken out. They felt the anticipation in their fingertips.

Sitting together on the bed, holding hands, they locked eyes, with serious expressions.

“Let’s make it official then.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! Official, above-board girlfriends!” Karuniya replied.

This determination led them to the Union government’s intranet portal for Thassal.

Together, they filled out the computer form and applied for permanent cohabitation.

For now, they were registered as authorized administrators of each other’s rooms.

Eventually, they hoped to apply for a double-wide apartment and free up their singles.

All it took was a few taps on the screen. Technology had really come quite far.

It had been so easy and instantaneous that the dramatic tension they both felt had dissipated.

At that point, they collapsed against one another and played around on the computers.

Murati was seated, holding her minicomputer up, and Karuniya had her head on her lap.

“Murati, let me show this BBS I found! It’s so full of haughty students.”

She gave Murati the numbered address of the BBS and Murati navigated directly to it. While the design of the page was very sparse, it had all they needed for a spirited conversation on Union civics. Columned text posts, the perpetrators of them, and all of the associated metadata.

Some posts had photographs attached of the posters. Others had symbols or identifying marks. Any wall camera could take a picture for you and upload it to your room or a minicomputer as was convenient for you, but some folks got creative. There was a poster named ‘Agora’ who had as their avatar a picture of a barter table. Another, ‘Baerotrauma69’ had a more avant-garde style, known only to them. Murati had been in the Academy when intranet forums usage began to rise sharply. Originally intended for educational discussion, they had become an outlet for a very room-bound population to make friends and accost their enemies, as more and more computers were built and made accessible to the public through the government lending libraries.

Murati and Karuniya had a mutual fascination with ‘the net’.

Neither of them felt like using it for educational purposes.

Smirking, Karuniya began to type. “Judging by your avatar you must be a Camposist, as it is evident you’ve been on quite a conquest for bread.” Her fingers hovered over the keys waiting for Murati’s approval. Her loving partner cuddled up beside her and read the message.

“That’s so mean. Send it. Let me look at his picture– ok, yeah, send it.”

A tiny ‘hehehe’ accompanied Karuniya striking the “send” key on the contextual keyboard.

“The debate room is too easy.” Murati said. “Here’s where the real artisanal grief can be stricken. They’ve got a BBS for video games. Those kinds of posters can’t help themselves.”

Murati raised her eyes to the ceiling, thinking for a moment, then began to thumb-type. “I found a secret in the 8th level ‘Climbing Comrades’. Walk off the ledge just before the castle exit!”

“Seriously? That’s kids’ stuff.” Karuniya said. “Try making a case for ‘Constant Attack II’ being a puzzle game. People will get way angrier if you just assert things like that without basis.”

“Oatmeal is a soup.” Murati said in direct voice, perfectly suppressing the urge to laugh.

Karuniya stuck her tongue out at her. Murati laughed and continued her intranet journey.

“There’s a BBS for trading stuff. Want to look? There’s handmade goods, room mods–”

In response Karuniya rolled her head around on Murati’s lap, flailing her arms.

“We’re thinking about new a room this early huh?” She wailed. “Overwhelming.”

“Oh don’t be like that. We could get some nice things to make it feel cozy.”

“I just don’t want to think about difficult things. I’m done making choices for the day.”

“It’s not difficult at all!” Murati said. “Look, someone is trading a virtual aquarium. Hand-made pixel art wallpapers on diskette for room computers. An old cleaning drone that is programmed to whine and act like an animal to work as a cyber-pet. Isn’t that fun sounding?”

Karuniya scowled. “Should we get a crib for the baby?”

Murati instantly petrified. For a split second she went over the night they spent together. She vividly remembered a condom; how could she forget who put it on, and how? Then Karuniya started to laugh openly at her, before her imagination could get any further carried away.

“Hey, don’t joke about that.” Murati said, her tone of voice lower and more severe.

“I wouldn’t try to raise a kid if we had one anyway.” Karuniya mumbled.

“I really don’t want to think about anything like that, Karu.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“It’s entirely different! Orders of magnitude different! I’m asking you about wallpaper!”

“Yes, and I don’t want to think about it.”

Karuniya poked at Murati’s inner thigh with her finger while mumbling childishly.

Murati was exasperated at first.

She could not help but slowly devolve into sniffling laughter. What a ridiculous woman! She put a hand on Karuniya’s head and rubbed her hair all over, flooded with affection for her.

“Who is being a troublemaker now?” Murati said mockingly.

“Ah! Stop it! It’s your fault! You’re rubbing off on me!”

“You’re being so petty!”

“I love you!”

Karuniya sat up suddenly and planted a kiss on Murati’s cheek.

She whispered in a sultry voice in Murati’s ear.

“Shut up for a little bit and I’ll kiss somewhere else.”

When she dropped back onto her lap, Murati was dead silent, smiling down at her.

“Unfortunately for you, I’m not actually in the mood.”

Murati reached down and started to tickle Karuniya’s stomach.

“Ah! No!”

This affectionate battle characterized their cohabitation for a few minutes.

Then peace returned to the apartment as the two of them settled back down.

“Oh, this is interesting.”

Sitting up, Karuniya showed Murati her own minicomputer. There was a board for sharing pictures of life on the station. One post had a photo attached which had been taken by an exterior berth camera. It showed the hundreds of ships saturating the waters of Thassal Station. Many of them had recognizable hulls for a pair of soldiers who had just fought a fleet action not long ago.

There was one ship in the photo that looked markedly different.

“Everyone’s talking about this one. Nobody can identify the class it’s supposed to be.”

“It’s gigantic. Must be at least cruiser sized. Maybe it’s an old hauler.” Murati said.

Murati got up close to the computer, taking in the picture. It was a remarkable ship.

“It looks so worn out.” Karuniya said. “I knew you’d love it. Why do you think it’s here?”

“Maybe it is bringing supplies. It looks a bit like an old hauler, but not any of our newer transporters. We could have brought it out of reserve to make up for a shortfall of cargo ships.”

“I hope that’s not the case. I’d hate to think we’re having logistical problems this early.”

This early — in the war they were both sure would be coming now.

In their little island of peace, with their thoughts for a romantic future.

All around there were hundreds of warships, and far beyond, lay thousands of enemy ships.

“I don’t want to think about it!”

Karuniya raised her arms in protest and pushed Murati to stand up off the bed.

Confused, Murati quietly acquiesced.

“Go fetch us some lunch. I want to use the bandwidth we have to download a film.”

“Karuniya, that will take hours. The LAN speed for non-government stuff is atrocious.”

“Which is why you can use the time to have a nice walk, and I can have a nice nap!”

Karuniya took up all of the bed, setting the computer aside to download several hundred megabytes worth of a movie file at 256 kbps. From the look of the file name and the particular FTP site she was getting it from it appeared to be a schlocky horror film. Murati heaved a sigh, but it truly seemed that Karuniya wanted to be lazy and nothing would convince her otherwise.

Murati knew how troubled she was, even though she tried to blow it off.

Before the battle for Thassal, her partner had not been saccharine about their relationship. That she sincerely wanted to live together and make big steps in their relationship meant she had been affected by everything that transpired. Murati felt blessed by this. Getting lunch for her was a simple task, and the reward of coming back into the room and seeing her there waiting was enough.

“I’ll be back!”

With a spring in her step, Murati headed over to the canteen at Bubble. There was a buzz of activity around the lower Block. Several new arrivals had to be housed, at least temporarily, so there were people in front of every door, being led to their new accommodations, shown the amenities and being read the Thassal housing charter. A few rooms looked like they would be crowded with three soldiers at a time. With a hundred more ships at the station than before, and no immediate mission, it meant thousands of off-duty soldiers mixed up with the familiar neighbors.

At the canteen, she chose one of each menu item. When there were two to feed, it didn’t make sense to pick two A menus or two B menus: they could share every item. It turned out to be a great haul this time. Pickled eggs, tomato relish, broth-soaked biscuits, eggplant; it was a king’s ransom. She wondered if they were being grandiose with the meals as a celebration of the battle. Soldiers returning to the station or being rotated out to the reserve could use the extra comfort.

When she was on her way back, Murati found someone waiting at the entrance to the block.

Her eyes first noticed the armband, with a stylized serpent.

Ashura.

That armband represented the communist party’s elite forces. They served in security and intelligence roles, as well as in arbitration of civil conflicts. And the person before her was not just any Ashura. Judging by the insignia on her uniform, four red and gold stars, she would have been an Admiral. There were no Admirals among the Ashura, however. They had different ranks.

Those stylized stars were instead meant to be read as “Commissar-General.”

When she fully realized this, Murati stopped in front of the woman with a wide-eyed stare.

“Murati Nakara, correct? I am Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi.”

Murati shifted the way she was carrying her boxes so she could salute Nagavanshi.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “No need for formalities. You’re in the reserve. Is civilian life treating you and Maharapratham well? I heard you took the first step with her a few hours ago.”

The first step— it was a euphemism. Cohabitation was the first step to marriage. In the Union, marriage was chiefly tied to space. Couples that wanted to live together needed larger rooms, and they freed up smaller living spaces for others, like young adults who were leaving the school dorms. To be married, to live in a space befitting two people, was the next step.

For those who wanted to raise their own families, rather than put their children in government custody, there was another step beyond marriage, to acquiring a larger living space. Such faculties were rare. But that was the cultural touchstone Nagavanshi was alluding to. The steps two people took.

And it haunted Murati when she realized how much Nagavanshi knew about her. All of those records were public, but it meant Nagavanshi was searching for information about her. And she had been searching as recently as a few hours ago when Karuniya joined her to make the first request, for cohabitation. Perhaps she was still collecting data about her even as they spoke.

The intelligence services really were a force to be feared.

Now Murati was even more worried about the Commissar-General’s presence.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“I read about the battle of Thassalid Trench. You were recorded by Deshnov as one of the architects of that battle’s strategy. We won because of you; of course you would earn notoriety.”

“I know. I am being considered for a position at HQ in the Strategy department, by Rear Admiral Goswani. Until my review I was asked to remain in the Reserve.” Murati said.

“That is not what you want, right?”

Nagavanshi produced from her black and gold coat a document in a folder.

“You’ve made the most petitions out of anyone in your peer group. You don’t want to plot behind a desk at the HQ. You want to command; you want to be in the middle of the action.”

She opened the folder briefly. It was full of review documents for Murati’s petitions.

Murati’s words caught in her throat.

Maybe a week or two ago she would have responded with confidence. She would have said in the affirmative that she was destined to Captain a ship. She was born to fight the enemies of the Union. She would live to take the Union’s justice to the Empire that threatened to destroy them. All of these things she so staunchly believed where shaken now, however.

At the battle of Thassal she had killed many people and won victory.

It had shown her the suddenness, the terror, the surreal insanity of war.

Karuniya and her were starting to assemble a different kind of life.

“Commissar-General, at the moment I’m in the Navy reserve, so–”

She tried to deflect, but Nagavanshi was not letting her escape so easily.

“I’m assembling a crew. I’ve got a ship, and a revolutionary mission that cannot succeed without you.” Nagavanshi said. “I hope that you will join us because as a staunch mordecist you understand our historic conditions. We can assemble all the ships we want at Ferris. Our Navy is at best 1000 strong, which is maybe a fifth of active Imperial war power, not to mention reserves. We can hide away and build our strength and bide our time, but we will never build 4000 ships in a year or two. Our time is short. I want to take decisive action; to take the fight to the Empire within a week.”

What frightened Murati the most was this was not someone’s lunatic raving.

Nagavanshi was speaking unopposed, but she spoke with a casual confidence.

Everything she was saying, she had thought through with immense care.

And yet there was an underlying contradiction that made her sound insane.

“That isn’t possible.” Murati said. “You just said we don’t have enough fighting strength. Then you’re saying we need to confront the Empire. With one ship? I don’t understand ma’am.”

Nagavanshi did not waver. Her voice was steadied by a palpable conviction.

“All of the fighting power we need is mustering in the Empire as we speak. They are going to take advantage of their own historic conditions and take a gamble for their futures. They might fail without us. I’m not asking you to fight alone. I’m asking you to join my one ship so you can take up arms with all of the dispossessed in the Empire itself and help them follow our footsteps.”

 A revolution was brewing– in the Empire itself. How was this possible?

“Will you turn away from their revolution? When they need you?”

Nagavanshi was extremely dangerous.

She knew exactly how to pitch something to Murati that she could not resist.

All of this time, Murati had devoted herself to fighting in memory of her revolution.

A thousand generations lived inside her. That’s what the Union told its youth.

Was the Empire truly on the cusp of revolution? An event that all of her life had seemed outside the realm of possibility; something never spoken to her, never taught to her, something that was in no books she had ever read. The Empire’s poor and the Empire’s weak, the Empire’s young; would they too, spill the blood of an entire generation to overturn their oppression?

Murati’s fist shook with frustration.

It was the part of her Karuniya called “a troublemaker” preventing her from turning away.

A part of her that would always agitate for what was right, what was fair.

That would always stand with those who faced injustice.

That would always take the comfortable and the elite to task for their complacency.

And yet, she was so conflicted. Because she had become complacent herself.

“Commissar-General, I’m not convinced the Empire can have revolutionary potential. And even if it were to be developed I’m not convinced that it can be truly effective.” She was lying, she was practically lying to herself and to Nagavanshi, and it was evident in her face, eyes closed, her jaw trembling with anxiety. “I’m furthermore not convinced your idea of sending one ship out into the Empire to do who-knows-what, could possibly further that potential. So I’m afraid–”

“I’m disappointed, and unmoved.”

Nagavanshi produced from the other side of her coat a minicomputer.

It was smaller than most of its kind and emblazoned with her logo.

But the screen was bright and clear. And Karuniya’s face was on that screen.

“I’ve dispatched a message to your fiancé. She will not refuse my offer.”

Her golden eyes locked onto Murati’s own auburn eyes with imperious contempt.

“I had hoped you would join us out of your own intellect and moral development. Clearly I overestimated you. Nonetheless, I will do whatever it takes to launch this mission, Lieutenant.”

Murati dropped her lunch boxes and grabbed hold of Nagavanshi by her coat.

By force, she practically lifted her opponent.

She was a head taller; the Commissar-General could not resist her.

Nagavanshi never tried to struggle. She was completely unfazed.

Those terrifying golden eyes remained steadily locked on Murati’s own.

“Everyone feels entitled to put their hands on me today.” Nagavanshi lamented.

Murati felt ridiculous and furious in equal proportion.

To do this was a flagrant, violent act that was wholly unwarranted.

And yet she wanted nothing more than to rip Nagavanshi’s head clean off.

“Leave Karuniya out of this.” Murati said through a stiff, fang-bearing grimace.

Nagavanshi made no expression in return.

“So you would leave without taking your fiancé? It had always been my intention for the two of you to go together. In fact I planned such a thing for your sake. I could have gotten any Oceanographer, but she is the best choice to make sure you are operating at maximum efficiency.”

“What?”

It had not even occurred to Murati that all of this would involve Karuniya.

Was she wrong to think so? She wanted to protect Karuniya.

To protect her– but they had sworn to be together now.

Nagavanshi saw the opportunity and interjected.

“I don’t mean to pry into private matters, but if you were intending to leave by yourself, it would void your cohabitation agreement, and probably also your partner’s affection and trust–”

Murati had enough.

She slammed Nagavanshi down to the ground.

The Commissar-General toppled over easily as if she had no physical strength to respond.

She looked the silliest that she had the entire conversation. Her cap went rolling. She fell into her own cape and looked more like a heap of clothes than a person for a few seconds. Her hair broke from its neat bun and fell down the front of her face. Her arm band nearly slid off her arm.

Slowly, the Commissar-General collected herself.

Murati was frozen in place.

Her head was spinning, drunk on a cocktail of impossible emotions and sensations.

She had never known herself to be this impulsive. She had struck a superior officer.

“Solceanos defend! Commissar, I’m so sorry–”

She genuinely meant it. And maybe Nagavanshi even knew that to be the case.

As before, the Ashura’s chief betrayed no emotion. When she stood back up, it was as if she had never been thrown, save for her wild hair and the slightest tremor in her hands.

“As a sign of goodwill, I will not press any charges or hold what you have done against you.” Nagavanshi said. “I will be expecting you in the Naval HQ for further debriefing tonight. You shall be pleased to know that commensurate with your new position as First Officer and Diver Leader of the UNX-001 Brigand, you will be promoted to Senior Lieutenant.”

Her black-gloved hand thrust something into Murati’s chest. A picture of the ship?

Then, without another word, she walked away. Murati almost wanted to describe it as “storming off” in her own reckoning. She felt that the Commissar-General was clearly aggravated in her body language despite her inexpressive face. Soon as she had appeared, she had vanished.

The entire discussion had felt like a flood swept over Murati. Had her lunch boxes not been on the ground, she might have wondered whether she was hallucinating in the middle of the hall.

At least the lunch boxes were clasped shut and sturdy.

She picked them up, took them under her arms and took off in a full sprint towards home.

As she ran, she almost wanted to cry.

Because they lived in the Union, there was truly no escaping war with the Empire.

To have even thought she could for an instant made Murati feel so foolish.

Nagavanshi had been right. She had been naïve to think she would just stay at the station.

Murati’s ideas had changed the battle at Thassal. She was inextricably linked to this war.

As she arrived at her room, she tried to compose herself before opening the door.

Inside, Karuniya was reading something. A message had appeared on the wall.

“Are you alright, Murati?” She asked. She did not look distressed.

Murati could not make out the wall message from the door. Because Karuniya had summoned it from her vantage on the bed, the text was big enough for her, but not for Murati. So she could not tell what kind of message Karuniya had received. She had a guess, however.

“I’m fine.”

She put on a smile and walked in with a lunchbox in each hand.

“There was some good stuff today.” Murati said. “I think you’ll love the eggplant–”

“Knock it off.”

Karuniya stopped her while she was going to put the lunches on the bed.

She looked up at Murati from the bed, her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed.

“Murati, never do that again. Don’t hide things from me. You’re terrible at it.”

Karuniya reached out and took Murati’s hands into her own.

Feeling those soft hands, seeing Karuniya right in front of her.

It really was a blessing, even though everything else seemed to grow ever darker.

“I’ll be with you no matter what.” Karuniya said.

Murati threw her arms around her in embrace, holding her tight, in complete silence. On the wall behind them, the message from Nagavanshi updated with a picture of the ship.

“You’re going to do this?” Murati asked.

“She contacted you too?”

They parted briefly, looking into each other’s eyes.

“Murati, I don’t think we have a choice.”

Karuniya touched Murati’s cheek.

“Yes, she offered me a lab and all kinds of things so I would join whatever mission they are getting up to. But the instant I saw the messages I knew that what the Ashura really wanted was ‘The Genius of Thassal’ to join their ship. And being honest, I thought you would love to go.”

“I’m conflicted.”

Murati averted her gaze.

Karuniya gently guided Murati’s eyes back to her own. Slowly, she kissed Murati on the lips. They shared a moment that was brief, warm, and immeasurably kind. Murati nearly wept with emotion.

“Besides being a scientist, I’m a soldier. That’s how things are in the Union. And besides being citizens of the Union, we’re soldiers. Besides even that, we’re revolutionaries. And the Murati I fell in love would cause no end of trouble for her own rights and those of others.”

Murati sighed. She looked well and truly resigned.

“It’ll put you in danger.” She said, weakly.            

Karuniya embraced her. No more was discussed about this.

Both of them had made their decision together. They held each other in enduring silence as if to say ‘no, it will put us in danger.’ They accepted it.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.2]

This one she could not blame on drinking. This time it was all squarely on her.

“You did it again Yana. You have no self-control. You horrible– you evil–”

Her self-flagellation caught in her throat. She thought she would puke. She sobbed.

She drank last night. She drank a lot. And had that been all, she would not have wept.

What made her most upset was that she was not drunk. She was fully aware.

She remembered everything, but it was as if she had done it all with a devil on her shoulder.

In her head she reviewed everything she had done as if she had watched a stranger do it.

But it was not some stranger. It was herself. She did it, and she knew it, and hated the fact.

On the nightstand, an empty bottle. Apricot liquor. Fancy stuff; it was a big enough bottle that she hoped she had help with it. A headache, a sense of burning in her chest, and the cold sweat running down her face, down her back; she had drunk it. She had drunk a lot. However, the most mortifying thing is she never lost control. Everything she did was impulsive but deliberate.

Last night she had gone out to celebrate the end of the recent crisis. Drinking, dancing, at different venues across the station, at the plazas, co-ops, canteens, joining a throng of celebrants. She hit it off with a particular someone, and from there everything felt like magic. Lovely, witty conversation, fast, flirtatious dancing, great booze. They found a private nook, and after slipping the coat off her shoulders, she dove into that first hungry kiss in the neck. Then she went home, and not alone. She had lifted her up by her legs, dropped her onto the bed, devoured her.

Yana gagged, the burning in her chest rising to her throat.

No amount of being drunk justified it. She felt mortified. This was her own room and her own bed that she had woken up in. And the stranger sharing it with her was her responsibility.

A dark-haired, waifish young woman laid beside her, close enough to share her warmth. Young; clearly younger than Yana. Her chest rose and fell with gentle breathing, completely exposed with all the loving red marks which had been put on the tips of her breasts, her collarbones, between her thighs. Atop her head a pair of cat-like, neatly fluffy ears periodically twitched.

Every so often a tiny little moan would escape her lips. Her tail would curl up too.

Her sleep was untroubled. Maybe she had just not drank as much,

She covered the girl up with a sheet. Both for her comfort and dignity, and to hide her.

“How old is she, Yana,” She berated herself.

Her shaking fingers hit the wall, and the room computer put up the ID that had been logged.

The woman she had spent the night having sex with was 27 years old.

“Yana, you’re nine years older than her.”

She brought the same hand she had used to type into the wall, up to her face.

Her whole body was shaking with shame. She absolutely hated herself.

Among other things she was shaking with, was her continuing, heavy bout with nausea.

Bolting from the bed, she rushed her own cold, naked body to the bathroom, where she bent over the waste collection vents. Seemingly understanding of her plight, the bathroom spread a fine, sweet-smelling mist over her as it washed away the contents of her stomach. She felt the sting of the liquor coming back up her throat. She hated it; she hated herself so much for this.

“I’ll apologize when she wakes up.” She said, breathlessly, to herself. “I’ll ask if she wants anything from me and I’ll give it to her. If she wants me to appear before council, or marriage–”

She could hardly think back to the other times this had happened where no restitution was necessary, as she was caught in such a mire of self-loathing that everything seemed a grand crime and nothing about the other woman’s agency entered her head. She was in this state, watching her bathroom clean itself, for several minutes, before a notification appeared on the wall next to her.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I request to meet with you.”

Yana was speechless, staring with a wide, horror-stricken gaze at the ID of the visitor.

Parvati Nagavanshi.

While her bed was taken up by a woman in the afterglow, while she was naked, with her knees on the floor bent over a grate, and the apartment smelled of booze and sweat despite the best effort of the machines– the Commissar-General was at her door awaiting an audience.

Was this it? The day that her absurd life would be put to an end?

“Ulyana Korabiskaya, your room says it is occupied. It is past 1100 hours and you should be awake. I am willing to leave a message, but this discourtesy is highly irregular, and I resent it.”

It was past 1100 hours.

Yana raised her hand up to her face and pulled down in distress.

“Just a moment!” She shouted. “One minute and I’ll be there!”

From her bed she heard a low murmur, and a purring noise.

Yana froze in place.

“I will wait.” Nagavanshi said.

Her heart was stuck in her chest. She could not breathe or move.

There was silence for just enough to convince Yana that the girl had not woken up.

Carefully, she rose to her feet, and pulled a nearly see-through casual robe from her closet.

Throwing this on, her hair slightly wet, she appeared to have stepped out of the shower.

In this attire, she opened the door a crack, and smiled at the Commissar-General.

“Good morning, Nagavanshi!” She said cheerfully. “My, it has been so long hasn’t it?”

“It’s good to see you again. Get dressed. We need to speak at length.”

Nagavanshi’s expression was humorless as usual. Always pristinely uniformed, no matter where she went; she was a walking office, exercising her duty every hour of the day. She was a woman of slight stature, professional and groomed, with her hair tied up under her peaked cap, her dark skin completely unadorned with makeup or accessories of any kind. Her gaze was the most intense part of her, unwavering even with her eyes shaded by her cap and framed by tidy bangs.  

Yana laughed. She sounded audibly uncomfortable and she could not hide it.

“I had a bit of a rough night.” Yana said.

“I can tell. What you need is to eat something and get some plaza air. Come on.”

For a brief moment Nagavanshi turned her head to try to see around Yana.

“Okay! Give me a few minutes!”

Yana slammed the door shut.

She put her back to it, breathing ragged, staring at the placidly sleeping girl in her bed.

Their clothes were on the floor. In one corner she found her dress, and the one-piece wet suit she had worn last night. So the tiny, filmy, erotic black dress must have belonged to the woman in her bed. Her lover’s suit was shaded mesh that was almost see-through, and the dress itself had plenty of gaps for skin to show. It was an incredibly bold design, at the cutting edge of fashion — and maybe modesty. Yana loved it; it was the kind of clothes she would have loved to wear, if she did not feel a persisting shame in the pit of her stomach for being a party girl at age 36.

Yana tapped on the wall again and brought the woman’s ID one more time.

Her name was Aaliyah Bashara.

“I’ll make it up to you.” She clapped her hands together and bowed her head as if begging. “Please forgive me!” Trying not to drop dead from the overwhelming, mortifying sense of shame she felt with herself, Yana donned a casual one-piece swimsuit, along with a jacket and a pair of pants. Her long, wavy blond hair she quickly tied up behind the back of her head with a big, sturdy hair claw. There was no time to fix her makeup. She just washed her face and dabbed it off.

Aaliyah was not stirring throughout. She was out like a light.

Yana pinned a wall computer window on one of the walls, leaving it open with a note.

“Ulyana–”

  “I’m coming!”

I have to go, but I will make it up to you. — Yana K.

There was no more time to agonize over what she could say or do for Aaliyah Bashara that would be enough to assuage her own guilt and shame, let alone any feelings Aaliyah Bashara actually had about the night they had spent. With little consideration for the young woman and a head full of completely self-centered thoughts, Yana finally left the apartment to meet Nagavanshi outside. The Commissar, for her part, had not changed in demeanor for the better or the worse.

“You look in total disarray.” Nagavanshi said. “Let’s get you some food.”

Yana sighed. She walked behind the Commissar; her steps unsteady, her head pounding.

Owing to her distinguished service, Yana lived in a slightly nicer apartment in one of the slightly nicer habitats in the Block on Thassal station. Her habitat was on the opposite side of the Thassal mound from a certain Lieutenant’s. While all accommodations were supposed to be equal, and at least in size they were, it was a fact that older habitats built or refurbished after the Revolution were the lesser kin of newer habitats. These had more consistent power, and slightly better access to water and climate control owing to their newer desalinators, recycler systems and air treatment. They also had wider halls and more accessible plazas and shopping strips.

Room assignment was “decided by machine.” Computers did not make any decisions by themselves, of course, they had no capability to do so. What this meant was that a program would be run to randomly assign housing, making sure people of all kinds were represented among all blocks of housing stock. But Union leadership also used housing as a reward mechanism in certain cases. Yana was not the only medal-earning military veteran to have a room in a nicer habitat.

It was one of many things she did not feel she deserved.

However, it was impossible for her to turn down machine-awarded accolades.

From Yana’s habitat they made their way to the services district, which had an open space for trading or bartering as well as a canteen serving hot food and a government shop with clothes and other necessities. Contained within a glass and steel structure, the space was designed so the inhabitants could see out into the flooded cave deep in the center of Thassal Station’s stone mound. All manner of odd deep dwelling creatures passed by the glass for curious onlookers to see.

There were a few tables filled with various things to be traded or bartered with. Some of the objects were accompanied by their owners, who were looking to negotiate. Others were left with a note of encouragement from the former owner. By far the most common items were clothes. Many people traded clothing to acquire new fashions, since fancy, innovative clothing was mostly the handiwork of hobbyists and not government-backed industry. There were also books, and even a few diskettes of someone’s homemade video game, free for anyone interested.

Nagavanshi did not acknowledge the presence of the table. Her gaze was fixed forward.

She always struck Yana as someone who already had everything she needed for her life.

If Nagavanshi wanted anything, it must have been intangible. Influence; power; love?

As depressing as it sounded, Yana did not believe Nagavanshi capable of the latter.

At the seating area specifically for the canteen they found a small table for two. Soon a boy in overalls stopped at their table, flashed them a chipper smile and asked to take their orders. He could not have been older than fourteen. He was fulfilling his community work credit for school.

“What will it be ladies? Item A or Item B?”

Canteens served two different meals during the day, and another two different meals at night. The menu was based on what they could prepare to feed potentially thousands of people with the resources they had on hand. It was rude to ask exactly what was being served, but suggestions and alterations based on mood, availability, or dietary needs, could be made right at the table.

In her case, Yana had a simple question. “Which one’s the fattiest?”

Her father had always told her that a fatty meal and a bottomless glass of seltzer water was the only real cure for drunkenness. Nagavanshi glared at her, likely misunderstanding her intent.

“You’ll be wanting ‘B’; I’ll tell big sis to give you some extra margarine.”

He turned a big smile on Nagavanshi. She gave him back the tiniest little smirk.

“I’ll take ‘A’.” Nagavanshi said.

“Coming right up!”

From the table, the boy darted cheerfully back to the canteen counter, and conferred with the woman doing the cooking for the day. Soon, the boy returned with two plastic cases worth of food, which included their own plastic cutlery. Each of the menus had a drink. Yana’s came with a clear soda flavored only with a bit of syrup. Nagavanshi had a yellow drink from a citrus powder.

There had been an upward trend in their meals recently, and had the circumstances been different Yana would have found this lunch to be a highlight of the day. A triangular slice of cornbread, resting on a pool of margarine and pickled chicken’s eggs, made up half the plate. The real treasure was slices of battered, fried eggplant rounds. She almost believed they were fresh.

On Nagavanshi’s plate, there was a big biscuit that had been soaked in broth and took on a honey-brown color and turned soft. This biscuit was then set on a puddle of broth that had been scooped into the case. On top of the biscuit there was tomato and corn relish, yeast shavings and pickled egg. Yana guessed that pickled egg was the protein of the day for Thassal station.

“Is it ok if I dig in? I have one hell of a ‘morning-after’ headache.” Yana asked.

Without answer, Nagavanshi dipped her spoon into her biscuit and took a bite.

Yana nodded, and tucked into her own plate. Eggplant was nice and salty, well-breaded.

Nagavanshi barely nipped at her food. She gave Yana time eat before she talked again.

“You didn’t participate in the battle for Thassalid trench. Why did you refuse to?”

A direct assault right after lunch! Yana was ill prepared to be questioned like this.

She almost choked on the last bite of her food. She took a long gulp of soda water.

“It is your right not to do so, but I don’t understand. You could have been a valuable asset. You have much more experience on a large ship than some of the people who received ships there.”

Nagavanshi continued to calmly interrogate her, ignoring Yana’s clear distress.

Once her throat was finally clear, Yana could finally take audible offense to this inquiry.

“I exercised my rights! You’re correct, they’re my rights, I have a right not to go to war if I choose to do so. I served my time. Let the eager young people have a chance at those battles!”

“You refuse the battle, but it appears that you don’t refuse the party afterwards.”

The Commissar-General had a weary expression on her face. A tired, concerned gaze.

Though it was hard to tell with her, perhaps it even signified worry.

And Yana hated it. She hated it almost as much as she hated herself.

This was not a battle of words between one of the highest authorities in the nation and a pathetic, drunk, womanizing has-been Captain. Yana realized that she was speaking to Parvati, a woman who had once served under her. A woman who had been educated alongside her. A woman who, perhaps with some personal ambiguities, could be considered a friend, or at least a peer.

They were acting as equals in this discussion. Painful as it was, Yana recognized that.

And how dare she? How dare she come back like this after being distant for so long?

“Why did you come to Thassal Station, Nagavanshi? Surely it wasn’t for this?”

Nagavanshi looked upset. “I came to laugh at you. Is that what you want to hear?”

There was only one way that Yana could think to reply to that. “Fuck you!”

“You imagined from the outset that I was here to make you the victim you want to be.”

Yana stood up suddenly and put both fists against the table, rocking the lunch boxes.

“Parvati, you’re still nothing but the little rulebook-citing twerp who kept the bridge crew in line with me. I’ll put your head through this table right now. Don’t test me with your bullshit.”

“Listen to me Yana.” Nagavanshi was always so calm, and Yana hated that even more. “I have a proposal for you. You can beat me up afterwards if you want. In the end, it won’t matter either way. If you do what I want, I’ll be beaten down by the bravest hero the Union has ever seen. And if you refuse me, I’ll be beaten up by a pathetic nobody who has amounted to nothing.”

Yana stopped in her tracks. Her eyes watered, her rage quickly dissolving. All her emotions were starting to divert elsewhere. She had gone from seeing red, to seeing nothing but her tears. She barely heard Nagavanshi, but she understood enough to realize there was a lot more happening than just her politically ascendant old shipmate coming to patronize her old failure of a Captain.

“No matter what happens, I’ll wipe the blood out of my lips. I’ve already won.”

Nagavashi procured a picture from her uniform coat and laid it on the table.

It was a photograph of a ship. A rather odd ship. Long, two-tiered, boxy.

“What is this?” Yana asked. She settled back into her seat. All of her ravaneous energy was gone. That terrifying instant of power and violence had passed her by, and she felt twice her age. Tired, overwhelmed. She took the picture in her hands. “Is this a hauler? Do you want me to haul?”

“She’s special.” Nagavanshi said. “I want you to take her on a journey.”

“No.” Yana shook her head weakly. Her voice was losing all conviction. “I can’t.”

“You’re an incredible Captain. You command respect, discipline, sympathy. Your instincts are sharp; you’re a survivor; you’re a polyglot. You are good with people, situations, and gear. Nobody else can handle this. Anyone else in our peer group would fail; they will fail as people to their own crew, or fail militarily, or fail diplomatically, when the pressure really builds up.”

 Yana brought her hands up to her face to hide her tears. “Parvati I really cannot.”

“I do not expect you to comply immediately. But you belong in a ship again, Yana.”

“Parvati, I really cannot do this right now.”

“You still blame yourself for the Pravda, don’t you?”

Nagavanshi’s tone was as neutral as always. Yana could tell, however, that she was being soft. As soft as she could be, with as much empathy as her strict, materialist self could muster.

It was too much to bear. It made her head pound harder. Yana just couldn’t take it.

“How can I not?” She murmured.

“Because you had nothing to do with it. You were exonerated near immediately. It was the result of negligence and all those responsible paid their dues for it.”

Yana forced herself to make eye contact with Nagavanshi.

Her face was full of bitterness. Her eyes reddened with tears, wide open with resentment.

“I’m supposed to feel better because you found people to kill other than me?”

“You’re supposed to feel better because you were not to blame.”

“Forgive me, but I don’t see how that erases all the deaths I was helpless to stop.”

“You were a hero. Honestly, I can’t stand to see you choose to–”

“I didn’t choose anything!” Yana slammed the table again. From behind them, the canteen crew finally noticed the altercation and seemed hesitant. They would have known who Nagavanshi was. Yana didn’t care. “I didn’t even get to go down with my ship. That was also decided for me!”

This time however, Nagavanshi finally fell to her level and raised her voice.

“What would that have changed? You die and then what?”

Yana looked up at her with confusion. She was surprised to hear her finally emote.

Nagavanshi’s eyes returned a look to her that was just as bitter and resentful as her.

“If you ask me, it’s too convenient when soldiers just drop dead. There are so many stories that just end with a dead soldier and no more questions raised. Soldiers that don’t get to live don’t have to think about how to live after what they experienced. They don’t get healing; they don’t get redemption. I can’t offer you the former, but if you’re after the latter, then redeem yourself.”

She pushed the picture up to Yana, almost shoving it against the woman’s chest.

“This ship, the Brigand, is going to leave us for hundreds of days on a crucial mission. No other Captain will be able to shepherd a crew through such a long voyage. It has never been done. I believe that you can do it, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You can do it, precisely because you’ve faced hardship, and despite everything that has happened to you, no matter what, you continued living. You continued living because you inspired amazing men and women to give their all for you.”

Yana looked down at the picture of the ship, her eyes overflowing with tears.

She could not remember the terror of the Pravda except as scattered images, lights and sounds, screams and the hissing of gas, the feeling of fire kissing her back. That frustrating sense of ephemerality, that made her question whether anything truly happened at all, whether she was actually there to see it, brought tears to her eyes. She could not stop weeping over the table.

Through a heavy sob, she pushed the picture back toward Nagavanshi.

“Can I have a moment?” She asked. “To think about things.”

“You can cry all you want. I’ll wait.”

Yana sank against the table, sobbing heavily, unable to withstand the thundering of her former comrades’ words as they reverberated within her brain. To think that all those people died so that she would live, and all the misguided praise that the Commissar was heaping upon her. It felt so surreal. To be given a ship again after all she had been through, all she had failed to do.

A hand came to rest upon her hair.

It was gentle. Slender fingers stroked through her blonde locks without judgment.

“Cry all you need to before you come to the HQ tonight.”

Years’ worth of tears that had been caught inside the most cold, guarded recesses of Yana Korabiskaya came pouring out then. She did cry as if for two people, freely and without aim. Overwhelmed with shame and guilt, adrift in old injuries that she knew, no matter how much she tried, she would not be able to heal. Despite this: she wanted to take the offer now.


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