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.
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!
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–
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.
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.
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.
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?”