Innocents In The Stream [6.7]

Sword in one hand, rifle in the other, matching her fated opponent.

For a moment they simply stared each other down.

Even the shooting of the Irmingard’s main guns did not stir the two veterans.

There was chatter on an open frequency. A coy, bloodthirsty voice.

“I know it’s you, Red Baron! The two of us have a bloody ball to attend!”

Ever since Khadija spotted that overgrown Jagd pulling that sommersault trick with its sword, she just knew. She did not even need the machine to be painted red to tell. Nobody in the entire world had the gall to try those pretentious underwater ballet moves except for that bitch. Rationality flew out the window for Khadija.

On simple instinct, on reading the current, she knew.

Not once did she question her own sanity or her urges and instincts.

When she had got tired of talking, she threw herself at that machine with a vengeance.

Soon as Shalikova left her side, Khadija charged the Red Baron, sword drawn.

Reacting to her attack, the Red Baron suddenly climbed.

“Predictable! How much younger are you than me?”

Khadija rose immediately to meet her, shooting diagonally up and intersecting her leap.

Swords clashing, the two veterans became locked in struggle

Vibrating blade met furious saw, kicking up short-lived sparks and bubbles of vapor as they ground together. Sword arms locked chest to chest for seconds, struggling to push each other back, before the two broke off. Khadija opened fire from her AK-96 as she descended, and the Red Baron responded with her Sturmgewehr assault rifle as she rose.

Khadija swung a left; the Red Baron threw herself right.

A burst of bullets flew past Khadija’s shoulder, grazing her anchor pod.

Several bullets detonated just off of the Baron’s hip, almost striking the water intake.

Through open water they circled like spiraling, orbiting stars, dozens of meters apart but perfectly equidistant, mirroring moments second to second. Between them grew a raging fusillade, bursts of gunfire that buzzed by within millimeters of each machine and detonated above, behind, around them in every direction, until it was impossible to tell through the fog of their war where each machine stood amid the vapor and explosions. Hundreds of rounds, the drumbeat of the dance. Spent magazines sank out of view, an unseemly clock putting a limit on their night of fire.

Two sharp clicking noises, two mag ejections, and the music stopped.

Though she almost wanted to throw out her rifle Khadija had the presence to stow it.

Up and above, the Red Baron did simply discard hers. It made Khadija incensed to see.

“Not just an Imperial but a show-off bitch besides. I’m going to make you pay.”

She took her sword in both hands and briefly scanned the diagnostics screen.

Some of the saw teeth had been ground off, but the chain was alloyed with depleted agarthicite and strong enough to cut. Her arm verniers still had enough fuel and the motor on the diamond sword was running strong.

Khadija took a deep, resentful breath.

Back when they last fought, swords, whether the Imperial vibroblade or the Union diamond sword, were a luxury afforded only to them. Something so standard now, in 959 only six diamond swords existed, and only the Red Baron had a vibroblade. Real weapons were given to the people who’d survived tearing each other apart with handheld bombs, industrial drills, undersea welding equipment, rock cutter heads attached to ship propellers, rocket-poles with makeshift grenades at the end, and all sorts of other unreliable, improvised weapons hastily given to the early Divers.

Launching out of sandbanks and gorges and caves to do any sort of damage to an imperial ship in Labor suits with bolted-on armor made out of bulkheads. While early Volkers made out of bathysphere materials tried desperately to guard the ships and patrol the sites of guerilla activity, wielding gas guns extracted from their mounts or scaled-up jet harpoons and even handheld shields and piston spears. Death was nearly instant for whoever got hit first.

Every attack was deadly.

Every exchange was to the death. Weapons met, and only one fighter survived.

That was the war she and the Baron had once fought. That was the war they survived.

The Union’s desperate ingenuity met the Imperial struggle to industrialize a response.

It was the war that crashed these two and their machines together again and again.

“I got you once back then. But it isn’t enough.” Khadija said. “You need to hurt more.”

Taunting let off steam when Khadija thought she might explode inside.

Suddenly, her heart quickened, when she finally heard a response back to her taunts.

“What will be enough?”

That deep and powerful voice which sounded so desperate and hurt.

At first Khadija could not even believe it.

Because this was the first palpable, human interaction she had with her mortal enemy.

Before, the Red Baron had been nothing but a machine that barred her way, a machine that had killed her comrades. An obstacle that had impeded her own revolutionary legend again and again. A fated foe that she thought had disappeared alongside Imperial control of Ferris. Now that same demon was speaking to her in that pathetic voice?

Her mind struggled to come up with a response, as if she had been spoken to in an incomprehensible language; but it was just Imbrian. It was all the same for all of them. Her heart quivered, her soaring spirit felt almost deflated.

Khadija’s voice sounded audibly weary even to herself.

“Feeling remorseful? Then just drop dead!”

She engaged all thrust that she could muster to throw herself forward.

The Red Baron reacted to the initial forward thrust by lifting her sword in defense.

She was waiting, trying to react to Khadija.

There were no allies, no supporting fire, no ranged weapons available to the Baron. Nothing but knives. Just like old times, when they carried ordnance they could count with their fingers and were reduced to banging each other with whatever crude melee weapons they had. The less options a pilot had available, the less sophisticated their tactics became. Khadija had experience with this. But it was not the revolution, and their equipment for this bout was very different. Pound for pound, purely in the quality of equipment, a diamond sword was not going to survive smashing against a vibroblade for as long as its counterpart. A duel would not favor Khadija in these waters.

To think she’d let things get this desperate. She had been so foolish to fight like this.

Her intention was not to duel, however. For the first time in a long time she keenly felt all her 42 years.

She felt like a long-suffering veteran; she knew her duty, she knew her mission.

She knew her options.

Murati still had her bomb. If she could tie up this woman long enough, she triumphed.

When the two threw themselves at each other once more, their motives differed.

As soon as their swords met anew, Khadija armed the bomb on her back with a short timer.

“I’ll take this grudge to hell. Until I see you eat the fruit of Zaqqum personally.”


Soyuz is down! Repeat, Soyuz is down!”

“God damn it.”

As far as the eye could see there were groups of ships exchanging gunfire, a wicked line of grey and black ships on one side and hundreds of different color liveries standing their ground on the other. Water bubbles and vapor clouds, hundreds more than even the amount of ships, multiplying in the no-man’s-land between the opposing fleets. Partially in the frame of these massive forces was a massive station from which torpedoes and flak periodically flew out.

All of this saturating ordnance, the distant star-like flashes of explosives, the spreading cloud of bubbles and debris, roaring shockwaves that boomed in the thousands every minute. This violence transpired over a dismal, rocky sandbank over which Cascabel station had stood sentinel. Over this gorge the two sides were deadlocked.

It was the “winter” of A.D. 959, and the now-called “Union” fought desperately for its existence.

In the eyes of the little girl watching on the Bridge of that ship–

This was the apocalypse. It was the end of all things. It could be nothing else.

She was nine years old, and had some understanding of the world, but she had never seen the water stir so violently. She had never explosions and felt the rattling of the metal around her, the metal protecting her from the ravages of the endless Ocean outside. She did not understand that death was a part of what she was seeing; but this was also the first time she witnessed death. All of the destruction she saw hinted at death to her, in a way she did not grasp.

And yet, she never cried. Not once. It was as if she was mesmerized.

“Captain, should this child really be here?”

“After what happened just now, Goswani, it doesn’t matter where she is.”

Murati Nakara could not hear them at that point. She was not acknowledging other people.

She was transfixed on the massive screen in front of her.

Her parents had been killed on that screen and she did not even really know it.

Behind her, Captain Yervik Deshnov of the Union’s remaining dreadnought, the Ferrisean, grit his teeth, and pulled down his peaked cap. He pounded his fist on his seat in frustration. An Imperial Diver had gotten to the Soyuz and detonated an explosive on it. It was the same kind of trick they’d been pulling on the Empire for months, but the Empire had hardly used their own nascent Divers against the Union. There was an air of frustration, shock, grief, and sudden hopelessness aboard. They had pushed the Empire all the way to Cascabel. Would they collapse here?

“We can’t fall apart from just one attack, Captain! I’ll avenge them!”

A determined voice came through on the comms. A face appeared on the screen.

A Shimii, blond-haired, with piercing green eyes, and a fiery expression.

“UND-001-A Khadija al-Shajara, deploying!”

Like a shooting star, the armed labor suit flew out from under their vessel.

On the main screen, the computers all honed on this unit for a brief moment.

From the teetering wreckage of the Soyuz, an opposing force sailed out to meet her.

A rotund suit, all in red, wielding what looked like a sword alongside its rifle.

The much-more human shaped and green Union suit sped to a collision with this red suit.

Twin comets met in the waters with Cascabel looming behind, a sorrowful steel giant.

Clashing in instants, moving faster than anyone had ever seen, shooting, parrying.

Dashing at one another, breaking apart, their vicious duel spiraling amid the rest of the chaos.

“Why are we all doing nothing! Helmsman, advance! Target all fire on the enemy center!”

Deshnov shouted himself hoarse, and the Ferrisean was shaken out of its stillness.

Meanwhile Murati watched the Divers attentively.

Even when the main screen shifted the duel to a picture in picture and expanded its focus again back to the broader fleet action, she was taken in by the little picture in the corner, staring at it intently. Her mind was fully blank save for the unreal fighting in that tiny square. They were so evenly matched, despite the clear viciousness of their violence, that it seemed more like a sport or a sparring match than an actual battle. This was also death in a way Murati didn’t see.

And then, the red suit gained the upper hand, or so it seemed–

Trying to flip over its opponent to attack it from behind, upside down–

Suddenly the opponent, the green suit, threw its arm in the way.

It could not be sliced through. She caught the sword in her gauntlet and wrist-blade.

Her rifle flashed at her enemy, punishing the red suit with many serious blows.

Battered, the red suit retreated with all its might.

And missing a functioning arm, the green suit withdrew as well.

In an instant, they had drawn blood and their battle was closed.

“Captain, an enemy Cruiser is moving out of position!”

Deshnov drew his eyes wide in the Captain’s chair.

“What is it doing?”

“It may be trying to recover the red suit!”

“Focus all fire on the gap it left! It’s open season on their escorts!”

Even as the picture in picture camera was left desolate, with both combatants retreating.

That seemingly interminable duel remained buried in Murati’s little brain.

She continued to stare at that corner, until the last gun sounded.


“I see you’re hellbent on giving me a heart attack lately.”

Yervik Deshnov found the girl standing at the entrance to the port of Ferris’ Sevastopol Station, watched over by a port attendant. Her dark skin and messy dark hair were unmistakable, as were her fiery auburn eyes. What was unusual was the military cadet jacket and pants. Deshnov was not exactly chasing after the girl every single day, but he had no idea where she would have gotten that uniform under his nose. Unlike the usual trouble she got into, this was serious.

Was she trying to run away to Solstice? He’d play dumb for now and just ask her.

Arguing with Murati over assumptions would always bite him in the ass. She was too smart.

In response to his consternation, Murati crossed her arms and put on the most serious face she could muster. A girl of barely fourteen, she was tall and slight and tomboyish. Despite her best attempts her expression still read to Deshnov as distinctly bratty. A bratty teen rebelling at random. And he always knew; he was always informed first whenever she tried to do anything strange. He always came and made sure she was unharmed.

It was the least he could do for the parents she lost.

“I came all the way out here, on short notice, so what is all this about?”

“You only ever visit to stop me doing what I want with my life.” She cried out.

“That’s cruel. I gladly said yes to all those medications you wanted to get on.”

“Hmph! Like you had a choice in that! The Union constitution–”

Deshnov sighed. She always had an answer for everything.

“Doesn’t apply, Murati! All your affairs are under my strict guardianship per your parent’s last will. You legitimately do not have all those rights you’re rattling off all the time until you leave my guardianship, because you’re not an ordinary war orphan. Listen. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. But I’m here now. I just want to talk.”

Murati grit her teeth. “I didn’t think you’d get here so quickly.”

“Okay, so this is not a funny stunt, and you did intend to run away to Solstice? For what?”

“I’m joining the military academy, uncle Deshnov! I’m joining and you can’t stop me!”

“Of course. I knew it’d come to this someday. You are his kid after all.”

He ran a hand over his wizened face, sighing deeply.

“Murati, all I want is for you to lead a healthy, happy, peaceful life, you know that?”

It was tough for Murati to say anything to that. She simply averted her gaze.

“I’d really like nothing better than for you to go to school for something good and kind.”

“I’d like nothing better than for you to stop pretending to parent me.”

“Ouch.”

Deshnov smiled and tried to play it off like that didn’t hurt as monumentally as it did.

He felt it rush through his skin like electricity. But he’d been preparing for this moment.

“I’m sorry for the trouble and the time spent, and I hope you’ll forgive us the awkward scene on here.” He said to the woman in the port attendant uniform, shifting uncomfortably to one side and watching their drama unfolding. “Per the terms of guardianship, please revoke this young lady’s boarding pass and–”

“My parents fought and died for this country!” Murati said. “I have a right to–”

“Do the same? Do you hear yourself? Do you just want to die then?” Deshnov snapped.

“No! Of course not! Ugh! You never understand!” Murati shouted back.

“Then what is it? I would let you go if you could tell me a single constructive thing you plan to do with your military academy degree and with some kind of position in the Navy. What do you think people do in the Navy, huh young lady? Have you given it any thought at all? Do you have anything in your head except empty platitudes of civil duty? Or worse, maybe even petty revenge? Do you want to kill people, or do you want to die?”

Murati balled up her fists and looked positively livid.

“How cynical! For a Rear Admiral to be saying this! If your soldiers could hear you!”

Deshnov grunted.

“I am cynical because I’m experienced! Because I’ve seen what happens to people like you: young and ambitious but with your heads full of duty and martyrdom! Because hundreds of thousands of people died to create a safe place where someone like you doesn’t have to board a metal coffin to survive! You think your parents want this for you?”

In his eyes, this was nothing short of a tragedy. To see Murati in this awful uniform.

What did she want with this?

“You don’t know anything.” Murati said, her eyes downcast.

“Then tell me.”

“You think I’m just a stupid little girl who can’t do anything–”

“Murati that’s the last thing I think–”

“I’m going to end this war! I’m going to make all the Ocean safe for us.”

Deshnov blinked. He stood there, speechless, for a moment.

When he looked at that brooding girl, he really thought all she wanted was to kill.

To kill the Imperials who took her parents. He’d seen it, again and again.

“You’re going to end what war?” Deshnov said. “Our war with the Empire? You?”

Murati raised her eyes from the ground.

At that moment, Deshnov was taken aback by what he saw and felt from her.

That tear-stained grimace that should have seemed small and bratty and petty and pitiful– but instead her gaze was cutting, powerful, as if there was truly something behind it. Something deep and massive; her gaze was filled with presence beyond its years. A determination far surpassing his own. A real, inspired sense of righteousness.

Those auburn eyes had a red glimmer, like a raging fire burning deep inside her.

“Uncle Deshnov, let me go. I will– I’ll become the best soldier you’ll ever see. I’ll become the strongest. Nobody will get hurt anymore. Nobody will die anymore. Not me; not anyone. Someday, the Empire might come back. I’ll drive them out of Ferris just like you did. And I’ll chase them all the way to the Palatinate. I’ll fight their soldiers and their knights and inquisitors, I’ll fight the Emperor! I’ll free us all and then nobody will need to fight a war again.”

Yervik Deshnov felt a deep shame at those words. He could hardly keep from crying.

Those words coming out of this teenage girl– that should have been him, God damn it.

That’s what he and all the losers who called themselves the admiralty of this nation should have done! That was what they were promising to these kids. That it was ended, that they could live their lives now. How could he reiterate what he told Murati before, with a straight face? She knew none of this was over. That none of it had been finished. She was too smart. She had lost too much. So she knew better than anybody that the utopian paradise of the Union was still paper thin as long as the waters outside Ferris still teemed with the sharks of the Imbrian Empire.

Deshnov’s worst nightmare had been that these kids would have to finish his war.

That Murati would have to finish his war.

He wanted to yell at her to go back home and study math and the arts and trades.

But his voice would not rise for such sophistry. It couldn’t. Not anymore.

Especially because he was always running around and never even saw her grow.

“Don’t call me Uncle anymore.” He said. “I’ll–”

At that moment, the port attendant received a call on her earpiece. Her eyes drew wide.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Deshnov, but I’ve orders to let her through.” She said.

“Excuse me?” He felt suddenly defensive. He still had the right of guardianship–

“Murati’s guardianship has been revoked. She’s been declared an independent orphan– a legal adult.”

“What?”

Even Murati looked taken aback by this. It must not have been something she did.

“Someone will be coming to speak with you. I have to take her– the ship is leaving.”

Deshnov watched, in helpless confusion, as the port attendant turned Murati around and gave her what she wanted and had arranged for. Passage aboard the ship bound for Solstice, where she would enroll in the military Academy and live much of the next decade of her life, learning the sciences and arts of battle and preparing for war. She looked back at him one last time, but he knew not what kind of look Murati gave him and never would.

Instead, he had turned around to face the other end of the port corridor, where two figures arrived.

Dressed in the dark olive shirt and dark brown pants of the Navy, and the black coat and peaked, serpent-adorned cap of the Ashura, the internal security troops answering exclusively to the outbound Premier herself.

Deshnov grit his teeth.

Who else could it have been to greet him on this evil day? No one else but Commissar-Commandant Bhavani Jayasankar; and her lackey Parvati Nagavanshi, returned from her ship duties just in time to join up.

Those two always somehow found their way to each other.

“I’d be truly blessed to know what the hell internal security wants with one girl.” He said.

Jayasankar put on a conniving smile and crossed her arms.

“Well, children are our future. What’s that saying, Nagavanshi?”

“A thousand generations live in them.” Nagavanshi replied with a deadpan tone of voice.

“Don’t fuck with me. Who gave you the authority to overturn my guardianship?” He said.

Nagavanshi withdrew some papers from her coat and began to explain. “Citing Murati Nakara’s room records, you’ve visited her about 60 times in the past five years? While it is a double digit number, it’s not a lot, considering the average parent in the Union visited their children at their school boards an average of about 190 days every single year. So it seems to me, and forgive me if I’m wrong, that she was not a high priority in your life.”

“How dare you? It was the Navy itself that kept me from her! You don’t think–”

He went on a tirade that the two of them clearly weren’t interested in.

Shouting was all Deshnov could do to keep from striking Nagavanshi.

That would’ve been really bad.

“At any rate!”

Jayasankar shouted over Deshnov and produced a series of official documents from her own coat.

Guardianship transfer, from Yervik Deshnov to Daksha Kansal. Signed by Daksha Kansal.

Then in the next document, simply dissolved by Kansal, making Murati a “legal adult” citizen.

That meant Murati had agency in administrative decisions regarding her person, though she was still a child. She could sign for her own medications, join the academy without anyone’s consent– but still couldn’t drink or drive.

Deshnov could hardly believe it. “The Premier? Daksha? Why would she–?”

“You weren’t the only one who owed the Nakara family something.” Jayasankar cut in.

“Now everything’s squared away. We’re all released from this past.” Nagavanshi added.

Those words sparked a sudden paranoia in Deshnov’s brain. A weary, angry fear.

But there was nothing he could say. He had no power in the face of these two.

“Nobody owes anyone, anything, anymore, Deshnov. We can all look toward the future.”

Jayasankar smiled that devilish smile of her and Deshnov felt a helpless anger.

All of them were playing politics still, even around Murati and her dead parent’s names. Was this truly what they all died fighting for? So Jayasankar and Nagavanshi could manipulate their daughter’s life? He looked over his shoulder at the departing vessel. Murati was nowhere to be seen, of course. He had missed his chance. He should have just said he was proud of her answer to him. Instead, he may have just left her with the idea he was abandoning her.

Could he even rectify that? Could he explain or take back what he said?

He turned back to the women in front of him with the evilest look he could give them.

“Neither of you have any respect for the dead. Neither of you should be saying that family’s name in any context, you vultures don’t deserve it. We don’t owe them anymore? Maybe you people don’t. But they are a part of the soul of this country. Whatever it is you think you are scheming, or whatever advantage you’re trying to get, I will not be quiet while you do so.” Deshnov said in a low voice. “Were it not for our positions, Bhavani, I’d sock the both of you.”

Jayasankar shrugged her shoulders with one winking eye, smiling.

“Oh? Such big words! But you can’t attack me, right Yervik? You can’t lift a finger to me no matter what. Well, if you went on a rampage right now, you’d certainly get Nagavanshi at least; I’d be more of a fight, however.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Hey. Don’t push it. I’m perfectly able to defend myself.”

They were joking among themselves. Those two went back a few years.

Even with the long gap in their ages they still understood each other a little too well.

Neither of them was taking him seriously still. Not that he was worth taking seriously.

He was being quite childish himself. But he couldn’t help but be bitter toward them.

“You respect the invisible shield that is political power.” Jayasankar grinned to herself.

“I know that you certainly came out of their tragedy a little better than everyone else.”

Deshnov did not want to respond too much to the provocations of this particular group.

Among the revolutionaries, there had been a few different cliques.

He had always wanted to believe in Commander Ahwalia and his promise of a better future.

This earned him the scorn of rigid materialists like Jayasankar and Nagavanshi.

Upon hearing his remarks, Jayasankar’s face turned cold. She turned a chilling glare on him.

“We entombed ourselves in steel and poured our blood into making this country, the same as you. Yet you hate us for not deceiving kids like her with sappy dreams. Daksha sent me here because you and I go back to five years ago, and she wanted you to understand that you have to let the Nakara family go. They do not influence the Union anymore, and in the coming stages, whatever they wished to do no longer matters. Yervik, you can stay stuck in the past, or you can keep fighting for our future. As a respected military man, there will come a time soon where you’ll influence the future of kids like her. I hope you recognize what it is appropriate to do when that time comes.”

Nagavanshi added. “Kansal will depart soon. There will be a wave of change. Don’t cross us, Yervik.”

Jayasankar and Nagavanshi turned their heels and departed, leaving Yervik behind, helpless.

They could say such things to him precisely because they knew he would do nothing. He could not.

He almost wanted to spit with anger. Those two were always plotting something.

As much as he detested them, however, they were as much the heart and soul of the Union as the Nakaras.

That much he could not deny, deep in his bitter heart, even if he hated their politics.

But Jayasankar was right in one sense. He couldn’t give up now. He couldn’t just run away.

While he could not stand to look at these snakes and the future in their minds, he could pin his hopes on the future he saw in Murati’s eyes instead. Whether they were led by an idealist like Ahwalia or a militarist like Jayasankar, their children owned the future. Not any of the old soldiers. It didn’t matter to these kids how much they schemed.

All of this shame, all of this bitterness; he would endure it for the future Murati might build.


When the Irmingard’s main guns fired, Murati’s time started moving once again.

She lowered her mecha’s shooting arm, the magazine depleted.

Her breathing quickened. She felt like she was waking from a nightmare.

“I was useless. I was completely useless.” She gasped. She checked her monitors.

Shalikova was safe, the flak had quieted to avoid friendly fire.

Khadija was staring down the enemy unit that had made a fool of Murati.

For the moment, the battle had stood completely still.

As if the monumental shocks of those 203 mm guns had stunned them all to reverence.

And yet, it was those guns that awakened Murati from a shameful, desperate stupor.

In her cockpit, Murati struggled with the controls for the Cheka. She was trying not to fall too deep into her own despair. She still had a mission to do, and she told herself that she situation remained fundamentally unchanged– that had to be a bluffing shot, and Murati still had two bombs available to take down the flagship.

But the appearance of that unknown suit complicated things.

“Arm joint failing, some electric fluctuations, messiah defend.”

That cut through the shoulder must have damaged some of the ancillary electronics. While there was still thrust, power to secondary systems was inconsistent. Murati kept a panicked eye on the pressure and atmosphere readings. She was alive, so she was not breached, but if there was damage to atmosphere control, or a microscopic leak from the tanks, it could make her sick. Everything was under control at the moment, but she was nearly helpless.

“Murati! Please respond!”

Due to the energy circulation issues her radio was cutting in and out intermittently.

At that moment, however, she could still hear the desperate voice of Sonya Shalikova.

Sighing with a deep shame in herself, trying to suppress the urge to pity herself, she replied.

“Combat ineffective. Repeat, combat ineffective.”

“Murati? Did you say, ‘combat ineffective’? Who cares! Are you hurt?”

Shalikova’s voice came in and out every other syllable it seemed.

Nonetheless, the emotional, worried tone of her voice came through for Murati.

“Unhurt. Repeat, I’m unhurt. Just shaken up. Repeat, shaken up.”

In order to be understood with the state of her electronics and power, Murati had to be fairly monosyllabic. She could not say what she was really feeling, nor even the version of it she really wanted Shalikova to hear. “I was useless, but you were splendid,” or “I’m sorry for failing you, but you did great out there.” Maybe “I’m proud of you,” might have gone through. But it wasn’t the time to praise Shalikova and hear her characteristic groaning back. They were still in danger. They still had a mission to do. And they needed to know the status of the Brigand as well.

“Wait. Bombs, how many do we–”

Murati checked the inventory on the Cheka quickly. She found that the serial port that should have been connected to her bomb had been reporting nothing connected to it. Her magnetic strip was showing a significant loss of weight as well. Had that mecha managed to unseat her equipment while they were maneuvering? It must have been when she slashed across her shoulder– Murati grit her teeth. She must have kicked them off or something.

To think she had been so careless, with an opponent like that!

Shalikova’s voice cut in. Murati was barely able to make out one word.

“Khadija–”

She slammed her fist on the switchbox for the communicator.

“What can I even do? I’m just a passenger at this point.”

On a corner of her central screen, a little flashing waveform appeared.

Incoming laser connection.

“The Brigand!”

Murati put it through immediately.

She found herself face to face with the narrowed, unfriendly glare of Alex Geninov.

For only an instant. Nearly immediately, Alex passed her off to Semyonova.

In this situation, that familiar round-faced, bubbly blond was such a relief to see.

Even with a laser connection, the video was lagging. The Cheka was in bad shape.

“Khadija engaging enemy! Lost bomb undetonated! Repeat–”

She had to communicate sparsely, as if the connection would be cutting in and out.

On the screen she saw Semyonova turn to relay to the Captain–

Then the video connection cut out.

Murati had feared that the flak had restarted and knocked out the drone the Brigand had sent to connect them, but she noticed her communicator had powered of suddenly. She switched the diagnostic touchscreen to a troubleshooting mode and tried to restart the communicator through it. She tried routing power from a different cell– instead the camera feeds began to darken, not liking having their already fragile power tampered with.

Frustrated, Murati nearly hit the diagnostic screen again.

Briefly she saw her frustrated, sweating face reflected on one of her dead screens.

“So much for you, fearless leader.” She mumbled.

She dipped her head, her bangs falling over her eyes.

There was a flash as her cameras returned to life.

When Murati looked up to appraise the situation, she was transfixed by what she saw.

In the middle of the ocean between all of the warring ships, framed by clouds of vapor and steel debris, two machines soared like a pair of comets, their dance punctuated by the trials of explosive rounds and the bubbles that blossomed from their detonations. Weaving chaotic patterns of vapor and lead, the combatants captivated all of Murati’s senses as she watched them, following the dim flashes of rifle shells, the zigzagging lines of bubbles and disturbed water left in the wakes of their jets, the thin clouds of exhaust from the solid fuel boosters mixing with the water vapor.

There was a shuddering in her chest, her heart carried on a current of twenty years.

Murati recognized the sight as one she saw in 959 A.D.

On a ship she had snuck into, amid the gravest emergency the nascent Union had yet seen.

Where she watched ships explode, and Divers sink, and a station die.

In front of her, the flashing stopped, the combatants bereft of ammunition.

Murati felt a warmth behind her eyes and saw colors emerging in the water.

That enemy Diver, colored yellow and green, full of fear, regret, disgust–

That plain grey Strelok, red and black with rage, bloodlust, a resignation to death–

Her eyes drew wide with the sudden realization.

“No! Khadija– the bomb–”

Instinctually she understood what would transpire if she did not act–

–her thoughts raced, thinking of something, anything she could do, to prevent the tragedy–

“Murati!”

Shalikova’s Strelok appeared right in front of her, taking up her cameras.

At her side was a second, bare Strelok with no damage to it. Valya Lebedova’s unit.

“Murati, she sent me here to take you back, give your bomb to Lebedova–”

Hit with a spark of inspiration, Murati made a sudden move for Lebedova’s unit.

Shifting her hands to the verboten controls flashing on her joysticks.

All of the diagnostic and power warnings briefly made way for the user interface of the Energy Recovery System. Power poured from the extra reserved cells on the Cheka and for a moment, thrust improved dramatically, all systems reconnected, and the battered suit moved like it should. Shalikova and Lebedova were both taken aback.

Throwing herself forward to them, Murati grabbed hold of Lebedova’s grenade.

Seizing it from her magnetic strip, before rushing away into the open water.

“Murati! What are you doing? You’ve got damage!”

Shalikova’s shouting was picked up loud and clear now that comms had returned.

Murati ignored the radio chatter and slammed the pedals down as far as they would.

As soon as she got up to speed, warnings began appearing in their dozens once again.

Oxygen system, atmosphere controls, everything stressed under the speed building up so suddenly after taking so much damage to the innards. Her damaged arm refused to budge under this degree of acceleration, so Murati had to use the other arm for her sudden plot. She attached Lebedova’s grenade to her own magnetic strip, unlocked the strip, and forcibly pulled the entire length free from the Cheka’s back using the non-magnetic handles on the ends.

She was then able to hold it like a magnetic pole on her hand with the grenade on one end.

Heedless of the energy percentages ticking down and down–

And the number of things that were broken or breaking in the suit–

In her mind, Murati had only one destination: home.

Her plan had gone awry, but as a leader, she would bring everyone back home, even if it killed her.

“Khadija! Stop! Step back!”

Dead ahead, the enemy suit and Khadija’s charged each other and became locked in a brief clash with their respective melee weapons. Chainsaw teeth and vibroblade ground each other down. They traded several vicious blows and parries before each one in turn noticed Murati hurtling toward them. Her presence ended the deadlocked duel.

That enemy suit responded first and darted back carefully from Khadija.

Khadija pulled back only slightly as her ally approached at high speeds.

Murati swerved toward the enemy suit and it responded by thrusting up and away from her.

Then Murati arced toward Khadija instead, circling around behind her.

“Murati! What are you–?”

Soaring past Khadija’s back, Murati snatched the bomb she had given her using the magnetic pole.

At the speed she was going, the serial cable simply snapped off.

“Everyone retreat! Right now! Back to the Brigand!”

Accelerating once more, Murati barked her orders into the communicator.

Using the remaining shoulder camera she checked the status of the bomb.

She noticed it had been armed. She felt a chill run down her spine, briefly, unable to dwell on the confirmation of her horrifying suspicions. Was Khadija really willing to die to take out this one enemy unit? They would have to discuss this later. Murati held out the contraption in her hands and thrust toward the Irmingard class once again.

With an armed bomb on the strip she could not tarry for very long.

Within seconds, she was close enough to put the plan into action.

Assault rifles, gas guns and coilguns all used a combination of special ammunition and shooting mechanisms that allowed them to shoot underwater and launch supercavitating shells. Their ammunition moved through an air bubble, defeating the resistance of the water and altering their kinetic profile. Melee combat relied on the mechanical power of a Diver’s arms, as well as boosters on the weapon and the arm itself to improve thrust. Even so, raw kinetic impacts were not effective. Union swords used saw blades to inflict damage; the Empire used sophisticated vibrating blades made of exotic materials. Any simple cutting edge would have been much less effective underwater.

Similarly to swinging a plain sword, objects thrown by a Diver could not be expected to be effective.

They would not travel very far without assistance.

Grenades had their own built-in rocket to compensate for water resistance instead.

To propel the Grenade’s 50 mm warhead, it needed thrust akin to a Diver’s vernier booster.

That was enough thrust to propel the grenade quite far, quite fast.

And more than enough to take the strip and the bomb attached along for the ride.

“Here goes something!”

Holding out the strip in front of her, Murati armed the grenade at the back of it.

When she let go an instant later, the grenade’s thruster kicked in and launched the pole.

This sent the armed bomb hurtling toward the side of the Irmingard.

Moving faster than the flak curtain could be restarted to stop it.

As soon as she released the improvised rocket, she threw the Cheka into a steep turn. Without being able to detonate it in a controlled fashion from a safe distance, Murati was in immediate danger. She arced away from the Irmingard as quickly as she could and swung toward the Brigand. To escape the blast she needed every possible meter–

Her eyes glanced up at the ERS screen in time to watch the power drain entirely.

Then her cockpit suddenly went pitch black. Murati’s breath caught in her chest.

There was a sudden silence as the whirring of the pumps and turbines pushing water through her machine stopped abruptly. Her body jerked forward slightly and suddenly as water resistance killed her momentum, causing her cockpit to shake briefly. Red, intermittent flashing red within the darkness, indicating auxiliary power. Enough to maintain life support. She was stranded. Stranded in the open water with the bomb about to go off behind her.

Murati freed herself from her seat, crawled to the side of the cockpit and slid open a moveable slit.

There was a periscopic glass viewing pane, through which she could see nothing but water.

Then she saw something flash. That was the bomb– the bomb had gone off.

Her cockpit rumbled as all the water displaced by the blast slammed into her.

What was happening? She could be sinking to the sea floor! Or about to rip apart!

She grit her teeth and grabbed hold of the catches on the wall, repeatedly striking metal as everything around her shook violently. Rolling around on the inside of her own metal coffin, packed in like a canned vegetable.

Her senses almost went as her head struck the metal wall.

Blood dribbled down her face. Her grip started to slack, her wrists overextended.

And yet the cockpit continued to rattle and roll in the maelstrom.

Was she going to die? Was she really going to die like this?

Two distinct impacts tossed her further, one on each side of the cockpit– then she stopped.

She was stable. Rushing her eye to the viewing pane she caught sight of metal.

There was a red flash from it. Was that– a Diver? A Diver igniting a vernier?

Her cockpit shook again–

She felt the Cheka move. Water started rushing around her.

Consistent, purposeful movement.

Someone had rescued her.

With the cockpit stable, she came to settle against the wall. Bloody, battered, isolated.

Falling limp within her “metal coffin,” Murati started to weep into her own arm.

It must have been Shalikova or Lebedova.

Someone rescued her! She would live! She survived– they defeated that Irmingard class.

Unable to see them, unable to thank them, unable to determine who was alive–

What a way to end the battle! All that fire and thunder, and in the end it was all dark, all silent.

But she was alive. And the Brigand was alive. So despite everything, their mission was still alive.

She struck her fist against the metal wall, again and again. Grinding her teeth, weeping her eyes out.

“Messiah defend! Some fucking hero I turned out to be!” Murati shouted, screaming at herself in the dark.


Schicksal’s panicked voice heralded the coming insanity.

“Explosion off the port side! Significant sidepod damage– we’re destabilizing–!”

“God damn it!”

Gertrude would have pounded her fist on her seat but holding on to it was all she could do to keep herself from flying off her chair as the Iron Lady began to list to starboard dramatically, now heavier due to loss of both solid and liquid weight. Inside the Bridge it was pure chaos. Flashing red warning lights, dozens of people shouting at each other all at once, the helm crew struggling to adjust the ship’s weight and right it. As the ship slanted, a few unprepared officers fell back out of their seats and slammed into the nearest station behind them. It was nearly impossible to control the crew in this chaos, but Dreschner shouted himself hoarse at Gertrude’s side, keeping the bridge functional.

“Side hydrojet intakes completely severed! Weight distribution dramatically uneven!”

On the main screen a diagnostic updated, with the breaching and flooding that had been dealt to the sidepod area. Were it not for the Iron Lady’s enormously thick armor even the hangar would be flooding. That was not an ordinary depth charge, it had the kind of destructive power reserved for blast mining charges.

How had Sieglinde let such a thing through to them? Had she even survived?

To think despite every advantage they would lose to these thugs!

“Captain, Inquisitor! The Ludlow is not moving from our starboard!”

Schicksal turned a horrified look to meet Gertrude’s wild eyes and Dreschner’s pallid face.

They were listing toward their remaining Frigate, which was itself struggling to stay afloat.

“Collision imminent!”

Everyone in the Bridge grabbed hold of the closest thing they could.

Only the helm continued working until the last second that they could, struggling to stabilize the ship, but not in time to prevent what the prediction on the main screen showed them. Seconds later, the Iron Lady crashed into the Ludlow, crushing its side fin and caving in the port side of the pressure hull, sending the smaller vessel careening toward the ocean floor. This did relatively light damage to the Iron Lady itself, but it was clear the Ludlow would not survive. By then, the small amount of flooding on the Iron Lady weighed down its stricken side enough to stabilize the ship.

All the while, Gertrude watched the main screen with rage-filled eyes.

That insignificant little hauler and its measly little divers began to flee.

She raised her hand to the screen, nearly giving in to desperate, grief-stricken delusion.

Right in front of her, so close, close enough for her hand to reach. That damnable ship.

“Pandora’s Box. You won’t get away. Not as long as I can chase. Elena–”

Hyperventilating, eyes burning in the prelude to tears.            

Her mind blanking out with fury as she seared the sight of that little ship into her brain.

They had not escaped. They had not gotten away. They couldn’t run.

As long as she was chasing, they would never escape.

“Call for reinforcements! Send it through the encrypted network! As soon as possible!”

Dreschner and Schicksal looked like they could hardly believe her words.

Nevertheless, they set about their tasks as soon as they could. Whoever came could be made useful.

Though the Bridge soon quieted, the tense, erratic energy of the moment never left.

“Send out a drone to chase after Pandora’s Box as soon as the electronics are stable.”

Because Gertrude’s eyes never left the screen; because she never forgot the shadow of her prey.

She was High Inquisitor Lichtenberg, and as long as she was chasing, no one could escape!


Previous ~ Next

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, physically fit and perfectly proportioned. 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 athletic figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her, and which accentuated her strong shoulders. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold marked her as a great hero of the Empire.

And yet–

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.


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