The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.9]

A splash of water arced gracefully in the air and struck the earth at Sareh’s feet.

Children with ladles and small cans of water laughed riotously.

Cognizant of the power they had been given that day.

“Ugh, you kids always lose your minds with that!” Sareh complained.

“We were like them too once, hayati.” Baran said, softly and with a smile on her face.

Hearing such a strong term of endearment, even Sareh could not be gloomy anymore.

So empowered, the children ran throughout the festival grounds, scooping water from their cans using the ladles they had been given, and sending splashes of water hurtling at any adult in the vicinity. Casting these bolts like the arrows loosed by the Mahdi himself in the stories; but also paying respect to the lifegiving water and reminding the festivalgoers of the long lost rain of the surface. For the children this was just a fun game that they played, but it was one of the cornerstones of Tishtar, a festival of water, of survival, of heroes. The great heroes of the Shimii, the companions that bore the Shimii to the sea with the surface in its death throes. They were the reason that Mehmed, Nasser the Elder, and Radu the Marzban and others bore the title of “hero” to their respective followers.

The Rashidun Kingdom, the “rightly guided” era, was ancient history.

The Time of Ignorance, when humanity brushed with extinction, faded entirely.

The fire of the Age of Heroes, when Shimii warred for clashing ideals, had sputtered out.

Now was the time without name when the next era would be forged by their decisions.

It was perhaps the darkest era in history to be a Shimii–

But on Tishtar, the children splashing the water still smiled for the future.

That dire texture of the great weight of their history that could not be said to them, was communicated in the nature of their play. On Tishtar they splashed water, they listened to songs, they ate and played and were led in prayer by the adults around them. Baran and Sareh were once those children running around, carrying on the history of their people. Now it was their turn to watch, to be splashed by water, and to mourn with the adults.

“It’s a bit different looking at it now that I have to supervise.” Sareh said, sighing.

“We don’t have to be so strict today.” Baran said. “Let them have fun. Within reason.”

She reached out and took Sareh’s hands. “In fact, they should not be the only ones.”

“You want to splash water too?” Sareh asked, laughing.

Wearing a conspiratorial smile, Baran whispered.

“Sareh, will you swear a nikah mut’ah with me for today?” She said.

Sareh’s face turned a bit redder, she smiled, and held Baran’s hands tightly.


Tishtar swept through the Mahdist village like wave of light and energy.

Homa stood in the middle of the transformation almost in awe of the changes.

Colored streamers had been stretched on wires across the main thoroughfare of the village, from the old shops to the stage and to the stray light posts, criss-crossing colors hanging overhead. They were wrapped around the water barrels from which children refilled their green and blue pots to let loose projectiles from their little ladles. Amid the streamers and their wires the village no longer looked brown and dull in color but like a whirlwind of brightness that lifted the mood. Wider banners with moons and geometrical patterns accompanied the streamers, denoting the different areas of the village.

Most of the festivities orbited the front of the town. The Tazia monument on the stage had been put back together so well it almost constituted a miracle. Paint and putty had covered up the damage and made the plastic pieces looked as if they were always meant to be that way. In turn the new Tazia was much more colorful than the initial one by necessity. Like a green and blue and purple house set up on the stage for an equally colorful person to step into or out. It almost perfectly matched the colored partial veils the aunties wore.

It was easy to forget it was meant to bring to mind the grave of a beloved religious figure.

Tables had been set up along the thoroughfare with a variety of snacks and drinks as well as the means to prepare more. Each station had been equipped with an auntie whose powerful stare cowed the children from splashing water on the food and drink made ready for the festival. Homa made an immediate beeline for a station from which smoke, aroma and licks of flame arose. One of the aunties prepared long metal sticks covered in meat which glazed in its own fat as it cooked. Homa watched with such a longing stare that a smiling auntie immediately gave her the first morsel of the day without asking her.

“Here you go! First of many, I hope!” the auntie said.

Homa nodded her head quietly and bit into the kebab.

Her ears flapped, her tiny tail fluttered, and she shut her eyes with pleasure.

Delicately spiced and incredibly savory flavor made her cheeks contract.

A splash of water fell just short of her feet– followed by two more, none striking her.

Homa looked up at the children laughing and running away.

They must have been instructed not to strike her directly.

While every child had a pot and ladle for splashing water, there were other peaceful pursuits for those that got tired out or were uninterested in running around. There were children blowing up balloons, and the smaller children hung around the aunties and listened to stories. A few were given small wind instruments which they tried to play– it was annoying but rather cute. Homa certainly preferred it to being splashed with water. She spotted a few other children engaging in handicrafts. They were given disposable sheets of corn plastic or stone paper, which they cut up into stars and moons and other shapes. Some of the more ambitious kids tried to make the Tazia in miniature using cut pieces and glue and coloring it with paints. They compared each other and loudly debated the merits of certain colors– almost all agreeing the Tazia should be more purple than it was now.

Homa wondered whether she had been so boisterous and silly as a little kid.

Her memories of her childhood were incredibly fragmentary.

Perhaps if something so beautiful had actually happened to her– she would remember it.

Most of the adults not directly participating in the festival watched the children play while eating and chatting, exchanging small gifts, and reciting copious dua’s for friends and neighbors. While there were a few activities planned — including at some point whatever event would coincide with Kalika’s big dance — much of the festival was just unstructured time for the villagers to relax, eat good food and meet with their neighbors. As such there was not so much spectacle and whimsy as there was warmth and companionship.

As Homa explored she felt a bit strange about the festival– though not in a bad way.

Homa did not have high expectations for what kind of festival the poor villagers could put on. Even with the intercession of Kamma supplying them with food, that only meant there would be a feast at the end or snacks throughout. In Homa’s imaginary, festivals had games and musical events and toys and they were grand sprawling affairs. However, walking the main thoroughfare of the Mahdist village, she felt that what they lacked in spectacle they made up for with friendliness. Seeing so many close-knit people out on the street sharing the moment, faces that would have been invisible to her in any other place but that she was just barely starting to recognize during her stay in the village– it had a certain magic all its own. She almost felt like she was a part of everything– almost, but not entirely so.

In the back of her mind, she still felt like a stranger observing something from afar.

However, seeing the kids running around splashing people and houses, the older folk sitting down having kebabs and glazed figs, the auntie with the long flute leading a few kids with smaller flutes in an ensemble that almost sounded harmonious, hearing recitation of long song-like prayers and the aroma of flowers and sweets and sizzling meat– Homa felt like she was, if not a part of something, at least in the middle of something. Not entirely apart from it, not an invisible body in a crowd, not a lonely figure amid the living of lives. Yes, she did not let herself believe she was one of the villagers, but she was present.

They could see her; she saw them too. She was not lost in a crowd.

And it brought a smile to her face. She let herself be swept up into the fun.

Back in Kreuzung, Homa would have fled from something like this, from the gazes. She would have felt judged by the people around her, like she had something to live up to that she had failed to achieve. She would have welcomed disappearing in a crowd. But it was different in the Mahdist village. Nobody who looked at her seemed to demand anything from her. Nobody whose gaze she crossed had anything other than a smile for her even if they said nothing at all. They were approachable even when they were not approaching. In that way, she felt included by virtue of a lack of exclusion. Maybe it was all just in her head–

But if it was a change in her, then she was glad for the transformation.

“Homa! Over here! How are you liking the festival so far?”

When Homa wandered closer to the stage, she met with Baran and Sareh.

“I had a really good kebab.” Homa said. “And my feet are getting soaked.”

She tried to smile.

Baran and Sareh had a laugh and patted her on the shoulders.

Both of them were dressed up for the festival. Sareh had worn a coat and pants that looked almost brand new, dark blue and brown, working well with the rich dark shade of her own skin. Her dark, long hair was tied up into a ponytail with slightly messy bangs that made her look rather dashing but still wild and a bit unruly. Baran meanwhile looked radiant, wearing a long, bright blue dress with a dark blue part-veil decorated with gold stars, accentuating the otherwise subdued redness of her hair. She looked like a pleasantly, formally girlish beauty, a lovely counterpart to Sareh’s somewhat casual tomboy handsomeness.

Though she was starting to heal up, Baran retained her cane for the day.

“You know– I thought you two would be really busy today.” Homa said, smiling.

“We’ve already prepared everything we had to and planned all of the rest.” Baran said.

“We worked hard these past few days so we could enjoy the moment now.” Sareh said.

Homa looked fondly at them, and her tail fluttered a bit with embarrassment–

“Well– I’m happy to have some company. I am sad to admit I only really know you two.”

She did not even know the name of the auntie making the kebabs she had eaten.

“It’s okay, Homa. We’re your friends and hosts. We’ll help you have fun!” Baran said.

“I already figured if we left you alone, you would end up moping somewhere.” Sareh said.

“You have that little confidence in me?!” Homa replied, only somewhat offended.

She was mainly playing along and all three of them shared a bit of a chuckle.

“Speaking of what people you know and don’t–” Sareh began, glancing at Baran.

“You are forbidden from seeing Kalika until her big moment.” Baran said mischievously.

“So is she going to miss out on the festival?” Homa asked.

“She’s coming out in a few hours, it’s fine. She’ll get to have plenty of fun.” Sareh said.

“Until we can hand you off to her, we’ll be borrowing you.” Baran said.

“I’m not some toy for you.” Homa said with mock consternation.

Baran and Sareh laughed again and led Homa away by the shoulder.

They walked back the way Homa had come, retracing her steps through the thoroughfare. Taking their time so Baran could keep up with her cane. When she was with Baran and Sareh her festival took on a new character altogether, as everyone loved the two of them and would invite them to try a snack, or hold hands with them, or pray for their health and safety. Children would spray water at their feet and avoid splashing anyone with them perhaps for fear of collateral splashing on the two. They were quite special to the villagers and given how much they worried and worked on the village, Homa thought they deserved it.

Particularly, as Homa walked with them, it became clearer to her that there was nobody in the village that was Baran and Sareh’s age. There were young teenage girls, small girls and boys, and there were the older aunties and elderly folk– but no younger adults other than the two of them. That made them a unique sight among all of the village folk.

“We told them not to splash you. We didn’t know if you’d be bothered by it.” Baran said.

“It would annoy me, to be honest– but I am glad they are having fun.” Homa said.

“As adults, we should let the kids have a little bit of leeway, like how we got.” Sareh said.

“Don’t pretend like you aren’t annoyed with them also.” Baran said, grinning at Sareh.

“I’m trying to set a good example for Homa.” Sareh said, averting her gaze slightly.

“I’m exactly your age, I don’t need your example.” Homa grumbled. Baran laughed.

“I know, I know!” Sareh said, laughing too. “I’m just too used to taking care of kids.”

“You’ve gotten much better at it. You’d make a good parent now Sareh.” Baran said.

Homa looked at the two of them and felt even more of their lovey-dovey energy than usual.

She said nothing about it– despite appearances they probably weren’t out to the village.

Even for Mahdists she had to assume their relationship was something private for them.

While they were walking, Homa recalled the short explanation Sareh had given her for Tishtar. She grew more curious as they went about, seeing the villagers enjoying the day.

“Can you tell me more about the story of Tishtar?” Homa asked.

Her tone of voice lowered to a bashful whisper.

“I know you mentioned that it has to do with Ali Ibn Al-Wahran. I– I grew up in a kinda secular household, so I was never told a lot about the old stories. I picked up some thing from people here and there– random visits to the masjid when my uh– guardian felt like it.” Even calling Leija her mother in passing felt somewhat wrong, so she avoided using the word.

“We understand, you don’t have to be ashamed, Homa.” Baran said.

“Yeah, we’re not about to start judging you now for something like that.” Sareh said. She looked at Baran. “Which of us should speak? And how far back do we go?”

“I can start and we can trade off every so often.” Baran said. “Homa, we Shimii, like everyone else, came from the surface world. On the surface, the stories tell that our people went through horrible times. Our culture was dying, our religion was twisted, our people leaderless. Many of our kin were killed in wars, against others and among ourselves, and the other peoples of the surface finally left us for dead when the calamity started ravaging the land. But then the Mahdi revealed himself, and gathered his companions and united the remaining Shimii. The heroes brought our kin to the sea to survive the catastrophe.”

Baran looked to Sareh expectantly. Sareh’s ears stood on end, as did her tail.

“You really think I would forget? Homa, their names were Ali Ibn Al-Wahran, Shirin Dilaram, Faiyad Ayari, Banu Emiroğlu, and Mu’awiya Ibn al-Assad.” Sareh said, rattling off the names quickly– she did know them by memory. “Out of all of them, of course, Ali is now known as the legendary Mahdi, kind-hearted and strong, and Shirin was his closest companion, who helped sway the people with her words; but all of them together pooled their strengths and journeyed underwater. They led people to a mountain– a lot of people think that Khaybar in the modern day is where that mountain was. In the stories it was a mountain that formed in the ocean when a destructive serpent sunk a chunk of the surface world.”

That was a wild detail– Homa had never heard about the mountain or the serpent.

“Blessed Ali and Shirin were very important, yes– but each companion played a part.” Baran said. She seemed both amused by the way Sareh told the story but also spoke in a tone as if correcting her embellishment. “Ali split the ocean, and Shirin returned the faith to the people so that they believed in him as the Mahdi and followed him, despite their concerns. Mu’awiya carved out a city in the mountain, and Banu separated the salt from the water so the people could drink and use it to grow food. Faiyad gave them air to breathe, and he and Ali together spread warmth through the mountain kingdom that was naturally cold.”

“The Ummah were saved, hooray!” Sareh said, with a bit of a mocking tone to it that Baran did not seem to appreciate but let go with just a sigh. “However, Tishtar is not just the story of the journey into the ocean. Part of is it also mourning what we lost. We put up streamers and colored stuff overhead to remind us of the light and sky of the surface that we lost. We splash water to remember the ancient rain. But also– we build the Tazia to remember and mourn the death of Ali. We place much more importance on the Mahdi than others do.”

“Here is where old stories will differ the most, Homa.” Baran said. “Rashidun believe that all of the companions were divinely inspired and infallible people. They believe the second king of the Shimii, Mua’wiya, had an obvious, legitimate claim over the Shimii kingdom in antiquity. They emphasize the continuing legacy of the companions rather than any particular moment of miracle-making. They don’t celebrate Tishtar or any festival of mourning like we do. They have nothing to mourn. However, Mahdists tell the story of the Shimii founding quite differently– our ancestors did not simply accept the passing of the Mahdi, nor that his successors are Mua’wiya and Faiyad. The Mahdi is uniquely special to us– we celebrate his incredible miracle as the defining moment of our history. Because of that, we believe the Mahdi, Ali, was paramount– and thus we believe that the Rashidun took illegitimate control over the ummah. The story of the betrayal varies with the telling– in our village it is said that Ali, blessed be he, sailed from the mountain to protect the kingdom and was betrayed by Mu’awiya and Faiyad, coveting power over the early ummah.”

Sareh seemed to become more stern and serious as they reached the darker stories.

“Mu’awiya was accepted by the Shimii that became the Rashidun, who valued stability and continuity and got to write the canon. While Mahdists valued the miracle of Ali the Mahdi and thus insisted on his centrality in our faith. Mu’awiya brought the Shimii some stability, but he laid the foundations of the Time of Ignorance where our people killed each other in power struggles again and the Imbrians took over everything.” Sareh said. “Regardless of the details all Mahdists object to the death of Ali, Homa– Mahdists are the descendants of the historical mourners of Ali the Mahdi, who sought answers and retribution for his death. We survived persecution– Banu, the last companion, who represented the waters, spirited us away to save us. So– that is why Tishtar, the festival of water, is important.”

Homa looked at Baran and Sareh, as they walked and talked, with a heavy heart.

She tried to hide how upset hearing that story had made her.

She had wanted to know, and she asked, and she listened– and it was upsetting. Upset– because all of this violence, the blood feuds, all of this hate, was fomented by some ancient stories she did not even know she could believe. For all she knew, none of these characters might have even existed. But their names and stories were now an indelible part of the reason why her people were torn asunder. She did not want to accept that. It was even more painful to her than when the reason for the Mahdist and Rashidun sectarianism was in her mind just a vague difference of “religion.” Knowing the details only made it worse. Ali and Mu’awiya– why fight over this? All of the Rashidun even agreed that Ali was the great Mahdi and respected him– so then, why–? Why did they persecute his staunchest followers?

“Rashidun interpret the companions differently than us. We each have our own accounts and the Rashidun focus away from the descent story and from the miracles. Our folklore is why the Rashidun call us illusionists and idolaters.” Sareh said. “When I came of age, I began to think the Rashidun might actually be afraid of those stories because if the mountain kingdom is actually Khaybar, then the Mahdist Khaybari clan took that land in their blood feud against Nasser the Elder and could lay claim to a Mahdist Caliphate someday.”

Within that dizzying mixture of modern geopolitics and ancient myth, a word stood out–

Nasser.

She suppressed the anger that had immediately begun to stir in her heart.

Even more prudent– that mention of Khaybar piqued her interest.

“I thought Khaybar was just– full of pirates or something.” Homa asked.

She learned that particular detail from Kalika. The Volksarmee had intelligence on this.

However, they did not place the same importance that Sareh did.

“They are only pirates because they have no other means, Homa.” Baran said.

Her tone of voice sounded stern. Homa raised her hands defensively, heart pounding.

“I’m sorry, I completely understand, believe me– I wasn’t judging them.” She said.

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Sareh said, patting Baran’s shoulder. “Sorry all of this got so heavy.”

“I know you’re a good person Homa. I’m– I’m just being oversensitive.” Baran said.

She smiled, but her gaze still looked heavy, as if it had seen years more worth of pain.

There was probably no way to talk about Shimii history that wasn’t sensitive and heavy.

Hated on the surface and left to die; fighting among themselves; under the yoke of the Imbrians; thinking about it all Homa had an intrusive and cruel thought appear in her mind. It was unbidden and she pushed it aside and tried not to acknowledge it. But for an instant, she thought that the Shimii were a hopeless people whom all hated, and none would save.

Not even themselves.

Her heart was already doing some of the mourning associated with Tishtar.

“The real miracle of Tishtar is that the little kids can smile through all this.” Sareh said.

Trying still to pick up Baran’s mood– this comment did finally make her smile more.

She also shed a tear as she did so– and wiped it off.

Around them, the children continued to be rambunctious and throw water on folks.

Everyone stricken by such a bolt, however, simply smiled and laughed about it.

It was as if the children and their running about became part of the lifeblood of the festival.

Homa felt like she wanted to outrun the choking past, like a frolicking child.

However– it was sadly just not her place to do so.

“So– what do we do for fun? Until Kalika’s big moment?” Homa asked, a bit awkwardly.

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other, back at Homa, and smiled.

“We have a few ideas. First– we think you should look special for the occasion.”

Sareh gestured toward Baran’s house, which they had been moving toward.

Homa narrowed her eyes at them.

She was wearing her brown coat and button-down shirt and blue worker’s pants still. She had not been able to change, but she had washed up every day, and she had been careful not to get them too dirty. They represented a weird bit of stability that she still had in her times in the village– so she was a bit hesitant to take them off for no apparent reason.

When they arrived at Baran’s house, she was given a reason not to want them off.

“No way.” Homa said. “You shouldn’t have– because I’m not–”

Smiling, Baran picked up what looked like stray cloth on her living room table.

It was not stray cloth, however. It was a beautiful hand-sewn dress, long and colorful.

“On Tishtar everyone wears their best clothes. We wanted you to have nice clothes too.”

Baran seemingly ignored Homa’s stammering and hesitant attempts to form words.

She waved the dress in front of Homa as if she was urging a child, mischief on her lips.

“C’mon, Homa, no reason to be embarrassed. I am sure you will look fantastic in that.” Sareh said. “You are in a remote village where no one knows you! Nobody can judge you! It’s a chance to try something new! We both saw how you reacted when we talked about Kalika’s dress and all that. Will you really give up a chance to be prettied up for Tishtar?”

“Why don’t you also wear a dress?” Homa said, in a more accusing tone than intended.

Sareh crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “It’s not my style.”

“Homa, I worked really hard on it– but it’s okay. I can make Sareh wear it.” Baran said.

“Hmm?” Sareh glanced at Baran, who stared at her with continued, unbroken mischief.

Grumbling, Homa looked at the dress in Baran’s hands more closely.

Baran was definitely skilled– it was a long-sleeved dress blue up top with a brown center that bore a geometric yellow pattern over it and an intermittently blue and green skirt all the way to the ankles. It might have looked gaudy, but the colors of the fabric were somewhat muted, such that everything worked together in a strangely earthy way. All of the seams and stitches were made with precision and the garment flowed well as one piece with a flattering cut. Homa narrowed her eyes and felt both her resistance begin to fade but her consternation continue to increase. She did not want to appear ungrateful to her hosts, especially not on the big festival day– but she was deeply embarrassed.

It was a beautiful dress– and Homa deeply wanted to be viewed as a girl too–

Recalling how she felt about the prospect of wearing one of Leija’s costumes–

It was embarrassing, it was so embarrassing to even think about–

Despite herself it was indeed an opportunity that she could not pass!

And besides, Sareh was right, nobody in the village knew her enough to laugh at it.

Folding her ears and fluttering her tail Homa sighed deeply and deflated in front of Baran.

“Fine.” She said, her shoulders slouching. “Fine. I’ll wear it. Please get out while I change.”

Nodding rapidly, Baran took Sareh’s hand and with a gleeful skip, pulled her outside.

Homa looked down at the dress she had been left, sighed, and began to undress herself.

A few minutes later, she peeked outside of Baran’s door curtain, her face feeling hot.

Just outside the door, Baran had her hands together and a euphoric look on her face.

Sareh stood beside her with a little grin and her arms crossed.

For a moment, Homa felt that those two were far too gleeful about all of this.

When she stepped out, the two of them cheered and held each other’s hands and laughed.

Their tails entwined, so delighted were they at the predicament they led Homa into.

“Mashallah! You look stunning Homa!” Baran said. “You are a true mother’s daughter!”

What was that supposed to mean?! Was it some Mahdist saying that didn’t parse?!

“You look so good you might miraculously walk out of here with a husband!” Sareh said.

And what was that supposed to mean?! Especially coming from Sareh of all people?!

Both of them stepped forward and patted Homa on the head and shoulders.

Homa, in her long-sleeved, long-skirted, blue and green and brown dress– felt exposed.

Not only did the fabric of the dress feel a bit thin, but it also felt a bit tight in the chest.

Had her breasts grown since she last took notice? Could people see them under the top?

“It works well with the ponytail too.” Baran said. “Or would you like me to do your hair?”

“No, this is quite enough.” Homa said, looking down at the ground. “Thank you.”

“Aww, don’t hide your face!” Sareh said. “We’re not bullying you, you’re really pretty!”

“I can furnish you with a matching partial hijab if you would like.” Baran said cheerfully.

“No, no,” Homa said, sighing and lifting her eyes from the ground. “It’s– it’s fine.”

Baran and Sareh glanced at each other again and smiled together at their handiwork.

“Now you are truly experiencing Tishtar!” Baran said, clapping her hands.

Each of them took one of Homa’s hands and led her back toward the village fore.

Sure enough, nobody said a thing– but the aunties were looking.


While they had been away, on the stage, a small ensemble had formed that was putting on a show for the rest of their neighbors. There was a quite older gentleman with a string instrument, and a middle aged woman who was singing. They were singing in Low Imbrian rather than Fusha, so it was actually possible for Homa to understand it– the song they had walked into when they reached stage was about a woman who while struggling to feed her children in a time of famine, was provided with everything needed by God, and day by day she held onto hope and gave thanks until the tribulations were behind her.

Homa almost wanted to ask if they could play something a bit cheerier.

But when she looked around nobody seemed to be treating it like a sad song.

Baran was even singing a long a bit– and tapping her foot, tenderly, minding her injury.

The woman’s voice was so sweet and the man’s strings so skilled that all the aunties seemed to be clapping and singing along and in good spirits, almost drowning out the stage. It must have been a classic. The next song was about a warrior fighting a hundred men to a standstill and being martyred and the mood did not once dampen. Homa began to get used to letting the content of the lyrics slide off her brain and just tried to enjoy the mood.

“Everyone’s gathering in front of the village, so it’s my time to shine. Come on, Homa!”

Sareh led Homa over to a little table that had set up next to the stage.

Baran followed the two of them with a small smile, occasionally looking back at the stage.

Perhaps wistful about not being able to perform as she originally desired due to her injury.

She seemed to not be letting it get to her– she sat down across from Sareh.

There was an area off to the side of the stage that had been prepared for the festivities.

Aside from their table, there was space for the eventual feast too.

However, Sareh had set up this table with a very specific purpose in mind.

“Are you going to give me one too?” Baran asked.

“Of course, of course.” Sareh said.

She pulled out something from under the table– a series of small sealed basins and containers, and some strange little picks. When Sareh popped the lid off one of the containers, there was a reddish-brown substance. To demonstrate, she drew Homa’s attention to it, dipped the pick in it, and gently took Baran’s outstretched arm with her other hand. She laid a small flower-like pattern starting from Baran’s fingertip to her knuckle– it was a mehndi, a temporary tattoo. Homa had seen newlywed girls wearing it on their hands before. She followed Sareh’s fingertips as she very carefully painted on Baran’s hand.

“See? I run a mehndi table every time we can have a Tishtar.” Sareh said.

“She’s very good at it. And these days the dyes are safe.” Baran said, showing off the mehndi.

Starting from her index finger, Sareh had drawn an intricate web of flowers that fit Baran’s hand like a thin, sheer glove. Spreading down the rest of her fingers, over the knuckle, to the wrist. It took her just a few minutes to get it done. Homa was quite surprised. She had always thought of Sareh as a blunt sort of person and did not conceive of her having the patience for handicrafts. Of course, she would not say such a thing to her.

Instead she smiled with wonderment at the body art.

“I already knew what kind of pattern Baran likes– but what would you like, Homa?”

Sareh held up her pick and seemed to gesture as if over Homa’s arm.

Homa almost brought up her gloved, mechanical hand– which would have been useless.

She had gotten so used to it by now that she forgot sometimes about its deficiencies.

Sareh would not have been able to paint over such a thing– probably.

“Um.” Homa looked down at the table. “One of my arms– it’s– it’s actually a prosthetic.”

Even as she spoke– she felt her voice strain to form the shameful words.

“Is the metal just plain colored? Or is it black or something? I should be able to paint on it– I got a bunch of differently colored engineered dyes we can use for it. If not I can just paint on your other arm, it’s fine. It’s not weird to get only one arm done.” Sareh said reassuringly.

Homa thought she was dropping a grenade– but neither she nor Baran seemed to care.

They did not judge her for having lost an arm or had any sort of reaction to it.

“Let her try, Homa. Trust me, she’s quite crafty when it comes to mehndi.” Baran said.

“You’ll have to take your gloves off obviously.” Sareh said, jabbing the pick in the air.

Homa looked down at her hands.

Using her biological hand she pulled the glove off of her prosthetic hand. She showed Sareh what it was like– its black metal sheen, the visible articulation of the mechanical digits. Her eyes averted from it and from Sareh’s face. She felt a certain shame to be exposing it to others, she felt that it was unsightly and that it might shock people to see it–

Such a thing could not possibly be beautiful– nor be made beautiful–

“Oh, that’s not a problem! I can use a green dye or a redder dye– it’ll be visible.”

Because Homa could not feel with her prosthetic, it took her a moment to see that Sareh had taken hold of her hand. She spread the digits and dipped her pick in a second basin which had green dye– and drew upon one of Homa’s metal digits a green flower pattern that was a little thicker than that which she drew on Baran’s hand and had a tighter weave.

With her pick she gestured for Homa to look at her work.

The green die contrasted the black metal well and was indeed quite visible.

“What do you think? Should I keep going?” Sareh asked, smiling gently.

Looking at the sight of her metallic arm being decorated so kindly made Homa tear up.

“Oh no, I’m sorry.” Sareh said. “I shouldn’t have insisted–”

“No, no,” Homa said, wiping her tears with her free hand, “it’s okay. I’m happy.”

Sareh looked at her for a moment and sighed with relief. “Should I keep going then?”

“Please do.” Homa said.

Baren smiled at the two of them, watching Sareh’s pattern spread across Homa’s prosthetic.

Her pick glided as easily over the metal as it did on Homa’s flesh, weaving beauty.

Soon Homa had matching mehndi on both of her hands, vividly green floral patterns.

Looking at them together– it was the first time she had thought of them as her hands.

Not as a remnant of her body and a mismatched intrusion– just her two hands.

Capable of comfort and beauty and love and warmth– her natural hands.

“It’s really pretty Sareh. I really like this. Thank you so much.” Homa said.

Sareh smiled and nodded, clearly proud of her handiwork.

“Great!” She said. “Homa, just remember you’re part of the festival today. All of you is.”

Baran nodded in acknowledgment. She reached out to touch Homa’s shoulder for comfort.

Homa wanted to cry again from all the unearned kindness she had received–

Instead, however, she smiled a vibrant smile– with a joy a long, long time coming.


After receiving her mehndi and once her emotions cooled, Homa left Sareh and Baran’s side momentarily. She wanted to see more of the snacks that had been arrayed in the kiosks and tables around the front of the village. When the children saw Homa’s mehndi, all of them hurried to Sareh’s table near the stage. They wanted to have one done just like Homa, and ceased to splash water, creating a small island of peace in the middle of Tishtar.

Smiling, Homa brought up her prosthetic hand to her face, to look at it as she walked.

She flexed the metallic skeletal digits adorned with bright green color.

This was the first time since the prosthetic was installed that it was not covered up.

That hand, those digits, held another kebab, and a glass of watery pomegranate juice, and a spoonful of sweet rice pudding, and the aunties serving the food saw it, and they commented on how pretty the mehndi was and knew immediately that Sareh had set up her table. They made no comment about it being a prosthetic. They wanted to get mehndi as well, but they were busy tending to all the snacks. Homa reassured them that surely they would be able to get some done later, the day was young. It was stress-free chit-chat.

At no point did anyone say anything about Homa that was anything less than flattering.

Her dress got more compliments than her prosthetic hand even got any attention.

“A dress from Baran and a mehndi from Sareh! How special indeed!” One auntie said.

“Those two are so talented. They esteem you a lot.” An old woman said, sitting on a porch.

“Homa, did you know?” Another auntie said. “Sareh learned the skill from her older sister– Allah praise her, she smiles down on us. But even as a small child Sareh was fantastic with the dye. If you want to make Sareh smile, Homa, be sure to praise her mehndi skills.”

“And tell Baran you love that dress! She will be so delighted!” A third auntie said.

“I already offered many compliments, don’t you worry! I was very impressed!” Homa said.

It was just a bit overwhelming when there was more than one auntie around.

“Very good. You are such a polite girl. I’m sure you will find your family someday.”

Homa smiled, a bit awkwardly, not wanting to say any more about that particular lie.

“By the way, not to be nosy or anything–”

Both ears folded, one of the aunties put on a strangely conspiratorial expression.

Homa braced for whatever comment might follow–

“–but I’ve seen you eating quite a few snacks. Save room for the feast later!”

“Ah, let her eat! She is so skinny! Homa you can have as many snacks as you want.”

“It is good for our village that a city girl like Homa loves our snacks. Eat more, Homa!”

For a moment the aunties had a spirited chat about the culture of eating at the festival.

Of course nobody mentioned any of the things Homa immediately stressed about.

Despite the warnings, the aunties did give Homa candied figs and sesame crackers.

In the middle of her snack journey, however–

There was a bit of friendly mortification now heading Homa’s way.

Word quickly traveled across the village that a small group of visitors had come for Tishtar.

At first Homa thought it was Rahima and she braced herself to put up with the fascist leader– but the reaction was a bit different. Because it was rare for people from outside the village to come to the festival, everyone got excited about the strangers visiting. Baran left Sareh’s mehndi table in order to welcome the new guests, and a Homa even more high-strung than usual left with her. Knowing who was likely waiting at the village gates, Homa felt her entire body brimming under the skin with tension and future embarrassment.

Sure enough, the small group that collected at the gates was mainly composed of–

“Homa! Look at you! You’re like a cute little doll! How wonderful!”

Khadija al-Shajara– with the tall, gloomy blond Sieglinde Castille at her side–

“Hey! Homa! Looking cute! I’m glad you’re loosening up a bit!”

Sameera al-Shahouh– accompanied by the shorter, gloomier Dominika Rybolovskaya–

“Ah– I’m not anyone you know– I just heard there was a festival. Call me Outis.”

And one stranger, Outis, a tall woman in a coat and pants with long, pale hair and shades.

Judging by the blue scales near her neck and her gray skin, she must have been a Katarran.

Homa stood with her gaze averted, feeling pointedly the presence of the dress once again.

She introduced the people she knew to Baran, with their names and a quick excuse–

“– these folks work on the ship that I rode in on. They’re good people.” Homa said.

Outis stood off to the side smiling. There was no one to vouch for her there.

However, Baran and the villagers seemed delighted to have even more company.

“Marhaba!” Baran said, meeting the group at the gates. “My name is Baran, I represent the villagers. We are holding Tishtar, an important festival. Homa’s friends are always welcome here– and we welcome any strangers who want to celebrate with us too! We made so much food just in case, so don’t be shy. Enjoy the music and hospitality! Just try to be sensitive about the kids running about– they will probably splash you with water.”

Everyone from the Brigand group had dressed up casually.

Due to the infiltration mission into Aachen the Brigand had invested in some common casual outfits to avoid their operatives wearing their uniforms everywhere. Khadija, blond-haired and sandy-skinned, wore a long light blue synthetic dress, while Sieglinde Castille, tall and blond and well-built, wore a long shirt and pants. Sameera had an outfit that was probably too casual for the village, with a tanktop and pants and her shoulders and arms bared, not exactly modest– but Baran seemed not to mind. Dominika, with her reedy red hair adorned with a few ribbons, had on black tights and a knee-length pink dress with a jacket over it. Again, not typically modest enough for a God-loving Shimii woman.

Homa had only briefly spoken to Sameera; and only knew Khadija as one of the terrors of the cafeteria, along with the cook Minardo, who loved to sit up at the front serving counter and endlessly tease and harangue whoever showed up that she deemed cute enough to bother. Despite this they all looked upon her in the dress with such bright wonderment, that she was curious what they thought they even knew about her to begin with.

Nevertheless, she treated them as more familiar friends than they actually were.

It would have been silly to equivocate such things in their situation.

“Please excuse any staring from my kin– they’re not used to city folk!” Baran said, while beckoning the party to cross the gate. “I assure you we welcome all guests.”

Homa felt initially responsible in some way for the visitors from the Pandora’s Box

She thought that she might have to make herself something of a host to them–

Maybe keep them out of trouble–

However as soon as they went through the gate, Khadija and Sieglinde, and Sameera and Dominika, quickly fanned out away from herself and Baran and rushed to follow their own curiosities. Baran gently signaled to Homa to leave them be– and Homa thus found herself left with madame Outis, who looked upon everything with a distant curiosity.

“Madame, if I might ask, where did you hear about our festival?” Baran asked.

Outis smiled, adjusting her shaded sunglasses. “I had a rare day off and wanted to be far from my employer for a time. Some of the people out in the town implied that as an unsavory-looking character I should make my way to the bacchanalia transpiring here.”

Baran blanched slightly in the face–

“Oh dear, I’m sorry they gave you trouble.” Baran said. “But– also, we’re not–”

“Yes, I figured there was something more to it than that.” Outis winked. “It’s fine. I am easily amused, and I must admit, a bit sheltered also– I simply want to soak up the festive spirit.”

“Homa, perhaps you can show madame Outis around a bit?” Baran said.

“Ah– sure.” Homa hesitated at first before giving in to Baran’s pleading look.

“I have something I need to take care of.” Baran said. She turned to Outis. “There will be a stage act put on in the afternoon, with a folk dance. Then after that there will be a feast, and poetry and prayer. In the meantime, my friend Homa will be as gracious a host as I would be.”

Waving her hands, Baran sped off as quickly as she could while walking with a cane.

Homa wondered whether she was embarrassed by what Outis said, or actually busy.

Regardless, Homa was stuck with hosting duty– which was as fine as anything.

She was starting to run out of novel things to do around the village.

Guiding someone around the same places she had already seen would kill some time.

“Madame–”

“You can just call me Outis.”

The woman smiled, and Homa nodded her head. She gestured toward the village.

“Have you eaten anything recently? Honestly the snacks are the best part of the festival.”

Outis put a finger to her lips. “I had a bar ration a few hours ago– I wouldn’t mind food.”

“A bar ration? You’re living too small madame. Come with me!”

Homa smiled and tried to be affable as she led Outis toward the kiosks.

While Outis marveled at everything around them as if she had never seen so much color.


A pair of children with their ladles and pans full of water ran up to a couple of strangers. On top of the world as ever– Laughing, visibly proud to give new folks the traditional Tishtar welcome, the children dipped their ladles in their pans and prepared to splash– only to meet the eyes of the woman in the blue dress, her ears tall as possible, her tail straight up.

A gaze with such intensity and sternness, perhaps unlike any they had seen.

It paralyzed them, their little mouths agape at the sight.

This was not just any woman; they might have reasoned– this was a mighty auntie.

In the next instant, the children turned and ran pell-mell away from the pair.

Khadija al-Shajara looked almost proud; Sieglinde Castille beheld the children with pity.

“You’re supposed to let them splash you– that lady said it was part of it.” Sieglinde said.

“Absolutely not.” Khadija said. “After all the effort I spent on my hair and makeup? No!”

After word had gotten out of Homa’s little festival adventure, it was reasoned that some of the Shimii crew who had no other pressing business should be allowed to attend as well. This led Khadija al-Shajara to don her wine-colored eyeshadow and lipstick, dolling herself up in her best palettes, and to put on the flattering, long-sleeved, low hemmed, high-waisted dress that she had been given as a civilian “disguise.” Her golden hair and tail fur worked well with the gentle blue, and her long legs were covered with black tights.

She thought she looked ten years younger.

Khadija had a duty to surveil Sieglinde Castille, so she dragged her along, dressed in brown dress pants and a long-sleeved button-down. The tall and broad-shouldered woman got a taste of Khadija’s skills in makeup and hair dressing, though she resisted anything but the lightest dab of concealer and requested her hair be kept in a simple ponytail. Khadija of course gave her an earful for being so boring, but there was nothing to be done.

At least she looked handsome and made a good counterpart to Khadija– if she wasn’t going to stand out, she should at least be a good accessory and she accomplished this.

Arm in arm, the pair of them walked through the village, taking in the ambiance.

To everyone there, they must have looked almost like a touristy husband and wife pair.

One made up of two women, however.

“It looks like there’s nothing for you to drink here.” Sieglinde said, with a bit of a tone.

“Are you trying to be funny with me? Do you want me to kick your shin?” Khadija said.

“I’ve just never seen you enjoy yourself without involving alcohol.” Sieglinde said.

Her voice carried a note of annoyance or perhaps bitterness Khadija did not appreciate.

“You’re still sore about that? I can’t believe you. You had plenty of fun with it.”

Sieglinde sighed. “We should buy some kind of souvenir. We shouldn’t be cheap.”

Changing subject? Khadija would graciously allow it– to move off discussion of alcohol.

“What do you mean not being cheap?” Khadija asked, crossing her arms.

“Well– at the festivals I’ve been to, there’s always local handicrafts and such things.”

“You’re concerned with supporting the local economy?”

“I’m concerned with how we look. It looks bad to show up at a festival to buy nothing.”

Khadija wanted to say her brain was poisoned by capitalism–

But there was a kernel of what she said that rung true.

Not necessarily about buying things but about making use of the local hospitality.

Shimii did not throw festivals for things to go to waste and for people to ignore them.

What was ungracious for a guest was to ignore or reject the goods on offer by the host.

Money was not necessarily a part of it– nothing around them appeared to be for sale.

Khadija agreed silently that in all things, she should look as good as possible.

Not just physically, which was already granted– but also as a personable, a fine lady.

“Then let us be good guests and partake. I’ll show you I can have some dry, chaste fun.”

As much as she preferred wetter fun, Khadija felt nostalgic among the village Shimii.

They had set up different little tables and kiosks with food and handcrafts and little games.

There was a woman giving out bracelets, a young lady drawing mehndi–

“Oh! Could it be? Sieglinde, come here, this way!”

Her voice raised with delight, and she was awash in a wave of nostalgia.

Next to the mehndi lady sat the young woman who had met them at the gates. Smiling, she had tablet in front of her that was instantly recognizable to any Shimii– al-Kitab, the book, the collection of religious knowledge around which a Shimii structured their spiritual and aerthly life. On the other side of the table from the book there was a beautiful green and blue clay basin with water. There were people reading prayers elsewhere in the village, and the most religious people were visible at the masjid in prayer–

but that was clearly not the intention of that girl, Baran.

“Khadija–?”

Sieglinde looked surprised with her sudden enthusiasm.

For Khadija, this took her back to her own girlhood among her people.

Back before the Imbrians forced them to change their names– and then enslaved them.

“Young miss, are you perhaps offering counsel here?” Khadija asked.

“Offering counsel” was the most polite way to say what she meant in Low Imbrian. Rather, what Khadija intended to say by this was the act of Istikhaara. To the Rashidun, Istikhaara was specifically a prayer beseeching God for guidance in their aerthly affairs and it was as simple as that– to the Mahdists, Istikhaara could be used to derive a binary answer called a kheera drawn from the pages of the book of wisdom. Kheera could be either auspicious or terrible and were used to ease one’s doubts about a decision they wanted to make.

Like everything with Shimii, this was a contentious practice.

However, Khadija had always grown up around people who believed that it was not only possible to seek counsel from God in this way but that it was fine to do so for important matters and perhaps even for some trivial issues. God was infinite in his mercy and wisdom, after all. Therefore she was used to people indulging their curiosity in this ritual.

Seeing the young girl behind the table truly brought back memories.

Baran immediately smiled at Khadija. “I always do this on special occassions.”

“Um.” Sieglinde looked between Khadija and Baran helplessly. “What is it that you do?”

“It is a way to ease doubts about the future by seeking God’s counsel.” Khadija said.

“Like fortune telling? I thought Shimii forbade such things.” Sieglinde said.

“There’s some nuance you are missing.” Baran said, more sheepishly than before.

“You’ve probably only ever met Rashidun.” Khadija said. “We Mahdists are different.”

“I apologize for my ignorance.” Sieglinde said. “I would love to have my fortune told.”

Baran winced a bit, still smiling. “Please do not call it fortune telling.” She whispered.

Khadija realized she was using a different, more subservient tone of voice for Sieglinde.

She sighed a bit. Sieglinde was a tall, imperious blond woman, so it made sense.

Around here they had probably grown up feeling they had to show respect to Imbrians.

Even if only pragmatically-

“There’s an important specificity you don’t understand. Shut your ignorant mouth.”

Khadija responded harshly; Baran was a little surprised. She hoped it was demonstrative.

Sieglinde frowned and averted her gaze a bit but still remained by Khadija’s side.

Normally, the person who made a prognostication had to be someone of exceptional piety and respect, religiously pure, or at least viewed as such by others– because it was not worth it to seek a kheera from any random person, only from the most pious and clean. In this village, Baran seemed to be the person closest to that status, so it made sense why she was the one offering. Khadija watched, a deepening sense of nostalgia as Baran offered prayers, first a prayer for counsel, then a blessing on the companions, and finally prayers for ritual cleansing. While reciting this last prayer, she washed her hands in the basin, and then washed some of her face, careful not to smudge the bit of makeup she had worn.

Then, it was time for the kheera to be given.

Baran’s tablet was a small, cheap computer programmed only to render the texts of al-Kitab, more affordable than having a stone paper version of such an enormous book. It was grayscale and thin and flimsy-looking, just larger than someone’s pocket. However, hers had an additional function. Turning it over, she pressed a little button on the side, and the screen scrambled for a moment before displaying a randomly selected page from the book. Baran held her hand over the tablet to prevent anyone seeing the page before her.

She smiled at Khadija and held out her other hand.

“What are you seeking counsel in, madame? Is there something you are contemplating?”

Khadija put on a grin. “Should I pursue a romance?” She asked. Sieglinde averted her gaze.

Baran’s ears wiggled slightly with excitement. She must have liked to give such advice.

She removed her hand from the tablet to view the page that had come up.

“An auspicious result!” Baran said. “It will certainly take work, but you should pursue the relationship you seek. Try to accept the challenges that will follow, for Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala will reward you greatly for your faith if you become a devoted partner.”

“Fantastic.” Khadija said, clapping her hands together, her tail swaying gently.

Sieglinde glanced at the two of them with a bit of a pout. “Can I–?”

“Of course, madame!” Baran said. “God’s knowledge and mercy are infinite.”

Politely, this meant that even for a nonbelieving Imbrian she was willing to read a kheera.

Khadija stepped aside and gestured for Sieglinde to stand in front of Baran.

Sieglinde took her place and put on a bit more cheer than she had previously shown.

Baran pressed the button on the book, covered the tablet with her hand–

“What kind of counsel do you seek madame? Perhaps a financial decision?” Baran asked.

“I am also interested in romance.” Sieglinde said. Khadija narrowed her eyes at her.

Baran looked down at the book with her usual excitement, reading the page–

For a brief moment her eyes drew wide, and her smile became a bit crooked–

She rapidly put the book back down and–

Quite clearly put on an act for Sieglinde! Khadija could tell right away what this was!

“What do you know? It is an auspicious result! Um– your pursuit of courtship will be quite successful. You should make every effort! But um– be sure to live free of sin!”

Baran had an innocent expression, and Sieglinde smiled and seemed to accept the kheera.

However, Khadija was immediately aware that this must have been an awful result.

It was only because she was dealing with an Imbrian that Baran likely lied about the kheera.

She had probably dealt with ignorant Imbrians before who argued with any bad results.

Her reading of Sieglinde was wrong– Sieglinde was taciturn-looking, but a complete wimp.

Khadija was not about to defend or enlighten the woman stuck at her side.

“Hear that? You should confess to whoever it is already, you lunk!” Khadija said, patting Sieglinde’s shoulder with a big grin and trying to distract her from Baran.

Sieglinde laughed and averted her gaze with mild embarrassment.

Baran subtly reset the book a few times while continuing to smile nervously.


“You know, as much as you complain about my company, you look happy.”

Sameera smiled smugly with a glance at her partner.

“Hmph. Other people are just much more annoying. Don’t flatter yourself too much.”

Dominika launched her riposte with minimal grumbling.

When she heard about the festival from Khadija, Sameera also asked for permission to go– and Dominika easily accepted the invitation. Neither of them had been too actively engaged of late and both welcomed something to do. Sameera was more excited to see the Mahdist village than she allowed herself to express in her face and in her mannerisms. She was guarded– she felt a bit silly about her excitement, and conflicted about whether the villagers could tell that she was mixed race, perhaps not a real Shimii. Nevertheless, she trekked down to the Shimii Wohnbezirk alongside Dominika, and entered the Mahdist village.

They looked around, taking in the ambiance and the sounds of the village.

Sounds of gentle drums and strings, and singing from the stage; the chattering of the villagers, particularly all of the aunties and the laughing children; the percussion of the steps people took on the hard ground; the sizzle of cooked snacks and the cracks of gas fires lighting in the old stoves. The spicy, savory aroma of the snacks mixed with the earthy and sweet scent of burning bakhoor incense– particularly around the masjid and the stage.

“Feeling peckish at all?” Sameera asked.

“Hmm.” Dominika met her eyes but seemed reticent to say anything.

“Say no more.” Sameera joked and left her side momentarily.

Approaching one of the kiosks where an older woman was serving food.

She thought that she recognized the snack being made and thought she would get some.

“Two kebabs, please.” Sameera said. “How much will that be?”

The auntie behind the grill smiled, raised her tail and made a dismissive hand gesture.

“I don’t want money, I want you to eat, look at you, you’re too thin.”

Sameera did not quite agree, but she knew there was no arguing with the aunties.

Behind the auntie’s plastic stand, she had a grill with meat already cooking.

With a smile, she handed Sameera two particularly plump snacks.

These were close to the type of kebabs Sameera was used to from the Union’s Shimii– ground meat mixed with spices, that was formed around a stick into a uniform and vaguely cylindrical shape before cooking. In the Union, the “meat” was vegetable or pea proteins glazed with oil, but the texture of the shaped patties of ground-up protein was very similar to the kebab snacks in this village. In the Imbrium, the popularized version of the kebab consisted of discrete bits of meat that were individually skewered on the stick and then cooked. Sameera had not tried them those– because they looked too different.

These, though they were meat, reminded her of home.

She would just have to try them.

Returning to Dominika, she handed her one of the kebabs.

Dominika took it in hand and turned over the stick in her fingers, examining the snack.

“Don’t look it over too much, it’s rude.” Sameera whispered.

“It’s actual meat, isn’t it?” Dominika said.

“When in Roma, do as the Elves do.” Sameera said gently.

She lifted her snack as if a glass to cheer with and took a bite of her kebab.

Unsurprisingly it was quite delicious, with a tender texture and a slightly firm exterior, and incredibly savory. All of the spices lent the simple snack a complex, earthy taste with a mild piquancy that was stronger in flavor than that of the meat itself. Nice and juicy from glazing in its own fluids. She was surprised that the taste was not that far off the ground proteins they served in the Union, perhaps because of the strong flavor of the spice blend.

She smiled at Dominika as if prompting her to eat, and Dominika took a tentative bite.

After that first taste, she clearly paced herself so as not to be seen devouring the snack.

“It’s good.” Dominika said, and no more than that.

“I’m glad.” Sameera said, politely leaving what was unsaid, unacknowledged.

Dominika was looking gorgeous as always on that day.

Her style of dress always surprised Sameera because Dominika was usually so withdrawn and taciturn, but her casual looks were always a bit bolder than she imagined. Everyone had chosen an outfit to requisition when they arrived in Aachen. To avoid drawing too much attention to the Treasure Box uniform while scouting the core station. Dominika had chosen and received a little pink dress with thin straps, knee-length, hugging her thin and largely angular body. She accesorized with a pair of tights and a jacket that was starting to fall off her shoulders. If she cared about its precarity she did not show it.

Her ruddy-colored hair she always wore long and loose, playing host to little reed-like black and red bioluminscent strands interspersed within.

The dim light in the village prompted her photophores to glow just a bit.

Her eyes, too, with their pink irises and blue limbal rings– they glowed gently.

Beautiful– Sameera had to try not to keep staring at her too obviously.

Meanwhile, Sameera felt her own mode of dress was quite casual.

She preferred to wear tanktops and pants as much as Dominika seemed to prefer tiny little dresses rendered modest only with jackets. She particularly liked her shoulders and arms and thought the world deserved to see them. In her own way, she was probably being immodest– but she nevertheless went through the world wearing a handsome, conceited little grin and nobody had yet to wipe it off her face (save Dominika.)

If anyone had an issue with their appearance, nobody made it known.

Everyone seemed equally pleased to have any visitors from outside the village.

Perhaps this was also because they felt kindly disposed toward “Homa’s friends.”

Sameera would have to tease that kitten sometime about how popular she was here.

“Pfennig for your thoughts, Dominika?” Sameera asked.

She had seen Dominika looking off to the side at the small, dispersed throngs of villagers.

Dominika glanced at Sameera briefly and then lowered her gaze.

“Walking around this village reminds me of living in the ice frontier.” She said.

“Cold?” Sameera asked, searching for her gaze.

“Scarce.” Dominika replied, still unable to meet her eyes.

In her own terse way, she expressed everything she felt clearly.

The Union’s southeast abutted the planet’s vast southern ice region. To expand their living space, a dedicated fleet that combined military, engineering and mining ships and gear wound their way through the ice and made way for new stations and uncovered untapped resources. It might have seemed like an insane project compared to building stations in the other territories of the Union, but the ice redoubt was also insurance against the worst case scenario. In case Ferris, Lyser and Solstice fell to the Empire in battle– then just as the Kingdom of Volgia fought the Empire to a standstill at the Northern Ice Wall, Solstice hoped to do the same in the Southern one, preserving communism for the future.

Those who picked through the ice, who lived in the slowly built-up stations and in the glacier mining works and in the subsistence tunnels– people like Dominika lived rough out there. Sameera could imagine that Dominika might have lived in a place just like this for some time. A hole in the rock in which there was oxygen and plastic shelters and dim LED clusters overhead. Where there was soup and hard work and bitter cold and always more ice sheets to cut through. Supplies were tight, local production limited, and rationing harsh.

“But–” Dominika had more to say, after a moment of silence.

She spoke in a low voice, a bit conspiratorial, between themselves and away from the villagers. “In the ice frontier, the years I spent there, I could see things getting a little better, year by year. I saw more stations go up section by section, I saw tunnel redoubts spread out and get better and more machines. Mining works became safer, warmer. There was more food stockpiled and more food served. We got better weapons and tools. More and more people came in seeking the frontier life, coming out of their own accord.”

“It was similar in Lyser.” Sameera said, matching her tone. “People didn’t want to work in the agrispheres at first, it was tough and unsafe and there was a sense that people did it just because it had to get done. But Jayasankar went through huge efforts to make agrisphere life appealing, and now it has the reputation that it has. People love to go to work in the farm communities now– they are aspirational. The government put in the effort.”

“Do you understand what I mean, Sameera?” Dominika asked, meeting her eyes again.

“Yeah– how long has it been since these folks saw their livelihoods improve?”

“Right.” Dominika said. “And– are they here of their own accord?”

Both their troubled gazes met briefly and just as quickly seemed to break apart.

In light of the hardships here, Sameera’s concerns about her mixed race felt petty.

As happy as the people looked to be holding their festival in their little village–

This was a place where they had been cast out to and trapped by others.

And worse– they had no control over it and could do very little to make it better.

Thinking about that, she felt that Homa had been the best of them–

Helping out here while the two of them sat around on the ship wasting time.

Something caught Sameera’s eye, at the edge of her vision– Dominika shook her head.

“Don’t fall into that self-sacrificing streak of yours again.” She said.

“I’ll try not to.” She said. “Do you think these folks see me as a Shimii or a Loup?”

“Ask them.” Dominika said. “But don’t judge yourself or them before you do.”

Sameera grunted a bit. It was not so easy as this hard-headed Katarran thought!

However, she also couldn’t help but laugh a bit at how blunt Dominika was.

Dominika watched her break out into unveiled laughter and grinned a little herself.

They wandered back over to the stage, besides which most of the village and the festival events seemed to be arranged. There was an enormous table being prepared that Sameera presumed was for the feast, and beside it there were tables occupied by seemingly popular figures in the village. There was the girl who met them at the gates, who seemed to be getting the most attention by far, including from Khadija and Sieglinde; and there was another girl on the table beside her who was responsible for the mehndi on the arms of seemingly everyone around them. All of the kids running around had mehndi now.

Sameera had a brief of fancy of getting one, but she hesitated for a moment.

Dominika however had no hesitation and marched up to the table, pulling her jacket off one arm. As the one Katarran in the vicinity she really stuck out among the villagers.

But she clearly acted without any such reservations.

“Can I get some green flowers?” She asked, stretching out her arm to the lady at the table.

Sameera winced a bit, expecting the mehndi girl to be offended– but she laughed instead.

“Hah, I like the enthusiasm! Comin’ right up!”

And set to work immediately, taking out a fresh container of dye with which to work.

“My name is Sareh.” Said the mehndi artist. “What do you do for a living?”

She made some small talk while preparing the dye and throughout her careful work.

“I’m Dominika. I work as a deckhand on a ship.” Dominika said.

“Ah, I see, I see. Rough work but you get to see a lot of places– right?”

“Exactly. I live for the adventure.” Her voice was so painfully emotionless saying this.

“What kind of ship do you work on, if you can say?”

“Transport ship. Moving people and things on the cheap.”

“Do deckhands have to lift heavy stuff? Can you pick up a huge crate with one hand?”

“I might be able to do it because I’m a Katarran– but deckhands just clean and fix stuff.”

“You know Homa, right? I remember Baran saying she was there to introduce you.”

Sameera briefly worried Dominika would not have the cover story straight–

“She is one of our cherished clients. We have a professional relationship.”

–she should not have been worried; Dominika was a no-nonsense kind of gal after all.

It did surprise her how politely the surly Katarran kept up the chat with Sareh.

“There, let me know what you think! You can be as critical as you want!”

Sareh looked delighted with her handiwork, the flowers and vines across Dominika’s arm.

Dominika smiled, a rare, small smile. “It’s pretty. No criticism here.”

After a moment, Sameera approached, and Sareh seemed to immediately take notice.

“You’re with her right? You’ve got a warrior’s look to you! How about I put something cool and tough on your arm huh? I’ve been wanting to try out some new designs!”

Sareh’s ears wiggled a bit, and Sameera’s raised up, briefly stunned at the proposal.

“She’s–” Dominika hesitated for a moment. “Yes, we’re together.”

Sameera was even more surprised by that than by Sareh calling to her.

Given that acknowledgment, she could not afford to be shy now– she gave Sareh her arm.

“I’m with her, yeah. My name is Sameera. Feel free to give me anything.” She said.

Sareh grinned. “You won’t be disappointed.”

For Sameera’s earthy skin, Sareh turned to her lighter dye and began the design. Around the fingers, the design was thick with lines, but became more precise behind the knuckles. Sameera watched, quiet at first. In her heart she felt a bit disquieted, because at first Sareh was not making conversation like she did with Dominika. She focused on her art instead.

Sameera wondered if this reflected on herself at all–

that maybe Sareh did not want to talk to her–

because– she was–

“–sorry I’m so quiet, the start is important. Do you also work on a ship?” Sareh asked.

–what she was, apparently, was still too foolish.

“Yes, I’m a deckhand just like my companion here.” Sameera said, a bit relieved.

“Ah– then I take it you’re also working on ships in pursuit of adventure?”

“Adventure and the paycheck.” Sameera said, trying to sound confident again.

“Tell me something interesting about you! I love keeping little stories from travelers.”

Sameera smiled outwardly but hesitated as to what she would say.

Some petty and bitter part of her spoke first, and spoke her pervasive insecurities–

“I’m actually a Loup–” She fumbled her words and restated, “Half-Loup. Half-Shimii.”

She tried to keep her tail from moving while she spoke– what if it moved like a Loup tail?

Sareh did not even look up from the strokes of her pick. “That’s interesting!” She said.

For a moment, Sameera was a bit disarmed. She had not expected such a response.

“It can be a bit tough. I don’t know anyone else like me.” Sameera said.

“Yeah– I get it.” Sareh said. “Our cultures have all these reasons to separate people out, Mahdist and Rashidun, Shimii or not. But you know, Homa is part Imbrian, but to us, she’s our kin too. I’ve never had any reason to exclude her from anything. She’s one of us too. If you want to be our kin as well, we will never demand your parentage. And I’m sure there are Loup who will feel that way too. It’s just about finding people who aren’t up their own–”

“–language.” Baran interrupted and glanced at Sareh from the next table over.

“–if you’ve been listening, you should give some encouragement.” Sareh grumbled.

“Madame Sameera, there is no Shimii who is too little Shimii to be welcome here.”

Baran and Sareh both gave Sameera the same little smile before continuing their labors.

Sameera, meanwhile, struggled to hold her composure because she wanted to weep a bit.

Her tail did begin to wag just a bit.

“Have you ever used a Diver for anything, madame Sameera?” Sareh asked. “I know on some ships the sailors are certified. It’s a really silly fantasy, but I’ve always wanted to learn to pilot one even for grunt work. They look so cool in the videos and the posters.”

So casually shifting the conversation away– Sameera felt such a strange mix of emotions.

She felt more at home here than she had for a long time in many other places.

Sameera had been running away too much– but here, home somehow caught up to her.

“Ah, no, no Divers. Our company doesn’t own anything fancy.” She said.

“Maybe someday. Anyway–” Sareh said. She lifted her pick and gestured to the arm.

On the edges of her fingers and hand, intricate swirls like flames surrounded a design shaped like an intricate curved sword in a very intricate scabbeard on the back of her hand, extending into her arm. Mehndi usually had either very feminine or very whimsical designs, since they were initially meant to be worn by brides and by girls debuting or coming of age. Sareh’s predilections came through in the design, it was a bit gaudy and a bit silly.

Sameera loved it, however. She showed it off to Dominika, who smiled at her.

“You look undoubtedly like a real Shimii warrior now.” Dominika teased.

“Give me a break.” Sameera said.

But she was smiling so widely that she nearly wept.


“Incredible! It tastes so good! This is almost hedonistic!”

Homa stared at Outis, who was enjoying a kebab so very much.

Chewing loudly, making all manner of moaning sounds, it was almost indecent to behold. She was probably not putting on an act, but the sheer joy she seemed to derive from simply eating a kebab– it made Homa want to ruin her fun by saying it was just beef and spices. There was something a bit irritating about her reaction. However, Homa was entrusted to show her around the village and had to be careful what she said. She had to suppress her own petty and cynical responses lest she misrepresent the villagers.

“Homa, is it permissible to have another? May I indulge?” She clapped her hands together.

“I mean– I don’t see why not–?” Homa was quite confused at the sudden begging.

Outis grabbed two more kebabs from the amused auntie behind the kiosk.

She handed one to Homa and watched expectanctly for a moment as Homa took a bite.

As delicious as when she ate one in the morning–

However, what she was really looking forward to now was the feast being prepared.

And the dance that seemed soon at hand judging from the preparations on the stage.

Rose petals scattered across the wood, and colored banners and streamers went up.

Baran and Sareh had left the tables with their unique diversions– maybe to fetch Kalika.

“Will there be a different type of performance soon? I see they are decorating everything more ornately and I saw people carrying more instruments to the backstage. But I like the minimalist show they have right now. The woman on the stage singing with the musicians just sitting there behind her– it reminds me of the plays that Katarrans put on.”

Outis looked at the stage with a certain fondness in her eyes.

Homa was unsure of how to read her. Her clothes were not shabby, she had a good jacket that was clearly fitted for her, and decent pants, and her shades were a simple style, and did not look expensive, but they were not trash either. Everything about her seemed to slip through the cracks of Homa’s ability to read class. She claimed to have been subsisting on rations, but she was well-dressed, and comely. Her skin was fair, and she had lipstick and perhaps concealer on, maybe even eyeshadow under those shades– her features were sleek, attractive, she was well kept and physically fit, with good shoulders.

Like most Katarrans Homa had ever met, she was probably good for a fight.

But she also just looked like any tourist and sounded like a bit of a weirdo besides.

What she said interested Homa– she felt compelled to make conversation.

“You know– I was unaware Katarrans had such traditions.” Homa said.

Outis looked at her with a sudden amusement.

“Of course we do! How do you think that we entertain each other on long voyages with nothing afforded to us? Minimalist theater. Nothing but an object to stand on, and the power of the voice and imagination. Kōmōidía! Tragōidía! The legends of warlord and mercenary alike, transmitted from crew to crew– one aspires to be spoken of in such a way!”

Flamboyant gestures and flourishes accompanied her speech. She winked at Homa.

Homa wondered whether if Outis had been the teller of any such tales herself.

She had the energy for it, certainly.

However, it made sense– and it also helped Homa to relate to her more easily.

Even with all of the Katarrans she knew, she was still fighting the stereotypes she learned.

Outis wasn’t just “some Katarran”– she was Outis, a woman who seemed to love theater.

She could imagine her huddled up in an awful Katarran ship telling stories to pass the time.

Not too dissimilar to what many villagers likely got out of holding this Tishtar.

No matter where they were or who they were, human beings needed some diversions.

This was one of many things that tied all of them together.

“Maybe someday, I’ll have a chance to see someone tell a story like that.” Homa said.

“If you ever go astray and end up with some Katarrans, certainly!” Outis laughed.

Soon enough, as Outis had realized, the festivities reached their highest stage.

First, the Tazia was lifted off the stage using a kind of palanquin– Sareh returned for the purpose of helping to haul it, and Imam Al-Qoms also assisted, along with some of the bigger aunties. Homa realized then why there were worries about its structural integrity, but it held up to being lifted, and seemed to hold up to being hauled off the stage.

From the stage, the Tazia was to be carried to the masjid.

Along the way, everyone in the village got to touch it, to pray near it, to watch it go.

It moved through the center of a growing throng. Making its way down the street.

Many of the older women were deeply affected by its passing, openly weeping.

There were loud cries in Fusha, perhaps bits of prayer Homa did not understand.

Swept up by the emotions of the adults even the children stilled and cried at its passing.

Homa understood it to be a mausoleum in effigy– so they wept for their beloved hero, Ali.

Such was the outpouring of emotions that even Homa felt like weeping suddenly.

All of the crying rippled in her guts, and the world was suddenly flooded with color. Around everyone, the color was so intense, and they imparted the color upon the Tazia, their green and yellow and red and black cries collecting in the monument– and becoming a soft, gentle white as if cleansed within the structure, which glowed– Homa saw it glow right in front of her eyes– and that maelstrom of all of their emotions was like a song of its own–

But she blinked– and these images seemed to disappear suddenly–

And she found herself holding her necklace as she had become habituated to doing.

Once the Tazia was set down in front of the masjid, Homa heard a sudden glee–

Moving like a wave from the people closest to the stage to the ones farthest.

They gestured with delight in what they saw– they prompted Homa to turn too–

Up on stage, the singer and the musicians had vanished, and there were two figures.

One was Baran, holding a harp, smiling, and gently beseeching the audience to quiet.

Doing everything that she could to stand with grace on her bad leg without flinching.

At her side– was the graceful figure of a woman, taller, leaner, gentle black on yellow eyes brushed with a touch of wine-colored pigment, inviting red lips curled into a proud little grin. Her hair was partially covered by a long, dark blue veil, but much was still visible, a purple ponytail framed by a pair of horns. Wearing blue clothes that matched her veil; long sleeves, a high neck, simple yellow embroidery forming geometric patterns across her chest and flanks. Gaps in the fabric exposed some of the upper back and belly in angled cutouts revealing starkly pink skin; a long and covering skirt from the waist down completely hid her long, graceful legs. All of the patterns and decorations brought emphasis to her limbs.

She wore a single black glove that seemed out of place with the rest.

And for her first act, she removed the glove, to reveal a mechanical prosthetic.

More intricate in its design than Homa’s, less skeletal, delicately buttressed carbon-fiber.

Nevertheless, its articulated digits, decorated with mehndi, seemed to beckon the crowd.

Beckoning Homa, who started to move closer to the stage, paying little heed to Outis as she walked in her trance. She moved through the crowd, and everyone parted to allow the awe-struck girl to move closest to the stage, some encouraging her and others smiling. Through the throng of once-mourners who now looked upon her so warmly, Homa arrived at the foot of the stage, and looked up at the woman in blue who was to begin her dance–

–of course, it was Kalika.

Kalika Loukia up on the stage–

And she was the most beautiful, captivating sight Homa felt she had ever seen.

In the center of that stage on the dim little village, a spotlight seemed to shine suddenly.

Baran retreated further into the shadows while her fingers plucked the strings of the harp.

From behind even her, came a drumming sound, a drumming on goatskin, and metal clicks.

As if carried by the melody, as if the drums were the beating of her heart–

Kalika came to life on the stage, seamlessly breaking into dance.

Building in intensity, her bare feet rose and fell on the stage in soundless piroutte, so precise and practiced her footfalls, while her arms seemed to weave the air in front of her. Her dance proceeded from full-body movements to hypnotic lifting and dropping of the hips and chest, to precise motions made with only her arms, with only her hands and fingers. It was as if the progression of the chords and the beat washed over Kalika from each step, up her torso, to her arms and seemingly carried to each digit in her gestures, off each fingertip.

Her movements captivated Homa completely–

She would spin once with her arms wide and then pull them close, to cover the face, while gracefully separating them, with a confident gaze slowly unveiled. She would cross her wrists, flutter her hands like a bird’s wings while slowly taking a shallow bow, before rising suddenly, spreading them out as if casting something into the air. In her every move, there was that flowing of states, precision and release, tension and freedom, slow deliberation and wild passion. Her body became its own instrument, joining the sound–

Homa had seen this before– she had seen this before in her dreams–

In the middle of that spotlight Kalika danced as if alone but–

Always, Homa had been watching her from right below, her heart soaring.

To her surprise–

Kalika suddenly dipped close to the edge of the stage–

And brushed the cool fingers of her prosthetic across Homa’s cheek.

With the briefest flash of a smile, she seamlessly transitioned to her next dance move.

As if it had always been intended– as if there had been no artifice–

Natural as the string-sound of the harp, natural as the beat-strikes on the drum–

Homa stood speechless and could not help but to smile.

Not just at Kalika and the beauty and skill of her dance, and at the music–

There was also a great and undeniable beauty in the fact that Kalika, a Katarran, was up on that stage perfectly performing a Shimii dance in a Mahdist festival. For the mixed race Homa there was a certain miracle in that. For a moment, so many people were captivated by that woman whom in their own arrangements they would not have had likely cause to ever see, that woman with her odd-color skin and eyes and her horns. Her beauty would have been lost on all of them and would have been lost on Homa also, but in that moment–

They were defying the prejudices that ruled the world around them.

Watching that dance, Homa felt strangely free– free of worry, free of burden–

And free to be herself, Homa Baumann, mixed race with limbs half amputated.

It was different than her dream– it was better than any of her dreams–

Up on that stage was the dream that she would have never let herself dream before.

She was the person who changed Homa’s life.

No accusing light would shine upon her yearning and no blood would spill from her hands.

Amid the spellbinding movements of Kalika’s body up on that humble festival stage–

Homa was no longer someone who viewed herself as defiled by her circumstances.


After the dance, the feast table was unveiled in all of its glories.

“Have as much as you like! There’s enough for everyone!”

A flamboyantly dressed Conny beckoned villagers and visitors alike to feast their eyes and fill their stomachs. She talked up each item on the table. It was a spread like they had never seen, and even Homa hardly ever saw so much food in one place, even in Madame Arabie’s properties. There were plates of hummus speckled with garlic and pickles; piled high with flatbread that still smelled of the oven; slices of grilled meat encrusted with a zesty paste of nuts and oil and vinegar; pots of stewed meat in a bright red tomato gravy with leek and prunes; bright green soup with spinach and leek and barley; and most captivating of all were the desserts. Plates of bright yellow halwa in the shapes of moons, stars, and a centerpiece in the shape of the tazia itself, flavored and decorated and even colored with rehydrated and dried fruits and nuts, with rose water and sugar syrups and chocolate.

Homa stood captivated by the food but only briefly.

While everyone else began to make up plates and to move aside for others–

She sidestepped the table entirely, squeezing through to the back of the stage.

There was someone she now hoped to see more than a plate of meat.

Behind the curtains in the back of the stage there was a platform where the instruments and various other acoutrements were laid out for the folks who would be performing, whether in view of the stage or hidden behind. Sitting on the edge of this platform, hidden from the sight of the villagers, her long legs and bare feet hanging off the raised structure– was Kalika, still in her dancer’s garb, save for the veil which she had taken off.

Homa found her laughing and smiling as she sat, catching her breath still.

“Kalika!” Homa called out, unable to contain her own smiling face.

Kalika glanced over to her, and her lips spread into a bright and joyous beam.

“Homa! You look so pretty! I was so surprised to see you dressed like that.”

“I was just getting into the spirit. You– you were amazing Kalika!”

Homa approached the platform. Kalika extended a hand and helped her climb up.

Then, she hooked her arm around Homa’s shoulder and pulled her cheek to cheek.

Sitting side by side behind the curtain, staring at the distant rock wall, laughing.

“It felt amazing.” Kalika said. “I had not done something like that in such a long time. I was surprising myself with some of those moves!” She made some of the motions with her hand that she did on stage, carefully lifting her hand in time with music that was no longer playing and gesturing over her own face. Carefully demonstrating the technique. “Moving so rapidly and deliberately, in such a rehearsed way– I can still feel it like there is an energy brimming under my skin that wants to get out. It was fun! I hope everyone enjoyed the show.”

“They better have enjoyed it!” Homa said. “It was incredible, Kalika. I was speechless.”

Kalika shut her eyes and smiled at Homa. Was her face perhaps blushing just a bit?

“Have you been having fun today?” Kalika asked.

Homa smiled again, perhaps more easily and casually than ever.

In that moment, she was all smiles.

“I’ve had a great time. I’ve had so many kebabs, and Sareh gave me a mehndi.”

She showed Kalika her arm, and Kalika in turn showed Homa her own in detail.

“Who knew that girl was so artistic?” Kalika asked.

“Right? Shes a bit blunt but she’s actually really creative.” Homa said.

“Everyone here is rather amazing.” Kalika said. “I almost wish I could stay.”

Homa felt like her heart caught in her chest for just a second.

Could she ever stand to lose Kalika–?

“Me too.” She said– not entirely honestly–

“But–” Kalika took Homa’s prosthetic hand with her own, entwining their fingers.

“We’re both going to the same place, aren’t we Homa?”

Implicitly, all of this time– Homa had been acting– she had already decided–

She was a communist now– along with all of the people of the Brigand.

“Yeah. We’re going to the same place.” Homa said, eyes tearing up.

Though she did not entirely understand what that meant, she knew that she had already decided to entwine her fate with that of that mysterious ship and all the strange, kind people that worked aboard it. She knew that had been the case ever since she accepted the doctor’s kindness, and the Captain’s sincerity, and most of all, Kalika’s endless, inexplicable and sometimes vexing support. As much as she pouted and rebelled– as much as she feared for her life– she felt that she both owed them, and had nowhere to go– but also–

–she felt that she wanted to be at their side because they were capable of change.

Homa, herself– she had already changed because of the opportunity they gave her–

Perhaps only a little– perhaps only the tiniest microgram of change.

She had changed enough, however, that leaving that ship was out of the question.

And leaving Kalika behind was an even more frightening prospect.

For a moment the two of them locked eyes. Tenderly– their gazes also changed–

“Homa– on the day that I met you in Kreuzung– this will sound so silly, but–”

Kalika had begun talking, but Homa moved first on her own accord, pressing on her.

Nearing her face, brushing her cheek, and taking her lips into a kiss quickly reciprocated.

In that moment their hearts entwined as tightly as their steel fingers.


Outis stood in front of the feast table, picking out small amounts of food with a smile.

She thought she had what was a normal and reasonable plate of food on her hands.

Along the way, however, another woman in line looked at her plate and got her attention.

“Madame– it’s truly okay to eat your fill here. Please don’t hold back.” She said.

When Outis looked down at the small scoop of veggies, the one piece of meat–

“Ah, thank you. I am just– used to being frugal.”

Unused to having such unrestricted access to food without the Warlord’s say-so, she had unwittingly fallen back into old habits. So with the blessing of the people in the line, she went back through the feast table until her plate was actually full. Once it was, she walked away, picking at it. Everything was delicious, but her mind became just a bit preoccupied.

These people don’t have so much that they can afford to give away.

It was a bit puzzling– when she grew up, it was not uncommon to conspire to kill another numeroi just to have at their rations for a bit. Here, these Shimii who lived in the roughly hewn rock in the outskirts of an actual town, visibly deprived of space and opportunity by the Shimii outside those gates– they still gave everything they had not just to each other but total strangers. This was a far sight from how the Imbrians had always behaved.

Nowadays it was not all bad in Mycenae– the Warlord had cleaned up a lot.

After purging the corrupt Synkletos, and killing all of their families and households–

Those were years when Odyssia– Outis– was able to eat better.

Enough to be able to make friends for less selfish reasons than cheating them out of food.

Perhaps that was why she had opted to be partisan toward Astra Palaiologos.

Where she went, plenty seemed to follow her– her people were treated well.

Would Astra ever be so charitable, however, if she were in these people’s position?

And– would any of them? If another tragedy took everything from them one more time?

If they were rendered powerless?

She grabbed a skewer and tore off a bit of meat from it with her teeth.

It was so savory that it nearly brought tears to her eyes.

Well– the Warlord is the best hope we have ever had of creating a future for Katarre.

Perhaps Katarre would never look like this– perhaps they would never smile like these Shimii could even amid their wretchedness. In the wake of a thousand year history of tragedies so cyclical that they felt inescapable, they sang, they danced– and so did the Katarrans– and maybe they got ready for the next worst thing that would transpire. One could suppose that time moved on regardless, so one might as well enjoy today while it lasted–

Outis dipped the meat in sauce for the next bite.

When she stood in place, she still tapped her feet as if impatiently.

“Ah– have I become too familiar with moving on regardless?” Outis mused to herself.

Hers was a path prophecized never to end– she had to keep moving, no matter what.

Or she would become powerless herself, without question.


“It was a truly magnificent Tishtar, wasn’t it?”

“Possibly the best one this village has ever seen. We’ll need to thank everyone properly.”

Stripped bare of both their clothes and their pretensions, in the glow that followed physical affection, Sareh and Baran laid on a futon together, holding hands still slick with their pleasure and staring at the ceiling. A mechanical fan spun its endless circle, gently turning away the sweat on their faces. They shared one thin blanket decorated with the shapes of masjids and moons. It was a bit chilly but their shared warmth kept them comfortable.

“How is your leg doing? Are you in any pain?”

“You asked before we–”

“I know– but we were a bit vigorous–”

“It’s fine, Sareh. You were quite tender with me. And it’s healing up quite well.”

Sareh felt she had gotten a bit carried away– it wasn’t their first time–

–that had been clumsier and faster, directly following the change in their relationship.

Regardless, neither of them were exactly experienced, so she had been a little worried.

For Sareh, it was still difficult to think that she let Baran be injured.

Worse to imagine that she might hurt her with her greedy little lusts.

They two of them and their dalliance represented part of the future of this futureless place.

Both feared they might see its engineered dead-end. Their courtship was always framed in the triumphs and tragedies of the little village in which they had grown up, discovered their true feelings for each other, and tried to live with vast, twisted contradictions behind everything. Both the feast and famine of their material lives and the whispers and shouts of their own affections. It was difficult not to think of the village when they thought of themselves and not to think of each other when they thought about the village. Both its needs and the dangers that threatened to unravel it completely.

Like the village, their courtship might be lost forever if handled carelessly.

Their biggest fears were unsubstantiated but possible– just like with the village.

For the moment, however, they had peace.

“Someday, I’ll treat you right, Baran, like how you should be.”

“At the moment, I am your wife, and I would say you are treating me splendidly.”

“I know– but you know what I mean. I care about you more than anything.”

“I know what you mean. But– don’t put so much stock in tradition, alright?”

As if to show there was no ill feeling, Baran turned and cuddled up closer to Sareh.

Laying in the bed like the husband and wife that they, technically, were for the day.

“We have to hold another Tishtar next year. I want to see you dance.” Sareh said.

“Kalika did fantastic, didn’t she?” Baran replied, her head laid on Sareh’s chest.

“She did– but I want it to be you! Up on the stage. A bigger stage! Brighter!”

Sareh lifted the hand at her side. Her other hand stroked Baran’s hair.

“That would be quite a sight. We will do it– I’ll dance like you’ve never seen.”

“Yeah! I can’t wait. We’ll absolutely top ourselves next time.”

They became quiet, the energy of their optimism always struggling against reality.

This year they had been able to hold Tishtar– a lot of good turns transpired to enable it. Despite some trials, the village, through God’s grace, made some new friends and welcomed a few returning ones, like Conny. Despite her stated intentions, Rahima had been absent from the festivities, but the supplies she had promised them did turn up without her.

They held an incredible feast and there was more than enough for all of their friends and neighbors to fill their bellies twice over. In the evening service at the masjid everyone told of the miracles of God on the surface, and the stories of the companions, and the gardens that awaited the faithful, which were full of the purest waters and most beautiful trees.

Everything had been beautiful, and the village had been injected with life again.

Was it possible to live every day in this fashion? Could this light and life simply remain?

“Sareh, what worries you in this moment? I feel your breathing quickening.”

Baran pulled even closer and laid her head in the center of Sareh’s chest for a moment.

Sareh smiled at the cheekiness of her wife.

“I’m just thinking about how many things happened the past few days.”

“It’s been lively, hasn’t it? I believe it can be that lively again in the future too.”

“You always read me so easily. Baran– I– I’m afraid I just don’t know how to make it happen.”

“It’s not up to us alone.” Baran said, lifting her head and laying closer to Sareh’s face again.

“You’re right.” Sareh said. “I just wish I could save you and everyone, by myself.”

“That’s foolish. You must at least rely on your wife.” Baran said.

Sareh turned in bed as well– the two of them locked eyes together and held hands.

They pulled in closer for a kiss, their tails entwined, chest to chest.

“Whatever happens, the villagers will remember and cherish this Tishtar and that is good enough for me right now.” Baran said. “Sareh– I will also remember and cherish it– as I cherish every moment I spend with you. Whether as villagers, as Mahdists, as lovers– we’ll be together Sareh. I promise you. I will never leave you. That future is certain.”

Though Sareh did not mention it in that moment– she understood Baran made her choice.

And she, too, would follow Baran no matter what happened.


Night arrived over the little village, understood only as time and the dimming of lights.

For many hours still there was the feast, and the evening service, and the kids ran around until their energy was spent. The aunties ate and told stories well into the night and attended prayers that lasted for as long as there were people with piety to spend. There was so much food that everyone in the village had their fill and more and the table only emptied when it was decided to retire plates going hours-cold as leftovers for different families.

Homa and Kalika, hand in hand, joined in the feast, and everyone congratulated Kalika for her dance. She was asked to reprise a few of her moves and gladly put on little impromptu performances for anyone who asked. Homa received heaps of praise and many thanks for her assistance, which she uncharacteristically accepted without equivocating in any way. Some people went as far as to say her appearance was a God-sent omen for the Tishtar.

She was asked to come back next year, and she said that she would try.

Khadija and Sieglinde remained fixed to the feast table and to a gaggle of aunties who vaguely recognized her surname, which she had not disguised. She made conversation among women only slightly older than herself, and faced the strange situation of being treated like a girl when she was used to being the older woman in the room. Sieglinde smiled and nodded along, unable to say anything much but seemingly enjoying the company.

It was easy to catch her fixating on Khadija all throughout the party.

Sameera and Dominika kept to themselves for a while, until Sareh and Baran joined them and made some small talk. When Sareh and Baran retired to their own quarters, they welcomed Homa’s friends to stay the night if they did not feel like traveling back to their ship. All of them took her up on it, briefly calling back to their ship to report.

Tishtar thus concluded. Before retiring, everyone left at the feast table led a cheer.

Tomorrow, they would put away all of the festival items.

But they would always remember their village as it was on Tishtar, full of color.

Color that glinted off of the necklace that Homa wore, unbeknownst to her.

When she retired for the night, she and Kalika held hands and slept close together.

They knew they had become more than friends or comrades, but had not had the chance to talk over what had transpired and what their feelings and desires truly were. Regardless, Homa held Kalika’s prosthetic hand in her own and fell asleep, and as she did so, her other hand lifted to hold her necklace. That dormant sliver of a once-venerated elder–

Color drifted into it and its ancient voice, unheard, whispered affectionaly–

We are so happy for you. We are glad you are well. Homa– we love you, Homa–

In her sleep, Homa smiled and dreamed so sweetly.


In the middle of the living room in a luxury apartment, a small object flew over a couch.

Shaped like a vertical hanging cylinder on four small rotors, with visible camera lenses marked by a slight glare dotting its body. There was a demarcation at the bottom end of the cylinder as if the lower third was a separate rounded-off square module. Sleek, unpainted metal coated in a dulling glaze so as to reduce its reflectivity; the quadrotor made very little sound as it moved. It was quick, and precise, and sturdy enough for its movement.

As a demonstration of its abilities, its lower half detached and hung by a cable.

Once it touched the floor, a pair of wheels emerged from the chassis and rolled the canister around the carpet, stretching the cable. It made a few quick laps between all of the couches, and the onlookers assessed the speed with which it could reach its target, and the length of the cable. It was also demonstrated that the drone could switch to a horizontal mode to fit in smaller spaces, and tuck in the rotors closer or farther from the chassis to maneuver.

Its payload, however, could not be discharged, even for a test– it had to be taken as it is.

“Inside the canister is enough G8 to cover a room. Isn’t it a lovely little gadget?”

Rubbing her hands together and practically salivating, with a tablet in her hands controlling this specific drone. A tall, skinny woman with long, golden-brown hair that fell over her shoulders, separated over her forehead, and soft and round cheeks twisted in a wicked sneer, round glasses perched on her nose. She wore an entirely black uniform, adorned with an armband, red with a white circle containing a black sun-disc, and her lapel had a metal pin resembling a braided square net, turned to resemble a diamond shape, with hooked crosses on its ends. This symbol denoted an engineering officer for the national socialist armed forces, and Henrietta Hermann was one such officer, and quite an example.

Atop her head was a peaked cap adorned with a totenkopf— Volkisch special forces.

“G8 viciously targets the nerves, inducing a complete neurological shut-down in seconds, with little hope of an antidote being administered. Once this transpires, multiple organ failure will be absolutely certain. It is technically possible to save a G8 victim by hooking them up to complete life support– but none of our targets will have this chance.”

“How long will the gas linger around? Is there a possibility for collateral?”

A strong but confident voice, unshaken by the grim subject matter.

“Absolutely not, mein gauleiter! The wonderful thing about G8– it lingers for only a few minutes before decaying into harmless compounds that wither away in the ventilation with no one the wiser. Our target profile will be quite contained, I assure you.”

Henrietta insisted; and Rahima Jašarević smiled approvingly.

“How many drones are ready to go?” Rahima asked.

“Enough to secure your rule, Gauleiter,” answered the blond woman ever at Rahima’s side, Bernadette Sattler, “Enough to carry out the operation even in the unlikely event that we meet any resistance. I explicitly ordered Henrietta to prepare for the worst.”

“Yes, indeed! Furthermore, it is possible to deploy the G8 tactically in combat.”

“I would strongly prefer not to be discovered, or to employ chemical weapons in battle.”

Rahima reached into her coat and produced a small tablet which she handed to Henrietta.

Henrietta picked it up, switched it on, and immediately grasped the contents.

“Quite thorough! Impressive work, milord! It more than suffices!” Henrietta said.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time, Hauptscharführer Hermann.”

A perhaps casual thought that many people had, once or twice in their lives, was whether and how and whom they would kill to get whatever they desired. How many people they hated and how much. In children it was viewed as an antisocial and threatening action to generate a list of enemies, an omen of a darker intellect than prior perceived; as an adult, it might even be used as evidence of a future action if such a list was revealed and if the hand that produced it was viewed as having the means to carry out reprisals. Nevertheless, it was not so uncommon to make enemies, and therefore, to keep their foul tally.

Ever since that fateful day when her governorship was stolen from her–

Ever since her colleagues and the system she upheld betrayed her in every possible way–

Ever since the destruction of all her dreams and beliefs in one overwhelming instant–

Rahima carefully populated her list. Names, addresses, and crimes. Hundreds of them.

There was no need to single out the manner of judgment– only death would expiate.

And now the Kolibri drones represented the sheathes containing her Long Knives.

Rahima watched the drone sway in front of her, its form quietly filled with killing might.

Her head briefly flashed with images that felt as if from a different person entirely–

Arriving at Aachen– all the political work– the hope for a future ever-brightening–

Conny, smiling at her, proud and supportive of what she accomplished–

Those two kids in their little village, holding their festival amid the hatred of everyone–

“You have twelve hours to prepare. We will begin the operation on my command.”

On not one single word did she hesitate and there was no pain in her heart or head.

A smiling Henrietta saluted with glee; and the stoic-faced Bernadette saluted with her.

Both quickly left Rahima to complete their assigned tasks.

There was nothing more that needed to be considered or to be thought or said.

Everything Rahima had ever been and ever seen would be destroyed and then remade.

“It will be ours– It will be us taking it in our hands once and for all.” She told herself.

Rahima knew– ever since she donned the black, there was no escaping from Destiny.

However– she would turn the black on all of those who debased and abused the Shimii.

Who had debased and abused– her self–

“They will suffer disgrace in this world.” Rahima murmured to herself, the beginnings of recitation. “And on the Day of Judgment, we will subject them to the torment of burning.”

And the Shimii would walk into a bloodstained future as they had many times before.


Flickering intermittent lamplight, dim, most of the diodes stricken black with age.

Casting a curtain of half-light between two support girders.

Partially illuminating the slight smile on Tamar Livnat’s face. Arms crossed in front of her, coat over her shoulders and fixed at the waist for warmth. In the deepest, oldest parts of Aachen were so many men had toiled for ores and died here forgotten. There was not even the dust of them left and so nothing to force recognition of this site as a grave. The site was chosen purely because of its advantages, but the irony was not lost on Tamar, how much this abandoned mine and its long gone corpses resembled her conception of Eloim history– the world a mass grave without evidence of what was taken from them.

Save that which she, and perhaps she alone, collected for them.

Tamar Livnat, the gravetender of the glory of Judea– until now.

“Is everything prepared? I would like the ugliness to be over before the day.”

Across the girders, in third-light if Tamar’s was only a half–

There was a jovial, euphoric grin that met Tamar’s query with an unrelenting glee.

At first appearing as if detached from a face, until the owner took a step closer.

“The goyim stand no chance, Manhig. We shall give them quite a show before their defeat.”

From the darkness approached a woman in a white military uniform, pristine despite the surroundings, decorated with a blue armband upon which there was a white star. Such stars, blue and white, adorned her uniform as well in many places, and she had two which served as earrings. Her tidy, black hair fell over her shoulders and down her back, and she had tidy bangs which framed a pretty and fair face– one that was distorted by the sheer vehemence of her sneer, which seemed to seize every facial muscle as she cackled to herself.

Tamar’s lips did not rise nor fall a bit in response.

“You are a good child; you are all good children. I believe in all of you.”

“Your praise elevates me,” replied Menahem Halevi, eyes twinkling with their own stars.

Tamar would not fool herself as to the magnitude of the task ahead.

The Eloim were a dead people who had lost even their true name–

All of them had lost the true comprehension of what their rituals and teachings even meant–

A decaying body with an empty brain.

However– this body was about to receive an injection of life, and a calling, a rallying cry.

“Next year, in Yerushalem— my dear Aluf Menahem.” Tamar said.

Tamar buried the weak part of herself when her sister was mutilated by the fascists.

Now it was time for every Eloim to bury their weakness and unearth their lost nation.

Death begot life– and the deaths of all of those that they hated would revive the Eloim.

It was only a matter of seeing it through to the end, without mercy, without hesitation–

“It will be so– the Dibuqim will finally emerge.” said Menahem, rubbing her fingers.

Only a matter– of hating everything as they themselves had been hated.


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.7]

Atop a machine mostly covered by tarps, there was an exposed section of freshly installed hydraulics. A young engineer stood on a rolling work platform, covering the hydraulics with a piece of exactingly stitched armor plate. Their long, salmon-pink dyed hair partially tucked away into a bun within a fire-retardant synthetic wrap, and a protective mask covered their round, soft-featured face. A fire retardant jumpsuit and gloves protected their body, a bit short and a bit plush, not as toned as that of their more traditionally soldier-like companions but fit enough for duty. They had the strength and the stamina to pick up the heavy welding gun and the dexterity to precisely join the segments of plate. They bumped one of their breasts on the railings, and it smarted, but they were careful of the rest.

With an almost meditative focus, without shaking or flinching, they completed the weld.

They then removed their mask and hair cap to better appreciate the fruit of their labor.

Pink hair falling over their fair face, pushed aside by soft but skillful hands.

Valya Lebedova wiped the sweat off their brow and smiled at the freshly welded plate.

Running that gentle hand across the smooth join. This was some of their best work.

“It’s coming together. Soon we’ll test for seaworthiness.” They said to themself.

They had been keeping themselves quite busy since docking at Aachen.

While the officers and the security team were engaged with the United Front, the Brigand’s engineers were giving the ship and its weapons another tune-up, taking inventory, and running the stitchers day and night to resupply their stock of spare parts as well as replace worn parts. They were also continuing the work of building cooperation with the Rostock and its engineers– something made much easier by the invention of ZaChat.

All the while, Valya had been working in the hangar on the squadron’s Heavy Divers.

Working with machines suited them well. They considered themself an acceptable pilot, but not an exceptional one like Khadija, whom they could barely keep up with, or Shalikova, who piloted boldly and aggressively. Even Murati, who was also somewhat overshadowed by Khadija and Shalikova, was still stronger and more skilled in battle than Valya. In a mecha, Valya was a grunt, an additional gun. But with tools in their hand, and the time to spend, they could do work on the machines that was more unique than the efficient and routine maintenance taught by the academy and reproduced unerringly by the average engineer.

Valya had been out in there, in the sea, had been shot at, had shot back–

It was terrifying– but it imparted a personal knowledge of how the machine operated.

And what a pilot valued out of the machine, and how to optimize for those eccentricities.

An engineer working on dozens of Streloks had to be efficient, but Valya could be exacting.

Not only in tuning up and repairs– the Brigand across its battles had collected a stock of captured or surrendered enemy equipment, as well as broken-down hulls and other miscellany from their own damage and losses. There was a sizeable pile of metal to break down and reuse, as well as an entire hull that was surrendered by Sieglinde Castille. Valya wanted to do something with it– they had been working on assembling a brand new mecha working off these materials. To make use of the advanced hull Sieglinde brought in.

Whether or not it saw immediate use, they could always find a home for more machines.

Thankfully for Valya, Murati had been incredibly supportive of their ideas.

With assistance from the engineers, and Khadija’s support, they were given the time and space to work on engineering projects were it related to the Divers as a special member of the hangar crew. Khadija would have to have more standby time when out at sea because of this, as the first-line standby pilots were originally her and Valya– but she was nice enough to agree. Some of the burden was also taken up by Sameera, who volunteered to be on standby much more often. Valya was lucky to have such supportive comrades.

Everyone was careful not to talk about it as if Valya would be replaced and join the engineers. Valya knew Murati could not promise that, since the available candidates to replace anyone on the squadron were in a state of flux. Aiden had been demoted to a sailor, the Rostock could not spare more crew, and Homa Baumann was a big, ambiguous maybe. Valya had no illusions that they would be going out and fighting if needed, and they had no reservations against doing so. They were fighting a war and Valya was a soldier.

“Hey, are you going to marry that weld? You’ve been staring at it for long enough.”

Valya looked down at the base of the work platform, where a tall woman waved at them.

They smiled back at her. “Hey, let me have this moment!” They laughed.

Soon they joined their aunt Galina Lebedova on the hangar floor.

Galina was the Chief Technician overseeing all aspects of engineering and maintenance work on the ship. She looked the part– tall, muscular, broad-chested, wearing the standard work coveralls, but with her own flair too. She wore makeup, complimenting her round, friendly face, and when she was not engaged in work she wore the coveralls halfway down, off her shoulders. This exposed the bodysuit she wore beneath, and the impressive definition of her body. Her dark hair was dyed, much like Valya’s was, but with small streaks of blue.

Valya felt quite small near their aunt, but they were used to it.

The Lebedovich family was quite fecund, with Valya having many siblings and many cousins and many older folks and being among the smallest of their generation. They were spread out all over the Union. Valya was part of the generation that grew up with the Union’s ideal toward child rearing and was raised by the state more than by their parents.

Whenever the kids all got to visit their parents, and the parents’ own siblings and relatives joined in, the actual, massive scope of the family came into stark relief.

Nevertheless, Valya felt that they acquitted themselves well enough among their family.

After all, only two members of their family were on this suicidal black ops mission.

It would be an impressive bit of their resume if they came back, however!

“How is it coming along? Have you given it a name yet?” Galina asked.

“Not yet. I might entreat Murati or the other pilots to name it.” Valya said.

“Sounds like a fun idea. Maybe you could make it a ship-wide contest.”

“I’d rather not draw that much attention to the whole thing.” Valya said sheepishly.

Galina looked up at the tarp-covered mass, the machine Valya had been building.

“You’ve come a long way Valya. I remember when you were just a kid tinkering with a little quadrotor you won as a prize at school.” Lebedova said. She reached out and laid a hand on Valya’s head and messed up their hair. Valya protested only mildly. “Now you’re turning out to be a wizard with the spare parts here. Everyone is excited to see what you cooked up.”

Valya felt a bit nostalgic, recalling that little machine. They had largely forgotten it.

Life had been filled with projects for Valya, they had always been busy in school–

And once they were awed by the power of a Diver, there was no turning back from that.

Tinkering with rotor revolutions and weight-shifting on a drone was literally child’s play.

A Diver represented the power of the future. Murati could see that too.

Maybe– Murati could see it more than anyone.

After all, it was because of Murati protesting, that Valya had gotten practical pilot training.

Many, many years ago in the Academy– not that Murati knew that.

But it was this which led Valya to value Murati’s insights.

They turned to their aunt with a carefree smile.

“Well, they will see it soon! I honestly think I’ll have it ready in a day or two!” Valya said.

“Hmm. Has anyone pulled you aside and made you have any fun lately?” Galina said.

She leaned into Valya with a skeptical expression on her face.

Valya leaned back a bit. “I’m doing what I like, and I like what I do. So there’s no problem.”

Galina drew back with a sigh. “I just can’t help but notice it– with how busy you are–”

“Notice what?” Valya said.

“Well, at first I thought you might be getting on with Khadija, at least–”

Valya started waving their hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not– I haven’t ever–”

“I mean, I know that now obviously.” Galina said. She made an exaggerated sigh that clued Valya on to the fact that they were being teased. “In this ship where passions are always burning so bright– I bet your parents will be disappointed when you return home without bringing a nice girl to introduce to them. They are expecting some grandkids you know?”

“They can forget it! I don’t want one child let alone six!” Valya said, crossing their arms.

Chief Lebedova burst out laughing. Valya narrowed their eyes and stared critically.

Mighty thankful that the Union state and its laws could thwart their parent’s demands.

“Besides, I don’t see you settling down with a ‘nice sailor boy’ either.” Valya shot back.

“My time has passed.” Galina shrugged. “Now that I have fully disappointed all of my own close family with my sapphism and whimsy, I can live my life as I choose free of their dour expectations. I have left such things to the next generation. Please pick up the slack for me.”

“What are you even saying? I refuse!” Valya said, knowingly playing up their reticence.

Despite all the teasing, Valya got along well enough with Galina.

Though they would not admit it, Galina was someone they aspired to become.

Valya could empathize with Murati’s desire to someday command a ship.

Their ambitions, however, were fixed squarely on the shop floor and its machines.

Commanding respect and organizing all of the hangar tech as Chief Technician.

Everything tuned up to their specification; and an entire floor working on their designs!

Maybe the Union could promote Murati and take on Valya alongside someday.

And perhaps a refined version of the machine under the tarp could fill their hangar.

“Valya, I did want to talk to you about something serious.” Galina said. She looked around the hangar. Valya thought she knew what it was about– Gunther had taken the day and was out in the station. As soon as Galina got to speaking again, Valya had her suspicions confirmed. “Murati approached me about Gunther– I obviously don’t mind anyone lodging complaints for any reason. I just wanted you to know, he is ordinarily a very quiet and work-oriented guy. I know you have had to pick up the slack for him a bit, and it might feel unfair. But I think he just isn’t used to how spontaneous things have been on this ship. He is very– rules oriented. And a lot of disorder has been brought in. Can you give him a chance, for me?”

Valya shook their head. They didn’t mean to get directly involved in Gunther’s situation, but given how they worked closely with Murati, it was an easy assumption to make.

They would not pretend that they were unrelated.

“It’s not necessarily about it being unfair to me. I think it’s unfair to the pilots. Gunther is the frontline guy for the Divers, I know there must be a lot of pressure on him but if he makes a mistake or doesn’t get to something, it could be lethal for Murati and the others. It could be lethal for me. That’s why I am trying to take care of everything myself. If you, Murati and the Captain would formally make me an engineer, I would sort everything out.”

They stuck out their chest with a proud little smile. Almost sure that they were sparkling.

Galina sighed a bit, crossed her arms. After a moment, she replied. “I’ll talk to the captain. I’m sure someone from here or from the Rostock or hell, even the John Brown, could take your seat as a pilot. Aiden was not an especially useful addition to the sailing crew– I would have a lot less to worry about if I could fob off more work on you.” She winked.

Valya frowned in response.

Only at the last snide remark– they were excited at the prospect of joining the engineers.

“I won’t disappoint you– but I will complain to Semyonova if you are unfair to me!”

“I guess you’d still be in the officer’s union huh? What a pain.” Galina joked.

The two of them shared a bit of laugh to show the situation was not too serious.

“I can’t make any promises. But the hangar crew would love to have you.” Galina said.

Valya nodded their head. It felt like they were so close to their personal goals now.

They would do whatever was required of them for the mission to succeed. That much would never change. However, confidence did not come easily to little Valya– and with each passing day, they were becoming more confident in their mechanical skills.

Soon, they would prove that to everyone.


“Ah, master, you look so positively radiant in the captain’s seat.”

“Heh, I do, don’t I? I imagined this moment so many times. I bet I pull it off exactly.”

“Indeed, indeed. Have you thought about what you will say when you order a fusillade?”

“Absolutely. Of course I have thought about it. It’s integral to morale. Every word.”

“Then master, why not roleplay a full attack, so that you might perfect your technique?”

“You know, Aatto– you’re completely right. As I ask others to prepare, I too must do so.”

Murati was in such a vital mood she saw nothing silly about this proposition.

A Captain was a figure of strength, a symbol to the crew, just as much as their function as an element of battlefield control. Every aspect, every gesture, had to command respect and dignity. Such things as élan and esprit de corps might have sounded unscientific to some persons, but a soldier’s enthusiasm and sense of belonging to a professional unit had tangible effects on their performance in battle. Soldiers respected and motivated by their officers put on a greater effort to the bitter end than bored, abused grunts did.

So in the middle of the day at an unspecific hour of no other meaning–

Murati stood up from her chair, put on a deadly grin and pointed her index finger.

Her arm was perfectly straight, precisely parallel to the ceiling.

Just as her lips parted, with her bridge staring in confusion (rapt attention)–

The door opened, and a seemingly young woman in a suit and vest walked in nonchalantly–

“Murati–?” she said, but would not be heard until the weighty deed was finished–

“All guns, drown them out with thunder! Continuous barrage!” Murati shouted.

She then realized someone had entered, and her head suddenly snapped to the door.

Dropping her arm, staring. Feeling self-conscious and strangely surveilled.

At her right-hand, Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa stared as if seeking confirmation.

“Um, that was a simulation.” Murati said, waving her hands. “Forget it, carry on.”

Everyone on the bridge seemed to shrug off the moment pretty easily.

Murati, however, felt rather silly that she had been seen doing so by Euphrates.

Standing at the door, an impish grin on her face, with her arms crossed over her chest.

“Having a lot of fun with the big chair, Murati?” Euphrates said. “Let me join you!”

Without waiting for acknowledgment, she crossed in front of Murati and Aatto and sat down in the farthest seat at the top, where Erika Kairos sat if she was available. Somehow the blue-haired immortal Eloim did not feel too out of place in that position– Euphrates was a person who had earned Murati’s respect and affection as much as the Premier.

And this meant–

–it was rather mortifying whenever she saw Murati acting impulsively.

“Master, my entire body quaked with the power of your voice.” Aatto cheered.

“I– I don’t want to hear things like that.” Murati replied, averting her gaze.

Euphrates laughed a bit to herself and laid back on the chair.

She shut her eyes and looked rather placid for a moment.

Then– Murati heard her voice.

“Have you gotten better at speaking telepathically?” She asked wordlessly.

Her voice appeared soundlessly in Murati’s thoughts as if she herself had recalled it.

It was only because of her own psionic experiences she knew that it was telepathy.

Despite the method, the communications were surprisingly clear and easy to understand.

Even though the voice might have sounded a bit dim, the content was perfectly transmitted.

“I practiced with Aatto.” Murati said, launching the words right into Euphrates’ mind.

“Aatto is a good partner for you. Her abilities are limited but her resistance is strong.”

“I still don’t want to risk hurting her. We’ve only practiced telepathy, nothing else.”

“You’re such a considerate girl. Have you been able to practice vectoring at all?”

“Here and there. It’s difficult to control. I can’t seem to limit my strength at all.”

“You’re either uniquely gifted or uniquely cursed, Murati.” Euphrates smiled.

“Great. It’s an excellent title for my biography: Uniquely Gifted, Uniquely Cursed.”

Murati sank back into her chair with a gloomy expression.

Euphrates telepathically projected an image of herself patting Murati’s back.

Somehow, though the action had not been taken physically, Murati still felt a bit comforted.

“I did not just come here to bother you.” Euphrates communicated. “I wanted– to talk.”

Despite their soundless communication, Murati still felt the hesitation in her “tone.”

“I’m listening. You know if its for you, I can make the time.” Murati replied.

Euphrates put on a mischievous face. “Murati– putting it so straightforwardly–?”

“What? I don’t get it– why do you look so happy–?” Murati narrowed her eyes.

“Nevermind, nevermind. This is something serious.” Euphrates put a hand over her own chest and sighed a little bit. “I talked to Daksha Kansal. She and I have a long history– I have already told you some stories. But I don’t believe I ever communicated just how much I was once enamored with her. I admired her greatly. Unfortunately– we had a bit of a tiff and departed on bad terms. I don’t believe I can ever talk to her again in a private capacity. I thought you should know– she is someone involved with your past too, after all.”

More than that, Daksha Kansal was someone Murati distantly admired.

Every communist leader had something to teach– even Ahwalia unearthed certain lessons. Daksha Kansal led the Union through its tumultuous birth. She focused everything on reclaiming the prisons and slave work operations and turning them into homes and factories, and distributing the products to the exhausted, exploited masses for their survival.

Daksha Kansal said to the former slaves that it would take work and struggle still to live freely, rather than passively being free. Despite the pain and weariness, the people of the Union took up their tools again, for themselves, for their home, and worked again.

It would have been easy for the Union to collapse in those precarious days where so many people with nothing cobbled together everything they could for a fighting chance, and still found themselves lacking for so much after achieving the victory. Winning against the Empire did not bring plenty, it did not even bring enough, not right away– the hardship continued and there was always more work. Daksha Kansal knew how to keep the fire alive even after the the adrenaline died down and the people took stock of how difficult the future would be. They could not eat freedom; but they feasted on her hope.

Had the Murati of 979 A.D. been in that position she would not have known what to say.

Sometimes her mind reeled at the pain and immiseration around her in affluent Imbria.

She was a kid back then– her memory of how bad it was had been dulled by time.

Would she have fallen to her knees at the sight of the bleak prison the slaves inherited?

Daksha Kansal could have only been a colossus.

Even moreso to Murati, who received her emancipation and admission into the military, her childhood dream and desire, through the direct intervention of Daksha Kansal, Bhavani Jayasankar and Parvati Nagavanshi. These three figures flitted in and out of her life and worked in its background, and though she knew none of them personally, clearly she could only be biased about their importance to the world. Ideologically, she agreed strongly with them– and personally, she admired and sought their bravery and character.

But she also knew that they were human and fallible.

Daksha Kansal abdicated power and vanished from the Union, inexplicably.

Murati had not wanted to acknowledge that too much– but she could not ignore it.

As much as she wanted to believe in her as a simple hero, it was unscientific to do so.

She had to account for the fact that Daksha Kansal left them all in the middle of her work.

With that in mind, it was possible to want to disagree with her too.

Murati and Euphrates continued to speak telepathically.

“Are you afraid that I’ll take her side or something like that?” Murati asked.

“I am afraid of offending you. I am trying to be careful with my words.” Euphrates said.

“What happened is between you two. If you advocated for me or the Union broadly, I thank you for doing so. I don’t demand you disclose anything to me; and if you are afraid I would not be predisposed to believing you, well, you have nothing to fear. I’m not so ideologically rigid, you know? You are someone I esteem too– someone I swore to protect.”

Euphrates’ eyes drew wide again. She smiled. “Murati, thank you. I am touched.”

“It’s my honest feelings. I don’t agree with your positions all the time, but I admire the strength of your character. And I know you are someone who has suffered a lot, just like us. I’d be a pretty shameful communist if I turned my back on you out of blind idolatry. When you baptized me I felt your loneliness and pain– I want to do what I can for you, you know.”

Euphrates wiped her fingers gently over her eyes. She had shed a few tears. Seeing her like that almost made Murati weep too, but she held her own tears back. It would have seemed ridiculous for her to weep out of nowhere from the perspective of the crew.

So she held strong.

“Thank you, Murati. I am truly grateful. But– you should be careful how you speak.”

“Huh? What is this about? I told you these are my honest feelings.”

“If you tell a woman you’ve ‘sworn to protect her’– such a thing can be misunderstood.”

“What are you saying? There is no way to misinterpret that. It means what it means!”

“This is why everyone’s always gossiping about you…”

Euphrates sent her another mental image of herself patting Murati’s back.

Murati tele-projected back an image of herself with a serious expression.

“You know, I am thinking of starting a new project.” Euphrates said, this time out loud.

Out loud, physically, but their volume was still low enough to be semi-private.

“Sorry, I am not joining your new gang.” Murati said simply. “I have responsibilities here.”

“Of course, of course. I am not recruiting you. I just hope that I can continue to hitch a ride– and perhaps enlist your help in finding former colleagues of mine.” Euphrates said.

“You have to ask the Captain for a definitive answer– but I don’t think anyone wants you to leave.” Murati said. “I certainly do not. So I hope you can run your project here.”

“Don’t worry, it will be a while yet before we part ways.” Euphrates smiled.

She reached her out and physically patted Murati’s shoulder.

“I am not particularly proud of how my meeting with Daksha went. It– ended in a fight.”

She sent this message telepathically, resuming their mental correspondence.

“You fought?” Murati responded silently. “Like– physically?”

“We fought. It was a very emotionally charged argument. I lost myself. I truly regret it.”

Murati was briefly a bit speechless. This was the last thing she expected to hear.

Her own hand reached out, physically, and squeezed Euphrates’ shoulder in comfort.

“Did you win?” She asked telepathically. Trying to project a tone of levity to Euphrates.

For her part, Euphrates smiled serenely and said nothing more, leaning into Murati’s arm.

Though surprised by the display of affection, Murati allowed Euphrates to rest on her.


On the second day of the United Front deliberations, the delegates gathered to discuss the creation of an information exchange between the parties as proposed on the previous day. Familiar figures from the first meeting attended once again, although the mood was initially much more subdued than the brawling of the previous day. Taras Moravskyi and Tamar Livnat presided over the meeting, introducing topics and approving proposals, a formality; Zozia Chelik and Ksenia Apfel remained mostly quiet; Erika Kairos, Ulyana Korabiskaya, Eithnen Ní Faoláin and their adjutants stood in for the Volksarmee; while Gloria Luxembourg remained the only attending delegate of the Reichsbanner Schwarzrot.

Gloria looked rather bored, rubbing a finger on the table while Erika made a proposition.

“In my time with my esteemed colleagues from the south,” Erika said, gesturing toward Ulyana and Aaliyah on the table, “I discovered that the Union has methods for sending encrypted information through the Imbrian relay network while making the source difficult to trace without time-consuming and very specific scrutiny. Rather than sharing these protocols in full, and each developing a system independently– I propose we all collaborate on a platform built by one of our officers, known as ZaChat. Using ZaChat as a base, we have a means of quickly getting in touch with each other. We can at the very least use it as initial point of communication before switching to a more secure means. Along with the adoption of a cipher dictionary, we’ll be able to coordinate from afar, while the fascists will remain none the wiser. What do my esteemed colleagues think of this idea?”

“We would have to trial the program.” Tamar Livnat replied. “But I agree on the basics. A simple way to send encrypted messages, and a cipher to make those messages appear innocuous are both necessary. If you already have some technology we might as well use it– I doubt my comrades will want to use any Imbrian-made software for this task.”

“You can’t trust none of these newfangled networks.” Moravskyi said. “All that stuff was laid down by the Rhinean and Palatine megacorps! None of these portables and private computers and this ‘internet’ business is safe, not one bit of it! They are watching it all the time for any sign of dissent! But I suppose we won’t be able to move fast if we have to wait for actual couriers back and forth, so it’ll have to do. But I don’t like it one bit.”

“Comrade Moravskyi, perhaps you know a means by which our information exchange can exchange information without the use of computers? We would give that proposal some thought. Otherwise we must press on.” Tamar said. She sounded like she making fun of Moravskyi, but it was not entirely obvious– she was very careful and measured with every sound from her lips and every movement of her face such that it caused the listener to doubt whether she was being snide. Moravskyi did not seem to realize he was being criticized and remained quiet as Tamar continued with a smile on her face. “If the comrades in the Volksarmee would be so kind as to provide us systems with ‘ZaChat’ installed so that we might quickly get up to speed with it– we will agree to Erika Kairos’ proposal.”

“Absolutely. We will turn over a few devices to the delegates tomorrow.” Erika said.

After Erika’s proposal, there was little additional debate.

Everyone agreed that it was both necessary and smart to have a means to quickly share intelligence with one another and that it would enable them to act in concert to target Volkisch assets, or to protect each other’s assets. It was a good way to muster their full resources without imposing on each other’s autonomy or creating a chain of command that would be odious to the parties. These deliberations were rather uncontroversial.

Conversation turned to the uses of the information exchange.

What was before implied was openly discussed– the three groups should share intelligence with the aim of assisting each other in missions to degrade and destroy Volkisch assets and loosen their control over Eisental. This too was an uncontroversial idea. If they were only going to agree to send ZaChat direct messages to each other with no intent to stage any direct actions with one another then the deliberations were entirely pointless.

However, a debate eventually arose on the asymmetry between the parties in action–

“Both the Schwarzrot and Volksarmee have military or near-military grade vessels. The Eisern Front moves in civilian vessels– some of which are not even owned but chartered. We have very little naval potential, and we risk everything when we take to the seas. It was a gamble for us to appear at these deliberations– we don’t even have the luxury of keeping our papers fully up to date as we smuggle people from station to station and maintenance costs can be burdensome to us for travel.” Tamar had once again taken an active role. When she brought up this topic, it seemed to take Moravskyi by surprise. He had been designated the principal speaker for the Eiserne, but Tamar would always talk first, with that unflappable smile on her gentle and pretty face. “I believe it would be a show of good will from our comrades if there could be a provision for the Eisern Front to receive at least a single armed vessel.”

“You are using a lot of passive tenses.” Erika said. “Tamar, do you want us to procure that vessel? Do you want us to gather funds? Do you want us to undertake a mission to steal a vessel? You can and should be direct with your proposals. And also how does Moravskyi feel about this proposal? To which arm of the Eiserne would this vessel be transferred?”

Erika turned to face Moravskyi, who looked a bit confused about the whole thing.

“We aren’t suddenly going to switch tactics to fighting naval engagements.” Moravskyi said. “Our strengths wouldn’t change from getting one ship– we are still going to operate from within stations. So I guess Tamar is asking for her comrades to receive a ship. That’s on her.”

Being called out did not seem to dull Tamar’s spirit any. She continued to speak calmly.

“I apologize for not being clear. You are correct that my forces are still focused on station combat. I would still like for the Volksarmee to transfer a vessel to the Aerean Preservation Militia. Our forces are not going to become a naval powerhouse overnight, but having an armed vessel would help us to resist dangers to our forces during transfers by sea.”

“We refuse to transfer away any of our naval power.” Erika said. “Our prerogative is to be able to target and destroy Volkisch naval assets. We believe this will be crucial going forward. We can assist your forces with our naval power, much as you will assist us with your land forces. But we will not turn over one of our vessels to an unproven crew.”

“My– a show of the ample generosity of our partners, I suppose.” Tamar said.

Erika bristled at Tamar’s gentle, casually delivered sarcasm and prepared to reply–

“Don’t start another pointless fight. I’ve had enough of you people arguing.”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg finally spoke up, sounding childishly fed up.

“I will buy you a vessel and equip it with weapons. I have people for this.” Gloria said.

“I would have preferred the transfer of a Volksarmee vessel. They have captured Imperial military equipment that is tested and proven– which I am not sure you can guarantee. They also have equipment that blends in well with the enemy, which would greatly assist us in our sabotage and infiltration missions.” Tamar said. “For example, we could get a lot of use out of the ability of your miraculous little hauler to blend in plain sight.”

Ulyana fixed Tamar with a sharp gaze. “You must be out of your mind. It’s not happening.”

Tamar’s eyes briefly glanced over to Ulyana. Her lips still curled into the same little smile.

“Tamar, let’s not be unreasonable now.” Gloria said. “I will buy your group a vessel, any size, any equipment you need. You can even make the exterior hull ugly looking as you like.”

Her entry into the conversation as the unofficial arms dealer of the United Front settled the immediate tension, but Ulyana would not easily forget Tamar’s insinuations. Moravskyi did not interrupt the conversation, but when Tamar asked for the Brigand he did stare at her with shock. He must not have known the depths to which she might stoop– perhaps not even for what purpose. Regardless, it was agreed Gloria would supply a Cruiser to serve as an Eiserne Front flagship. It would be operated by the Aerean Preservation Militia.

Gloria agreed on a timetable for delivery.

With that messy episode settled, a conversation sprung about expanding the exchange.

“In a United Front strategy, it is assumed that we will not only work among ourselves.” Moravskyi said. “But we will join any workers who oppose the bourgeoisie– in this case, I assume we will try to assist any workers that are opposing the Volkisch Movement. I was thinking– will we extend our information exchange to fighters outside of the groups meeting here? Would we bring more people into the fold? Mother anarchy opens her arms to anyone willing to accept her, but I know the reds are more cautious than that.”

“I think you’ll find we are quite willing to work with anyone.” Erika said.

Tamar raised a hand to her lips and giggled just a bit.

“Yes, that much should be obvious, Comrade Moravskyi. They brought Republicans here.”

She pointed out Eithnen and Tahira with a mirthful expression on her face.

“You know what, lady? I’ve just about had it with your bitchy little attitude.” Eithnen said. “There’s no Republicans in this room. I hate the Republic of Alayze more than anyone. Sit your prissy ass down, shut your hole, and let the big guy finish a sentence for once!”

Eithnen correctly identified Tamar seemed to be needling Moravskyi as much as anyone.

Gloria stood up from her chair.

“Tamar, you chose Moravskyi as speaker for the Eiserne. Let him do the talking.” She said.

“Do not censure her!” Moravskyi said. “We anarchists are candid! We speak our minds. I appreciate that about comrade Livnat. I don’t want her to shut up, whether she insults me or engages in teasing. I’m a grown man, I don’t care. I want her able to speak however.”

Tamar merely shrugged in her seat but remained obediently quiet for the discussion.

Without Tamar’s interruptions, the rest of the United Front agreed on two points.

First, if it would be useful to a mission and the candidates were trusted, more people could be added to the information exchange, on either a temporary or extended basis. Zachikova would be asked to create provisional statuses with limited permissions and time-limited access that would self-terminate in certain conditions. Essentially, a status of informants who could send data without being able to see anything themselves, whose sessions were cleaned out on a regular basis, and who were kept at the periphery of the systems.

Erika Kairos agreed this would be implemented.

Second, the door was opened for more groups to completely join the United Front provided they shared enough of a semblance of worker-centered politics and had mission capabilities the Front could make use of against the Volkisch. Such solidarity would not be extended to groups without a rank and file and some level of organization. They decided a membership of at least fifty persons was needed to fully join. That would keep out small time ideological actors who were best retained as distant “informants”. Once a group joined the front they would added permanently to the information exchange, with their leadership having some access to add members of their organization as required for mission needs.

“Sounds good. Look at us, we’re like one big happy family.” Moravskyi laughed.

At this point, Tamar’s bodyguard, the tall, lithe, dark-haired woman in the dark coat, approached her and whispered something. Tamar smiled, listened, without turning her head, and waved her off. The bodyguard then left the venue. Ulyana Korabiskaya seemed to want to ask what that was about– but she seemed to think better of it after some consultation with her Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. The two of them passed on the opportunity to speak, and Moravskyi declared the resolutions formally approved by the Front.

With a decent amount of official work behind them, the front members started to chat.

They set the next day’s topic, which would be going over tactics and strategy, and what should and should not be on the table, as well as exchanging information about capabilities between the forces to better understand how each would deploy. Erika promised a demonstration of ZaChat. Finally, Moravskyi adjourned the meeting, but nobody left right away. Particularly because Moravskyi turned to Gloria with a pointed question.

“Hey, Miss Luxembourg.” He said, a bit derisively. “When are we going to see your mentor at one of these meetings? It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to debate that hag Kansal!”

“Hag?” Gloria narrowed her eyes, annoyed. “She’ll show up when she shows up.”

“Is she not going to show her face then? What a waste.” Moravskyi said.

“We hardly need any more social climbers in our midst.” Tamar said, cracking a little grin.

“What is your problem lady? I’ve put up with enough of your idle chatter.” Gloria said. Her saccharine facade had been largely absent in this particular meeting, where she hardly spoke. But now she was being ‘candid’ herself. “Daksha Kansal is a hero to all communists! She has better things to do than argue with the likes of you people! That’s why I’m here. So stop clamoring for her to appear if all you want is a target dummy for your petty and ancient grievances. We’re here, in the present, and we agreed to cooperate, so cooperate!”

“Gloria, do you know the history of the revolution that produced the Union?” Tamar asked.

“I know enough.” Gloria said. “Are you going to quiz me on it, schoolteacher?”

Her barbs were not as fierce, but her heart was clearly into the conflict now.

Ulyana and Aaliyah watched with mild annoyance as this all played out.

Erika Kairos sighed and crossed her arms and tried to stay out of it all.

“Do you believe the revolution was started by Daksha Kansal?” Tamar asked.

“Everyone knows that. Obviously. She was key to everything.” Gloria said.

“That’s what you all tell yourselves now.” Moravksyi said. “But it wasn’t the case.”

“How do you figure? Hmph. She was the organizer behind the General Strike!” Gloria said, passions enflamed. “That’s what she was imprisoned for! Everyone knows the history! She broke out and organized the slaves, leading to several bloody prison takeovers, plantation riots. The key moment was the uprising in the shipyards that are now Sevastopol and the uprisings in what is now Solstice, the control centers for the Imperial administration. The nascent Union took over much of the merchant marine that had been paralyzed in the Sevastopol and Solstice ports due to the panic in the Imbrian control centers. Kansal’s group also overran the magazines and distributed real armaments to the slaves. This is all history, and you can look it all up! So what do you all believe is the actual truth then?”

“Little lady, Kansal was not the first one to rise up.” Moravskyi said. “She was not even the second or the third. Solstice rose when the rest of the colonies were already fully rioting, and she took advantage of that. I know because I was there. I was there with her even.”

Gloria stared at Moravskyi but did not reply quickly anymore. She looked like it was dawning on her that she spoke with too much certitude and that perhaps there was more to the story than she imagined. She had the quiet and guarded expression of someone fearful to have appeared foolish. Now she must have been thinking how to spare herself.

Tamar took the opportunity to add on to what Moravskyi had declared.

“Not only that– but you should also examine how the oppressed slaves without means could have begun to revolt in the first place. Sure, they had the numbers, but how did the systems of the Imbrians fail to stop some starving prisoners? It was because the anarchists from Imbria, particularly Bosporus, had been working in solidarity with the slaves for years. They assisted the slaves by smuggling in tools and weapons and with technical assistance. They recruited collaborators from the Imbrians too. All of this before the so-called ‘revolution’ that Daksha Kansal would like you to believe that she fomented alone.” Tamar said.

Rhetorically flanked, Gloria stared at Tamar as if she had been trapped by her too.

“People flocked to her because of her role in the failed General Strike. Demagoguery was the only reason she took the revolution as her own in the histories. In reality there were more factors responsible than simply the titanic qualities of Daksha Kansal.”

Tamar looked once again rather sure of herself, and Gloria could not refute her.

Ulyana Korabiskaya did not hold her silence this time around.

“You anarchists are making a lot of insinuations– but you are explicitly unwilling to mention one important thing in all of your arguments.” Ulyana said, crossing her arms and staring down Tamar once more. “The actual, chronological, first slave revolt that exposed the vulnerability of the imperialists, overthrew station administrators and that secured arms, was not led by communists or anarchists. It was actually the Shimii Mahdist nationalists under Mogliv Omarov who rebelled first. They created the conditions in which further prison breaks happened. And Omarov organized his people himself by making use of the time and space allotted by the administrators to practice their religion. He was not assisted by either anarchists or communists– it was all Shimii on that first night.”

Tamar’s smile slowly melted away. Moravskyi suddenly looked every one of his years.

Ulyana continued. “I know because I was there too– as a matter of fact, I was the one who freed Daksha Kansal, Bhavani Jayasankar and Elias Ahwalia from their cells. I was sixteen years old and I had been organized and prepared by them. I lost all of my family and so many people I fought alongside. I fought for everyone’s freedom, just like you, Moravskyi– and you, Tamar Livnat, should think twice about your rhetoric. Out of anyone in the room it has been you who has sounded the most inclined toward ‘demagoguery’ today.”

Omarov had been first; but anarchists, communists, and simple folk, all threw open prisons.

Enough people did so to succeed in the end.

Ulyana opened those doors and knew better than anyone the order of those events.

She would not let anyone forget those nights.

That winter of their souls in 958 that was freezing cold not physically but psychologically.

“If Mogliv Omarov could work with the North Bosporan and Volgian communists, and even become a professed communist himself– what are we fighting among ourselves for?” Aaliyah said, suddenly backing up Ulyana. Ulyana looked surprised that she had spoken but on the verge of tears, seemed to appreciate the help. “None of us have any power over each other or over Eisental. We’re as much in cages as back then. We need to focus on breaking out of the cage first and cease all of this bickering and confrontation. Can we agree to that?”

Ulyana looked across the table at the anarchists. Tamar briefly averted her gaze.

Even Moravskyi looked a little cowed by the stories being told.

“I agree with them.” Zozia Chelik finally entered the conversation. At her side, Ksenia Apfel seemed to pay attention for the first time as well. “I did not come here to have school level ideology debates. There are twisted, brutal people in control of this nation who will stop at nothing to kill us all. That is the most urgent issue. I think we had some productive discussion today, but lets table the history lessons. We can all kill each other after we kill the Volkisch.”

Ulyana flinched a bit at her nonchalance, but the morbid joke got a laugh out of Moravskyi.

“Bah.” He said. “You’re not the only one with bad memories of 958 and 959 though, Ulyana Korabiskaya. But nevertheless– I respect that you were there and saw it all. I can’t and will never respect Daksha Kansal, but I will put it aside out of my respect for your deeds.”

Moravskyi reached out a hand across the table and Ulyana gave it a curt shake.

He then reached out to Gloria, though without the praise he had given Ulyana.

Nevertheless, he got a diplomatic little shake out of her as well.

There was no further discussion and seemingly little desire to hang around the venue.

Another day passed, and the United Front simply went their separate ways again.

However–

Outside the venue, Erika Kairos sent her retinue ahead, stating she wanted to go for a walk.

By herself, she approached Taras Moravskyi as he was also about to leave.

“Comrade, how about a drink to put the bad blood behind us?” She offered.

Moravskyi grinned and clapped his hands together. “Hell, why not– if you’re paying!”

Erika smiled in return. They signaled their respective camps and left right away.

It was later said that of the two of them, nobody could tell which one was was the loudest one yelling and laughing, arguing and joking, singing and even crying, at a no-name bar in the neglected Katarran underground of the station. A big bearded man with a shout like an earthquake rumbling and a seemingly unformidable Katarran woman with a strangely deep gut and a roar like a beast. Surrounded by Katarran mercenaries who saw weird folk come and go every day. A place where nobody would look or listen, nobody would remember, as they cheered for every dead comrade whose name they could recall, sang revolutionary songs, and kept the cheap Katarran whiskey flowing. They argued the characters of historical figures Moravskyi knew, and that Erika had read about; they discussed the character of Katarran warlord states; they somehow agreed on who the bastards were that most deserved a bullet in the head; and laughed at the expense of foolish liberal ideologues.

Even later, the Katarrans there remembered– when they walked out they both looked like they were perfectly sober as if they had not spent the whole time drinking their heads off, and that perhaps their behavior had been solely the result of their passions. Erika picked up the entire tab and they would go their separate ways. This was the first time that members of the Eisern and Volksarmee so openly mingled together. While it remained to be seen whether anything more substantial would then come of it, both Erika and Moravskyi left feeling a bit more positive than they had been since the United Front had begun.

As they had stopped outside the United Front venue, they stopped outside the bar.

Shaking hands and smiling, having come to something of an understanding–

“I was foolish to shoot you down so quickly.” Erika said. “Can I request a truce?”

“Bah! What truce do we need– you reds are so formal– just leave it in the past, tovarisch.”

They shook hands vigorously and pledged not to fight again for now.

A hearty liquor tab was a small price to pay for the tiniest bit of solidarity.

Erika returned to the Brigand that night and told everyone the United Front might just work.


While the passions were flying at the United Front, elsewhere in Aachen–

A young woman in a fancy red track suit stood in the middle of the lobby at the base of the Aachen core station. She had just come in from Stockheim, her silvery-pale hair tied up into a ponytail, hands in her pockets, pilot’s sunglasses perched on her nose.

Beauty lay in the eye of the beholder, but there were certainly many who found her face quite attractive, soft and fair, with a sharp and distinctive indigo gaze. Her fashionable clothes fit her slender body quite well. She got some fleeting looks from other women, which she noticed, but Aachen’s crowds kept moving around the melancholy girl.

After a few minutes standing alone, she sat down on a bench near an advertising screen.

She craned her head as if it would allow her to see over the crowd. She found nothing.

Beside her, a vertical video played of an Imbrian woman, young, blond-haired, fair-faced, in an apron over a lovely dress. Ably cooking an entire meal in a single appliance, boiling, roasting, frying, braising– all from the comfort of her rather spacious room and all thanks to the OmniVittles Advent. A grandiose name for a new instant pot from Rhinea Home Innovations, a Rhineametalle subsidiary. Made from cast iron with a proprietary mesh of titanium and depleted agarthicite for unprecedented heat transfer.

Twenty-five different cooking functions; home software integrated.

Sonya Shalikova watched the entire advertisement playing out directly beside her.

Its booming soundtrack and the chirpy voice of the actress transferred directly into her guts.

Once it was over, the screen became static with a long list of legal disclaimers.

Shalikova then looked back at the crowd and shook her head with a sigh.

“These people are all insane.” She muttered to herself.

Looking into the crowd for any signs of her “date” for today.

Such a ridiculous notion– they had been trying to kill each other just a month ago. Now she had to take Selene out, and she did not even have money to do it. She would probably just accompany her on whatever she wanted to do. But what did Selene Anahid even like? What was she even like when she wasn’t trying to kill her? Shalikova had a glimpse into her behavior in their last outing. She was combative and pushy and weird— but– there had been a glimmer of something there too. When she thought about it again–

she recalled Selene smiling and laughing–

There was something there– it was an image that evoked certain feelings–

“What am I even thinking about her so much for?” Shalikova grumbled.

Maybe it would not be so bad. No reason to dwell on it, she told herself.

Regardless of what happened she was already here and already agreed to this date.

Maryam had been supportive of it too, maybe even excited about it. She was so silly.

Shalikova suspected that Maryam wanted to support her in making a friend.

And while she was not opposed to it she could not imagine a relationship with Selene.

“I guess Khadija and Sieglinde are getting along okay.” Shalikova said.

Fishing in her mind for whatever similar situations she could find.

Sieglinde had also been an enemy of the Brigand who caused significant damage. Murati, Shalikova herself, and Khadija had all been nearly killed by her, and her actions led Murati to be terribly injured. When they next met, her assistance to Norn the Praetorian nearly got them all killed by Selene. However, the Captain and Commissar agreed to her defection, and she seemed to show remorse. Now she was something of an errand runner for the sailors when she was not being bossed around by Khadija to eat with her or go out.

They were even rooming together.

“Wait, are they–?” Shalikova was suddenly struck by how close those two seemed.

Her usual sharp insights must have been distracted of late by a certain marshmallow.

Khadija flirted with everyone so it was not a stretch she might just be teasing Sieglinde.

But she never grabbed her other targets by the arm and dragged them out to a bar.

Her mind began to transpose the example back to the issue she had been hoping to solve–

Shalikova shook her head, feeling that her brain had run into a computing error.

Obviously she could never have such a relationship with Selene! Pointless to consider!

Sighing, she looked back up at the crowd hoping to spot anything–

And finally saw a slender arm reaching up above the crowd and waving as it neared.

“Hey! Sonya! It’s me! Remember, I’m not late, you were just early, ha ha!”

“Whatever! I’m over here, come around already. And don’t call me–”

When Selene finally cleared the crowds and Shalikova saw her in full, she went silent.

Glossy pink lips brightly smiling, her lustrous purple hair falling behind her, the “rabbit ears” tucked inside it like twin bands of rainbow color amid the purple. She dressed in a tight, off-shoulder brown top with a plunging middle. Emphasizing cleavage to the point Shalikova could see thin outlines of Selene’s lacy bra cups over the edge of the folded, creased fabric of the top, along with obvious thin black straps extending over the center of her exposed shoulders. Paired with a high-waisted black skirt with four flower-shaped buttons, and red tights and black heels, and a cute little beret on top of her head– Shalikova could not keep from staring. Was this the same girl as the day before? Had she been wearing her makeup so meticulously, had her skin been so softly flushed, her lips so– attractive–?

Had her collarbones been so pronounced? And was she that curvy or was it the clothes?!

Shalikova tried to play it off almost immediately, but she was caught staring.

And then Selene’s smug sneer resurfaced, confirming who this angelic nymph really was.

“Haha! Look at your dumb face! I stole your breath away didn’t I, Sonya?”

Shalikova bristled and averted her gaze in a huff. Selene crossed her arms, giggling.

“Stop calling me Sonya. You will call me Shalikova and only Shalikova–”

“Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya–”

How quickly she rattled them off! And without spitting or stumbling! Her lips–

“Ugh, fine. Fine! Stop being so childish. Let’s just get this over with.”

Selene blinked, Shalikova tried to look away, and then Selene imperiously pointed at

Shalikova’s–

groin–?

“Why are you wearing the same thing as yesterday?”

No– she was just pointing at Shalikova’s clothes nonspecifically–

of course–

“It’s my best set of clothes. I had it washed and pressed yesterday, it’s fine.”

“No, no, it won’t do. You can’t keep wearing the same thing over and over!”

“Why not? I like it and its not worn out or anything. Why do you care?”

To say she ‘liked it’ was a stretch but it was comfortable enough to keep wearing.

Shalikova was genuinely confused as to why Selene cared so much about her tracksuit.

Selene approached her, and grabbed her arm and pulled her up to a stand.

Wrapping her arm around Shalikova’s and tucking herself close to Shalikova’s shoulder.

Sending a jolt of electricity down Shalikova’s spine, and setting her skin to tingling–

With the warmth and softness of her body–

“Let’s go get you something else to wear and then we can run around!”

Selene started walking, and caught in her embrace, Shalikova was led along with her.

Outside the lobby, there was more room for the crowd to disperse, and there were far less people on any given floor and hallway of the commercial district. This meant the crowds thinned out and it made the walks along some of the storefronts feel more private. In the center of the grand atrium the walled-off display put on a light show that bathed Shalikova and Selene in gentle colors as they strode between planter pods with bushy plants, looking over the storefronts on their floor. Overhead, the near ceiling was made up of the next floor up, and Shalikova felt like she was caught in a twister of steel and color, with the sky made of more mall floors, staircases, and the eerie glow of the art installations floating in the water collected behind the center glass, always present at their flanks.

In the midst of the dizzying architecture, the closest thing was Selene, warm and chipper.

She looked on at the grandness of the place with girlish curiosity and awe.

Pointing out the lights and the storefronts and the shoppers and workers going to and fro with a cutesy smile on her face. Stopping to smell the grassy scent coming out of the planter pods dotting the halls. Retaking Shalikova’s arm whenever she wanted to get going again. Perhaps she had not been paying attention to the sights when she was crossing the mall herself the day before. Perhaps it was the lights that dazzled her since the art displays were not lighting up as much yesterday. Or maybe she was getting into character, trying to charm Shalikova by acting girly. Shalikova tried to remain a bit aloof to it all herself.

However, she was also a bit happy that Selene appeared to be in good spirits.

Back in Goryk’s Gorge, in the cockpit of that evil machine, her psionic screams filled Shalikova’s mind, and her pitch-black aura demanded her death. Such was her violence that the ocean quaked. Anger, hatred, panic, these were the emotions that filled the water in Selene’s wake back then. It seemed almost impossible that this cute, trendy girl her age could have been the demon that nearly killed them all. At times, Shalikova felt close to wondering whether it was not another Selene, somehow, who had done so.

Then Selene smirked and said something snide, her voice too-perfectly recalling the past.

“You’re trying to play it cool? That’s so lame. You should act all touristy with me.”

“Huh? So you’re just pretending to care about all this stuff?”

“I’m not pretending, you simpleton, I’m getting into the mood of a big station date.”

“What if I told you I’m in my own mood as well?”

“Ugh, being the cool stoic type is so cringe. It’s all about being genuine now.”

“Being genuine is pretending to care about stuff?”

“Uh huh, it’s more genuine than pretending not to care!”

Shalikova sighed. She looked at the art installations floating in the middle of the atrium.

All of the pieces composing each installation had indecipherably abstract shapes, but the high-power colored LED clusters installed on them allowed them to scatter strange patterns of colors and shadows across their surfaces. It was this, their combined amorphousness and the colors they cast around the environment, that seemed to be the source of their novelty. Shalikova looked at them and tried with all her heart to be excited about it all.

“Wow. Colors.” She said. Her voice barely registered one scintillion of an emotion.

Selene stared at her. She sighed herself, and smacked Shalikova in the mid-back.

“Come on, let’s go clothes shopping, before I change my mind.”

Shalikova almost said that she wouldn’t mind it if Selene abandoned her for being boring.

However– she was unable to say this as much as she wanted to believe it.

Because enough of her conflicting inner self was ultimately drawn in by the whole thing.

Selene dragged her off to a clothing shop. Shalikova had never really shopped for clothes, so she had not known what to expect. In the Union, she spent most of her life wearing clothes that had been given to her. Kids in the kids hall had sets of dorm clothes and school clothes, while at the academy and in the military she wore uniforms. Clothes were purchasable with social credits if there was a surplus of materials, or acquired with vouchers given out as incentives– as far as Shalikova knew, this just involved selecting designs for a stitcher machine to put together. She had never bought, nor had she ever won any clothes. She knew vaguely that the Union had fashion designers who worked on new clothes, either blueprints or by making it themselves, and there was a process for getting those designs into public circulation, or they could trade them directly for other handicrafts with other citizens.

Shalikova had no inkling of walking into a special clothes shop and picking out clothes. Most Union fashion she was directly aware of just involved violating the uniform code and seeing if the commander cared enough to reprimand. That was how it was for the military.

Because she never participated in any of those things, she only really knew that the track suit she was wearing was not something just anyone could get, and Illya must have used her own connections and maybe waited on a list in order to get it. She suspected Illya received black cards because of her connection to Nagavanshi, allowing her priority to procure anything.

However, even her vaguest ideas failed to capture the place Selene took her.

It looked completely empty.

There was a desk, and orange floors, and a white ceiling with sunlight LEDs. Other than that it was a small square with a few benches and couple of portable computers stood on charging stands. Shalikova almost wanted to ask where the clothes were, but she felt like Selene would have made fun of her for it. She collected herself quickly and continued acting stoic. As soon as they crossed the door threshold, Selene rushed over to the front desk and put down some reichsmarks and talked to the employee.

Behind the desk, a young woman in a vest and pants smiled and pointed at the wall.

“Got it! Thank you!”

Selene turned back to Shalikova, smiled, and pointed at the same wall.

“Ours is that one, let’s go.”

“Right.”

Shalikova’s laconic reply drew out another impish grin from Selene.

“You have no idea what’s going on, do you?”

“Of course I do. We’re– shopping for clothes.”

Selene continued to look at Shalikova like she had the funniest face in the world.

She subsequently led her to the same wall, twice pointed-out by others.

At their approach, the wall opened up, revealing a small room. Shalikova and Selene entered. They were surrounded by touch-enabled, clear displays both on the walls and below their feet, as well as clusters of LEDs in every direction that looked a bit more complicated than simple light sources. Shalikova had never seen anything like it. The room had one bench on the back wall for them to sit. There was a slot on the door that opened and shut.

Behind them, the door closed.

Then a slot on the wall opened up, revealing two pairs of glasses, recently cleaned. Selene took one pair and handed the other to Shalikova, prompting her to take off her sunglasses and replace them with the glasses. “These will protect our eyes properly. Put them on.”

Shalikova quietly did as instructed. She put her sunglasses in the pocket of her tracksuit.

Selene perched the glasses on her nose.

“Alright, now we just have to strip.” Selene said, winking an eye. “Do you get it now?”

“Get what? Why are we stripping? Are you that obsessed with me?” Shalikova cried out.

“I’m not obsessed! You bumpkin! It’s a holographic room! It projects the clothes on us!”

“I– I did not agree to strip down in a tiny room with you. This is just strange!”

“It’s not strange! We’re both girls, and we’ll just strip down to our underwear!”

As if it would be a gesture of good will on her part, Selene started to strip first unprompted.

Undoing the buttons on the corset of her high-waisted skirt, pulling it down–

Shalikova looked away.

“Oh come on! You can’t be this much of a wimp!” Selene berated her.

Shalikoa looked back.

Selene pulled her top further down her shoulders, off from her arms and chest–

Her lingerie was really cute and lacy, the black contrasted her skin well–

She had the smallest bit of a bulge too–

“Damn it, alright, I’ll play along! I’ll play along!”

To distract herself from Selene’s stripping, Shalikova began to strip as well.

Her gaze averted; she couldn’t help but feel Selene’s leering just out of her sight.

“Wow, you really are a flattie– but the line of your shoulders and back is kinda nice.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you look good. Honestly, your body would make you a good model.”

“You just mean I’m really skinny. Ugh. Damn it. Quit looking.”

Their clothes ended up in two discrete bundles behind them.

Beneath the tracksuit Shalikova wore a pretty standard sports bra and some undershorts.

She tried not to linger too much on Selene’s body and her own choice of undergarments.

Standing side by side with her like that felt utterly ridiculous.

“You’re not that much bigger than me.” Shalikova said, still not looking.

“You’re crazy, it’s a world of difference. I’m so much curvier than you.” Selene replied.

“You’re still skinny.” Shalikova said.

“Thanks! My figure was genetically engineered for perfection!” Selene laughed.

“What does that even mean? Oh, nevermind. Can we just see some clothes?”

Selene grinned again and the lights around them flashed briefly all together.

Because of the glasses, Shalikova hardly noticed that initial flash.

Intersecting colored beams then swiped across their bodies with dizzying speed.

Like a laser predictor, the beams gathered data on their measurements, and represented it on the wall for them to make corrections. Selene was satisfied with her own and Shalikova’s were completely accurate. Once the measurements were taken, they were given access to the catalog. Across the walls, there were dozens of pictures of different outfits. Tops of all kinds and colors, a plethora of skirts, as many pants as there were humans on earth to wear them. Accessories flitted by along with the outfits they were suggested for.

Everything could be color coordinated with one command or deliberately clashing colors could be selected. There were preset outfits and colors for various trendy styles like “phantasmagothic,” “business academia” and “orientalist punk.”

And everything came with its price tag in reichmarks.

“So you paid to get in here to try on the clothes?” Shalikova said.

“Uh huh.” Selene replied. “You pay for the showroom, try on outfits until you find one you like, and you pay for it. They stitch it out for you basically as soon as you swipe a credichip, and you can even wear it out of the venue. Which is what I intend for you to do.”

“What if you can’t afford some of these prices?”

“Trying stuff on is cheap at least. You can come in here and dream a little!”

Shalikova imagined a working class girl coming up here to try on holographic outfits and felt rather miserable about the whole thing. Selene did not seem troubled by the prices and for a girl like Shalikova it was difficult to ascertain how much anything cost relative to anything else. Minardo had once remarked to her while on kitchen duty, that even a standard weight loaf of bread in the Imbrium could be five reichsmarks or it could be twenty reichsmarks depending on a variety of factors and especially what brand was on it, which made victualing much more annoying. Shalikova had used reichsmarks (or, in her case, they were old imperial marks) to buy snacks before, and some of these clothing items were arbitrarily worth ten snacks or a hundred snacks or a thousand snacks without explanation.

The snacks were themselves processed too. How much did a potato cost relative to chips?

She did not know, and so, she had no idea what a working class girl could afford.

However, she quickly learned what Selene could afford– seemingly anything at all.

“I knew this would happen– I’ll just pick for both of us! I want to get started already!”

Selene quickly scrolled to over a few garments with her fingers.

Though she was not touching the wall, where the pictures were located, they still moved.

Her finger was being tracked by the lasers.

Poking at the air, she made her selections, and the lasers began their work.

In a few moments, as if the lasers were stitching the air, the outfits slowly appeared over their own bodies first as threads of color and then forming seemingly solid garments. Selene had put on an incredibly sleek halterneck cocktail dress with a diamond-shaped back window and high cut sides revealing a lot of leg, and a see-through slice of sheer fabric diagonally across the belly and the side of one breast. To match, Shalikova had been given a black suit over a button-down shirt, but the suit sleeves were partially see-through up to the shoulder, along with black suit pants with a very slight bell bottom. She had a very bright pink tie. After the outfit was overlayed on them, the surfaces turned into mirrors.

Shalikova looked herself over and looked at Selene, who seemed quite satisfied.

“You look– great.” She was about to say ‘incredible’. “And you made me look boring.”

“It’s kinda boring, but only enough that it turns out kinda handsome you know?”

“No, I don’t know. I actually don’t get it at all.”

“Sonya, a super hot and super fashionable girl like me needs a kinda boring boyfriend, she can’t have one that’s too out there, because the kinda boring boyfriend helps her to stand out and shine more. She’s like a cool accessory for the super hot, super fashionable, super bright girl. She accepts the position because she scored such a hot fashionable girl.”

Shalikova turned the nouns and pronouns being used in her head for a moment in confusion.

But that was the least of all the offending points in that explanation!

“So who decided I’m your boyfriend now?”

“Ugh, you’re so stupid, it’s a mood, I already explained this to you! It’s for fun!”

Selene put her hands on her hips and leaned into Shalikova with a (cute?) little frown.

Shalikova was about to retort that, well, unlike Selene, she was not having fun.

However–

That was not exactly true and so again, she could not air her protests.

As much as she thought she wanted to– she ended up in a conflict with herself.

Some part of her, when she looked at Selene’s face, simply decided to go along with things.

And perhaps that part constituted a plurality of her.

Like a little soviet voting bizarrely in her heart as much as the executive pleaded against it.

“Anyway, now we’re like, a handsome secret agent and a femme fatale!” Selene said. “See how much fun this stuff is? There’s so many different little details. We can even alter some of the scenery around us to show off the outfits in different lighting conditions before we make any decisions. That’s the kinda thing that makes this shop not have a refund policy. You get to be sooo thorough and the shopping is an experience in itself. Watch this, Sonya.”

Selene hovered her hand over the mirror and a part of it became an interactive menu.

Around them, the scene dimmed, and they soon found themselves on a balcony overlooking a sprawling city at night, full of distant lights. It was the kind of scenery Shalikova only really saw in comic books or movies. Light and shadow danced gently over them, lending a melancholy edge to their facial features. It was certainly a different perspective on their outfits, and the context did give her a new appreciation for the clothes and the space.

Shalikova turned around, and behind them there was a ballroom behind half-closed doors.

When Shalikova reached for the door, there was nothing but the flat surface of the wall.

“It’s not that detailed.” Selene said, before pretending to look out over the balcony.

Shalikova was pretty surprised that no matter how she moved, the clothes stuck to her.

Her body still felt like she was naked because she was, but she looked realistically clothed.

“Oh, Sonya! It’s really too bad!” Selene said, making such an affected voice that Shalikova knew she must have been playing pretend– until she kept going and the more she spoke the less Shalikova was sure of whether it was play. “To think you have resisted me to the bitter end! I gave you an out if you only became my permanent lifelong boytoy, but you refused! Now we are on opposite sides of the war, and I will give the state all of your details so they can do so much torture to you forever and ever! But at least we can spend this one final night together as if we were lovers! Come have a final drink with me Sonya!”

Shalikova blinked, stunned. “Selene, are you playing around, or are you really–”

“Obviously I’m playing around!” Selene shouted, instantly agitated.

She stared at Shalikova expectantly enough that the “secret agent” came up with a reply.

“As if I would give in to you so easily? A laugh riot! Dame Selene, do you truly think you have me cornered, when it is actually I who has taken your back?” Shalikova played up her response. Even Selene looked a little taken aback. She tried to channel a bit of Murati into her followup. “The difference between us, you vile woman, is that while you work alone, I always have my reliable comrades supporting my efforts! They will spring me from whatever trap you devise, and through our collective efforts, it is you who will fall to me in the end! Enjoy your final moments leading this dance of death– while you still can!”

With a flourish, Shalikova pointed her fingers like a gun and winked at Selene.

Selene’s eyes drew wide for a brief moment. She really did look like she had been cornered.

“You– you get some marks for effort.” She hurriedly turned back to the wall.

Scrolling through the items to pick a new set of clothes for them and new ambiance.

Shalikova grinned, feeling a bit triumphant. She had flustered Selene, gotten her back.

Now it was her turn to be smug! She was getting her bearings– time to counterattack!

Around them the night balcony melted away, as did the cocktail dress and suit.

In their place appeared a cozy little venue, false stone and fake wood tables.

There were steaming cups of coffee on the table with milk froth and streaks of syrup. Everyone around them looked like couples, two to a table, and the venue was completely packed with these phantom lovers. Shalikova was now dressed in a long brown coat over a red checkerboard shirt with loose-fitting black sweatpants and plastic clogs. Selene’s outfit was a turtleneck sweater under an overlong orange cardigan decorated with adorable cartoon dogs and cats playing, along with an ankle-length pleated white skirt.

Everything was so bright, peaceful and colorful, it suited their simple day-wear.

Hands behind her back, Selene leaned forward and smiled serenely,

and for a moment Shalikova was defeated again.

“Heh, look at you. Do you like this sort of thing better than how I like to dress?”

Shalikova did not want to answer that, one way or the other.

“So what’s the scenario here? Let me think.” Selene leaned back and forth on her feet and began to whistle while looking around the fake coffee shop. “Oh I know!” She looked at Shalikova and put on an overly cheerful little smile, different from her overly cheerful sneer. “I know I said we would be studying for the class today, but I just can’t keep my eyes off you! Ever since your first lecture I have been entranced! I didn’t just call you here to study– more than scoring in class, I need to score high marks with you, Professor!”

“Absolutely not!” Shalikova said. Squirming as she stood from how near Selene leaned in.

“You’re such a bore! Play along already!” Selene demanded.

“Student Selene, I’m writing you up for harassment!” Shalikova replied.

“Professor, if you try to get rid of me I’ll show up at your room with knives.”

“With knives?!”

Selene made a snipping scissors motion with her fingers, wearing a wild look in her eyes.

“I’ll cut right it off and you’ll be mine forever in death.” She said, stroking her own face.

It was such a sudden turn that Shalikova couldn’t take it seriously.

“Now it’s scissors instead?! I can’t keep up with the plot anymore!”

She almost surprised herself with how easily she came up with a line to say.

Both of them broke out into laughter together.

“So, are we buying these?” Shalikova said.

“No way, this kind of thing doesn’t suit me. And you need to suit me too.”

With the scenario played out, once again Selene arranged for a change of scenery.

When the lights shifted again, the two of them stood on opposite edges of a small hot tub.

Now Shalikova’s slim body was loosely wrapped in a wet t-shirt over a one-piece swimsuit.

Selene had a one-shoulder purple bikini top with a high-leg bottom and a loose, sheer skirt.

“Fancy meeting such a handsome stranger! It looks like we were both assigned the same hot bath huh? Why don’t we make the most of the booking mistake? It will become your lucky day instead, handsome stranger. I’ll even let you rub my shoulders and feet.”

This one was far too dangerous. It was impossible to play along with it.

“Selene– I– how do you find the time to come up with these.”

“What the hell do you do on a ship when there’s no fighting going on, huh?”

Shalikova did not have a lot of hobbies. But she would not say that.

“I just– I hang out–”

Selene sighed. “I get what you’re insinuating. Well– thanks for playing along.”

Why did she sound so disappointed? What was she even expecting?

Shalikova almost felt bad for cutting the scenario short.

“Here, you’ll wear this out. You owe me one, by the way, these are nice.”

When it came time to leave Selene selected an outfit quite quickly. She picked out the garments, paid for the outfit, and then dressed herself again while they waited. Less than a minute after Selene was done paying for it, a slot opened on the door and the freshly stitched items slid into the room in vacuum-sealed pouches, along with a bag for her old clothes. Shalikova found herself with a red hooded jacket, a black tanktop, and a pair of tough blue polyester work pants with distressed knees. Everything felt high quality to the touch and felt comfortable to wear, but the garments were surprisingly simple. It was only when Selene approached Shalikova and undid her ponytail that she realized it was intentional and this was the outfit Selene always had in mind.

“Here, wear your hair long. It looks better with this fit.” Selene said.

Shalikova looked at herself in the mirror. And the girl in the mirror looked taken aback.

With Selene standing by her side– she liked how she looked maybe a little too much.

“You look handsome. Let’s go, I’m getting hungry.” Selene said.

Once more, she wrapped her hand around Shalikova’s arm and quickly led her out.

Carried once more in the middle of the storm that was Selene– but enjoying herself.

Shalikova found herself without the trepidation with which she started.

“Now I’m not embarrassed to show my face with you!”

“Excuse me? You were embarrassed before? The girl who is always shouting nonsense?”

Selene dragged Shalikova over to a brightly lit little eatery in a corner of the commercial area’s second floor. She must have found the place when she was roaming around before because Shalikova would have never thought to look for it, it was quite tucked away. The shop specialized in schnitzel, which was a pounded, breaded and fried chicken cutlet, though they also had pork. There were few people around, and food seemed to come out quick.

“I– don’t eat meat.” Shalikova said.

“You don’t eat meat, or you haven’t eaten meat?” Selene asked.

“We don’t have that stuff– where I’m from.” Shalikova cautiously said.

“It’ll be fine you bumpkin. I’ll pay for everything, remember?”

“Then I’ll just have what you’re having.” Shalikova sighed.

Hopefully it wouldn’t end up upsetting her stomach too much.

They sat on stools next to a countertop that ran the length of the shop. Once their plates were ready, they slid along the counter over to them. It did not take very long for the food to arrive. Two plates of golden-fried chicken schnitzel with a mustard-flecked cream sauce and a side of a perfectly fried egg, some potato wedges dusted with garlic, and stubby cucumber pickles. A spork and a knife sat off to the side of the plate along with disposable plastic cups of sugary soda pop. Selene picked up her spork, immediately jabbed her two cucumbers, and using her knife, peeled them off the prongs and onto Shalikova’s plate.

“I’m sure you’ll appreciate them more than I would.” She said.

“You don’t like pickles?” Shalikova asked. She grinned, feeling cheeky.

“Is something wrong with that? I’m an adult, I can eat however I want.”

“Yeah, you can eat like a little kid, just like you behave like one.”

“Shut it or I won’t pay for yours.”

Selene suddenly jabbed one of the cucumbers back onto her plate.

She cut a round piece, dropped it onto the mustard cream, and cut some chicken with it.

Taking the whole bite into her mouth, as if to demonstrate to Shalikova she could do it.

Shalikova laughed and cut into her own chicken.

Taking a bite, she was surprised by the slightly fibrous texture, which she was unused to in food. Her first ever bite of meat was quite savory. She first tasted the fried breading, heavily seasoned, followed by the slightest hint of vegetal notes from the oil, as well as a slightly eggy taste to the cutlet overall. When she took a bite with the cream sauce, the sour and zesty notes complemented the meat quite well. It was pretty good– she enjoyed it but was not blown away. It definitely beat most cafeteria food not prepared by Logia Minardo.

Selene, meanwhile, made some ungodly noises as she devoured her cutlet.

One would have thought she hardly ever saw food with how much she relished it.

“I see you staring! You don’t get it! This stuff is crazy! They flatten, bread it and fry it!”

“I’m just happy you’re enjoying yourself.” Shalikova said.

“Hmph!” Selene turned her attention back to her plate, but now clearly self-conscious.

Wary about its effect on her digestion, Shalikova carefully tucked away her own schnitzel.

When she finished, she picked up her plastic cup and presented it to Selene.

“Cheers?”

Selene stared at her for a few seconds, but complied, lifting her own cup of soda.

“Cheers!”

She tapped Shalikova’s cup gently.

After eating, Selene and Shalikova walked together through a few other shops.

Once she found herself in the middle of a long row of stores, Selene activated.

There was an electronics shop where she bought a digital picture frame that had a built-in camera. She beckoned Shalikova to pose together for a picture in the middle of the shop. Shalikova smiled for it. Once the picture was taken, she handed Shalikova the bag.

Immediately on-target without a second lost, Selene then flounced over to a toy store. They had a stitcher capable of printing small, custom plastic figurines based on the purchasers, through the use of a camera and laser predictor. Selene got two little figures made, one of Shalikova and one of herself, both of which were miniaturized, cutesy representations with oversize heads, but strangely faithful abstractions of their clothing. She handed Shalikova the Selene figure and kept the Shalikova figure for herself. Shalikova hardly knew what to make of this but accepted the gift. They were boxed, bagged, and Selene handed them to Shalikova to carry while she skipped and jumped over to a music store.

Barely keeping up, Shalikova found Selene inside the venue, filled with shelves occupied with listening stations. Every listening station was a newly featured album that could be purchased in either a digital license, or a data stick format, or as a physical grammapress disk. Because the latter was the most expensive, Selene chose to get a grammapress of Mia Weingarten’s “In Forgotten Depths, I Found Your Heart.” A stitcher machine on the site set up specifically for making grammapress discs printed one out for her after a few minutes. Grammapress disks were rather large, and after being boxed and bagged, and handed to Shalikova, the haul was becoming a bit unwieldy. Selene did not care at all.

“What kind of music do you like? This lady sings pretty good.” Selene said.

“Um. There’s this DJ who makes synth tracks about fish having sex.” Shalikova said.

“Huh?”

“I hear one of my colleagues playing it all the time and its kind of catchy.”

“You’re crazy.”

Selene passed through a boutique tea shop, where she picked up a box of chamomile; a shop purporting to sell magic crystals, where she purchased one that increased “vital energy”; a bag shop where she purchased a designer satchel; a perfume shop where she asked outright for their most elegant and mature scents, all of which had names like A Night With Him and Moonlight Rendezvous. All of it turned into boxes and bags for Shalikova to carry.

At a hat shop, she tried on a synthetic “straw” hat with a red ribbon around its band.

“What do you think? Kind of a vibe isn’t it?” Selene asked.

“It’s lovely. Are you going to buy any more? Or help carry any of it?”

Selene cracked a little grin as Shalikova shifted around boxes and bags she was carrying.

“Now you’re getting in the mood.” Selene said.

Shalikova was once again too baffled to mount an effective response.

Selene eventually took mercy on her. They found a service for pack mule drones that would stash everything a shopper purchased on their backs and plod their way back to an address with the cargo, delivering it to a designated room or even to a ship. Selene told Shalikova the location of her berth in Stockheim and left her to sort it all out. Shalikova left all of Selene’s things with a pack mule drone except for the Selene miniature, her gift to take home. She carried its box in her hands, while holding the bag with her tracksuit on her wrist.

Leaving one hand free in case–

“Ahh! Sonya, look over there! A cute coffee shop!”

Selene had found a little cafe venue northwest from where they had started. They had already nearly completed one circle around the commercial district and only on the first two floors of it. Despite this Shalikova had already nearly fallen over with goods once already, and they had spent what must have been hours wandering around together.

But Shalikova continued to follow Selene– because she did not want it to end just yet.

Hearing Selene’s cheerful voice melted some of the ice around her heart.

“I’ll be there soon, I was just seeing the mule off.”

Selene took Shalikova’s free hand and pulled her into the shop together.

The venue had a cute facade with fake wooden letters signing its name, Cafe Anemoia, within a pink frame. It was difficult to tell whether it was a franchise or a single location. Big beautiful pictures of its drinks being served in a variety of cozy settings adorned the tinted LED windows. Inside, the cafe was a completely different experience to the one projected by the holograms in the clothing shop. Through the use of LED walls, environment control cooling, scent projectors and ambient noise, it created the impression of a cozy little cafe with seats full of customers, a wooden counter, and steaming hot coffee photogenically topped with cream on every table. However, the illusion was quickly broken when they stepped up to the “counter” and a predictor computer-generated human who moved uncannily gestured at them while they made their selections from a computer menu.

“This is really weird.” Shalikova said.

Selene shrugged it off.

“Well, the drinks would be more expensive if they had a venue full of real wood stuff.”

“And real staff, I guess.”

Around them, slow and romantic strings with a gentle, clapping beat began to play.

“Anyway, order whatever you want, on me!” Selene declared.

Shalikova tried to ignore the eerie stare of the illusory employees and scrolled with her finger through the menu. She felt that her taste in coffee was entirely ordinary. She liked coffee with a bit of creamer and a bit of sugar. So the constellation of different toppings, syrups, stir-ins, add-ons and the dizzying array of brand logos associated with them set her head to spinning. Would she have Poppler™ (A Volwitz Brand) soda slush with her taro creme ice coffee? Would she add a drizzle of “Shimii spice syrup” to her 90% frothed creme-cafe?

In the end she ordered a “milk coffee” which seemed like the most ordinary one.

“That’s so you— but its kinda charming.” Selene said, giggling at the selection.

She ordered a “purple taro swirled latte” with beet sugar and a sprinkle of cured lemon zest.

In the process, she hit the beet sugar button several times, ending up with five instances.

“That much sugar? I can barely keep up with you as it is.”

“You will simply have to go faster.”

While the holographic staff pretended to make the drinks, there was no pretense to realism. Behind the scenes a coffee machine that was just barely audible brewed the coffee and a stitcher machine put everything together. Their drinks came out of a physical slot that opened in the middle of the LED projection, completely ruining the scene.

“That is kinda weird, you’re not wrong.” Selene said, sighing at the sight.

Regardless of the verisimilitude of the romantic atmosphere, the two of them sat in an actual, physical booth seat and sipped their drinks together. There was some care to make the projection on the wall of the booths a bit higher fidelity to create a false distance to the next “table” of fake customers but Shalikova was not very impressed by the whole thing. It felt like a waste of LED panels that some poor ship could have used better.

“I thought this kind of thing wasn’t your style.” Shalikova said.

“You misunderstood me. Cutesy nerdy girl clothes and shy professor type love interests are not my style. I like romantic little coffee shops quite fine with the right company.”

Selene sipped from her coffee and shut her eyes tight.

It must have been sweeter than she bargained for.

Shalikova sipped her own and liked it just fine. Better than Union instant coffee.

Still not worth all this grandiose artifice, however.

“I never realized you would have such a big imagination.” Shalikova said.

“I read a lot! I love magazines and stories! I have tons of ideas!” Selene said.

She sounded proud of herself for it.

Perhaps– she had not been able to experience many of her moods.

Shalikova could almost relate. Except that, she had so fewer fantasies to realize.

For so long, she had been bound by guilt and by duty, not knowing how to live.

It was only recently that she had really begun to care for herself.

This day was a new adventure for her too.

“That is really nice. I think I am not a very creative person I guess.” Shalikova said.

“Everyone who says that definitely has something they are creative about.”

“I guess– I did sew a plushie bear one time.”

Selene’s face lit up. “Sonya you have to sew me a plushie too!”

“Um, I can try? Should I have it mailed to the Antenora?”

“Oh– shut up.” Selene looked suddenly in a sour mood. “Nevermind that. You are so dense. I was just– I was just saying that to be in the mood. To get the like, boyfriend experience.”

Shalikova hardly knew how to answer, but her clueless face must have cheered Selene up.

From across the table, after a bit of fuming, she held her face in her hands

and looked at Shalikova.

“You know, I have never been to a coffee shop with anyone. This is my– first time.”

Shalikova figured as much, but–

Was this part of the mood or was this actually her feelings?

“I am happy I got to be your first. Maybe I can be your second or third too.”

Was that a boyfriend would say? Shalikova thought so. It sounded like it to her.

Selene looked briefly shocked and took another big sip of her drink.

“I do not have many hobbies or anything that special about me. I am just some girl who is out of her depth with things.” Shalikova said. “I think I am actually having fun though.”

Was this part of the mood or was this actually her own feelings?

Shalikova reached out her hand and laid it on Selene’s hand on the table and smiled.

Wrapping her fingers around Selene’s own, long and supple and so soft.

She applied a bit of pressure to them, held them–

In response, Selene picked up her drink. “The holoprojections are ruining the mood here.”

She started walking out of the venue.

Shalikova followed her, wondering if she had done wrong.

Leaving her own half-drunk coffee on the table in her haste.

Some part of her feared Selene might just walk away completely, disappear suddenly–

She had not known where that fear came from– but it was fleeting.

Selene was simply standing outside waiting for her.

“Ugh, this is too sweet, I do not know if I can another sip.” Selene complained.

Outside, Shalikova reconvened with her in front of the venue.

She reached out and took the disposable cup from Selene, touching her hand in the process.

For a moment, Selene looked flustered again.

“I will get rid of it for you.” Shalikova said, smiling a bit. Selene nodded her head.

Shalikova turned and found a nearby rubbish bin, threw away the drinks–

She walked back to Selene from the rubbish bin– and found her leaning on the railing over the center of the atrium, looking at the art installation. Smiling with gentle eyes.

Her face was bathed in the colors.

Shalikova looked at her for a while. Basking; the melancholy beauty in the gentle, warm light.

Was this the mood that Selene hoped to inspire?

Was this how she saw it in her stories?

How it should have gone if either of them had the experience for it?

Shalikova looked at her until Selene seemed to notice the gaze.

“Thanks for everything today. You actually got into the mood.” Selene said.

There was no more lying to herself. All of Shalikova now aligned on what she felt.

“No, more than that, I actually cared.” Shalikova replied. “Thank you for taking me out.”

She had a lot of fun with Selene. Her rambunctiousness was endearing as it was annoying.

It was different– Selene was different than anyone Shalikova had ever known.

It was different than anything she had ever felt.

Hearing Shalikova’s thanks, Selene’s eyes narrowed a bit. Her smile dimmed just as much.

“Sometimes I’m not the super hot, fashionable, smart, bright, super fun girl, you know. Sometimes– I’m a vicious ace pilot who kills her enemies. I won’t say we’ll never meet again, but I also won’t say that we will. But if we do– know which Selene you’re getting. After all, it will depend on your own choices. You’re the one who picks which of them you get.”

Shalikova closed her fist, wracked by an unknown fear and frustration.

“Selene, I’m really not in control here. I have to follow orders too sometimes.”

Selene smiled at her. Not a sneer, not an impish grin. But not a gentle smile.

It was a smile that seemed filled with melancholy and determination both.

“I know. It really sucks. Well, guess it wasn’t meant to be huh? Anyway, c’ya, or not.”

Promptly and without warning, Selene left the railing and walked away, waving her hand.

Like a storm breaking; she swept Shalikova up, dropped her down, and disappeared.

Disappearing not like a faery flitting out of existence, but simply turning her back.

Shalikova took a step forward– wondering if she should say something or reach out.

Again, she was silent. The things she could say– felt too foolish and inappropriate.

Instead, she triggered her psionics and tried to parse Selene’s aura.

There was a bit of every color, mixing and roiling and turning in a terrifying maelstrom.

Shalikova almost wondered if her own aura was visible, would it look like that too?

Was that the reflection of their broken, conflicted hearts?

Holding the gift box in her hand, Shalikova cursed how easy it was to feel affection.

And how cruel the world could be to that love.


On the edge of the old, sparsely populated northern district of the Wohnbezirk, closest to the Mahdist village, there was a boxy white monument with a blue star. It was hewn out of rock and so became a permanent feature of the landscape, too difficult to destroy utterly for how removed it was. Few people knew that it was cenotaph from a time before the Shimii’s current troubles. There was nothing written on it, but there were etchings that had been carved quite precisely. Its white and blue paints were relatively fresh despite its age.

It was this way, because a pair of Shimii girls had taken it upon themselves to maintain it.

On that day, after a bit of a commotion in their home, they arrived at the site.

They were not alone, but they did not disturb anyone who came to visit.

They knew the monument was not theirs, and that people who understood it would come to visit and see for themselves a truth that perhaps they as Shimii would never be able to intuit. Nevertheless, when they found the monument dirtied with the scribblings of local children, they got to work cleaning up and even brought a bit of paint to touch it up again so it would look decent. They were gentle with the carvings and precise with their paint.

“You’re from the Mahdist village? Why bother with this old thing?” A woman asked them.

“Ah, you’re miss Sattler, right? Well– we’ve always felt a bit sad about it is all.”

Standing off to the side of the monument and staring was Bernadette Sattler.

It was getting late– she must have dropped off her charge, and then returned in the casual clothes she was now wearing. Without her uniform, she still carried something of a sinister air. Her messy bangs did not shade her eyes as much as her hat did, but still had some of the effect. Her darkened gaze had not become any friendlier. She dressed in a strangely dowdy fashion, with a long sweater worn over a button-down shirt, the collar of the shirt coming out of the neck hole of the sweater, along with a long, warm skirt. With her long, wavy blond hair falling down her back, she looked like a librarian, child care worker or a clerk, someone cute and harmless, more than the totenkopf-wearing killer that she really was.

“By any chance are you an Eloim miss Sattler? We think this is an Eloim monument.”

“Hmph.”

Bernadette would not answer them.

And Baran and Sareh would not press her for an answer either.

One of the few things they knew about the monument was that it had something to do with Eloim. Imam al-Qoms recognized the symbol, he called it the ‘Judah Star’. They were always curious about the people who visited the monument, like Bernadette, that might perhaps know what its true purpose was, with its blue star and the etchings upon it. Baran and Sareh had their guesses. Baran believed it was a cenotaph and identified it as such– a grave for many Eloim who would not otherwise be remembered by anyone. Sareh believed that it was a sign that Eloim had once lived in the Wohnbezirk, though neither of them knew how long ago that had been. The Wohnbezirk had been standing for longer than it was ‘the Wohnbezirk’– it must have been constructed before the Core Station even. Back then it was probably lodgings and storage for laborers, and perhaps some of them were Eloim.

But Baran could not confirm such ancient events.

Even for the people of the After Descent era, a few hundred years erased a lot of memories.

“Because it’s odd and it sticks out, kids around here are always defacing it. They probably use the vandalism as a stupid challenge.” Sareh said. “Baran and I always hated that kind of thing. We don’t blame the kids, they’re just dumb– we just wish the reaction people had to foreign things was not to destroy them. Or that those old bastard Rashidun in the village would at least teach their little brats some respect.” Baran at this point saw Sareh becoming heated and shook her head gently to ward it off. Sareh sighed. “So, anyway, we come here every so often to try to make it look how we first saw it. We can’t guarantee it’s always been white and blue. And we don’t know how it’s supposed to be restored. But we still do it.”

“We restore the colors we found on it when we were little.” Baran continued. “We don’t know exactly what it is, nor is it ours to claim in any way, but I just think it’s sad for it to go neglected. It deserves looking after. See– all the notches on it are exactly the same, and they’re all lined up so perfectly. It’s so meticulous. Someone put a lot of work into it, a lot of care into making this monument. We want to uphold their wishes. Even if we don’t understand its exact purpose, we understand that it mattered to the people here.”

Bernadette did not look moved by that speech. She stared at the monument quietly.

However, a man who had arrived in the middle of the speech smiled at the girls.

He was a young, blond-haired man dressed in a teal jacket, white shirt and black pants.

“I think it’s really kind of you two to do that.” He said. “I’m kind of touched, honestly.”

“Welcome, mister!” Baran said, smiling back. “I hope I don’t sound rude– but would you happen to know what it means? Whenever we see a new face we can’t help but ask.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know.” He said. “I’m not much of an Eloim. Never practiced.”

He reached out a hand to shake. “I’m Gunther Cohen– an engineer.”

Baran shook her head gently, but Sareh reached out and returned the shake.

“It’s inappropriate for a man to shake a woman’s hand here– and I am a woman, but someone has to man up around here sometimes.” Sareh said, grinning a bit. Baran turned on her a disapproving gaze, but it did not dampen her good humor. “I am Sareh and this is Baran, my– best friend. We come from the Shimii village a little ways from here.”

“How did you hear about the existence of this monument, Mr. Cohen?” Baran asked.

“An informant told me. A katarran, this big– you might have seen her running around.”

Judging by how he moved his hand his informant was fairly short.

“We’ve seen a few katarrans running around, but I know who you mean.” Sareh said.

Gunther turned to Bernadette with a smile also.

“Are you an Eloim too? I’m sorry to bother you, I just haven’t met many of us.” He said. Bernadette fixed him with her glare but said nothing at first. Gunther continued. “I really don’t mean to cause any trouble, sorry. When the– informant, told me about this place, I thought it would be interesting to see it. Where I come from, my family– our heritage is a bit disconnected. I knew that Rhinea and Bosporus were supposed to have a lot of Eloim, so I’ve been curious. I thought I might go out and learn a bit about my ancestors.”

“For what purpose?” Bernadette asked. “Are you going to take up the prayers now?”

Gunther looked perplexed to be asked that question.

“I don’t think I will– I just wanted to know how they lived here. I’m an engineer, I’m just curious about how things work. I know a lot of them have been deported and oppressed, forced to escape to various places. And that part of me, my ethnicity, it has always been vague. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about my own identity recently. I am just a guy who likes to put things into orderly buckets. Anyway, sorry to bother you with all this.”

He sounded excited, but the blond woman turned her cheek with burgeoning anger.

“Hmph.” Bernadette grunted again. “I’m not an Eloim. I have nothing in common with that permanently victimized race. This place is just another symbol of their weakness. You two can keep polishing it up if you want but know this– it’s all an illusion for fools to chase.”

Sareh and Baran were taken aback, and Bernadette stormed off suddenly after.

“There’s nothing here or anywhere for the people called ‘Eloim’.” She said as she left.

“What’s her problem?” Sareh said. “Ugh, I mean– I know what it is.”

She seemed to recognize the folly of her own rhetorical question immediately.

“I didn’t meant to offend her.” Gunther said. “I’m always putting my foot in my mouth.”

Baran approached Gunther with a gentle expression.

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Cohen. Please don’t listen to her. A lot of people come down here to try to find their roots– this one of the oldest places in Eisental. Because it’s hewn out of rock, there are things here that are old and hard to destroy. It’s understandable that you are here, and you are welcome to be here and to look here. You might even find more if you look around– this is just a place we feel safe going to, for various reasons, but you might find other things in the Wohnbezirk if you search the caves or the older tunnels.”

“Thank you.” Gunther said. “I really appreciate your kind-heartedness, miss Baran.”

“Mister Cohen,” Sareh said, “That lady was a Volkisch officer. That was– the reason.”

Baren looked at her for a moment but said nothing. She just looked downcast.

Gunther turned pale for a moment, his eyes wide. “I– I see. Thank you for telling me.”

“There’s more of them down here. Please be careful what you say.” Sareh said.

“I will.” He said. But judging by his tone, and the way he looked around– he was scared.

“She is not exactly wrong, you know. But it is a condition that can change.”

Sareh, Baran and Gunther looked behind themselves at the alleys of the Wohnbezirk.

From around the corner formed by the walls of nearby buildings, a woman strode casually into view and approached them and the monument. None of them had seen her before– truly it was a day for new visitors at this sad, ancient place. She had red hair with black roots, and a long skirt and a blouse beneath a covering jacket. She smiled at them, a polite and gentle smile on those red lips that never seemed to alter even when she spoke.

Her arms were hidden in her coat.

It was this last fact, and her sudden approach, that made Sareh quite wary.

“You’ve been watching?” Sareh asked. “Don’t you think that’s kind of weird?”

“Yes I’ve been watching, and no– I didn’t approach because I didn’t want to interrupt.”

She removed one hand from her coat and Sareh flinched– but she just pointed at the rock.

“I know what that monument is. Do you want me to tell you?” She said.

Baran stepped forward, in front of Sareh. She looked at the woman in the eyes and smiled.

“My name is Baran al-Masshad. This is my companion Sareh Al-Farisi, and this here is Mr. Gunther Cohen, who is also a visitor. I would like to request a proper introduction, madame.”

“Tamar Livnat. I’m an Eloim historian.” Said the woman. Her smile unchanging.

“Thank you very much.” Baran said. “I’d love to hear what you know about this place.”

Baran stepped aside. Tamar walked closer to the structure and ran her hand over it.

She looked at it for a moment, with that frozen, inscrutable expression of hers.

“It’s a cenotaph. You might have surmised as much already. It’s not an uncommon type of structure. There are cenotaphs all over the Imbrium, for one particular reason– all of us who are alive today are descended from many, many more people who died on the surface. Cenotaphs for our ancestors who perished and could not escape to the Ocean are common among all races and in all parts of the Imbrium.” Tamar said. She turned around to look at Baran and Sareh again. “But these Eloim cenotaphs are different. Blue and white, and the ‘Star of Judah’–” Tamar ran her hand over the symbols and colors. “You did an excellent job restoring it. It’s ironic. You see, these specific colors and symbols memorialize the defeat and death of the Eloim at the hands of the Shimii. It memorializes those whom your race killed and displaced from our rightful ancestral lands. Isn’t it bleakly humorous?”

Baran and Sareh stared at the monument with blank eyes, their ears suddenly folding.

Both had mute horror in their faces and looked completely lost on how to respond.

Still smiling, Tamar continued to speak, circling slowly around the cenotaph.

As if it was such a curious and interesting little object despite all the death inscribed in it.

“Eloim, itself, that word– is a misnomer borne of how utterly destroyed our culture was. This also is not uncommon– words describing peoples shift over time, and with the destruction of the surface, so many of our words for things have been scrambled in the resulting cultural shifts. None of us can know the truth, or can we? Well– I know. I know my part of the truth at least. We were once called the Judeans. And our home, Judah, was taken from us, by you– now you understand? Thank you for your efforts nevertheless, little Shimii girls.”

Tamar completed her circle and stood in front of the cenotaph again with her smile.

Baran and Sareh continued to stand side by side silently, unnerved by what they heard.

At their side, however, someone spoke up.

“I’ve had enough of this!” Gunther said. “You have no reason to mock them like this!”

He stepped up to Tamar and pointed his index finger firmly at her.

Seeming to realize as he was doing so that he had approached her in anger.

But Tamar Livnat had no reaction to it but to smile, above everything.

She reached her hand from her coat and laid her fingers on Gunther’s cheek.

Surprising even him with her brazeness. He was utterly paralyzed in her grasp.

“You will understand someday. Even a neutered and weak man like you who has had the lion taken out of him will understand when Destiny calls to you. That is what Ms. Sattler fails to account for in her furies. At any rate– my kin are always welcome to come talk to me. You can leave a message at the Aachen Historical Society and it will make its way to me.”

She let him go, and walked past him, leaving him stunned at the foot of the monument.

Baran and Sareh watched, seemingly helpless. She stopped near them.

Smiling. Always smiling.

“I hope you understand that I have nothing against you personally. You seem like good kids. Now that I have educated you, keep maintaining the cenotaph if it eases your guilt.” She said.

Sareh looked like she would snap back– but Baran stopped her, shaking her head.

Tamar fixed her gaze on the two of them for a moment before continuing to walk away.

Disappearing into the dim shadows of the underground Wohnbezirk as if she never existed.

Sareh continued to watch as if she expected her to reappear suddenly like a ghost.

While Baran approached the monument, produced a cloth and ran it over the face again.

Over the places where Tamar had run her hands.

“Whatever the cenotaph means, it’s not any better to allow it to be defaced.” Baran said.

Sareh quietly looked back at her and nodded her head in agreement.

Gunther, meanwhile, stared at the monument and at Baran, dejected and speechless.

He had left the ship to clear his head, and now he was fixed into place and helpless.

Crushed by the heavy weight of the past hanging over Aachen, heavier than all of the stone.

A weight soon to drop that would hurl waves like none of them had ever seen.


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.6]

In truth, despite everything, the world was beautiful.

War had broken the Imbrium to pieces; the Ocean had never felt darker and farther from hope; and their lives had been cast between the warring factions on a clandestine mission, the enormity of which meant that they might never return home. Every day was a test of their courage and will. One mistake could cost not only the unlucky crew member, but the lives of the entire ship, and ultimately, the mission to break the yoke of oppression from around the neck of Imbria. Each of their hearts, a simmering chaos; every moment, part of the unending work; peace and relaxation, fleeting and hard-earned.

However, the view from the Captain’s chair was just so beautiful for Murati Nakara.

She sat where Ulyana Korabiskaya once sat.

Grinning to herself, arms crossed.

Proud.

Coursing with the power of the title and office.

Her responsibility for the hundreds of souls working on the ship transferring like temperature from the cushioned chair into her very body. Even if temporarily, she stood on the summit of her ambitions, and she gazed down upon the valley at the bridge officers expecting her command. It felt like there was a new world ahead of her now.

And her bridge officers stared back up at her and beheld her in her new position.

They seemed confused, but in reality, they must have been filled with respect.

“Ensign Zachikova! Bring up our wireframe model of Aachen station!” Murati said.

From the electronic warfare station, Braya Zachikova looked over her shoulder.

She glared at the acting-Captain with a strangely unfriendly expression.

Braya Zachikova, the ship’s electronic warfare specialist. She was a short woman, pale and skinny, with tawny hair tied into a spiraling ponytail that represented the most extravagant feature of an otherwise modestly-adorned girl. Thanks to the two thick grey antennae implanted where her ears would have been, Zachikova could connect directly to devices and control computers and programs far more adroitly than any other crewmember. These implants were a surgical intervention to save her from Hartz syndrome, a very debilitating neurological disorder. Her cold eyes were also cybernetic implants in the same vein.

Murati had already worked with her before, but as the Captain, she saw Zachikova with new eyes. She was uniquely important among the crew members, but also the most defiant.

“Why exactly should we do that, Senior Lieutenant and First Officer Nakara?” Zachikova asked.

Each one of those words felt like a brick falling on Murati’s head.

Did she really have to use all of her actual ranks? None of them mattered right now!

“Because I want to see it! I need to reference something! That’s an order!” Murati said.

Zachikova’s glare seemed to roll from Murati down to the woman seated next to her.

A Loup in a heavily-modified yet familiar black uniform with a green instead of red armband.

Looking quite similar to a Union Ashura Commissar. Quite similar, but not entirely identical.

“Recall that in the event of an emergency, discipline under my master will be the same as discipline under the Captain– and that in such a situation her adjutant is functionally equivalent to her Commissar as well. Everyone should take this as an opportunity to practice and get used to working under a new command structure, in case the need ever arises.”

Aatto Jarvi Stormyweather, seated where Commissar Aaliyah Bashara usually sat.

In her hands she had a menacing crop, which she struck against her own palm.

She had promised not to use it except as an aesthetic prop.

“You must follow that order, Zachikova.” Aatto said, smiling.

As much as Murati seemed to enjoy her newfound position of power, so did Aatto.

Despite some initial misgivings, Murati was too absorbed in her own role to police Aatto.

“I am not just asking for things at random! This is for the mission!” Murati said.

“Milord, is it therefore still required of me to calibrate the main armament, again?”

From the gunnery section, Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa raised her hand.

A slim and pretty girl with a dark and romantic affectation, her blond hair streaked with purple to match the purple lipstick and eyeshadow that she wore, and the black and purple tie she wore with her uniform, non-standard. She often spoke with an affected sophistication undercut by misuse of words or taking too long to communicate simple ideas.

Murati had no opinion on this but she knew the captain was often irritated with her.

“Yes! We need to be in top shape! That should be calibrated every day!” Murati said.

From beside the gunnery section, Alexandra Geninov raised her hand also.

A tall woman, brown-skinned and brown-haired, lent a slight dishevelment by the messy bun into which she collected her hair with a hair claw. Long-limbed, broad-shouldered, and good-looking enough to top the list of the so-called “Four Princes of the Brigand.” She regarded Murati with her odd eyes, one blue and one brown, slightly narrowed with an exagerrated weariness. Along with Fernanda, Geninov was the second common irritant on the bridge. Loud, distracted, and frequently making remarks about video games.

Murati had played video games. They were fun, and that was that.

But she got the sense– it was much more than that for Geninov.

“So then, do I also have to wire-test all the torpedoes in the magazine, actually?” Alex asked.

“Yes! Why haven’t you been doing that? What if we have a wire failure in combat?”

“Back at the academy we were taught to wire-check as part of weekly maintenance.”

“Now it’s daily maintenance!” Murati said. “We’re in a dangerous situation here!”

Murati shouted orders with a grin on her face despite the reticence of the crew.

At her side, Aatto crossed her arms and nodded her head as if in silent support.

Both Fernanda and Alex gloomily set about their tasks as instructed.

Grumbling, Zachikova summoned the wireframe model of Aachen on the main screen.

For the first few days of their stay in Aachen, reconnaissance had been the focus of the crew’s efforts. The pilots, the special forces operatives, their allies from the Rostock, and even the Captain and the Commissar had all been involved in gathering on-the-ground intelligence on the layout of the station. On the screen, was the culmination of their efforts. A wireframe model of Aachen Station, with most of the interior modeled (save for the inaccessible upper tier). It was more than just a static map. Zachikova had hijacked dozens of unsecured private CCTV cameras throughout the station, which were pointed out on the model. She could use them along with publically available foot traffic and internal weather data in order to track and predict certain conditions within the station. Murati was astonished by the craft behind the model, but even more excited for its use.

Information was one the strongest weapons for a military group.

A disparity in intelligence and intelligence-gathering capability between two opponents could severely impact their forces before a single bullet could be fired. Even a foe that was stronger in arms could be felled by a weaker force that had the right information and the capability to act on it. Movements of the enemy, the location and route of their supplies, their intentions and plans, the organization of their forces. The identity and location of their officers and political leadership. Such knowledge was powerful.

Having this model, which could update in real time as conditions changed, was quite useful.

Murati studied the model, paying particular attention to the third tier commercial area.

It was there, in a fancy bar rented out by Gloria Innocence Luxembourg, that the United Front gathered. They would continue meeting there throughout the week. Ulyana, Aaliyah, Erika, and the officers of the John Brown, as well as Olga and Daphne at times, many officers of the Volksarmee attended the deliberations. Murati was not invited. She had to man the bridge, maintain the continuity of command. As much as she had wanted to talk serious theory with other militant leftists, she felt that Ulyana appreciated her abilities and had given her this opportunity as a test of her capability to lead the ship. Should the worst happen, the solemn duty of continuing the mission would fall on Murati’s shoulders.

Murati would not allow anything to happen to the Captain, Commissar and Premier.

Using the model, she wanted to begin planning contingencies.

“Zachikova, I want you to draft a few simulated escape routes from the third tier down to Stockheim. For this scenario, our objective is to secure the United Front delegates and extract them in the midst of an event. I want you to test them with a simulated mass panic in each tier separately, and all tiers together. Once you have done so put it on screen– I will want additional simulations in case certain routes are blocked off. Log everything you calculate in encrypted files and distribute the keys to Illya and Valeriya.”

Zachikova stared at Murati for a moment, but her expression softened ever so slightly.

“Acknowledged.”

She did not call her ‘Captain’ as Murati would have wanted, but she did not object.

Perhaps she realized now that Murati was not giving them all work without reason.

As much as Murati felt fulfilled to be acting as the captain even for a day or two–

She would not allow herself to earn the title through tragedy.

Using the resources she had been given to command, Murati would make preparations.

Whether or not anything happened, she needed to be ready.

Captain Korabiskaya had to be protected and supported with everything they had.

That was the mission of Murati Nakara’s bridge on Murati Nakara’s temporary ship.

“We will dub this mission, ‘Operation Spyglass’! Everyone get to work!” Murati declared.

Voice filled with passion, she looked over to her left, where Semyonova was seated.

Semyonova quickly input the operation name into the logs.

Even though Zachikova was the only one actively engaged in the contents of the operation, Fernanda and Alex’s daily maintenance was to be rolled into it. Glancing around her bridge, Murati laid eyes on the helmsman, Abdulalim Kamarik, a private and quietly cheerful man usually listening to music while working on the ship. She wondered if there was anything he should be doing too. However upon checking her console on the captain’s chair, Murati discovered that Kamarik ran thorough maintenance checks on the Brigand every day and had meticulous logs and diagnostics of its behaviors that he frequently sent the Captain– and which were frequently left unread despite his great efforts.

“Helmsman! I wanted to commend you for your laudable work!” Murati said.

From his station, Kamarik half turned, glancing over his shoulder and saluting casually.

“It’s no big deal. To a true helmsman, a ship is his lady love. And I’m a bit of a wife guy.”

He cracked a smile and ran his hand over his console as if caressing the ship itself.

Murati was briefly left speechless. She was not on the bridge often enough.

In the middle of Zachikova running the simulations, Murati received a message.

“Acting Captain, we have a request to connect from the Rostock.” Semyonova said.

Another first for Murati as a Captain– a missive delivered by Semyonova. As the communications officer, Semyonova’s pretty face and sweet voice graced the crew every day. Blond-haired, round-faced, with immaculate makeup, long plump limbs and a curvy figure. She was configured like the wheat-striding, pleasantly fat, metaphorically fertile women used to propagandize agricultural life in Lyser– to a degree that fascinated Murati. Widely beloved and admired, Semyonova spent more time than anyone working, and yet she always did it with a smile on her face. There were rumors she had sleep disorders, and that her past-curfew lamentations represented one of the sailors’ “Seven Mysteries of the Brigand”–

–Murati thought that particular item was nonsense, being herself a subject of gossip.

She barely got to interact with Semyonova except through the officer’s labor union, in which Semyonova was the union representative and a fierce advocate for their rights, despite her typically soft disposition. And of course, she saw her in the daily broadcasts and affirmations. But there was something special about having the communications officer address her and tell her she had a communique– it was such a Captainly thing to have happen.

“Put it through to me, Semyonova.” Murati said. She filled with enthusiasm.

“Right away ma’am!” Semyonova said, smiling herself.

Murati pulled the captain’s private monitor, attached on an arm to the chair.

On the screen, a young woman with long blue hair and a military cap appeared. She had crossed out the symbol that was one the cap, scratching a star over it– a common communist military symbol, over what seemed like it might have been a warlord army symbol. It was Daphne Triantafallos, captain of the Rostock. Another captain; a captain who had been forged in battle. She had been with the Volksarmee for some time now.

“Greetings, Captain Triantafallos! Pleasure to see you!” Murati said.

“The pleasure is all mine, Acting Captain.” Daphne said. Murati’s excitement seemed to draw a small smile out of her. “I just received a Zachat from the Premier and thought I would check up on you. Is this your first time having control of the bridge?”

“It is. I would highly value any insights you could give me.” Murati said.

“Well, first, the Premier wanted me to make sure you aren’t working too hard.”

“Captain, we can’t afford any slacking now, don’t you agree?”

Murati was prepared for Daphne to disagree, but she nodded her agreement instead.

“I’m the same as you, Acting Captain Nakara. I do sometimes believe that the Premier can be too lax in the name of preserving the comfort of the troops. I do feel an instinct to run a much tighter shift. However, we must not only work hard, but also work smartly. Imagine you expend all of your energy now; won’t you be tired when the enemy attacks? We must balance making appropriate preparation and maintaining readiness.”

Readiness was a word that packaged the concept of rest in a way Murati could agree with.

Her first instinct had been to disagree again, but Daphne put her argument together well.

Murati would not rescind her orders today– but she would be a bit more lax tomorrow.

“You make a convincing point. We’ve been caught sleeping enough times as it is.”

“Have you now? Well.” Daphne laughed a little. “Let me think. I do have a bit of advice I can pass on. I am not the most experienced myself– but I had the good fortune that my first command came in the auspices of the Premier, who taught me leadership values that superseded the brutal discipline instilled in me in Pythia. I believe, Murati, that the essence of good leadership is unlocking the potential in others. Not just knowing who to delegate tasks to, but understanding them such that your orders almost mirror what they would have done if they were in command. However, you must balance this by commanding enough respect to be able to make people do things they would not do, while impressing upon them that the course you have set them on is not only necessary, but valuable.”

Murati turned over her words in her mind. These sounded like quite long-term projects.

Nevertheless, she would take them to heart. Decisiveness, responsibility, understanding.

Unlocking the potential of her crew. This sounded quite resonant to her experiences.

Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like someone who unlocked a lot of potential out of this crew.

Murati looked at them briefly and they seemed at a glance like eccentric, bickering slackers.

However, she knew that they had come together under extraordinary circumstances before.

They had the potential; so did she.

She just had to be worthy of the moment if it ever came.

“Thank you, Captain Triantafallos.” Murati said.

“You can call me Daphne. I am confident in your abilities, Murati. Perhaps we can discuss Union military strategy sometime. I am also eager to learn from you as well.” Daphne said.

“I would love that.” Murati said. “Doctrine is– a special interest of mine, let’s call it that.”

They bid their farewells and Daphne’s face disappeared from the monitor.

Murati sat back in the captain’s chair, sighing deeply.

Her head felt a bit tight. She felt so much pressure even though nothing was happening yet.

“Aatto,”

She whispered– she knew the Captain and Commissar were able to do this at times.

“Yes, master?”

Aatto whispered back. They established a conversation among themselves.

“A captain has to be able to rely on her Commissar, in a Union crew. Can I rely on you?”

“Of course, master. I would throw myself into a mutiny at the first sign, to save you.”

“That won’t be necessary. Aatto– I’m worried I am too inexperienced. What if I mess up?”

“Hmm. Captain Korabiskaya is quite a force, I must say. However, master, you must also recall that you are not Captain Korabiskaya. You will find your own way of doing things– dare I say it, a superior way, borne of your unique grandeur. You will make unique judgments in unique situations. You will adapt, I know it. It is not only expected that your style of keeping the bridge will differ from hers, but also it is appropriate. Dare I say it, it is necessary.”

“You are daring to say a lot of things lately.” Murati sighed.

But Aatto’s insight was not incorrect. Murati did have her own way of doing things. As much as she admired the other captains in the Volksarmee– she had to have trust in herself too.

That was perhaps even more complicated than just working with the crew as a stand-in.

“Was I of excellent service, master? Was I Commissar-like perhaps?” Aatto asked.

Murati smiled. “You are growing indispensable to me, Aatto. But please drop the ‘master.’”


The scene playing out before her was so surreal Homa wondered if she was staring at it through borrowed eyes. Anger swelled in her heart that fogged her mind and vision but found its only outlet in small, impotent tears which she could not allow anyone else to see. But she did not understand what was happening, ever since two terrifying visitors crossed the gate into the Mahdist village and were met with adulation.

In the fore was a Shimii woman, tall and stately, handsome in uniform, wearing her brown hair to the shoulder. Bushy-tailed, with a bit of fluff at the tips of her tall ears. She would not have looked out of place, had that double-breasted coat not been the black uniform reminiscent of so many that Homa had come to hate. Red and white armbands indicated her allegiance. One had an intricate black sun-disc and the other a hooked cross.

At her side was a blond woman, shorter but lithe, busty, with luxuriously long golden hair and smooth red lips. The way she wore her cap partially hid her eyes so that they seemed permanently in shadow, but there was no hiding the sharp gaze that moved from face to face as she accompanied the woman in her protection. This was a Volkisch soldier, and judging by the alien symbols on her uniform, a soldier of a type that Homa had never met before.

These two figures should have been met with scorn and fear– but they were welcomed.

As the tall Shimii woman approached, people in the village noticed.

First, the children playing outside ran up with enthusiasm to greet her.

Behind them, the aunties seemed to take notice and smiled and left their places to see.

“Councilwoman! Councilwoman!”

Some of the older children called out to her with cheer.

Smiling, the “Councilwoman” spread her arms to welcome them and kneeled down to their level so she could give them hugs. Several of the kids ran into her arms, waving their tails and ears with excitement. One of the smaller children, she picked up in her arms and lifted, and they cheered and clapped their hands and asked in the slurred Low Imbrian of a very small child if they had grown any taller since she had last seen them.

“You have grown!” She said. “You are so big now! It’s very impressive!”

Around her the children laughed. Some asked if she had candy or asked for gifts.

“Of course I have candy! Has Councilwoman Rahima ever visited without candy?”

Rahima reached into her double-breasted coat, and as if out from under the hellish medals which she wore so openly on her breast, she pulled out a little bag of honey and ginger sucking candies. This elicited a cheer from all of the children and they reached up begging for the entire bag, but Rahima instead equitably distributed one piece of candy to each of the awaiting children. They promptly gobbled up the little morsels.

“Come now, there are more children than you, and everyone ought to get a share.”

“No there aren’t, Councilwoman! They all left! You can give us all the candy!”

The Councilwoman seemed to read these as excuses from greedy little kids and laughed.

Behind her, the blond woman crossed her arms and watched the scene unfold quietly.

Her expression seemed to soften from contempt to mild disinterest.

When the adults came near Councilwoman Rahima a similar scene played out. There were many people who wanted to touch hands with her, and a few of the older aunties even patted her back or even her head as though she were a kid they could condescend to. This caused the blond woman to bristle noticeably, but she did not intervene to stop them. Rahima was little by little surrounded by a few dozen people who were all greeting her, thanking her, saying they would pray for her. Some asked her if she intended to stay for the festival. She seemed reticent to answer and simply let them all talk.

Homa felt like she was looking at something ridiculous on the television.

Could this have been real life? Did they not understand what the symbols meant?

Was this really the ‘Councilwoman’ who had helped them so much?

Were they all in league with the Volkisch Movement?!

Perhaps alerted by the commotion, Homa soon spotted Baran heading for the front of the village with her walking stick, wincing as she made herself walk fast. Her reddish-brown hair was tied up a bit into a quick bun under the partial veil over her head, and she wore a shawl over her blouse. Both these things made her look a bit less vibrant than she usually did, and Homa noticed more how much her leg seemed to be troubling her– nevertheless, she marched right up to Rahima. She stood in front of her, quiet at first.

Homa wondered what she could expect. A confrontation–? There was no such thing.

Baren reached out to touch Rahima’s hand and Rahima patted her on the head.

“Please, Councilwoman– I’m not a little girl.” Baran said, smiling a bit.

“You’ll always be a kid to me, just like I’ll always be a kid to the aunties here.”

Rahima’s face lit up at the sight of Baran.

She seemed even more pleased when Sareh headed out to join them shortly after.

Dressed in blue work pants and a long shirt, her hair tied up into a ponytail.

Unlike Baran, Sareh was not smiling much, and shared with Rahima a curt handshake.

“Councilwoman.” Sareh said.

“You’re aloof as ever. I hope you’re taking good care of this one.” Rahima said.

Baran grumbled a bit. “Councilwoman– Sareh is not my minder or anything of the sort.”

Sareh seemed to smile for the first time in the interaction, looking at the embarrassed Baran.

“Nope, I know what you two are.” Rahima said. “Anyway. I see you are holding a festival.”

“Yes. We’re sorry– we did not want to trouble you, Councilwoman.” Baran said.

“I’m fine. Forget the unpleasantness the other day. It’s taken care of. Right Bernie?”

Rahima looked over her shoulder, acknowledging for the first time her blond companion in the presence of the Shimii villagers. She urged ‘Bernie’ to step forward, and with some reticence the blond woman joined Rahima, standing at her side and in front of the villagers. She pulled off her hat and started to bow with respect to the people in front of her–

but Rahima stopped her.

“Sorry– Bernie, Shimii don’t bow, nor are they bowed to, remember?” Rahima said gently.

“Apologies. How should I best express my respect?” Bernie asked.

“Just a handshake will do– or if you feel strongly about it you could kiss Baran’s cheek?”

Rahima grinned like a fox. Bernie turned to Baran and seemed to contemplate it–

Baran offered the hand not holding her walking stick and shook with Bernie instead.

Sareh seemed to shift back to mild annoyance toward Rahima, crossing her arms.

“This is Bernadette Sattler, my security chief and aide.” Rahima said, introducing ‘Bernie.’

“Pleased to meet you.” Baran said. “Thank you for protecting the Councilwoman.”

“My pleasure. At any rate–” Bernie said, appearing to sigh at the scene that had unfolded. “The party office received a complaint recently. When taking statements we surmised the families laying out the accusations were covering up for their sons– the Gau office instructed the Wohnbezirk Order Police not to treat the boys as victims and instead reprimand them. This has been carried out and they are prohibited from coming here again, herr Gauleiter.”

“Splendid.” Rahima said. “I’m very sorry for what happened. But we can put it behind us.”

“Thank you for your help, once again.” Baran said politely.

Homa looked to Sareh again. This did not seem to sit right with her.

But she remained quiet. She, too, was not taking action against the Councilwoman.

“Will you be attending the festival then, Councilwoman?” Baran asked.

“I am considering it. It is a rare opportunity.” Rahima said.

“We would love to have you.” Baran said. Her voice was neutral and polite.

“Whether or not I decide to attend, certainly I will have gifts brought over. Since you had the courage to put on the festival this year, I want to make sure you have a magnificent rendition. There should be food and suitable beverages, there should be flowers, and you should have a proper taiza monument, after what happened.” Rahima said.

“We’re working on the taiza just fine.” Sareh said. “Don’t concern yourself with that.”

Her tone of voice was a bit elevated. Bernie shot her a look, and Baran glanced over.

“Very well. I will not.” Rahima said. “Sareh, you’re still so overprotective. It’s cute.”

“Tch.” Sareh made a little noise and averted her gaze. Bernie continued to stare at her.

Then, what Homa had been dreading the entire time transpired, and Baran looked around.

Again– she spotted Homa on the sidelines and beckoned her for another introduction.

Rahima, too, followed where she thought Baran’s gaze was going.

She met Homa’s unfriendly expression, held her eyes.

Perhaps curious; an unfamiliar face.

For someone who seemed to have such history with the village, Homa must have stuck out.

Would she be immediately suspicious?

Would that harpy at her side demand her papers?

Homa’s curiosity had gotten the better of her and she had stuck around for every detail, every second of the village’s interactions with Rahima– perhaps she should have run back and alerted Kalika instead. Her heart started to thrash, her skin brimming with the vibrations of her sinews. Anxiety rushed in her very bloodstream. She had gone along with Imani plenty of times, but that was different– she had been conspiring with Imani, not against her as she was doing now. What if Rahima or Bernie could tell by the way her ears folded or her tail wagged, or her hands shook, that she was not who she said she was?

She could have run, maybe– but she did not do so.

Obediently, simmering in anger and fear, Homa stepped forward.

Baran urged her to join the group at her side and patted her back and shoulder.

Could she tell that Homa was a complete mess? How far would her compassion stretch?

“Councilwoman, I wanted to introduce you to Homa Messhud. She is a traveler from afar who is seeking her roots.” Baran said. She had used this same wording before, with Conny. “She has been very generous and already helped us avert a major problem. She also stood with us on that awful night a few days ago and will be an honored guest at the festival. We do not have guests often, as you know, so it is quite auspicious to have her.”

“Auspicious indeed.” Rahima said. “I’m Rahima Jašarević.”

She stretched out a hand to shake with Homa. As she had with everyone else.

In her mind this must have been nothing special, just as Homa herself was nothing special.

To Homa, this gesture was absolutely odious. That hand was tumorous with evil.

In that moment she would have only wanted to hold Rahima’s hand to rip her arm off.

Such fantasies would get her nowhere, however– she could not jeopardize the mission–

And would it make sense to act defiant at any rate? Would it have meant anything here?

In the time that Homa contemplated it, there was already the beginnings of awkwardness.

“Ah, sorry, I’m a bit dazed. Didn’t sleep well. Forgive me– nice to meet you–”

Homa felt so pathetic, as she made a simple excuse and then just shook Rahima’s hand.

No defiance, no statements, she could do nothing. She was helpless again.

Holding that hand felt like a complete defeat. Her breath caught in her throat out of shame.

“Nice to meet you.” Rahima said. “Thank you for helping these folks. Messhud was your surname, right? It reminds me of Baran’s surname– maybe we could look it up in the registry. If you are looking for your family here there is no better resource than the Gau.”

“Ah, thank you, it’s fine– I don’t want to trouble you–”

“Oh, it’s no trouble. Come by the Gau office any time, we’ll discuss it.”

Homa would not be caught dead in that filthy place.

Rahima released her hand. Her eyes lingered on Homa’s for a moment.

She must have dismissed her that quickly; she turned to toward Baran instead.

“Baran, I want to talk to you. Sareh is welcome to join us as well.” Rahima said.

“Allow me to treat you and the lady Sattler to breakfast.” Baran said.

“I would love that. Perhaps miss Messhud and I will talk later.” Rahima said.

Sareh looked at Homa in a way she interpreted as sympathetic.

“Maybe. I’ll leave you all to your business– I’m rather tired still.” Homa said.

She peeled herself from Rahima’s side, leaving the crowd as quietly as she could.

Putting some of the shabby little plastic buildings between herself and the entrance.

Before taking off into a sudden and desperate run once she knew nobody was looking.

Her heart racing, her head pounding, her body needing any form of catharsis–

Putting in such effort into running, her arms and legs turning quick enough to hurt.

Hurtling toward the little house Baran had set up for them, hoping Kalika was still there.

Running so fast she nearly tripped trying to stop herself at the curtain over the entrance.

“Kalika! Kalika!” Homa cried out before she could even see the interior.

Inside, Kalika was still asleep. Hearing her name shouted she bolted up to a sitting position.

Groggy, her hand immediately reached as if for a weapon. But her bag was across the room.

“H-Homa? What’s wrong?” Kalika said. Her voice caught briefly.

That intensity with which she looked back at the curtain, and Homa, while Homa had to double over and collect herself, every muscle in her body aching, her blood burning under her skin as it rushed through her sinews, her chest tight– she felt like a complete idiot. Her reeling mind, stunted with anxiety, turned over what she would even say to her.

“There’s Volkisch. In the village.” She managed to speak while gasping for breath.

“How many?” Kalika said. She was alarmed. Of course– all of this was alarming.

And yet, realizing her own hyperbole, Homa’s heart sank as she delivered the news.

“Two. Two at the gates. Villagers– they’re friendly to them–”

Every word she said made her feel more and more ridiculous for what she was saying.

“Two?!”

“Two–”

Kalika laid a hand on her own chest and dropped back upon the bed.

“Homa, have a sense of proportionality!” Kalika cried. “You nearly killed me with fright!”

Her frustration and annoyance was so painfully evident.

Homa felt like she would never be able to forget that tone of voice, like she had committed an irreparable sin, another little moment of shame and embarrassment to punctuate how pathetic she was. Her ears folded and her stubby tail turned up as best as it could to indicate this shame– but just as suddenly, she became defiant and wanted to argue.

“I was just trying to warn you!” Homa cried back. “Two of them are still dangerous!”

“Homa what they are doing matters! I thought we were being invaded here!”

“They’re shaking hands! The villagers love them! This whole place is Volkisch!”

Kalika suddenly stood and put a hand over Homa’s mouth, another on her shoulder.

Homa could not resist– her grip was so quick and so strong. She was physically quieted.

Then– Kalika seemed to realize what she was doing, and her expression softened.

She lifted her hand from Homa’s lips. It had been her warm hand, her biological hand.

“Homa, I’m sorry. You scared me. I– I shouldn’t have reacted– I’m–” Kalika began–

Homa bowed her head and then threw herself into Kalika’s chest, arms around her waist.

Weeping. She couldn’t help it anymore. Her heart felt like it had broken.

All she could do was helplessly cling to Kalika and weep.

“Homa. I’m so sorry– I’m so sorry. There, there, it’ll be fine. Please– calm down–”

Kalika returned her embrace, holding her tightly, a hand on her head, another on her back.

Homa could hardly recognize that she was being held or even standing.

Her vision swam and her head was unable to muster a thought.

All of the emotions she had repressed cascaded out of her in that instant.

Weeping so strongly that it hurt. Even Kalika’s warmth could do little to stem her tears.


“So, paesan, what was your surname again?”

Elena felt a sudden sense of menace pervade the room.

This was her aunt– she should have been someone who felt safe. But the need to maintain her lie had completely altered the situation. Sitting on a mattress on the floor in only her shirt and a knee-length skirt, with this woman looming in front of her, and that steel baton pointing and shaking as if it was seething at her– Elena felt a sense of sheer terror. With whatever defiance she could muster, she simply kept quiet.

“Don’t overthink it too much– whatever the truth is, my dowsing will elucidate it.”

“I’ll tell everyone you threatened me.” Elena said, with a trembling voice.

“I’m not threatening you. I’m asking a question.” Conny said softly. “If you feel so threatened by this question then maybe I should ask Baran or perhaps even that Homa Messhud if they know who you really are. I have a lot of questions that are much more complicated and would be far less satisfying than to simply know– are you Elena von Fueller?”

“I– I don’t know what you are talking about. Leave me alone.” Elena said.

It was such a bitterly ridiculous moment.

Under any other circumstances, Elena would have loved to be able to talk to this woman.

Under any other circumstances– but these. Now she felt horribly unsafe with her aunt.

“Very well. It’s like I said before– my dowsing will reveal the truth.”

Elena felt a sudden, sharp pinprick in the back of her head–

Then in an instant, her eyes went hot, and she tried to repel the intrusion with her power.

Prompting a brief flash of an image in her mind.

Brief in the sensation her body felt, the pain that it brought on–

But in her mind, it lasted for a longer and much more vivid moment.

An image of her mother’s beautiful, blooming garden in Schwerin Isle,

and Norn the Praetorian standing amid the flowers with her boot buried into Elena’s gut.

“As ever, I am here to uphold the promise. Don’t do this again.”

Then in quick succession like the turning of projector slides, she was gone from the sunny garden and returned to the plastic shack in the underground, with her aunt standing in front of her with a puzzled expression. That stick which she had been pointed at looked almost as if it had split open into a triangle, its contours much thinner, and the interior glowing with colors. Elena’s vision swam and doubled over on the bed, holding her stomach, overcome with horrible pain and nausea. She felt the force of the blow to such a degree.

“What was that feedback?” Conny asked. Her voice sounded suddenly alarmed.

She knelt down next to Elena, whose pain was too consuming to make notice of it.

Conny’s hand pushed up Elena’s chin and she stared directly into her eyes.

“Please, no,” Elena moaned, shaking in Conny’s grip.

She was not listening.

Something had drawn Conny into a passion, and Elena feared she knew what it was.

Her eyes looked like they were seeing through Elena, past her. Her expression, a twitch in her temple, the grip she had on Elena’s chin. She was angered by something. Her irises ringed by red light flashing the tell-tale sign of the power and the stick flying over her shoulder contorting itself into different shapes like it was made of liquid metal.

That stick– looked like it was in panic.

“Norn.” Conny said, her lips curling into a grin, her eyes wide with anger.

“Please let me go. Please.” Elena cried, helpless to extricate herself from Conny’s grasp.

Conny was still not listening to her.

“Norn– that bitch– as if she has not done enough to my family–”

Elena drew feebly back, but not in time–

Conny raised her hand and laid the palm on Elena’s forehead.

Judging by her movements– this was an impulsive and sudden action–

For a split second Elena felt like her skull had been pressed down like a button.

Then there was a flash of light and sound that seemed to consume all of her senses.

Disoriented, it was impossible to tell directions or time within that void.

Until everything went dark, and the colors appeared in front of her.

There was something warm about them, familiar, as if the maelstrom of colored light in front of her represented a person or many persons that she knew– or maybe even the concept of a person in some sense. She felt accompanied and felt drawn to the colors. They were the only sight. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, with black and white ribbons dancing around them as if framing the scene, visible only by each other’s presence.

All of them seemed to form a complimentary whole in this space.

Elena was soon overtaken by a strong feeling however– regret, and a sense of helplessness.

She felt that the colors must have demanded something from her and that she had to give as much as she could to fulfill their requests and desires but that she was ultimately helpless to do so. Elena tried to understand them, tried to understand their hurt and their need, but it was so vast, and it extended so far back into the past and it continued so far forward into the future that she felt dwarfed by it all and incapable of ever rectifying what she had done to them– she was suddenly certain, that whatever their predicament it was her fault.

Elena, villainess and heroine entwined.

She wanted to save them. She wanted to give anything of herself to make them whole. She wanted to atone for causing and for never having known their pain by experiencing untold agony. She knew of no other way to rectify what had been clearly broken than sacrifice.

If only she could have been torn into little pieces and given to everyone who was hurt.

Then they would each have their salvation and revenge, whatever they needed.

It was difficult to retain even this train of thought, however, because the emotions were so intense and so consuming that she could do nothing to grasp for specifics within the currents. Everything was so enormous to her. She was beset by shifting urges, by depression of the deepest possible sort that lasted only seconds, by an elation so powerful and consuming that she laughed loud enough to crack the earth but only for a microsecond. Elena decomposed into circling light and was remade as a titan above everything.

And in the blink of an eye she was gone from the void and saw a place.

There was a woman, a bit short, white-haired, youthful looking, wearing a robe and seated on a couch, with her legs over the armrests and her head on a cushion. Her bra strap and some of her soft white shoulder was peeking as her robe slowly slid its way off her, and she had on one shoe, and her hair was in a bit of a state. Shifting positions on the couch, she was entranced by her reading and the world around her seemed not to matter.

But the book had no visible cover matter– and there was another woman, who walked in.

Long, shimmering purple hair; a perfect figure in a showy green dress; a gorgeous face.

“Oh, Leda.” Conny looked up from her book. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

As much as Elena tried to focus on Leda’s face she could not see it.

And as much as she tried to cry out there was no voice– she was nothing but colors–

“Conny, why did you drop out of the institute? Why are you isolating yourself?” Leda asked.

“Well, we’re loaded now, so what does it matter what my education is?” Conny replied. “I never integrated so well as you either. But now we are a peer family with handsome financial reserves. I can spend the rest of my life learning on my own and at my own pace.”

“Mother is worried about you. She fears you have become depressed.”

“She has nothing to worry about and she knows that better than anyone.”

“Conny– I know that you aren’t my real sister.”

This finally caused Conny to drop her book and pay attention to Leda.

“Well– this conversation became ridiculous quicker than usual.” Conny said.

Leda finally smiled. Elena understood this implicitly but still could not see her face.

“Set aside your reservations and come with me to the palace.”

That natural persuasion that she had did not work on Conny whatsoever.

“Absolutely not. Are you joking? I am not so shameless as you.”

Leda never once stopped smiling.

“You can insult me all you like. I am still going to make the request. I have ambitions, Conny, but more than that, I have respect and love for you. It doesn’t matter to me, how old you are, what you have seen, whether you are my sister or grandmother or ancestor or even an Echo of something that the elven medici brought about to protect our race. I don’t care about any of that. My feelings toward you have always been real as much as you bristled toward them. I cherish you. It is because I cherish you that I want you to stop this. I want you to stop mourning the version of myself you concocted in your head, and join the real me. And I want you in the lives of my children. As you were in mine– or not. It is your choice.”

Conny made no expression to acknowledge whether any of this was true or not.

And the images were already fading, and yet Elena understood–

That Conny chose not to have anything to do with Leda or her child after that point.

Both because she disagreed so painfully and rabidly with Leda’s decision and path.

And because she was deeply hurt that Leda was taken away at all.

But also because a part of her felt so foolish for having cared at all in the first place.

“Whatever. People come and go, but my life will continue, won’t it?”

And all I will have each time are my regrets that will keep piling up and piling up.

Until there is more to regret than any other possible thought or emotion in my brain.

Elena’s eyes stung and wept, and she understood that feeling with such clarity.

Then she saw another vision–

Dim light, a murky steel sky, a small concrete path between crowded buildings.

Walking step by step down the labyrinth of similar buildings, steel and plastic and neon.

At the end of the path was a small monument, the only grave she would ever have.

A square block with a plaque, beneath which there was nothing, in the middle of nowhere.

Baden Student’s League memorialized the traitor Leda Lettiere.

For daring to do. And what she had done was left unsaid.

Having walked all the way to the monument, Conny stared at it for many minutes.

Though she wanted for her heart to be a void without anything left in it–

Though she wished the years had broken any capacity she had for sympathy–

Conny’s knees buckled and she dropped in front of the monument, weeping with pain.

Pain for a woman who should have surpassed her in every way, taken too soon.

Pain for one of her kin who rekindled her sense of empathy.

Elena approached the monument herself and tried to touch it.

However– she was just an apparition in someone else’s memories and could do nothing.

Her own eyes filled with tears that could not touch the steel or stone.

Helpless but to be swept up– to another image.

This time, they were in Aachen Station, and a scene had already unfolded.

Conny put her back to a steel door that she had just shut behind herself.

Some part of her stood there wishing so dearly that Rahima would open that door.

That she would run out and grab Conny and claim her and never let her go again.

That– she hadn’t accepted everything Conny told her about the system they lived in.

That– unlike Conny, she had hope for destroying that machine with her own fingers.

That– her youth would confer her the strength Conny had given up on.

But Rahima never left that room. She cried and screamed and seethed alone.

Trained too well in the cynicism and helplessness that Conny painstakingly inscribed.

Why did she not teach her to rebel? Why did she not teach her grander ambitions?

Of course– because Conny herself had lost such things.

“What was the point? What was the point in caring? What was the point in believing that anything could have been different? I already failed so many times. Why did I believe so strongly that things would have been different? And– God damn it, why did I run away so quickly? If I was afraid of being hurt– I already am. I have never been hurt this badly.”

Because I am not an Echo of anything– I am still just a human being.

No matter how long I live or how I powerful I get– by myself all I ever will do is regret.

Elena was beset with such pain that felt unimaginable.

Her brain burnt in her skull as if it was encased in lit petroleum rather than spinal fluid.

What she could only describe as her sanity, was starting to go.

Her sense of stability and control and thought, the homeostasis of her mind and and soul and the physical brain that translated their ethereal output into physical existence– it was wearing away. With exposure to the raw, turbulent emotion that was pouring out of what she now knew to be Conny’s memories– she was losing her grip in reality–

Then, the turbulence suddenly and completely subsided.

As if she had never felt the pain, Elena found herself standing somewhere.

Stable, unhurt, able to see and hear again.

She was–

in her mother’s

garden

on

Schwerin Isle,

and everything she had experienced felt like it was crashing over her like water suddenly.

Bowed by the weight, Elena dropped to the beautiful tiled floor, surrounded by flowerbeds.

Of course, she was not alone– she was never alone here–

Norn appeared across the way, dressed in her grey naval jacket and pants.

Her blond hair collected into a ponytail with a black ribbon.

Red eyes turning over a sight– but not the sight of Elena having broken the ‘promise’–

This time Norn would be preoccupied looking at the woman that had come in with Elena.

Her hair was not white like in some of her memories, but rather blue.

But it was Conny. Dressed in her tasseled bra top and her blazer jacket and bell-bottoms.

With Conny’s reappearance, Elena suddenly felt like she could breathe calmly again.

“Finally I’ll get to have the satisfaction of beating you to a fucking pulp.” Conny said.

Norn grinned. “Interesting. She did not foresee this sort of thing.”

“She did not even know I existed, probably.” Conny said with a shrug.

“No, but beyond just that, she could not have conceptualized someone ‘riding along’.”

“Ah, she must be too young to have understood the Oneiric traditions of the Katarrans.”

Conny withdrew from her pocket her steel baton and let it go.

It began to float by itself as Elena had seen it done before.

“Ancient Katarrans believed dreams took place in their own world to which the mind traveled in sleep. Katarrans believed this world could be accessed by physical intruders from the Plateau of Leng in the southeastern Katarre, what is now known as the territory of the Termeran Consortium. Amusingly enough, Leng is now believed to be site where the surface world first acquired Agarthicite. Perhaps there is something to it? Or perhaps we are interpreting all of this quite wrong? What do you think, Norn the Praetorian?”

Norn looked amused. “I think you need to get out of this girl’s memories right now.”

“I would say the same thing to you. You’ve caused her family enough grief haven’t you?”

“They caused their own grief– and I am here to prevent Elena from suffering even more.”

“Then expel me from her dreams and visions.” Conny said.

“With pleasure.”

Temporal Control.

Elena felt a whispering in her ears, telling her what happened though she could not see–

It had been so fast, happened in a blink.

From her perspective, nobody had undergone the action of moving–

But Norn stood a few steps closer with a cut on her cheek.

Conny stood in the same place as before but smiling.

Norn reached a hand up to her cheek and touched the blood, rubbed it between her fingers.

“I see.” She said, neither anger nor pain in her voice.

“I would be able to move through the real thing’s Temporal Control also.” Conny said.

“So it is not about raw power.” Norn said.

“No.” Conny smiled. “Temporal Control can stop physical things because Norn conceives of physical objects as having ‘time’ that she can ‘stop’. But phenomena cannot be stopped by it.”

“In this case, the phenomena in question, is–”

In the next instant, another cut appeared, this time on the side of Norn’s neck.

“Did you know? Hanwan madou, is the pursuit and refinement of miraculous techniques, whether perceived as magic or simply great feats of dexterity. However, in the modern world, the myth has actually lessened in scope with Hanwa’s wartime psyche– madou is the mythical pursuit of causing destruction from afar with only a human’s vital energy. One of the main ideas behind madou is to cut something immediately and from afar.”

In the middle of her speech, Elena noticed the steel baton flicking ever so subtly–

This time, Norn raised her hands in time to block what seemed like an invisible blow.

On her sleeve, the synthetic fabric was scuffed and looked like it might tear.

“It only cuts with the lethality of an object you possess capable of cutting.” Norn said.

“Yes, but your face is exposed. Aren’t psionics scary?” Conny said, tilting her head.

Norn smiled. “You’re right. I wasn’t prepared for this– but the real one would kill you.”

Conny frowned a bit, for the first time. “Perhaps. She would have water to work with.”

“Tell me this.” Norn said. “Would you make yourself this girl’s keeper?”

“Are you?”

“No, I am not capable of it. But it was still something Norn Tauscherer wished.”

“Was it? Then maybe she should not have killed her mother.”

“She did not.”

“Not personally– but she was part of the structure that doomed Leda.”

“You should have saved her if you had this power.”

Conny seemed to look at Norn for the very first time then.

Not toying with her, not flaunting her ability– but speaking to her, with gazes locked.

“You of all people should understand how meaningless it is to have ‘power’ in the world that we live in. After all, you were the Apostle of Water and yet you lived in servitude to a despot when you could have overturned the world yourself. Am I wrong?” Conny said.

“You did not have to kill anyone. You could have rescued Leda.” Norn said.

“To rescue her I would have needed to kill you, at least. Possibly many others.”

“Leda was more formidable than you think. She truly believed she could kill him.”

“So? Why are you changing the subject on me? Does that make her fate justified?”

“No. But I am wondering if the end of my existence can be used productively.”

Norn nodded her head toward the flower beds.

Conny glanced over her shoulder. For the first time she noticed Elena behind her.

Sighing, she continued to speak. Whether for herself or Elena– only she knew.

“The Imbrian Empire would not have reformed anyway. Leda was never going to accomplish that even if she outmaneuvered her wretched husband. Because we have always needed more than just killing the right people to change the world. You also need the right people to exist to take up the mantle of leadership. And you need the material and social conditions for change. She acted in arrogance; and I narrowly avoided dooming myself and our remaining family through the same arrogance. I am mature enough to know this, Norn.”

Norn grunted. “Elf– You do know that–”

“Yes, you are not really Norn. You are an Echo of her regrets, clinging like a chain around the neck of my ‘niece’. Fate brought us together perhaps so my violence can have one use in life.”

Conny lifted her hand.

This time Norn made no move to stop her or to resist.

Over her shoulder, the baton lifted its tip up and back, and then swung–

“No! Auntie, leave Norn alone! Please!”

Elena finally found her voice and called out, but it was too late–

In the next instant, whatever of Norn was inside her would be cut out utterly– unless–

Elena focused all of herself in that near-imperceptible instant–

To shield Norn and to suffer herself and to teach Conny a lesson about her ‘arrogance’–

There was no one to hold her abilities back anymore,

And she hated listening to these people talk about hopelessness and inaction so much!

In that moment, she was filled with a desire to shake this unjust world,

and it responded.

TERRAKINESIS

Across the false Schwerin Isle of her memories the foundations and structures quavered.

In front of Norn a stone slab rose that absorbed Conny’s invisible cutting, and a stone fist rose in front of Conny that struck her in the stomach. The blow sent her tumbling off her feet and onto the ground, clutching her stomach as Elena had clutched it from Norn’s previous blows. She came to lie in front of a flowerbed only partially conscious.

Then– the quaking intensified–

and all of the floor and scenery collapsed–


“Thank you for joining us for tea. I wanted to talk to you about some– recent events.”

There was a meeting in Baran’s house.

Homa, Kalika, Sareh and the lady of the house sat around the little table. There were cups of light brown tea, sweetened with a bit of date syrup. Baran looked a bit more weary and troubled than she had been. Sareh looked tense and avoidant, her gaze wandering and unable to meet the other two at the table. It was not a homey atmosphere.

“I saw your Councilwoman out there.” Kalika said. “Playing with the kids.”

Homa envied how easily Kalika could breach the silence that had built up.

Baran smiled. Her lips moved ever so slightly– a diplomatic sort of smile.

“She’s always liked to play with the kids here. Maybe because she doesn’t have her own.”

“Perhaps. She’s wearing a very colorful uniform nowadays, isn’t she?” Kalika said.

“Yes.” Baran said, her eyes downcast. “I wanted to tell you we are not affiliated with that.”

“What do you mean not affiliated?” Homa grumbled. “Everyone here loves that– lady.”

Now the situation dragged Homa’s words out of her.

She was about to say ‘bitch’ and just barely managed to control herself in that moment.

Baran continued to look at the table. “I know it must have looked strange to you–”

Homa cut her off. “More than strange! Alarming! Do you not know what they’ve done?”

“Homa, don’t yell at her.” Sareh butted in, laying a closed fist on the table.

“Please don’t fight. We’re all friends here, Sareh. I’m not offended.” Baran said.

Sareh suddenly looked perhaps more sad at the scene than angry with anyone.

“I agree.” Kalika said, laying a hand on Homa’s shoulder and squeezing gently.

Homa had just gotten calmed down from her last outburst and her self-control frayed.

She was still a little bit upset at Kalika, but it came from a place of pettiness.

Because she knew Kalika was right, and that she was being irrational and stubborn.

She knew that her shouting and blowing up would not help her or anyone else.

But that did not help her to calm down and see things clearly.

Everything that was happening was too unfair and odious.

Sareh crossed her arms and drew in a breath as if preparing for what she would say.

“Look. Nobody here is a member of the Volkisch Movement. We do not want to wear their uniforms and attack people for their sake. But for us, the council government never helped us at all. No matter how we voted, the policy was that the Rashidun in the town controlled everything and our situation remained the same. But Rahima specifically always helped us keep our heads above water, and kept the peace. So the people here want to believe Rahima has their best interests at heart, no matter what side she’s on. We know that the Volkisch Movement has caused a lot of violence– but in our eyes, the council government was responsible for our pain, not the Volkisch. The Volkisch have terrorized other Imbrians and peoples– if you find some really cynical folks here, they’ll say its deserved.”

Baran nodded her head. She had a rather pitiful expression as Sareh explained.

“That doesn’t make anything right.” Homa replied sharply.

“I’m just telling you what the people here think.” Sareh said. “I already told you I’m not with the Volkisch Movement, I do not sympathize with them, I think they’re scum. If they weren’t scum they would have ended the restrictions that the Rashidun put on our community and made this place more livable. But you need to understand this, Homa– the status quo here has been the same. So why would we see any urgency? To us, there is no evidence the Volkisch are a world-shattering threat. Nothing has changed for good or for ill.”

Those remarks were about to earn another sharp rebuke–

“Homa. I’m on your side, but please try to understand them.” Kalika said.

–until the anger was again diffused by a stern voice.

Homa clenched her fists, but she said nothing out of fear of insulting Sareh and Baran.

She knew that they were not evil people– they were just stuck in a horrid situation.

Like her– they had no power to change anything by themselves.

But she still wanted to be angry at them. Because it still wasn’t right to her.

“Homa, Kalika, we value your friendship and what you’ve done for us, and we don’t want to lose it or to trouble you with anything. I know you are both really good people and that is why you have concerns about Rahima. I understand your perspective.” Baran said. “You don’t have to be involved with Rahima in any way– she will not know about you, and you will not have to interact with her. But I can’t deny Rahima if she wants to come to the festival.”

“Trust me, I wish she was not coming. I’m not her biggest fan. She has condescended to the two of us far too much.” Sareh said. “I still begrudge her that as much as she helped us, she has not actually changed the situation here. But I have to set aside my personal feelings because she has undoubtedly still done a lot for us. Our people here admire her because of it. As much as she irritates me, we have to be grateful and show some respect.”

Homa looked down at the table to avoid everyone’s faces. “Fine, I understand.”

“I wanted to ask something else.” Baran said. “I’d like to hear your opinion on a local issue.”

“I’m all ears.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded her head quietly and played along.

“Rahima talked to us about her plans for the Wohnbezirk. Apparently she thinks she’ll have a lot of power to change things soon. I wanted to hear an outside opinion. You see– she wants to promote Shimii immigration into the core station– but she also said she wants to make the Wohnbezirk officially non-denominational. Setting aside whether or not she will be able to do this– it’s not like she hasn’t broken promises before– but I’m torn about it. She did not have too many specifics; I told her I’d need time to form an opinion anyway.”

Baran looked troubled as she spoke. She was not smiling, diplomatically or otherwise.

“My question is: who sets the terms of what ‘non-denominational’ means?” Kalika said.

“That’s what I am most afraid of.” Baran said.

“If the old Rashidun in the town get to decide the details, you can bet there won’t be any Mahdist traditions involved. They will want us to just blend in and follow their lead.” Sareh said. “It feels like Rahima is just doing anything to say that she tried to mend the sectarian prejudices and we’ll end up in the same position or worse as before.”

“I am wary of judging her too harshly until we see the plan in more detail.” Baran said.

“If it were me, I would not accept even the base premise.” Kalika said. “Because I don’t think anyone wants the town to be ‘non-demonimational’. I think what people want is to be able to live side by side as their own persons with their own identities without conflict. They want to be acknowledged and accepted for who they are. But the world that they live in is one in which the Rashidun are prejudice against them. Suddenly saying that the town is not Rashidun, and the village is not Mahdist does not change that the people are divided.”

“I agree! The more I think about it the more pissed off I get!” Sareh said. “If this village just had equal treatment there wouldn’t be a problem! We’re not asking to live in the core station or in the town, we’re asking to be able to grow food and to have working equipment down here! This is our home and we should just be able to make it more livable!”

“Homa, what do you think?” Baran said.

She reached out a hand to touch Homa’s own hand– and touched the metallic one.

Homa could not feel it and there was something bitter about that.

“I don’t trust that lady.” Homa said. “I don’t think this is what anyone wants.”

Baran nodded. Even though Homa felt she had said something stupid and obvious.

Nobody around the table judged her or dismissed her.

“Thank you both. It’s helped me to think about what I’ll say to Rahima.” Baran said.

“We’re always happy to help.” Kalika said. “But ultimately, this is your home, and your folks. I’ve seen how much the people here love you, Baran. I am sure that whatever your decision is they will accept it. So trust in yourself too, even if you have to defy what others have told you. Think about what your culture means and what it means to fight for it.”

Kalika was always so wise and level-headed with everyone.

She only had like six or seven years on Homa, but she was so much mature.

“Thank you. I’ll need time to think on it– oh, actually, can I borrow Kalika for a bit?”

Baran looked at Homa for a moment. Homa nodded her head with plain disinterest.

“Right, I do need those dancing lessons for the festival.” Kalika said, smiling.

“You can also try on the costumes. I can fit them to your sizes.” Baran added.

“Can Homa sneak a peek, or should it be a surprise for her?” Kalika said suddenly.

“Ah– that will be up to her.” Baran said, laughing a little bit at Kalika’s suggestion.

Homa stared at them while they chirped and buzzed like giddy girls. She grunted.

“Hmph. What are you giggling about? I’m not in any great hurry to see it.” Homa lied.


Elena looked outside of her window, high up in one of the towers of Schwerin Isle.

She was small enough that she might have fallen out. She was exactingly careful near it.

Overhead, the glass sky distorted with the shadows of enormous things lumbering out of reach, displacing the water outside and causing the world to shake from the enormity of their movements. Far below, the fields of flowers and grass, and the distant forest, lit up with LED torches. She could hear the shouting of men reduced to a whisper by the distance, but still carried up to her perch owing to how otherwise quiet and still the nights were.

Elena did not understand the sights.

Then, in the distance, she saw the flash and fire of an explosion and drew back in panic.

Shutting her window, gathering up her little coat from a nearby chair and making to leave.

The door opened on its own as she neared it, giving the little princess another fright.

Elena tumbled back and crawled away from the door until she recognized the figure.

Norn Tauscherer, who had visited a few times. A friendly soldier, her father’s ‘sister’.

Tall, blond haired, gallant in her grey uniform, a saber on one hip and a gun in the other.

“Miss Norn!” Elena said. “There’s loud noises everywhere and fire outside! It’s scary!”

“I know.” Norn said. Elena started to get herself up, and Norn knelt down to her level.

“Can you stop it? I can’t sleep– it’s really scary– I was going to get mommy–”

Norn shook her head. She smiled. “Mommy sent me to come get you. We have to leave.”

Elena did not understand. This was so sudden. She had lived all her life in Schwerin Isle.

“Oh, but I can’t leave.” Elena said. “I need– things– and Trude isn’t ready–”

“Gertrude is leaving another way.” Norn said. “I know this is sudden. But we have to go.”

There was another bright flash and a booming noise outside. For a brief moment, Elena saw Norn’s expression as she glanced at the window. She looked so furious, angrier than Elena had ever seen anyone get angry, besides perhaps her best friend Gertrude Lichtenberg. That brief flash of anger led Elena to believe that things were worse than she knew. That maybe Norn could not stop the noises and the fire and the giant things flying outside the glass.

Maybe they really did have to leave.

Norn turned back to Elena and laid her hands gently on Elena’s little shoulders.

Fixing her red eyes on her. Red eyes that seemed to briefly glow–

“Elena, we have to go. You want to go with me– you’ll understand later–”

She felt like something squeezed gently on the back of her head, but it was gone quickly.

“But– I don’t want to go.” Elena said.

Norn blinked. Her face neared even closer to Elena’s and looked even deeper into her eyes.

“Oh no. This is– of all things–” Norn laid a hand over her own face suddenly.

What had she seen? What had happened?

“Miss Norn? Did I do something wrong? I’m really sorry.” Elena said.

Norn shook her head. “No, no. You have not done anything wrong. I am just– worried.”

“Worried? Do the sounds and lights scare you too?” Elena asked.

If someone like Norn could be scared by all of this, it must have been really scary.

“Elena, can you be a big and strong girl for me for a moment?” Norn asked.

As much as Elena felt like a small and scared girl at that moment, she could not resist a chance to prove to an adult that she was actually very formidable and grown-up. Those words seemed to unlock a determination that she had not possessed at any other time. She stood herself up as tall as she could and puffed out her chest and put on her most terribly serious girl face. In that moment, she was as adult as a five year old could be.

“I can be big and strong!” Elena said.

Norn nodded her acknowledgment of Elena’s strongness and bigness.

She withdrew her saber from her hip. Elena’s eyes immediately drew to it.

It was so large and so sharp.

And it slid across Norn’s palm so easily, drawing out so much red blood.

Shocked, Elena covered her mouth so as to not cry out like the scared child that she was.

“Don’t be afraid. This doesn’t hurt me much.”

“Why did you do that?”

Norn smiled, as if to try to reassure Elena.

Out the window, there was another flash and a distant thunder.

“Elena, we are going to make a very special promise. A very important promise that is only for us.” Norn said. “You are a very special girl, Elena, and if you don’t make this promise, there are bad people who will chase you. They might also make you do bad things that you don’t want to do. I know this sounds confusing, but I need you to believe in Miss Norn because I have seen this happen. If you make this promise– you’ll be protected forever.”

Norn held up her bloody palm. Elena looked down at it. There was so much blood.

“I know it’s dirty, but please lay your hand on mine and promise me.” Norn said.

Elena was still being strong and big, as much as she could. She would comply.

She laid her little hand on Norn’s bloody palm, touching the warm, slick, thickening fluid.

Norn looked into her eyes. Elena could have sworn Norn’s eyes flashed red again.

“Elena, please remember this promise. Don’t ever be tempted to break it. Even if you must rely on others, even if you are afraid and don’t know what to do, even if you are desperate.”

Though she did not understand, Elena swore that she would follow Norn’s promise.

Implicitly the oath passed between the two of them, through their hands and eyes.

No words were needed. Elena lacked the words to describe it anyway.

However, her mind and the world understood it.

One blood, one promise– old Katarran Mageia sworn in pain and sacrifice.

Elena now understood. She understood what happened on that long-gone dark night.

After her memory fully played out, there was something of an awkward silence.

Neither the Norn in her memory nor Elena herself moved for a moment.

Outside the window, there were no further detonations of ordnance.

Then, Elena began to weep. In that small body, but with the voice of her adult self.

“She should have told me.” Elena said. “All this time– I wish she would have told me.”

In front of her, the figment Norn who had played her part so perfectly smiled at her.

“She believed the knowledge of what happened would have only caused you pain. That her position prevented her from doing anything else but hurting you. But she was deeply afraid that you would suffer a similar fate as hers. She saw something in you– someone who could be manipulated and used and who would live to regret many horrible things. She thought, better for you to be helpless, than to be like her with power that others exploited.”

Elena suddenly threw herself into Norn’s chest, embracing her as hard as she could.

With her child body she could just barely wrap her arms around Norn.

Could barely squeeze with as much emotion as she wished she could impart on the Echo.

“She saved my life that night. She should have talked to me.” Elena said, weeping.

The Norn in her memories smiled a little bit. She returned her affection for a moment.

“Why did you stop your companion from dispelling me?” She asked, hugging Elena back.

“I was afraid.” Elena said. “I was afraid I’d never understand Norn. That I would lose all of Norn’s influence on me, and my past. That I would lose her forever and have to live with that doubt of what she was to me. I didn’t want to hate her. I didn’t want to forget or to be forced to ignore what she did, even if it was painful. I’ve lost so many people from my past. I wanted to understand Norn, to know her. I felt that aunt Conny was going to erase all of that.”

“You understand, none of your feelings here will be relayed to Norn.” The Echo said.

“I know. I will make it my next goal to tell her. I’ll confront her with my feelings.”

Elena looked up at the Echo Norn’s face. In that moment, she was an adult again.

Her body had grown; the environment of Schwerin Isle on that dark night began to fade.

“I want her to know that I do not hate her– and that I can handle myself now.” Elena said.

“Then, I will return this to you. It has always been yours; it was never her doing entirely.”

The Echo Norn smiled a last time, and faded away with the scene, rejoining Elena’s aether.

As before the scene began to peel away–

In her relief, in the outpouring of warm feelings that overcame her as her aether returned–

She failed to notice that something out of place had been drawn to her.

Something that wished to devour the fire that had been lit in her soul.


Just as she had begun to feel that she had a grasp on what was happening, Elena felt like the metaphorical ground had fallen out from under her along with the physical ground. She found herself falling away from the scenes of her memories which she had been perusing before. Whether she was a physical body or a dreaming mind, she was no longer sure, and could neither discern her present location, where she had transitioned from and to where the fall would eventually lead. She was falling as if down a long, winding tunnel.

And yet in her mind, everything and nothing was happening at once.

She felt as if she was not only falling but also being pulled in every given direction.

Images flitted in and out of her vision only enough to startle her again and again.

Everything else– was a green void–

An eternal, ever-shifting green that defied any imposition of the senses upon it.

Elena was beset by a powerful feeling of precarity. Nothing certain; everything veiled.

She felt burdened with a fear that a nebulous assault could be launched upon her at any second along with the irritating, frustrating self-awareness to know that she was being paranoid. Her mood shifted rapidly, imagining and dispelling potential threats in bewildering succession, believing for a second, casting aside just as fast, but always unearthing a new fear in time to replace the last object of her terror. In front of her were shafts of light that felt like tall grasses or flower stalks in her mother’s garden, and she fell through them and pushed them aside and clawed at them trying to discern what was behind each, only to find nothing. To know there would be nothing but to continue desperately turning each aside and each over because there was something out there. There had to be; there couldn’t be–

More so than mere liminality, Elena felt like she was trapped in a cage of pure anxiety.

Helpless, powerful, helpless again; falling, stopping, falling again; quick, slow, quick–

But in the midst of the fall Elena realized something more powerful than the tumult.

Something that focused her mind and forced reason into the unreasoning landscape.

“I can’t stay stuck in here! There are people who I want to see! People who need me!”

Elena had promised herself that she would not sit idle and helpless anymore!

She wanted Captain Korabiskaya to be proud of her communist learning! She wanted to chat up Minardo and Khadija in the kitchen again! She wanted to learn to fight from Marina (who truly needed to be chased down and made to fulfill her promises at last!) She was in the care of Kalika and Homa and Khloe she did not want to worry them any more!

And– she wanted to see Gertrude again!

Suddenly, everything around her, all of the green, began to take a definitive form.

She could not allow her fears to control her; she could not keep burdening others!

So many people had offered her their kindness. She could not let them all down now.

All of the flitting figures, the covering grasses, the shifting visions–

Took on a form and enveloped Elena and gave her a place to land.

Elena came to lie on a cold floor, and she opened her eyes as if waking up from sleep.

Still carrying some of the anxiety of the fall, she was startled and looked around herself.

She was alone, inside of a structure. Ceiling, floor, walls, light. She could breathe.

Lime green walls — concrete perhaps?– and a shiny, spick and span, dark green floor.

Clean enough to almost see her own reflection upon it. Her own confused expression.

All of the walls looked a bit roughened. They were not metal plates projecting color; they were physical materials painted over. She marveled at the texture of the wall, running her soft fingers over a surface so rough it almost hurt. Though she was in a corridor, she could see around the nearby corner that the next room opened up a bit more. There were LED lights providing solid and stable lighting throughout. There were doors, or at least, there were the impressions of doors. Not only were some of the doors missing handles, and some of the empty thresholds missing doors, there were other misplaced accoutrements of interior planning scattered about. Exit signs placed over empty spaces in the walls; guidance arrows pointing up or down; a smeared, illegible map that could not have been of these halls.

As Elena explored the space, she realized it was a facsimile of an office floorplan.

Like the administrative building in Luxembourg; or some of the Heitzing interiors.

“Hello? Is anyone there? Conny?” Elena called out.

Her voice echoed down the halls.

Trying not to panic, she chose a direction and began following the corridor.

Around the corner, into a wider corridor full of doors in similarly strange configurations.

She tried several of the doors but many opened up into walls, into windows looking into walls, into misplaced signage, or into rooms with more doors– none of which felt like they would lead anywhere. Elena closed them all back up, not eager to become lost in the door maze, and continued down the same corridor that she had been navigating.

Through a room of hanging television screens all displaying strobing green colors.

Past an irresponsive elevator bank, as if the panel had its power cut– or never installed.

Through more long, green halls. She found one window that looked into a room full of doors.

She could not open the window– and none of the doors had handles–

“This must still all be because of psionics. Like my visions of Conny and Norn.”

She tried to keep her mind steady, to tread onward, and to focus on what she wanted.

Manifesting an exit, or a sign of an exit, or a way to awaken from this nightmare.

When Elena had used her psionics on Marina, she had done so by desiring obsessively.

Demanding of the world that it change; demanding of Marina that she obey.

Elena desired— as she walked, she focused on all the things she wanted to do, the people she wanted to return to. Promises she had made, and commitments and responsibilities that she had given herself. She did not want to be trapped anywhere, not anymore. She did not want to be idle. She desired to leave, she desired for the walls to move and the doors to open. Her fingers naturally curled into a fist, her nails digging into her flesh from how much she tried to concentrate. She tried to fill herself to bursting with desire as she turned a corner–

There was a square room with a single water cooler behind a door without a handle.

“Damn it! Whoever is doing this, you won’t get away with it!” Elena shouted.

Once again her voice traveled as a lonely echo down the halls.

Teeth grit, fists clenched tight, she stomped her way farther along the green walls.

Her concentration was beginning to waver.

She was starting to feel something of a chill too.

Last she remembered, she never even got out of bed before Conny made a mess of things.

She was still dressed only in a shirt and skirt, no socks, no shoes, no jacket.

At least she had underwear.

“I no longer care if that woman is my aunt. I’ll kick her the next time I see her!”

If I ever see her again.

Elena found herself turning another corner and wandering, bleary-eyed with confusion, into what looked like a lobby with a tall ceiling. There was a green carpet embossed with a wireframe tesseract in brighter shades of green, leading up to a front desk behind glass. Tall standing glass panels with green splotches and smears like melting figures seemed to be art pieces decorating the area, but also gave the lobby a labyrinthine feeling. Elena navigated the panels, making her way between a series of green bubble seats to the empty desk.

In the back was a green mural in textured paints. It vaguely resembled a tree.

Standing in front of the desk, Elena rang a bell that had been set upon it.

The sound echoed through the room. Nothing happened.

She picked up the handset phone that would have belonged to a secretary if there was one.

Trembling hand lifting the device, fearing what she might hear–

setting it on her ear–

Nothing at all.

Of course.

Elena looked at the handset as if it had offended her.

She slammed it back into its dock.

Around the desk she saw two doors that looked real.

She tried one and the handle refused to move so she went to the other. On that second door the handle was so limp that her touch caused it to pop out of the hole in the door. Elena could then push the door open and continue her journey. Behind the door was the actual office space. Artsy glass streaked with green paint separated a few different desks, each with a handset phone, a boxy computer, and overflowing stacks of papers.

Expecting there to be nothing written on any of them, Elena pulled out one of the sheets.

Every sheet had an official-looking letterhead and shared a single format.

And all of them contained the same text. A surprising amount with surprising contents.

Preliminary Report on Elena von Fueller

Findings: Stupid, libidinal, bourgeois, dependent and bratty. Her brain practically boiling in a soup of hormones. Good for nothing but her body and status, and her attitude is downright pathetic. Claims to have lived a long life of hardship, such as tea parties, a classical romantic courtship with a knight, and living in a billion imperial mark station with a dozen maids. Has never worked a day in her life and exclusively relies on others to save or protect her. Wants to bark and beg and submit and have filthy lesbian sex with her peers to a shameful degree.

Suggested intervention: Physical correction of behaviors and internment in a gilded cage.

Each of these insulting reports had a different author–

Ulyana Korabiskaya; Bethany Skoll; Marina McKennedy; Logia Minardo; Khadija al-Shajara–

–Gertrude Lichtenberg;

“None of this is real! None of it!” Elena shouted, ripping up the paper in her hand.

In a fit of anger she practically attacked the stack of papers on the desk–

However, the more of them she ripped,

more copies fell,

from seemingly nowhere overhead

neatly

settling

on the desk

Elena looked at the replenishing stack on the desk, of the exact same paper.

Teeth grit; she pushed over the papers onto the seat behind the desk.

Prompting even more papers to drop from overhead to replace them.

All of them saying the same demeaning things– all authored by people she knew–

“It’s fake– it’s obviously fake I know that it is–!”

She left the desk and charged down the aisle between all of them, her hands shaking.

Her heavy breathing and hurried, stomping footsteps the only noise in the emptiness.

Until–

Elena lifted her gaze from the floor and stopped moving, held her breath–

She thought she heard flowing water.

In her mind, this meant that there must have been someone making that water flow.

Someone turning on a faucet or drinking from a water cooler or bottle filling station.

She felt an immediate anxiety– finding someone in this place might be dangerous.

Cautiously, she advanced, out of the room with the desks, approaching a frosted glass door.

Though it was difficult to see, she though there was indeed a shadow beyond it.

Quietly, she tiptoed to the door, held her breath, and peeked through it.

The room beyond the door was immediately familiar.

Elena felt that she had looped such a room a few times already– a square room with lines of water coolers. When she last crossed such a room the water coolers were pristine but disused. In this particular room, however, there was a figure at the water cooler. But the figure was as incongruous as the water coolers themselves.

Elena clutched the door and pushed herself against the wall to keep from falling.

Her knees shook. She could not understand what she saw.

In front of a water cooler, there was a tall figure that was bundled up in ragged green cloth with a hood, but the hood was stitched shut to what appeared to be a hard white mask. There was no gap between the mask and the cloth as if the cloth was skin and the mask flesh, and there was an expression carved on the mask, with cut-out eye slits and a jagged slicing streak resembling a smile. But these features moved in an eerie and impossible way as if rather than static carvings on a surface they were the actual contours of a face. The green creature’s expression shifted from a neutral sort of expression to a terrified grimace, each change prompted by its interactions with the water cooler.

Repeatedly, it would lift a green, smooth claw with incredibly long and sharp digits.

It would press down the button to dispense water.

And startle itself– stepping back, terrified, covering its mask, until the water subsided.

Then it would look at the water cooler again with a curious expression on its mask.

Again, and again, Elena must have watched this pathetic sight a dozen times.

At no point was she closer to understanding what this creature was or where she was.

She knew there was no other way to go. If she doubled back she felt she might never escape.

Confronting this creature now was a sign of something changing. She wanted to have hope.

Maybe the end of this labyrinth was in sight?

Elena tried to swallow the lump she felt forming in her throat.

Looking down at her hands. In her previous visions she had been capable of power, right?

Victoria had been able to swipe her hand and cut chunks out of the bare dirt.

Elena felt that she had the basic mechanism down– desire.

When she desired strongly for something to happen the world seemed to respond to her.

Steadying her breath, and flexing her fingers as if it would help the power to come out–

Elena opened the door and stepped into the room.

At first the creature paid her no attention.

She approached, step by step, clearing the door threshold and the landing, and stepping in between the lines of coolers. One step, watching the creature, another step, never taking her eyes off it. She advanced about a meter from the creature in this way and began to feel confident that it might not look at her. She kept her distance as much as she could, hugging the opposite line of coolers to the one where the entity stood.

Step, by step, she neared, and then she crossed the space of the creature.

Now that it was behind her– she turned around, to be able to keep tabs on it–

And it turned around too.

That masked expression met Elena’s eyes and her face turned pale and her heart sank.

Her whole body shook.

The creature’s eyes, thick black lines, seemed to expand and contract impossibly.

Its long, cloth neck bent and reared up as it examined her from afar.

Elena, breathing hard, took a step backward from it.

Suddenly, the creature lifted its claw-like arm–

In response Elena shouted and drew back–

And the entity covered its face.

Shaking arms, one a claw, the other a skinny, emaciated limb, drawn in front of its mask.

Just as Elena had been stepping back from it, the creature began to step back from her.

Seizing the opportunity, Elena turned around and ran for the door.

Any thoughts of fighting the monster had vanished from her mind.

Praying for a real handle, she turned it, the door unlocked, and she crossed.

Slamming it behind herself and putting her back to it.

Breathing heavy, her arms and legs aching, feeling like she could collapse from the effort.

She had taken off with such a sudden snap of movement she felt like she tore something.

But she was still in a dangerous place– sweat trailing down her eyes she looked forward–

There was a desk in the middle of the room. She was in some kind of personal office.

And there was someone behind the chair, a woman in official-looking clothes–

“Good afternoon. Elena von Fueller is it? A celebrity client, with a substantial debt.”


The hum of an air conditioner, the striking of a clock, and a smell like plastic.

“Please, have a seat. Would you like some water or coffee?”

Elena, mind going slowly numb, simply nodded her head and did as she was told.

Taking a seat in front of the desk. The woman behind it handed her a paper cup.

There was brown liquid in it. It was odorless and room temperature.

When she tried to drink it, it tasted like nothing and passed through her like air.

“Elena von Fueller, thank you so much for coming in today. I am positively elated to be the one to introduce you to CAGES. We are the industry-leading solution for young girls to repay their debts to the world through surrender and permanent isolation. Our protective services are top of the line at stripping you of all agency and responsibility so you can thrive in a pristine enclosure. You will worry no one again, no one will ever be burdened by your presence again. You will cease to take up space. Your sin will be absolved. Our solution is data-driven, on the chain, AI-optimized for effective outcomes with high scalability.”

As the woman in the suit talked, Elena glanced at the walls.

Paintings of green splotches, set on green frames upon the green walls.

There were no more doors, no connecting corridors, and no out-of-place windows.

Just an office. Elena, the eccentric sales representative, and the hum of the air conditioning.

Behind the professional-looking lady expounding the virtues and values of locking her up forever, there was an abstract mural painted ‘action-style’. Distressing, chaotic, like the wall had been battered with the paintbrush, Elena could pick out every single shade of green from the darker to the lighter ones in the mix. Over the few seconds that she stared at it the mural felt to her that it was actually a depiction of something– a girl, her body the lighter greens, her neck slit by a dark green streak, her near-yellowing arms hanging limp at her sides. Encased in a cage of neon green from which she would never escape.

Her wavering vision settled on the woman behind the desk again.

Questioning her sanity with every word, she asked: “Bethany, is that you?”

“CAGES Inc. is not liable for any resemblance to real or historical individuals.”

It was Bethany, though. Her soft and fair skin, her dark hair in a bun, her kind eyes, her large, inviting chest– the blazer and skirt and tights really flattered her too– Elena felt a bit rotten for thinking that, but she could not help herself. This was undoubtedly Elena’s head maid. She woke her up every morning, dressed her, yelled at her, told her little things about her mother off-hand. She was the first woman that a teenage Elena recognized as being beautiful and attractive, before going off to school. Someone she admired and wanted to take after, at times– sometimes even someone Elena wished she could become.

She was a servant, but she always felt like a friend. Perhaps the woman who had given her some of the most conflicting feelings of her life. She would have known her everywhere, known her voice, her patterns of speech, the exact shade of her hair, her eyes–

“Bethany, why are you here?” Elena asked. Her own voice sounded so weak and distant.

“I am here to serve you a best-in-class absolvement of your earthly sins experience.”

Bethany had her arms on the table, with her fingers entwined and a wry smile.

She really looked like a saleswoman pitching something– but it was all nonsense.

“Bethany– what do you mean– sins–” Elena said.

Her voice bereft of any ability to assert the wishes of its owner. Everything was so surreal, and her mind was reeling the thought of seeing Bethany again in this bizarre context that she could barely string a sentence together. It felt like at most she could say the individual words with pauses between short enough to count as speech, and no more.

“Believe me, Elena,” Bethany reached out a hand and laid it on Elena’s shoulder. Her skin was not cold or warm. It was room temperature. Like everything else in the office. Room temperature, odorless, but terrifyingly solid. “I know that it feels impossible to repay your substantial debts to society. Every minute of every day you are filled with the cruel agony of being. Forcing everyone to suffer for your existence, the constant need that you have for other’s assistance and attention. But it is alright– we are here to help you!”

Elena’s eyes teared up. She started to shake. “Bethany– I don’t– this isn’t– I can’t–”

“Think of it this way. You won’t have to cry again, and nobody will ever cry for you. You will be permanently safe and everyone will be permanently safe from you. Isn’t the world outside so frightening and full of pain? It was your fault that Gertrude Lichtenberg nearly killed all of your new companions and that you will never be able to see her again. It was because she was accompanying you that Marina McKennedy ended up in a position to help cause the Kreuzung Core Crisis. If we look back farther wasn’t it because of your power and status that Heidelinde Sawyer joined the Volkisch Movement? It seems to me the evidence is mounting that Elena von Fueller is a real debt-racking-up machine! That is where CAGES comes in– we can help you to humanely absolve yourself of your horrifying and evil existence.”

As ridiculous as it sounded the ideas began to seem so enticing as she listened to them.

That was why Elena began to cry– in recognition of all that she had done wrong.

She feared that she tried so hard and accomplished so little– but had she tried hard at all?

Maybe it had been difficult because she was so weak.

Running away with Marina, ending up on the Brigand, building up the courage to intervene in Goryk’s Gorge, and trying to learn about communism and to support the Volksarmee. But in truth, hadn’t she done absolutely nothing at all throughout the journey? She had not even taken one step forward. There was still an entire world out there that was built solidly on a foundation laid down by a sin that was inscribed into her very blood and skin.

Elena was afraid. She was so afraid and there was no holding back that anxiety anymore.

Afraid she would never see Gertrude or any of her friends again; afraid she could never mend the things the Imbrian Empire had done to its people; afraid that she was useless to her new companions, another mouth to feed for no reason at all; and afraid that these conditions could never change and that she was doomed. That ‘renouncing’ her royal status meant nothing because everyone in the world still believed her to be a royal anyway and would never believe she was a ‘proletarian’. She was afraid that she was helpless to take action, and perhaps even helpless to change even her own self for the better.

Perhaps it would have been for the best if she let Bethany “absolve her of her debts.”

If she was painlessly erased from the world and nobody had to bother about her.

However–

“What you’re saying is that I should run away from responsibility.” Elena said. Her voice was trembling, her chest shuddering, and she felt like she had so little strength in her limbs. “You are not saying that I would take responsibility, or that anything would be fixed. You won’t actually make things better. You’ll just take me away like that settles everything.”

Bethany continued to smile as if hardly acknowledging that Elena spoke.

“This is a common misconception. It is impossible to repay the debt any other way. You will never make up for your many sins, you will never learn or get better, you will never stop being a burden to others. Your only means of absolution is to sacrifice yourself. Everyone hates taking care of you because you are a drain on their resources, after all.”

“That’s a lie!”

Elena stood suddenly, both hands on the table, facing Bethany closely, a fire in her eyes.

“Communists don’t think that anyone is a ‘drain on resources’! It’s not a matter of whether they deserve resources, or whether they have earned them– everyone is given what they need! The crew would never think that about anyone. Sure, maybe I could take up less because I do less, and I try not to bother anyone– but when I haven’t eaten in a while Minardo berates me and makes me eat. If I’m cooped up in my room too much then the Captain or the Commissar might pop in to ask how my reading is going. And the sailors have gotten to used to having me around, and they wave at me every day. No– I don’t think anyone hates me. And if they do, it’s not because I ask for food and shelter.”

She spoke with conviction and near-breathlessly, practically shouting in Bethany’s face.

Though she felt silly to be saying everything so earnestly, she believed it.

Believed so strongly that it made Bethany’s sales pitch seem even more ridiculous.

“And I’m done with you pretending Bethany would say these horrible things to me!” Elena shouted, buoyed by her previous statements and seizing an opportunity, since Bethany did not respond quickly enough to preempt her. “Bethany would have always supported me, she cared about me– she was strict, but she– Bethany protected me–” Elena sobbed a bit. “You are mocking her. I don’t know if I can stop you– but I am definitely leaving, right now.”

Steepling her fingers on the table, Bethany listened to the entirety of her speech.

Never once ceasing to smile politely and to speak in a disturbingly even tone of voice.

“Elena, I’m afraid that this is a capitalist society, and that means someone has to pay.”

Bethany calmly stood up from behind the desk, dusting off her skirt.

Under her sleeves and the back of her suit jacket– something began to writhe–

Elena saw the barest flitting image of the tendrils before she took off running.

There was a whip-crack at her heels, and a shredding sound.

She narrowly avoided the strike but she was rushing too fast to realize it.

Slamming through the office door, rubbing her shoulder that performed the tackle, and hurtling through the room with the coolers. That green creature was still there, still stuck in its loop with the water cooler but Elena had no time for it now. Running so quickly she was going unsteady, with her head down, her eyes tearing up and the tendons on her legs screaming at her, she charged past the creature with complete abandon–

Too close, as the creature was startled by her appearance and flailed–

Just grazing the green limbs sent a spike of panic through Elena that caused her to tumble.

And sent the green entity into a panic that launched it toward the office.

Shrieking inhuman noises issued from it as it gave everything to get away–

“Out of my way please. I am completing a sale.”

There was a crack, something whipped across the green entity and sliced it in half.

In the next instant it was gone as if it never existed, and Bethany stood where it had been.

Walking toward Elena with a polite smile and her shoulder exposed and livid.

A mass of black and brown, leathery, belt-like tendrils writhing like snakes grew where there was once skin. All of them ended in silvery implements, like buckle frames and prongs and end tips, and they whipped sharply at the air as if hungry for something to strike. Bethany’s bra strap seemed to snap from the emergence of the belts. Several buttons popped off her suit jacket. Despite her disheveled appearance and the exposure of skin she looked utterly untroubled. Were the tendrils expressing the emotions her face could not?

Elena got herself off the ground and bolted away from the sight.

Down the corridors again.

She expected the room with the desks to be next–

Instead, she found herself in a long hall. Here the lights dimmed dramatically, and she was framed by glass walls each containing enormous streams of flowing green wax like giant lava lamps casting eerie reflections. To her horror she did not recognize and had never seen this sort of room. To see it in place of the desk room she had explored previously–

she felt completely trapped.

Bethany called after her.

There was no shift in her voice, no acknowledgment of the chase.

“Elena, why don’t you look at some of the enclosures we have available? There are many lovely choices. Perhaps a classic dog kennel? Or maybe a bird cage, so metaphorical and romantic! Oh, I know– the Tower is so fashionable right now among women your age! We can furnish you with visions of a loved one managing the confinement, so you don’t have to feel alone in eternity. Perhaps Gertrude Lichtenberg? At least look at the inventory!”

“Leave me alone!”

Elena turned around. Bethany was in the hall, suddenly and without warning.

Regardless of her efforts, Bethany seemed able to catch up with her easily.

She thrust her hand out, focused her desire— to harm Bethany, to shove her, to cut her–

Invisible force ripped from her cold palm. Distortions in the air, a hurtling projectile.

For an instant she saw Bethany distort as the force overtook her.

A green flash– Bethany stepped aside the blast. Chunks of concrete blew into the air.

Green clung to her body like a gas or fire that quickly dispelled. She had used her aura.

Elena had cut a deep gash into the floor but done nothing more.

The fake Bethany was completely unharmed. She had avoided everything.

Her tendrils stretched a considerable distance in retaliation, whipping toward Elena–

She focused her desire on battering them back, and her force crashed into them in mid-air.

There was a burst of air resulting from the clash, and Elena was shoved back.

Though the tendrils retracted she had not even severed a single one or caused any harm.

“What the hell are you?” Elena cried out, still holding her hand out, a now empty threat.

That smile had ceased to be an expression. It felt almost static on Bethany’s face.

“Oh, I understand. Empathy-based sales tactics. That’s fine– I have been called many things. I was once called ‘the Trader’ or ‘the Collector’. Nowadays I consider myself to be simply, The Service Agent. However, I have also been known as the “Legacy of the Transaction Regime” by more erudite individuals. But that name is a bit unwieldy. All I want is to complete our exchange as efficiently as possible– so just refer to me as you wish!”

In the palm of Bethany’s hand appeared a series of objects, lifting, dancing in the air.

A dog kennel, a little tower, a bird cage, each with what appeared to be a girl doll inside.

But the dolls were crying, and writhing, and there were terrified expressions on their faces.

In each enclosure, in a dark corner, were the whipping tentacles striking around the dolls.

“These are just demonstrations, of course, which have no bearing on the quality of the final product, but as you can see, our designs are very beautiful. A lot of attention to detail. I’ve selected three that have the most resonance with your age group. What do you think, Elena von Fueller? I’m afraid if you do not choose one soon I will have to choose for you.”

“It’s Elena Lettiere! Lettiere!”

Elena suddenly shifted her attention to the walls.

She did not know whether she could have struck the fake Bethany–

–but she could hit the environments! Elena again focused her desire.

Lights flickered, glass shattered, and a wave of trapped wax spilled out into the hall.

Elena drew back as quickly as she could while concentrating her desire to shatter the walls.

In the chaos of collapsing glass, spilling wax and sparking bulbs, Bethany disappeared.

Though unsure of the pursuer’s fate, Elena took the opportunity to turn and run.

Shutting a nondescript door behind herself, and entering a simple, green-walled corridor.

It resembled the one she had started in, giving her a brief comfort. Did she loop around?

If that was the case, then perhaps it was possible to find an exit.

Elena doubled over, catching her breath, her legs shaking from all the effort.

She glanced every which way, keeping an eye on the entrances and exits.

Her sharp ears peeled for any sounds other than her own harsh breathing.

Elena was nearing her limit.

Never had she run so hard, so long and so fast in her entire life, not even in Luxembourg did they make her tear across concrete like this. She had been too coddled and she cursed herself. She recalled that she was barefoot, and when she looked down at her bare feet the soft pink skin was turning red and there was peeling white between her toes. She felt she did not have the strength to see what the soles of her feet had become from all this running and that if she did see it, she would not be able to keep fleeing.

It hurt– everything hurt. Her calves felt torn, and her arms throbbed and her back ached.

Sweat trickled down her forehead and over her chest despite how cold the labyrinth felt.

Labyrinth– yes, subconsciously, she had been calling it that to herself, from time to time.

But it struck her that in her exploration, she had not seen a trace of Conny, Norn or anyone.

Everything in these corridors and offices was completely focused on herself.

She was alone here with that mockery of Bethany and those anxious green entities.

What was happening outside? Had someone found her body? What state was she in?

And what happened to her aunt, Conny? Was she responsible for all of this?

No– she couldn’t believe that her aunt would put her through all of this.

It must have been some kind of mistake. Maybe she lost control of her psionics.

Everything that happened was set off by Conny threatening her. She remembered it all. Conny touched her head, and she met the Norn inside her who prevented her using psionics. Now she could use her strange abilities freely, at least in this horrible place. Maybe Conny was not ready for how wildly Elena’s power would spiral and this was the result.

Some kind of punishment?

“Elena, someone has to pay, and I know in your heart, you want to be the one to pay.”

Elena’s head snapped up from the floor. Bethany had appeared around the corner.

No sounds, no warnings, she was simply there as if she always had been.

On her shoulder, the belts growing out of her lifted their buckles warily like snakes.

“You can sign the dotted line; put down the credit– it’s all you. Everything is because of you, after all. Everyone had to sacrifice so much for you. Obviously you could never do anything in return. That just wasn’t like you, it wasn’t your role. You’re a treasure, and people had to fight over you. Now I understand perfectly: you belong in a cute little treasure chest.”

Bethany clasped her hands together and spread them apart.

Flying between her hands was a little treasure chest, brown with golden supports.

She demonstrated a little doll of Elena inside it, crying in a mass of tentacles.

The lid slammed shut on her.

“Aren’t you so very tired right now, Elena? Don’t you just want to be put away for good? You’re so afraid of failing, of your capacity to affect change– you don’t need to fear anything in this little chest. You’ll be a cute little pearl without a single thing in your brain.”

“I want you to let me out of here. Right now. Or I’ll let myself out.” Elena mumbled.

If this thing wanted to talk, they could talk– but she wasn’t going into any “enclosure.”

“And what would you do then? How would you repay your debts?” Bethany said.

Despite everything that had happened– Elena felt a strange certainty about her words.

When she spoke it was as if her heart was speaking without any filter or reservations.

“First thing I want to do is give my stupid aunt a talking-to.” Elena said. “Then– I want to do something to put Bethany to rest. I feel like nobody mourned her and she deserves it. And I want to give Marina a big hug too, she’s been hurting so much. I’ll talk to the Captain or Minardo or Khadija too; I will ask for a formal position in the crew. I want to do my fair share.”

“That sounds so exhausting, and so far below what you owe the world.” Bethany said.

“Maybe. But there’s another thing I really want to do actually. I think you would approve.”

“I can approve a free trial of one of our enclosures.”

Elena slowly lifted herself up to a stand. “No. I want to see if I can use this out there.”

Emanating from Elena, a roar of power that shook the foundations of the labyrinth.

In less than a second, the walls and floor around the fake Bethany shifted.

With the floor rising, the ceiling coming down and the walls closing.

TERRAKINESIS

In her mind Elena desired with every ounce of her certainty to crush her pursuer.

And so the concrete walls moved like pieces on a block tower to enclose her space.

However, she was not immediately dashed into a smear as Elena had hoped–

Amid the crushing stone, Bethany bowed but remained defiant.

One hand on the ceiling, and its elbow to the right wall, and the other hand keeping the left wall at bay. Her back began to bow but she remained upright. There was a groaning noise as the walls struggled to complete the new shape that they were ordered to take. Wisps of fine dust kicked up as the concrete strained. Elena felt a pinprick of pain in her mind, but she drew in a breath, held her hands out, focused on her desire and tried to clap her hands together in a facsimile of crushing– and found her palms unable to join. Representing the resistance that she was facing, giving her a way of understanding it better.

“This is your only way out, Elena. Your only deliverance.” Bethany said.

Despite her precarious position, that polite, professional smile never went away.

On her shoulder, the belts started whipping furiously at the ground.

But they fell just short of Elena– as if they never could have reached her.

“I am done running away.” Elena said simply, trying to push her hands together.

Watching someone with Bethany’s appearance struggle in this trap brought her fresh tears.

It was so cruel, and it was so pointless, but she would put on an end to it.

“You cannot escape your sin.” Bethany said. Her tendrils grew ever more fierce in their lashing. “You will be overcome by fear. You will need the help of others, again and again, they will have to keep coddling and saving you, and they will be so disappointed. You will never change. You will never escape the limits of your own self. Life is transaction, and you will keep taking, taking and taking from everyone around you, begging for them to shield you from your crippling, all-consuming fear. You will never even move a step. You will never earn any profit with which to repay your debts. You will always be a little freeloader.”

Elena pushed her palms closer together and found that they moved as she wanted.

There was another quake, another groan of the concrete.

Bethany’s arm began to shake and bend. A crunching sound issued.

Her elbow split, bone and blood exposed. She winced, briefly, with pain.

To sustain the weight, she fell down to one knee and took the ceiling on her back. Pushing against it, while the forearm of her ruined arm took one wall, her hip against the other. Her tendrils could no longer attack and helped hold the stone. Despite the blood and injury, the fake Bethany continued to stare at Elena with a semblance of her polite smile, as much of it as she could muster. One eye twitched, the corners of her face rose with the pain.

“Even if I have to rely on people again in the future– it won’t be the same as before.”

Elena’s hands moved ever closer to touching.

The ceiling and floor budged ever so slightly, forcing Bethany to bow to a low crouch.

Her face contorted into a grimace of pain. Her entire body shaking with the effort–

“I am trying to learn and change. I want to see the communist’s hopes blossom and I want to do what I can to help. I want to fight for that hope just like my new companions. Nobody who helps me now is waiting on me; nobody who feeds me is paying obeisances; nobody who protects me is fighting for royalty. I am their comrade; a soldier without a name.”

Her palms touched, her fingers entwinted. Bethany’s face softened into one final smile.

And then the walls and ceiling shut with a final crunching of bone, smearing of blood.

Putting an end to the entity known as the “Legacy of the Transaction Regime.”

In so doing, the green walls that had surrounded her began to flake and chip off.

Green dust and sparks seemed to loosen from everything, slowly, progressively.

Elena had begun to peel back the world. Of this she was incredibly certain.

She walked through her own grisly trap, the corpse already gone, sure she had killed it.

Beyond it, she stepped into a broad lobby-like area with tall, shining white glass doors.

There was a green carpet, green lamps, and more of those smeared green glass stands.

Bubble seats; one of which was occupied. Elena’s heart skipped a beat–

But she knew it was not Bethany anymore. She was buoyed by a great certainty.

That certainty was power– it helped her walk, helped her stand tall despite her weariness.

She ambled confidently to the bubble seat and found a man seated on it.

He had his legs tucked under him, and wore long pants and a long, shiny green shirt almost down to his knees. He had dark brown skin and a full beard and messy black hair, and out from that hair extended a pair of cat-like ears one which was frayed by a scar. He had a tail, too, which had a gold ring around the tip. When Elena found him, he seemed to be in meditation, but he opened an eye and smiled at her. His wrinkled face bore a soft smile.

“A princess?” He asked.

“No! A proletarian.” Elena said sharply, quite irritated to still not be taken seriously.

But the man smiled at her even more. “Interesting. Nevertheless, you are worthy.”

Elena blinked. He was different than the entities from before. He felt strangely familiar.

“Who are you? Is that the way out there?”

She pointed out the glowing white doors. He nodded his head.

“Yes, you are at the end of this place. You have calmed it for now. As for me. I am but a mere mystic from a people raised to revile them. I have denied myself heaven so that I may forever assist in the passing of the wisdom that made up my earthly power. I am a sinner, and I do not deserve sympathy. But you are here at last because the song of humanity beckons you.”

He gestured as if for Elena to move away, and she stepped back.

When he stood, Elena realized he was incredibly tall. His back was broad, his legs strong.

She reached out to offer a handshake, but he shook his head.

“Between men and women– that isn’t appropriate.”

Elena retracted her hand with some confusion.

“I feel like I ought to know who you are.” She said.

Even amid the brimming shroud of her certainty, he was an enigma.

He responded first with a small, wry smile as if he understood her confusion.

“Once, I was called Muawiya. An Apostle of Earth in an era without soil.” He said. “I am ashamed of my latter years. Instead, remember me as the Apostle of the Earth who moved a mountain to give his people shelter. Honor my penance and do the same for yours.”

“Thank you. I will do everything that I can.” Elena said.

She felt like a fool not knowing who this stately, powerful-sounding man could be.

He must have been a part of her memories too, like everything else she had seen.

But she had never heard of a Muawiya before, and even the certainty could not elucidate.

“Unlike certain mystics who crave physical existence, this is the last you will see of me.” Muawiya said. “I will not further shame myself. But it has been some time since humanity bequeathed this particular inheritance. I needed to see what would become of it.”

By inheritance– he must have meant the power she now possessed.

“Can I ask you–?”

Muawiya’s eyes wandered back from where Elena had come. He grunted.

“I’m afraid there is no more time. But your answers can be found outside here.”

He turned to face what had become a doorway into the green corridors.

At the door were dozens, maybe hundreds, of the green masked entities all packed there.

Peering out at the two of them, flexing their clawed digits, vaguely hollering.

Ungodly sounds emerged from those braying masks.

Elena felt the green fear in her again.

“Hmph. Less than Thoughtforms– mere dregs of human fallibility. Off-notes of the song.”

Muawiya flexed his own hands and set his feet.

Elena thought of assisting him, briefly, but he seemed to read her intentions immediately.

“Leave, now. Preserve your spirit. Do your part, for your own guilt, and leave me to mine.”

She did not argue with him.

From how he spoke, she understood this was something beyond her ability to alter.

He had given himself this task; and she had given herself a task as well.

Without turning back, Elena hurried from the bubble seats to the front door.

Behind her, the shrieking grew stronger; followed by the rumble of shifting concrete.

Elena laid a hand on the door,

silently thanked the mysterious man for his assistance,

and pushed,

filled with a desire to escape this place and return to the Humanity that

beckoned.


Homa wandered around the village with her hands in her pockets, staring at the ground.

Kalika was with Baran and Sareh, learning to dance; Khloe was running around the village making sure the electric system would not short out the oxygen machine again; Elena was sleeping in and Homa could not blame her. She was completely at loose ends. Nobody to do anything with and nothing to do. She wondered how the villagers kept from going insane in a place like this. Did they even have fantasy books around here?

If only she had the slate portable Imani had gotten her–

But the communists did not want to take chances with it being bugged and got rid of it.

Imani–

Homa sighed deeply. No use turning over that agony any further.

“I should just go back to the house and sleep the day off.” She mumbled to herself.

Her head continued to replay her pathetic tantrum at Kalika that morning.

Wasn’t she an adult? What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she control herself?

For Kalika to have seen her act so pathetic,

and then even get irritated with her–!!

She wanted to be buried in the back of the cave.

Homa’s meandering brought her around the back of the village. Here the fence separating the village ground had begun to break down. Outside of it were the rough floors of the cave that had not yet been hewn into foundations for homes. In the distance Homa heard sounds like objects repeatedly struck together. She ignored it for several minutes, until she walked past a raised, rocky outcrop and exposed the source of the sounds behind it– there was a gaggle of children who could not have been older than nine or ten all playing.

Alongside Rahima, who had taken her coat off and rolled up her sleeves to join the games.

And Bernadette Sattler, who stood off to the side with a very small smile on her face.

Rahima seemed to notice Homa rather quickly.

“Miss Messhud! How good are you with a sword?” Rahima winked playfully at Homa.

There was a plastic tube in her hand. The village kids had been using these plastic sticks to play swords, chasing each other around and clashing them very deliberately to make sound. There was no apparent malice in their strikes and parries. They seemed more interested in clanging sticks together and making a loud sound than in hitting someone with a stick.

Even when clashing with Rahima, they aimed for her stick.

“Why don’t you join us? I regret sending you away so quickly earlier.”

Rahima waved the wooden pole at her, beckoning her. Around her, the kids also called out.

Homa stared at sight quietly and fully intended to walk away.

However, the children joining Rahima in calling for Homa complicated things further.

She didn’t want to be mean to little kids. These kids got denied enough things as it was.

It would have been a sorry scene for her to ignore them all and walk away.

For the moment she resigned herself to Rahima’s company and crossed a gap in the fence.

Making her way on the rough ground toward Rahima and Bernadette.

Rahima acted far too cheerful in response. Too elated have someone else to play with.

She clapped a hand on Homa’s shoulder as if to encourage her and handed her a stick.

Standing so close to her with the kids around really cemented the difference in height.

Rahima was tall, and she was handsome, a fully formed woman to Homa’s protoplasm.

“Kids, you’ve seen Homa around right? She’s been traveling with a Katarran mercenary! She must have picked up some secret Katarran techniques along the way! Right Homa?” Rahima looked at Homa and winked at her with a mischevious smile. Homa could hardly believe how silly this all was. Even Berdanette looked a bit embarassed and averted her eyes from them.

Sighing internally, Homa replied. “Yep. I know so many Katarran techniques.”

She wasn’t even trying to sound enthused, but all the kids took her at her word and cheered.

They demanded she show them a secret Katarran sword technique.

Would they be impressed with just anything? They were little kids after all.

Homa looked at the stick in her hand. It wasn’t too heavy.

Making a dramatic show of breathing in, she threw the stick up so it would spin.

Then she caught it and thrust it forward. All of the kids cheered, and Rahima cheered too.

Bernadette succumbed to peer pressure and performed a very brief clap.

“Amazing! With the spin, it increases the power of the move!” Rahima said.

“Yeah– that’s exactly what it does.” Homa said.

Back when she was working at Bertrand’s, when she was bored and certain that nobody was watching, she would throw her tools up in the air and catch them again. She had even learned to juggle some of the lighter and safer hand tools like the screwdrivers and the bubble levels. She had passed many an empty work-day this way. Now, in this moment, she felt the tiniest swelling of pride as she was praised for this simple, childish trick.

Immediately followed by a truly dismal shame at being so easily swayed.

Rahima must have really liked kids. What a stupid thing to participate in!

After demonstrating her secret technique, all of the kids wanted to practice it.

Homa had not planned for this, and she feared the kids hitting themselves with the sticks.

However, Rahima did not look worried. She let the kids run off and practice for a bit.

“Aren’t they so cute?” Rahima said. “At that age, they really want adult validation.”

“Uh huh. They’re adorable.” Homa said, trying to sound engaged.

She was ambivalent about kids; she thought she would make a horrible parent.

The last thing she wanted to do was to parent someone as bad as Leija had–

Leija–

Homa prevented herself from unearthing the corpse of that sentiment any further.

“Bernie, how do you feel about kids?” Rahima asked.

“Hmph.” Bernie averted her eyes again. “The Family is a cornerstone of the State.”

“Nobody is keeping a ledger of your ideological statements, Bernie.” Rahima said.

“I will raise children if I am required to in peacetime. Otherwise, I will not.” She said.

“Well, I would love to have a lot of children.” Rahima said. She turned to Homa as if addressing her next remarks at her. Homa hardly understood why she was making any conversation with two obviously awkward people. “When I was a small child I lived with a big family, and I’ve been lonely as an adult. But given my– predilections– I am looking to adopt.”

“I believe you would make an exceptional father– mother–” Bernie corrected herself–

“It’s fine, either/or– I think I would prefer to be the father figure, if I’m honest.”

“I understand, Gauleiter.” Bernie said. “Regardless. You would be an excellent parent.”

“No need to flatter me, Bernie.”

“It is not flattery. You are disciplined, forthright, and resourceful. I know this first-hand.”

“Ah– well, thank you.”

Homa wanted to tell them to get a room and make the babies if they wanted them so much.

Of course, she said nothing instead.

“Homa, would you like to have children?”

Rahima smiled and leaned into her a bit. There was an air of mischief to her.

Had she not been studded with fascist medals and symbols it might have been charming.

“I am deferring making any decision until I am older.” Homa said, without enthusiasm.

“Makes sense.” Rahima said. “I see you are quite a mature girl.”

What a thing to say– was she checking her out or something?

Did she think Homa was a kid? She treated Sareh and Baran like that too.

Over time their chatter naturally died down a bit.

Before them, the kids continued to clang and click.

Rahima allowed some time to pass quietly before she prodded Homa again.

“Homa, where do you come from, if you’d permit me the curiosity.”

“I’ve lived in Kreuzung most of my life.” No use being tight lipped.

“Ah, I know that Kreuzung recently had some troubles.” Rahima said.

“Yes. It spurred me to want to travel.” Homa said. She thought it was a good excuse.

“You have picked a difficult time for a pilgrimage, but I commend your bravery. Youth should have some impulsive decisions after all. I did hear from Baran you have a Katarran bodyguard. I’m glad you thought everything through. When I was young, I traveled here alone– I was tricked and mistreated so many times on my journey here.”

She looked at the kids. Whenever she topped speaking, their laughter overtook the silence.

“What do you think of this village, Homa?” Rahima asked next.

Homa felt her stomach turn. What could she even say that wouldn’t arouse suspicion?

“It’s tough here– but the people are tight-knit.” Homa said.

Rahima looked out, at the kids, at the cavern walls. Her smiled dimmed just a little.

“They are. They have been living here for so long. Longer than I ever have been here.” Rahima said. She began to go into the story. “It’s a tricky situation. In the past, before Baran, before I was ever born, there was a horrible pogrom here. A no-name Rashidun family accused some local Mahdist boys of attacking their daughter. It was a small spark, but there was a lot of fuel on the ground. With the aftermath of Mehmed’s Jihad, and the reprisal campaigns between the big Shimii clans in the Imbrium. Everything was tense; everything ignited. That’s what led to the division of the village. The Imbrians were aghast– they didn’t understand how deeply the hate ran even as they counted the bodies. But the Imbrian solution to the Shimii had already been segregation, so they simply segregated again.”

Homa breathed in and out to try to contain her irritation and give herself time to think.

She knew things like that happened between Shimii, and it made sense for this situation.

But to hear that these people had suffered something so horrible in the past broke her heart. It made Baran’s cheerfulness and attempts at optimism feel even more painful.

And it made her angrier at Rahima for what she chose to do in response.

Did she really think the Volkisch would be any different?!

“The Wohnbezirk was already self-segregated in a way.” Rahima said. “Mahdists always kept to themselves. They stuck together and kept their traditions alive under scrutinity. Mahdists are a people of defiance. The Rashidun had power in the Wohnbezirk, they had political positions, because they were the majority. It was easier to administrate the place by letting them do it. They would make law that most people agreed with. But they did not institutionalize the shunning of Mahdists. Individual Rashidun might have practiced it– but it was the Imbrians who built a gate and separated out the Mahdists. And eventually, the Rashidun took advantage of this. It was in their interest, economically and politically.”

“Can you change that? Will you?” Homa asked bluntly, unable to keep herself in check.

This earned her an unfriendly glance from Bernadette.

“I have to be exceedingly careful.” Rahima said. “Or I might light another fire instead.”

Homa shot her a look, her malice toward her briefly undisguised–

“Kid,” Bernie addressed Homa, “Think about who you are raising your voice to right now. Rahima Jašarević is the Gauleiter of Aachen under the Reichskommissariat Eisental. She has more responsibitilies than you can ever imagine, and has been handed so many problems, as you just heard. You will be satisfied with the explanation she has given you, which is more than you are owed, about mechanisms of state you couldn’t possibly understand.”

That’s just an excuse. You took all this evil power for yourself to do nothing?!

Her irritation became more evident– but it would be short lived–

Suddenly, Bernadette reached out and seized Homa suddenly by collar of her shirt.

Forcing her to look at her, eye to eye with what was certainly a Volkisch killer.

In that moment, the gun in Homa’s jacket felt frighteningly heavy, poorly concealed–

“Did you not hear me? You will apologize to the Gauleiter at once.” Bernie hissed.

“Bernie, Bernie– that’s enough. Let her go. I am not offended.” Rahima said.

Homa glared at Rahima and Bernadette, feeling a momentary defiance–

“Gauleiter, this malcontent has been staring daggers at you all day.” Bernie suddenly said.

She noticed that?! Homa felt her heart sink, felt the hopelessness numb her limbs.

“She has engineered things, so she ended up here with you! Think for a moment– she might well be plotting something! She says she came from Kreuzung– a place which just saw a terrorist attack that was quite likely orchestrated from here in Aachen itself. She is with a Katarran and visiting this remote place. She has already won over the spiritual leadership here, and for what reason? With charity? Don’t you find this suspicious?”

Homa’s words caught in her throat. She couldn’t even beg or plea– what would she say?

Bernie’s grip on her tightened. Her free hand moved, perhaps to check Homa’s coat–

“Enough!” Rahima shouted, loud enough to startle the children. “Enough, Bernadette.”

As quick and hard as that grip had been, it released her as suddenly as ordered.

Bernadette let Homa’s shirt go– and gave her a quick, dismissive, petty little shove back.

“In my presence, you will allow me to be one to unravel conspiracies.” Rahima said. “I do not need your mind wandering in wild directions like this, lashing out at people. None of this helps me, Bernadette. Stow your paranoia, especially toward my people.” She turned and reached out a hand to Homa as if to wipe her coat where Bernie had struck– but the startled Homa stepped back in response. Sighing, Rahima withdrew. “I’m sorry, Homa. Please excuse us. We are both rather stressed. We’ll return for the festival. Please let Baran know it will be in a civilian capacity. To ease her worries. I assure you we will be more amicable then.”

Rahima picked up her coat, sighed, and made an authoritative gesture toward the fence. Bernadette sighed as well and followed her orders, leading the way through the gap and escorting Rahima out of sight. The sound of their footsteps grew ever more distant.

Homa stood stunned, watching until they left, all of the children looking at her with worry.

Her legs gave out on her from stress. She ended up sitting on the bare rocky ground.

Around her, the kids gathered, rubbing her shoulders and hair with their innocent concern.

Asking if she was okay, if everything was alright, if she was hurt somehow. As much as she wanted to say something, she was paralyzed with the stillborn fear of that moment. So close, they had come so close to unraveling because of her aimlessness and stupidity. Had she stayed out of the way none of it would have happened. She had just barely gotten out by the skin of her teeth. All of her worst fears manifested– she nearly failed Kalika.

While the kids planned to go see Baran to get Homa help– she sat there, stunned silent.


When Elena opened her eyes, she was back in the shack in the Mahdist village.

Laying in bed with her disheveled clothes, the sheets strewn about, her shoes tossed away.

Conny hovering overhead with a little smile.

“Looks like we’re back. That was an unexpectedly dramatic baptism.” She said.

Elena stared at her and practically growled her irritation.

TERRAKINESIS

Nothing separated her from earth but thin plastic.

Beneath the shack there was rock that Elena manipulated into sharp spikes.

Two such implements burst from under the floor at her command.

One reached a sharp point to Conny’s neck, another angled at her lower back,

both frozen still in their positions.

Poised like loaded bullets, that could have thrust into that fair skin in an instant.

Conny raised her hands with a smile, awkwardly trapped between the two prongs.

“Elena, doesn’t your dear aunt look so much less scary now?” She said in a pleading voice.

“My dear aunt has been acting like a lunatic! She nearly got me killed!” Elena said.

“Big, bold emotions run in our family! Leda was prone to this too, you know!” Conny said.

Elena grunted again, annoyed. She waved her hand and the spikes dug back into the ground.

Conny nearly lost her balance from the way she had to stand to avoid being pierced.

She breathed heavily, doubled over and holding her own knees like she had run too much.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack, ragazzina!” Conny complained. “I am on your side!”

Despite her annoyed tone of voice, she had started smiling again after a little while.

Elena was still quite cross with her– but in the next instant, all of the wind left her.

She dropped back onto the bed, feeling like her muscles had been sapped of vitality.

Then her head swam and eyes burned. She was not in the aether and faced psionic feedback.

Eventually, she passed out completely, too exhausted to maintain consciousness.

Conny looked at her with a mixture of amusement and perhaps, a hint of pride.

“Ugh, she’s a living firecracker just like Leda. Why is it always like this?” She sighed.

Glancing down at the holes in the plastic, Conny made her way to the bed.

She sat down beside Elena, stroked her hair, and laughed a bit to herself.

“I’m so glad I decided to stay for the festival.” She cooed, exhausted herself, but elated.


Previous ~ Next

The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.5]

In the Mahdist village at the far end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk, the flag of NGO “Kamma” waved over the little motorized drone accompanying an elven visitor.

She appeared suddenly, and she caught everyone’s attention immediately. Homa stood back while the villagers crowded around the woman and her pack drone with a great and inexplicable cheer. Baran moved to the head of the little crowd alongside Sareh, both looking eager to meet the visitor as well. Despite the crowd forming around her, the elf took every hand that was offered with a smile, everyone was friendly to her.

“Greetings, greetings! I’m glad to see you all well! I’ve brought goodies!”

With a wave of her hand, the elven woman commanded her drone to open up its cargo.

Inside the drone were several bottles of a white fluid with colorful flecks, that according to the label was a doogh with rose petals– a fermented milk drink popularized by Shimii culture. Alongside the bottles of doogh were vacuum-sealed round filets of beef without any labels or even nutritional information except for a packing date. Homa’s eyes fixed on them from afar as if she could eat them with sight alone. They were not the best cuts; almost no fat and with meat fibers that would be visible across the Wohnbezirk. These were probably tough, cheap meats, but with a good, long cook, they would be mouth-wateringly delicious.

“Mashallah! Conny, thank you!” Baran said, beholding the gifts with a sunny expression.

“Don’t mention it!” replied the elf, Conny, “I heard that you would actually be holding the Tishtar festival this year again. I knew I had to make time to help in any way I could!”

Baran turned from Conny and scanned the crowd briefly, before finding Homa.

She waved for Homa to come closer. Homa hesitated, despite Baran’s excitement.

At Homa’s side, Kalika gently shoved her on the middle-back, urging her to step forward.

Homa reticently advanced through the crowd until she was face to face with Conny.

“Homa, this is Conny Lettiere! She’s helped us out a lot over the years!” Baran said. She waved her hand from Homa to Conny. “Conny, this is Homa, she is a special guest of the village! She’s a very generous and courteous traveler in search of her roots!”

Immediately Homa had a series of conflicting thoughts.

Special guest?! She felt entirely out of place being anyone’s special anything.

Though she would not complain, if it meant a place of honor (and meat) at the festival.

Lettiere?! Wasn’t that the surname of the loud elf student who was always in the cafeteria on the communist ship? Were they family? Did all elves know each other? Not that this was any of her concern, but it still piqued her interest in that brief moment.

She had met very few elves in her life and they felt– exotic.

“Nice to meet you.” Homa said, awkwardly reaching out her hand.

“Pleasure is all mine! Thank you for lending these folks a hand!” Conny replied, taking it.

They had a quick and courteous handshake. Conny pointed over Homa’s shoulder.

She lowered her voice to just above a whisper as if not to draw attention.

“Then, I take it that the lady in the splendid coat, whom I don’t recognize, is with you?”

Homa looked over her own shoulder, saw Kalika, felt foolish for looking, and looked back.

“Yes, I hired her– you know, it’s dangerous in the Imbrium lately.” Homa said.

Conny smiled and nodded. If she was thinking of anything dire, it was not evident.

With the pleasantries taken care of, Baran urged everybody to return to what they were doing and led Conny to her house, where they had an electric plug that they could hook the drone up to so it could continue to chill the food until the festival, in a few days time. While Baran and Sareh took Conny, Homa returned to Kalika’s side with a glum face.

“Look at you, so gloomy! You’re getting a whole feast of meat! Perk up!” Kalika said.

“I’m not like, a little animal that just gets happy at feeding time.” Homa grumbled.

“Of course. Just– bear with this for a bit longer, Homa. You’re doing great.” Kalika said.

She patted Homa on the shoulder, and Homa hated how much she enjoyed the praise.

Maybe she was a little animal chirping for food– in this case, for Kalika’s attention.

While the village leadership welcomed Conny, Kalika and Homa hung around outside of the village gate. Kalika had just put out a call to the Volksarmee, summoning someone to repair the village’s oxygen system. Most of the troops had been given their own missions, just the same as Homa and Kalika. But they could spare Chloe Kuri, who was allegedly pretty handy with machines and was already out and about and could make a stop at the village.

“Chloe is always running around. You can count on her to show up anywhere needed.”

“I thought we would be getting one of the engineers. Can she really fix that thing?”

“She’s a reliable jack-of-many-trades. Anyway– who was that woman?” Kalika asked.

Clearly switching gears on Homa– not that Homa minded or could say anything about it.

“Apparently she’s ‘Conny Lettiere’, an NGO worker. Friendly with Baran.” Homa said.

“‘Lettiere’ huh?” Kalika said. “The Pandora’s Box has a guest with that surname.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen her in the cafeteria. She’s always talking about random things she learned from communist textbooks. She’s an elf too. They might be related.” Homa said. “Maybe our elf can come to an agreement with their elf for a supply of meat.” She added as a joke.

“Homa, don’t call them ‘our elf’ and ‘their elf’.” Kalika said, patting Homa on the head.

“Hey, I was just kidding– and leave my ears alone.” Homa grumbled.

She made no move to resist the continued petting. Not even the feeblest resistance.

When she was satisfied, Kalika lifted her hand from the fluffy ears with a contented sigh.

“Kalika, what is ‘Kamma’? Do you know? You’re better traveled than me.” Homa asked.

“They are an organization funded by donations. They distribute free food to poor folks.”

“With how Baran talked about them I thought they would be like you all.”

Homa pressed Kalika for more details since she had never seen Kamma around Kreuzung.

Since they still had time before Chloe arrived at the Wohnbezirk, Kalika continued.

Kamma was a non-governmental organization that was established by former legislators from local but well-funded Liberal parties– because of this, Kamma and the All-Rhinea Liberals could never escape undue association with one another. All Kamma did was buy whatever was cheap or even unwanted, leveraging bulk purchasing of goods directly from suppliers or from distributors about to either slash the prices of or liquidate certain items. Then they would cook soups or hand out cans and frozen foods. It was that simple, but even that was controversial, and led to conspiracires and witch hunts. There were allegations that the Liberals employed Kamma for various criminal activities, anything from vote buying to ballot fraud to trafficking children. Alongside the political ascension of the Volkisch, Kamma began to draw less attention to itself, to avoid being used as a political cudgel.

Such things were pointless now that the Volkisch had fully ascended, of course.

“You have to understand Homa, public feeding of the poor is a compassionate act to us because we are compassionate people. There are a lot of people in the Imbrium, both ordinary and powerful, who would rather the poor and homeless receive no help and disappear. They are seen as a problem. Their continued existence takes up space. It is inconvenient that Kamma helps them to live.” Kalika said. “Kamma is actively banned from public feeding in a few different stations, Kreuzung being one of these.”

Homa’s ears folded. “That’s horrible.” She said, and it was all she could say in response.

Her mind flashed all of the different times she had been struggling with food recently.

Those last awful days in Kreuzung where it was a battle to get even a bit of meat.

Had the situation dragged any farther, she might have struggled to get any food at all.

She thought of all the ways that powerful people engineered that entire situation.

From the prices to the supply, to just not allowing people like Kamma to help anyone.

They wanted it that way– they wanted Homa to struggle and even starve.

In contrast, she recalled her recent stay on the Brigand– where she just ate for free.

And where, even at her most useless and difficult, nobody would allow her to go hungry.

“I guess that’s why Baran is not surprised to see communists.” Homa mumbled.

“That girl is a lot more learned than she seems. She is being discrete with us– I bet she knows more than she lets on.” Kalika said. “Don’t judge her by outward appearances, Homa. Mahdist religious schools teach history, rhetoric and logic, not just scripture. Not only that, but the Mahdists in the Imbrium have a history of political struggle. It’s likely she’s developed an understanding of the ideologies and situation of the Imbrium of her own accord.”

Homa did not recall receiving any religious schooling herself– her upbringing that she could remember was rather Imbrian, thanks to Leija’s investments in her education. So she could not have known what Baran did or did not learn in the little village madrasah they must have ran out of the masjid. But she also wondered whether Kalika thought of her as a Rashidun Shimii, and a part of her did not like the idea of being judged that way. Nevertheless, she kept quiet– she did not know what she wanted to or could even say about that.

Her feelings were too conflicted to assert a stable position any which way.

It was impossible to say ‘I am not a Rashidun’– because she also wasn’t a Mahdist either.

She was nothing, no one– a configuration of parts uselessly novel to the mean.

Whoever heard of a half-Shimii, half-Imbrian; who hardly even knew her own religion.

“Oh dear, you went silent on me again.” Kalika said. “Jerky for your thoughts?”

From her jacket, Kalika withdrew a small, foil-wrapped piece, a meat snack.

Volwitz-branded, salt and pepper flavored. A little cylinder of cured processed beef.

“Kalika, I said I’m not a little animal who responds instantly to food.” Homa grumbled.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to cheer you up.” Kalika said.

“No– I’m not mad. Sorry. I’m just being difficult.” Homa said. She averted her gaze.

Feeling suddenly pathetic at how quickly she snapped at Kalika, practically her only friend.

Kalika handed Homa the meat snack with a smile. Homa accepted it with some hesitation.

“Where did you get this, anyway? It’s Volwitz grocery store junk food.” Homa said.

“Sareh gave me a few pieces before the Kamma lady arrived.” Kalika said. “She wanted to show her appreciation for us saving Baran from those thugs. I told her we did not need any rewards other than the things that we already agreed upon, but she was so stubborn about repaying me. Instead of arguing I just accepted her gift to absolve her of her debt.”

Homa held the bit of meat between her fingers, turning it over. Feeling– pathetic.

“Must have reminded you of somebody.” Homa grumbled, thoughtlessly.

“The real Kalika is much less judgmental than the Kalika in your mind.” Kalika said.

She smiled and poked Homa in the cheek playfully as if to diffuse any tension.

Homa thought of apologizing for being so quick to misread her– but held her silence.

Slowly, she unwrapped the meat snack and raised it to her lips.

Taking a bite, breaking the processed, molded meat into chewy strands. Releasing salty-sweet flavor that made the insides of her cheeks tingle and contract.

It was tasty.

It was not what she wanted, but it was tasty and meaty and provided a momentary comfort, and she silently thanked Kalika for the offer. That thanks would remain silent, however– there was a silly, petty little pride in her that refused to air this childish gratitude.

She wished dearly that she would never have to say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘thank you’ again.

And even more she wished she could say such things without feeling so stupid.

On and on turned the maelstrom of feeling and desire in her chest and gut.

Not knowing what she was anymore, where she was situated, what she even wanted.

Thankfully she would not remain in such a suspended state for long.

Two hooded figures came into view, prompting Kalika to step forward from the gate.

One a short and cute-looking Katarran and the other a slim and pretty young elf.

Chloe Kuri and Elena Lettiere from the Nationale Volksarmee, carrying a few plastic bags.

“Oh, I did not know we would have another visitor.” Kalika said, smiling at Elena.

“I was– showing her around some places.” Chloe said, gesturing toward Elena.

“Yes, I insisted upon her, I’m sorry. I promise I’ll stay out of your way.” Elena said.

“It’s not a problem. There’s not much to be in the way of.” Kalika said. “We’ll introduce you to the village and you can savor some of the local color while Chloe works. I’m sure they’ll love you. Just don’t expect a lot in the way of amenities– and remember to mind what you say.”

There was a bit of sharpness to Kalika’s voice near the end. A warning.

Elena nodded. She looked at Homa and smiled.

That sunny, care-free demeanor kind of reminded Homa of Baran too.

“You’re Homa Baumann right?” Elena said.

“Homa Messhud, here.” Homa said, trying to contain her sudden irritation as she spoke.

“Oh, sorry! Right, cover identities.” Elena said, averting her gaze awkwardly.

There was a voice in Homa’s head calling her a bimbo– but it was unkind and unearned.

It was not like Homa herself had proven a mastermind infiltrator either.

“Maybe you should let Kalika do the talking.” Chloe said. “She’s good at that.”

Elena looked embarrassed but smiled and nodded her deference.

Kalika looked more amused than bothered by the whole scene.

She led through the gate, taking one of the bags from Elena and leaving the rest with Chloe.

In the village, things had settled back down and there was no longer a huge crowd.

The villagers went back to what they were doing. It was a bit noisy in the street, with children playing a boisterous game of tag and some of the women congregating in the town’s bakery singing and joking around by the windows. Sareh, Imam al-Qoms, and a few of the bigger middle-aged women in hijab had assembled on the stage were the taiza structure had once stood. They cleaned up, arranging the pieces that remained. Teenage girls approached the stage, bringing tools and a handful of containers, probably fixing gel.

Baran sat on the porch of the hair-dresser’s place along with Conny, trying to talk above the level of the noise, probably catching up with the friend-of-the-village. That little salon was one of the most prominent plastic buildings on the main street of the village and had a long front, hosting many people. Baran had her walking stick on her lap, and a piece of bread in hand. She waved when she saw Homa and Kalika, all smiles. Kalika nodded her head toward her and led the party to the salon. She gestured toward Elena and Chloe.

“Baran, and Ms. Lettiere, these are companions of ours who have come to help with the oxygen generator problem, just as we promised before.” Kalika said. Upon giving that introduction, Elena immediately stared at her, and at Conny, and looked a bit lost for words. Thankfully, she was not the one talking. “This is Elena Rossi.” Kalika put a hand on Elena’s shoulder and squeezed gently. Elena stiffly nodded, playing along. “And this little fish is Chloe Kuri, who will take the lead on the repairs. We hope to done by tonight.”

“Pleased to meet you!” Baran said. “I can’t thank you enough for your help!”

Conny looked at Elena for a moment while Baran spoke.

She then reached out a hand to her with a big grin on her face.

Buongiorno, paesan!” She called out with a sudden cheer.

Elena quietly returned the handshake, visibly going cold.

Homa so rarely heard any elvish spoken, but that was definitely elvish Conny spoke.

There was a pizzeria in Kreuzung Homa indulged in whenever she earned the rare bonus at work. Big beautiful pies with seasoned crusts, bright marinara and velvety cheese. The management played up that it was authentic elvish cuisine, and that the chef was an elf, bright-eyed, pale-skinned, with green hair and sharp ears– but of course, the chef was just in the marketing graphics, and Homa never once actually saw her. Everything else was just music and green-and-red flags and elvish herbs on the pies. That was the greatest extent to which Homa was exposed to the exotic and passionate culture of the elves.

Perhaps this was also the case with Elena, who clearly did not understand High Elvish.

Not even that stereotypical phrase that Homa heard at the pizza restaurant every time.

Homa began to feel some compassion for her, watching her suddenly blanching.

“May I have the pleasure of an introduction? I was busy making a call before.”

Kalika also reached out a hand to Conny and addressed her. Conny shook with her.

“Concetta Lettiere, call me Conny. I’m the Chief of Field Operations with Kamma, an NGO that gives out food to the needy.” Conny said. Kalika made no reaction upon hearing, neither the name nor the title, but Conny seemed to leave just a bit of space for silence, as if fishing for one. She then continued to speak. “But I’m not here on an errand for Kamma, at least not officially– if I was I would have brought a crate of cans instead.” Conny smiled. “I’ve come and gone from this village before and befriended the locals. I really love the culture here.”

“It is very hospitable.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia– just an honorable mercenary.”

She winked and laid her hand on Homa’s shoulder as if to appear chummy.

Homa, with the aim of also looking chummy, laid her own hand atop Kalika’s–

And it was her metallic hand, so it was gloved, and neither warm nor soft to hold at all.

So much for even that briefest of fancies. Homa’s ears briefly folded.

Piacere, straniera. I’m so grateful you could help these folks out.” Conny said.

Comparing their elf, with her elf, Homa could see the resemblances in certain places. Conny’s hair, blue and twin-tailed, had a truly outlandish sheen, and when she did not dye it black to hide its luster, Elena’s hair was similar in its bright purple color. Both of them were slim women with gentle curves, though Conny was even shorter than Elena was. Though they both had ears situated in the same place as an Imbrian, rather than a Loup or Shimii’s raised ears, elven ears were longer and pointed. Elena’s had a slight curve to them still. Conny’s ears were longer and sharper, terminating at an angle rather than curving off.

Both of them were very pretty and had a certain timelessly girlish appearance. Their soft and gentle facial features and the shapes of their faces were almost a dead-on match. Their noses had a similar length and narrowness and Elena’s indigo eyes matched the size and shape of Conny’s green eyes, and the colors of both were similarly intense. Conny’s skin was a bit paler than Elena, who had a touch more pink on her face and hands.

Elena was usually modest, wearing her uniform and traveling clothes– meanwhile, Conny had an outlandish tasseled bra top and bell-bottoms that she only barely covered up with a white blazer jacket. That boldness was also readable in how she carried herself. Always smiling, with her head high, making direct eye contact with whoever she spoke to. Her stride was easy and confident, and she never stumbled over her words.

In that sense Elena was nothing like her– but Homa suspected they were indeed related.

Homa did not miss how awkward Elena immediately became when she heard Ms. Lettiere.

Kalika had a good eye for problems– she subtly clued Elena into what was happening and introduced her under an assumed name before Elena could possibly put her foot in her mouth. They avoided exposing Elena to any unwanted attention from Conny and Baran that way, even though Elena’s body language had been completely shaken. Homa made a note of that trick for later. In case her spy career continued to take off after this trip.

Her career as a busybody continued unabated, however.

She was very curious whether Conny had any inkling about Elena.

“Baran, I’ll take Chloe and get started on the oxygen machine. Before the air here gets any thinner.” Kalika said. “If I can ask for a favor, can you perhaps treat Homa and Elena?”

Homa would have shot Kalika a look, and wanted to raise up a fuss– but did not.

Mustering a titanic effort not to speak her mind and say something difficult.

Though she disliked how often Kalika parted from her she was curious about Conny.

“Absolutely! I’d love to have them. We can talk more over some breakfast.” Baran said.

“Homa and I will cover anything for you.” Kalika said.

She knew that just meant the communists would cover it– but it still gave her a bit of fright.

Playing the part of a generous and well-funded traveler did not suit her penniless self well.

Nevertheless Homa continued to act the best she could by keeping completely quiet.

“Don’t worry about that! We’ll be getting some more food in soon.” Baran said.

“Oh, is that so?” Conny interjected. “Do you bring it in from the Volwitz subsidiary?”

“Right, the councilwoman, Ms. Jašarević, helped us set up a weekly delivery.” Baran said.

“The councilwoman, huh,” Conny said, her eyes briefly wandering toward the gate.

“There’s a couple families that make good money outside, so they help pay for it too.”

“I do know about the remittances.” Conny said. “I’m glad you have some means here.”

Baran looked a little proud of herself. Homa felt a fresh sting of pity for the village.

Elena, meanwhile, remained tongue-tied as before but nodded her head rapidly in response.

Kalika and Chloe bid their temporary farewells and then headed for the rough, rocky areas surrounding the village, where they would work on the oxygen generator. Kalika left one of the bags that Elena and Chloe had brought in as part of her contributions to Baran’s household. When Baran unwrapped the bag, and took a look inside, she gasped, took another look, and alternated between grumbling a bit and smiling. Homa took a step forward and looked inside the bag as well, wondering what drew such a reaction.

Inside the bag, were cans of tomatoes, a jar of eggs, and jarred sweet and hot peppers.

There was enough for a big breakfast or lunch but not much more than that.

“She did not have to do this.” Baran said. “But I’ll repay her by feeding all of you.”

“Ah– you don’t really have to repay anything, it’s really fine.” Homa said.

“Then I will treat these gifts with respect by making a delicious meal.”

Baran took her walking stick and leaned on it to stand from the porch, wincing with pain from her injuries. Homa offered to take the bag, but Baran insisted on carrying it herself. She lead the way from the salon, behind the masjid, and to her own house.

While they walked, Elena looked around the village with wonder and a clear, growing concern for her surroundings. Homa thought she must have looked the same yesterday as Elena did now, seeing the humble old plastic houses, the rocky terrain, the poor lighting and limited electrification and breathing the slowly worsening air. Life was colorful in this hospitable village certainly– but it wasn’t easy, and anyone could see that.

Conny must have been used to it. Her little grin never vanished from her face for an instant.

“Welcome to my humble abode! Make yourselves at home.” Baran declared.

Through the blue and green curtain-door into Baran’s house, greeted by the little table and chair and the accompanying kitchen accoutrements as Homa had last seen them. This morning there was a bit of fragrance in the air. A lavender-scented smokeless aroma-pod, Raylight Beauty brand, had been set on Baran’s window, perhaps to help her relax after the past day’s ordeals, where the village had been attacked and Baran herself stricken.

Baran bid everyone to sit, and then declared that she would work on the meal alone.

Taking one of the chairs, Homa watched her cook.

It reminded her of her own apartment back in Kreuzung. All Baran had to cook with was an electric pot and a small water kettle, but she was not deterred in the slightest.

First, she took the tomato cans from the bag. They had tabs that allowed her to open them without tools. Once opened, she dropped the tomatoes into the pot. Without skipping a beat, as if a practiced motion, Baran broke off the top of one of the cans. She used the can top to crush the tomatoes. Careful, sliding motions of her hands– Homa was not standing but could picture in her mind that the tomatoes were crushed to a thick but wet consistency. She already knew the sort of dish those ingredients and methods would yield. Once the tomatoes were crushed up, Baran placed the empty can in a bin nearby but kept the lid in hand. She then took the jar of peppers and twisted the top open without struggle.

Silently, Baran picked a pepper out of the jar. She looked at it, turned it over in her hand.

Taking it into her fingers, she took a bite. Nodding to herself, she dropped it into the pot.

A second and a third pepper each received a bite; a fourth caused Baran to shut her eyes.

That one, too, went into the pot with the tomatoes.

Turning the can top sideways, Baran used it to cut and scrape and mash the peppers.

Homa felt a bit of awe watching Baran cook. She must have done this a million times.

No tools in reach but the top of a metal can and the pot to heat it all in.

She looked almost entranced as she cooked. Tail swaying, hands dancing.

There was a smile on her face, an automatic one arising as if from meditation. It was not the sunny, cheerful, girlish look that she directed toward villagers, guests and strangers. It was a gentle and slightly tired look that struck Homa as more mature, as revealing of more experience than Homa had thought. Watching Baran cook seemed to expose a notion of time– the sense that she must have lived like this for long enough to not only become comfortable with it but to have mastered it as technique. She was young and she looked young, she was just Homa’s age, but her expression as she cooked, reminded Homa of something, a face of a woman that she could not place. Someone with a family and a home and a place in the world. Someone with responsibilities to uphold, people to care for.

Motherhood, maybe? Whatever it was, the image came and went as rapidly as the thin air.

With the tomatoes and peppers cut up, Baran knelt down.

Wincing visibly as she tried to access the small refrigerator on which her pot sat.

Baran had been attacked the night before by the thugs that tore down the village’s taiza monument. They had hurt her leg, but despite the pain she was in, she did not ask for help nor stop what she was doing. She barely slowed down– physically and emotionally. How must she have felt about such a horrible thing? Despite frequent evidence of her pain, it seemed she would not allow it to trouble her. Baran moved as if not entirely conscious of her pain. Barely acknowledging it before initiating the next elegant movement of her body that would also, inevitably, trigger it. Wincing– but standing, moving, unbowed.

From the refrigerator, Baran withdrew a blue container with a yellow label familiar to Homa– Zlatla seasoning with a Volwitz foods branding. This staple seasoning was a mixture of finely grated dried vegetables, herbs and spices with some glutamates to enhance the flavor of anything. Homa loved it. Baran stood back up, winced, and shook a small amount of the seasoning over the tomatoes and peppers, before setting the pot to start cooking.

Homa had to fight back an urge to weep at the scene playing out before her.

It was not just that it harkened back to her own life. But rather, the quiet dignity of the scene despite everything that Baran lacked, all the unacknowledged cruelty, it made Homa so angry and so sad and helpless about things. If she saw any of those bastard thuggish boys again in that moment she would have done something monumentally stupid with the gun Kalika entrusted her. If she could have shot the walls to make them more habitable, shot the ceiling to bring light, shot the food to bring abundance, she would have, in that moment. All she had was a violence so potent that it festered in her heart and became tears. She felt incredibly stupid and ashamed, and it took every bit of her self control, every bit of her strength, to squeeze her heart dry and avoid letting out her melancholy.

She knew the dish Baran was making. It was a common enough breakfast for Shimii.

Next she would crack the eggs inside of the paste and cook everything in the pot.

Runny, soft eggs would set into the juicy, savory-sweet, spicy veggies.

Leija had made it once for Homa.

She remembered. Leija knew– Leija taught her to cook. Leija used to do those things.

She remembered–

Leija Kladuša still an upstart gangster, when she had to deal the heroin herself in the alleys and pay tribute back to the old boss Ekmečić. Dealing drugs was one of the few ways a Shimii could make it big in Kreuzung and Leija must have had big dreams to have taken on such a shame and such a risk. Homa remembered— the plastic walls, the instant pot, the treasure box with Leija’s good clothes and makeup– Homa sometimes wandered into it out of curiosity. Why hadn’t she remembered this before–? Then she recalled too– Leija’s drunkenness, the rages, leaving bags of drugs around. Cursing that she had to take in a kid– but begging, crying, for Homa to never leave her, for her little kaidaf to hug her tight–

And she remembered– a blond woman coming in one day and

changing everything,

Leija hiding Homa in the treasure chest–

“We can do each other a favor, Leija. How about it? I take care of Ekmečić–”

That voice– in the resurfacing memories of her addled brain– it sounded–

Like it came from a machine– from the communication equipment of a diver,

“N-Nasser?” Leija had said to the stranger.

Nasser–?

“Leija– someday, I’ll come back to collect. At that time– be prepared.”

That blond woman– and boss Ekmečić dying one day–

Vesna Nasser–?

Then– the ascendancy, and the privileges– then the inescapable Destiny

VESNA NASSER?!

“Homa, what’s wrong?” Baran asked suddenly. “You’re crying?”

Conny and Elena looked at Homa with surprise also.

She realized where she was again. In time, in physical space–

Homa felt the cold tears trailing down her cheeks and her heart thrashed with panic.

“It’s nothing, sorry– It’s the chili vapor– I’m not used to it.” She said, a poor excuse.

“Oh! I’m so sorry. I’ll put on the lid.” Baran capped the pot, responding in earnest.

Nobody suspected a thing, but Homa felt like her brain was being stabbed.

She focused on her breathing, trying to steady herself and calm down her rushing thoughts.

It was stress, she was worn out, she was so poor managing it. That was it, that was all.

Hiding her vast internal struggle under deep breathing and a few tears.

Homa sat on the chair feeling hollow and trying to refill herself with humanity.

Thankfully nobody pushed her, and the moment passed without further incident.

Baran continued to cook, the guests continued to sit, and the tears and fog began to fade.

“Umm, excuse me, Ms. Lettiere–” Elena slowly lifted her hand up like a kid in classroom.

“Call me Conny, paesan!” Conny said. She had been watching Baran cook too.

“Yes, Conny– are you by any chance related to Leda Lettiere?”

Conny smiled, but with less of her prior unreserved gaiety.

“My, oh my– is she still such an icon for young elf girls after everything that happened?”

“Um, well, I kinda– I guess I just–” Elena’s head looked to be sinking into her shoulders.

“I’m just teasing you. Yes, Leda Lettiere was my little sister, believe it or not.”

“Conny, can you tell me more about her? I– I’m like a– a big fan and I– her story is–”

“What is it, are you afraid of being kidnapped and bethrothed to a demon king too?”

Homa was tired out and somewhat disinterested in the conversation, but upon the mention of a demon king, a staple in the sort of fantasy stories she loved, her eyes briefly raised from the table and wandered over to the elves. She saw Elena’s flushed and surprised expression and the hesitation that appeared to grip her and Homa felt, for a moment, as silly as it sounded, that maybe Elena was worried that a demon king was after her chastity. Conny meanwhile seemed to be savoring the moment as she watched Elena squirm.

What was it with older women and teasing whoever was around?

Conny sat back in her chair and let out a sigh, her first display of anything less than cheer.

“You must know how the story ends, don’t you? It’s not tea table fare.” Conny asked.

“I do– I’m sorry.” Elena said. “I shouldn’t have gotten– starstruck. It was silly, I–”

“No, it’s fine. There’s no point in avoiding it.” Conny said, and she turned back to Elena, leaning forward on the table. “Lettiere did not mean anything to anyone when I was born. Leda was a high-achiever and gobsmackingly beautiful, but she was still just a student and still just a woman for most of her life– until Konstantin von Fueller saw her.”

Homa’s ears stood up and though she pretended not to be, she listened with rapt attention.

“We both attended the Palatine Royal Institute for our higher education. Leda was actually studying something kinda brainy– was it applied mathematics? Or maybe higher principles of classical philosophy? Could have even been both, I forget the specifics as a lowly liberal arts student. But she was a genius. Anything she wanted to do, she just did it. She would tell me that she would help me learn this or that, whether it was dancing or public speaking or even languages. She learned a bunch of High Speech like she was becoming a damn lawyer, but it was just for fun! And she would always say that all you needed to do was commit to it and then find an efficient method for learning. Completely insane girl.”

Conny leaned forward on the table, resting her head upon it. Still grinning at Elena.

“Baran, can I curse in your house?” She asked.

Homa sensed a change in the way she was grinning but could not place it.

Still cooking, without turning her back, Baran replied, “I’d prefer you did not.”

Conny sat back in her chair with a little sigh.

“Fine. Anyway. That knave Konstantin von Fueller was inspecting the institute one day, but all he checked out was my little sister that day. At that time he must have been in his fifties! Over twice her age, the nerve. Had he not been the Emperor I would have knocked all of his teeth out.” Conny said. Given the Emperor was dead, saying this sort of thing did not matter, and it would hardly have mattered in present company, even if he was alive– but Homa was still a little bit shocked to hear it. “They had a child maybe two years after. Horrible! He took Leda and in return he gave our family lavish gifts and accommodations. He made the Lettieres something— except for me. I refused any such things. Last time I saw Leda, she talked about being the wife of an Emperor like it was learning a language or learning to dance. With the right method and commitment, she could do it. Awful!”

Conny sighed and put her head to the table. Elena still did not seem to know how to react.

“You said you know the end? Well, he killed her. End of her story. Not too pretty, huh?”

“I–” Elena stammered over her words again. “I– I guess I never understood– why she–”

Conny completed her sentence with her own presumption–

“Why was she killed? For treason– the thing Emperors say about anyone they want to kill. He must have been bored of her. Though, I guess if any woman on Aer could have killed that bastard it would have been Leda Lettiere. I will certainly never know the truth now.”

Elena looked down at her lap. Homa felt that Elena was keeping back from crying too.

But, if they were related– what was Elena to Leda Lettiere, late wife of the late Emperor?

Homa wasn’t anybody, so she just knew about Elena from things she heard off-hand.

Wait– wait a minute– Homa’s head started to race in an entirely different direction.

“It’s not a great story and I’m not a great storyteller. But you asked for it.” Conny said. “Maybe if Norn the Praetorian and Samoylovych-Deepestshore had never been born it could have been a heroic story on my part– but I simply lived my life while my sister disappeared. There is only so much I can say. It is more than anyone will ever tell you, and I am telling you because you are a fellow elf and under the care of an esteemed person like Baran.”

“Thank you, Conny. It does help me understand a little better.” Elena said sheepishly.

After an awful story like that, what could Elena have been feeling? Homa felt pity for her.

“Don’t mention it. You should have a better role model, like me. I’m successful and alive.”

Even Conny seemed to realize as soon as she made that joke that it was very distasteful.

So she quieted and waited, as did Elena, for Baran to finish cooking and serve the food.

“Honestly Conny, you told that story in such an insensitive way– I’m sorry, Ms. Rossi.”

“I’m insensitive? I’m the one here that this stuff happened to, you brat!” Conny cried out.

However, she did not let her mood sour long, and Baran did not take it personally either.

Homa felt that the two of them must have known each other long and had a rapport.

On the table, Baran put down a big plate with all of the food on it. She had gracefully slid the eggs and the vegetable sauce out of the instant pot and managed to set it on the plate, making for a pretty display to the guests. There were six eggs, crisp-edged, with soft yolks like liquid gold, set into the sauce and flecked red. It was a strange number of eggs for the amount of people assembled, but when Baran sat down, she explained.

“This is all for you. I’ll be fine– I already had a bit of food earlier.” Baran said.

“Um.” Homa interrupted, now made uncomfortable. “I’d really like you to join us, though.”

“Baran, absolutely not. I’m on a diet– I’m not going to eat much. Eat from my share.”

Conny spoke up and insisted, even shifting her seat to be closer to Baran so she would eat.

Baran sighed, but Conny had a look on her face that suggested she would not yield.

So in the end, Baran joined everyone else at the table and they tucked into the dish together.

Homa felt much less awkward. She would have hated eating while Baran simply watched.

As she turned over this feeling, a thought came to her vulnerable mind unbidden.

That must have been how the communists felt when she tried to refuse their charity too. Homa thought she had taken just a step closer to understanding them, in that moment. There was something demoralizing about looking at someone deprived of everything and also then depriving themselves of assistance. Someone subjected to so much cruelty and yet continuing to make sacrifices of her own comfort for others. It made Homa feel– helpless herself. Like any little kindness she was capable of would not matter. Little things like sharing a meal with someone were all that she was able to do against the cruelty of the world. If she was not allowed even that then she felt like she would be useless to the world.

Baran should eat the meal she worked so hard to cook, even if the ingredients came freely.

Because the kindness of Kalika and the communists was repaid by living happily with it.

And maybe Homa ought not to refuse any more help from the communists in the future.

Perhaps all they really, actually wanted was to see her just a little less deprived too.

Homa took a plastic fork and gathered a bit of egg yolk, tomato and pepper and tasted it.

Of course, it was delicious. Sweet and savory, just spicy enough, with a creamy texture.

Made all the better because Baran savored it herself and looked so happy with the result.

“Thank you, God, for this meal, and for these companions.” Baran said in a small voice.


“There you are. How was your day? How are you feeling, Homa?”

Kalika parted the curtains into the little house they had been given to stay in, peeking her yellow and black eyes before crossing the threshold. She slid the curtain closed behind her and took off her jacket and pulled her hair loose. It was night and the meager and semi-functional system of lights in the village had begun to dim. There were no additional lights on inside the house, no torches, the television was off. Homa lay in bed, in the dark, on the mattress with the blankets half pulled over her body, grumbling to herself.

She looked up at Kalika and then her eyes wandered away without making contact.

Homa did not respond. She had been spending all day thinking about how she felt.

“Taken a deep breath lately?” Kalika asked.

When prompted, Homa breathed in, and then felt foolish for doing so on command.

“I guess you must have fixed the oxygen generator.” Homa mumbled.

“Chloe did. I just handed her tools and tried to keep her enthusiasm in check. She offered to stand watch so I could rest. Elena is staying for the night too, she’s one house down from us. It turns out there’s more than one little abandoned house in this village.” Kalika said.

“Baran looked happy to have new guests.” Homa said, raising her voice a bit more.

Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa, her long legs half-curled up.

“I was away all day– how were things in the village? I take it there weren’t any problems.”

“Everything was peaceful. When the food order came in I helped Baran distribute provisions to the villagers. She even got flour and sugar for the bakery and coffee grounds for the little cafe. I actually did a lot of work, you know. It wasn’t just you keeping busy.”

“Good! You’re going to have so many women feeding you meat during this festival.”

“Hey–!?”

Kalika laughed and Homa glowered. They sat together in silence for a moment.

“How do you think Baran is doing?” Kalika asked.

“I think she’s fine. She’s strong– and she’s used to how awful things are.” Homa said.

Unlike her– Baran was someone who remained standing in the middle of turbulence.

She must have had complaints, every human being had them.

Her outward appearance was always smiling and courteous and optimistic, however.

Homa felt weaker for not being able to control her emotions so well.

Kalika dropped back from a seated position, coming to lie beside Homa with arms out.

One of her hands, her biological hand, laid a warm ungloved touch on Homa’s shoulder.

“Homa, it’s not shameful to talk about your feelings. I’ll listen.” She said.

“I know.” Homa said. Kalika’s warmth, so near her, helped stifle Homa’s irritation.

Laying side by side in the dark together, in this underground hovel.

Katarran mercenary with a blade dripping red with history; and some useless girl.

The two frauds who had done what they could for this village.

Homa wished Kalika would ask to hold her; wished that she would have accepted it too.

“I don’t know what I’m feeling or what to feel.” Homa finally said, when she could not bear the silence anymore. Her heart was pounding. She was nervous and turning over every word she thought to say. Everything felt so difficult and came so suddenly. “I guess– I am angry. I think I am really angry Kalika. I just– I really hate that these villagers are living like this down here. I hate that they get abused by the people outside. That if they stopped receiving charity the station might just watch them all die and do nothing or make everything worse or even come and kill them. I hate that Baran has to thank God for this.”

Her voice dropped to an almost whisper, feeling that she was speaking something evil.

Even if she had never grown up very religious, the influence of God suffused her.

For the Shimii, religion was essentially inseparable from their culture and identity.

“It’s not the fault of God that this is happening. People are the real devil here and God is not without his blessings for these folk.” Kalika said. “Baran has a lot to feel grateful for. She has clung on to her home with all of her strength. Homa, you saw those boys from the other night– people can make the choice to leave. It’s an evil choice to force on them, to tempt them with– but that also makes Baran’s resistance very meaningful to her.”

Homa understood what she meant and lacked the strength or desire to argue.

But she wished she could argue against it.

“I almost wish– I could take them all way somewhere. Like I got taken away.”

“I understand that impulse.” Kalika said. “But to them, this is their home, Homa.”

Home was such a bitter-sweet word for Homa that it almost made her mad again.

“Home? I always wanted to leave Kreuzung. It was horrible. I wanted to see the Ocean.”

“I get it.” Kalika said. She squeezed Homa’s shoulder a little bit. “It’s a bit rich for me to talk about a home too, but I think that’s also why I sympathize with the villagers. I’ve been rootless all of my life. I would never look back to Pythia or to Buren and think of them as home– but I wish I had a home. Hell, for a time, I thought I had found a place like that. So I guess– what I want for the villagers is for their home to become a place that they could thrive in. I’m curious, Homa, do you have anyone back in Kreuzung? Friends? Family?”

Leija–

“No.” Homa said, fighting back tears. She could not fully disguise her pain in her voice.

“I’m sorry.” Kalika said.

She turned on the bed and wrapped her arms around Homa, who did not resist.

Pulling her tight against her chest, holding her so close, like Homa had never been held.

Homa felt Kalika’s rapidly beating heart at her back. Kalika must have felt hers too.

She had not asked and Homa had not accepted, not audibly; but it still happened.

And Homa was happy to be held. In the dark, where no one could see– she smiled.

Reminding herself she wanted to become more accepting of kindness.

“We’ll figure it out, Homa.” Kalika said. Her voice sounded a bit sleepy. “I’m here.”

Homa knew she had barely slept the day before and been so active throughout.

Kalika deserved to rest and deserved whatever kindness Homa could give.

Bob tail fluttering, ears folded, Homa nestled back against Kalika.

And took Kalika’s hands into her own, fingers intertwining.

“Good night, Kalika. Thank you for everything.” Homa said.

“Good night, Homa. I– I really– you–”

Kalika yawned and rested her head closer to Homa’s fluffy cat-like ears.

Her breathing grew steadier, and her grip started to slacken.

“I need you Homa.” She mumbled, her voice slurring. “You are my–”

Soon, she was sound asleep.

Homa, herself a bit sleepy, wondered whether she had heard that correctly.

She must have just been babbling out of exhaustion– but it was very cute.

On the night of the attack on the village, Kalika had looked so intense, so powerful.

Her sword swing cut the air with an audible whistling. She was so strong.

But in the center of all that thunder and fury there was a woman with a soft heart.

In her own soft heart, Homa had a childish little feeling of satisfaction.

So much had happened– but she wasn’t alone.

Though she still felt so doubtful about what Kalika saw in her, she still savored the moment.

Her mind wandered away from the troubled memories it had unearthed.

There was nothing she could do about Leija– or about Vesna Nasser.

At least not right now.

But she could at least help Kalika and do what she could for the people here.

Maybe she wasn’t completely useless after all.

With the soothing rhythm of another’s heart at her back, Homa soon fell asleep.


Three days passed since the Brigand arrived in Aachen, and the second round of United Front deliberations was underway– but that was a distant, unrelated concern to a particular silvery-white haired, indigo-eyed girl in an often dour mood. On that day, she had reason to smile instead. A reason that had nothing to do with politics or missions.

Her tasks were now finally behind her.

“Alright, the afternoon is yours, Maryam. We have limited funds to spend though.”

“Hmm-hmm! I already know what I want to do Sonya! I want to crush you at games again!”

“Crush me? When did you become so bloodthirsty huh? Come here, you cheeky–!”

Sonya Shalikova reached out and pinched Maryam Karahailos’s squishy cheek as payback. In turn drawing out a series of sounds from her girlfriend suspiciously like cuttle, cuttle, cuttle, while they play-struggled in Aachen’s entry lobby. Both of them were smiling and laughing, and though the sunlamps were the same and the oxycyclers had not changed, in Maryam’s company, Shalikova felt like the station was brighter, and its air cleaner.

It did feel like the perfect day.

Though Shalikova did cherish their previous date in Kreuzung, this time, Maryam was able to walk around Aachen station as her ordinary, purple and marshmallowy self. Her cuttlefish always looked happy to be running around, but Shalikova could feel that Maryam was a bit looser and freer when she did not have to wear as much of a façade around the station. The pair dressed the same as they had back at Kreuzung, their nicest clothes.

Maryam wore her long, dark blue dress and matching beret, but her tentacles rested on her shoulders rather than hiding in her hair, and her charming w-shape eyes and purple chromatophoric skin could shift freely to accommodate her many moods.

Of course, if Maryam was dressed as she had been in Kreuzung, and so was Shalikova–

this meant that Shalikova was dressed like a showy delinquent again.

However, she was just a bit less mortified about it than on previous ocassions.

She looked good, damn it– even though she did not want to, it was still a bit uplifting. Even though the red track jacket was too bright and the ACE on the back was somewhat embarassing; even though the pants were too tight for how humble Shalikova’s butt was; even though the shades made her look like a stereotypical curfew-breaker problem kid. Maryam liked it and that was what ultimately mattered to Shalikova.

It wasn’t like she was dressing up for anyone else!

No– actually– it was still basically as embarrassing as it always was.

“Illya– someday I’ll get you back for this–!”

“Sonya, you’re mumbling with such a fierce look on your face!”

“It’s nothing, Maryam. I’m just thinking of where to take you.”

Because of the activities of the past few days, the Brigand and her crew had gotten pretty familiar with the layout of Aachen station. They had cased the place and ducked into practically every nook and cranny, but more importantly, Shalikova herself had gotten a look at all the stores. She knew there were a few arcades strewn about the first tier. There was one particularly flashy establishment that she thought of bringing Maryam to, but it also played host to alcohol and gambling. She was not sure how that would go over.

“Maryam, do you drink at all? Or like– do you gamble?” Shalikova awkwardly inquired.

Thinking about her answer for a second, Maryam rubbed her chin with one of her tentacles.

“Fortune telling and street hustling is kinda like gambling I guess.” Maryam said.

“There are no technicalities here, do you like slot machines and beer or don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say I like it, but I’m not offended by that. I’ve been curious to drink actually.”

Shalikova thought of a drunken Maryam and the puns that might result from that.

She would take her to the flashy gaming parlor– but maybe dissuade her from drinking.

All of the smaller arcades were more slanted toward kids, and Shalikova thought bringing Maryam to one of them might have looked too silly. The largest arcade in the first tier, located near the middle ring of businesses, was essentially a barely disguised gambling parlor and bar that had a substantial and eclectic collection of video game machines. Standing outside of it, the gaudy decoration was evident on the enormous façade.

Arcade Dorado, one of the biggest overall venues in Aachen’s commercial spaces.

A little slice of Stralsund here at home, the sub-header read, a promise of hedonism.

Stralsund was the northeastern station complex famous for its unfettered pleasures.

“Let’s try to avoid having too much of a Stralsund mindset today.” Shalikova advised.

“Of course! I’ll be on my benthic behavior! A truly squidnified dame!” Maryam said.

“Right.” Shalikova said. “I shouldn’t have imagined any different.”

As she led Maryam under golden archways, greeted by the rapid sound of jingling coins.

Shalikova would come to find avoiding gambling was a difficult proposition at Dorado.

Even the gaudy façade, with its glowing signage, gold-tinted windows and golden arches, could not prepare Shalikova for how outlandish the interior was. Gold and coins were predominant colors and themes no matter where one looked. Every arcade machine had a golden chassis, so there were long, long rows of gold machines sitting under a gold-foil ceiling from which dangled fake gold coins that served as lamps and decorations.

Underneath their feet, the false carpeting was red but with gold trimming and when Shalikova looked closely, the little pops of gold that formed a pattern on the carpet were themselves false gold (they could not possibly have been real!) coins. Red was the secondary color, but gold lorded over the scene with an iron fist. There was a gold front counter, golden doors to the bathrooms and VIP lounge, the bar area had gold seating, the staff had gold vests and pants with red shirts. It was an unholy eyesore impossible to escape.

Apparently it was also an exceedingly popular eyesore.

Set into the very rearmost wall of the Aachen core station to account for its space, the venue was packed. Most of the slot machines were occupied, the bar counter was full up and many of the tables around it were taken, and there were briskly-moving lines in front of every token machine near the venue’s front counter. Despite the occupancy, the staff kept the patrons under control, and there was security on standby to intervene if needed.

Strangely sensual jazz sounded from overheard and melded with the garish sound effects from the games, the laughter and cries and cheerful hollers of the visitors, the authoritative announcements from the staff. There was a scented mist piped down from overheard to try to contain some of the other odors, but it only barely lent a minty note to the predominant smells of smoke, alcohol, sweat and aluminum. Together with the large occupancy, the scents blended into a strange and almost cologne-like aroma. Shalikova had barely stepped into the building, and it already felt warmer than the outside too.

She began to regret the decision to come here– until she turned to look at Maryam.

And found her girlfriend looking at everything with a wide-eyed, beaming awe.

“Sonya! This place is so deluxe! Look! Everything is made of Gold!”

“Maryam– you know the gold is fake, right?”

“But it’s still the right color! Come on, let’s get some tokens and play!”

Maryam grabbed Shalikova’s hand, and there was no resisting her pull.

As long as she was happy, Shalikova would put up with it.

They waited in line for tokens until they got to the front of a gaudy gold machine. Shalikova plugged a credichip she got from the captain into an exposed serial port on the machine and used a touchscreen to purchase a number of tokens. The machine gave them some indication of how many tokens were required to play the average game, so Shalikova had some idea of how many she wanted to buy. Her tickets were disbursed in the form of a polymer card with a nanochip that could be written to by the lasers on the machines. Dorado’s machines would scan the nanochip on the card with lasers to access Shalikova’s token count.

Despite having the means with which to play, Shalikova was still unsure what to do next.

Not only was the venue so large, but the amount of machines was also daunting.

There were two dozen long rows of machines, and the variety of machines was astonishing. It was not so easy to discount the “gambling” machines from games that she and Maryam might enjoy. Almost every machine was some sort of LCD display and a set of controls; but in addition to the slot machines that were pure luck, there were “skill games” that also paid out, such as digital shooting galleries, fishing games, digital versions of whack-a-mole and prize redemption games. Besides these there were also more traditional video games such as scrolling ship shooting games, gun games, speedboat racing games, falling brick puzzle games, and fruit-stacking puzzle games. The selection was overwhelming.

As they wandered the halls, they encountered a commotion in one of the slot machine rows.

Onlookers and staff formed a small crowd around a beautiful woman who, upon closer inspection, had some heinous symbols in her eyes– she was taking up three slot machines for herself. One to hold a basket of wine bottles and another to hold a plate stacked high with roast meats slathered in what looked like fruit preserves. Between eating and drinking she would bet big on the machine in front of her. The staff pampered and encouraged her.

“Hahaha~! This is why Madame Waldeck calls me her prize pig!” she shouted shamelessly.

Along with Shalikova’s reticence to try the slots, this mess ruled out doing any gambling.

Shalikova gently but insistently coaxed Maryam away from the slot machines.

Into the less over-crowded rows of video game machines.

However, even the ordinary-seeming video games had opaque gambling elements built in. All of them could pay out tokens in different circumstances, and several of them had slot machine elements for acquiring in-game advantages. Maryam was immediately drawn to a game with a tall, vertical LCD where the objective was to stack fruits, which when combined would become bigger fruits. As soon as Shalikova handed her the token card, the screen lit up asking if they wanted to roll on a slot machine to acquire random special fruits that provided larger potential points, and therefore, larger payouts on a win.

“Maybe we should’ve gone to the little kid arcades.” Shalikova mumbled.

“It’s okay Sonya! I will buy exactly one special fruit, just to see what happens!”

Maryam proceeded to quickly lose the game after that.

“Huh? But I stacked the fruits up really high. I thought that was what you did.”

“No I think you are supposed to keep the fruits from getting over the lip of the basket.”

“So when do you win?”

“I kinda doubt the game is winnable. But now that you understand, give it another try.”

Shalikova put the card back up to the scanner and gave Maryam another game.

Despite the opaque nature of the games and the overbearing monetary demands they made of the player, Maryam smiled brightly and laughed with triumph. Learning quickly, her humble strawberries and mangos started to become mighty oranges and gargantuan watermelons, expertly stacked while avoiding a “game over.” Shalikova watched and supported Maryam and felt a sense of relief at how much fun Maryam was having. That was all she wanted– as long as Maryam was happy, nothing else mattered. Shalikova was someone who could live shut up inside her room forever if necessary. That was just what being a soldier was like sometimes. But Maryam deserved every opportunity to get out and have fun and live her life. Shalikova wanted to give her that.

It only began to dawn upon her recently, after spending days cooped up with Maryam.

If she wanted to have a life with Maryam, long term, could things stay as they were?

Their romance had been an unconventional one.

They had met in the middle of Shalikova’s infiltration mission to the Imbrium. There was no guarantee she would survive. As much as everyone was optimistic, as much as they all believed in each other and in victory, their luck could run out any moment. Every battle was an invitation out of living, into permanent exile from everything she held dear.

In her mind she saw the image of that demonic mecha from Goryk’s Gorge.

Selene had come so close to taking her life. She would not be the last to have that chance.

Shalikova had to make the most of every day she had with Maryam– but she also had to change a little herself and change how she interacted with the world. She could not remain withdrawn from everything anymore, because she could not ask Maryam to hide too.

As much as it irritated her to expose herself to the eyes of the world.

Maryam deserved that world of peering eyes, and it was up to Shalikova to support her.

This time it was not Maryam who had begged Shalikova for a date–

Shalikova had taken her out instead– insisting on it, in fact.

She also had a mind to ask Murati out somewhere to establish a friendly rapport.

None of this came easily to Shalikova, but it was important, and she was committed to it.

So even if it was not to her liking exactly, she could watch Maryam play all day.

After everything they had been through, they could munch a few marks.

“Maryam, for the next game, can we look for something we can play together?”

Shalikova asked, and Maryam turned her head from the fruit game machine with a smile.

A big, goofy grin with wide open eyes. “Sonya! Of course!”

In response, Shalikova smiled back almost as excitedly as Maryam had.

Maybe it won’t be that hard to change anyway– in fact I think she already changed me.

Eventually, Maryam had racked up what Shalikova thought was a massive score, but it was physically impossible to continue stacking after the two huge watermelons became a truly colossal jackfruit. Maryam eventually lost and the machine congratulated her and asked Shalikova to scan the polymer card again to update its balance. Maryam won enough tokens to cover the cost of her two plays at the game, thus ending up even.

Shalikova supposed this was the best outcome.

“Sonya! Let’s go play the racing game!” Maryam declared.

She pointed out a pair of machines down the same lane, just past the fruit games.

Unlike the fruit machines, which were played standing up, the paired racing game machines had adjustable seats, with the wheel and pedals affixed to the seat rather than the chassis with the LCD screen. Shalikova followed Maryam to her chosen machine, paid the tokens, and took the seat next to Maryam. The LCD in front of them displayed a first person perspective of the cockpit with a scrolling foreground. Judging by the ocean surroundings, demarcated by buoys and too brightly-lit to ever be real, this was a game about speedboat racing.

Small, extremely quick submersibles were raced everywhere in the Imbrium, and even the Union. Daredevil speedsters sacrificed everything to get even one additional knot out of the machine, making the best racing submersibles extremely fragile and dangerous.

In the Union, Shalikova recalled there were attempts to organize clubs for racing drones instead of manned craft to try to create a safe alternative– but many racers still wanted the thrill and organized underground leagues, using leftover and discarded parts, repurposing decommissioned rescue boats and observation bathyspheres to create their own small machines that they could launch out from disused maintenance areas. Small but dedicated audiences followed their favorite racers to clandestine events. Eventually the Union relented and worked to regulate a public league with purpose-built craft that were a bit safer than the craziest racers wanted. Now, she and her girlfriend could experience the pulse-pounding thrills from the safety of an eye-searingly gold arcade inside a sturdy station.

“Sonya, this is your chance! This is a game where I can’t use my strength to beat you!”

“Was that a hint of cockiness? You’ll see– piloting a Diver isn’t that far off from this.”

“That’s the spirit! Give it your best knot! Or you’ll be stuck following my squid-marks!”

Shalikova’s eyes fixed on the screen. A count-down appeared.

Her fingers gripped the wheel, feet braced against the pedals, her body tensed–

On the count of zero–

Maryam blasted out of the starting line and–

brutally rammed into the side of Shalikova’s boat

and sent her sailing away.

“Maryam! What the hell kind of sportsmanship is that!”

“Hah! Sonya, I am a villain of the race track! I’ll stop at nothing to win!”

Shalikova was speechless as Maryam charged brazenly forward in a way that would at the very least make her look bad on a track– and would very likely have killed someone or herself! Taking advantage of the fact that it was a video game, Maryam drove like a hellion. Bashing into the track limit buoys to corner, whacking Shalikova whenever she got near, squeezing Shalikova out of the track when she tried to pass her– it was pure mayhem.

She was so aggressive that even when Shalikova tried to play equally dirty Maryam was simply much quicker on the attack! There was no opening at all!

Even when the contest did not entail her strength, Maryam was still too strong!

“Waha! Sonya, the undefeated of the sea has once again completely scuttled you!”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Maryam laughed and laughed, the color of her skin strobing with joy.

For more of that sight, Shalikova would have easily lost a hundred games.

Even if her pride did sting a little bit.

After a few rounds of the racing game that had the same results, Shalikova moved the competition over to a pair of machines that each hosted an instance of a very popular falling brick puzzle game. Invented in the Union, this video game represented one of a very few pieces of crossover culture between the Nectaris and Imbria as far as Shalikova knew. The object of the game was to drop blocks on a vertical board to form clean lines. Completed rows were eliminated and tidied up the board. Of course, the shapes that were given to each player to assemble complicated the matter. In this competitive iteration, clearing a line put junk in the other player’s board as well as forcing their bricks to accelerate.

To avoid any confusion, Shalikova explained these rules to Maryam.

“That’s all? I’m looking forward to yet another victory!”

“Someday that hubris will come back to bite you, Maryam!”

Shalikova played along, pretending to be invested in Maryam’s defeat.

When the first blocks started to drop into the digital boards, complete with flashy effects, Shalikova did begin to earnestly believe in victory. Maryam was sticking to her rather kinetic style of playing games, dropping her blocks as fast as the game would allow in rapid succession. At first, on an uncluttered board, it meant she got the first few combos of the game, putting junk in Shalikova’s board. Soon Shalikova’s slow and steady playstyle allowed her to control her board while Maryam failed to adapt as the game sped up, and began to clutter her board, make mistakes and ultimately, become overwhelmed.

Finally, Shalikova took her first victory. Maryam puffed up her cheeks with indignation.

“When it comes to puzzles you’re a real cuttlehead huh.” Shalikova said.

“Huh? Wow– that was a good one. You’re really getting into the spirit, Sonya!”

Maryam smiled and the fins on her head stood on end and then made a little flap.

Shalikova could not help but smile and laugh alongside her.

They tried a few other games once Shalikova had avenged her racing game losses.

Rather than compete, however, they found a few they could play together.

There was a flashy light gun game with 3D graphics where the two players fought off a horde of fleshy, mutated beasts to escape from a derelict research station–

“You’re holding the gun wrong. Try it like this.”

“Oh! Thank you, Sonya!”

A shooting ship game in an artsy limited color palette with very abstract enemies and landscapes, where where one player could shield the other player from bullets–

“Maryam! Switch to white shield while I attack!”

“Got it Sonya! I’ll protect you!”

And a trivia game where players could confer to answer questions about the Imbrium–

“–I was never taught any of this back in Katarre.”

“–I think I might have fallen asleep in class when learning about this Emperor.”

With some surprising twists–

“Phooey, who would have thought there was a homosexual Emperor? That’s nonsense!”

“I know, I could have never imagined it. Well, at least we’re losing together.”

Eventually the pair was almost out of tokens, the vagaries of their fate rarely yielding enough winnings to make up for the amount of games they were playing and ultimately losing or earning nothing on. It had been a few hours of good fun and Shalikova felt completely satisfied. She had even gotten Maryam’s mind off of drinking or gambling, two vices she hoped dearly her cuttlefish would never experience. Once their tour of the two-player games was complete, the pair started to walk out from the nest of machines.

Maryam poked Shalikova on the shoulder with one of her tentacles.

“Sonya, could you hang around for a bit? I want to use the little cuttlefish’s room.”

“Sure. I’ll just go poke at something with our last tokens.” Shalikova said.

Smiling, Maryam skipped away momentarily.

Shalikova turned back around to the machines, wandering back toward the fruit game.

Reaching into her pants pocket for her card and looked down at it idly while walking.

Her personal guard slackened completely; she was much less aware of the world than usual.

Such that her sharp eyes hardly detected a similarly distracted person on a collision course.

Shalikova had such confidence in her stride and so efficiently converted this into force against this foreign body that she nearly dropped back onto the floor after striking the stranger in what seemed to be both their center masses. Shalikova would not have been surprised to hear that she had butted heads with this individual– she braced herself on a stool seat in a panic and barely stayed upright. Her victim would have fallen had there not been a machine right behind her. It was such a shock, Shalikova was so embarassed.

“Whoa! Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I’m such a– HUH?”

“What the fuck?! Watch where you’re going you fu– OH~?”

In front of Shalikova was a young woman, much like herself,

perhaps near to her exact age.

A little shorter than her, a bit fuller in figure with a dazzling appearance. Dressed in a long, off-shoulder ribbed sweater that quite flattered her, low enough to bare a lot of collarbone and some of her cleavage, with a skirt and tights and heeled shoes. Fashionable, wearing a bit of makeup. Her bright eyes adorned a pretty face twisted into a grin that immediately projected unremitting malice. Out of her long, flowing purple hair, sprouted a pair of rainbow-shimmering translucent antennae resembling biomechanical rabbit ears.

Selene Anahid, in the flesh, just as Shalikova had seen in her mind’s eye.

Judging by her expression, she was making a similar conclusion.

“Sonya Shalikova! You are Sonya Shalikova, aren’t you? You stupid oaf?! I found you!”

“Hey! I said I’m sorry! And– I have no idea what you’re talking about! Who are you?”

“Don’t lie to me! You miserable little rat! I can see right through you!”

Selene’s eyes briefly glowed with red rings and Shalikova feared for the worst.

But there was no attack either on her person or mind– Selene stopped with a grunt.

“Hmph, that stupid aura of yours! Show it to me! Stop hiding it from me!”

“I can’t! I’m not doing anything!” Shalikova said on impulse. “I mean– I don’t know–!”

“Quit acting stupid!” Selene said. Her lips spread into that grin again. “Sonya Shalikova!”

There was no getting away from it– this was Selene Anahid.

And she knew it was Shalikova in front of her. It was not about bumping into her, as rude as that was, and as much as Shalikova wanted to take responsibility for it. Rather, Selene and Shalikova had come to blows in a military operation in Goryk’s Gorge and were now face to face in the civilian interlude before wherever the wind of war blew them next. Shalikova had come away from that battle with an understanding of Selene as a reckless, unsympathetic person, arrogant and condescending, reveling in violence to assert her superiority. Those were the emotions Shalikova got in her fleeting visions and even more tenuous connection to Selene’s mind during their last bout. And now, here was Selene again.

In the ample flesh, able to see her and be seen without armor and without weapons.

She had become almost demon-like in Shalikova’s mind, a haunting presence.

Nothing but a promise of the violence that might befall Shalikova if she was not careful.

Here that violence stood, with a heaving bosom and an impish grin.

What would happen?

What could Shalikova possibly tell her to defuse this situation?

Her head felt so heavy.

She did not want to come into conflict with Selene.

Not only for the mission– but because she felt some measure of empathy for her.

“Selene– I– look, right now it’s my day off! You and I have nothing to do with each other.”

“Hah! Your day off? Destiny has brought us together! Your defeat won’t take time off!”

“God damn it, I don’t want to fight you! I never wanted to fight you! Just leave me alone!”

“Well, you should have stayed home if you didn’t want to fight! It’s too late now!”

Selene paused and looked at Shalikova up and down with such a sudden vehemence that Shalikova raised her arms as if to defend herself. She did not recall anyone ever checking her out with such an intensely tactless and almost lascivious gaze. Selene even leaned to the side to try to catch a look at the rear of Shalikova and continued to snicker to herself the entire time. For a moment Shalikova felt she would have preferred killing each other to this awkward surveiling. Immersed in the quarreling, her head began to fog up even more.

“Wow, what the hell happened to you? Did you fall into a textile press?” Selene said.

“What– what do you mean? I look fine. What do you mean by that?” Shalikova said.

She was shocked, her heart pumped strongly, and she did not process well what was said.

“I mean that clearly in terms of female aesthetics I am your obvious genetic superior.”

Selene raised a hand to gesture over the curve of her breasts as if to demonstrate, grinning.

“Huh? Aesthetics? Genetics? So what? You’re– you’re not even that much bigger!”

Selene was a slender girl– but compared to Shalikova she had curves like a fertility idol.

“Hah! Nothing but pure denial on your part! How do you even sit with no ass like that?”

“Are you serious? Is this really what we’re doing? People might see and hear this!”

“Flattie~!” Selene taunted, uncaring, raising a hand to her lips and laughing behind it.

Shalikova glowered and grunted. “You had a head start on me for growing all that fat!”

In her head that had been a much more devastating blow. She meant to argue that it was disingenuous for a cis girl to flaunt such things against her. But even just this level of insult made Shalikova feel horribly awkward and childish for stooping to Selene’s level. So what came out of her lips was by comparison near incoherent and seemed to take Selene a moment to process as it contained perhaps half the words Shalikova meant to say.

Selene put her hands on her hips and leaned forward with a matching friendless glower.

“Such a convenient assumption! But I’m the same as you– blame yourself, not the meds!”

What was she even talking about then?! Were they both transgender? This was a mess!

“Why the hell are we competing over our three sizes then anyway! You’re ridiculous!”

“And you’re still a flattie flat flat flattie.” Selene said without a hint of self-reflection.

Despite acknowledging it as ridiculous Shalikova was immediately aggravated to hear it.

In all of her life, nobody had ever confronted her like this, not since she was a little kid.

Other children could sometimes get rowdy at school, but they were always reprimanded.

Shalikova had grown up a polite and reserved girl among mostly polite and serious people.

Even Khadija was just teasing her and would not stoop to frustrating childish insults.

Illya non-withstanding, but that was different– Shalikova was unprepared for Selene.

That combination of arrogance, childishness, boldness– brought out the worst in her.

Her fingers crackled with electricity– she wanted to hit her! But she had to control it!

As much as correcting Selene might fill her with temporary satisfaction, opening up the avenue of violence for this mad woman would have invited a disproportionate reprisal. Shalikova had not yet learned all the psionic tricks Selene likely knew. And who knew if Selene had a weapon hiding somewhere (like in her fat stupid tits). If she had a gun on her all hell would break loose! There had to be another way to defuse the situation–

–maybe one in Shalikova’s hand all along.

While Selene was in the middle of gloating, Shalikova raised her polymer card.

In her mind, she was striking a cool pose. Selene just stared at her, however.

“Selene! We’re going to settle our grudge right here and right now!” Shalikova said.

Selene grinned, understanding– she produced her own polymer card from her pocket.

Perhaps in her mind, she was also striking a cool pose, trying to wave her card.

“Well, well, well. Now you’re speaking my language. I will destroy you. At video games!”

“I’ll completely flatten you– at video games! And then you’ll leave my sight for good!”

“You’ll never flatten me as flat as yourself, flattie. But if I win, you will bark like a dog!”

“Deal! Now shut up and put up! Or is all the silicone in your body slowing you down?”

“Why you–?! I’m all natural, just like the beating you are about to receive, vermin!”

Shalikova was beginning to forget this was a scheme to make Selene go away peacefully.

Not the actual rivalry she was allowing it to become by stooping to Selene’s exact level!

Locked in place like coiled snakes the two of them traded barbs and growls–

“Sonya, who is your friend? Are those real rabbit ears on her head?” Maryam asked.

–until the illusion shattered.

Those simple and sudden words sent a jolt of electricity down Shalikova’s spine.

She turned around in an instant and saw her girlfriend right behind her, smiling.

Her heart sank, her throat felt drier, her sunglasses almost dropped from her nose.

Caught in the throes of Selene’s temerity, Shalikova had completely forgotten Maryam.

“She’s NOT my friend!” Shalikova shouted suddenly. “She’s a sociopathic maniac!”

Maryam then crossed her arms and leaned toward Shalikova with a stern expression.

“Sonya– that’s not very nice. Friendly ribbing shouldn’t get into harsh details like that.”

“Hear that, Sonya? You are not being very nice to me right now!” Selene interjected.

Laughing uproariously. Her eyes darting with excitement between Shalikova and Maryam.

Who knew what was going on in that twisted brain of hers?

Worse– if they were both aggravated, the possibility of psionic escalation–

“Maryam, this is Selene. We have a bit of– friendly competition.”

Shalikova turned to Selene and somehow maintained a saintly calm while introducing her.

“Selene– this is Maryam, we’re– we’re together.” She said with a monotone voice.

As if Selene was anyone worth introducing Maryam to, or worth any courtesy.

Maryam looked at Selene and the purple on her chromatophores darkened a bit. Her eyes narrowed, she raised a hand to her chin, the fins atop her head flapped slowly. Scrutinizing Selene for a moment, her tentacles swaying in the air. Selene seemed just as curious about Maryam, so Shalikova had to put up with a long and strange silence.

“Sonya, I understand.” Maryam finally said. “I will step aside and cheer you on!”

Did she understand? Could she really have understood any part of this chaos, at all?

Shalikova nodded her head with a glum expression and awaited Selene’s response.

Selene grinned, shrugged, and silently pointed out a nearby racing game machine.

Together, the pair took their seats in the machine. Selene swiped her card to start the game.

“I commend you for having some shame in front of other people.” Shalikova mumbled.

“I just don’t want to sully my total victory in front of your girlfriend.” Selene whispered.

Was that some dignity and understanding? From this fiend? Shalikova sighed.

In front of them the familiar first-person perspective of the speedboat game appeared in front of Shalikova. She got ready to drive, when a notification appeared on her screen that Selene had “rolled the slots for a premium ship”– and was now the proud owner of a sleek and screamingly purple submersible with an additional hydrojet.

It was almost certainly faster than Shalikova’s own ship.

“Can you really call this a fair competition at this point?” Shalikova said.

“Who called it that? I didn’t say that. I said I was going to crush you.” Selene replied.

Fair enough. Sighing again, Shalikova grabbed hold of the steering wheel.

With materiel superiority on her side, Selene blasted out of the starting line.

And Shalikova struggled to keep up at all. She was solidly behind on every corner.

She expected Selene to be insufferable throughout the process but instead–

“Hah! It’s so fast! Look, Sonya! Look at whose coattails you follow behind!”

In the middle of the game, her malice seemed to melt away into the thrill of a young girl playing a game, and her gloating sounded much more good-natured and even amusing. She laughed and hollered and tried to show off for the audience of one trailing permanently behind her, taking weird lines on the corners and even slowing down at times so she remained on Shalikova’s screen to show off a trick. Despite herself, Shalikova found her manic energy somewhat infectious and laughed a few times at her antics.

“How much did that thing cost you?” Shalikova jabbed in the middle of the race.

“Whatever it was, it was worth it!” Selene jabbed back.

After the race, Selene practically dragged Shalikova by the hand, running to the next game.

Was that a smile on her face?

Maryam followed behind them and Shalikova could hear her giggling faintly.

They stopped in front of the puzzle game machines– which again, Selene paid for.

“Next stop on my tour of overwhelming superiority!” Selene said.

“What premium items are you going to buy for a puzzle game?” Shalikova said.

“Shut it and play, pentomino.”

Much like Maryam, Selene had a very aggressive style of play, dropping blocks as fast as possible and tolerating a few mistakes as her lines built up. However, she also had much better awareness of her board and upcoming blocks than Maryam, and she actually set up boards in order to create multiple line clears at a time, making for a more challenging match for the careful and deliberate Shalikova who obsessed with her placements. Junk blocks traded screens several times, and each salvo prompted pops of color on the screens to quickly indicate the attack to each player. Such effects happened in vicious succession as Shalikova and Selene were quite evenly matched in the battleground of blocks.

“You have guts! I acknowledge you as a worthy opponent, Sonya!” Selene said.

“Quit calling me Sonya! It’s Shalikova!” Shalikova said.

Despite her best effort not to, she was actually having fun with her rival.

Selene seemed to gradually forget the virulence with which she had begun the contest.

Even when she lost, her response was a girlish pout rather than a demonic scowl.

“Oh! I’ll get you next time, cutting board! This is the final round! Tie-breaker!”

Once again, Selene grabbed Shalikova and dragged her to a new set of machines.

Ones that Maryam and Shalikova had not played during their visit to Dorado.

However, they had experienced this style of game before.

Selene took them to the very back of Dorado’s game space, where there was an area full of table games. Every table looked initially barren, but with different accessories the tables could host an array of digital games with physical interaction. There were a few people here, playing pool and holographic ping pong. By placing a pair of plastic mallets on the board, the table would recognize and configure itself as a game of air hockey. Selene grabbed one of the mallets and she pushed the other one to Shalikova’s side of the table.

She grinned with anticipation.

“Oh, Sonya is very good at these!” Maryam said, standing to the side of the table.

“Oh really? Then she’ll have no excuses when she loses!” Selene said.

“No, because I’m more mature. But I am going to win regardless.” Shalikova said.

The pair took up their mallets and waited on their ends of the table.

In the center of the table’s LCD, the display rendered a little hatch opening.

Releasing a digital puck that by random chance flew to Shalikova’s end of the table.

Selene got herself ready in a defensive stance.

On the underside of the mallets there were lights that the table tracked for movement.

Shalikova wondered how much of her strength and control could transfer into the game.

She drew back her mallet a few centimeters and struck the digital puck.

It went flying against the opposite wall, near the corner, and bounced.

Selene responded quickly, striking the puck back.

The game was on–

but Shalikova had made note of Selene’s pose, how she held the mallet, how she reacted to the puck, her movement. How she swung from the forearm and had a restless grip on the mallet that she satisfied by turning it in place, a few millimeters side to side.

Now Shalikova understood better how the video game board reacted to her swing.

And how her opponent moved.

So she gauged the strength that she needed to launch a serious attack.

Drawing back and pushing in from the shoulder, hitting the puck dead center.

Sending it hurtling to the wall, behind Selene’s guard and into her goal at an acute angle.

Shalikova scored her first point.

“Dumb luck.”

“If it helps you cope.”

Shalikova grinned and Selene grinned back at her, remarkably composed.

When the next puck popped out of the board, it soared toward Selene instead.

She quickly threw a feint and Shalikova did not react, standing her ground.

Her gaze and reflexes were too sharp, she was not just acting on pure impulse.

With her feint read through, Selene settled for attacking the puck.

Unbalanced by her previous movements, she clipped the side of the puck–

But the computer registered this as a full-on, dead-center strike.

Shalikova, who had been watching Selene’s arms to determine how to attack and defend, misjudged how the puck would move and struck it far too softly, essentially serving it up to Selene for the perfect counterattack. She was unbalanced herself and failed to control her mallet properly, giving Selene an avenue to retaliate with a brutal strike on Shalikova’s largely unguarded flank. It happened too quick, and Shalikova lost the point.

She could only laugh at her own clumsiness.

“Good arm.” Shalikova said. She was having some fun.

“Good eye. You are indeed my worthy opponent. But I know your game now.”

No, now that Shalikova knew how the game worked and that it was somewhat glitchy, she could easily make the next few attacks in ways Selene could not possibly have predicted or reacted to. Selene did not have a lot of experience with air hockey and was playing a bit clumsily– she had a brief advantage because Shalikova was not used to the eccentricities of the digital machine and how it treated the physical inputs. However, seeing the sunny look on Selene’s face, and how much she had lightened up from calling her a flattie and threatening to destroy her– she became much less invested in winning.

Letting Selene win and preserving that smile was the best possible outcome.

It did not take much convincing to look convincing for Selene’s win.

Selene was favored by the digital puck, made her attack, and Shalikova defended it wrong.

Breaking the tie, giving Selene the victory.

Upon seeing the 2:1 in her favor, she burst out into laughter, softer laughter, girlish.

All of the demonic evil Shalikova had seen in her seemed to have been exorcised.

Shalikova walked around the side of the table and extended a hand for her to shake.

Selene, still smiling and gloating, took her hand and shook it vigorously.

“It was decided long ago! Of course, I was always destined to be the best here.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Shalikova said. She had some rough edges, but– she wasn’t all bad.

“You really put up a fight, Sonya Shalikova! We were truly fated to meet were we not? Do you know how surprised I was to see you here? But I knew immediately that I had been handed an opportunity to prove to myself once and for all that you were nothing but some girl in the end. And now I am in the victor, and I will take my spoils!” Selene said.

It was easier to let her grandiosity play out than to try to interrupt her with sense.

“Yep, you win. I guess I will bark like a dog for you now.” Shalikova said.

Trying to accept her punishment with a smile. At least she had resolved the situation–

Selene averted her gaze and crossed her arms. “Ew, no! You weirdo! Don’t do that!”

“But it’s what you asked for!” Shalikova replied, suddenly feeling desperate again.

“I’m changing my mind. Instead, you have to take me out around town!” Selene said.

She paired this with a haughty laugh but continued to avoid Shalikova’s eyes.

“HUH?!” Shalikova felt like a pair of cymbals had been clapped on her head.

“That’s a great idea!” Maryam said, clapping her hands happily. “Much better than trying to humiliate poor Sonya just because she’s so bad at games! I appreciate Selene’s magnanimity. It’s fun when friends are competitive, but you were both getting heated– you need to relax!”

Selene looked confused by how genuine Maryam was in her excitement.

“Uh, yeah–? Magnanimity– pssh, yeah, I mean, I got that in spades!” She said.

“I– I just–” Shalikova’s head was spinning. “I don’t– She’s not– I’m not–”

“You lost, and you admit you lost, so you have to acquiesce to the winner.” Selene said.

“Sonya, it’s okay! I don’t mind, and I think it’ll be good for you to hang out with a friend!”

Maryam cheerfully patted Shalikova in the back.

Did she actually understand anything?!

Maybe she was happy her Sonya ‘made a friend’ other than her–?

The same silly worry Shalikova sometimes had about Maryam becoming too dependant on herself? But it was ludicrous for her– because Maryam was a stowaway with not a soul in the world and Shalikova had an entire ship of people to befriend! Regardless, that would explain why she was suddenly so happy about Selene’s miserable proposal.

“Maryam, she’s not– oh whatever.” Shalikova sighed in surrender. “Selene, I’ll take you out around town tomorrow, but you have to agree, right now, that your–” If she called it a grudge Maryam might start to suspect something– so she hoped Selene understood– “You have to agree that our rivalry and debts are settled and that you’ll stop with– your particular brand of nonsense. Only then will we be able to go out together, okay?”

Selene’s eyes wandered slowly back toward Shalikova.

“Yeah. Totally. I mean– duh. I know how to protect my public image, you know?”

“Great.” Shalikova said. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow at the lobby. I’m broke by the way.”

“Of course you’re broke. Whatever. I’ll pay. See you tomorrow before noon.” Selene said.

Smiling, still smiling, after everything. Selene was smiling.

What a mess– but Shalikova supposed it wasn’t all bad.

After all, they had avoided fists flying, psionic or otherwise.

Maybe they could bury the hatchet.

Selene turned around and walked peacefully away.

Shalikova was filled with relief– until she heard a voice in the back of her head.

At first like a static-filled radio channel, until the words came into sharper focus.

You’ll be fine if you stay out of our way from now on. We are not going after you. I never even thought I would see you again. But if you do interfere– just remember I will have my orders.

Selene’s voice. She was speaking to her psionically, so that Maryam would not hear.

In that instant, she rekindled Shalikova’s fears and regrets.

Out of our way– meant her crew too.

Alongside that psychopath Norn the Praetorian and her crew.

Shalikova glared at Selene, but it wasn’t up to her whether or not that happened.

She did not want to fight her, she never wanted to– but she might still be forced to.

From my perspective there’s no more quarrel. I want to keep it that way!

She tried to reply to Selene in the same way as she had been spoken to.

Focusing her mind on pushing those words and on Selene being able to hear them.

Unsure at first whether she had succeeded, until–

I can’t guarantee that. But at least, there doesn’t need to be, tomorrow. Ciao.

Selene waved mockingly with the tips of her fingers as she walked away.

Watching her go, Shalikova sighed. She palmed her own face.

A mixture of frustration but also pity overcame her. It was so stupid, so pointless.

Selene was just an idiot like her– both barely adults, and both in such dire situations.

It was so unfair– and there was nothing Shalikova could do about it.

If their captains butted heads again then both would have their orders.

“Sonya, are you okay?”

Maryam took Shalikova’s hand into her own and rubbed it for comfort.

Shalikova met her eyes. Just looking at her brought comfort to her overburdened heart.

She tipped her head forward and kissed Maryam suddenly.

Surprised at first, her marshmallow accepted. It was a quick but healing gesture.

When they parted, Shalikova tried to smile, despite everything.

“I’m a bit troubled. Selene and I actually have a lot of bad blood.” Shalikova said.

She did not want to lie to Maryam, but it was hard to admit the fullness of how she felt.

“From my perspective, the two of you seemed to be getting along.” Maryam said.

“I know, but I fear that things could get worse with us. Far worse.” Shalikova said.

“Sonya, if that happens, trust in yourself. You are strong, and you know what’s right.”

Maryam smiled.

That confidence she had in Shalikova made everything sound possible.

Even if Shalikova herself worried about the worst possible outcomes.


“Welcome, welcome! Oh, what a pleasant surprise indeed– my balcony has seen so many illustrious people of late. It has been a fine week. Please sit down, and avail yourself of anything. Hospitality to guests of the Kleyn household means everything to me.”

“Thank you, Madam Kleyn. Such lovely accommodations. You know your tea parties!”

Gloria Innocence Luxembourg took her seat, one of only two around the tea table this time.

Across from her, Herta Kleyn offered her sweet black tea and fluffy little pink cakes.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Herta asked. “I didn’t even know you were in Aachen!”

“I apologize for coming up so suddenly. I just happened to learn of your predicament.”

Gloria lifted a tea cup to her lips, after having spoken, recusing herself from elaboration.

Across the table, Herta smiled. “My predicament, dear? I am not sure what you mean.”

It had not gone unnoticed by Gloria how many Katarrans were handling security for the Kleyn estate now. Aachen contracted the Rheinmetalle-sponsored Uhlankorps for local policing and VIP security for the government– so why was Herta Kleyn dressing up mercenaries in her little suits and ties and having them screen everybody and patrol the grounds? Of course, she knew much more than that in her clandestine capacities, but that was the simplest surface-level excuse. There was anxiety in the air up here.

“Madam, these are trying times, are they not? Times of instability and scandal?”

Herta met Gloria’s eyes but remained guarded. “I am afraid they are, indeed.”

“I have a proposal for you that will solve a few problems I know you must have. You may have your own solutions, but you will have to sacrifice far less of your own position with me.”

“Is that so, Madam Luxembourg? I must admit, I am intrigued. I have had a lot on my mind recently, you are right about that. There are heavy decisions I must make that I will not be able to take back. However, I must ask whether this business is in my capacity as a station governor, or a private citizen. I have done business with megacorporations before– but not their leaders directly. And never as a civilian. So I have to look out for the optics, you see. Anything that I do will be judged heavily– my political career is part of my concerns.”

“I’ve never done business with a station government, but I have done business with private individuals from them. This concerns yourself primarily, but it also concerns Aachen, Madam Kleyn. We both know there is a black current that is pushing this way; we both know that navigating this current will be complicated and difficult in the coming weeks. It is getting fiercer, more turbulent. You will not be able to withstand it by caring about optics.”

Gloria fixed wicked eyes on Herta, upon whom the true topic of discussion began to dawn.

Herta lifted her own cup of tea at that point. Permission to continue speaking, perhaps.

“Katarran mercenaries won’t be very reliable when the tidal waves roll in.” Gloria continued.

“I am not displeased with my personal security, frau Luxembourg.” Herta replied sharply.

She clearly did not appreciate the advice. Herta Kleyn had been in liberal government all of her life. From consultant to campaign manager to councilwoman and now Governor. She had done everything there was to do, done it properly. For Gloria to suggest anything to Herta Kleyn must have felt quite annoying. Like a child telling the parent how things worked.

“I have more to sell than personal security.” Gloria said, a conceited little grin on her face. “And there are more people at stake here than merely you yourself, Madam Kleyn.”

Herta Kleyn looked, for the first time, openly disconcerted in the discussion.

Gloria laid a portable on the table without saying another word.

On it, were the excruciating details of a deal Herta would not be able to refuse.


Elena had a rough night of sleep at the Mahdist village.

It was difficult to regulate her own temperature, and the mattress she was given was tough and uncomfortable. Even the Brigand’s accommodations were a bit softer on her delicate body. In addition to her physical ails, she also had to contend with disquieting thoughts. Conny Lettiere– and what little information she parted with about Elena’s mother. All of the possibilities haunted her. There was so much that Elena could learn from Conny about her mother, so many things she had never known and thought lost forever.

Her mother had died– no, she had been killed when Elena was five or six years old.

In her teenage years, Elena had mourned plenty that she knew so little about her mother but also accepted that there was nothing she could do. Her father Konstantin von Fueller barely even spoke to Elena, much less about her treasonous departed wife. All of the imperial courtiers and noblewomen hated Leda Lettiere and were not worth talking to. Her brother knew very little about her. Bethany had always been too careful about what she said, embellished too much, Elena had always known it. She would not have told her the whole ugly truth– not like Conny, a member of her family, could have told it.

Elena still had family, right here. After she thought she had lost everything.

Family who knew all of the story of her mother that Elena could have never known.

But there was an inseparable wall between her and Conny Lettiere.

To out herself as Elena Lettiere– was to out herself as Elena von Fueller. Missing Imperial Princess; and why she was missing, who was responsible, what had happened. Elena wanted to help the crew of the Brigand. She sympathized with the communists so much. That ship had begun to feel like home. Their mission felt righteous. So she feared mightily that to admit her identity was to jeopardize their mission and even all of their lives.

Attracting unwanted attention, bringing untrustworthy outsiders into orbit–

it was unacceptable.

Despite this, Elena’s heart could not help but beat rapidly with fascination about Conny. Her aunt, an elven relation, someone who spoke so irreverently about her mother. Maybe in another life, Conny might have been able to take care of her. To give her a home and family and a place to build a new life, without the precarity and violence of military surroundings. It might have made her soft, but perhaps, it would have been more of a home.

Alas; oh well. Such soft thoughts, she already had too many.

It was hardness, toughness, that she needed more of. So she steeled herself.

Conny Lettiere would simply have to pass her by for now.

With her head filled with worry and yearning, Elena slowly fell into an uneasy, fitful sleep–

Dreaming of indigo hair swaying in the wind under the light of an artificial moon–

–and infinitely tall trees making up the sky,

Paesan, wake up. I’m afraid you and I have some business. Quick sticks; I’ve not all day.”

And awakened just as uneasy to a voice she was not expecting to hear.

And to the face of Conny Lettiere, hovering over her, hands behind her back, a mischievous grin on her painted lips. Looming, with a great pressure building up around her.

Paesan, I’m afraid you remind me of someone, and it has been weighing on my trust.”

Her eyes glowed– bright red rings traced the outline of her retina, indicating power.

Floating above her shoulder, a small metal rod like a conductor’s baton pointed at Elena.

“Did you know Elena, that Elven Medeis, Loup Volshebstvo, Katarran Mageia and Volgian Kudo, all reference sticks as an implement with which to divine? Directions, insights– safe passage in caves, finding graves and treasure, and of course, the direction of the truth? Fascinating, no? Such different cultures clinging on to similar remnants of a dead past.”

Elena, paralyzed in bed, felt the pointing of the stick to take an accusatory note.

“So tell me, Elena– what was your surname again?” Conny said.

Overhead, the stick stirred and glowed with a myriad colors.


When Homa awakened the next morning, Kalika was still sound asleep behind her.

Perhaps more because Homa slept lightly, than Kalika sleeping heavily.

It was still much too early. However, the day called to the once-sleeper.

As good as it felt being held, Homa was feeling restless and wanted to get moving.

Perhaps this was her chance to do something good for Kalika. Maybe bring back breakfast.

Regardless of what she did, her legs demanded of her to get up and move about.

Gently, carefully, she extricated herself from Kalika’s grasp–

and sat beside her a moment.

Kalika looked quite beautiful, sleeping so peacefully. Her makeup had begun to run a little bit, her hair was tossed about a bit, and her lips were spread slightly open as she breathed. Her ungainly pose in the bed was very charming. When she was awake, she was so composed and so elegant, in control and never betraying weakness. Homa felt grateful that Kalika trusted her enough that she might be seen like this, unwound, without façade. She sat for a minute watching her, before feeling like she was being voyeuristic, and departing.

In her mind’s eye, the image of Kalika at peace would not soon leave Homa, however.

Outside the curtains, the lights were still pretty dim. It was early morning.

There were people out, however, and Homa became one of them.

At the front of the village, the pieces of the broken taiza monument had started taking shape again. Sareh and Baran had also brought out a big metal pot and a large alcohol burner and dropped both near the stage and a stack of plastic benches. The layout of the festival was beginning to take concrete shape just like the taiza. There were already aunties singing and talking in front of the salon and the little café and bakery, recently stocked again with flour and tea from outside. Homa wondered whether they had competitive prices out of respect for their unique situation– but she didn’t want to find out anyway.

Slowly, more people began to awaken and to come out. Little kids met up around the front of the village and started to play and make noise. Young women assembled near the masjid, maybe waiting for school. Homa could not see a single man around. There was the Imam, and she had some recollection of a few elderly men in the crowd the past few days. Maybe some of the kids were boys, Homa did not know and could not tell, they were too little for that. No young men stood out at all, however. Maybe they had really all given up Mahdism and abandoned the village, starting their own families outside and forgetting it all.

Bastards. Homa was making herself mad just thinking about it all over again.

Then, as her anger started to simmer down again– it resumed a furious, instant boil.

She saw someone approaching the front gate that sent her heart pounding.

Her body tensed.

A tall, brown-haired Shimii woman, smiling, greeting the villagers as she entered.

At her side followed a dour blond Imbrian woman, her gaze falling sharply on every face.

Both wore black uniforms, and armbands with symbols of the Volkisch Movement.

And despite Homa’s wide-eyed fury, the villagers greeted Rahima Jašarević like a friend.


Previous ~ Next

Knight in the Ruins of the End [S1.10]

“Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong– Jagdkaiser, launching!”

Underneath the Iron Lady, the lower hatch of the deployment chute opened into the bright, purple-flecked waters. The imposing Jagdkaiser dropped out, engaged its jets, and leapt into the unknown and alien landscape around the ship. Ingrid tightened her hands on the controls and tried not to let what she saw through her cameras bother her too much.

Maintaining her composure in the face of this environment was not an easy task.

Red rolling hills of flesh, massive fields of sinewy yellow reeds, thick vein-like roots dotting the landscape, crawling up the walls and the cavern ceiling. It was a complex landscape too, with rises and falls, peeking bone-like protrusions that were hopefully rock, long slightly sloping bare fields of ridged flesh like the foremost part of the palate. In the distance, there appeared to be great rises, like white mountains. Ingrid dearly hoped they were not bone.

As a pilot, what was strangest to her was the brightness and clarity all around her.

At civilization depth it was impossible for her to see through her cameras very far in any given direction. Not only was the zone of human activity extremely dark, the water reduced the effectiveness of any light, including the floodlights on a Diver. Ingrid had become used to split second tells that an enemy was upon her. She had the onboard computer, but her senses were not completely useless either. A flash of their floodlights in the near distance, the glint of a weapon caught in her own floods, even the faint movement of the marine fog disturbed by a rushing object, all of these could be picked up on in the moment.

In this place, she could see– as far as her eyes could see.

Not only was the cavity illuminated, it was as if the water was not taking effect on the light. She could see uninterrupted for what must have been kilometers worth of this fleshy landscape– and that enormous pillar in the distance commanding the horizon.

It was unnerving to have that blanketing darkness lifted from before her eyes.

Even more so when what it unveiled was so impossible to make any sense of.

“Ingrid, am I coming in clear? I should be– this is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

A voice from Ingrid’s communicator. It was the cute little voice of their Chief Engineer.

Ingrid knew she had been through a lot recently, and was relieved to see that she was working again. Monika thrived when she was kept busy. However, she would not let the Chief Engineer know of her concerns nor of her relief. It was enough to see that she was fine.

“Loud and clear. Shouldn’t the bridge be enough supervision though?” Ingrid asked.

It was not that Monika was unwelcome to speak to her–

but she had hoped for less–

“Normally yes, but we are being cautious.”

–intrusions.

A second voice– that Nile character, the doctor who suddenly appeared.

“Huh? What are you doing in my ear too?” Ingrid asked in a brusque tone of voice.

“I’m monitoring your health alongside the Chief Engineer.” Nile said calmly. “While I am not the foremost expert on its specifications, I know that the Jagdkaiser’s neural interface can have adverse effects on the pilot. We configured the machine to feed vital signs and brainwaves back to the ship for real time analysis. In the event that the Homunculus causes unforeseen issues, I have direct access to shut it down in order to keep you safe.”

“Okay, and what happens when the connection goes to shit because I’m too far away?”

“I can’t explain how, but our lasers actually have better throughput in here than they do at civilization depth, despite the Katov level.” Monika said. “Hopefully it remains that way.”

“I don’t need two people to dedicate themselves to babying me.” Ingrid grumbled.

Especially not when one of those people– was a particular person.

“It’s a unique situation.” Nile said. “I understand it must annoy you to feel that you are being minded, but we are here to support you. It is not out of disrespect or a lack of confidence but to support a vital asset. Once we have concrete data on how your brain and body are coping with the Jagdkaiser and the use of the homunculus this won’t be as necessary.”

Ingrid gritted her teeth with frustration, trying not to shout back at her.

Nile always gave some spiel trying to sound reasonable, she always said I understand.

Their one session at the clinic was full of “I understand” and “I know it feels like–

She did not understand shit! It was impossible for a freak like her to understand.

Ingrid was particularly sensitive when it came to other Loup, though she would not have used that word to describe how she felt. Northern Loup, her people, were in her view extremely conservative and largely only respected force and authority; meanwhile, to Ingrid, Southern Loup were more immoderate and unrestrained, arrogant, flighty. As the daughter of a notorious family, she had fought against Loup her whole life in different ways. Sticking up for oneself was absolutely necessary– a boot trod upon her once would never lift.

Khedivate Loup like Nile were weird outcasts, unwelcome everywhere, subject to incredible historical violence, and if she had been a more mindful person perhaps Ingrid would have felt some solidarity with that. But that wasn’t her– she always felt as though she had to compete with other Loup and that if she faltered, she ceded the ground that she was unworthy, a craven daughter of wicked blood. She could not just match them; Ingrid had to exceed every Loup, to uphold her family’s honor. Nile had already barged in and encroached on Ingrid’s territory in certain ways she did not want to acknowledge as particularly irritating.

Monika was a runt and a nerd– she incited no such urges.

In fact, Ingrid felt sympathetic with how much Monika must have struggled and endured.

But Nile felt like– real competition. Tall, dark, brunette; strong, smart, beautiful.

Put on the bare earth too perfect, and walking through the world too confident.

Ingrid had to beat her– she could not tolerate being under her boot.

“If the Captain has you on my case then I will have to put up with it, but log my protest.” Ingrid said. She had to accept her lot– she was still a soldier. One thing that all Loup respected was the chain of command. Authority was divine, every place was ordained, and humility and honor were exalted. To a certain point. “But if you annoy me too much I’m switching off the comms and both of you can twiddle your thumbs looking at your data over there. I only take orders from the bridge, and I prefer to be allowed to do my thing.”

“I am not here to interfere. Please feel free to do your thing, whichever way you do it.”

“Huh? What was that? Are you copping a fucking attitude Nile you fucking bitch–?”

“Ingrid.” Both Gertrude and Dreschner’s voice came through the audio line at once.

Ingrid grit her teeth and bore with the scolding silently.

Descending closer to the “seafloor” of flesh. She had strange feelings about her machine, the Jagdkaiser that was supposedly so mighty at the Battle of Goryk’s Gorge– despite its ultimate defeat. It was not as imposing after being repaired. Though it retained its demonic silhouette, the damage it surmounted, and the lack of parts, led to its regression closer to the Jagd it was based on. There was no use for the shoulder-mounted drone stations without any of the drones it used, so Monika replaced these with standard intakes and plate. The fixed gun on the front of the shoulder had been ripped out and was filled in with more control equipment for standard weapons. While this reduced the weight, the Jagdkaiser was still slightly larger than a Jagd and slightly denser, more armored and heavyset than its origin. Its original stock vibroclaw was replaced with an ordinary hand, but the other hand was taken up by the machine’s built-in secret weapon and would not be modified.

Finally, the machine was painted blue and green– a camouflage that was useless now.

Ingrid was not issued a cartridge for use with the main gun. Not on this sortie.

However, the claw could still deploy its magnetic field– she could find a use for that.

Her mission was to gather up samples of seafloor flesh for testing, as well as to test out the physical properties of the flesh through direct interaction and examination. Was it slimy or firm? Did it constitute an actual floor? Would the “cavern” react like an organism to being touched, to being scraped and having a cut inflicted upon it? These were unavoidable questions that needed to be demonstrated, and the Jagdkaiser was the most powerful equipment they had available– and Ingrid their most experienced, skilled pilot.

Through her cameras, she saw the vastness of the red, fleshy world around her.

She had seen what the inside of a body looked like.

If this was a body it was an incredibly warped creature of nonsensical bulk.

A whimsical idea popped into her head. Perhaps this was just one of its organs.

Some muscular cavity passing water, except now so massive as to encompass human lives.

Closer to the fleshy seafloor, Ingrid was surprised to find fauna scuttling about. Long, segmented bodies of crab-like creatures with multiple limbs, some rounded in shape and others serpentine and odd, things she had never seen before. They were sparse but they existed, perhaps more could be found in the reeds. By the way they walked upon the flesh, it seemed like the seafloor had a few different properties. There was a layer that resembled mocus or gel, semi-firm, upon which the creatures standing on the seafloor left rips and indentations. But the flesh below that seemed solid enough that once the wandering creatures stripped away the “topsoil” they could walk easily upon it.

“Some of these arthropods are definitely long extinct in the Imbrium.” Nile said.

Monika sounded her agreement. Ingrid could picture her, arms crossed and nodding.

“I don’t know my biology as well as my mechanics but– yeah. I recognize these. I mean, anyone would know the anomalocaris– it’s become popular among young girls now.”

There was a brief pause as Nile seemed to consider the implications of this.

“That’s– I guess I am more out of touch with what young girls are into than I thought.”

“For the record I have no idea what she is talking about.” Ingrid butted in to say.

“You don’t know about the anomalocaris Ingrid?” Karin entered the comms suddenly.

“I can’t even fucking pronounce whatever you just said.” Ingrid replied.

“I suppose you just aren’t active citizens of the Network!” Monika said.

“I’m not an active nerd like you.” Ingrid said, idly picking on her.

“Let’s focus back up now, Schicksal, Erke-Tendercloud, company.” Dreschner said.

His stern voice immediately quieted the discussion of the anomalocaris’ notoriety.

Except for one stammering little whimper picked up on the audio. “Why me first?”

With the peanut gallery silenced, Ingrid touched down upon the flesh.

Using the underside camera she monitored her own descent and the response from the surroundings. Initially, the flesh yielded a bit when Jagdkaiser’s feet touched the seafloor, but they held firm enough to be trod upon. She was instructed to stand in place for a moment and to gather vibrational data. But there were no errant vibrations.

It did not appear that the flesh was moving.

“Ingrid, use the collection tool we prepared to gather some flesh.” Monika said.

“We will need you to visit a few different sites and collect flesh from them so we can study it. We need different samples to determine if this is all one kind of organism.” Nile said.

“I’ll do my job whether or not you explain, so spare me the details.” Ingrid grunted.

She wanted Nile out of her ears so badly. But there was nothing she could do about it.

Ingrid flicked through the equipment touchscreen and activated the “special equipment.”

Reaching the Jagdkaiser’s hand partially around its backpack, she picked up a tube-like object that had been released from the mech’s magnetic strip. It had been charged from the mech’s battery to the simple and specific task it was given. Once she had grabbed hold of the equipment, she rotated the mech’s hand to align the flat bottom of the tube with the seafloor flesh. Some mechanism within the tube began to flex with errant suction.

Then with with a flick of a button and a forward on the sticks, she staked the flesh.

Down deep through the red surface, and well over one and a half meters into the ground.

Inside the tube, flesh and whatever else would be collected in layers to be studied.

When the collection tube sank into the meat, thin red fluid rose like a mist into the surrounding waters. There was not enough of it to completely alter the surroundings, which were lit up pale blue by the light on the water and dark purple by the katov mass. All three colors never mingled, and had a strangely mesmerizing effect on the water around her.

Ingrid dragged her sight away from the swirling colors and looked at her main camera monitors, one each to a cardinal direction, for any reaction to the stabbing. No tremors of some gigantic beast, nor any roars or sudden thrashing. Nothing immediate.

On one of her supporting touchscreens, the special equipment’s status was shown.

Whatever was beneath the red surface flesh, the tube had filled with it.

Ingrid reached down and pulled the tube from the ground and attached it to the backpack.

She moved the Jagdkaiser over the hole so her underside camera could look down into it.

It was hard to see anything of note. It seemed to be flesh as far as down as she had cut.

Blood seeped gently from the surrounding tissues, drifting upward.

For such a wound, Ingrid would have expected it to be filled with a lot of blood.

“Fascinating. I think I see a new layer at the very end. Maybe subcutaneous fat?” Nile said.

“I wish I had been able to make the collection tubes longer for you.” Monika said.

“For how short notice this all was, you should be proud of your work.” Nile said.

Ingrid rolled her eyes in her cockpit.

“You’re such besties, wow. Why not have a friendly make-out session too?” She said.

“On to the next site, Ingrid.” Dreschner interrupted. “It is marked for you.”

On her main screen, a green, flashing square target paint appeared in the distance. This was also reflected on a static sonar picture taken of the area by the Iron Lady, which she kept pinned up on a subordinate screen to get a better idea of how big the cavern was. Enormous hardly described it. This felt less like a cavern and more like her company had found its way into an entire contained little world that was only vaguely linked to their own.

Somehow, descending the trench seemed to have flipped everything around; water was bright, bandwidth was high, walls were meat. And the extremely extinct anomalocaris was popular with young, network-savvy girls. Would this flesh stretch onward forever?

No use thinking about it. No use thinking about a lot of things.

Yet she could not help but to keep thinking.

With her next target in place, Ingrid re-engaged her jets and leaped off the fleshy ground.

In her rear camera, the Iron Lady still loomed large in the background.

Holding position about 200 meters above the seafloor, still in line with the cave shaft.

A shiver ran its course through her body. She gripped her controls tighter.

Of course, Ingrid was unnerved. It was an unnerving situation.

Soaring through the water in an ethereal, too-still landscape of fleshy hills and purple snow.

Ingrid was a woman who felt her fears were simple things.

She did not care much for the grander scope of things in Imbria’s drama. Things that made her cry or made her shudder were exclusively personal. Her pain was not the world’s pain, nor was the world’s pain hers. People died, every day, in their thousands, hundreds of thousands, in their millions, men, women and children, youth in their prime and elderly ill deserving it– she didn’t know, she didn’t care. It was impossible for her empathy to encompass things too much greater than her orbit. In her experience, in the world that she had been brought up in, such things made you insane, and got you killed.

Whether purged by your own people for bringing disorder, disgrace and dishonor–

Or winnowed by the world itself for being too soft in the face of its unrelenting cruelty.

She was a subject of the world.

She submitted her soul to the proper order– but her heart was for the personal.

At all times she envisioned her journey in the Inquisition would have been quite mundane.

However, her Commander apparently attracted inexplicable things to herself.

“To think all my fuckin’ simpering led to this shit.” She chided herself in bitter mutterings.

It was difficult, it was colossal in its scope, to not waver in the insanity of what she saw.

But what scared her the most was something deeply personal.

That, in seeing this, she herself was forever changed. She could not just ignore this.

Nobody would ever understand. She was marked with it for life. Alone with this madness.

“Who would believe any of this?” She muttered to herself, in restrained frustration.

It was no wonder to her now that the Abyss had so many secrets.

Even if she returned alive nobody would believe her.

Her life was now a lonely myth.

The Jagdkaiser rose up the water table, despite its size faster and easier to maneuver than any Diver Ingrid had ever laid hands on. Effortless to pilot, easy to embody. She took in the “landmarks” that had been noted around the cavern, which was variously also referred to as “the cavity” by the more scientific of their crew members. The Iron Lady had made the final point of its descent the “starting point” of their exploration and by their instruments, the nearest landmarks all sat to the west of this point, although the cavity stretched farther east of them as well. There was a vast landscape of fleshy rolling hills with “fields” of yellow, sinewy reeds growing irregularly throughout, that made up much of the surroundings. To the north in this “field” there was a man-made structure resembling a blue and black rectangular station with a baseplate slowly fusing into the flesh on the ground– this was the most likely candidate for the “primary edifice” that Commander Lichtenberg was looking for.

However, this was not any one of the destinations for Ingrid on this sortie.

Instead, she had three positions in the flesh-field and its direct surroundings that she would survey, one closer to the Iron Lady, one among a field of reeds, and one atop a far hill closer to the main landmark inside the cavity. Several kilometers out from the shaft entrance and the primary edifice, the mysterious, and gigantic, silicate-looking structure, attached at its “peak” and “base” to enormous, sinewy growths of flesh. Like giant arteries attempting to burrow into the structure or command it or hold it in suspension. To Ingrid’s mind, it looked like the flesh was propping up the thing– but she didn’t really know anything.

It was colossal– seemingly looming over everything in the cavity.

Ingrid could look up and see it from anywhere she had been.

At the Commander’s request, it had been dubbed the “silica tree.”

Through a scan, the Iron Lady had found that a massive trench divided the flesh-field from the silica tree. Ingrid’s last collection spot was at the edge of the trench, and part of her task was also to see how deep this trench ran, whether anything was in it, whether it might lead anywhere– generally to get a camera on it. Then the nerds watching it could figure out the rest of the details themselves without much of her own input.

Ingrid tried not to be too wowed by everything she saw.

Her heart was in a mode to smother its feelings.

She wanted to retreat from feelings.

Feelings of beauty and longing and awe at the spectacle of the world–

They had no place in her– she had to get hard, harder, like she used to be before–

Before a certain woman bedeviled her and made her feel too special.

And yet– she also did not want to hate anything she saw, anything she felt.

That, too, was too extreme, too emotional. That too was softness.

Whether forgiving Gertrude and letting her back in was softness or hardness–

Ingrid could not say, did not want to contemplate, and put out of her mind as vexing.

“How are you feeling right now, Järveläinen-Kindlysong?” Nile asked.

“Captain Dreschner, do I have to answer this.” Ingrid grumbled.

“Yes.” Dreschner said. And not a word more.

Ingrid sighed audibly. Frustrated. What did this woman care how she felt?

“I feel fucking fine— alright? I am just peachy, it’s just me and the meat out here.”

“I agree that your conduct feels normal. Any physical–” Nile said and was interrupted.

“Okay? Hey, you know what, enlighten me– what do you think is normal for me, doc?”

“Speaking purely as a doctor observing a patient, you are hesitant to share your emotions, have a strong temperament and strong reactions in social situations. I would still like us to–”

“I never agreed to be your fucking patient! So speak like that again and I’ll fucking–”

“Ingrid! Please stop!” Monika cried out. “She’s not as bad as you think she is!”

“Take her side, why don’t you!” Ingrid shouted back. “Has she been fucking you too?”

Louder and sterner than anyone else, Captain Dreschner interrupted everyone.

“All of you for the love of God stop bickering over nothing! This instant and henceforth!”

His fist striking the arm of his chair was audible even to Ingrid.

It was rare to see Dreschner shout with such vigor.

Even he himself as he continued to speak seemed frustrated that he was pushed to it.

“Ingrid, you are tightly knit with this crew and this ship, and you are a proud person. I know that. I understand that. All of us greatly respect you. You have a lot to be proud about.” Dreschner said. “But a good soldier appreciates the advantages she is given, even if this means setting aside pride and tolerating conflicting personalities. Doctor Nile is assisting in this endeavor to help you. She needs to check in and monitor you, for your benefit. You would be at a grave disadvantage and even danger without her assistance.”

“I understand, Captain.” Ingrid muttered.

“I apologize for my role in the disturbance.” Nile added. Ingrid hated her for apologizing.

Dreschner sighed himself, and his tone of voice softened again.

“We need every advantage we can get. Continue to pilot that machine. And continue to accept the assistance and follow the commands of the Doctor and Chief Engineer. We are resuming this mission, and I want all future chatter to be productive to the mission.”

Ingrid hated that he felt he had to explain all of that to her, as if she didn’t know.

Old man Dreschner was somebody she respected, somewhat, for all the shit he took.

And he was like Gertrude’s dad– so she wanted to like him in that sense too.

Unlike many other people she would hate for this treatment, she did not hate him for this.

But she was frustrated that nobody shared her petty, pointless anger toward Nile.

That nobody else saw the introduction of her into the crew as a disruption.

A doctor– who gives a shit? They never had a doctor. They never needed a doctor.

All they needed was first aid and grit. That carried them through a lot.

Now Gertrude needed a goddamn doctor, didn’t she? Needed one a fucking lot now huh?

Lifting a hand from the machine’s control sticks to cover her own eyes, rub her own face.

Ingrid also hated herself a lot too. Her head was a mess of emotions.

She felt ridiculous.

And she hated that she became Gertrude’s nightmare vision of her. That she was petty, that she was jealous, that she was childishly angry at Nile, Victoria and the weird brainwashed freak they found in the last stupid building they went digging in. She was as possessive of Gertrude as she and everyone around her chided Gertrude for being over Elena and whoever else. Around Gertrude she had tried to suppress those emotions and work them out, but she had to be honest. Even if being honest with herself meant being miserable.

To think all this bullshit was in her head here. In the fucking sea of meat.

She shut her eyes hard for a moment. Trying to center herself again.

Felt her own sweat beads pooling up around the contact points affixed to her temples.

Opened her eyes again. Looked around the cockpit.

Apparently the Jagdkaiser had some kind of brain technology that helped to pilot it.

She wasn’t the cyborg freak that had been grown in a vat to pilot the Jagdkaiser originally. So she did not have anywhere to connect the gross spinal-tap looking implement. It was ultimately removed from the machine by Monika. Instead they would use the contacts, referred to by both Monika and Nile as “non-invasive electrodes” hooked up to Ingrid’s temples, the base of her dog-like ears and the back of her head, to connect to the homunculus. That “homunculus” was suspended in a box chassis above her head, separated from her by a sort of affixed metallic halo that provided structural support.

Thinking about it, she wondered whether her sense of the machine’s power was actually a sense that the hardware was better, or something the homunculus was doing. Were her reflexes and inputs enhanced by the homunculus, allowing her to pilot faster and more efficiently or was the machine faster and more efficient at the level of its base hardware? It almost made her mad again to have to consider such bizarre things.

That her life had become this parade of mysticism.

“All of this shit is going to get me killed.” She mumbled to herself.

But she had a mission, and the Jagdkaiser was approaching its next target.

Overflying a field of the yellow reeds and descending into and through the tall stalks.

As they swept past her in the cameras, she thought they looked plant-like.

Like thicker algae, mixed with celery– more stem than leaf, weirdly vascular, fibrous.

Turning away from the exhaust of her hydrojets just as they swayed with the currents.

Ingrid touched down on the ground amid the reeds, almost as tall as the Jagdkaiser itself.

More small animals, some crustacean, some almost like bony, scaly fish, swam away.

She maneuvered the Jagdkaiser’s good hand behind its back again to read for another tube.

From the equipment status screen, she was drawn–

To a yellow flash.

Her eyes darted toward her monitors.

An automatic target paint, suddenly, right next to her.

In a snap reaction she boosted away from the paint, and the movement in the reeds.

Something large rose up from mere meters away–

Her own hand swiped her weapon selector to engage her assault rifle.

The Jagdkaiser’s hand seized the weapon and turned it toward the field.

She held her fire, eyes wide-drawn, heart pounding.

Sluggishly, with almost lethargic movements, a white creature rose over the reeds.

Its body was smooth and slick, thick and cylindrical, serpentine, alien. Utterly pale, so pale its purple sinews were visible beneath its thin oily skin. No eyes on the surface of what Ingrid assumed was its head, and the barest semblance of a mouth that opened, nearly causing Ingrid to fire, testing her patience, her nerves on a burning edge. But there were no teeth, and it was only sucking in water as if to taste it. She held her place, kept her peace, and the creature lived just a moment longer. Paddle-like arms were placed irregularly across its body, which ended in a cephalopod-like tail. Four biological hydrojets blew a current of water and kicked up fleshy dust that was like shed, dead skin, and bits of broken-off reeds.

Even its ascent with its hydrojets was lethargic, slow, strangely peaceful.

It rose from the reeds, freeing itself from them, and it circled the Jagdkaiser once and from well afar before leaving the area entirely, undulating as it moved its long, cylindrical body, paddles gyrating, bio-jets giving it a lazy current to propel it away. As if the creature was just curious to see what had disturbed its environment and did not care to defend itself nor consume its intruder. Its movements almost reminded Ingrid of some gross malformation of a whale, playful, harmless, almost intelligent-seeming despite its grotesque form.

“Ingrid, I commend you on avoiding any violence toward that creature.” Nile said.

Ingrid dropped back against her seat, putting her hands over her eyes, kicking her feet.

“Fuck.” She grunted. “I don’t need commending! Warn me about it next time!”

“Sorry!” Monika said. “We’ll run more frequent scans from now on.”

“We have to balance information gathering with disturbing the environment too much.” Nile said. Before Ingrid could get mad, she continued, clarifying. “Scanning too often might attract other creatures. Possibly less docile ones than that. We are in a tricky situation.”

“Ugh.” Ingrid said nothing more, to avoid further confrontation.

Instead, she returned her rifle to its place and staked the ground to collect the meat sample.

Once again the flesh-field bled silently and without complaint.

“What if it’s a colony organism?” Monika said. “Like, zillions of little meat guys.”

“In a certain philosophical lens, the planet is already a colony organism.” Nile said.

“Huh. Yeah. I guess you could say, we are the zillions of little meat guys.” Monika said.

“I’m not a biologist so I’m a bit out of my depth with all of this.” Nile said. “Thinking about this from a medical perspective, one of my worries here is whether this organism is healthy. Is it alive or dead? How would we know its status? Does it respond to stimuli and how does it responds; whether it is affected by any pathogens; and what kind of relationship its anatomy and metabolism might have to us or our technology. Think about this– what if we inadvertently lead to the death or contamination of this environment? Could this be a crucial part of the Imbrium’s homeostasis that we were simply not aware of until now?”

“Think less about the organism’s well-being and more about ours for now, please.”

Gertrude made a rare interjection into the conversation at this point. Ingrid set her jaw.

Nile grunted a bit but continued to talk. “Of course, I am thinking about our crew above all else, or otherwise I would not ever have suggested to send the Sotnyk out there to collect samples. Were I completely against us exploring this place I would have advocated for us turning around– medically that is also the safest possible option. I am not blind to the scientific wealth we could find here. However, our actions still have consequences beyond our naked self-interest. You would do well to think on that, Commander.”

Gertrude did not respond. Dreschner curiously did not tell Nile to quiet down either.

Instead, the gentle scolding was allowed. Ingrid could imagine Gertrude sulking about it.

She was always so pathetic whenever something did not go her way.

Ingrid cracked the smallest smile imagining it.

“Personally, I am hoping this thing is too big for us to affect so easily.” Monika added.

“We are very small compared to our presumption of this ‘body’. That could very well be true if this is all one organism.” Nile said. “However, physically small organisms can have enormous medical outcomes on larger bodies– there are viruses that would strangle a human to death in hours, and to this organism, we could be one such virus.”

“Well, even if we kill it, I assume profit margins in the megacorps won’t take a big hit.”

Monika made a cheeky remark, and Nile had a small laugh at it in the comms.

“Humanity has survived a lot, but I still advocate for a bit caution. Just a bit, that is all.”

Grunting with indignation, Ingrid retrieved the stake, its insides filled with meat.

She attached the stake to the back. One more stake; one more location to scout.

“We painted your final target. Let’s get you going; and get you back safe.” Dreschner said.

“Acknowledged.” Ingrid said mechanically.

She pushed down her pedals and pushed forward her sticks.

Once more, the Jagdkaiser rose up higher on the water table and took off.

As the fleshy landscape scrolled by, Ingrid cast a glance at her rear camera, the Iron Lady becoming smaller and smaller in the distance behind her– but still visible. She cast a glance at one of the side cameras, facing the north of the cavern, and the mysterious facility standing amid the flesh almost like a massive and wide version of one of her stakes. A monolith impaled on the flesh. Who built that? Why did they leave it there?

She couldn’t help but be curious about it.

It was like nothing else in the surroundings. Alien within an alien land.

Gertrude would definitely be going in there– searching for God-only-knows-what.

“What am I even doing here?” She mumbled to herself. She felt like such a fool.

Unable to even sort out whether she was really angry, whether they could even be friends.

Clearly Gertrude was at fault, had treated her terribly– but she wanted to forgive her.

That woman as difficult as she was, had saved her life, stuck with her when she had nobody.

Had Gertrude not thrown herself at Norn’s mercy, Ingrid would absolutely be dead.

Captured by Brauchitsch and made a brutal and pointless example of.

Nobody would have missed her. There was only one woman who would have.

It wasn’t just Elena von Fueller who received some of Gertrude’s grace and protection.

She had genuinely sacrificed a lot for Ingrid’s sake too. She cared about her.

Everything that had happened to Gertrude was something Ingrid was also tangled up in.

Since the cadet academy, she always encouraged her.

Had they never met, Gertrude would have maybe never fought Brauchitsch too.

It wasn’t just that Princess who shaped her– Ingrid had a hand in making Gertrude!

Ingrid had wanted to be closer to Gertrude since they met. She was attractive! She was a good lay– even in cadet school Ingrid thought it would have been fun and when it finally happened she had her fun. Gertrude also proved she could be actually reliable when the chips were down– and that she was willing to throw anything away to achieve her goals. To stomp her own pride and debase her own honor. Ingrid admired that too, she was not a moralist, she was not impressed by peaceniks, reformers playing at being clean.

Her own sense of self was so rigid– she admired Gertrude being able to do anything.

That darkness inside Gertrude was attractive– until her fire burnt too hot.

“We got together at the worst possible time.” Ingrid thought.

Cursing her own luck. Gertrude was being stupid and wanton– Ingrid let herself be used.

It felt good for a bit, but with hindsight, it would’ve never lasted.

Of course anything to do with that Princess would have resulted in some stupid mess.

Of course they reacted in awful, hurtful ways about it.

Just like always– whenever they fought it always felt like both of them fucked up.

Gertrude would try to take all the blame; Ingrid would cautiously admit her own side in it.

It had happened over and over and their relationship surmounted it each time.

This time though, it was so heart-wrenchingly personal, so massive.

How could she forgive her for breaking her heart? Why would she ever do so?

“I guess I won’t.” Ingrid muttered. Something agreed too fast, and too half-heartedly.

Doing nothing to solve the conflict, which was raging in that soft, girlish heart she hated.

Her eyes, starting to tear up, scanned quickly across her monitors.

Looming closer, the absolutely massive silica tree, and its crown and roots of flesh.

Ahead of her, the red flesh-field took a steep dive. She could see the trench around the tree.

Cresting the final hill before the cliff, Ingrid set the Jagdkaiser down before the drop.

She removed the final stake, drove it into the ground, and waited, turning her cameras.

To have called it a cliff, and a trench, was a severe, almost biblical understatement. Ingrid felt as if she stood at the end of the world before a yawning maw that went straight into hell itself. She had no inkling of how deep Aer was supposed to be, how far down the ground upon which they trod would go and what was inside the planet’s deepest reaches. Whatever she was taught in school she forgot, it was ultimately just unimportant to her.

So in her mind, she was staring at the world’s center.

Staring at such things which made her feel like a gnat on the skin of a physical God.

First, suspended in the middle of everything, was that silica tree.

Larger than stations, like a mountain and a sun at once, bound by the flesh.

Over the chasm, the orifice down into oblivion.

There was a limit to how far down she could see because the light of the tree did not cut through the darkness with the same intensity that it illuminated the water in the cavity. Despite this she could see far enough to note the geological divisions, the strata of layered flesh and minerals. All of it was probably flesh, but its properties clearly changed deeper down. The layer of reddish flesh was surprisingly shallower than she imagined, and it quickly became darker, sinewy, and crossed with what seemed like stones and sediment.

And cutting through the flesh at irregular angles,

like spurs of dim flickering violet bone–

enormous, root-like veins of Agarthicite.

Some large enough and sticking out far enough to bridge the trench and reconnect the thick, tentacular flesh protrusions rising up like a column to hold up the silica tree from out of the endless darkness. Despite their contact with the flesh in many places they did not annihilate all of it, as they would have done to a similarly impaled human. Instead, brief sparks of Agarthic energy sliced small wounds into the flesh at irregular intervals.

Ingrid’s intruments read a slow but steady current coming up from below.

As if there was a flow from the chasm up toward them.

“Incredible!” Monika said. “How far down could that go? We’ve got to be at most like ten kilometers below the water’s surface right? We’re barely scratching the total depth of the ocean. However, the organism’s flesh extends farther down– what if this is only a small part of its body? Could there more cavities connected by more ducts and trenches?”

“Putting my foot down. We are not going to find out how much bigger it is.” Nile said.

“Nobody said we were going any deeper, relax.” Gertrude said, sounding surly.

They did not understand. They were not standing in front of this colossus.

With only a few meters of armor plate between themselves and its enormity.

Now the tears did flow from Ingrid’s eyes, and her ears folded, her tail curled.

And she looked upon the surface of the silica tree, and it seemed, for a moment–

That she felt as it did. That she heard as it spoke. As it sang– she saw as it did–

In front of her eyes she saw a great forest of many such trees as tall as the very sky.

Singing to each other, all as one, one as all, and yet many, songs of interwoven colors.

Older than age, ancient, arising mineral acritarchs, watching over carbonate puddles.

Full of love for all things, they sang to the creatures that slowly arose all around them.

“Something on the scans– it’s large– it’s approaching!”

An era of cunning, depredation, and conflict for survival played out at the feet of the trees.

Newborn creatures entered and exited, fought and ate, and grew and changed,

Never judged by the ones watching them, never thought unworthy.

“What– what the hell is that?!”

Then, suddenly, it was heard, that one creature sang back to the trees.

One creature of many, who from the means of singing developed thought and purpose.

Astonished, excited at the prospect, the trees wanted to nurture that nascent song.

“It’s firing! It’s firing– a missile!”

But before they could make themselves better stewards of this life, the trees met their end.

Cut down by a fated cataclysm of demonic, violet light that threatened everything.

Ending one song in sacrifice, to bury that fiendish power where it would not be touched.

Ushering another song in its place; a shuddering, embryonic song, the song of humanity–

Ingrid’s eyes flashed and she heard the multiple voices of all humanity as if they were one–

“INGRID! EVASIVE ACTION NOW! RIGHT NOW!”

Gertrude’s voice– shaking her from the stupor–

Pure fight or flight cleared the fog in her vision and Ingrid reacted in an instant.

Jerking her hands back and slamming her pedals so suddenly and so hard that it hurt.

Solid fuel boosters and the leg hydrojets threw the Jagdkaiser into retreat, leaping back from the cliff and the spot she had staked. Her breathing ragged as if she had been choking; a full-body quivering; salty, stinging eyes through the film of which she watched the enormous, dark thing on the screen that made its intentions suddenly clear.

Her cameras filled with the light of an explosion, ordnance detonating in front of her.

Ingrid knew to expect the inward force of the vapor bubble when she began her escape.

Fresh fear spread like a cold tap in her spine when she saw the purple tendrils emerge.

Water immediately smothered any explosive detonation, resulting in a vapor bubble that inflicted damage via the enormous shearing forces of its collapse along with contact heat from the blast. But this ordnance caused a phenomenon that Ingrid had never seen before. Within the vapor bubble, she could see glowing, misshapen “blobs” of material continuously smothered by the water but generating what appeared like thin tendrils of purple lightning that shot out of the vapor bubble and crashed into ground and spread wildly astray.

Several such bolts went flying past her machine as she watched breathlessly.

Her heart caught in her chest–

One bolt sliced across the fleshy ground and

whipped toward

filling sight overwhelming violet light,

jaw hanging entranced, no space for breath,

her final thought

a prayer

for another day, another hour, another second to decide–

granted

As the bolt annihilated one of her cameras, downing a monitor in her cockpit.

Ingrid jerked back against her seat, looking around the cockpit in a panic.

She had not imploded. She was not dead.

Her shaking body was there in all its parts.

She had breath, and pulse.

The Jagdkaiser landed on the fleshy ground several hundred meters from the cliff.

Several dozen meters where she had once been standing were annihilated.

Hexagonal wounds in a perfectly round crater.

Her remaining forward cameras fixed on the assailant, looming massively over the trench.

Ingrid had come under attack from a ship. An impossible ship that appeared suddenly.

Black and blue metal covered a boxy hull with beveled edges, bedecked with weapons. Cannon turrets, interdiction autocannons, missile bays. Water foamed from the rear of the ship, vaporized by enormous thrusters that were not hydrojets. A near size match to the Iron Lady, slightly wider, more utilitarian in its design, the ship moved in a languid circle around the silica tree, approaching but never crossing the edge of the vast trench.

“Ingrid? Ingrid! Come in! The Jagdkaiser is still operational– are you okay? Ingrid please!”

Gertrude’s voice again.

Ingrid lifted her shaking hands from the controls, hugging herself.

Her heart was thrashing in her chest.

And she felt a throbbing, a pulse, as if from coming from above her.

But she refused to look up at the homunculus.

Fearing she might become lost in inexplicable nightmares again if she allowed it.

Her eyes remained fixed on the mysterious enemy.

It had stayed its assault– for now.

Her remaining cameras zoomed in on the vessel and recorded everything they could.

Completing its run around the eastern edge of the silica tree, it began to circle away.

Exposing its flank, upon which there was text emblazoned on it which was–

Horribly, impossibly, mind-bendingly legible. Ingrid could parse it as Low Imbrian.

A.F.S.F Extinction Fleet — Enterprise

Along with a coat of arms composed of sharp hexagons forming a larger hexagon.

Lumbering out of sight as if it had deemed her unworthy.

Inexorable as a force of nature, its passage disturbing the water around itself.

Having driven her away from the trench, the mystery ship simply continued its voyage.

That fear which they had of disturbing this place felt almost farcical now.

Ingrid sat back in her pilot seat, holding her chest, unsure of what to think or feel anymore.

Watching an enemy that could have vaporized her in an instant simply ignore her.

Back in Sverland, when she fought that pup mercenary; and in countless battles she had fought as part of Gertrude’s crew– Ingrid had always sated what she felt was a Loup’s sense of honor and lust for bloodshed. She was a soldier, because all Loup were soldiers. The proper way to live as a hound was to bite; biting was the only thing she could do. She had lost her share of fights, taken her share of lumps, but she always gave back as hard as she could, and pushed Gertrude closer to victory. Even when that pup Raisanen-Morningsun got the better of her, she did not feel like an insurmountable enemy. Had she not been ordered to; she would not have retreated. She would have fought to death; that was her worth.

Now she was faced with an enemy that she could not– would not, chase after.

She could not move. Ingrid was scared. That monstrous ship gave fuel to all of her fears.

Scared to be annihilated in this horrible place and never be seen again.

Scared that she might die in this awful time of her life with so much undone.

And terrified that she would die without reconciliation, without resolution–

“P-Permission to retreat. I– I don’t think we can retrieve the last s-s-sample.” She said.

Her voice trembling, her body shaking, her eyes filling with tears.

“Of course retreat! We’re coming– we’ll meet you halfway! Retreat now!”

Gertrude was still in command of the comms.

Ingrid wished she was not– because she felt oddly comforted hearing her voice.

Hearing her clear fear and worry which felt so frustratingly honest.

Without further exchange of words, Ingrid fled from the face of the enemy.

Child of a kinslayer, dog of the Imbrians, hopeless beggar of love, and now coward.

Her heart was soft, it was weak, she had changed. She had been changed.

She was alive.


The Iron Lady entered combat alert and advanced deeper into the cavity.

That mystery ship, the so-called Enterprise, was automatically denying all hails.

There was nothing they could do. Nothing Ingrid could do but calm herself and retreat.

Ingrid closed in on the ship at full speed, slowing to a stop only when under its hull.

Entering an awaiting deployment chute, she let go of the controls, breathed a sigh of great relief, and let the engineers do the rest. Steel cables secured her machine, the door to the ocean closed beneath her, and the water drained out. A crane arm lifted her machine from the deployment chute and set it down in a kneeling position in the middle of the hangar, surrounded by engineers taking stock of it and getting ready to help her out.

She sat in the dim cockpit for a moment, pulling off the contacts from her temples.

Once her machine was hooked to its gantry along the wall, Ingrid opened the cockpit. Her instrument panels shifted aside, and an expanding sliver of light shone in her eyes. She stood with her head and back bowed, ducking under the roof, trying to make her way out–

but someone intercepted her on the ramp formed by the cockpit plate.

Suddenly taking her into a strong grip and pushing her against a warm chest.

“Ingrid! Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”

Ingrid offered no resistance.

She craned her head to look at the taller Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Fuck no I’m not, do I look okay? You moron?” She cried out, her guard broken.

Both she and Gertrude had tears in their eyes. Gertrude hugged her again, tighter.

“I’m so sorry, Ingrid. I’m so sorry. I can’t bear to lose you. I fucked up. I fucked up.”

On that ramp, regardless of who was around, it felt like an island only for them.

“You didn’t lose me, I’m right here, so calm the fuck down, you lunatic.”

But Ingrid herself was weeping and her heart felt a joy she characterized as stupid.

An idiot’s comfort from being in the arms of someone she wanted and loved.

That person just a chaotic mess that had dragged her life to the rocks where it was dashed.

Nevertheless, she could not deny that there was comfort– and even more, there was desire.

They had been through so much together. They were still here.

“Ugh. You’re so pathetic.” Ingrid said, returning the embrace. “I wish I could hate you.”

And of course, at that precise moment, Gertrude chose to be Gertrude–

“You can hate me. You can despise me. But I will still do everything in my power for you.”

Ingrid suddenly reared back an arm and struck with full force and without warning.

Gertrude quavered and bent, leaning on Ingrid with her teeth grit and her tears running.

Upon having visible effect, the fist which buried in her stomach gently spread its fingers.

“That’s for all the shit you pulled. I’ll call it even now. You’re welcome.” Ingrid said.

Her hand switched to nursing Gertrude lovingly where the bruise was sure to form.

“T-t-thank you.” Gertrude moaned. Smiling weakly, recovering breath. “F-f-riends again?”

“Would I have hit you so hard if we weren’t friends?” Ingrid grinned self-assuredly.


After retrieval, Ingrid was immediately sent to Nile’s clinic.

To give her time to rest and to be checked up on by the doctor, a debriefing and strategy meeting was scheduled for the next day. In the meantime, Victoria van Veka stepped up as the standby pilot– which mildly irked Ingrid. But she had to accept it. She headed for the clinic and found contained therein her next mildly irksome set of moments.

“May I request your cooperation in a quick checkup to make sure you are not injured?”

Nile, gently smiling, as if they had never verbally sparred.

The doctor bid her to undress, put on a gown, and to take a seat on an adjustable bed.

Ingrid thought of saying something combative, but her anger was smothered by her shame.

Despite herself, she followed the doctor’s instructions.

Nile gently ran her hands along her limbs, requested her to make motions, checked parts of her body for wounding, broken bones; checked her mental faculties with strange and annoying questions and requests; took her blood pressure, listened to her heart, listened to her breathing; and finally handed her a small bagged protein drink with a screw-off top straw and declared her fit. All throughout, her handling was incredibly gentle and patient.

“I recommend you stay in bed for a few hours just to relax and wind down.” Nile said.

Ingrid averted her gaze.

That tall, long-haired, ethereally beautiful doctor, always kind and understanding. Having dropped into her world from out of nowhere. She felt her reckless competitive urge rising. That part of her that wanted to dominate her own kind, to prove that she was not just worthy but better, that the outcast embodied the true spirit of tradition. Someone who could not be displaced; someone who could not be ignored or replaced by anyone.

But it was clear from their every interaction that Nile was uninterested in competing.

Unlike Samoylovych-Darkestdays or Raisanen-Morningsun, she lacked fighting spirit.

Nevertheless, Ingrid took her for competition. Competition for– a variety of things.

“You look tense. Is there anything I can do to alleviate your concerns?” Nile asked.

She sat on the bed across from Ingrid’s own bed with a smile. To look her in the eyes.

That softness she could so easily turn on anyone bothered Ingrid more than it should have.

“I don’t suppose you’ll let me punch you?” Ingrid said. A bad joke. She couldn’t help it.

Nile kept smiling. “Setting pride aside, I’d like for there to be less injuries going around.”

Ingrid grinned back at her. “Hah. So you do have some pride as a Loup after all?”

Nile sat further from the edge of the bed as if making herself more comfortable.

“The pride of a Loup, you say? Well– I recognize the value of our cultures in fostering community; and I recognize particularly the value of cultures that are challenged and tarnished by authority. Loup culture has been warped by war and servitude, but it is nevertheless ours. I do not begrudge anyone practicing or defending that culture. But I have been hurt by it. Which is to say– I understand why you act how you do towards me. I have pride enough I would defend myself, but I have no interest in proving myself.”

“Do you know how much I hate it whenever you say you understand me?” Ingrid said.

“I do; I am keenly aware of where that feeling comes from.” Nile said. “Look, Ingrid, I will not reciprocate any violent fantasies you may have toward me, but I respect where you are coming from. I will not vilify you for being wary of an outsider, I will not judge you for your pride, nor for wanting to prove your strength or stake out your territory.”

Her territory– Ingrid felt so stupid when it was spelled out so obviously.

What had she been doing? Blustering and antagonizing people all this time– for what?

Such a thing, her territory, was so infinitely small and pointless to the world.

It was still hers– it was still priceless to her. But had she really protected anything?

Or had she prevented her world from getting any bigger, for no one’s sake?

“Ugh. Fine. Look– I’m sorry. Okay? I’m acting ridiculous and I know it. I’m sorry.”

Uncharacteristically, Ingrid felt ashamed of her own conduct– but Nile didn’t judge her.

Nile reached out a hand to Ingrid, offering her a shake. She looked upon her kindly.

“Believe me, I know how it feels to be an outsider who found a place in the world. I know how it feels to want to do anything to protect that place and sequester yourself inside it. I am not a peerless automaton– I know envy, I know anger, I know distrust, I’ve felt it. I want to do what I can to show you I am not an antagonist. To me, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, you are my patient, whom it is my duty to understand, respect, and to care for.”

Ingrid wanted to bite down and sever her tongue entirely; such was the shame she felt.

“God damn it. I hate how reasonable you sound. You better not make me regret this.”

She reached out, accepting the doctor’s slender fingers into her own slightly rugged ones.

Looked her in the eyes, and tried to see someone that she did not have to fight.

Tried to accept Nile as someone who was part of her world now too. Part of her territory.

When their fingers parted they remained seated on opposite beds. Nile’s tail began to wag.

“Nice work out there. I look forward to many more positive health outcomes.” She said.

Ingrid burst into a laugh; Nile having spoken so seriously. “You’re such a goddamn nerd.”

It was not much yet; it could become the beginnings of something.

Nevertheless, in place of the shame, Ingrid felt as if the tension insider her lessened.

She could smile again, and maybe she could even smile in Nile’s presence.

“So hey, tell me then, is Gertrude just a patient to you too?” Ingrid asked, in good humor.

“In this room, she is just a patient. But– she’s quite amusing, isn’t she?” Nile replied.


Time passed, and the Iron Lady cautiously resumed its exploration of the cavity.

“Why are you following me everywhere now?”

“Should I wait in your quarters then, master?

“N-no– no. You can keep doing what you are doing.”

“Then I shall keep a close eye on opportunities to I render assistance, master.”

“May I assume you are done pushing your sexuality onto me, then?”

“I shall leave such suggestions to the evening hours, master.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg turned to look over her shoulder.

That tone of voice, that little twist of her inflection every time she said master— and how she found a conceited, coy expression on Azazil’s face when she looked. That face reminded her of– Norn. Norn and Korabiskaya– when they teased her with their experience. She felt like bringing this up would look more pathetic than simply enduring it silently and with grace.

Looking at Azazil, with her unblemished, ethereally pale skin and her flawless makeup–

“Did you find your quarters acceptable? I take it you have all of your living essentials.”

“Any quarters are fine by me. I ask for very little and need even less.”

“How is your makeup so pristine if you didn’t request any supplies?”

“That is a mature woman’s sorcery– you wouldn’t know, nor can you be taught.”

Gertrude turned to look over her shoulder. Azazil winked and blew a mocking kiss.

“I feel like rather than a servant I have a harasser with me at all times.” Gertrude mumbled.

Her destination was a small meeting room, one of their few soundproofed rooms with full A/V, used for officer meetings. Inside the room waited Monika, Ingrid, Nile, Victoria and Karen Schicksal. All dressed for work. They sat around a square table with a digital whiteboard surface, flanked by a pair of long couch seats, with Karen at its head in control of a video screen on the far wall from the door. There were pouches of cream coffee and vitamin jelly strewn about the center of the table. Gertrude noticed that Ingrid was sandwiched between Victoria and Nile and despite this looked strangely calm about it.

Taking a deep breath, she walked inside and shut the door behind Azazil.

“Gertrude! Welcome! Sit down here!” Monika said, patting the empty space next to her.

Nile, Ingrid and Victoria all looked toward the doorway at the same time.

Victoria without expression, Nile smiling, Ingrid just slightly more disgruntled than before.

Such pointed staring made Gertrude feel as though she was in danger.

Without further dallying she took her seat next to Monika, who was cheerful as ever.

Directly across from Ingrid, who raised her fingers and waved.

While Victoria simply acknowledged Gertrude with a curt little nodding of the head.

Azazil sat down next to Gertrude, receiving a few stares from across the table too.

Well, Gertrude Lichtenberg, this is what you asked for, wasn’t it? This is what it takes.

She sat across and between all these quite familiar women, boxed in by them.

All women that she respected, cherished, loved, or was fascinated by– in some way.

Seemingly all getting along with each other though with complicated relationships to her.

Navigating some of this initial awkwardness was necessary for that to continue or improve.

As she sat there with everyone staring, she had to admit to herself she was a bit unnerved.

“Commander, glad to see you!” Karen said, breaking the awkward silence. “And thank you all for attending this meeting! I know we have had some frictions here and there, but I do appreciate everyone’s cooperation and everyone’s input is valuable is here. We are all uh– important stakeholders. I arranged this meeting to go over some of the data we have collected throughout our journey, and the forensics analysis we have concluded.”

“Before we begin,” Gertrude spoke up, “I wanted to ask how everyone is feeling so far.”

“Ah!” Karen said. “I’m– holding up!” She gave a thumbs up. Gertrude did not believe her.

“I’m excited and nervous in equal measure. But I’m here to care for everyone.” Nile said.

“I find this cavern rather disgusting, but there’s nothing I can do about it.” Victoria said.

“You know how I’m doing, I’m just so fucking positive, aren’t I?” Ingrid said.

“I think I’m kind of, desensitized to horrible meat landscapes now.” Monika said.

Gertrude interrupted before Azazil could say how she felt and shook her head.

“As you say, master. A silent woman is a precious jewel to you, isn’t she?” Azazil said.

“Be quiet. As in don’t say anything else until asked.” Gertrude grumbled.

“Hey Gertrude, why are we trusting this chick? Why is she here?” Ingrid asked.

She crossed her arms and threw an accusatory glare across the table at Azazil.

“Ingrid, she’s here to help, just like with Nile and Victoria.” Gertrude said.

For a moment she felt like appealing to the present cases might help her argument–

“You didn’t just dig up Nile and Victoria from some hole, it’s not fucking the same.”

Shot down immediately– in a way Gertrude was not even expecting.

“I share the apprehension. Azazil should be under strict information control.” Victoria said.

Gertrude gave Victoria an annoyed look as if to say, ‘didn’t I get you on my side already?’

“I’m afraid I have to agree– though I of course still accept her as a patient.” Nile added.

Not Nile too– Gertrude fumed at everyone taking each other’s side against her.

She felt suddenly cornered, staring at the three women glowering across from her.

“She’s connected to the structures! We can figure them out with her assistance!” She said.

“I’m with Gertrude on this! We need to keep that weird lady!” Monika said suddenly.

She raised her arm and wiggled her ears and tail and smiled with a mischievous vigor.

Monika– the only ally Gertrude had in the room. She gave her a fond little look.

“Why the hell?” Ingrid asked. “You of all people should understand the danger here!”

“Well– I feel like she needs someone on her side.” Monika said, sidling closer to Gertrude.

“We’re all on the same goddamn side.” Ingrid said, sighing.

“I am on my master’s side. After everything else has slipped through her fingers like so much sand, I shall still be at her side to watch the dust with her. Such is my solemn duty.”

Azazil said, her tone grandiose, gesturing toward Gertrude with a small, conceited smile.

“Uh, was that supposed to be a dig at you?” Ingrid asked, grinning at Gertrude.

Gertrude wanted to sink against the table and never lift her head again.

“Please just accept my decision and move on.” Gertrude said, nearly gritting her teeth.

“We should table this for later.” Nile said. “We’re wasting time and not getting anywhere.”

Azazil once again spoke up without being prompted.

Master can be stubborn, but I believe with the faculties she possesses, she has deemed me worthy of assisting your mission. As one designed for such things, it is my pleasure to assist her. You may assess the master poorly right now– but my assistance can elevate her.”

“Uh. Huh.” Ingrid replied, staring at Azazil in confusion but also a slight amusement.

“I told you to be quiet. I told you not to speak until spoken to.” Gertrude mumbled.

“I am providing assistance which seemed sorely desired, master.” Azazil said.

“Don’t provide assistance. Do exactly as I tell you. Exactly. Okay?”

Azazil, smiling serenely, nodded her head at Gertrude, who supposed she was being quiet.

“Ah, well, I’m glad we have such a– lively– rapport–?” Karen said, clearly nervous.

“I suppose I can live with this situation and just keep an eye on her.” Victoria said.

“Ugh, alright, fine, whatever, I’ll drop it. Look at me getting along so well.” Ingrid fumed.

“Well, I guess we can call it settled?” Monika said. “Welcome aboard, Azazil!”

Gertrude wondered if they were all turning around only because Azazil was being so snide.

After the commotion over Azazil finally subsided, Karen introduced the first real issue.

“Forensics has completed its analysis over all the data logs and footage gathered from the anarchist-branded Cutter in the trench. We have evidence to support the Cutter being the shared property of a cadre of Bosporan outcasts. Apparently they advocated for a fringe ideology within the anarchist movement and were pressured to leave their former communities. I’ll play some footage for you that we isolated of their last day.”

Karen pointed her clicker-remote at the screen on the wall.

On the video, there was a view of the main hall of the cutter erupting into pandemonium. There was screaming from every direction, people running from something, trying to barricade themselves in the rooms in which Victoria and Gertrude found them– and suddenly dropping dead where they stood in a variety of places. What was missing from the video was any visible assailant– it looked like the people in the footage were running away from something, as if they were trying to avoid a concrete threat. They moved in certain directions, ducked away from invisible attacks, and died as if attacked invisibly as well.

“This is security footage. We also inspected the video diaries recovered, but we found these a bit too personal to show. The diary belonged to a minor who was wrapped up in this expedition and met her end– much like here, she was chased to her final resting place, but we can’t make out an assailant. We believe it might have been a mass psychogenic illness.”

Gertrude flexed and controlled the muscle of her psionics, activating her advanced sight.

Red rings appeared on Victoria and Nile’s eyes as well.

Ingrid had no powers; Monika seemed to struggle a bit with it; Azazil looked disinterested.

To those with the sight, the assailant in the videos became clear.

Ragged red cloak over a sinewy, black, wraith-like body that was only visible through the smallest gaps in the billowing cloth. Faces covered by bone-white masks with expressions cut into the seemingly hard material. Unlike the blue creatures Gertrude had seen first-hand, these red beings had cartoonishly furious expressions etched into their masks, and their claws were sharper and less overgrown, easily swung as weapons that pierced through the unprepared sailors. Nile and Victoria glanced at the creatures and then at each other.

Perhaps all of them had seen these creatures before, in that insane shared dream.

These red ones moved nothing like the lethargic blue creatures that seemed almost pitiable.

Malice seemed to guide them, and rather than sleep, their touch brought pain and death.

It was not something they could reasonably clue Ingrid and Schicksal about, not right now.

“Mass psychogenic illness. We’ll leave it at that.” Gertrude said sullenly, burying it.

Nobody else in the room objected. She had spoken seriously, leaving no room for dissent.

“Any progress in contacting that mystery ship.” Gertrude said, changing subject.

Karen shook her head. “We attempted to hail it but all kinds of messages we have tried have been denied automatically. In case of incompatible protocols we even tried generative free interface association– but even that did not yield any different sort of result. For now, we will have to assume the ‘Enterprise’ is both malicious and resisting communication.”

“What about our other interests in this area?” Gertrude asked.

“We are still testing the flesh that was recovered. That will take some time– we have to be very careful with it.” Karen said. “Doctor Nile will assist in these efforts. We did also analyze some of the food packaging, political symbols and the various sundries that were recovered from the technological site that we found at 3000 meters depth. None of it was particularly enlightening– this Aer Federation had industry and packaged goods like our own and, well, the site was a human habitation of some kind. More fruitful than that– we do also have testimony from Miss Azazil here, acquired during her capture, interrogation and processing, that purports to elucidate some of our findings relating to ‘Island-3’ and its ‘edifices’.”

Karen played a few different pieces of video of conversations with Azazil that had been captured. These were disparate remarks and answers from various interactions. They had been edited to include only relevant information and exclude any unimportant remarks or speech given by unimportant personnel. Only the context of Azazil’s responses was shown in the videos, with some context given by Karen if any clarity was desired.

Azazil was quiet and uninterested as the video of her speaking played out.

“Of course, I can elucidate for you. You see, this facility is part of the Island-3 complex. The Island Series were originally intended to begin a process of underwater habitation, commissioned by the Aer Federation, but Island-3 was purchased separately by private investors out from under the Federation. The Island-3 modules were very flexible and meant to spread out to create a larger underwater network of interlinked facilities, but during their descent, several modules were lost. Only two modules successfully linked up– the Crown Spire and the Primary Edifice, separated by thousands of meters of depth. For some time now I have been a piece of equipment registered to this particular station.”

“This edifice, the Island-3 Crown Spire was meant to be one of the nerve centers of the completed complex. It had offices, a laboratory, food storage, an Advanced Neurological Model and biomechanoid servants, and other such amenities. With the loss and disconnection of most of the Island-3 modules, it was rendered largely useless as such, unable to carry out its administrative and scientific functions. It was then abandoned until the current era’s biomechanoids began to take unwanted residence within it.”

(Karen noted that Azazil seemed to refer to Katarrans as exclusively ‘biomechanoids’.)

“What am I? I am a biomechanoid servant designed to take care of humans. I can act as a social or sexual partner to adults, or a nurse or minder to children, and as a protector when needed. My combat capabilities? I am able to defend myself adequately, but I am not capable of bringing about the death of a Genuine Human Being. I would consider myself capable of overpowering most of you. Shimii? Well, I suppose I do look like that, don’t I?”

(She then dodged the question of whether she was a Shimii with overwrought sophistry.)

“Yes, that hexagon symbol is the Aer Federation standard. It represents utter perfection.”

“The Aer Federation is the ruling polity of the planet known as Aer. The Aer Federation is based in the Center of the Known World, located in Turkiye, a country that is part of the Nobilis Confederacy. What do these names mean? Oh, these are surface names. Well, a long time ago, the Confederacy of the Nobilis continent was the rival of the Ayvartan Union in the Extremis continent and the Federation of Northern States in the Occultis continent. However, all three polities were greatly weakened by a series of pandemics known as the Three Great Ravages and were driven to the brink, losing much of their influence and autonomy. Due to its role in resolving these crises, Turkiye’s Aer Federation would grow into a supranational body with near-total control over all of Aer’s social development and global security, as well as regulating key technologies like STEM and biomechanoids.”

(Karen explained that Azazil’s answers attracted more random questions and idle chatter.)

“Even though you have not heard of the Aer Federation, I assure you it is the ruling polity of the world. You may not know or understand it, but you are part of it. My evidence for this is that Genuine Human Beings continue to exist, and the Aer Federation is the supreme and eternal authority of all Genuine Human Beings. As you continue the search for Perfection and make use of Agarthicite, you are still advancing the Aer Federation’s goals and ideologies. As a compromise, perhaps we can say you are successors of the Federation.”

(Karen explained that at this point, Azazil became less cooperative regarding information.)

Gertrude turned to face Azazil, who put on small but polite smile in response.

“You know a lot more than you let on. Why did you stop talking?” She asked.

Azazil continued to smile quietly, fluttering her eyelashes.

“You can talk again now.” Gertrude said, exasperated.

“I was asked questions which were not safe to answer.” Azazil replied. “Or rather, I felt that the answers would endanger the people asking, so in order to preserve the peace, I refused to answer them, and I still do. Even you, master, cannot prompt certain answers from me– because it is my duty to insure health and safety, and avoid undue harm to humans.”

Gertrude hit the table. “The hell kind of ‘servant’ are you, just constantly disobeying?!”

“Gertrude, calm down. Don’t let her jerk you around so easily.” Nile scolded her.

“To be frank, most of the information she gave us was pointless anyway. We cannot make use of almost anything she wanted to tell us.” Victoria said. “It does not matter to us what the Aer Federation was like or where it was located. Whatever she says, we know that this polity is extinguished and has no influence on us. Right now, what we want is to extract information and technology that is immediately useful to us, isn’t that our focus?”

“What she said, Gertrude, these history lessons are a waste of spit.” Ingrid added. “Make her tell you what kind of shit is in this cavern! Like the ship that nearly fucking killed me!”

“Should you desire to access the primary edifice, I will do what I can assist you.”

Azazil remained unbothered by all of the anger and skepticism that surrounded her.

“It’s not even worth being pissed off at her, it’s like her skull is full of air!” Ingrid said.

“Gertrude, I am, if anything, beginning to trust her even less.” Victoria said.

“Look, I know its weird, and I no longer have any idea what direction my trust is going either– nor does that actually matter!” Gertrude said, greatly irritated, “What I do know is that we need her, she’s our only connection to these places. Right now, if we don’t break into that Primary Edifice then we are leaving here empty-handed except for lumps of meat and bad memories. If the Aer Federation isn’t around then I should help myself to what’s left.”

“I do not wish to cause discord between my master and her crew.” Azazil said.

She stood up from her seat, with everyone watching, and bowed her head, still smiling.

“Allow me to work to earn your trust and provide excellent service.” She said.

Ingrid averted her gaze as if it was embarrassing. Victoria stared dead-on at Azazil.

Gertrude ordered her to return to her seat, and the ‘biomechanoid’ smilingly conferred.

“Well– in the words of the captain, we do need every advantage we can get.” Karen said. She then clicked the projector, switching the videos of Azazil’s confession out to images captured by the Jagdkaiser of the enigmatic black and blue ship that had attacked Ingrid. “We called off the combat alert because it appears this ‘Enterprise’ is just circling the silica tree for the moment. For now, this can be considered the primary threat to our exploration, but we do not believe it is an immediate threat– it is not actively seeking battle with us.”

“Azazil, is it possible for that ship to still be crewed?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes, it could have a biomechanoid crew still following a given directive.” Azazil replied.

“After nearly a thousand years, or maybe more?” Nile asked, bewildered.

“I am a product of the Aer Federation, and I am still here.” Azazil said calmly.

Nile looked disconcerted by the prospect– an immortal apprehensive about immortals?

“Are we sure it won’t make a sudden beeline and attack us?” Ingrid asked.

“We have observed its appearances around the silica tree for the past day.” Karen said. “When we arrived we did not detect it, so we believe it was acting much more slowly or was completely inert at first, and only became active when it detected us. We believe it has sped up its rounds since we first made contact with it, but it has not left the side of the tree at all since then– if it wanted to attack us, we believe it would have already done so.”

“From our preliminary analysis of current footage and data,” Monika joined in, speaking of the ship with evident enthusiasm, “We believe the ‘Enterprise’ is the size and complement of a Dreadnought and that it is made up of the same metal as the Primary Edifice– which makes sense if they are both Aer Federation constructions. Since it appears to be keeping a tight course around the Silica Tree, I propose we first test whether or not it will act to protect the Primary Edifice. If it does not, we can study the structural integrity of the Primary Edifice to learn more about the Enterprise and perhaps devise a strategy to knock it out.”

Karen pointed her clicker at the screen again and displayed footage of the ship’s attack.

Particular attention was called to the glowing orbs within the vapor bubble.

“Ingrid, what do you think about the nature of the Enterprise’s attack?” Karen asked.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? That thing shot some kind of Agarthicite weapon.” Ingrid said.

Her words caught mid-sentence, and she looked disturbed to even say it.

“To be more precise than that,” Monika said, “I believe this weapon leverages different states of matter than we are used to for Agarthicite. Our civilization uses Agarthicite near-exclusively in its solid form since melting undepleted agarthicite is so dangerous. But Agarthicite is matter, and like any matter, it has different states. It’s theoretically possible for there to be liquid, gaseous and plasma Agarthicite. However, because Agarthicite is so volatile, it can only be handled via ultrapotent magnetic fields, ultrasonic water cutting, or within ultracold chambered gasses– we need extreme environmental conditions to prevent it from annihilating matter. I believe that the Enterprise has Agarthic pseudoplasma weapons– the behavior in that footage reminded me of plasma globules.”

For a moment, everyone in the room (except Azazil) had a somber look on their face.

The crew of the Iron Lady had their own mysterious, powerful agarthicite weapon, and they had been awed by what they knew of its power and brutality in the hands of Norn and Selene– but this was levels above even the technology of the Sunlight Foundation. More verboten than the verboten. In the middle of this alien abyss, the Aer Federation, once hegemon of the world, left them a final messenger of its dominating power.

Regardless, however, Gertrude had come too far to allow a ghost ship to deter her.

“Agarthicite or no, there are still limits to what it can do. We figured out that the delivery mechanism is still just a missile. It even missed.” Gertrude said. Her words brought upon her the attention of the women in the room again. “We have to be careful about Agarthicite’s properties, but we’ve shot down missiles. We can shoot these down. For now we will leave the thing be– but we will eventually confront the Enterprise, and triumph.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be you if you didn’t propose something foolhardy.” Ingrid sighed.

She did look like she was smiling just a bit even as she said that.

“I fucking hate the feeling of running away, so fine. I’m down to pay it back.” She added.

“Preliminarily, I agree with this course, but only preliminarily.” Victoria said calmly.

“If you get annihilated I can’t do anything about that– but I’ll support you.” Nile said.

“It’ll be fine!” Monika said cheerfully. “I’ll find its weakness and you’ll all sink it!”

“I will, of course, continue to render excellent service.” Azazil added.

Gertrude smiled, feeling confident, and even a bit greedy about the prospects.

Based on the capability of the ‘Enterprise’, this could turn out lucrative beyond her dreams.

With such weapons on-hand, could she think of entering the power struggle herself–?

For now, she just had to focus on what was directly ahead for them, and to wait and see.

“Karen, keep watch on the Enterprise, but shift the focus of the drones and sensors toward collecting data on the Primary Edifice.” Gertrude said. “Have forensics analyze every bit of data we can scratch out of that box, I want sonar, LADAR, spectrography, heat maps, whatever you can get, I want spy tentacles on it, I want our camera drones crawling in it. We’ll devise a plan, assemble multiple teams, and assault the Primary Edifice as soon as we are ready. This will be a complete operation. We’ve seen the kind of obstacles that these structures can have, such as STEM and biomechanoids– we won’t take chances. I want an assault team, demolitions, security, the works. I will lead the vanguard personally.”

Her body felt electrified with a sudden thrill as she finally gave concrete orders to the ship.

Everyone around her had gone from their somber moods and began to pick up energy. They had direction again after the latest set of tumults, given an objective, an expected enemy, a puzzle to solve– the drive to move forwards again. Everyone looked at her with more determination in response to her convictions. In this room, Gertrude had a lot of powerful allies, and a lot of cherished companions. It brought her a measure of comfort. This was much more like the picture she painted in her heart of living amid their gazes.

She would hold on to that idea strongly and tried to have it carry her through the terror.

“Any questions or objections?” Gertrude asked– and her heart went cold for a moment.

Ingrid raised her hand– but she winked, with a mischievous wiggle of her ears.

“Question, Commander,” she said in a slight mocking voice, “Do we start right away?”

Gertrude smiled with relief, to a few gentle laughs around the room.


Far into the night, a tall, swarthy figure wandered the halls, clad in a fitted robe with a coat.

Gertrude could not sleep. She felt restless.

The other night, she had worked out some of her energy with Victoria and slept soundly. Now with an entire bed to herself to writhe in, she felt strangely too aware, and began to wander the halls, long since after anyone but a few late shifters would be working. The Iron Lady’s familiar, grandiose halls, devoid of their music, lights dimmed and emptied of sailors and soldiers hurrying about– they were not helping Gertrude’s condition.

She decided to wander down to the hangar. At least it was a broader, more open space.

To her surprise, stepping out of the elevator, she saw flashing and sparking in the distance.

With the lights dimmed, gloomy shadows pervaded the empty hangar. However, someone was working. Gertrude could hear the fizzing of a hand welder and see brief lights dancing on the far walls whenever the heat was engaged in erneast. She crossed the hangar floor from the elevator, approaching a familiar gantry, holding up the remains of the ‘Magellan’ class Diver. Since she had last seen it, the hull was connected and standing on its own, no longer a heap of parts. Most of it was covered by a tarp– almost ready for action.

She walked around the hull, drawing closer to the source of the sparks.

Right beside the gantry, a crane held in place a large joint piece, a roller.

Under it, doing some quite late night welding, was Monika Erke-Tendercloud.

She wore a face-shield, and she had fireproof gloves and coveralls and hard boots, over which she also wore her white coat. Over her golden-furred dog-like ears were a pair of fireproof covers with small holes to allow sound to still come through. Her blond hair was tied up to the back of her head, pinned up messy. She did not seem to notice Gertrude approaching. Her tail wagged fiercely, and her small, wiry body was utterly engaged in the act of welding. She bent under the metal piece, she stood beside it, she observed it.

Gertrude smiled, watching her work so hard. But after several minutes, she approached.

“Monika, you should get some rest.” She said.

“Oh!” Monika’s tail and ears stood on end.

She turned around and lifted the shield over her face and smiled brightly. Her pretty features were smudged with a bit of grease. Perhaps welding was not all she had been doing. Gertrude did notice a lot of other bits of equipment scattered about. Gertrude approached her, took a cloth from a nearby equipment table, and wiped Monika’s cheek. Monika allowed it for a few moments before pushing away the cleaning cloth.

With laugh, Gertrude discarded the cloth in a nearby recycling bin.

“You shouldn’t be up at 0200; and you definitely shouldn’t be working.” She said.

“Funny you should say that, because I see you’re also up at 0200 with me, ‘Trude.”

Monika put her hands on her hips and leaned in a little, grinning.

Gertrude leaned forward with a similar grin. “I’m here to make sure you don’t collapse.”

“I’m doing fine!” Monika said, before an involuntary yawn stopped her.

It was a long yawn too– plenty of time for Gertrude to stare at her while she exhaled.

“Are you having trouble sleeping because of the blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

Monika looked at the piece suspended on the crane, avoiding Gertrude’s eyes in the dark.

After what she experienced– it made sense that she would view sleep very differently.

“Monika, I promised to be there for you. You can talk to me.” Gertrude insisted gently.

In response, the smaller Loup first sighed. But she eventually began to speak in small, reserved voice. “I feel silly about it, but yes, I’m apprehensive toward sleep. I want to finish my work too– it’s not just that I am nervous, but when I think about the possibility I might not wake up tomorrow– I get so terrified. I feel like I might become lost if I just go to sleep, and that nobody will know what happened to me. I’ll just sink into those pools.”

“Would it help if you had someone to keep you company?” Gertrude asked suddenly.

Monika stared at her suddenly. Her ears twitched. “Um– what do you propose?”

Smiling, Gertrude approached Monika, bent slightly, and picked her up into her arms.

Lifting her up with a hand on her back and another under her knees– a princess carry.

Despite her exhaustion, Monika was light enough, and the darkness gave Gertrude courage.

Flush-faced, flustered, at first Monika struggled to muster a response to being lifted up.

“G-G-Gertrude! I’m– I’m really fine– you don’t need to go through any trouble–”

Gertrude looked at Monika in the eyes, enjoying the weight and warmth of her petite body.

“I’m also having trouble sleeping.” She said. “I’d love to have you tonight, Monika.”

She locked eyes with Monika, turning a gentle expression to her, feeling just a little silly.

However, she had to admit to herself, that it felt divine to be carrying a girl like this.

And it would be just as divine to have her in bed.

Monika took a deep breath in response.

She finally pulled off her face-shield and ear covers and let them drop to the ground.

“Okay, alright– I guess– I do– I kind of want someone to comfort me.” She admitted.

“Please trust me– we’ll wake up tomorrow, together. I promise you.” Gertrude said.

Gertrude felt Monika’s tail gently brushing against her as she wagged it incessantly.

“Are you really going to carry me like this?” Monika asked, looking bashful.

“I intend to. All the way to bed. Unless you want off.” Gertrude said confidently.

Her directness seemed to throw Monika off, and she averted her gaze again.

“No, this is– this is nice. But– where– where are we going?” Monika asked, fidgeting.

“I’m taking you to my quarters. We can share my bed tonight.” Gertrude said.

Monika’s eyes drew wide, but she said nothing, remaining quiet. Then she leaned closer against Gertrude and spread her arms and held her. There was a lovely, blushing smile on her face. Cheek to cheek with Gertrude– she was so soft. With the Chief Engineer in her arms, Gertrude strode back to her room feeling terribly fulfilled. She almost felt like laughing– how greedy of her to do, but it felt so good. It felt fantastic to have Monika in her arms.

Whatever happened tomorrow, it would be preceded by a good night!


Previous ~ Next

Knight In The Ruins of the End [S1.8]

This chapter contains discussion of suicidal ideation.


It was the first living thing and therefore it was Longest Lived.

Despite its presence in an infinite space it understood only its basest of senses.

No eyes to see, no ears with which to hear. No understanding of its position.

When the sky first fell it battered its skin and the drawn blood became a world.

Longest Lived was all skin, it was all skin great and wide and millions of pinpricks upon it could not kill it. Its skin was gentle and nourishing, containing within it all substances and ultimately even coming to contain that which infinitely struck it, raining upon it, crashing into it– all of this would come to rest around and within it and on top of it in a glorious union.

It was all skin, all touch, all consumption. Perhaps this was its love.

Longest Lived, the Origin of All Living Things.

It took in the stone and it took in water and it took in warmth, ever consuming.

Upon Longest Lived, all that which it had consumed, and which returned to it–

Would constantly, cyclically, escape anew and take on new forms.

They would rise, fall and then return to Longest Lived who awaited them.

Longest Lived could not think in this way however. These were the stories of its creations.

Though it lived and consumed it never thought.

This was not a tragedy; thinking would have driven it mad and warped its selfless love.

Thinking, was a skill first refined by one of its earliest progeny.

They thought cautiously and kept in mind the love and unity in all their matters.

They too were alive, but, while they were communal in nature, they also understood their individual positions in the world. They could feel; to some extent, they could see and hear. They knew themselves to be separated even as they were together. Because they knew this, they would sing to one another, because there was one another to be sung to and to hear song from. With these understandings, they had great empathy for things which were alive and different, and wanted to encourage them to escape the skin of Longest Lived and to grow and prosper before they were inevitably swallowed back into the skin of the great being. They referred to their age of prosperity as the Time of Beautiful Songs.

In their songs, they called it Longest Lived, and themselves, The First Thinkers.

They were First to Think–

but the prodigal creatures who still heard their songs even now,

warped by ages of tragedy–

would come to be exalted as the Longest Thinkers in the world that remained.


Gertrude Lichtenberg slowly opened her eyes.

At first, in the haze of awakening, she saw a forest of vast trees with a reddening sky.

Then, in a blink, there was only the metal ceiling of her room on the Iron Lady.

She raised her hand to her forehead, pressed down against her eyes.

For a moment she looked at the hand. Fascinated by the movement of her fingers.

Gertrude flexed the invisible sinews and muscles that formed from her thoughts.

That hand grew a small additional digit next to the thumb. Moving as her other fingers did.

Just as easily, the flesh slid back into the hand as if there had been no transformation.

Gertrude sat back up in bed, against the headboard, yawning.

Pulling her blankets from herself, she found she had, in her sleep, shaken and turned enough to nearly lose her shirt off her own shoulders and to pull her own pants halfway down. Her hair was thrown into utter disarray. Her eyes wandered down from her hand to her breasts– to her own crotch. In a strange mood, she wondered something, and concentrated her new ability– and stopped immediately once she found that, if she tried, she could indeed alter parts of herself more complex and primal than just her hand. She reversed the endeavor when she felt her– alteration– stiffening and growing hot with blood unbidden.

Her lips cracked an involuntary, nervous smile.

“Maybe I shouldn’t experiment that way– at least not right now.”

She had wondered about that in the past– but she was worried about her long-term health.

Who knew whether she might go out of control? Or not be able to change things back?

Her wandering mind gifted her an image of herself as some kind of dick monster.

Gertrude burst out laughing suddenly. It was the sincerest laugh she had in a long time.

“Stick to the easier stuff for now, Gertrude Lichtenberg.” She told herself.

Despite all the painful things that had happened so far, her mood finally buoyed. She found that she did not feel as much of an impulse to question her sanity or the things she had seen. Her memories of that place, where she had stormed through in a consuming passion, were a bit hazy, as if the heat of that passion had partially burned the images. She remembered some shameful things reflected in the blue haze– but she let it pass over her.

She felt like she had her future back.

For now, she would let herself rest with those feelings and not force herself.

She recalled the things she needed to do with a refreshing lack of urgency.

Ingrid had broken up with her, but she was her friend; she just needed some time.

Monika was safe now– she would check up on her today and try to cheer her up.

Victoria and Nile would hopefully not be fighting. She needed to talk to them sometime.

Azazil–

Gertrude slumped in bed as if she had been struck in the back of the head.

Azazil could potentially be an immense headache.

Rising from her bed, Gertrude pulled off the remainder of her clothes and wandered over to the private shower in her room. While soaking under lukewarm water, she thought about her uniform. Last night she had told Dreschner she no longer wished to be called High Inquisitor. Her cape, epaulettes, coat and hat, her medals and insignias, all felt like a costume she had been desperate to force meaning on. She could no longer pretend that it gave her actions legitimacy or that it excused everything she had done in the past. Her skin, Gertrude Lichtenberg’s swarthy olive skin that was just different enough from the average Imbrian for trouble– it could no longer be covered up under the pretense of that power, for good or ill. The Inquisition could no longer elevate her from her lowly status and wretchedness.

She had more than enough of a burden with the sins she committed under its auspices.

That was a sizeable enough weight– without the heavy coat and the tall hat too.

Gertrude resolved not to wear the regalia of the High Inquisitor any longer.

From her wardrobe, she withdrew a button-down shirt and a long grey jacket instead.

Henceforth she would dress like any other officer of the ship.

Once she was clean, dressed and the morning fog had lifted from her eyes, Gertrude left her room and traveled down the main hall of the ship’s upper tier. She tied her long, dark hair in a simple ponytail, to be further dealt with some other time. She wondered how her crew was getting on after the unprecedented events of the past few days, but her confidence was buoyed immediately. People traveled the halls with their heads up and their backs straight, calm and collected. All of the crew had reduced schedules for the next day, and as Gertrude walked past and among sailors and officers, she felt a relaxed but professional energy.

Wherever she went, the crew would salute her casually, as ‘Commander’ Lichtenberg.

Dreschner must have informed everyone. Quite expeditiously too.

Gertrude smiled at the passersby, and they smiled back.

These halls and the people of this ship had been through good times and bad.

Often, they were under stress and moving with urgency, while keeping a tight hold on their emotions as warranted for the crew of a dreadnought, the elite professionals of the Imperial Navy. Gertrude was the one with the privilege to lose her mind, all of these people around her had been trained and drilled and pressured constantly to keep their emotions to themselves and in check, while doing everything she asked. Despite this, Gertrude never detected any animosity towards her. And she did not detect any animosity now.

They were proud to serve on a top-of-the-line dreadnought; to serve under Gertrude.

Even now, having surmounted a crisis and earned their leisure, they were even keeled.

Gertrude was lucky to have them. She could have done nothing without their assistance.

Life on a ship was never carried out completely off the schedule. Technically, having a day or two of leisure meant a day or two on a ‘reduced schedule’. Sailors would run still quick check-ups in the morning and at night, and never were they as efficient as they were during these times. Officers had to perform a few quick shifts on the bridge and in the hangar to insure that everything continued to run acceptably– but they had far less to do overall and far more time for relaxation in between these shifts. And of course, if anything was detected that could conceivably pose a threat or require intervention then everyone would have to return to stations quickly. Regardless, even with these duties in the back of their minds, everyone treated minimal work with the same relief as if they had none.

Arriving on the bridge, Gertrude found an immediate account of their situation on the main screen. They were descending, slowly, deeper into the abyss. Currently they were at 3840 meters of depth. Because of the Iron Lady’s size, they would have to be even more careful about their descent as they went deeper, and the trench narrowed. On the screen, there was an imaging map generated by the predictive computer, showing that at the very bottom of the trench at 5000 meters there was actually a crack in the seafloor that led even deeper down into a cave system. They had only mapped the entrance with sonar. Once they got down to it, they could send a drone inside or simply plunge deeper themselves.

Judging by current predictions, the Iron Lady could fit as far down as they had seen.

“Commander! Welcome back!”

Karen Schicksal saluted Gertrude with a smile, shortly after she quietly entered the bridge.

“At ease.” Gertrude said, smiling back.

“Greetings, Commander.” Dreschner said, from the captain’s chair.

Gertrude walked until she stood just off to the side of him, looking at the main screen.

“No time off for you?” Gertrude said, in a casual tone.

“I’m the kind of man who has never had anything but his work.” Dreschner said.

“Thinking about it, I really haven’t ever seen you take a day off.”

“I would have nothing constructive to do. It’s better that I hold the bridge, and then more of our officers can enjoy their own leisure. They would use it better than I would.”

Gertrude turned to Karen. “How about you Schicksal? Do you have any plans?”

Karen averted her gaze. She hugged her digital clipboard closer to her chest.

“I’m probably just going to man the bridge as well.” She said, a bit sheepishly.

“You don’t have to. You have been under considerable stress.” Dreschner said.

“Perhaps I am the kind of woman who has nothing but her work.” Schicksal said.

Dreschner sat back in his chair and laughed. “Don’t fancy becoming like me, Karen!”

Karen adjusted her glasses. “I aspire to the highest levels of professionalism, Captain!”

“Now I feel like I ought to stay on the bridge too.” Gertrude said.

“Absolutely not!” Karen and Dreschner both said at once.

They glanced at each other briefly and then back at Gertrude with sharp gazes.

Gertrude held up her hands in defense. “Okay, okay. I will take time to relax, I promise.”

Both Karen and Dreschner looked relieved hearing Gertrude say that.

“With all due respect, Commander– leave the bridge to us, now.” Dreschner said.

“You, more than anyone, have earned a rest. You will take that rest, Commander.”

Karen said, smiling, and then she gestured gently toward the door to the bridge.

Gertrude could not help but laugh at the sight of her officers forcing her to stop working.

“I’m going, I’m going. Thank you both.” She said. “By the way, Einz, did you tell everyone to start calling me Commander? I noticed that nobody called me High Inquisitor anymore.”

“It was in the morning minutes I drafted and sent out to everyone today. And of course, we are all professionals and read such things closely every day, even on our days off.” Karen said.

“I informed Karen of the situation.” Dreschner said. “She and the crew did the rest.”

“Got it. Thanks. I’ll be off now, and I promise I’ll try to get some rest.” Gertrude said.

Everyone was quite lively– a noticeable change from the lethargy of the past few days.

Gertrude had noticed that Karen was not as stammering and nervous as usual too.

Einz and her might have seen something in the blue pools too– she wondered what it was.

There was no sane way to ask anyone that, of course.

She thought about what to do next as she stepped out onto the hall once more.

Though she was a bit hungry, she was, more than that, worried about Monika after everything that happened. The more she saw the crew out and about the more she worried. Monika would be in Nile’s care. Gertrude headed for the clinic. She could have a chat with Nile as well and knock two things off her to-do list. Maybe she could make good on her promise to rest after all– but she was not intending to make an effort toward it.

Since she last saw it, Nile’s clinic had slightly expanded.

In addition to the meeting room with all her supplies and the meeting room in which she saw patients there was now a third meeting room on the other side of the clinic. In this room, a few plastic beds with rudimentary cushioning and blankets were set up in two opposing rows of four, for a total of eight beds. There was only one person laid up in the beds, a petite Loup woman with long, dark blond hair, sound asleep, wrapped up in blankets with a plain white gel pillow. Her breathing was steady, the curve of her chest rising and falling under the blankets. Gertrude stood at the door, given pause by the peaceful and contented expression on Monika’s face. She turned away from the beds and walked next door.

At Nile’s clinic, the door opened automatically in her presence.

Inside the room, she found Nile hunched over a table, her tail wagging and ears twitching as she used a dropper to lay tiny amounts of a clear liquid into a beaker full of murky red fluid, like a thin tomato soup. Her fingers were exactingly careful with the tool, and she watched the drops closely as she released them. Once the drops made contact with the red, the murk suddenly became active, rising and frothing as if it was suddenly being boiled.

Gertrude then stepped past the door threshold–

in the next instant Nile straightened up and looked over her shoulder, surprised.

“You’re doing an experiment here?” Gertrude asked.

More curious than she was critical, but still a touch of judgment in her voice.

“Science is the same no matter where you do it.” Nile said.

Gertrude tried to keep her eyes off Nile’s collar, its LEDs signaling a healthy green. It felt rude to worry about it– but nevertheless, she worried. So, she made an effort not to be caught staring and instead looked Nile over. She was unmasked, as it seemed to have become her habit within the Iron Lady. Dressed in a turtleneck sweater, a waist-high skirt that hugged her hips well, black tights, and her signature white coat. Her brown hair was tied up into a messy bun for work. She wore just a bit of blush and lipstick on her face.

She was gorgeous– tall, dark, curvy, Loup excellence–

Gertrude averted her gaze entirely before Nile could notice her lingering eyes.

“Don’t you need a different kind of environment to get good results?” Gertrude asked.

“Not at all. Cause-effect causality transpires regardless of how posh the surroundings are. As long as you prepare the best you can and the thinking behind your experiment is sound, the outcome can be useful for learning, whether you are in a repurposed meeting room on a ship or in the top laboratories of the Empire. Science is science. That is one of the reasons why it is so tightly controlled in the Empire– you can only control it by controlling the knowledge and materials that make it up.” Nile cracked a smile. “So– Gertrude, what ails you?”

Owing to the length of the spiel Gertrude was unprepared to be suddenly acknowledged.

Gertrude took long enough to respond, a few seconds–

That Nile simply walked up to her and stood directly before her, leaning in.

“Mind if I examine you? I’d like to check your condition after the night’s ordeal.”

“No, it’s not necessary. I’m doing fine.” Gertrude said suddenly.

Nile’s eyes trailed down Gertrude’s body and back up to her face.

“You look more energetic, but your unusually good mood might just be masking a physical issue. Adrenaline and hormones are not to be underestimated. At any rate, I won’t do anything without your consent, but you should allow me to give you a full checkup again as soon as your courage and pride can withstand the endeavor.” Nile said.

“My pride is irrelevant!” Gertrude said sharply. “I honestly haven’t felt better in weeks, I’ll have you know. I have no problems at all. Just accept what your patient tells you.”

“Hmm. I’m glad you’re still a bit surly.” Nile replied coolly. “Drastic personality changes, even positive ones, can be a sign of deeper distress. Stability and continuity are good indicators.”

“I am not being surly. You are just constantly trying to get a rise out of me for no reason.”

“My reason is that I am a concerned professional in whom you have entrusted your care.”

Gertrude sighed deeply and audibly.

Nile cracked a little grin and crossed her arms. Her ears did a little twitch.

“Forget all of that.” Gertrude said. “How is Monika doing?”

“She is just sleeping. Sleeping quite soundly in fact.” Nile said. “Thankfully before anything happened I already had permission to prepare an infirmary. Physically, Monika is unchanged from when I last examined her. I won’t be elaborating on what that means. Mentally, I can’t be sure how she fares. We’ll have to see how she acts when she awakens.”

“Thank you for taking care of her. She’s been through so much.” Gertrude said.

“My pleasure– but it is not necessary to thank me. This is my work. I would not be myself if I ignored people in need of medical help. It would be quite shameful.” Nile said. She glanced at the wall of the room. “I’m worried about her. But I’m also worried about you.”

It was not that Gertrude did not appreciate Nile’s attention.

But she had a stubborn feeling that she wanted to be treated as someone formidable.

She should have been the only one worrying– about Nile and Monika and the others.

In her mind, she had overcome her personal hurdles and deserved to be relied upon now.

“I promise, you can look after me when there’s need– but I feel perfectly fine.”

“Alright, I won’t press you any further. Just remember that I am here.” Nile said.

She turned back around to the table she had set up in the back.

“Nile, I’m curious what you’re doing to those substances?”

Gertrude pointed at the beaker, propped up on a foldable rack, and the red fluid inside.

It had done frothing and looked a bit thinner than even previously.

“I am testing Katov mass gathered from outside the ship. Preliminarily trying to figure out what happened last night.” Nile said. “I was hoping that I might be able to reproduce a fleeting effect resembling the strange aetheric phenomenon, in miniature of course. By applying a certain neurochemical to the mass, I hoped to stimulate the organisms that make it up– but it looks like it had no effect other than altering the PH to kill it.”

“I don’t follow– what led you to believe such a thing was possible?” Gertrude said.

Nile looked as if she had not understood the question. She narrowed her eyes.

“You can’t truly be this incurious about the world, Gertrude? I can’t know anything until I have tried and observed results. That is the nature of experimentation. That’s what I am doing.”

Gertrude felt like an idiot. What was it about Nile that flustered her so easily?

“I was just worried something might happen.” She said, trying to sound sensible.

“Something happening is the very point. That is how we start learning. I am working with very small amounts of katov mass and chemicals. It’s very safe.” Nile sighed. “At any rate, I now believe the mass had nothing to do it with it– it was perhaps only reacting to the phenomenon, just like us. However, I hoped to test my belief and acquire proof by actually running some experiments. I’ll keep trying over the next few days and see the results.”

“Right.” Gertrude said. There was no use continuing this topic– she had other concerns.

In a fit of pique, she locked eyes with Nile, who met her gaze almost on accident.

For a moment, Nile appeared to recognize how Gertrude was looking at her.

Her eyes flashed red; just as Gertrude flexed those alien muscles in her own eyes.

Demonstrating her ability and seeing the blue and green color that collected around Nile.

Through her psionic sight she got the sense Nile’s aura was very deep and very dense.

That there was a depth to her– a depth that she did not hide but did not acknowledge.

Nile was very powerful. And her aura seemed to flicker like a candle-fire in a gust of air.

Despite her outward calm her aura gave off a feeling of volatility, or perhaps fluctuation.

However, her aura was also gentle. Her flame was wild, but it was not unforgiving.

“Nile, you know that I can do this now.” Gertrude said. “You are seeing it, right?”

Nile smiled. Despite her almost proud-seeming expression her aura remained the same.

“I do. I told you my suspicions last night, didn’t I? I was too vague perhaps.”

“Nile, can you tell me what you know about this power?” Gertrude said.

To Gertrude’s surprise, there was no hesitation or reticence from her doctor.

She simply took in a breath and began to speak candidly.

“I must preface by saying that everything I know, I learned from others who have studied this phenomenon more closely than me. I possess the ability myself, but I am not as versed as my colleagues. We call the power, Psionics. It is a word that feels right does it not? Different cultures had different concepts of it– any kind of ‘magic’ like volshebstvo or sihr is actually an expression of this power understood through cultural myth.” Nile spoke in a confident manner, as if giving a rehearsed lecture. Had she said this same thing to others before? Or had she perhaps prepared to give this explanation to Gertrude? She continued. “Psionics is the power of the human mind and our conception of the world, influenced by our emotions. Or at least, my colleagues and I hope that is accurate, after our experimentation.”

“In other words, in my case it is the power of my anger made manifest.” Gertrude said.

In the liminal space with the blue pools, Gertrude’s red passion and anger had broken the blue walls of the phenomenon and allowed her to finally move past the maze in which she had been trapped. In that moment, she had come to understand that blue was the source of her lethargy, and that red was her spiraling passions, covering her like an armor. When she saw blue in Nile’s aura, however, she felt different toward it– she was not alarmed. It was the same color, but the intention of Nile was not to ‘sleep eternally’ as Monika once desired. It seemed much less urgent. In fact, Monika also had a quiet and gently blue aura.

Nile was quick to rebut what Gertrude thought was an ironclad assertion, however.

“That is your current conception of the power based on what you have experienced. Different people with different experiences develop different systems of intellectual decryption. This can help you control the power through conceptual associations. It is the power of your mind, after all, it is a bit abstract. But also, I must stress that your conception of the power can change as much as your conception of the world can change. Your mind and emotions are not rigid, Gertrude. You do have an effect on how you feel and what you think; it is possible to change your mind, after all. I would strongly advise you not to think of psionics as a phenomenon that intersects solely with your anger. It is limiting to you.”

Gertrude responded at first with a short, bitter chuckle at the idea of changing herself.

“I wish everything were as easy as just convincing myself out of my habits.” She said.

She could change the meat on her bones, now– in all kinds of ways.

But her mind still felt like something far less forgiving of alteration.

“I never said it was easy. But my assertion is still correct, Gertrude.” Nile said.

“That sounds like something Victoria would say.”

“Then she would be correct also. Rhetoric is another thing that is the same anywhere.”

“I don’t mean– nevermind.” Gertrude grunted. “Can you teach me to control my psionics?”

Nile averted her eyes in response. Her expression was suddenly glum and conflicted.

Gertrude noticed that her aura shimmered, as if the candlefire withstood a stiff wind.

“I– well, I mean– it presents a certain challenge– I am not opposed–” Nile was tongue-tied, “as much as I have managed to hang on to my patience with you, because you are my patient and deserve the best of me even when I see the worst of you so frequently–”

“–Hey, c’mon…” Gertrude mumbled at the off-handed insult. What was her problem?

“–I am not actually very good at controlling my emotions either.” Nile sighed.

She crossed her arms and shut her eyes, wracked by a quiet consternation.

So that was the issue– she must have been dreading this moment, anticipating the request.

“I understand. But you can still teach me what you know, can’t you?” Gertrude said.

“To be frank, I have never taught anyone psionics. I can try, for you.” Nile said.

“But you had that whole spiel in the back of your head for when I asked?” Gertrude said.

“Correct. That spiel is something I have been preparing. I knew from the moment I saw you that you had the potential to employ psionics. You just needed a push; either to discover it on your terms or to be influenced by an outside force. I was conflicted about whether I should give you that push– but I knew by accepting your offer I had to be ready to consult for you regardless of what happened. I knew that, because we were now heading into extreme conditions, you would be much more likely to discover your abilities here.”

“Then, hardship plays a part in achieving psionics?” Gertrude asked. “That means you knew that I would be under so much stress in the abyss that I would eventually awaken?”

“Correct again. Any sufficiently heightened emotion, in the right circumstances, might cause a person with potential to discover and achieve control of their psionics, to some extent.” Nile said. She crossed her arms. “Take for example the legendary Loup warrior Samoylovych-Daybringer. The stories had it that the young Daybringer, during the war with Hanwa in the late 910s, fought to the brink of death against a powerful Hanwan warrior to hold a station landing. In that state, the stories say a fairy visited him, and taught him volshebtsvo. Daybringer’s feats after that were not exaggerated– he had achieved the power to kill scores of men. I suspect a near-death experience jogged Daybringer’s dormant power.”

“That’s a lot to take in.” Gertrude said, sighing. She felt unsettled by the example and by the idea that this could happen to anyone. “I can’t help but think that despite his efforts, we lost that war with Hanwa. The Imbrian Empire was not able to expand into the Mare Crisium even with a psionic warrior on our side. Or who knows how many more of them there were.”

“Psionics can be very powerful, but it is still impossible to win a war by oneself.” Nile said.

“Some part of me hoped I would be able to use this power to do just that.” Gertrude said.

“That hubristic and whimsical part of you is very charming, indeed.” Nile smiled warmly.

Gertrude averted her gaze. “That’s all you’re going to say to me about that, huh?”

“Yes. There is no consoling you on that score, it is simply the hard truth of things. In fact, Samoylovych-Daybringer, older but still in his prime, was ultimately slain by an ordinary man. You will be similarly vulnerable and limited– but nevertheless, psionics is a useful tool to have. Especially if you are flexible in your conception and development of it.”

Of course, common sense dictated that no individual was ever completely invincible.

For a moment, however, Gertrude in her passions had truly wanted to believe she was.

That achieving this power was an enormous breakthrough that would settle everything.

There was something unsettling about it being only a tool that might help her going forward.

Arvokas Jarvelainen, Ingrid’s ancestor, had ultimately killed the legendary Daybringer.

For Arvokas there were no fairy stories or mythical deeds. He was just a kin-slayer.

Gertrude was still vulnerable, and she was not by herself suddenly an earth-shaking titan.

She looked at Nile, hands in her coat pockets, who looked back with quiet consideration.

Sighing deeply, Gertrude tried to look positively upon things. It was good to accept reality.

She was not invincible, even with her psionics, but she was also not alone either.

There was an entire ship of people who had her back. Advising her, fighting with her.

And even in this very room there was someone who had agreed to lend her assistance.

“Nile, thank you for giving me your perspective. I– I do really appreciate it.” She said.

Nile nodded her head. “I assume that at this point– you’ll want to know more about me personally, right? That is also another conversation that I foresaw and prepared for.”

Gertrude shook her head in return.

“Honestly I have lost the zest for it. I had it in mind to interrogate you at any cost about the Sunlight Foundation and what you truly knew about the world. I know you still must have all manner of secrets. But those things feel petty now. You’re right, none of us are one-man islands. I have no cause to doubt your allegiance. You’ve done nothing but help me even when I’ve been stubborn as a rock wall.” Gertrude said. Her voice was turning soft and fond of the mysterious Loup. She felt comforted by this discussion. She wanted to feel formidable, yes– but she also had to accept the reality of her vulnerability.

Hubris had already done a lot of damage to her. She had to try her best to temper it.

Thinking she could squeeze everything out of Nile, thinking it would help anything.

Both were notions that made sense before and did not make sense now.

Like Nile said– maybe her mind was something she could, slowly, deliberately, change.

“Thank you. I am willing to answer your questions, for what it’s worth.” Nile said.

She gestured toward a pair of seats– they had both been speaking standing up and close.

Gertrude shook her head. She suddenly felt very thankful to be in Nile’s ‘care.’

“I think I just want to sit by Monika’s side and see if she wakes.” Gertrude said.

“Of course. Feel free to avail yourself of anything in the infirmary.” Nile said.

She did have one question– it arrived at her quite suddenly.

One curiosity about Nile. She would allow herself to sate a single one.

“Actually– I do have one question, before I go.” Gertrude said.

Nile nodded. “Like I said, I’ve been preparing. What do you want to know?”

“How do you feel about your former allegiances? Do you have regrets?” Gertrude asked.

For a moment, a surprised Nile was pulled into her thoughts, with a melancholy expression.

“What a cruel question to ask, fittingly for you.” She tried to smile and to sound good humored. It was forced. “Of course, I have regrets. We disagreed on many things. But it was the only place I ever felt accepted and treated as a peer. I had no other home and I wanted none– they were my colleagues. We esteemed each other, motivated each other. We were flawed and arrogant and made horrible mistakes, but I would rather deal with cracked glass as long as it can keep the oxygen in. I had hope; some part of me still does.”

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. She reached out a hand to Nile’s shoulder, to comfort her.

Nile allowed it. Perhaps she even welcomed it.

She was just as vulnerable as Gertrude was. Nile, too, was not an invincible threat.


Time passed as Gertrude sat on the empty bed adjacent to Monika’s in the infirmary. She looked at the sleeping beauty’s face periodically. It was a relief; though she was still asleep, she looked peaceful. Her breathing was steady, she did not seem to be in pain. After everything she had been through, Gertrude hoped that she could have a moment’s relaxation before she resumed her activities. She deserved so much more– but at least that much. Gertrude waited at her side, hoping she might wake in a few hours more.

After about thirty minutes, Nile walked in through the door as well.

She had a cup of coffee and a handful of unsalted crackers and handed them to Gertrude.

“You should have something in your stomach.” Nile said.

“Thank you.” Gertrude said. “Can I call you when she wakes up?”

“I am planning to stay here actually, unless something drags me away.” Nile said.

She sat on the bed beside Gertrude and sipped her own cup of coffee.

Gertrude dipped one of the crackers in the coffee and ate it.

Together they watched over Monika’s bedside.

As she did so, Gertrude began to ponder the mysterious phenomenon that transpired last night. That maze of blue pools and the things they reflected; Monika claiming she wanted to invite Gertrude and the rest of the crew to an ‘eternal sleep’; and the Drowning Prophecy, the monstrous entity in Monika’s false church; did everyone experience visions in the blue pools? Victoria had confirmed she saw the pools, and that she saw events within them, lives she had not led. Gertrude likened it to a dream and Victoria agreed– but it was not an ordinary dream, concocted purely by her exhausted mind. It had felt so real, and the fact that she could still use psionics proved it. Gertrude had been there to see all of it.

Dreams often felt like being carried away to a different place and ended upon waking.

For Gertrude, the experience of the liminal pools, and her current state, felt like they were entirely contiguous events. Her memories were a bit hazy, but not gone. If Monika had put them all to sleep and beckoned them to remain sleeping, it was not a usual sleep. Gertrude wondered if everyone could remember the things they saw in the pools, if the people with less understanding were trying to puzzle out the haunting sensation that they felt from becoming trapped in that space and seeing impossible sights. Or if different people had gone to entirely different places and seen different things entirely than her.

Eventually, Gertrude got it into mind to put that question to Nile as well–

“Nile– during the mysterious ‘event’ last night, did you see a maze of blue pools?”

Nile took a long sip of her coffee, nodding her head slightly while drinking.

“Yes. With my psionics I understood it as a supernatural event, but I couldn’t escape.”

“What did you see in the pools?” Gertrude asked.

Nile scoffed. She averted her gaze. “You’re terribly nosy, did you know that?”

Gertrude smiled a bit. “It served me well in the Inquisition at least.”

Glancing back at Gertrude’s gentle expression, Nile breathed deeply and put down her cup.

“Fine. But you must tell your doctor about your own dreams, first.” She said.

“All of them were about Elena von Fueller.” Gertrude said. “We built many lives together in those pools. I was her servant, and I was her lover. She gave me meaning.”

Nile looked surprised– she must not have expected Gertrude to be so forthcoming.

To people like Nile and Victoria, Gertrude had nothing to hide about that affair anymore.

“I was Elena von Fueller’s lover– surprise? I squandered everything though.” Gertrude said.

In response to Gertrude’s honesty, Nile looked exasperated, and seemed to resign herself.

“Fine, fine. I saw similar things in the pools. Some of them represented things I knew could be possible– different decision points in my life. But there were some that were fabrications. I saw myself as some kind of horrid queen of a disease-infested flesh castle that resembled Heitzing; I saw myself as a member of the Pythian Black Legion nerve-gassing an entire station. But the worst one–” Nile paused and looked down at her cup for a moment.

Gertrude raised a hand and waved, interposing it between herself and Nile to stop her.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to keep going. I know now that we saw similar visions.”

Nile looked in that moment as Gertrude had never seen her before, but the expression was familiar because she had seen it in herself. Pain and frustration, an internal conflict, reticence that fought with passion and quaked under her skin. Gertrude thought she might hear her scream any moment; she looked that bound up in herself. She tried to reassure Nile that she did not need to say anything, but she knew, because she had been there herself, that the emotions were too hot. She had been in that exact position far too many times.

“No. I want to tell someone. Even if you might not understand– almost certainly you won’t understand it. But I’ll get it off my chest and then I can put it away forever.” Nile said. Her voice rose– she was taken by a sudden passion. “Gertrude, I saw the Northern Host of the Loup being completely wiped out by Mehmed Khalifa. Somehow, he detonated the North Imbrian Agarthic Vein– what’s known as one of the ‘Ley-Lines’. You do not know how close this came to actually happening, Gertrude. In that vision I just stood there and watched him do it. Watched him kill half of the Loup, and scores of Imbrians. He devastated the Palatine and ended the Empire.” Nile’s fingers tightened their grip on the cup, nearly shaking. Her eyes looked like they would tear up. “I– I did not want his blood on my hands.”

“Nile– I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. It was hard to muster any words in response.

Mehmed Khalifa, better known as Mehmed the Tyrant or Mehmed the Sorcerer, had declared an organized, armed religious struggle known to the Shimii as a ‘jihad’. He mustered scores of mainly Mahdist Shimii fighters in improvised and stolen crafts. Using his limited resources he inflicted embarrassing defeats on the Empire in the early to middle 930s, slowly building his arsenal. The official narrative was that the Inquisition tracked him down to Bad Ischl and killed him, but Gertrude knew one better– she knew that one of the Inquisition’s secrets was that the Agarthicite veins in the area had a dangerous event that inflicted damage on the Imperial siege fleet but also scattered the jihadists. An act of God ended the Jihad.

Now she knew two better– not an act of God, but Nile and her ‘colleagues’ instead. Had they truly ended the Jihad? Why? Given the resources Victoria claimed they possessed, and Nile’s own abilities, Gertrude could believe that if they became involved in such an event, that they could have brought it to a conclusion. But why interfere against someone as formidable as the self-crowned king of the Shimii’s Age of Heroes? Had they become involved in any other events, Gertrude wondered? Had any other acts of God been instead the meddling of the Sunlight Foundation in the background of what had become accepted history?

Seeing how distressed Nile had become, Gertrude could not possibly ask for more context.

Despite her curiosity, the Jihad was over– and Mehmed was dead.

And it did not matter to her and her life what or who did it. It was in the past and Gertrude had no reason to litigate it. But it clearly caused Nile a lot of pain. In those blue pools she saw a world in which she never got her hands dirty, and allowed an atrocity to pass. Gertrude had thought of the pools as amoral, showing her things that were in some sense real, without judgment. She had only seen events that reflected her warped desires and horrible mistakes. To show Nile something that horrid, however, Gertrude began to wonder if perhaps the visions in the blue pools had been guided by an active malevolence.

Rather than say anything more, she gingerly sidled closer to Nile and tried to comfort her.

Nile raised a hand to gently prevent this, keeping her away, and another to wipe her eyes.

“Thank you, but– it’s fine–” She kept a hand over her eyes. “I’m sorry for losing myself.”

“No apology necessary. It’s only human. I would know.” Gertrude said, smiling.

“I appreciate your understanding. If I broke down anywhere, then at least it was with you.”

Nile must have meant that because of their similarities they could have a unique solidarity.

However, Gertrude’s heart was quick to accelerate, and her face felt a bit warm.

At the thought of Nile wanting to confer her vulnerability only to her.

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I am sorry for prying.” Gertrude said. “But– if you need someone to talk to, I am here for you. I understand what it feels like carrying a burden. God knows, I’ve made so many mistakes that perhaps no one would understand. My pool rooms were full of my stupid obsession, devoid of any of the people I care about or even people that I hurt. I am ashamed of that single-mindedness– it wiped out even the recognition of my mistakes from my psyche. This– it demonstrates you’re better than that.”

Nile lifted her hand from over her eyes, her tears wiped but clearly still a bit agitated.

She nodded in response, and quietly finished off the last of her coffee.

Gertrude took a sip too and began to calm her thrashing her heart.

“Gertrude, would you accept a chaste and professional hug?” Nile asked suddenly.

“Any time.” Gertrude quickly replied.

Nile sidled close to Gertrude, and extended an arm over her shoulder, pulling her close.

Gertrude accepted it and reciprocated. She could feel Nile’s tail thumping the bed.

For a while, they shared this quiet physical comfort before gently separating.

Going back to looking over Monika but with calmer hearts and minds than before.

After a few hours of staring in a silence only broken by Nile getting more coffee–

Monika turned in bed, once, twice– she tightened her eyes, and pulled her blankets.

Gertrude and Nile nearly jumped with surprise as if the floors and walls had moved instead.

Finally, Monika began to open her eyes. She opened them halfway, shut them.

She began to blink. She saw up in bed, dressed in only a patient’s gown. Her hair fell over her eyes partially and behind her back. Monika pulled her bangs to the sides of her face and let out a yawn. Without speaking a word, she continued to stare at Gertrude and Nile, who stared back. For a moment the trio traded stares at one another.

One of Monika’s furry ears began to twitch.

“Gertrude?” Monika asked, when she finally spoke. “Have I been dreaming?”

“Maybe. Did you happen to dream about a maze of blue pools?” Gertrude asked.

“Don’t tell her that so quickly– let her acclimate first!” Nile protested.

“Blue pools?” Monika’s eyes opened wide. She hugged herself. “Oh my god.”

“Let me handle the talking.” Nile said. “Monika, how many fingers am I holding up?”

She held up her index and middle fingers, making a ‘V’ sign in front of Monika.

In response, Monika made two ‘V’ signs with her own hands, blinking her eyes slowly.

Nile ran her fingers idly through her hair, seemingly thinking of what to say.

“She looks awake and aware to me.” Gertrude said. “Monika, how are you feeling?”

“Confused. Horrible. And– oh my god–!” Monika narrowed her eyes. Her tail extended.

Then with barely any warning she sprang from her bed and leaped over to the one adjacent.

Throwing her arms around Gertrude and nearly tackling her off and onto the ground.

Thankfully they both fell over on top of the bed instead, nearly kicking Nile aside.

“Hey!” Nile cried out. “Calm down! You’ll hurt yourself! We need to–!”

“Gertrude!” Monika cried out. “I’m so sorry! I can’t– I’m so ashamed– you saved me–!”

Between the gratitude and contrition all screamed in interwoven hysterics, Gertrude could not muster an answer. Despite her petite stature Monika in that moment had the force of a leviathan as she hugged Gertrude down against the bed, her tail drumming against the plastic headboard. Monika cried and screamed into Gertrude’s chest, her gown nearly pulling apart with her thrashing. She hugged her so close, kicking her legs, arms tight.

“Monika! It’s okay! Please calm down! Listen to the doctor!” Gertrude struggled to say.

Monika pressed herself tightly against Gertrude’s chest while Nile looked on with worry.

Then Monika raised her head and met Gertrude’s eyes, ears running down her cheeks.

With a smile on her face.

“Gertrude– I’m happy to be here. I’m glad I’m alive.” She said.

Gertrude felt an enormous sense of relief.

She let herself fall back on the bed without resistance.

Letting out a breath that felt long held.

“I’m so happy you’re here, Monika.” Gertrude replied, stroking Monika’s hair.

With some gentle coaxing from the doctor, Monika returned to her bed and sat upright.

Nile handed her a cup of water and some crackers. Monika took a few bites.

Gertrude sat across and observed her while Nile tested her faculties.

“Monika Erke-Tendercloud,” Nile said, “That is your name, correct?”

Monika nodded her head.

“Thank you– but can you speak your answer clearly? For the sake of the test.”

“Yes, it is Monika Erke-Tendercloud.”

“I am going to ask you to do something that might seem silly. Can you extend your right arm over the left side of your body, with your thumb up, and stick out your tongue?” Nile asked.

“Yes.” Monika followed the instructions without hesitation.

Gertrude looked over at the wall to prevent herself laughing– Monika was rather cute.

“Can you name this object that I am holding?” Nile said. It was her digital pen.

“It’s a pen.” Monika said.

“What am I doing with it?” Nile scribbled on the screen of her digital clipboard.

“You’re writing. It’s a digital pen and you have a digital clipboard.”

“Do you remember the small talk we had when you came in for a checkup?”

“I think you asked me about the food on board. We talked about liking the liver pate.”

“It’s a bit gritty but nutritionally excellent– lots of what kind of Vitamin?”

“Vitamin A if I am remembering correctly.”

“You are correct. One last question– where is the consortium Reschold-Kolt located?”

“They’re in the Bureni Republic. It’s one of my many misfortunes recently, hah!”

Monika spoke candidly and cheerfully and seemed to be full of energy.

Nile smiled and put her clipboard at her side on the bed.

“I believe you have all of your faculties about you. This isn’t a comprehensive test, but you are aware, your coordination is good, and you can recall details. I don’t believe that I will need to hold you here for long, but I would like to observe you awake for an hour.”

“I was going to spend the day loafing around anyway.” Monika said. “Thank you, doctor.”

She turned to face Gertrude again and pointed at her. “How is she doing?”

“I’m afraid that’s confidential patient information.” Nile said gently.

Putting it like that made it sound like something was going on!

“C’mon. I’m fine!” Gertrude said, slightly irritated. “Don’t worry about me, Monika.”

“Don’t put up an act. You got stabbed in the gut– I saw it! I was terrified!” Monika said.

“Wait– what?” Nile looked at Gertrude with wide eyes, staring down at her abdomen.

Gertrude raised her hands as if to shield herself from the concerns of the two women.

“Everything grew back. Would I be walking around if I got stabbed in the stomach?”

“What do you mean everything grew back?” Nile said. “I’m going to need an explanation!”

“Calm down and I’ll give you one. I’ve been wanting to talk about this with you anyway.”

Gertrude put her hands on the bed, reared back a bit, sighed, and then launched into her story of what happened yesterday. She went through everything but embellished or glossed over a few details– Monika did not need to know about what she saw in the pools. But she explained becoming lost in the primary edifice due to Azazil An-Nur’s cries for help; being attacked by the strange blue creatures and her experience of falling asleep; waking up in the blue pools, and breaking through them; Eris and her ambitions to recover her–

She did not mention Eris. That was still for herself only. She was still processing that.

Finally, breaking the maze, the church, the abomination and her newfound power.

“And then she rescued me.” Monika said. “That part I can corroborate, doctor.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “I killed the creature that captured Monika. Then I woke up again and I wasn’t in the blue pools anymore. I carried Monika back to the ship. You were all there to greet me– and from what I can gather, all of us saw the blue pools too. Victoria confirmed that she did, and Nile, you saw them too. So– we all had this strange dream.”

“A collective psychic phenomenon.” Nile lifted a hand to her forehead. “Ya allah.”

“I take it this isn’t something you have experience with?” Gertrude asked.

“This specific incident is magnitudes stranger than anything I’ve heard or seen happen. I could not have predicted it.” Nile said. “I knew, and I attempted to communicate to you, that the abyssal ‘aetheric weather’ would affect us. I do not know the origin of the color weather, but the abyss has been observed by my colleagues to affect the auras of people, it causes our emotions to unbalance. Most people, most of the time, have a balance of stress and tranquility and other emotional states– the aetheric weather causes one of the states of our aura to expand at the expense of this balance. I knew this and I tried to tell you.”

“You tried to tell me once, in my room at midnight, when I was dead tired.” Gertrude said.

“Huh?” Monika said. Looking a bit red. “She was in your room at midnight?”

“I broke in.” Nile said as if it explained anything.

Monika blinked. “You broke into her room at midnight?”

“Nevermind that, nothing happened!” Gertrude waved her hands rapidly.

Nile shrugged her shoulders innocently. Monika glanced between the two of them.

“Unfortunately, the weather had begun to have its effect on me also and impaired my judgment. I was also tired and unbalanced. I should have kept pushing you on that subject, even as stubborn as you were. But I did not want to deal with it.” Nile said. “The past few days I had a lot to do and did the best I could despite the creeping exhaustion, but I had limited headspace and I put off important things. I only vaguely recognized that this was the doing of the ‘aetheric weather’ but I felt that we could do nothing but ride it out.”

“We were all acting a bit more foolish than usual.” Gertrude said, sighing.

“For you such a thing is much more in-character.” Monika said.

Gertrude frowned, and Monika smile back, having successfully caused her grief.

“Doctor,” Monika turned to Nile, “I– I think the strange stuff that happened is my fault.”

“It’s not your fault at all.” Gertrude was quick to say.

“I agree with Gertrude. Nobody is blaming you, Monika.” Nile said.

Monika sat back against the bed, crossing her arms and breathing out.

“It’s difficult– but can I try to explain to you what happened? Even if it sounds crazy?”

“Of course. Listening to my patients is the very least I can do.” Nile said.

Laying in bed, looking at the ceiling as if to avoid their eyes–

Monika recounted her experiences.

She confessed to Nile and Gertrude that she had been dealing with suicidal thoughts for a very long time. Monika grew up in a deeply religious household and she referred to the Loup culture as anti-intellectual– Nile could relate to this. After escaping from her abusive family, Monika had managed to get her thoughts more under control– but she knew there was a stigma against feeling such a way. She did not want to be seen as insane or as a ticking time-bomb, so she told nobody about it. Her despair sat quietly in her and she drowned it in various achievements. In the world of the Imbrians she could do everything her family barred her from. Completed her education, found a job that allowed her to express her interest in technology, sciences and industry. Finally she accomplished the aspirational feat of any military engineer– she was chose to serve aboard a glorious, high-tech Dreadnought.

Recent events had shaken her confidence in herself. She began to struggle with work and thought about how helpless she was to influence the events happening around her– such as Imbria’s dissolution, or the battles against the Brigand. She took it hard when the machine she had worked on, was defeated in battle and then stolen– she took it harder when she struggled to repair the Magellan that Gertrude got to keep. It wasn’t for lack of materials or time, but she felt, it was a limit in herself. In her usefulness to the world around her.

She confessed that in her mind, if she failed, then– there was no reason to keep on living.

“I started to have those feelings about myself again. Every little thing triggered them.” Monika said. “If I didn’t finish this or that, or if I couldn’t figure something out– even minor everyday tasks or things like how to set up my tools so I can reach them more efficiently. Any little thing started to feel like something I ought to have stopped living over. That negotiation with myself about whether it was worth living or not felt like it was taking a life of its own. Like I was really talking with death itself about living on or dying, any time that anything happened. Then, things started to move really quickly, it felt like– at one point I found myself almost worshiping death– thinking that everyone must have felt like me and we could all die together. That’s when I found that church, and that abomination.”

“Monika–” Gertrude began. It took everything not to cry. “I’m so, so sorry.”

She reached out her hands and took Monika’s, caressing her, hoping to comfort her.

Monika reciprocated, taking Gertrude’s hands and squeezing them in hers.

“It’s alright. I decided I want to live Gertrude. I’m going to try. I know I will probably have these thoughts again– but I will fight to live. And I will also ask for help if I need it.”

“Monika, whatever you need, you can come to me. I’ll always listen.” Gertrude said.

It wasn’t that she was completely unfamiliar with the kind of feelings Monika had felt.

Gertrude had more than once felt utter hopelessness, and all of its most dire results.

However, she never suspected that Monika was dealing with such feelings herself.

That frightened Gertrude– she could have lost Monika forever and never realized it.

She had been so self-centered and oblivious to her pain despite thinking she knew her well.

Conscious of this, Gertrude did not want to turn the conversation to her own failings.

Monika had already gotten angry at her once for drowning in self-pity.

In her mind however she told herself, and she knew, that she had to do better by Monika.

Nile also reached out and laid her hand over Monika’s with a gentle demeanor and speech.

“For as long as I am your doctor, I will support you, Monika. And everything you have told us will stay in this room. It is confidential patient information. So do not worry.” She said.

“Thank you.” Monika said. She sat back up and stopped looking at the roof. Her eyes were glistening. She wiped them on the sleeve of her hospital gown. “Doctor, during my experiences last night– I felt like understood implicitly that there was a supernatural power in my self. My mind was a mess– so I didn’t care then. I understand that you have power too, and Gertrude too. You know about all of this– and you must know more than I do.”

“I am not all-knowing. But I know some things.” Nile said. “Psionics, the power you feel that you now have, is as deep and as fluid as the human experience itself. I’ve lived for longer than you might imagine, and I will never observe and examine everything related to psionics. It’s like myths, or miracles; I’m sure it will always change to elude our reckoning.”

“I understand, doctor, but could you try to explain what might have happened?”

Nile’s expression was familiar– as exasperated as when Gertrude asked about psionics.

She nodded her assent but paused for a moment clearly gathering her thoughts.

Her ears folded and rose, and she ran her fingers through some of her hair.

“As it stands, this is conjecture– and barely educated conjecture at that. During the blue weather event, Monika, you were fatigued and beset by feelings of frustration and hopelessness. These feelings were amplified by the blue weather, sabotaging your mental stability until it crossed a certain emotional threshold. It led to your psionics awakening, and you lost control over them. This may have had a synergistic effect with the blue weather, which we were all experiencing, that led to us having a collective event. Of course, I vehemently reject blaming you for this– I believe you were a victim of circumstance.”

“Monika, do you agree with this? How did you feel?” Gertrude asked.

Monike crossed her arms. Her own ears folded and rose as she thought it over.

“I think it’s mostly right, but– I feel that I was not the one who created that abomination that Gertrude and I saw. I felt that it had been speaking to me for a long time, ever since we got down here– I tried to ignore it, but looking back, at a certain point, I embraced it.”

Gertrude supported Monika’s deliberation.

“Nile, inside the blue rooms, I felt like I understood what Monika’s feelings were with great certainty. I can’t explain it, but I just knew, like I could hear a voice in my head that explained everything. But the monster always felt apart from her. Like an invader into her mind. Those were not explicitly her feelings alone, they felt like feelings anyone could have. Like mine also. It was called ‘the Drowning Prophecy’– and I think Monika knows that name too.”

“Yes, I felt just like Gertrude. Like someone was telling me about its name for certain.”

Nile paused and crossed her arms. She sighed. “You don’t say. Anyone’s feelings, huh?”

“Would you happen to have any explanation for that phenomenon?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes and no.” Nile said. She sighed again. “Like I’ve said before, I am a medical doctor, not a pseudophysicist or a parapsychiatrist. However, one of my colleagues, Euphrates, theorized that it should be possible to create constructs with psionics that anyone would recognize as real entities despite their aetheric origin. Perhaps this entity you both saw was created out of collective emotions. Maybe its reach over Monika was a result of how many tired and hopeless people were aboard the ship– in the blue weather that would mean all of us.”

“I guess it makes as much sense as anything.” Gertrude said, feeling a bit helpless.

“I still feel like ‘The Drowning Prophecy’ was something else entirely.” Monika said. “Not just our feelings, but something older and bigger than that. It was like it had been ready to communicate with me at the earliest time I was able to see it. Like it was leading me to the blue church– just waiting all of this time to talk to anyone who would listen to it. I don’t believe in God, but thinking back, it almost felt like a horrible, sublime revelation.”

“Well, I can’t know more until I see this happen myself– and I don’t want to.” Nile said.

“Right. I’d also prefer never to have that experience again.” Monika said.

She and Nile tried to smile but the topic was heavy, and clearly weighing on their minds.

Nile probably felt frustrated with her lack of answers. Her body language had grown tense.

When it came to medical problems she always had a solution– this was beyond her.

Gertrude wondered if for a genius intellect like her, uncertainty was uniquely frustrating.

“So, if this all had to do with our emotions– were we in physical danger?” Gertrude asked.

“If this was related to psionics in some way, then yes. You were in danger.” Nile said.

“Can you elaborate how? Do you think the monster could have really killed us?”

In the moment, Gertrude’s sense of pain was dull despite the horrible attack she suffered.

That monster ran her through with its tentacle, and there was blood and she screamed.

There was not the level of acute, shattering pain she would have associated with that.

Perhaps it was the red passion cloaking her in power, and the certainty she felt back then.

Or perhaps it just had not been physical, and it actually was closer to a dream than reality.

“Normally,” Nile said, “it is very difficult to use psionics to coerce someone into harming themselves– it’s an action that is too atypical for the subject’s internality to accept. But it’s not impossible and we have no idea what a psionic construct is capable of doing, whether they follow our observations. Had you and Monika faltered, I imagine you would have indeed slept eternally. However that felt to you in the moment– your body was suffering.”

Not necessarily that being stabbed by the monster would have killed Gertrude, but rather, that it would have convinced them to pursue its ‘eternal sleep.’ Everyone would have chosen to die by never waking up from the dream until they passed. Mass psychogenic suicide.

Probably Nile would not have characterized it this way, but it got Gertrude thinking about the dangers that psionics might pose. She had been thinking about it exclusively in the way her body became a weapon when imbued with her psionics– but in reality, it was farther reaching and much more dangerous than that. Psionics was much more insidious.

Gertrude recalled all the strange abilities Norn seemed to possess. The incredible control over her troops, her ability to move extremely quickly and strike someone in a blink.

There was a larger and more terrifying world opening up before Gertrude’s own eyes.

“Nile, could you help Monika to understand and control her psionics too?” Gertrude asked.

Upon hearing that request, Monika looked down at her hands with a quiet concern.

Gertrude must have had that exact same expression on her face last night too.

That dire contemplation of becoming irreversibly different than before.

“I will do the best I can.” Nile sighed. “It’s– I guess it’s my duty as a doctor, after all.”


“Vogt, nobody roughed her up, right? And she’s been behaving well?”

“Indeed High– Commander.” Vogt caught himself. “She has been quietly waiting for you.”

“Any observations?” She ignored his struggle with her rank.

“One observation. When you first brought her here, she seemed almost– giggly. Energetic. Kind of fawning over you. At some point, and probably if I went through the camera footage I could probably scrobble to the exact second– she stopped smiling, Commander. She has this very neutral expression now. Her voice feels different too. When we brought her food, she spoke to us in a weird language– the translator tool said it is High Gallic. When we asked her to speak in Low Imbrian she teased us about our lack of culture. It was strange.”

Gertrude grunted, annoyed. “What the hell is she up to now– let me in to see her.”

After making sure Monika was okay and grabbing more coffee from Nile, Gertrude had set out to tackle her least anticipated errand of the day. It would have been callous of her to continue to subject Azazil An-Nur to captivity when she had wanted to cooperate before. But Gertrude had to know more about her and had to better understand her disposition. So she traveled to the Iron Lady’s containment rooms. She would converse with her in the interrogation cell she was being kept in, and she would decide then what to do.

“She has not been aggressive, Commander. I think she will cooperate.” Vogt said.

“I’m hoping as much too, but I’m always prepared for the worst.” Gertrude said.

Things she said to reassure her troops, without always meaning them.

In fact, she knew precious little about Azazil An-Nur and had no idea how she would act.

Vogt nodded and showed Gertrude he had brought a folding vibroblade on his person.

“I, too, am prepared for the worst. So you can be at ease, Commander.” He said.

Azazil was being kept confined in a glass-walled interrogation cell, one-way viewable.

Inside the cell she had a desk and a chair, both made of soft rubber-padded plastic.

Outside, there was a media room where recordings and observations were being made.

Gertrude passed through that room, out into a connecting rear room and then into the cell.

Azazil An-Nur lifted her eyes from the table briefly and smiled a very small, slight smile.

Her expression appeared much more reserved. When Gertrude had last seen her, she was gently smiling and cooing at her, like a motherly type of woman who wanted to impress her affection and comfort upon Gertrude. Now, she had a very specific sort of neutral expression, of the sort that Gertrude associated with noblewomen. Adelheid van Mueller had this sort of haughty non-smile that she would put on for people who were beneath her notice but not worth her disrespect. A noblewoman’s smile– put on for appearances, so perfectly practiced it managed to mean something while conveying nothing.

“Azazil, how have you been getting on?” Gertrude asked, sitting down across the table.

“In my appraisal, I have been diligently cooperative in my captivity.” Azazil said.

Vogt had been right– her voice was deeper, smoother. She had changed it somehow.

Could she change her body like Gertrude could? Could Gertrude change her own voice?

Azazil sat with her fingers steepled. Her gaze felt eerily penetrating.

That presence she now had– was she always so intense?

Everything else about Azazil looked familiar.

Her sleek, long black dress still hugged her perfect figure and looked almost brand new despite the scuffles of the past night. In the haze of the terrible events in which they had met, Gertrude had not noticed how well-made that dress was. It did not appear to be natural fibers, and it glistened, but it had a very soft look. Could it have been silk? In terms of facial features, she was without fault, with a gentle and regal beauty, soft red lips, small eyes slightly angled, her countenance mature but umblemished; her silver hair long and perfectly tended; her Shimii-like ears tall, black-furred, and sharp and fluffy; and her figure, ample in the right places and sleek in the rest. She was like a sculpture given life, a living artwork.

Gertrude felt that the more she observed her the more she found her gaze ensnared.

“After acquiring more data, I altered myself to better suit your tastes.” Azazil said.

“To better suit me?” Gertrude asked. She felt almost offended. What did that mean?

“As a biomechanoid servant I can serve better with more data. Upon close examination of all of our exchanges, I calculated that your nervous energy, inquisitiveness and spiraling passion are better matched by a woman who is more collected, distant and mature in appearance, mannerisms and personality. You are titillated by the mystery and taboo of women that feel out of your reach. You respond poorly when you receive too much open affection.”

“That is enough of that.” Gertrude said. She gestured for the recording to be cut.

“You want women to vex and challenge you at least a little. You are enriched by conquest.”

“That is– you think I find this attractive? I am terribly annoyed with you is what I am!”

“Perhaps– but I can tell you are already intrigued. I made a correct assessment.”

Gertrude had broken out into a bit of a sweat, and her face felt a little bit hot.

It was less what Azazil was doing or saying and more how she was doing it and saying it.

Her deep, sultry voice that felt like it was holding everything back while pulling her close. Precise mannerisms, like the brief flutter of her steepled fingers, or the ephemeral flitting of her eyelashes or the minute changes in her expression. She was like a silk-draped, full-figured puzzle box beckoning Gertrude to probe deeper and more forcefully.

Azazil was right, and Gertrude felt like a complete idiot.

She was manipulated– she had to stop fixating on Azazil.

Or she would be made a fool of.

It’s not easy to tear my eyes away from her– she is drop-dead gorgeous.

Maybe she could instead try to play it against her somehow.

“You said you were created to take care of humans, and you must follow my commands.”

“Correct. You are the owner of this body now, Master. It is yours however you desire.”

“What if I make you do something undignified? That breaks this façade you’re creating?”

“You can degrade me as a woman if you like. I’m sure it’s part of the fantasy for you.”

Gertrude closed her fists. “I don’t care what data you think you have collected on me! You do not know me, and I won’t have you typecasting me as some kind of pervert!” She hesitated briefly, a quivering in her chest working itself out as she then spoke. “I’m– I’m heterosexual!”

An interesting and hasty gambit that immediately faltered on all merits.

Azazil crossed her arms and grinned, just a little. “I know what you are.”

Suddenly Gertrude turned to what should have been a wall. “Get out! All of you! Now!”

She could not know whether or nor the recording and monitoring team vacated the room.

But they must have– they always followed her orders. They stopped recording and left.

Azazil waited obediently until the cell felt emptier. She continued. “My data is not wrong. From observing your interactions with me, and also the composition of your crew, which I also had a chance to observe. There are several women who have forged close emotional connections to you, and no men who have a relationship to you that is anything above strictly professional. No, my master, Lady Lichtenberg– you are absolutely a homosexual.”

Gertrude was nearly speechless. Azazil was correct, but it was utterly ridiculous to hear it.

“What if I ordered you to become a man?” Gertrude said, in a near-hysteric voice.

“You wouldn’t seriously do that.” Azazil said. “Master, there is no need to be distressed.”

Gertrude had completely lost it. Azazil had twirled her around like synthetic twine.

“I am not distressed! I am furious! Aren’t you supposed to ‘take care’ of me? What is this?”

Azazil wore that noblewoman’s smile again, but Gertrude could read the implicit malice. “I am indeed your servant, and it is indeed my duty to take care of your needs. I am presenting in a way which is the most suitable for your pleasure. However, I assure you I am not here to interfere with your daily life and your real relationships. I am an appliance that you can use as you need– has it not always been this way between masters and servants?”

She was stunned. It was stunning. Gertrude was left reeling by those words.

“What– what kind of perverted society– how the hell are you an ‘appliance’?!”

Even if Gertrude had entertained the desire to be able to keep more than one woman–

Nobody could possibly have been an ‘appliance’ to her!

And even worse for such a use!

“This– this situation— I’m disgusted! I don’t want anyone to take care of me like this!”

“Do you feel that it is ingenuine of me to try to please you in this way?”

“You are not pleasing me!”

“Would you find it more honest if I acted as I did before I had any data?”

Gertrude was given pause. Back then, last night– was she just acting then too?

Of course, she must have been. After all– she was an ‘appliance’ back then too.

Azazil An-Nur was a ‘biomechanoid’ that was ‘created to take care of humans’.

Thinking over this, Gertrude felt progressively conflicted and disturbed.

She did not know what to say to someone who had been created to serve her.

Gertrude had coerced and misled many people over the years. She was High Inquisitor.

Through honeyed words, through the truncheon, through legal threats–

She knew something about forcing people to bend to her will when necessary.

That coercion didn’t change them as people. Their bodies didn’t react to suit her needs.

Azazil’s comfort with changing pieces of herself to suit Gertrude–

She had conflicting feelings about it.

“When we first met, Master, I had an unclear profile of your personality, mannerisms, and your desires and needs as a person. After observing you for long enough, I developed the correct predictions, and I am better suited to serving you in a comfortable and tailored fashion. Humans do this too– but less efficiently. You are welcome to delete the profile I have generated but I doubt your needs will change much. In my view, I have optimized our relationship and am better able to serve you– why don’t you allow me to demonstrate as such for a few days? You will find I am a much better product now than before.”

“You call yourself a ‘product’ and an ‘appliance’– I don’t know how to deal with that.”

“Master, would it bring you relief to know a mop or a broom enjoyed the act of cleaning?”

Gertrude had no answer to that. She felt her heart and head grow heavy at the thought.

It was not possible that Azazil was a mop or a broom. She was a human, like Gertrude.

There was no way in hell that any society made people that were reduced to this!

That was her thinking– she could not, in her privilege, connect this behavior to anything.

Azazil smiled, more than she had before.

“I was created to take care of human beings. For so long, I have not had any people to take care of. They were all gone. Before I met you, I only had contact with an overbearing neural model and belligerent biomechanoids. I might not look like it, but I am pleased with the prospect of being able to take care of Genuine Human Beings again. It is not in my nature to make requests– but I strongly believe I can improve your quality of life if you will allow it.”

Gertrude was helpless. She did not know the correct or moral answer in this situation.

Insisting on Azazil’s humanity might go nowhere; would accepting this make her happy?

Could Azazil feel happy? What had they done to ‘create’ her? She looked human–

Now she was really second-guessing herself– was this all encoded in Azazil’s biology?

Was it STEM? Could she somehow alter Azazil’s STEM to free her from this condition?

To alleviate her own guilt and shame about all of this, Gertrude settled on that fantasy.

Perhaps if she discovered more about the mysterious STEM system–

She could turn Azazil from an ‘appliance’ and back into an independent human being.

It was this distant hope that allowed Gertrude to take a deep breath and speak again.

“I’ll accept you as you are, for now. I will accept that you are acting this way. But listen up and listen well, Azazil An-Nur– I don’t need your services in whatever perverse way you are implying. I need you to prove to me that you are able to act independently, that you can freely make your own choices as a person. Everyone on my ship agreed to be here. I am– I am adamantly against slavery. I will not so much as touch you until I am sure.”

“Adamantly against slavery– how curious. I’ll make a note of this.” Azazil said. “However, my condition is not slavery. Humans can be coerced into slavery. I was created to serve a purpose. I want to serve that purpose and I am happy to be given the opportunity.”

“If there is some way to free you from this condition, I will find it.” Gertrude said sharply.

For a moment, Gertrude caught what seemed like a twitch of Azazil’s eye.

However– it was so quick that it seemed like only her imagination.

Maybe she only wanted to see some kind of response.

“Very well, master. In such a matter and any others, of course, I will assist you.”

Gertrude sighed and slumped forward on the table. What an exhausting conversation!

After venting through a series of noises, she looked back at Azazil again.

“You have psionics, right? You understand your abilities to be psionic?” Gertrude asked.

“Correct.” Azazil replied.

“How can I know you are not controlling me using psionics?”

“If I have been doing that, do you believe it has been effective up to this point?”

“I can’t argue with that.” Gertrude said, with a grunt. “So–were you created to be psionic?”

“No.” Azazil said. She offered no candid asides nor any rhetoric to support her answer.

“What do you mean, no?” Gertrude asked, with mild but growing outrage.

“I was not created with psionic ability. That is not possible, as far as I know.”

“Where were you– created? Who created you? Elaborate a bit wouldn’t you?”

Azazil, with her small, wry, smile, answered the question exactly.

“I was created in Hephaestus Innovations Inc., Exafactory No. 4, in Turkiye, the seat of the Aer Federation. Turkiye is part of the internal polity known as the Nobilis Community. I was designed by Margery Balyaeva, with patented technology from Rita Angermeyer.”

That meant absolutely nothing to Gertrude. Just nothing but mush in the shape of words.

It was finally dawning on her that she was dealing with a relic from a lost civilization.

A perverse and horrid civilization that she was nevertheless now committed to chasing after.

Part of that chase would have to entail keeping Azazil aboard and enduring this for now.

Gertrude’s mind wandered to that hexagon of hexagons flag– what was she getting into?

And if she was committed to finding Eris at the bottom of all of this–

In what condition would she even find her?


Depth Gauge: 4581 meters
Aetherometry: Purple (Stable)

The Iron Lady descended, farther and deeper and darker into the abyss.

As its enormous hull navigated the encroaching spaces around it, all manner of creatures were disturbed, awakened, and scattered. Many of them were natural denizens of these lightless depths who knew to flee even the barest of hint of pursuit from something larger. Crustaceans on the cliffs scurried into holes only they knew of; slow-moving fish began to drift away from the steel leviathan; glowing jellies flexed their bells and jetted away.

Then– there were the creatures that could have been called unnatural denizens.

These continued to watch the descending ship with great interest.

Crab-like things with bubble-like missile packs on their backs readying to intercept.

Clusters of eyeballs trailed by tentacles, gathering and transmitting data.

Sentries with sleek, predatory bodies wolf-like and shark-like, larger than a power-armored human being, equipped with vibrating tungsten teeth and claws ready to charge.

Stand down and hibernate.

At once, the handful of drones in this abyss retreated to their hidden places once more.

Given psychic command by a superior with an actual will to determine fate.

From the barren cliffsides she watched the ship descend.

Casually resisting four hundred atmospheres of pressure, as if she had the Ocean’s mercy.

With a temporary body that was half aquatic, with a tail, hydrojets, fins.

And an upper body that was human, feminine, substantial in its musculature.

Grinning to herself, crossing her arms, narrowing eyes that could see clearly in the water.

I’m so curious, hominin. What are you doing here? In this mausoleum?

Watching them with the patience of a hunter amused at the sight of a coming sport.

Enforcer V of the Syzygy, The Wrath, referred to by her colleagues as ‘Ira.’

Unstimulated for an amount of years so great as to be a burden to recall.

Practically salivating at the prospect of the hominin diving into Aer’s own skin.

Let them enter the Great Tree Holy Land and see for themselves what Mnar holds!

I want to see their faces; I’m so curious what they will do with their final hours.

Will they find something that surprises me, before they dieor I kill them?

Surreptitiously, so as to avoid detection, Ira followed after the Iron Lady.

Toward the Agartha, and what little remained of the civilizations that preceded them.


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