“No casualties, so I’ll call that a victory. Tell Nakara to head to the infirmary.”
Captain Korabiskaya released a profoundly weary sigh, dropping back from the edge of her chair and practically melting into the backrest. Around the Bridge there was a sense of elation. Various readouts on the different stations had tracked the battle between the Cheka and the enemy, providing diagnostics and predictions. Algorithms calculated the flow of combat and offered reams of data for the bridge crew to parse through and interpret. Much of it had not been necessary.
Now that victory had been secured, and everyone was safe, most of the bridge crew had a joyful energy to their activities. Semyonova relayed orders for the sailors to resume their scheduled work, and she contacted Nakara personally to send her off to the infirmary, on the Captain’s orders; meanwhile officers like Fatima relaxed, since their active participation had ended. Kamarik was focused on monitoring the ship and programming the autopilot’s route. On the very front of the bridge, the gas gunners practically dropped over their gun stations with heavy, relieved breaths.
At Ulyana’s side, a certain cat-eared young woman cleared her throat softly.
“I admit you carried yourself, quite decently.” Commissar Bashara said. She then sighed herself. “That being said, I believe you were being too lax on the crew with the schedule for departure. We should have been fully combat ready thirty minutes ago, not an hour from now.”
“I know, and you’re right.”
Ulyana, metaphorically putting down her Captain’s hat and becoming “Yana” once more, met the Commissar’s eyes. Aaliyah looked surprised to see her expression. Perhaps she thought there would be an argument brewing. But Yana knew that she was being too coddling. Everything was in a remarkable chaos after disembarking, and she had felt too safe in Union waters, so she did not put down her fist and correct everything. She had wanted this launch to be relaxed and comfortable, for a crew that would feel little comfort in the months to come. She was wrong.
“I wanted to give everyone time to get their bearings. I thought we had the space for it.”
“Even the Union’s waters can be breached by enemies.” Aaliyah said. “But I understand.”
For a moment, the two of them looked at one another, and then broke off their eye contact.
“Don’t get me wrong. I won’t judge you too harshly now. But be mindful of yourself.”
Aaliyah said that, staring at a wall.
“I’m getting what I deserve. But do also think of the crew’s morale when criticizing me.”
Ulyana said this, facing an entirely different wall.
The two of them said this almost at once and they both seemed put off by the synchronicity.
Thankfully, their moment was defused almost immediately.
From below, the uniquely aggravating voice of Alex Geninov sounded.
“Aren’t you going to reprimand that pilot? She disobeyed orders.”
There was a smug look on her face that Yana did not like at all.
“I’ve decided to let her off easy for doing your job.” Yana said. “It’s none of your concern.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed with consternation, but she then turned back around to her station.
“It’s going to be a challenge turning this assortment into a crew.” Yana lamented. She spoke in a low voice such that it was only heard by her and the Commissar sitting beside her.
She hoped she could confide in her new Commissar — like she had once confided in Nagavanshi.
Her Commissar responded in the same volume. She did not betray the little trust Yana had granted. Despite the harshness of the words she would say, her whispers spoke to her cooperation.
“They were each handpicked by the Commissar-General for their talents, as were you. She would not have chosen this roster if she didn’t believe in each of us. I have my doubts about some people as well.” Aaliyah shook her head. She really made that some people sound as accusatory as possible. “But every officer on this crew has achievements and skills. Geninov might look like an annoying twerp, but she proved herself a prodigy in Thassal. And, then you, yourself–”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t finish that sentence.” Yana said, her tone turning severe.
“Duly noted, Captain.” Aaliyah said. Her own tone of voice was quite prickly.
That being said, Yana was happy that she was able to whisper to her when she wanted to. That she had a Commissar who would keep secrets with her, despite her criticisms and objections.
And so, despite the shaky footing in which their journey had begun, the Brigand had set off. It had overcome its first obstacle and proven it could survive a battle out at sea.
For certain definitions of proven, and for certain definitions of a battle.
At this point they were several kilometers from Thassal.
There was no way that they would turn back. Yana knew this, she was prepared for it. And she had no desire to do so. She told herself that she would rather die at sea than return, again a failure. Again proving what Aaliyah clearly thought, what most people who heard about her assignment probably thought: that she was incapable, and that she was bound to fail.
So she sat back in the Captain’s chair of a fully crewed bridge.
Again, looking down at all the beautiful faces of the officers under her command.
Each of them dragging their own histories onto this vessel.
Perhaps, like her, they were working to surpass their ignominy.
Everyone in the hangar was ordered to return to work after being given fifteen minutes to cool off, which many of them spent either trying to congratulate Murati or get a closer look at the Cheka. Once the sailors returned to their work, Murati herself was ordered to the infirmary. Her skin was brimming with excess energy and anxiety, as she came down from the stress of being out in the suit. Despite this, she felt physically fit, but she did not object to getting herself checked out.
With Karuniya close at her side, she left the hangar, feeling the vibrations of the ship through her feet in the cramped corridors between Engineering and the elevator up to the infirmary. Between every pod there were corridors, some for traversal, others exclusively for accessibility to allow maintenance work on various systems. These were divided off by bulkhead doors.
“Karu, how did you find the rest of the ship?” Murati asked.
Karuniya shrugged. “It’s a ship. Not a bad one, but it’s no pleasure cruise.”
“Hey! Wait up a moment, Lieutenant– I mean, Murati!”
Karuniya and Murati turned around to find Gunther running up through the halls.
He was panting, but he had a smile on his face that suggested great satisfaction.
“I’ve got all your combat data.” He paused to breathe. “You were wild out there, Murati.”
“It was all the machine, to be honest.” Murati said.
“She’s too modest.” Karuniya said. “We haven’t met. I’m Karuniya Nakara.”
Murati was shocked to hear that surname in that place.
Karuniya grinned devilishly as she extended her hand to shake Gunther’s.
“Ah, are you sisters or something?” He asked, genuinely and amicably.
At that, Karuniya burst out laughing in Gunther’s face. He shrank back, confused.
“She’s neither my sister, nor is that her real surname! Gunther, this is my fiancé, Karuniya Maharapratham. She’s taking you for a fool right now, but she’s actually our Science Officer.”
Murati rectified the situation quickly, but that did not stop Karuniya’s impish behavior.
“Sisters, really, how sheltered can you be?” She mumbled to herself, laughing still.
“Cut me some slack! It’s not like I’ve memorized the roster.” Gunther said helplessly.
“Did you really not think ‘wife’? Come on, we don’t look anything alike.”
“Listen, I’m not psychic okay?”
Murati slapped her palm over her own face, groaning audibly.
“Gunther, ignore her for a bit–”
“I wanted to ask you something about the Cheka, actually.”
Gunther side eyed Karuniya but then turned all his attention to Murati.
“I welcome changing the subject! What do you wanna know?”
“Why didn’t you tell me about the ERS function? It saved my life.”
Gunther crossed his arms. He looked troubled. Murati had not expected that response.
It was not like when he described every other exciting feature of the Cheka.
“You say you activated the ERS? That would explain the power spikes.”
“You really couldn’t have missed it if you looked at the data.” She said.
Scratching his head and thinking for a moment, Gunther sighed. He looked helpless again.
“This is strange. I really don’t know; see, the ERS was supposed to be dummied out.”
“Dummied out?” Karuniya asked, inserting herself into the conversation.
“Do you know what that means?” Murati asked her.
“Of course I do.” Karuniya shrugged.
“Well, ok then. Why are you asking? Gunther, go on.”
Behind her, Karuniya stuck out her tongue.
Gunther nodded his head. He rubbed his hands together.
Nervous. Thinking on his words.
“So, we didn’t remove all the mechanisms for it, it was just supposed to be removed from the software. See, the ERS is connected to the verniers, and the pumps and turbines; it builds a reserve of additional power as the verniers and turbines run, power that can be dumped through the suit. We found that the engine and batteries can’t take running with that extra power for very long. I would strongly advise you not to use it in the future. I can’t really dummy it out any more than it is without ripping the Cheka apart, and if you found it useful, then that’s great, but be careful.”
Murati had been saved by that ERS feature.
To think that if it had been truly dummied out, she might have become Leviathan food.
In the future, she would have a team to work with. She wouldn’t be out there alone.
So it was less of an imperative for her own suit to have so much power.
She could not promise Gunther to avoid it entirely, however.
Not after seeing it in action.
“I’ll be careful.”
“Thank you. You were going to the infirmary, right? I’ll leave you to it.”
He made an awkward smile at Karuniya.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
She winked at him, but he turned around and left so quickly he may not have seen it.
“He’s a good guy.” Murati said. “Honest, straightforward and hardworking.”
“Yeah, he seems straightforward alright.” Karuniya said, chuckling to herself.
Murati frowned helplessly. “I see you woke up today to cause problems on purpose.”
At the end of one of the halls they took an elevator up to commons.
Every ship had some social areas, and the one they arrived at was quite lively as there were several sailors who were not called upon to work just yet. While it was less broad and open than the hangar, it had a higher ceiling than the corridors and was far less cramped than many other rooms. This particular room was designed to hold several dozen people carousing and having fun. It was navy blue with adjustable lighting that could fit many different moods, whether the crew was celebrating or relaxing. There were group tables and couches for the social butterflies; game tables that could be adjusted for pool, ping pong or other physical games; minicomputers preloaded with board games like chess as well as a few other approved diversions; and a small stage where a few people could sing songs or put on shows, or where someone could give a speech to a crowd.
“This is lovely. It’s the kind of atmosphere you’d expect at a nice bar.” Murati said.
“You’re right. Kind of reminds me of the places we snuck off to in school.” Karuniya said.
Murati grinned. “We have to drop by later. I want to continue my ping pong streak on you.”
“Oh ho! So high and mighty when it’s a physical game, Murati Nakara. And yet, you are fully aware that if it were chess, you would be begging for mercy.” Karuniya replied, cackling.
The two of them walked past the social space, and across a hallway past the mess. As they walked they examined this important location. There were long, tight row tables that seated many people. Box lunches were cooked and set out on the counters that fenced out the kitchen, to be picked up by whoever desired one. There were also biscuits and broth set out for anyone. Meal allotments determined the amount of biscuits and broth any given person was entitled to eat. In addition to the basics of bread and broth, everyone could get a breakfast sandwich and a lunchbox.
Dinner was their one big, nice meal.
A motivating force for getting through your day.
At that moment, however, there were very few people in the mess.
Murati expected this would be the only time she would see it so empty.
Past the mess and closer to the bulkhead into the Command Pod was the infirmary. It was divided into two rooms across from one another in the hall: there was a larger emergency room with forty beds, and then there was the examination room, which had two curtained off beds and the laboratory, medicine vault and private room of the doctor on-board.
When Murati crossed the threshold into the doctor’s office, the first thing she saw was an open door into a storage space full of medicines in safe containers, bags of nondescript fluids and chemicals, and boxes of medical devices and special equipment. A second, closed door beside it likely led to the doctor’s private room. The rest of the office was unremarkable. There were the beds, the examination table with its cushioned, adjustable surfaces, a sink with running water, and cabinets for the doctor’s tools.
Then there was the doctor, seated on a stool and working on something on the counters.
“Welcome! Murati Nakara, I presume? And does this young woman want a checkup too?”
She welcomed the two of them to her side.
The Doctor looked immediately like quite a character.
A tall, thin woman with a pleasantly deep voice, her face was fair and fine-featured. Her ice blue lipstick and eyeshadow gave her a mature air — Murati felt that she was older than she and Karu. Her hair was also pretty novel as it was colored two tones: an icy, almost white light blue and a darker blue. Some of it was tied behind the back of her head, and the rest was clipped to the sides with a pair of colorful pins.
While her mature looks, white coat and button-down uniform gave the impression of elegance and professionalism, her mannerisms were anxious and flighty. She moved her hands quite freely as she talked, and she had a smile that was perhaps a bit too excited.
On the counter behind her, she had several little cases that she had been preparing before Murati and Karuniya stepped into the room. Murati was familiar with them: they were hormone treatment kits.
“I’m Doctor Winfreda Kappel.” She vigorously shook Murati’s hands, and Karuniya’s as well. “I actually prepared this for you! I’ve been sorting everyone’s medications! It’s so fun seeing how well-stocked this ship is. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a ship with such a king’s ransom of drugs and chemicals! We’ve got prescriptions for everything. I can’t wait to care for all of you.”
She talked quickly, and after the handshakes, thrust a hormone kit into Murati’s hands.
“And by any chance, is this your partner Maharapratham?” She asked.
Karuniya seemed a bit taken aback. Perhaps not so much by the contents of the Doctor’s words as much as the overwhelming energy with which they were delivered to her.
“I am indeed! I suppose that is in the roster?” She said, suddenly shy.
“It sure is! I’ve been reading through everyone’s files. Here, this is for you!”
She pushed a little generic medicine kit into Karuniya’s hands.
“Contraceptives and sexual enhancers. If you need more, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Dr. Kappel had a triumphant look to her face, while Karuniya turned quite red.
“Hey– Umm– Well, t-t-thanks. But this is a lot to take in?” Karuniya stammered.
Murati could hardly look at the kit without feeling somewhat exposed as well.
For her part, Dr. Kappel’s mood was not darkened in the slightest.
“Nonsense! Any capable, open-minded doctor knows that sexual intercourse will happen on ships. Especially when it comes to two people who arrive on the ship as civil partners. I want it to be safe and enjoyable sex. Better to encourage good, safe sex, than to deny your needs!”
“I’ve got to wonder if you know this from experience–”
“What was that dear?”
Karuniya was mumbling in a defeated tone of voice. Dr. Kappel continued to smile.
“Nothing at all ma’am. Thanks. You’re right, I suppose.”
Neither Karuniya nor Murati were puritans whatsoever, but Murati felt terribly awkward openly discussing such things with a third party. Particularly a third party who was this apparently eager about it. And from the look on her fiancé’s face she could tell Karuniya shared this feeling.
That being said, there was no defeating this Dr. Kappel.
Her energy was simply irrepressible.
“Ma’am, I’d like to get checked up so I can go up to the bridge.” Murati said. “Karuniya is accompanying me because we’re headed the same direction. I don’t feel that I’m hurt, so–”
“Indeed, indeed! I will distract you no longer. Come here, Lieutenant!”
Dr. Kappel stood up and took Murati by the arms and pressed against her back.
She made her stretch a few different ways, and began to feel her muscles, to pat down her sides, to bend her wrists, to exert a firm grip on various parts of her limbs and trunk. She crouched in front of Murati and made her move her knees and legs and observed. The Doctor had all kinds of little tests she made Murati do and watched keenly whenever Murati accomplished them.
While this transpired, Karuniya watched with growing indignation.
Finally, the Doctor stopped back, and took one last look at Murati up and down.
“My, the Lieutenant’s quite a specimen!” Dr. Kappel winked at Karuniya. “Great catch.”
Karuniya’s tone began to fit her severe expression. “Uh, excuse me?”
Rolling on from that with no apparent acknowledgment, the Doctor turned back to Murati.
“You are healthy, but I’m sure you’ll be feeling slightly nauseous. Take care when you eat.”
“I’m feeling slightly nauseous right now.” Murati lamented.
All the stretching, if anything, made her feel even worse and more tired out.
“I shall keep you no longer. It was wonderful to meet you two. Do come again!”
Dr. Kappel waved goodbye and immediately turned around and skipped back inside the medicine vault, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the rows upon rows of medications and chemicals to which she had access. She had floated away in an instant, as if the meeting were adjourned the moment that her interest finally wavered. One word came to Murati’s mind right then: blitzkrieg.
There were all kinds of people aboard the Brigand, and some of them were menaces.
Karuniya grabbed hold of Murati’s hand and instantly stormed out of the Doctor’s office.
“What the hell is wrong with that bitch? What kind of doctor says, ‘come again?’” She said.
“Please slow down. I think the forward stretches put my guts out of sorts.”
Karuniya grunted openly and clung to Murati with a petty expression on her face.
She was practically rubbing her cheeks on Murati like a needy puppy.
One thing they could not deny is that the staffing choices so far had been interesting.
Murati was trying to look on the bright side of things as she shambled to the bridge.
Once the two of them regained enough of their composure, they entered the command pod, which was one of the smallest of the ship’s major sections. There was the bridge, the security room, a brig for detaining people and a few planning and meeting rooms. It was one hallway, and the bridge was the largest space in it. There was no missing it when crossing through the bulkhead.
They stood in front of the door to the bridge.
Murati took a deep breath.
“Feeling stage-fright? Or is it still nausea?” Karuniya asked.
“The Captain here fought in the Revolution as a teen, Karuniya.” Murati said. Stage-fright.
Karuniya took Murati’s hand and squeezed it. She looked her in the eyes and smiled.
“I’m sure nobody will mind your relative lack of experience after today.” She said.
Together, they opened the door to the bridge and crossed into it.
All eyes turned briefly over to them.
Murati saluted the Captain and Commissar and introduced herself.
“Comrades, I am Lieutenant Murati Nakara. First Officer, on bridge.”
Everyone in the bridge crew gave her a round of applause. Even Captain Korabiskaya.
She was, after all, the first beacon of hope in their long journey.
Eight hours later, at a coasting speed of 15 knots, the Brigand had traveled quite far from Thassal station and would soon cross the Imperial border, into the southern territory of Sverland, the Empire’s Nectaris border lookout. Owing to the defeat of the Southern Border Fleet, and its understaffed nature even before that, little resistance could be expected in Sverland, and there was no reason for the Brigand to be on high alert quite yet. They would make for a port town first to meet their first contact.
While they had a rocky start, the crew was starting to settle into their duties. After the Leviathan attack, the bridge had been quiet and tidy, with everyone immersed in their tasks. While recording the events of the day, Commissar Aaliyah Bashara, in her own little room, thought to herself that it was actually good they were attacked so soon, and were forced to respond suddenly.
She believed it would not be the last time the Brigand had a sudden emergency.
Their war, which began today with nary a trumpet, would be one of sudden, shocking turns.
No one had ever done what they proposed to do.
Though they had a plan to follow, she knew everything would change in the Empire’s seas.
And yet everyone on the ship accepted this insane mission, from the greenest sailor to the most experienced among them. Everyone had their own reasons for doing so, even the Commissar. Maybe it was hard to truly understand the scope of the undertaking and to be able to tell oneself that it should not be done. Maybe it was too incredible to refuse. Being told by Nagavanshi that the situation was revolutionary and world-shaking did nothing to convey the true difficulties that lay ahead. And so everyone was caught up in the glory, or maybe trying to normalize it.
Aaliyah focused on her duty as Commissar. She would be ready to do it each day.
Now that it was “night,” for her, she had another task to perform.
It was the Commissar’s duty to record the ship history.
Every ship had a chronicle of its days, from the perspective of an officer.
Ships kept all kinds of statistics, but the chronicle was different. A ship’s chronicle was far more than just records of work done or missions accomplished. Each chronicle was an organic and unvarnished look into the kind of living that was had aboard ships. It was about the life and mind of the officer who wrote it. Every Chronicle was different because every ship was different.
For centuries, Imperial Chaplains performed this duty in the Imperial Navy. It was highly likely that the Republicans also had chronicles. Commissars continued the tradition in the Union.
Aaliyah had a minicomputer made just for the purpose. It was even more ruggedized than normal minicomputers. It was the sort of computer that could survive the ship. Like a black box, except that it was recorded by hand. Perhaps the Commissar’s most sacred task lay within that inviolable record of the lives and desires of the crew, so that they could be known in death.
Even if an Imperial ship killed them, those records would be preserved.
In fact, the Chronicle of an enemy ship was a treasured thing. It was a trophy for victory.
For the defeated, it was the tiniest comfort that their names and lives would be known.
This was the honor that all sailors gave one another, even despite their most bitter hatred.
An acknowledgment of each other’s existence. Even an imperialist would give this much.
Aaliyah sighed deeply as she booted up the Chronicle.
It was not a novel or something that had to be crafted. A Chronicle, she was taught, should come from the heart, and it should include all the first things one desires to say, before the mask of modesty and other social mores colors over those raw feelings. Aaliyah found this difficult.
Nevertheless, she began to write.
She recorded that on Cycle 150 of the year 979 A.D., the UNX-001 Brigand launched–
“Can I come in?”
There was a knock on the door. A most familiar voice.
“You may, Captain.”
Through the door, the figure of Ulyana Korabiskaya took a step filled with trepidation.
Aaliyah turned around to meet her, trying to avoid her eyes.
“To what do I owe this– why are you here?” She asked, switching tones mid-sentence.
In response the Captain bowed her head. Her long, blonde hair fell over her face.
“Commissar, I wanted to apologize. I’ve stumbled over my words so many times toward you, but you are right. I was a cad, and I treated you terribly. I owed you more respect as a lover.”
She was speaking vaguely, as if she did not know exactly what part of her conduct had been wrong. She could have openly admitted to being a horny drunk or an oafish sweet talker. She could have admitted to leaving her in bed soaked in sweat and alone and ashamed, with no reassuring voice to comfort her. She could have apologized for sounding so sincere that night.
On some level, Aaliyah herself did not whether those things actually bothered her though.
She did not want to admit it, but she had reacted in a highly emotional fashion.
“Captain let us put personal things behind us. I have only been judging you on your professional merits since we stepped into this ship. I shall continue to do so.” She said.
That was not exactly true.
It did help her save face, however.
Ulyana nodded her head and raised it. She wore a bashful, almost girlish expression.
Aaliyah thought she looked beautiful and did not want to look directly at her.
“Besides which. It was stupid of me to think– anyway, no, everything is fine.”
Why did you even think you merited this woman’s attention anyway?
You’re so naïve; so easy. All she had to do was talk you up, and you spread your legs.
You let your guard down and look what happened. How was that fairy tale night of yours?
Do you think you deserve any better?
Those sorts of self-hating thoughts filled with Aaliyah’s mind when she recalled the night they shared together. Perhaps that was what she hated the most. Her feelings were muddled.
“I, too, shall swear to behave professionally. Because– I want us to succeed–”
Aaliyah caught the briefest glimpse of Ulyana’s eyes as she stammered.
For a moment, she saw an expression that was full of some unmentionable pain.
“For more than just the Union; because we have hope in ourselves.”
There was something she wanted to say, but she was clearly not ready to do so.
Aaliyah was the same. And thinking that the two of them were similar frustrated her.
“I agree. I need to write the ship’s chronicle. May I return to my work?”
Ulyana nodded her head. “Yes, yes of course. I’ll see you on the bridge next shift.”
“Indeed. Work hard, and don’t become distracted, Captain.” Aaliyah replied.
As awkwardly as she had entered, Ulyana slipped back out the Commissar’s door.
Aaliyah closed her eyes, trying to find inner peace.
Perhaps in the months to come she would be able to forget all of this.