This scene contains graphic sexual content.
When the Captain and Commissar arrived at Doctor Winfreda Kappel’s office, they found her reclining in her chair, her face sullen, swirling a tiny bit of yellow-brown fluid in a small glass. There was an uncorked bottle on the counter nearby, along with a minicomputer with an open patient file. Ulyana glanced at the screen and saw a freshly-taken photo of a certain Marina McKennedy on the screen.
“No one on the crew is supposed to drink unless we approve it.” Ulyana said.
Her tone was more playful than it was stern.
Dr. Kappel smiled at them, arranging her colorful hair out of her eyes and behind one ear.
“Good Evening, Captain, Commissar. If I recall correctly, and I do, the regulation lists the specific alcoholic beverages that can only be drunk with a formal release by the Captain. However, the ship doctor’s standard-issue lemon brandy is actually exempt. It’s why I took this job at all.”
“Huh. First time I’ve heard of this. Is that true?” Ulyana asked Aaliyah.
“It doesn’t sound true.” Aaliyah replied. “It sounds like shameless excuses.”
“Wait, so you don’t know for sure?” Ulyana said.
“You’ll forgive me for indulging after the depressing visitor you sent my way.”
The doctor winked at them and took a small sip of her brandy.
“I’m glad you did see her, and not just the depths of your brandy bottle.” Ulyana sighed.
“I’ve got good news for you, Captain: she’s biologically alive.” Dr. Kappel laughed.
“We’d like to know the bad news then.” Aaliyah said. For a moment, the room quieted.
Then it was Dr. Kappel’s turn to sigh. She ran her hand over her forehead briefly.
“Let me think of where to begin. It was a lot of work I’ll have you know.”
Ulyana was afraid it would be something like this. “That bad, huh?”
“You don’t see patients like this in the Union very frequently.” Dr. Kappel replied.
“Start with the basics then and work your way to what’s actually bothering you.”
Dr. Kappel reached out to the countertop and picked up her minicomputer to glance at it.
“Marina McKennedy has a strong baseline level of health if you judge purely on her general physicality. She has the level of fitness I would expect from a combat soldier. No chronic illnesses. Lots of lean muscle, flexible and dexterous, not too dense, or heavy; full range of movement in her limbs, solid reflexes, good hand-eye coordination, perfect hearing; good eyesight, from her good eye. I’ll get to that shortly. Her weight can’t really be faulted, but she clearly has been eating poorly. Despite this, she maintains an acceptable level of fitness by Union standards.”
She spoke almost robotically and looked up at the Captain and Commissar for remarks.
Neither made any expression, so she continued reading from her notes. “She disclosed a single gender affirming chest surgery, but not the timeline of the surgery. I believe she has fully recovered from it. Upon learning of her status I prescribed her hormone treatments. She did not disclose any other health information: including that she had a second skin applied, which is visibly fading. I figured that out myself during our checkup. I did not disclose this suspicion to the patient.”
“A second skin? Over what specifically?” Ulyana asked.
Normally second skins were applied on certain parts of the body.
They were applied to the faces or bodies of performers to typify certain beauty standards.
Unblemished cheeks, the illusion of a beautifully toned body, different skin colors.
“Full body, except a patch on her chest where there’s an older scar.” Dr. Kappel said simply. “And I believe it’s not for gender affirming reasons. In fact, I don’t think the surgery she disclosed was for that either. I would know. As a trans woman and a doctor I can tell you nobody gets surgery for such a humble size when they can go bigger.”
Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced briefly at each other. A full body second skin was quite rare. In the Union you rarely saw it. The ingredients were better used for other medical purposes. Applying a second skin required a lot of hours of precise work in order to look perfect.
“What is she trying to hide then? That’s what you’re implying, right?” Aaliyah said.
Dr. Kappel sighed as if it was painful to recall what she saw.
“Scars. Lots of scars and damage. All over her body. Not just surgical scars, either.”
“I’m not sure I understand the reaction you’re having here, Doc.” Ulyana said gently.
“I’m just upset whenever I see evidence of extensive and brutal torture, is all.”
Dr. Kappel turned a weary glance to her superiors. Her voice grew more impassioned.
Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other again as if they hadn’t expected that.
“Marina McKennedy was traumatically tortured, Captain, Commissar. Any doctor could have told you that. Even the Security team’s medic. Marina is covered in irregular scars all over her body, that are becoming visible again. She styles her bangs over one side of her face to cover it, but I believe she suffered violent eye trauma too, necessitating an implant. Likely a back alley job, but I didn’t want to push her to let me check it. Psychologically, she is deeply troubled. She is afraid to be touched on her bare skin. Even if she knows she will be touched and if extensive consent is sought, she will allow the touch but react quite negatively.”
As she spoke, Dr. Kappel pulled back the sleeve of her coat and bodysuit to reveal a bruise.
“Even for someone with military combat training, it was hard to block her strike.”
“Solceanos defend.” Ulyana whispered to herself. Aaliyah’s tail turned stiff and straight.
“I don’t want you to think she’s dangerous. I think she’s just deeply, deeply hurt.”
Dr. Kappel set her minicomputer back on the counter and downed the rest of her drink.
“I understand. Is there anything else we should know?” Ulyana said.
“Her main vice is smoking, which she herself admitted.” Dr. Kappel said. She had the same tone of voice as when she was rattling off facts collected in her notes. As if she had walked herself down from getting too emotional about the patient. “I’ve informed her this ship is a smoke free zone, and tobacco is relatively rare in the Union, so I’ve prescribed medication to wean her off it. You’ll have to keep an eye she doesn’t bring any tobacco into the ship. It’s more prevalent in the Empire than the Union. She has a mild dependency on opiates, I also prescribed drugs for that. That’s all the pertinent information.”
“Do you think her judgment is impaired in any way?” Aaliyah asked.
“Bit insensitive to ask after all I just told you, no?” Dr. Kappel replied.
“I don’t see it that way. I have to know so I can help the patient be safer too.”
“Fair enough. I don’t believe so. I think she is fully cognizant and operating in reality.”
“We’ll just have to be patient and see if we can get her to open up.” Ulyana said.
“Good luck with that. At any rate, I did let her know we’ll be doing weekly checkups.”
Ulyana smiled nervously. “Thanks for volunteering, Doc.”
Dr. Kappel scoffed. She poured herself another glass. Her cheeks were starting to flush.
“I feel obligated to help, from one transgender sister out in the world to another. I can’t leave a patient to depend solely on you two brutes for her long-term health.” As the doctor berated them, Ulyana and Aaliyah simply stood in place and averted their gazes awkwardly. “But you understand that henceforth, I can’t tell you anything she confides in me, per Union regulations.”
“We get it. Don’t worry. She’s a spy, we know we’re being lied to.” Aaliyah said.
“As long as you keep her from blowing up on us, I agree to confidentiality.” Ulyana added.
“Good. Honestly, I should have braced myself to see such things, but still. What she’s been through, it’s so evil.”
Dr. Kappel looked up at the ceiling, as if referring to the whole ocean around them.
“I feel like we’ve all seen enough of the Empire to last us a lifetime already.” Ulyana said.
“Well, we’re barely getting started. So we’ll all need to toughen up.” Aaliyah said.
Her own droopy ears and tail belied her personal sense of demoralization, however.
For a first step, this mission seemed to have only reminded them all of their smallness.
There was nothing bold or glorious about it.
Of course, that was military work through and through. It was not always glorious.
Not for the officers, not for command, not for the sailors or even the doctor.
Ulyana did not have much to move from the former Captain’s quarters over to the Commissar’s.
Her personal clothes were packed in a neat bundle, and she could always get more TBT uniforms. They had extras. Aside from one nice dress, she only had a few good pairs of pants and their matching coats and dress shirts, and one good Union formal uniform. So she took these effects into the Commissar’s room right after the room was reassigned, pulled down the bunk on the right-hand wall and set them there. Her makeup kit was easily portable and slotted in nicely into the storage under the bunk. There was one item she had to be delicate with, a bottle full of something quite special.
It was this item she was fetching from a lockbox in the Commissar’s room wall, when Aaliyah entered in from the hallway, looking exhausted. As soon as the door closed behind her she took off her hat and set it on a hook, took off her long coat, and pulled off her tie and the top few buttons of her shirt. The way she did it, it was like ritual: a daily, trusted act of undressing, in the mindlessness of privacy, fully at ease with herself. Her whole body language softened that instant.
She even let out a little cat-like purr.
Of course, she then noticed Ulyana in the room and immediately jerked back.
“Captain!” She cried out.
Ulyana waved a hand, her lips curling into an awkward little smile.
“Warm greetings, Commissar. I live here now.” She said.
Aaliyah’s wild expression softened, and she averted her gaze.
“I– I know that! I thought you would be somewhere else at this hour!”
Her ears drooped and her tail curled, flicking behind her.
Ulyana extricated the bottle from the confines of its padded bag and pulled it up.
“I was planning on a shower, but first, I actually wanted to invite you to a drink.”
“What? A drink? What kind of drink?”
Holding it by the neck, Ulyana showed Aaliyah a dressed-up bottle of a fancy liqueur.
“It’s tuzemak infused with coconut.” Ulyana said. “Small batch, but good quality.”
Ulyana uncorked the bottle. She had already tasted it, quite a few months ago.
Her demeanor was guarded as she offered the bottle. She ready for Aaliyah to yell at her.
Instead the Commissar looked intrigued. She approached and gave the bottle a good look.
“That’s quite an interesting combination. How did you get your hands on this?”
“You’re acting like I stole it.” Ulyana laughed. “It was on a plaza table in Sevastopol.”
“Sevastopol is situated close to an agri-sphere. I guess it makes sense for a plaza find.”
Ulyana felt lucky that Aaliyah’s response was so passive. Maybe she was too tired to moralize. Feeling emboldened, Ulyana pushed things one step further, set the bottle on the commissar’s pull-down writing desk, and withdrew two small, clean shot glasses, setting them both neatly on the desk too. Aaliyah watched her quietly while she was doing this.
“Would you do me the honor of joining me for a toast?”
Aaliyah’s tail went from flicking back to swaying gently behind her.
“Well. One drink could not hurt I suppose.”
That response put a radiant smile on Ulyana’s face.
She poured a full shot glass for each of them and handed one to Aaliyah.
The second she took and raised to eye level.
“A toast: to a successful mission, and a victory for communism!”
Aaliyah and Ulyana touched glasses and lifted them to their lips.
A slick, sweet taste, sugar beet with a hint of coconut, burning all the way down.
It made Ulyana’s chest warm. Even in this ship, in this unknown ocean, it felt like home.
“That was amazing.” Ulyana said.
“It was delicious. Thank you for the toast, Captain.”
“Want to go for seconds?”
“Going to have to stop you there.”
Aaliyah put her hands on her hips and threw a narrow-eyed glare at Ulyana.
Ulyana took the shot glasses and bottle back with a knowing grin.
The Commissar stood there watching her Captain clean the glasses in the room’s water dispenser and remained like a fixture or a piece of furniture while she put them away. Once they were back safely in the storage under the bunk, Ulyana came face to face with Aaliyah again, and she, too, became a fixture in the middle of the room, between the bunks. They avoided staring directly at one another and neither spoke for several long seconds. Ulyana then realized she was standing in the way of Aaliyah’s desk, so she moved aside and sat on the bunk instead.
“We can’t go on like this.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s set some boundaries, Ulyana Korabiskaya.”
When presented with an awkward situation Ulyana would always smile.
Because it was a forced smile, it was usually crooked. It did not really improve things.
It was, simply, just what happened. “Not Captain Korabiskaya?”
“Ugh. If I had to maintain that formality at all hours of my life, I would go insane.”
“I agree. I just thought you would prefer it. Like keeping a bit of distance, even in here.”
“Not at all. I think you’ve misread me. In my room, what I want is to relax, and to be able to dress down from the mask I have to wear around the crew. I’m expected to help the Captain enforce discipline. I need to command respect even if the Captain is lenient. It’s a big burden that I take off for a few hours in solitude. I won’t be alone anymore, but I still need to have that time.”
Ulyana nodded. Maybe Aaliyah did not realize that the Captain wore her own mask too.
That was something she would not bring up. She was the guest, and she would fit in.
“I understand completely. I want to help ease your burden however I can, Aaliyah.”
Aaliyah’s ears straightened up. She averted her eyes again in a demure expression.
“Well, thank you. My routine is that I write a Chronicle entry in silence, so I can reflect on the day. I want to ask you to be silent and still while I do so. Maybe take a nap or go catch your shower at this time. I always do this at 2000 hours, and then I read before sleeping at 2200 sharp.”
“I’m fine to keep that schedule.”
The pair stared at one another as if they were each waiting for there to be more to say.
Another awkward silence fell between them. The ship was so quiet too.
“Well. I guess it’s all settled. Thank you, Cap– Ulyana.”
“You could call me Yana too. Most of my friends do. Even Nagavanshi did.”
Her face turned briefly warmer. Oh, why did she chance on saying that?
Aaliyah merely shook her head and walked past her to the desk and sat down. She reached over the desk and pressed her hand down on the wall, sliding out a fake metal panel to expose the Osmium lockbox in which the ship’s chronicle was kept. All the while Ulyana watched her as she unlocked the box, took out the chronicle, gently booted it up. From her holster, she took her snub nosed revolver and set it down on the table — of the Bridge officers, only the Captain and Commissar were so armed.
Then she began to write. With her back to Ulyana and her eyes staring down at the screen.
“Duly noted. I’ll go catch that shower.”
From the desk, Aaliyah waved at her. “Enjoy your shower, Ulyana.”
When she said her name there, it felt so pointed. Ulyana shrank just a little from it.
Like an arrow right through her heart. What a stupid thing to feel!
Of course, what was she thinking? That they could have another passionate night?
That sort of fantasy would have just gotten her in great trouble.
At least she was not cast out into the hallway without a bed to call her own.
Her body was flung from high into a jagged precipice and fell down a dark chasm. She watched a stark white sky shrink into a sliver as the walls encroached around her. Falling for what felt like eternities, skin unfeeling in a rushing wind until she suddenly hit the ground.
Her back arched from the impact and she cried out soundlessly.
Skin and clothes split off from her body like glass shattering instantly into dust, rising into the air like a cloud.
There was no pain, but she still settled with the wind knocked out of her, naked on the ground, sweating, heaving. Her skin, the only layer that was left behind over her body, was wet, soft, and pale like an insect’s callow after molting. Eyes heavy, dragging herself on the cold, blank floor, her surroundings a blur. Who was she? She could barely remember her name.
All around her there was nothing but a curtain of squirming shadows.
Footsteps. Why would there be footsteps? She was supposed to be alone.
She looked over her shoulder in time to see thin shadows lashing out of the walls.
Her leg was seized as if by a wet, black rope and she was lifted bodily by the ankle.
That tendril dragged her toward a gaping maw of shadows that seethed and curled.
A second tentacle whipped around her neck and pushed her head up.
Thin, inky limbs formed bonds around her wrists and forced her arms behind her back.
As suddenly as she was seized, her body was set down, forced to her knees with her back straight.
Before her eyes, a human figure appeared from the shadows as if phasing through a membrane. A woman’s upper body leaned forward, red eyes, grinning lips, nose to nose with the skinny, soft callow that she had caught in her arms. A bioluminescent glow upon certain areas of her skin gave delineation to a slender chest and its exposed curves. Her eyes pored over the pale figure.
That sweet, luscious voice recalled the nymph’s identity with great joy. Sonya Shalikova.
As the woman spoke, Sonya’s cold, unfeeling body tingled with the warmth of the woman’s breath.
Then the tentacles binding her arms pushed against her back, forcing her chest forward.
Limbs slid around her back, tracing her ribcage, climbing over and squeezing her breasts.
A tendril glided up her thigh, sliding heavy against her groin, its slender tip curling around her dick.
Breathing ragged, pulse quickening, her pale flesh slick with sweat.
Sonya’s body reacted in a primal way.
Hips shuddering, chest quaking, a building pressure in her core that caused her to bite down on her lip. She did not hate the sudden grip of pleasure she found herself in. She didn’t fight it. As her body bucked, the tentacles moved in rhythm with her.
Sonya let out a soft, soundless gasp into the face of her captor. Her own lips curled into a little, exhausted smile.
A human hand reached out and caressed her cheek.
Two fingers penetrated her lips. Saliva trickled from her mouth, her tongue struggling instinctually against the intrusion. The voice grew more possessive as its lips closed in on Sonya’s face, past her cheek, and dug into her neck, leaving a red marking.
As the figure neared, the arms around her body squeezed to the point Sonya felt crushed.
Pleasure and love that once danced electric on her skin became consumptive, choking–
In a deepening constriction, the voiceless Sonya finally let out a scream in agony.
Everything went dark.
Back aboard the assault carrier “Brigand,” Sonya Shalikova darted upright in her bed.
Her undershirt clung close to her heaving chest with patches of cold sweat.
She reached to the wall and struck the contextual button that appeared to dimly light the room.
Lying on the other bunk, Maryam Karahailos stared at her, covered up her neck in blankets.
Her skin and hair were completely white, and her expression was frozen in a vacant smile.
“What are you looking at?” Sonya shouted.
Though her facial expression remained unchanged, Maryam shook gently with fright.
“You were making strange noises that woke me up. Then you started screaming.”
As if expecting further verbal outbursts, Maryam pulled the blanket over her head.
That bundle of blankets continued to shake for a few moments with Maryam’s fear.
“You had a very scary presence.” She said. “I was afraid you were in pain.”
Sonya brought her hands to her face and dropped back into her pillow, squirming.
Fleeting images of some kind of dream emptied out of her head.
She felt unsettled. But she knew it wasn’t Maryam’s fault and she shouldn’t have yelled.
After a few minutes she rebuilt the courage to speak. “Sister Karahailos–”
“Please call me Maryam, Sonya! Oh I hate hearing that cold formality with your voice!”
“So you’re still just awake and staring at me under the blankets?”
At that moment, Sonya was interrupted by flashing red lights going off in her room.
There were no loud alarm sounds– no alarm sounds went off for silent running alarms.
Maryam pulled off her blankets.
“Sonya, is that something important? Oh– your presence is getting scary again.”
“It should be illegal to make me do late shift so much. This is cruel and unusual.”
“Then at home you should have remained, therein bemoaning your pitiable existence.”
“All you did was say the words in a weird order. You’re not as fancy as you think.”
Fatima al-Suhar sighed under her breath.
In the background, the two other late shifters kept themselves entertained complaining at each other near-endlessly. Had she been the sort to gossip or provoke, Fatima would have joked that Alexandra and Fernanda sounded like a married couple. Maybe once upon a time, she would have done so. But she could no longer stand causing inconvenience. She was so thankful to be alive and so sorry to have ever done wrong in her life. So she bit down that troublesome instinct.
Instead she hunkered down and went to work.
Raising her headphones and tucking them into her ear fluff, tail gently swaying as the sounds of the Ocean overtook the cacophony that proceeded apace directly behind her. It was this sound that strengthened her belief in God, even when everything looked bleak. That sound of gentle rushing punctuated by the sharp notes of life beneath the water. Fatima thought of it was the heartbeat of an organism that encompassed all things — for Allah was exalted and seen in all things.
Most people did not understand that the Ocean was always singing with life.
Within the water table, the ocean itself moved, creating currents and underwater waves that made bubbling and rushing sounds. Their ships were designed to move by sucking in water and accelerating it through the structure, so at higher speeds the disturbance of the water as the ship passed could also be heard, and understood, if the operator had a good ear. There was life all around them, even in the aphotic depths at 1000 meters below. Fish swam, crabs scuttled, squid and cuttlefish hid in the benthic depths and rushed out for prey. Sharks and other large fish that dove deep for food could be heard distinctly from the rest.
They rarely ever acknowledged it, but there was so much more in the Ocean than humans.
Fatima loved hearing those sounds. It was soothing. Even with the tension of hearing an enemy ship always looming over her, she could be at peace with the sounds of Ocean life. Most of the time, her job involved her sitting as if alone, isolated even in a room full of people. The youthful, noisy gas gunners below her, the bridge officers around her, and the Captain and Commissar behind and above her, all disappeared, and she only heard the endless call of the deep.
As if she herself was surrounded in the water, adrift in the lightless blue.
When she looked down at her console, she had various diagrams to monitor.
There were three major ones: a square spectrogram display for the hydrophones, a bearing imager with its own graph using the acoustic data, and a digital visual drawn up using the acoustic prediction algorithm.
In her opinion, the predictor was useless, except as something to look at to pass the time.
Most of the time she was staring at the spectrogram, watching the sounds being recorded and keeping an eye and an ear out for anything strange. All of the sounds picked up would appear in her spectrogram as lines, and she was well trained in discerning meaning from those lines. Meanwhile the bearing imager had angle markings and displayed the paths of large objects as lines so that Fatima could tell what direction ships may be coming from. There were bearing imagers installed in various places on the ship, but Fatima was the one tasked with the one on the Bridge, and it was the most fully featured on the ship.
Below the imagers, a text terminal displayed predicted origins as well as spectrum data.
On that night, like any other night, Fatima expected to hear more “biologic” noises than ships.
And the ships she expected to hear were slow, noisy civilian vessels.
They were heading to the Nectaris jet-stream, a major byway for Ocean traffic.
So at first, when she heard a distant, but distinctive sound of a large hydrojet–
She second-guessed herself. Her reflexes were lightning quick, however.
As soon as her brain registered a sound, and the realization shuddered through her whole body, she looked up at the spectrograph, bearing imager, and even at the predictor. She read the data on the terminal, as it was sometimes faster than calculating from the frequencies in the spectrograph. In seconds, Fatima’s little world had gone through several convulsions. Her ears stood straight. Her tail started flicking in the air. Her eyes drew wide as she slowly accepted the truth of what she calculated.
“It can’t be– It just can’t–”
Even as she said this, she stood from her station suddenly.
Beside her was Semyonova’s station. She ran her finger across a touchpad to awaken it.
From the side of the station she pulled up the corded handset.
Red lights started to flash as Fatima raised the alarm.
“Attention! All hands, duty “Semyon”! Repeat, duty “Semyon”!
Semyon was the code phrase for the combat alert.
Fatima’s voice came out from speakers installed throughout the ship.
Fernanda and Alexandra turned sharply around from their stations in disbelief.
All around them the red lights flashed. Doors started to open throughout the ship, bleary eyed people stepping out. There were no klaxons, and she could not say too aloud the words “combat alert,” because the enemy could possibly pick out loud sound from within the Brigand and glean insight into their intentions. Instead, Fatima simply repeated, in a falsely calm voice, “Semyon!”
She could not say out loud that an Irmingard class vessel was tailing at combat speed.
Nor that it had brought company.