The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.2]

A bell rang from the kitchen, and the maids returned.

Soon the table was piled high with delights.

There were several plates on the table itself, and two extensions brought in and attached to the table to hold more plates. Lunch was the largest meal of the day in Imperial culture, but Elena had never seen a lunch quite like this. Bethany smiled proudly while introducing the spread.

Even Gertrude looked mesmerized by the amount and variety of foods available.

At the center of the table there were plates of meat.

First was Elena’s favorite, fatty salmon belly, lightly pan-fried, topped with a drizzle of lemon butter and sliced thinly on the plate. There was also a plate of crispy pork belly cut into cubes and rubbed with cinnamon and dried fruits; as well as a rare ribeye steak served au jus.

Arrayed around the meats were a variety of vegetable dishes.

There was fresh potato salad with vinegar and oil, pickled baby onions with dill, tiny potato dumplings, creamed cabbage in three different colors, and roast beet slices with oil and handpicked herbs. A loaf of freshly sliced black bread rounded out the table, along with three different drinks served in small pitchers on the side of the table: berry milk, hops soda and a noticeably light beer.

Once every dish was set in its proper place, Bethany led the maids in a synchronized bow before their guests, and the group departed, leaving Gertrude and Elena alone with the mountain of food. Gertrude stared at the dishes with eyes so wide, as if she were not sure of her senses.

“This is so far removed from how we eat on the ship. I barely know where to start.”

“Then, let me guide you.”

Elena forked a piece of salmon belly and leaned lightly over the table, reaching her arms across. Gertrude played along and leaned forward, opening her mouth for the princess to feed her.

“How is it?” Elena asked, ever so slightly embarrassed to be playfully feeding her friend.

Gertrude’s cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s incredible. I had no idea fish could be so soft.”

“It’s nice, isn’t it? It almost melts in your mouth doesn’t it? Fatty and sliced thin.”

Elena took a bite of salmon belly herself and felt a thrill. For a moment, she felt a sharp sensation on her lower jaw, as if it were overwhelmed by the oily, rich flavor of the salmon belly. It was the first bite of real food she had in the day, and there was nothing else she would have rather put in her mouth. Bethany and the lasses had outdone themselves with this serving.

Gertrude finally took initiative and speared a juicy slice of steak.

She brought it up to her lips, surprised that it was dripping all the way to her mouth.

“You really start to forget the taste of real meat after a long voyage.” Gertrude said.

Elena tipped her head. “Hmm? Then what is lunch like on the Iron Lady?”

“We have some freeze-dried chicken or thawed beef grounds, usually in stews or in dumplings, but most of our day-to-day meat consumption is sausages. And most of the sausage is half buckwheat, blood and lard, and half ground pork. Steak like this is unfathomable there.”

“I see.”

Eating her salmon belly, from fish caught as fresh as possible in the Empire, dressed in creamy butter and real lemon juice; Elena felt suddenly ashamed when she heard of what a soldier ate in its place. She had never done anything for this country other than to be born to its ruler. Gertrude ate slaw, hardtack and sausages on long voyages through the Imbrium to protect her from possible danger. Every day Elena had proper tea, delicious food, and precious peace and silence. She had greater privileges.

Gertrude, with the open, innocent wonder she exhibited at the food on the table, had been deprived of those things. For her sake– for Elena’s sake– for the sake of the Imperial Princess. She took those lonesome voyages, suffered injuries, ate terrible food that just barely kept her alive. For her sake.

 Elena shook her head.

She had said to herself to focus on the positive.

“You know, someday, when I run this place, I’ll make sure every soldier gets a good steak whenever possible. We can probably dry age them for the long trip, or something like that!”

Elena was relieved when Gertrude beamed happily at her suggestion.

“Fulfill that promise and the men will worship you as a goddess.”

Gertrude reached out for the pitcher of beer and poured herself a tall glass.

She took one sip and seemed to want to laugh as she drank it.

“This is so weak! We have hard liquor on the ships at least. I guess the maids want you to be just a little adventurous. Just a teeny tiny bit.” Gertrude downed almost half the glass she poured in an instant. Elena was left briefly speechless at this very stereotypically soldier-like behavior.

“Have you ever drunk before, actually?” Gertrude asked.

“Why I– Of course I have!” Elena said. She had wine every so often.

“Cheers then. To the Princess’ 25th Birthday!”

Gertrude held aloft her half-empty glass of beer.

Elena quickly poured herself some and gently struck Gertrude’s glass with her own.

She took what she considered an ambitious sip. Gertrude emptied her own glass.

For a light beer, it was still bitter and unpleasant. Elena was unprepared for the flavor.

It went down her throat harder than she had envisioned, and she had a light cough.

Gertrude had a small laugh at her expense. “We should have started with apple cider then!”

Under the circumstances, Elena couldn’t help but laugh at herself a little also.

Being able to play around with Gertrude again was just that much of a blessing.

They sampled a little bit of everything, and then filled their plates with their favorites. Elena staked a claim on the salmon and filled her plate, while Gertrude made herself an exemplary plate with all kinds of vegetables and a modest amount of the pork belly. When she had her food organized, she ate quickly, but in an orderly fashion. Elena liked to savor every bite.

“You should have some vegetables. I wouldn’t want you to die of undernourishment.”

Gertrude picked up a plate of the creamed cabbage and slid a big glob of leaves and sauce onto the side of Elena’s place. The princess gave it a dismal stare and turned the same stare over to her erstwhile protector. Gertrude then picked up a few baby onions and dropped them in as well.

In open disdain of her friend’s selections, Elena reached across the table and speared a single roasted beet from the serving plate with her fork. She brought it back, avoiding her plate, and started to munch on it instead, while the cabbage looked ever sadder in its white sauce.

“I’m eating my vegetables.” Elena grumbled.

“That’s a good girl.” Gertrude said.

“Quit teasing me; as you can see, I keep an exemplary figure. I’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Indeed. I could never overlook it, and I’ve certainly gotten an eyeful of you since I arrived. But you can be the perfect beauty on the outside and have bones full of holes on the inside.”

“Shut up.” Elena responded to the teasing by turning almost as red as beet she was eating.

There was so much food that it was not possible for two young women to eat it all. Elena wondered whether the maids cooked as much as they did, with the knowledge that there would be quite a few of these beautiful plates left for themselves. Whatever their intentions, once Elena and Gertrude slowed down and eventually ceased to pick at their food, Bethany arrived with a proud smile, and ushered in the rest of the maids to take the empty and partially empty plates away.

“We’ll serve a light supper and some sweets later in the afternoon, milady.” She said.

“Enjoy the steaks.” Elena said, staring at her.

“Why I never– at any rate, may I ask what the two of you plan to do now?”

Elena began to admonish the maid. “None of your–”

Gertrude raised her hand amicably. “I’d like to take a look around. I haven’t been around real trees and flowers in so long. Is it alright if I escort the Princess around Vogelheim?”

Her tone resembled that of a boy asking a girl’s parents if they could go out, more than it resembled that of a veteran officer at the highest ranks of the Imperial Security Service.

Bethany reached into the pockets of her apron and withdrew a single, weathered key.

She handed the little key to Gertrude.

“I’ll do you one better. The stables are out back. You can take the horses out for a ride.”

Gertrude was momentarily speechless. Elena watched her with a confused expression.

“Horses?” She finally blurted out. “Real horses? You have real horses here?”

“We sure do! Such a steed befits your knightly stature, milady. Have fun!”

Bethany lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy and took her leave of the two.

Elena shot her a suspicious glare as she left, and then turned back to Gertrude, who was still captivated with the old key and the concept of a terrestrial mammal meant for riding upon.

“Gertrude, are you sure you can ride a horse? You’re still recovering from an injury.”

“Milady, I have never been more ready for anything! Worry not; I’m built quite sturdy.”

Her friend’s smile convinced her; Elena took Gertrude by the hand and led her down from the deck, along a gated-off series of steps down into the gardens. They climbed down into the flowers, careful not to stomp, and then they ran hand in hand past the beds of red and yellow.

Around the side of the villa, past the massive flower garden and hidden behind tall hedges, there was a tiny wooden stable where four horses stood in separate, locked enclosures, with hay and grains, a water basin for each, and a closet for tools used by the maids to keep them clean.

To Elena, the horses were enormous animals, but she understood that as far as horses historically had been these were below average in size. It was tough to grow a full-size horse, even for them.

Gertrude was delighted with them nonetheless. She must have thought they were huge too.

“Elena, they are beautiful! So gallant, so charismatic! Look at their manes! Their muscles!”

“Gross, why are you looking at their weird veiny necks? Just pick one and let’s ride it.”

“Ride it? You want us to ride together?”

Gertrude gave Elena a dumbfounded, almost childish look, pointing at herself.

It reminded Elena of when they used to play together as kids.

For her to see such an expression from a woman fully dressed in military gear was comical.

Elena giggled. “I’m no good at riding. You need to be my knight and escort me.”

Gertrude’s eyes lit up, with understanding and perhaps anticipation.

“Your Knight–? I mean– Yes of course. Of course, milady!”

Gertrude approached the stables, clearly still flustered by the idea but definitely trying harder to seem gentlemanly. She grabbed a head collar that was hung up near the entrance to a horse’s enclosure and grabbed a slightly old carrot from a basket of horse treats propped up near the enclosure. She made friends with her chosen horse quickly, a brown beast with a perfectly trimmed black mane. It accepted the carrot, and happily munched away while Gertrude leashed it.

Gently, she led the horse out of the enclosure, and fitted it with its designated saddle.

All throughout, the horse was perfectly well behaved, and seemed quite friendly.

Elena watched from afar, the practiced care with which Gertrude equipped the animal.

“It should be ready. I think its name is Glanz, judging by the enclosure.”

At the sound of its name, the horse bent its head toward Gertrude and nuzzled her hat.

“Ah! He’s an affectionate guy. Steady Glanz! You’ll be carrying a princess today.”

Elena laughed. She wondered what her subordinates would think, watching Gertrude playing around with horses like a giddy teen at an aristocratic school. Come to think of it, she did not really know what Gertrude’s reputation was as a soldier. She knew what Inquisitors did, which was to keep the peace within the country. But was Gertrude dark, brooding and severe to her men? With her outfit and appearance, she certainly looked like a woman who could be mean to you.

To the princess, however, she had never been anything but her sweet, chivalrous knight.

Gertrude climbed atop the horse, behind the saddle, and reached her hand out to Elena.

“I’ll help you up.”

Elena took her hand and started to climb on the saddle. She found herself feeling strangely comforted as Gertrude helped her up, first with one hand and then with her other arm, pulling her up and onto the saddle, and then nestling behind her. Her grip was strong; Elena settled against Gertrude’s chest, close enough for warmth to transfer between them. It was comforting. Elena almost felt like she could sleep in Gertrude’s bosom. She almost wanted to ask if Gertrude could just swing her arms around her waist and hold her tightly. But horseback was not the place for that.

“Are you comfortable?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s marvelous.” Elena said. “I hope you are feeling well yourself.”

“I’m splendid, milady. But the saddle is a bit ratty. I’m glad you’re not put off by it.”

“Let’s just head out. How about we go to the forest first, and then ride into town?”

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude led the horse into a gentle trot out of the stables and down the side of the hill.

Elena sighed. “I’m not a child! You can speed up!”

“It’s not about you being a child. Inexperienced riders can hurt themselves; you know?”

At Elena’s request, Gertrude loosened her grip on the reins and kicked her legs gently on the sides of the horse. Glanz worked itself up from its polite trot to a quicker, but still manageable gait. Not exactly the wild, blazing gallop that Elena envisioned, but perhaps more practical for their circumstances. Fully off the grounds of the villa, the pair rode over the rolling fields.

“Still doing ok?” Gertrude asked.

Elena looked up and over her shoulder at her.

“I’ll let you know if I’m unwell; just keep quiet and look cool in the meantime, deal?”

She reached behind herself and stroked her knight’s cheek.

Gertrude laughed.

“As you command, milady.”

True to her word, Gertrude rode with her, looking handsome, saying no more.

Just trusting her, and letting the princess experience the moment.

Elena felt slowly overcome with emotion as they rode.

Far overhead, the sun occupied the center of the sky. A cooling breeze blew through the fields, causing the tall grasses and the flowers to sway. Elena felt the wind caressing her cheeks and hair. Felt the sunlight warming her face. She could see it, touch it, feel it. As far as the eyes could see, the beautiful green field, the forest of tall, clustered oak trees near a little brook, the port town and the sea it straddled, and the farms that supplied the villa with fresh produce and meat.

They were nearing the forest. It was maybe a few kilometers away from the villa.

Those few kilometers that the horse easily put behind them, encompassed Elena’s universe.

Everything she knew; so much of her life. All of it was flying past her on horseback.

Vogelheim was her home. It was beautiful and comfortable. She had spent all of the past seven years in Vogelheim and knew from the moment she grew cognizant of the ways of living, that beside school and any official journeys she had to undertake, Vogelheim would be her four walls and ceiling. She was not unhappy about this, not always. There were always things that surprised her. She had never really ridden horses. She had barely gone out into the waters of the town. Elena was a homebody, a reader, a technology enthusiast, and fawned over by nosy maids.

Elena was not naïve. She knew that everything in the landscape around her was fake.

Everything was organic. Those trees grew; the flowers bloomed; the birds were alive.

But this world was only possible as a feat of the Imbrium Empire’s engineering.

She knew that Vogelheim was a pillar of metal and glass situated 1100 meters beneath the Imbrium Ocean. Outside, everything was dark. There was no sun, there was no sky, there was no wind. There were no beautiful grasses. There was nowhere that horses could live and roam. There was no place where humans could exist without the protection of inventions such as this.

Elena knew all of this. In that moment, she chose to immerse herself in this fantasy. She and her promised protector riding through the fields for a blissful, storybook afternoon.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.10]

“They’re in trouble already, huh? Just what have you unleashed on the seas, Nagavanshi?”

“Capitalism’s contradictions are as inevitable as the surface’s corruption, Premier.”

“Don’t quote Mordecai at me! I’ve read the exact same books that you did.”

Premier Bhavani Jayasankar and Commissar-General Parvati Nagavanshi stood in the middle of a cozy lounge that the Premier had taken as her office in Thassal. There was a desk, over which stood the seal of the Union: a plow and a sword, crossed over an agrisphere globe.

On a monitor which had been set into the wall, they reviewed footage captured and returned by a spy probe in the Thassalid plain. The Brigand engaged a Leviathan; and using the Cheka, an experimental suit, they annihilated it completely. While the footage was rough and grainy, the speedy objects and their terrifying, superhuman battle were captured enough for casual reference.

“Well, congratulations. All your scheming really payed off.”

Jayasankar shut off the monitor with the footage playing. She sighed deeply.

“I can scarcely believe how far and how thoroughly I’ve been deceived by you.”

Nagavanshi bowed her head. “I didn’t realize you would take it so personally.”

“Don’t play dumb with me! After all I’ve done for you, and you treat me so terribly all of the time. Ugh; this is going to be so much work, you know? All those ships, food, people; all that is going into war instead of working hard. On a growth year for the Plan too! This is so bad for my reputation.”

 “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t take me that long to set up. As a matter of fact, the previous regime was researching similar capabilities. I finished what they started, ultimately.”

“Really? Ahwalia and all those decaying mummies came up with this?”

“I didn’t say it was going well or rapidly, but it was not entirely my doing.”

“What did they have ready? How much had they worked on this before the coup?”

When Nagavanshi and Jayasankar came together, there was no topic they could not casually discuss; even something as grave as the continuing legacy of of the nation’s founding figures, like ex-Premier Ahwalia. Nagavanshi and then-Justice Minister Jayasankar disagreed with him politically and economically. And they managed to make that disagreement spread to the right people. Ahwali was ultimately made to disappear for Jayasankar’s benefit; the rest was history.

“Before our intervention, they had worked on the hull.” Nagavanshi said. “It was originally going to be a triple-height hauler and icebreaker. They were hoping to be able to open a route to the Cogitum Ocean through the southern ice caps. I can only speculate as to the costs. The hull was actually huge, Bhavani: the Brigand is only half the size of its forebear.”

“So it was part of Op. Red Star.” Jayasankar said. “We were literally starving for this.”

Five years ago, the very two people scheming in this room had unearthed a certain scheme themselves.

“All of this is beside the point, Parvati! You lied! You lied to me! For so long, too!”

Jayasankar pointed her finger at Nagavanshi with a childishly petulant expression.

“I embellished the truth because frankly, it is more effective to work without worrying you about it.” Nagavanshi replied calmly. “Most of the militarizing work on the hull was done in the past 6 months. I started working on this as a military venture because of the border skirmishes. And before you cry any more, I did everything with military resources. I did not divert a single credit worth of Plan resources. So don’t even think about comparing it to Plan Red Star, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to. I don’t want to think about Ahwalia at all. I’m thinking about us.”

Jayasankar sat down behind her desk and laid all the way back that she could on her chair.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Sometimes I wonder if I would just be better off up there.”

Nagavanshi raised her eyebrows, clearly confused by the sudden change in the topic.

“You’d be dead, obviously.”

“You don’t want me to die?” They locked eyes briefly.

Nagavanshi closed and opened her fists, balled up at her sides. She narrowed her eyes.

“If this is a joke you’re making, I’m not amused by it.”

Jayasankar laughed. “Good response! You’ve saved yourself from a purge just then!”

Nagavanshi rolled her eyes. “I am as always grateful for your many mercies, Premier.”

“You’re a demon, you know that? I take care of you, and this is how you repay me.”

“I’m grateful for your attention, but work is work.” Nagavanshi shrugged.

Jayasankar laughed. She felt eerie. All she could do was tease Nagavanshi. She had so much responsibility over so many people and over all of their needs. Clearly, she wouldn’t have ever done what Nagavanshi suggested. Only Nagavanshi had the dark intellect for this sort of thing. The right combination of power, access, ambition and lack of accountability to others.

Deep down, Jayasankar had an ingrained fear of the present circumstances. She hardly wanted to indulge the irony of the situation she had found herself in. After all, Ahwalia had been deposed for the same issues: diverting resources to secret projects at the expense of the people. He and his cohort had their own dreams; they believed they were in the right too. If they had their way, there would have still been a future for the Union. It might have even been a more utopic future than that which Jayasankar promised. There was only one difference between them. Nagavanshi and Jayasankar, fundamentally, would not sacrifice the many for a few.

Despite everything, Jayasankar trusted Nagavanshi to agree with her on that principle.

They would gladly throw a few people into the fire, here and there, to spare the multitude.

Operation Red Star had been frighteningly ambitious. It envisioned a complete reorganization of the Union into an automated society unfettered in technological growth. A second revolution, quietly happening behind closed doors, siphoning food, steel and monies for its ultimate purpose. It was a dream only capable of coming to fruition in the Union, because at that time the Union was nothing if not dreams. It was an overpopulated, under-producing hole in the ground where everyone worked their hardest, and for years, it felt like tragedy after tragedy just set them back.

Until she saw it with her own eyes, Jayasankar could have never realized the evil that nestled still in the hearts of men and women in their precious Union. In five years of being silently freed from this evil, her people were finally thriving a bit. And now, everything was in jeopardy again. She really was helpless. And worse, she could not really tell anyone the full story.

Maybe, sometimes, it was good to be lied to.

Maybe it was even liberating to be lied to.

She couldn’t say such a thing as that to Nagavanshi.

For those reasons; and for others too.

So instead, Jayasankar played the conceited character she knew Nagavanshi wanted to see.

“Tell me this. Would your plan have survived the Emperor being alive right now?”

Nagavanshi, she knew, could take any amount of grief that was launched her way.

“I would have simply use different rhetorical tactics. In the end, it wouldn’t change all the work I had already done to operate within the Empire. There would have been ample opportunity. Buren was already preparing to revolt. I was already preparing to help them. It was inevitable.”

“And it was necessary to lie to me for it to work? For months? I couldn’t have helped?”

“You’ve manipulated me before, so consider it payback. Anyway, If I came to you with no data, no ship, no plan, would you approve of all the work? Or would you say, ‘it’s a Plan Year.’?”

Once more, their gazes met with a conviction that exceeded any casual observation.

Jayasankar smiled so freely in response that it compelled Nagavanshi to smile back a little.

“Fair enough Parvati! You’re right. I concede that point.” Jayasankar said. “But I know this can’t have just been about Buren. I may agree with the plan, but I must unearth its intention.”

“Have you considered that I am doing this to protect you?” Nagavanshi crossed her arms.

“Protecting me? You’re not protecting me! You’re putting me in a vice! We’re at war, it’s supposed to be a growth year; I’ll look terrible for this! When I think about Retainment I–”

Nagavanshi finally laughed. “All of a sudden, you are worried about the vote to Retain?”

“You’ve been going around behind my back, and you ask if I’m worried?” Jayasankar grumbled. “Let me ask you this then, my beautiful, incorruptible guardian angel. With all your conspiracies and your little agents floating out there — are you gunning for the Premiership?”

“What are you saying? Of course not!” Nagavanshi snapped back, clearly flustered.

“Am I supposed to think you’re not after my power?” Jayasankar winked at the Commissar.

“You’re so frustrating! We’re in this together! What do I have to do to show you that?”

Jayasankar loved Nagavanshi’s response. She relished being able to talk to her like this.

She leaned forward on the desk, steepling her fingers and delivering an icy glare.

Nagavanshi leaned back slightly as if she were afraid of being sucked in by the Premier.

“Tell me about your lover in the Empire. Was she any good? Was she better than me? There must be a reason that you did all of this behind my back, after all. And to think, I’ve always been here when you needed comfort. I’m honestly offended you think so cheaply about me!”

Jayasankar finally delivered her bathetic salvo, and Nagavanshi groaned at the contents.

She looked for a moment like she was hitting the limits of her exasperation.

“Sorry to squash your perverted fantasies, but the person I referenced is someone I admire in a way that is not simply sexual. But a transactional cad such as you wouldn’t understand. I can’t believe that you are acting like this, and frankly, I’m offput by your sudden possessiveness.”

Her voice trembled very slightly as she delivered the last line. She realized something.

Jayasankar knew exactly the thing Nagavanshi was thinking about.

The Premier couldn’t help but to feel a thrill at the rising tension.

“Sometimes, Parvati, I really hate your guts.” Jayasankar said, her voice turning sultry.

At this, the Commissar-General seemed animated by a different impulse than before.

Nagavanshi hovered close to Jayasankar’s desk, leaning forward. Closer than they had been in an exceptionally long time. The Commissar’s gentle breath blew right over the Premier’s lips. “It’s because you can hate me that our relationship works so well. So hate me with all your being.”

Her eyes and voice grew eerily intense. Jayasankar felt a thrill rising up in her own chest.

“You’re a real piece of work, Commissar-General.” Jayasankar said, leaning closer as well.

Premier, if you’re so afraid, angry, and upset at me. Then you should punish me for it.”

Suddenly, Jayasankar lifted a hand to Nagavanshi’s cheek and put her thumb right into her mouth, pressing on her tongue. Even Nagavanshi was surprised. She moaned but offered no resistance. “I’ve been wanting to teach you a lesson.” Jayasankar said. She pulled Parvati closer.

In an instant, she was on top of her. This, too, was all part of their understanding.

Even in the darkest times they at least had this form of catharsis — and companionship.


The Great Ayre Reach on the Northern Imbrium Ocean was a colder, shallower slice of water than most of the Imperial forces were used to living in. Operating in the photic zone, they could see bright blue water and in places, at times, even the light of Solceanos playing upon the ceiling of their ambitions: the surface of the ocean, and the forbidden world that was past the water.

A trio of engineering frigates was hard at work cementing Imperial control of Ayre.

Two of them laid down a massive laser relay tower.

A third laid down cable connecting the tower to its counterpart closer to Palatine.

When the tower activated, the Grand Fleet renewed its connection to the network that joined much of the rest of the Empire, allowing them to send and receive much higher bandwidth communications than before. It was this feat that allowed Erich von Fueller to finally speak to his subordinates after many long days of campaign away from home against the Republic.

Erich von Fueller stood alone on the bridge of the Irmingard, mother ship to an entire class of new dreadnoughts. He had cleared the bridge, and all of his officers dutifully left him, without a single remark. All of them saluted him, paid him respect as Grand Admiral of the Fleet, and went on their way. He had ceased to accept the title of “Prince” to refer to himself. In his mind there was no longer any Empire, for what had held the semblance of Empire they once believed in was the shadow of his father’s exploits. He was dead, and so was the Empire. There was only territory, and the bickering landlords scheming to improve their own holdings.

“It was always going to be this way.”

When Konstantin von Fueller slaughtered Emperor Nocht II, he called out to all those who had stood on the sidelines of his war: “You are free to challenge me, as I challenged him!” At that moment, not a soul dared to step forward and fight him. But that idea had lingered in the currents.

His father had demonstrated that the Emperor was not all-powerful. He could be usurped.

Now, the man who seeded this idea had passed on, choking on his own blood and bile.

It would not be long before the disparate states of the Empire turned on each other.

“In his absence, everyone will challenge me. Like him, I now welcome it.”

He would not build an Empire over the rubble. He had other ideas.

An encrypted laser communication connected Erich to a subordinate on the video screen.

A seemingly youthful woman, her glasses reflecting the light of the video screen.

She was in a dark place, but all manner of terrifying things could be inferred from the shadows in the background. Tubes containing mutilated things; machines of unknown description. Amid all of this, a woman, her hair in a long, functional ponytail, dressed in a bodysuit and coat.

“Grand Admiral, congratulations on a successful campaign.” She said in a sweet voice.

“It’s no accomplishment. The Empire and Republic trade this piece of the Imbrium often. Doubtless they will take it back when I’ve ceased to pay attention to it.” Erich said in response.

His tone was untroubled, sober. He was calm. His mind was truly clear.

“If I might be so bold as to say, your humility is your most charming quality.”

Erich felt almost annoyed. “And your worst quality is all the false flattery.”

Mocking him, the woman made a face as though she had been struck and rendered docile.

“Well. It was you who demanded to speak to me. How may I serve you then, Herr Fuhrer?”

Her lips turned back into a grin as soon as the phrase left her mouth.

“I will soon return to Palatine, and from there I will cross into Bosporus. I will be expecting the timely delivery of your tributes. Will the Jagdkaiser be ready? Will the rest of your promises?”

“Everything will be ready, my lord. As certain as the sun rising.”

“This may surprise you, but I do not care where the sun goes or doesn’t. Therefore you would do well to understand that my tolerance toward you will end if my demands go unmet.”

Erich’s voice remained clear and confident, but his counterpart was unmoved.

“I understand. But taking a long view, all my predecessors died violently, yet the Sunlight Foundation remains. I can surpass this one body; I know one day, a form of me will see the Sun.”

She waved at him.

“But I will uphold my end, Fuhrer. May you one day bask in the light of the Sun.”

With the Foundation’s common parting words, the laser connection cut off.

Erich was suspicious, but he could do nothing but trust her, despite everything.

He allowed himself the briefest sigh. No one was watching him.

Soon he would have the power to never rely on snakes like her again.

He would continue with the plan. Lead a small fleet to Palatine, Bosporus, Volgia. Augment his power along the way with the innovations from his disdained vassals. Make a show of force. Soon, the Sunlight Foundation, the Inquisition, the Church of Solceanos: none would matter. All of them would fall. The world would be transformed. And he would be its Fuhrer.

At his bidding, a second connection traveled out of the Irmingard and made its way through the relays back to Palatine. His call was answered by a communications officer in Vogelheim, a young woman in servant’s outfit, rather than a military uniform. An apron and frilly cap; but the large headset for communications was clearly visible too. She bowed gently when she saw him.

“Tell Lieutenant Patroscu to make sure my sister’s birthday guests find their way easily.”

On the other end, the maid bowed her head once more in acknowledgment.

Erich cut off the feed. He had no emotion about what had transpired, or what would.

“Mind if I come in, milord?”

A sweet, soft voice came from the door to the bridge.

“You’re always welcome in, Carthus.” Erich said. “I was about to declare a 4-hour rest.”

Erich turned fully around from the console to meet the angelic young man coming in. Behind him the bridge door locked, with an access only the two of them possessed. The Prince looked over his guest, with his long, bright blond hair done up, and his green eyes open and inviting. The Prince was captivated with him, even when he wore just the simple blue Grand Fleet uniform. The young men stood before the throne replica on the bridge, and Carthus von Skarsgaard strongly embraced the Prince who stood like a pillar before him, offering no reciprocation but a small smile. None was needed, as the pair understood the character of the other perfectly.

“Since you’re declaring a rest, would I be able to sing for you today?”

“I would love that. I haven’t had a moment’s peace in ages.”

“I knew it. You haven’t rested at all since we left Palatine.”

Carthus got behind the taller Erich and reached over his cape to squeeze his shoulders.

Erich laughed. “Stop it, that’s not what I need from you. Perhaps soon.”

“Whatever you wish.”

He continued to hold on to Erich from behind, sinking his soft face into the Prince’s back.

“May I confess to something grave, milord?”

“Anything. You can say anything you want to me. You know this.”

“Erich, I do not wish to rule over Skarsgaard when all of this is over.”

Carthus sighed deeply. As a nobleman, that was an answer to a question that Erich’s actions had implicitly posed to him and challenged him with. It was an answer that meant dishonorable failure for any of the Empire’s top families. It was an affront to his ancestors, and an abdication of a holy duty that Emperor Nocht had given his family hundreds of generations ago.

But Emperor Nocht was dead. Emperor von Fueller was dead. And there were no Gods in heaven nor holy duties left on Earth. For the first time in weeks, Erich felt truly, transcendentally happy. He reached to his flank and took Carthus’ hand in his own. Carthus couldn’t see his face, but Erich was smiling. He was smiling so broadly and openly that he could almost cry.

“Thank you, Carthus. In the future I will create, neither Skarsgaard nor Fueller will weigh us down anymore. You will be something far greater than an Imperial Duke. I promise you.”

Without looking at the other’s eyes, the two men sealed their pact through those held hands.


In a dim, humid room in an undisclosed part of Imbria, the Sovereign of the Sunlight Foundation was both delighted and bothered by her conversation with the future Fuhrer of the Imperium. In the vastness of her thought, she found his behavior amusing. A tin-pot dictator like all of the rest who had come before him. He thought himself the most novel, of course.

The Sovereign had seen plenty of men just like him.

What bothered her then, more than anything, was that unlike with those men, whom she could safely ignore, she had to cooperate with Erich Fueller. This time, she could not simply stand idle and watch the irrelevant political histories of Imbria continue to turn. For the good of not just Imbria, but all of Aer, it was necessary — necessary ­— for the Empire to retain its unity and power. Though she abhorred the unproductive game of politics, she would have to play it, to save science and the future.

Behind her, there was the sound of a sliding door.

“I am leaving for the Northern Imbrium. I want to render a complaint.”

The Sovereign turned around to greet her guest. She found a familiar young woman, also shrouded in the dim, wet shadows of the laboratory. She was eyeing the test subjects with open disdain. The Sovereign’s present fixation was with exotic leviathans, and there were a great many, fetal and adult, large and small, complete or in pieces, in tubes and machines around her.

“Are you taking Tigris with you?” asked the Sovereign.

“Yes I am. We make a good team. About my complaint–”

“Go on. Actionable feedback is the lifeblood of any management structure.”

At this, her subordinate groaned openly at her. “Quit being coy. I sat on your inbound communication with Erich von Fueller. Supplying him with intelligence is bad enough. I cannot in good conscience see us supplying him with weapons too. What are you doing, Yangtze?”

Yangtze spread her lips in a wide, beaming smile.

Her subordinate narrowed her eyes in return.

“Euphrates, what I’m giving him is paltry compared to the scope of our power. It’s just an insurance policy to maintain the status quo in a chaotic time. I share your distaste for politics. Sometimes the only way to remain neutral, is to create the conditions for neutrality. We need to hedge our bets on an outcome to this war, if we’re not going to outright interfere.”

“I disagree; and I’ll stop at disagreeing. But you must reform your ideas.”

“Ooh, scary. Am I being threatened right now, I wonder?”

Euphrates made an irritated noise. She crossed her arms. “You are our Sovereign, and we want to trust your decisions, Yangtze. That has become harder for all of us to do lately. Rethink things; please.”

She turned around to leave, having had the last word. But the Sovereign called to her again.

“Euphrates, if you’re going to the Northern Imbrium, I’d like you to do something for me.”

“I’m not your errand-girl. You can get one of your Imperial flunkies to do it for you.”

“You’re so cold to me now! We used to be friends; you know?”

Sovereign Yangtze put on an aggrieved face, hugging herself as if shivering with pain.

Across the room, Euphrates was unmoved. She did not even turn around to see her talking.

“You and I have been peers. Don’t misunderstand. I put the Foundation first.”

“You and Tigris have been quite independent of late.” The Sovereign said.

Her tone of voice had changed, and Euphrates clearly noticed.

“We uphold the duties that others are neglecting. Is that all it takes to lose your trust?”

“Trust has to go both ways. Do something simple for me, and I’ll consider your advice as coming from a peer and not, say, a saboteur, or a usurper. How do you respond to that, friend?”

Yangtze said this casually, but she knew the barb had bitten under Euphrates’ stone skin.

Euphrates turned fully around, and coolly ran her hands back over her short, wavy hair.

“Yangtze– Sovereign. I take umbrage at having my loyalty tested again after everything I’ve done for you. I’ll acquiesce, but only to show my commitment to keeping the peace. What do you want?”

“Thank you for being so considerate.” Yangtze raised her hand toward one of the monitors hovering behind her. She thought about what she wanted it to show, and the monitor responded, and showed Euphrates a station in what was now called the Palatinate or Palatine, in North Imbria. “I want you to leak the location of this place to a Republic spy in North Imbria. She’ll do the rest.”

“I think I know who you mean. I’m not going to contact her directly, however.”

“Whatever you think will be most effective.”

“I see. Should I also leak the contents of Vogelheim to her? She’ll be interested to hear it.”

“You’ve done your homework!” Yangtze clapped her hands. “Indeed, it’s part and parcel. I trust your judgment and your intellect. Craft a suitable scenario to lead that woman to Vogelheim.”

“I’ll take care of it. Though I don’t relish continuing to participate in your political games.” Euphrates said. “But I’m glad you’re at least playing multiple sides. Ultimately my fear was that you had become obsessed with a fascist Imbrium. My criticism is not rescinded, but I feel better.”

“I’d never expect you to shut up about something so easily, don’t worry.”

Yangtze turned her back on Euphrates and made a gesture with her hands for her to leave.

“Acknowledged, Sovereign.”

Euphrates again turned, and this time departed the room through the sliding bulkhead.

Yangtze cracked up in a smile, laughing a bit at the situation.

“They’ve all become so ignorant. The world truly rests on my shoulders.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.9]

“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.

“Fair enough.”

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.

“Hey Captain!”

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–”

“–Wow, rude,”

“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.”

“ERS, huh?”

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.”

“I understand.”

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.”

“Sure.”

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.


Previous ~ Next

Storm The Castle (68.1)

This chapter contains graphic violence and death.


48th of the Lilac’s Bloom, 2031 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Solstice — South Wall Defensive Line

Around the city of Solstice the Red Desert rolled into hills and valleys. It rose, and it fell, and patterns formed on its surface like ocean waves captured solid, an endless sea of windswept rust-colored dust parched by a brutal heat. Stones set on the ground in ancient times traced paths through the desert to the oasis that is Solstice, but these paths came and went with the winds, and with the shape and stature of the surrounding dunes.

Since the beginning of the war, the unkempt paths had all but disappeared into sand.

One of those vanished roads once led to the southern wall of Solstice, said to be the only one “touching ground.” On the famous eastern road the massive stone bridge of the Conqueror’s Way parted Solstice from the rest of the land, the Qural river flowing from the north and down underneath the massive fortification; to the west, sheer cliffs, wide pits and broad gorges, which had been filled with water artificially, blocked the city access.

And so, it was along the fated south, that the first grey shirts and the first black jackboots, climbed the sandy hills to stare face to face, for the first time, at the vast walls of the city.

Upon spying the wall for the first time, the men, already enervated by the stinging, relentless heat, grew quieter, and their muscles tensed, their whole bodies frozen still. Eyes drew wide at the distant sight of the ancient stone wall, dozens of meters tall. It was tall enough to keep the giants of nochtish legend out of the socialist’s streets. It was like staring at a cliff from far off, an obstacle one knew to be in one’s own future; it was the polished, brown stone face of a mountain that set itself on an adventurer’s weary trail.

Those who trudged up the hill without hope, simply collapsed at the peak, dead in spirit if not already dead. They had come for little reason or no reason at all, and nothing could drive them further. Months of campaigning in the desert had all but killed them, in spirit if not flesh. Those who had come to fight, loaded their weapons. Masses of men, broken up by tanks, backed up by the small, quick cars upon which their offices rode on, crested the hill, and assembled atop the sand. There were no horses. All of the horses were dead.

Some men were allowed to ride on the backs of the light tanks driving up to the wall. Many were old model light “Ranger” tanks, worn and pitted with bullets and discolored in places where old worn-out plate had been replaced with new armor. Even the most veteran of these tanks was obsolete now. It was a motley assemblage. On these tanks, men could ride atop the enclosed turret and in the back, over the engine, if they could stand the heat.

Many among the fighting men griped about the lack of sturdy, powerful M4 tanks in this crucial juncture. They suspected shortages, but did not suspect the nature of their mission.

Their true purpose was cleverly concealed by a few pieces of less expendable technology.

Among the old warhorses there were scattered signs of Nocht’s ruthless wartime evolution, enough to improve the general morale and to make the charge seem a little less doomed. These new tanks, moving at a faster clip, and with open-topped turrets boasting powerful 76mm guns inspired by the new Ayvartan tanks, were new model M3A3 R-K Hunter light tank destroyers, replacing the old, flawed Hunter artillery tanks.

Those men who got to ride on the “Rick Hunters” got a breezy journey to the starting line.

Trucks pulled artillery into place, engineers dug earthworks for the camps. Crucial water was stockpiled air-tight and under tarps. A village of tents rose to support the battle.

However, everyone’s eyes were taken by the gallantry of the front line.

Atop the hill, Nocht’s combat power arranged itself into neat, preplanned ranks.

Slowest first, fastest last, and in staggered waves down to the platoon level.

Back at the camps, numerous tents housed radio control teams, staffed by young women as had become customary, who worked the wireless boxes, set up antennae, and delivered orders from nearly endless slate of officers down the chain of command. Firing off hundreds of calls, the radio girls kept everyone on time, in place and organized, and kept their commanders appraised of the situation moment to moment. Everyone spoke in prepared codes on the radio, but officers in the tents allowed themselves to be candid.

“Bring forward the C-10 teams! We’re breaching that fucking wall!”

Thousands of men, hundreds of vehicles, assembled across a several-kilometer swath of desert, and faced the wall. Within fifteen minutes, not even enough time for the vast, long, multi-headed shadow they cast upon the sand to shift a degree, the command was shouted, and there was a convulsion along the body of this great beast, and it shrugged.

The 365th Infantry Division along with elements of the 25th Panzer Division would be the historic vanguard, the honored heroes who would initiate the 1st Wall Attack Operation.

First into the fray was the 3rd Battalion of the 365th’s 18th Regiment. One thousand men almost to the head broke off from the body of the Division and began to move across the ten kilometers of flat distance between the crowded divisional area and Solstice. It was a charge of the modern day, not a sprint of a hundred meters from speartip to speartip, but a tactical march against a fortification on a strict timetable. Some men ran as if they could cross the desert flats and fight within the minute, and those men fell ten minutes later.

Those marching steady kept weary eyes forward, on the walls that came closer and closer.

Across the desert the cry resounded, unchallenged by the silent stone: Vorwarts!

Accompanying the cry and the charge were the sound of loud, intermittent blasts behind them. It was not enough to startle anyone; they all knew the plan. They had to. Over the heads of the men, artillery guns fired heavy shells that crossed the distance to the city in moments, and they struck the stone walls like iron fists. These were the first blows of the war directly at the walls of Solstice. Chunks of stone went flying, and smoke and dust blew up in front of the wall and obscured the obstacle. Each shot sent a triumphant thrill through the mass. The 3rd Battalion picked up the pace. Within the hour they had cut the distance to half. Several tanks caught up quickly, and the Pionier engineering teams and their explosives started to make ready. In an hour more they would be in the city!

Maybe in two or three, the war might be over! They could go home, triumphant!

Owing to the wind and the dust, and the contribution of their own artillery fire to both, a yellow curtain fell over the march. There was a foul wind picking up that was scattering sand into the atmosphere, an effect known to the locals as the “khamsin.” Within an atmosphere the color of parchment that howled and stung, the 3rd Battalion did not see the shells flying over their own head. They did not see the flashes atop the wall, nor the casings falling from on high. And when the blasts fell at their backs, those ahead believed it to be their own guns, and did not see the carnage that was creeping slowly back to front.

When the dusts ahead began to settle, and their own artillery quieted, and the wall again came to view, the 3rd Battalion saw minimal damage inflicted on the stone. They paled as they saw something glinting in the scorching sunlight: reinforced plates behind a false layer of stone. All of that howitzer fire had done nothing; Solstice was still untouched.

And then there was another flash, and another, these were no trick of the desert light.

Guns started flashing from several openings on the stone. With the dust clear and the distance cut, it was possible to see a hint of gun barrels protruding over the top wall, belonging to heavy rampart guns. These impressive weapons launched massive 100+ millimeter shells along the length of the column, with one or two startling shots a minute.

The carnage they wrought distracted the men from the guns in the wall itself.

There was an instant of silence. The advancing infantry seemed not to realize their fate.

Amid the khamsin a hail of gunfire met the 3rd Battalion. At first soundless in the wind, their red tracers masked by the haze, the machine gun fire was an invisible reaper that swept across platoons and companies and put to the ground dozens of men. They fell like they had fallen all along the trek through the desert, suddenly and mysteriously, as if the heat had finally dried out the last drop of their souls. They fell as they had fallen before and so they fell forgotten, and the 3rd Battalion marched on as it had learned to.

Hidden within the soundless stone, inside the face and the columned corners and interred at the base of the wall, were machine guns, anti-tank cannons, mortar emplacements.

When mortars and gun shells began to land, blasting skyward pillars of earth and gore, and the buzzing machine gun fire started to build enough to chop men to pieces as they stood, the urgency of the situation became horrifically apparent. It was then that the bullets became visible, and that death became less abstract. The disciplined mass of the 3rd Battalion split and scattered and charged the wall in haphazard patterns, and all across the carpet of flesh blossomed horrific circles of death where howitzer shells exploded.

There was still some semblance of a plan. Guide the C-10 to the wall. The C-10, the 10th of the Wall-Breaking Potentials. Those men who ran with hope ran with that hope in hand.

Around the teams of C-10 carrying engineers, the attacking troops rallied, and so the battalion coalesced into three distinct masses with gaggles of stray soldiers between.

There was no louder sound in the desert than the Ayvartan guns. Even the panic in the invader’s heads was quieter. Shells fell savagely around the advancing infantry. A near-miss would detonate in a hail of cruel metal fragments; if the concussive blast of a nearby explosion did not take an arm or a leg, a cloud of jagged metal knives would. Any group so unlucky as to have a shell land on them disappeared, a red mist and a red splash atop the ruddy-brown sand. It was as if the men were bubbles being popped by falling needles.

Hundreds died immediately, and hundreds more followed, as the shells and the machine gun fire and the guns swept forward and back, forward and back, leaving a trail to the wall.

Tanks, lagging behind the advance, were picked off by the large-caliber guns atop the walls. There were several M3s and few M4s, and none could withstand the concentrated fire of the wall guns. They moved implacably, an iron wall buckling at its supports, some tanks trying to swerve and zig-zag, others praying as their front armor took stray shots.

It was too much. Single shots to the front plate outright destroyed the light tanks, and even the brand new M3s would falter, their open tops exposing their crews to shrapnel and flame. M4 tanks shot in the cheek, would diffuse the blast across their hulls and rattle mad every man inside it. Whether or not the armor survived, the machinery inside was doomed, shaken to pieces. Many tanks were abandoned, serving no function but cover. The Ayvartan fire was accurate and ferocious, and when the line of tanks stalled, it joined the other human detritus of the operation, a vast graveyard soiling the southern desert.

But while the battle raged on, the landscape was shifting.

Wind and war moved the sand and the earth, creating craters, mounds, features otherwise missing in the flat terrain between the Division and Solstice. While their heavy machinery and thick formations crumbled, individual men clung to life within the storm like dogs hurled into ocean water. Within one or two kilometers, a step away from their destination, the men of the 3rd Battalion could huddle in holes and against the shadowed parts of their ephemeral sandy hills and found a measure of safety. Machine gun fire was sailing above them, and shells striking safely behind them. They now had a foothold.

“This is Storm-Two!”

At the head of the bloody march, a captain from a C-10 team picked up a radio.

“Repeat, this is Storm-Two! We’ve made it to the shadow of the wall!”

“Acknowledged, Storm-Two,” replied a dispassionate female voice. She was speaking in code, but the Captain knew her words immediately, having memorized the ciphers, and so in his mind he heard her speaking crisp Nochtish. “1st and 2nd Battalion will move forward soon to reinforce the approach. Ready to deploy the C-10 against the wall.”

“Division, I don’t think we can advance in this condition. We’ve lost almost everything up here.” the Captain grimly said, huddled behind a boulder unearthed by a fortunate wind. Around him were maybe a dozen engineers and riflemen, and the big packs of C-10 bombs.

“Losses are within acceptable parameters,” corrected the voice, “continue the attack.”

The Captain knew that as that radio went dead, another dozen of his men went dead too.

Still, he turned to them, and he raised his hand and waved to the wall with conviction.

“Huddle around the engineers! We’re taking that C-10 to the fucking wall!” He shouted.

There were stares of disbelief, even as the men’s bodies slowly went to work.

Back in the rear, the 1st and 2nd Battalions started to retrace the steps of the 3rd. Little had changed for them. In this battlefield even the veterans among them knew nothing. Without having seen the fire falling first-hand, without the intimate yet split-second knowledge of the good shell-holes, the blind spots, the good cover, these men were butchered the same as before. It was only Ayvartan reloading and refitting, which became more frequent as ammo cycled and barrels overheated, that allowed many to escape.

Those at the front threw themselves at the wall. Escorting the C-10 explosive teams, stray platoons and even impromptu squadrons of survivors organized, shouted their last words, and charged with rifles up. Machine guns on the base of the wall opened fire, cutting dozens of them down in plain sight. For the last 1 kilometer dash of the fight, there was little cover, little sand, no boulders, no shell-holes. Just dry, packed dirt, a wall and death.

“Run! Run! Run!”

Storm-Two was reduced to near-incoherence the slobber from his visceral screams evaporating in the heat and the scorching wind of the khamsin. Ahead of him he saw the bullets, the screeching red tracers flying by him like fiery arrows, and each one could have been for him and each one wasn’t. At his side one of his men took a bullet in the eye and collapsed. Another’s helmet flew off his head from a dozen shots, and the thirteenth blew his nose apart. Storm-Two could barely register what was happening. He ran, and he ran, clutching the explosive pack, charging into the curtain of bullets, and not one hit him.

With a final, guttural cry he stamped the pack against the stone of the wall, maneuvering himself so that he stood between two obvious firing ports built into the stone and hidden by the sand. He slammed the C-10 pack against the wall, and he reached inside of it.

There was a mechanism, wires, string, a tiny snap lever, attached to thick, gray blocks.

His entire body shook and rattled as hundreds of thousands of bullets flew out from the wall. He thought he could feel every instant of recoil, every muzzle burst, every click of the trigger, through the cold stone of the southern wall. He kept the pack up, fumbled with the mechanism. He wasn’t even thinking that if it exploded, it would take him.

He was at the wall. Nobody knew. Nobody was alive to know. But he was there.

He took the C-10 home, and he was going to blow a hole in the fucking wall.

Storm-Two linked the wires, waited for the tell-tale sign of an electric charge.

Around him the gunfire intensified. Overhead the wall cannons fired, and he felt the massive energy of several heavy guns transferring down the wall, shaking up his guts. He thought he would throw up. He shuttered his eyes. Had he heard the fizzing noise?

He looked at the C-10 pack, and he saw no smoke, no sparks.

Had he missed it? Storm-Two was too deep to back off.

At least he would die a hero. He would destroy the wall. He would win the war.

He held the pack against the stone and put his head head to it.

In a few minutes, certainly–

Nothing.

Far behind him several artillery shells exploded, wiping out more men and machines.

He looked desperately inside the pack for signs that it was armed, that it would blow.

He prayed for death, and he could not have it. His C-10 remained unexploded.

It was a dud. He had a dud bomb.

Storm-Two dropped the pack, collapsed onto his knees.

In front of him, a stone slid on the wall.

For a brief instant, Storm-Two saw a face in the wall.

Clean, soft, with large eyes and little expression. Long hair, lovely lips, dark brown skin.

He was regarded, quizzically at first, by the Ayvartan behind the defenses.

Storm-Two looked up in futility.

He put his fist to his chest, and then he raised his arm to sign the eagle’s wing.

He died patriotically as the Ayvartan behind the stones shot him in the face with her rifle.

She closed the stone, locked the armored hatch behind it, and returned to her post.


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The Calm Before (43.1)


48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night

Tambwe Dominance — Rangda City, Ocean Road

Colored streaks and bursts filled the night sky with fleeting color.

Amid the sky several payloads blew apart with a sharp crack and a dazzling display.

Hurtling heavenswards from racks set up around the city, propelled by fizzing, crackling trails, the pyrotechnics munitions exploded into grand displays of fire and light that remained in the air for several seconds before dissipating into smoke and dust.

Patterns burst into being far above the crowds, and special rockets continued to pop again and again in colorful chains of sub-munitions. To the black and blue the whimsical blasts added bright blooming flowers of green, red and yellow, spiraling orange lines, and purple concentric detonations. This sustained barrage indicated the start of the festivities.

To the civilians it was a beautiful and captivating technical display.

For some onlookers however, it was eerily reminiscent of a coming death.

Beneath the flashing skies on Ocean Road, Parinita and Madiha clung together in fear, bowing their heads and closing their eyes as they felt the air and sky growing livid with lights and smoke and a deathly cacophony. They huddled near a lamp post then dashed into an alley for safety. Madiha’s mind hyperfocused on the sounds, the whistling, the crack of the shell as it burst. As if in a war zone, the pair took cover behind a phone booth.

In their minds those pyrotechnics were hurtling earthward to kill.

Madiha envisioned for a brief second the middle of the road going up in flames.

She averted her eyes from a bright orange flash.

Parinita, gasping for breath, looked out onto the road.

There was recognition in her eyes.

“Madiha, I think–”

Around them the cheerful crowds walking down the open road and across the dimly-lit streets started to clap and whistle and celebrate the fireworks displays.

Madiha raised her head. She met Parinita’s sympathetic eyes.

“I think it’s over,” Parinita whispered, “they’re…they’re just fireworks displays.”

She was unnerved too — Madiha could see it in her face and voice.

“My heart skipped a few beats there.” Parinita said.

“Mine almost stopped. I expected a real barrage.” Madiha replied.

Her skin continued to shiver with every blast she heard, but she tried to keep her reflexes under control. Despite this she and Parinita still winced whenever the sky flashed. It did not seem to bother the festival-goers marching down Ocean Road; on the contrary, it delighted them. They had never heard a comparable whistling and blasting. To them, it was exclusively associated with the joy and levity of an exciting fireworks display on a cool evening.

Madiha tried to get the roaring of artillery guns out of her head.

She had a long night ahead and did not want any of it spoiled.

Everything but the fireworks was splendid. Gracing the festival evening were clear skies, fresh, sweet-smelling air, and a vast, vivacious display of humanity before them.

Arm in arm with Parinita, Madiha traveled down Ocean Road, looking over the colorful storefronts, the grand floats and the street decor. All of the preparation had paid off, and Ocean Road was dressed in her best attire, same as everyone walking over it. Hand-sewn banners stretched over the streets, and a variety of signs and posters and drapes were fitted to trees and buildings and posts to draw the attention of the many passersby.

Civilian and business automotive traffic was temporarily halted for the festival. In the middle of the road there was instead a fleet of slowly moving vehicle floats, heavily decorated, that served as rolling stages for singers, dancers, firebreathers and magicians, or other acts. Some also carried religious displays for local, regional and common deities.

All of them were built on old M.A.W trucks, heavily modified to support their purpose. Firebreathers had racks for their rings, magicians had their curtains and mirrors and smoke, dancers and singers had audio equipment built-in. On the religious floats there hung vast bouquets of symbolic flowers, and canopies over the truck beds protected statues of the deities that looked on at worshipers following in their wake, signing and dancing.

Every vehicle was meticulously engineered, and the makeshift parade was stunning.

On either side of the road there were long lines of kiosks and open storefronts taking over the streets with goods and games and (approved, appropriate) forms of gambling, and all manner of food and drink. It was the latter that seemed to draw the most attention. Most curiously, exotic fruits and nuts and other produce from across the continent were on sale, or sometimes simply on offer by local farm unions as a way to attract potential new members to collective farms. While they tasted, the kiosk manager lectured.

For those who wanted a little less socialism in their food, there were traditional street foods on sale for a few shells each, items like pav, potato fritters, and valleyappam, fermented coconut and rice pancakes for dipping in a cup of soup. For the sweet tooth, halva, a semolina dessert, and kulfi, a type of ice cream, were available by the scoop or in big cups.

Other storefronts attracted crowds by hosting games. People watched professional chess and mankala games from known regional players, participated in skill tests like knife throwing and fish catching and shooting galleries, and competed in simple games for prizes. Most clubs and stores had some kind of attraction to catch the crowd’s eye.

Around all of these sites the streets were packed with people.

Some crowds grew so thick one had to navigate around them, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Wherever Madiha turned she saw cheer and levity, whether spying on lone attendants, big groups of friends or small intimate couples. Everyone who was not attired in a fresh uniform was dressed formally, in colorful drapes and robes and skirts, in sharp modern suits and tight form-fitting dresses or in dazzling traditional coats.

There was an infectious energy in the air. Even Madiha, who was prone to be gloomy, felt the life sparking all around her, and kept her lips turned up in a small smile as she escorted her date to the humble Ocean Theater for a special show for the festival night.

“Had I known it would be this amazing just outside, I would not have sprung for those tickets.” Parinita said, giggling at the spectacle unfolding all around her.

Madiha smiled. “It’s lovely, but I’m still keen for some quiet time together.”

Parinita covered her mouth to stifle a charmed little laugh, her face reddening.

Ocean Theater was like a regal elder, tall and broad, a rectangular building of bleached and pitted cement with a complicated facade, perhaps a leftover from the city’s earlier incarnations. There was a small plaza in front of it, that made it stand out more from the two stucco and masonry buildings between which it was wedged. There was a small crowd gathering at the foot of the steps into the theater. All of them were dressed for an event. Madiha and Parinita looked quite at home among the crisp attire of the trendy socialites.

For once, Madiha was very satisfied with her appearance. She thought she looked quite handsome, a tall, slick, modern woman, perhaps a bit roguish, in the way she recalled Daksha being like in the past. Daksha’s suit did not fit altogether perfectly, but the slightly short coat sleeves and the somewhat tight dress pants and shirt buttons seemed to lay over Madiha’s skin in a way Parinita found pleasing. She told Madiha that it had a casual, lived-in, natural sort of look that was very dashing. Madiha was unfamiliar with fashions, and so did everything to please her date. Atop her head lay Daksha’s old fedora, the only perfect fit. Apart from her shoulders, most of her slim, toned physique did not quite shine through the suit, but that was fine with her. She looked slender and sleek in form.

She had made many preparations for the date. She had showered twice, scrubbing every slender curve of her brown body, and combed her shoulder-length dark hair while wet. It would need a trim back to its usual neck-length bob soon, but for now, it looked just enough between orderly and messy and between long and short, to fit the rest of her look.

After all the trouble she went through, she wondered now how her date made comeliness seem so effortless. Parinita was absolutely gorgeous. Had she been projected on the screen all evening instead of a film, Madiha would have cherished every second of film.

Her hair was wavy and bouncy and long, and its off-orange, off-pink strawberry color was as attractive as ever. Over the bridge of her delicate nose there was a stripe of yellow pigment, while her eyes were painted a light flushing red and her lips a soft pink. She had a lovely shape. Though all of them had come out of Bada Aso a little bonier than before, Parinita managed to retain much of her pleasant figure, and any new slenderness was well worn.

Her attire was exquisite too. A filmy, blaring red and gold drape fell over a form-fitting light purple dress that accentuated her body, with one bare shoulder and arm exposing soft, light bronze skin. She wore traditional cloth shoes and long, diaphanous leggings that peered through the slit on the right side of her long skirt. Around her slender neck there was a necklace of wooden beads, tied over itself again and again. Her look was a mix of traditional and modern that fit her stunningly well. Madiha was blessed to be with her.

Hand in hand, they were quite the eyecatching couple even among this crowd.

Standing behind the pack, the pair waited with the others for the theater to open, and then slowly ascended the stairs as the gate keepers beckoned the guests into the theater. Over a red carpet and into an archway door the couple calmly trod, pausing in front of a gold rope hung before the entryway to bar access. They were stopped by a gatekeeper in a traditional sherwani coat, purple with gold strips framing the buttons and tracing the length of the sleeves, who checked their ticket and smiled at them, tearing off half of it for them.

“Enjoy the picture. You’re in room two on the third floor.” He said.

Madiha and Parinita smiled and nodded their heads in response. Then the gatekeeper undid the golden rope and allowed them entry, setting it back in its place behind them.

From the door the couple entered a spacious and comforting lobby. Beyond a pair of red curtains on the far end of the room was the main theater space on the ground floor, reserved for plays, concerts and ballet. There was a bar-style counter behind which a cabinet of drinks was kept, and on the opposite end of the lobby there was also a counter serving snacks. Staircases and elevators were set into the walls on either side of the red curtain.

“Madiha, could you pick up some food before we go? I can get the drinks while you’re at it. It’s a ninety minute film, after all.” Parinita said, pulling gently on Madiha’s arm.

“Certainly.” Madiha said, bowing her head deferentially to her date.

For the first time that night, the women parted arms and went separate ways.

Madiha navigated the throngs of people. There were many small islands, little groups of film-goers discussing pictures near the posters on columns and walls, or clusters of four or five drama enthusiasts waiting for the main stage to be open to them, all dressed exquisitely for the night. Making her way through, Madiha arrived at the snack counter. There was a glass display case with baked goods, kept warm on electric racks, and a line of candy boxes, branded with the state company or candy factory that produced them. Behind the young man tending the counter, a deep-frying machine in the back bubbled with oil. A very large popping corn cart set into a corner continuously crackled and snapped.

Nobody around seemed very interested in the snacks, so Madiha was first and last in line when she arrived at the counter. She gave everything a quick glance, and then decided to bet on the staples she knew to be closely associated with the film experience.

“I’ll have popping corn, in the large bag, and two Jomba Sugar Company caramel boxes, and an ‘Inspiration’ chocolate bar.” Madiha said, raising her arm as if pledging an oath.

Behind the counter the young, sharply dressed attendant nodded in acknowledgment.

“That will be thirty shells, comrade.” He said.

Madiha blinked her eyes. She looked down at the candies, and back at him.

“Oh. Thirty shells? So it is not, um, free?” Madiha asked.

“No, sorry. None of these are essential foodstuffs, so they’re charged for.”

He scratched his head awkwardly as if put on the spot by her confusion.

“I can offer you a complimentary small bag of popping corn.” He then whispered.

Madiha shook her head, feeling embarrassed herself. “No, no! I’ll pay, it is fine.”

She fumbled in her coat pockets, and before the attendant’s eyes withdrew the massive wad of paper bills that constituted Daksha’s book royalties. She fumbled through the small fortune in her hands, quite unused to money. Every bill she had was either in the 100 shell denomination or the 500 shell denomination, and she could not for the life of her even conceive of what would happen if she gave such large bills to the man. Would she receive the difference back? Would the remainder disappear into oblivion?

While the attendant bagged her goods and set them on the counter, Madiha worked up the courage to drop a 500 shell paper on the counter, and push it hastily toward him.

“Ma’am, this is–”

“Just keep it! Thank you!”

Madiha quickly seized her popping corn and candies and fled the counter.

At the door to the elevator, she rejoined Parinita, who had in her hands a pair of bottles labeled ‘Dream’, common soft drinks with an apple-like taste. Parinita was in good cheer, and Madiha tried not to let any residual awkwardness show. She handed Parinita a box of caramels and the chocolate, which she graciously took. When the elevator came down, they stood to the side of the operator, a young woman in a bright coat, like the other workers.

“Third floor, please.” Parinita said.

Nodding, the elevator operator turned to a button panel and got the gears moving.

Shaking, the elevator box slowly rose to the top of the building.

In front of them the elevator doors opened.

Smiling, the operator extended a hand.

Madiha went for a hand-shake, but found herself interrupted.

“It is customary to tip the operator.” Parinita said, squeezing Madiha’s hand.

Madiha screamed internally.


Though they had not even sat down for the film yet, Parinita was already having an incredible time. Just walking beside Madiha, all dressed up, hand in hand and arm in arm, under the festival skies and across the festival streets, was so much more than she ever thought she would have. It was as if all of her impossible, childish little fantasies that she nursed over the thirty days she had known the Colonel were finally coming true.

There was still a pang of embarrassment, a nagging thought that everything was too unreal, too crazy. Parinita rarely ever acted on her impulses. She was supposed to be analytical, rational, reliable; but Madiha had tugged at her heart in a way she couldn’t explain rationally, in a way she couldn’t quite analyze. In the midst of an unreal situation, in the midst of unreal feelings and memories and sensations, Madiha kept her alive.

Not only physically, but in spirit, emotionally, in every way that mattered.

Seeing Madiha existing, casually, out in the world, seemed to confirm everything she had thought she was foolish for feeling. That gravity that drew her to the tall, gloomy, soft-hearted woman with the fiery, tormented eyes, became three times as strong that night. She felt silly thinking of love at first sight, but she could describe it no other way. Perhaps it was their shared destiny that forced them together, but Parinita wanted to think it was her own heart, her own desires and lusts, that had naturally grown this strong.

Her impulsive kiss the day before felt like the seal to a pact, but she wanted it to be a pact of her own creation, impulsive and mad as it was. She could only hope that it stuck.

But they were having so much fun, she thought, that they had to be meant to be.

Ocean Theater’s film rooms were much smaller than the main stage. Each film showroom sat thirty people in three rows lying a meter or two above a small stage, perhaps originally intended for lectures or speeches, over which the film canvas was stretched.

At the back of the room, a booth had been built for the film projector.

Parinita led Madiha to what she considered the best seats in the room, just below the projector and with nobody behind or around them. They took seat on stiff wooden frames with stuffed cushions and backrests. Madiha laid back and sighed audibly.

“I have so much money, and yet I’m in a tighter spot than ever.” She moaned.

“Well, you’re doing a good deed by spreading it around.” Parinita giggled.

Madiha mumbled a little, looking with disgust at her own coat pocket.

“I don’t think I’m doing the world much of a service here.”

“Don’t worry, somebody is bound to have change for 100 shell bills!”

At the elevator, Madiha quite literally threw money at the operator and then promptly ran away, unable to simply tell the person to keep the change, or to accompany her to the cash box to break the bills. Parinita had walked out laughing heartily until she caught back up to her date, and nobody else seemed keen to understand the situation.

“Maybe you can shrug it off, but I’ll be replaying that moment in my head for months to come.” Madiha said. Parinita gave her a sympathetic look and rubbed her shoulder. For someone who was so clever and tough for certain things, Madiha was surprisingly soft and vulnerable in so many others. She was rather naive in certain respects. It was cute.

“You can let me pay instead, I still have some money.” Parinita said.

“We shouldn’t have to pay anything.” Madiha grumbled.

“Someday, Madiha; but we’re not quite there yet I’m afraid.”

“I blame Nocht for this too.”

Parinita smiled and turned her gaze back to the film canvas.

There were perhaps eight or nine other people in this particular show.

Their tickets did not say what the film was. They were generic papers generated by a machine that only had a room number and entry fee listed. When purchasing them, Parinita had picked the movie she wanted to view, and she let Madiha know in the morning that it was a special, secret picture. Her imagination could fill in the rest.

She grinned to herself, and relaxed on her seat, laying her hand over Madiha’s.

Madiha glanced at her, and held her gaze. She seemed puzzled.

Parinita could hardly wait to see Madiha’s cute face respond to her devious ruse.

“So, Madiha, ready to see how brave you are?” Parinita sweetly said.

“Hmm?”

“I picked a special film for us to see together. I wonder who will cling to whom?”

“I don’t follow.”

“Oh ho ho!”

Around them the lights in the room dimmed, and the door was shut.

It became almost pitch black in the room, until the projector came on.

Before the picture began, an animated short explained certain safety measures that the audience should take, and exhorted them to pick up snacks, to be careful walking down the aisles while the room was dark, and to keep quiet during the picture. After this, the room grew very still as a melancholy tune brought to their attention the fact that their projector was equipped for sound. The tune brought in the title screen for the picture.

“Rampage of the Opaque Man?” Madiha said to herself.

Parinita covered her mouth with the back of her hand, delicately stifling a laugh.

“What kind of film is this? I expected lighter fare.” Madiha asked.

“I refuse to spoil it! You’ll soon see.”

Parinita giggled internally. This would be so much fun!

Like most Ayvartan horror films, the picture was black and white, by choice more than technical limitations, and appeared rather gloomy. Madiha and Parinita watched, hand in hand, as the film began to tell the story of Doctor Sanjay Gujarat, an outgoing and kind man whom they followed as he slowly became consumed with an obsession to cure the ravages of death itself using newly-synthesized chemicals and terrible drugs.

Though he might have been mistaken for a hero at first, it was an illusion that soon wore off. After several uncomfortable scenes with his friends, his family and even a lady love, whom he neglected, screamed at, and behaved erratically toward, all because of their concern and skepticism, the doctor was marked to the audience as quite the villain himself.

His true motives were soon revealed: he wanted eternal life for himself!

“I can understand his motivation.” Madiha said, self-seriously.

Parinita raised a finger to her smiling lips, urging her to keep quiet.

On screen, the doctor deteriorated before their eyes. He ate less, and bathed not at all, and sores appeared on his face, and his hair fell, and it seemed as if months of slow rot were overcoming him before their eyes. It was quite a graphic, sickening display.

Feeling her date’s hand, Parinita could tell that Madiha was on edge. The film score was brooding and tense, and lingering shots, panning across unappealing rooms, vile surfaces, and even a cadaver, made one anxious for what was to come. She heard Madiha gulp down, and saw her crunching very deliberately on popcorn and candy to relieve her stress.

As Doctor Gujarat stabilized his mixture through the horrifying addition of human blood, the film score intensified, punctuating the moment with cutting strings that could be felt like a pinprick at the base of the spine. The Doctor raised the potion to his lips, and a long shot focused on his throat, grotesquely bulging with each gulp of the putrid drink.

At once, he vanished from the screen in a trick of light and a well-placed film cut.

Madiha blinked, and Parinita thought she saw the horror dawning on her face.

Doctor Gujarat had become invisible.

More susceptible than even Parinita had thought, Madiha seemed puzzled at first, but as objects in the lab began to shatter by themselves, as a disembodied, croaking laugh echoed across the darkened halls, and as men and women became victims of an unseen assailant, the horrible possibilities of the invisible man seemed to grip her heart with a cold fear. Unblinking, Madiha stared, frozen, neglecting her snacks. She bit the tip of her thumb.

As the film crept with evil intent toward its conclusion, Parinita readied for the climax of her own plot. Sarsala, Dr. Gujarat’s lady love, traced back the man’s rampage to the place where everything began. She snuck with a held breath into his ruined laboratory, floors glistening with glass shards and thick pools of chemicals, electric wall torches sparking from the violence inflicted by the doctor as he reached his monstrous apotheosis.

Behind them the projector’s sound speakers cut out. There were minutes of dead silence in the film, and in the theater as well. It felt as if the heavy breathing of the audience was amplified, and became the new score for the film. Miss Sarsala, an innocent in her sari and long, monochromatic dress, walked step by step toward the table where the doctor had imbibed his draught of hell. Her eyes teared up at the remnants of her lover’s work.

Parinita felt a quiver through Madiha’s hand with each of those steps.

Suddenly, a sweeping shot and an unexpected string!

Dr. Gujarat charges into the scene, and for once he is partially visible, rendered opaque in a flash of light and sparks, his fleeting form twisted and monstrous and inhuman.

Blood and violent death filled the theater screen, causing a profound shock.

Madiha jerked up, a scream caught in her throat.

She swung her arms around Parinita in a frightened reflex, and drew her face close.

Parinita beamed, her strategy bearing fruit, and she stroked Madiha’s hair.

Until the end of the film, they remained cheek to cheek in this fashion.

It had worked! Madiha really did have a cute side buried under that soldierly spirit.

After the picture, they walked back out of the theater, arm in arm. There was a weak quiver across Madiha’s skin, felt across their connection, even as they departed and headed back up Ocean Road. It was much darker out now than when they entered the Theater, and the throngs had spread out farther, so there were less people in any given place. There were less fireworks going off — but Madiha nearly jumped at each one.

“Madiha, are you ok?” Parinita asked, becoming less amused and more concerned.

“I’m fine,” Madiha said, unconvincingly, “the film just tapped into a childhood fear.”

“Of invisible men?”

“Things watching me.”

Parinita’s heart sank with guilt. “I see. I wish I had known before.”

“Be honest with me: are invisible men possible?”

“Of course not! They’re just fantasy.” Parinita replied, patting Madiha’s back.

“And yet, dragons are real. I even left one at home!” Madiha said.

Parinita smiled. “That is completely different from invisible men!”

Madiha seemed quite unsettled by the idea despite this ironclad argument.

“An invisible man has too many tactical advantages. I never even considered it.”

“I guess I should’ve bought different tickets.” Parinita said.

Madiha’s eyes drew momentarily wider, and then her usual gloomy expression settled back in. She shook her head, and rubbed her forehead and her temples with one hand.

“I apologize.” She said. Perhaps she realized her own vulnerability then.

Seeing her date prostrated in this way, Parinita felt alarmed. Had she ruined the night?

“No! Don’t! It’s my fault, I didn’t think it’d scare you this much.”

Parinita thought Madiha was being rather cute; but she was aware she had gone too far, if Madiha was this shaken up by a film. She only expected her to jump a few times, preferably into Parinita’s warm, welcoming arms. It was a crass scheme on her part, she realized.

Madiha raised her hands. “It’s alright. It’s not you at all. I should be more–”

“Stop that, it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s lighten up.” Parinita replied.

She pushed herself up to Madiha’s flank, pressing her face against her.

It was a desperate attempt to inject some levity, but it seemed to work.

“Next time, we should see a romantic movie.” Madiha said, sighing.

“Oh, it was perfectly romantic for me.” Parinita said, clinging more tightly to her.

Madiha sighed ever more deeply. “We should just stick together in a room then.”

Parinited winked at her. “Consider it a date.”


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