Thieves At The Port [5.5]

Without fanfare good or ill, the Brigand finally entered Imperial waters by crossing the demarcation line set at the abandoned Cascabel station. A cylindrical pillar with ribbed sections, it was like an eerie sentinel, abandoned at its post on this empty borderland, watching the Brigand cross the rocky ocean between Ferris and Sverland. A field of pallid, plankton-eating stalks had taken over the sand banks that once hid defensive torpedo pods and cannon casemates defending this border. Bubblegum coral grew from the dismal patches of sand atop rocky, uneven surfaces making up the seafloor around Cascabel station.

Disparate groups of bioluminescent fish danced in the orifices of the hulking structure like flickering, ghostly lamps. A casualty of one of the final battles of the revolution, Cascabel was deliberately flooded to deny the nascent Union a useful forward base.

On the main screen, the crew was entertained by the first landmark they’d seen in days.

“Magnificent. What a sophisticated aura!” Fernanda said.

“It’s just a creepy hunk of metal.” Alex added.

“You know, they say that when the Empire flooded Cascabel, the souls of all the men and women who died defending it were anchored to the structure and could never rise out of the Ocean.” Semyonova said suddenly. “Even to this day, they are trapped, wandering the flooded halls. Illegal scrappers from both sides of the DMZ have gone missing in the station’s depths.”

She waited with a serious expression for the response from her comrades.

“Wait? What the hell? Really?” Alex asked.

“Such foul things do transpire within abandoned stations.” Fernanda said.

“Foul things? Do you mean the ghosts or the smuggling?” Alex asked.

“Apparitions and banditry are both within the purview of ‘lost places’.”

“So you also believe in ghosts? Fucking ghosts?”  

“Hah! Do you disbelieve in the power of the great beyond? Living under the Ocean?”

Framing it that way made Alex hesitate, like there was something she missed. “I–”

Before Alex could continue, Helmsman Kamarik butted in with a groan.

“All of you need a serious brain checkup if you believe that crap.” He said.

“Another philistine discovered.” Fernanda said.

Her inflection carried a certain sadistic delight.

“I’m just being practical.” Kamarik said. “If I can’t hold it in my hands, it’s not real.”

“Aw, come on y’all.” Semyonova said. “I didn’t think y’all would take it so serious.”

“The work of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, is in all things, but this is verging on jinn talk.”

Fatima mysteriously spoke up at that point. Alex looked at her with a certain confusion.

“I feel like I didn’t understand half the things she said. No offense.”

“It’s Shimii religion.” Kamarik said. “I know a little about it. My name comes from it.”

“Are you a Shimii?” Alex asked, jokingly.

“Half.” Kamarik replied dryly.

Alex’s jaw dropped slightly. “Wait? What the hell? Really?”

“Yep.” Kamarik said mysteriously. He crossed his arms and nodded his head.

 Fatima looked suddenly mortified.

“Ah, I apologize. I did not intend to cause offense by suddenly bringing up my religion. It’s just a reflex, my father studied under a Mawla, a religious teacher of our people– ahh, I’m doing it again. I’m sorry. If you want to talk about jinn, I suppose I can try to keep out of–”

“Ahh, don’t worry Fatima! It’s not your fault, it really isn’t.” Semyonova said affably.

She reached out and patted the excessively apologetic Fatima on the shoulder.

“Jinn are evil spirits, right?” Kamarik asked. “I think I remember they’re bad.”

“Oh, yes.” Fatima said. “They are evil apparitions responsible for all dark works.”

“Well, I don’t believe in that either. All of you need to be more materialistic.”

“It’s materialist.” Alex said. “What you wanted to say is ‘materialist’, Abdul.”

“Oh dear, the gamer presumes to patronize us about language and the supernatural?”

Fernanda grinned and gently covered her mouth with the back of her hand.

From the Electronic Warfare station, Zachikova piped up suddenly.

“I believe in something I can’t hold in my hands — it’s called data.”

She grinned to herself. She looked like she must have felt incredibly clever.

Kamarik stared at her while Alex looked at him like she was trying to find something.

“Where do you keep the tail? Do you have one?”

“Huh?”

Above it all, Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya felt like she had been put in charge of a zoo.

“What is this conversation? I feel like I’m getting dumber for having to listen to this.”

Commissar Aaliyah Bashara saw Ulyana with her face in her hands and reassured her.

“This kind of banter is important for a crew, Captain. It forges stronger bonds.”

She spoke just low enough for their conversation to be private.

“I feel like they’re forging some pretty stupid bonds down there.” Ulyana said.

“The Brigand’s crew is…eccentric. But sailing is sailing. You must have seen this before.”

“My old crews used their inside voices a little more in the presence of Nagavanshi.”

Aaliyah’s ears wiggled a bit. “Was the Commissar-General that frightening?”

“How can you have worked with her and ask that? She’s a demon.” Ulyana said.

 “I guess I never worked with her closely. I, personally, believe in having an open bridge.”

She looked proud, as if she had said something of great meaning just then.

Ulyana grinned. “Okay, well, do you believe in ghosts or jinn or whatever?”

“Unlike a lot of Shimii I’m a dedicated atheist. So no, I don’t believe in such things.”

Aaliyah gave the Captain a look as if she were annoyed by having the banter raised to her.

“Then how do you think all those stories Semyonova brought up attain cultural purchase?”

“Cascabel is in disrepair and dangerous. Scrappers probably just die in it because of this.”

“You know, that’s actually a very practical explanation. Nevermind this nonsense then.”

Ulyana sat back in her chair, stretching her arms. Aaliyah shook her head gently.

“Okay, so then what do you think about video games, Commissar Bashara?” Ulyana said.

 “We don’t need to reproduce their banter, Captain.” Aaliyah said with a bit of growl.

“Well, if it’s good enough for down there, isn’t it fine here too?” Ulyana winked.

Aaliyah turned a little red and glared at her. “Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Oh? What’s that supposed to mean? I need it explained in strictly materialist terms.”

“Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya–” Another low growl, this time through teeth.

And now full name and rank was coming out. Ulyana staggered, sensing a sudden danger.

Thankfully, the absolute chaos that had overcome the bridge was soon interrupted.

“Captain! Sensors are picking up trace long-wave radiation — might be an E.L.F message.”

Extremely Low Frequency was one of the few forms of long distance wireless messaging available underwater.

Massive antennae buried in Solstice could send these messages through any amount of water out to extremely long ranges.

But the throughput was abysmal — it was text only, and character-limited.

Fatima shouted up to the Captain. Besides sonar, her station had access to the sensor array.

“I can confirm! I’m capturing and deciphering as we speak!” Semyonova added.

Ulyana was taken aback. She had not expected official communication this soon.

“Send it up to me when it’s done! If it’s HQ this soon, it must be urgent.” She said.

“E.L.F. message received, decrypted, and sent to your station, Captain!”

Semyona turned around and did a happy little salute. This was the first official message from HQ she had transferred as the Brigand’s chief of signals, a milestone on any maiden voyage.

Ulyana smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, turned her computer screen sideways.

Using the arm that was attached to her seat, she was able to angle it for herself and Aaliyah.

“Can you read it?” She asked her Commissar.

Aaliyah blinked. She leaned forward on her seat to look at the Captain’s screen.

“Yes, I can but– do you need my help? Are you having trouble reading it?”

“Oh, not at all. I just want you to be part of this discussion also.”

“I see.”

Aaliyah looked confused. Ulyana wondered what her previous ships must have been like.

Nagavanshi practically demanded to be shown every message. She was very hands-on.

In time, Ulyana came to see it as a resource, a form of help, rather than a hindrance.

So it made sense to let Aaliyah be part of these situations from the start.

“Alright, let’s see–”

Ulyana read the message, printed in four short lines of text.

HOSPITALITY ORDER.

VIP IN SERRANO.

DOCKMEN FRIENDLY.

WAREHOUSE 6.

“Looks like we’re being asked to dock in Serrano to pick up a passenger, who will be with us for the journey, if I’m parsing this right. I’m a little taken aback honestly.” Ulyana said. “It’s not as if we don’t have extra supplies. Sailing is all about being frugal and planning for the worst. But as far as picking up a VIP, don’t you think we’d just put them in danger, Commissar?”

Aaliyah read the message and nodded her head. “We would not be able to guarantee their return from this journey. However, if we’re being asked to do this, it must be because they have information pertaining to anti-Imperial resistance efforts. Otherwise it would be truly pointless.”

“I wonder how they contacted the Union.” Ulyana said. “What’s the time frame here?”

“Our spy networks have their ways. I think it’s realistic they could have gotten a message out and arranged for asylum; especially since the Empire has apparently been on shaky grounds for a few weeks now. Before the Emperor was dead, he was dying, and I’m sure his retreat caused the Empire’s guard to slacken.”  Aaliyah replied. “At any rate. Orders are orders. We must go to Serrano.”

“We were going there anyway. It’s a place that it makes sense to start getting information about the Empire. I know there’s tons of smuggling that happens there, some of it to the Union. I was posted at an Agri-Sphere once that got smuggled cattle from the Empire through Serrano. And if the dockworkers are ‘friendly’ it would behoove us to get in contact with them.”

Ulyana ran a hand through her blond hair and tossed it. She had worn it long that day.

She sighed and bowed her head a little.

“You seem unsettled still, Captain.” Aaliyah asked. “You can tell me what’s wrong.”

Ulyana found herself thinking “why do YOU look fine with it?” after hearing that.

“We’ve been given a pretty tough job. Not just the whole ‘organize a bunch of people who may or may not exist to topple the Empire’ business. I’m more concerned with the day to day ‘keep one step ahead of thousands of Imperial Navy ships trying to kill us’ types of business right now.”

“None of those ships know our intentions or objectives. Right now, we’re invisible.”

“Right now; but how do we stay hidden forever? We only have to blow our cover once.”

“As a Commissar, I swore to trust and support you. You must trust yourself too, Captain. Being fearful won’t keep us safe. We have to move forward bravely to complete our mission.”

“True but being too brave will put us in danger. I’m worried we won’t see that line when we cross it. Being frank, I’m worried that I won’t see it. Under the water, ships see each other as noise first. I am afraid I won’t know when we’ve made enough waves to be seen by our enemies.”

Ulyana looked at Aaliyah in the eyes, a contact the Commissar briefly held.

Seeing the Captain being so honest, the Commissar could not just respond with barbs.

Aaliyah seemed to hesitate, but then reached out a hand to Ulyana’s shoulder.

“Have faith Captain. This is not your mission or only your life to lose. You’re not alone.”

“You’re right, as usual.” Ulyana sighed yet again. “You’re right, Commissar. I know it.”

“Don’t fret too much. You have me– our whole crew.” Aaliyah corrected herself quickly.

Ulyana was not so distracted that she wouldn’t notice something like that. She smiled.

“You’re right. With a top notch Commissar like you at my side, how could I lose?”

Aaliyah narrowed her eyes. She sat back in her chair, then pulled her hat over her face.

“Don’t push your luck too much, Captain.”

“Good advice for all my anxieties, I suppose.”

Ulyana winked, but only because the frigid Shimii beside her would not have noticed.

More and more she felt very lucky to have Aaliyah Bashara at her side.


The Brigand received its first mission and left Cascabel behind.

Now in Imperial waters, the ship navigated carefully, remaining about fifty meters above the rocky sea floor and keeping a watch for incoming vessels. Since they were masquerading as a civilian vessel, silent running would have been quite suspicious, so no policies were set in place to regulate the sound of most human activity on the ship. What did have to be regulated was Diver maintenance and training, since the noises of heavy equipment would have been suspicious too.

Since the ship left Thassal station, the navigation computer had been keeping track of their position. Speed and heading and other kinds of navigational data were used by the computer to track the Brigand’s course on a slightly outdated Imperial map. In this way, Helmsman Kamarik always knew where they were and knew the way to their destination, at first Cascabel and now Serrano. This allowed them to retain the correct course even while astray in the Ocean wilderness.

“There’s this legend that people on the surface used to navigate by looking at the sky over the Ocean. You all know what the sky is right?” Kamarik said, turning back to the Bridge crew.

“It’s the heaven that’s far above the surface of the water.” Fatima said.

“That’s one way of looking at it I guess.” Kamarik said. “Anyway, you understand what it is. It used to be, people could look past the sky and see lights. You can even still do that — there’s been drone photographs of clear sky, full of lights. If you could survive up there, you could see the lights in the sky. And people used to navigate by looking at the groups of lights. Most of the sky isn’t like that anymore though, it’s just gas now, purplish thundering agarthic gas; but yeah.”

“I think I’ll trust the navigation computer over the ‘lights in the sky.’” Alex said bluntly.

“Duh, I wasn’t saying it was better!” Kamarik laughed. “I was just spinnin’ sailor tales.”

The bridge was riotous as ever. Their talents allowed them to keep that lively atmosphere.

One particular officer made an outsize contribution to that high morale during the journey.

Fatima proved herself worthy of having ‘golden ears.’ She was able to easily discern noisy civilian traffic, identify the models to the best of her knowledge even before the predictor could see them and she sounded no false alarms. Aaliyah had been correct about the state of the patrols. There were no military ships out on the hunt for Union vessels. Even beyond the Cascabel region, the only naval vessel they ran into after coasting past Cascabel was a single Maltier-class utility ship. Like every other ship, Fatima identified it quite easily and reported it calmly and promptly.

“Remarkable.” Captain Ulyana said. “Chief Petty Officer, you truly have splendid ears.”

Fatima’s black-furred, slightly curved cat ears gave the Captain a happy little twitch.

“Ahh, thank you Captain. I’m only sorry I was distracted for a moment and did not–”

“You truly have nothing to be sorry for.”

What an apologetic girl! She must have been maybe a millisecond off her own, already freakish idea of how quickly a sonar technician should detect and categorize hydrophone noise.

Aaliyah tapped the ecstatic Captain on the shoulder with a demure look on her face.

Her own ears gave a little twitch when acknowledged. Her face was a little bit flushed.

“Captain, I understand what you were saying, but to compliment a Shimii’s ears like that, it’s a bit embarrassing. It’s not exactly proper, you know. You must take care of what you say.”

“Hmm? Is it a cultural issue? Fatima did not look bothered. Her ears even wiggled.”

“You were saved by the context, and praise is all well and good, but decency must be–”

“Ah. I understand what’s going on. Don’t worry. You have lovely ears too, Commissar.”

“Captain! It’s different than when you talk about a Volgian’s ears. I am not joking!”

“How is it different?”

“It’s different! It’s just different!”

“Okay, okay. I’ll be more careful with my words. But you know, Nagavanshi never–”

“I am not Nagavanshi. You would do well to get used to me and stop bringing her up.”

“Ah, I’m so sorry. I will do my part to recognize and praise you for your unique merits.”

“This is not about that at all. This is not one scintilla, one iota, one whit, about that!”

Even the Captain and the Commissar expressed their high morale in their own ways.

Sverland used to be one of the “colonies” that the Empire founded after the expanding from the Imbrium. Due to its proximity to the imperial heartland, Sverland became a management hub for Ferris, Lyser and Solstice’s production. Unlike the territories that would become the Union, Sverland boasted a handful of actual cities, and the most southern of these was Serrano station, a commercial hub through which everything coming and going through Sverland seemed to end up.

A pillar-type Station of enormous size, Serrano’s base was set into a crater 1200 meters deep beneath the Ocean, while the highest point was at the 800 meter mark. There were three port structures, one at the base, one in the middle of the pillar and an exclusive covered dock at the very top. Fatima’s golden ears were overwhelmed around Serrano. There was a lot of traffic coming and going. There were perhaps a hundred large ships and many dozens of smaller, shorter ranged craft docked, docking, or departing from the station. In such a crowded scenario, the acoustic predictor was more efficient at analyzing the discrete models of ships around them than Fatima alone.

For the first time, the Brigand saw Imperial naval vessels. Small patrol cutters covered the waters starting half a dozen kilometers from the station. They could not tell that the Brigand was a Union vessel. As far as they were concerned it was an old hauler that resembled several of the merchant vessels frequenting the waters around Serrano. So while their first brush with Imperial patrols caused the Brigand’s crew to break a sweat, the cutters merely floated by without incident.

After meeting the smallest imperial ships, they soon met the very largest.

Anchored to the same lower dock that was their destination, there was a truly massive ship.

Gunmetal grey with an elegant, spoon-shaped prow and a sweeping chassis and fins.

“Irmingard class.” Ulyana said.

“You know it?” Aaliyah asked.

“When I was Captain of–” the Captain began to reply but paused briefly as if staggered for a moment by the bitter memory she recalled. “When I was part of the Pravda project, the reason we were making such a big dreadnought was that a defector from the Empire managed to make it to us with the early plans for the Irmingard class. This was like, seven years ago. All of the Union’s current dreadnoughts are more advanced than the common Koenig class that the Empire has kept around for decades. But we have nothing against the Irmingard class. Not after the Pravda sank.”

Aaliyah seemed to be able to tell the Captain’s mood had suddenly turned a bit foul.

She put on an expression of sympathy and laid her hand on the armrest of the chair.

Not touching the Captain, but offering some proximal physical support nonetheless.

“The Brigand might not be the Pravda; but it’s no common ship you’re Captain of.”

“Don’t try to console me about the Pravda.” Ulyana said bluntly. “Just ignore me.”

That Irmingard dreadnought, like every other Imperial ship, had no reason to fight them.

They would have to ensure it remained that way. Aaliyah did not press Ulyana any further.

As they approached Serrano station, Kamarik took on the task of getting them docked properly, while Semyonova was in charge of communicating with Station Control to report in their ship and be assigned a space in the port. Owing to the indifference of a port that saw massive amounts of money going in and out every hour, the Brigand was not scheduled for a search and needed no further identification to berth. Imperial ports were famously corrupt, and the Brigand could have easily bribed its way through. And so the Brigand slipped in under a steel sky, above an ocean floor turned white by bright floodlights. The lower dock was accessed through massive openings in the base of the station, and was mostly inhabited by dismal-looking cargo haulers. The Brigand requested access via a cargo unloading berth — a massive structure into which the cruiser-size ship would be clamped, locked into place, sealed, and the berth would then drain. Finally, they would employ their cargo elevator for access.

While this was transpiring, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara left the Bridge in Semyonova’s hands and assembled the squadron who would be handling their first mission within the station itself. In the strategic planning room, Zachikova, Shalikova and Murati had been called to assemble, along with Akulantova and Ensign Van Der Smidse, a member of the security team. She was a young, bright-eyed woman with a mischievous smile, wearing her blond hair in two long braids. She had an athletic figure but was completely dwarfed by Chief Akulantova.

“Murati,” Ulyana began, “You will lead Zachikova and Shalikova into the city to recover a refugee from ‘Warehouse Six’. This team was chosen because of your practical abilities — Murati has a track record as an excellent tactician and speaker, Shalikova has sharp eyes and hands and quick reflexes, and Zachikova has unique skills with computing and reconnaissance.”

“Unless something truly unfortunate happens, the authorities won’t have their eye on you. So be cautious and don’t give anyone cause to follow you or suspect you of anything.” Aaliyah added. “Zachikova will be in contact with us through encrypted radio, and with her unique talents she’ll be able to tell if there’s any heat coming down on you by monitoring the station network. We’ll have part of the security team patrolling the docks just in case you find unwanted friends.”

Akulantova smiled. “I’m going to stay here to help the Captain and Commissar. But I’ve assembled some of my people to guard the docks. Like this young lady, Klara Van Der Smidse; and another of my team, Zhu Lian, who is preparing equipment for us. I will station these two at the entrance to the docks. They can rush into the city to help if you need a distraction or cover or anything like that. Like the Captain said though, we’re hoping you’ll keep a low profile today.”

Upon being mentioned, Van Der Smidse put on an almost smug look.

She did not say anything, but her face showed she was quite pleased with herself.

Murati showed no outward concern upon being given her mission.

She did have questions, however.

“Wouldn’t it be better for the security team to fetch and protect the refugee?”

“Have some confidence in yourself Murati.” Aaliyah said, putting her hands on her hips.

“Besides that, the reason you’re going and not the security team is that we’re not setting out to shoot anyone or extract under fire.” Ulyana said. “We assembled a team to blend in, make their way through city overlooked in crowds, and peacefully meet up with our refugee. Then assess the situation and return safely. Our Security team is better put to use guarding our perimeter here.”

“I guess I understand when you pit that way. Are we taking any gear?” Murati asked.

“You’re not getting a weapon.” Ulyana said. She had a faint, bemused smile.

“I didn’t ask for a weapon. I just want to know what’s available.” Murati said. “Beside weapons, what about armor? What about barter items in case we need to negotiate for something?”

“Murati, they don’t do much bartering in the Empire.” Aaliyah said.

“You’d be surprised. Historically, in times of war, the value of currency–”

“You’re all supposed to be civilian workers with a transport company.” Ulyana interrupted, before Murati could get too far into her history lesson. “Logistics personnel aren’t usually carrying around much on a quick trip into town. If you need to negotiate money with anyone, it’s going to be in imperial marks, not seashells and whalebone. All the gear you get is Zachikova.”

Zachikova nodded her head. Shalikova glanced sidelong at her.

“How will we find the meeting place? Warehouse Six, you said?” Murati said.

“It’s likely in the city map. I’ll download it when we get outside.” Zachikova said.

“We’ll also be making contact with the dockworkers.” Aaliyah said. “When you work with ships and cargo, you get all kinds of information. I’m hoping I can catch up on current events and see if there’s anything interesting going on in Sverland specifically. If I learn anything useful about your situation in particular, I’ll tell the Captain and she’ll inform Zachikova right away.”

“Do we know anything about the refugee? How will I know it’s them?” Murati said.

“I’m sorry to say we don’t know anything. To be honest, we’ve been assuming it’s only one person, but reading E.L.F messages can be like astrology sometimes.” Ulyana said. “That’s why I’ll be in contact. Keep me appraised of the situation.”

“We also trust your judgment, Murati.” Aaliyah said. “As the first officer, Zachikova and Shalikova will follow your orders on the field. In fact, I’d prefer you limit contact with the Captain to avoid suspicions. Only do so in an emergency.”

Ulyana sighed as if she was afraid it might come to that.

Then, for a brief moment, everyone felt a faint vibration transfer from the floor.

“We’ll be fully docked into the station soon. Is there anything else on your mind?”

Ulyana addressed Murati, and the First Officer responded by saluting.

Murati had a smile on her face. She looked at ease.

“No, I think I understand everything. This should be nice and easy.” She replied.

Shalikova crossed her arms over her chest. Zachikova stared at Murati as if knowingly.

 “Any objections, you two?”

Murati turned from the Captain and Commissar to her fellow officers and team members.

“Of course I have no objections. Orders are orders.” Shalikova said bluntly.

“All things considered, I’d rather stay on the ship, but I’ll go.” Zachikova replied.

“Wow, so lively and full of enthusiasm.” Akulantova joked.

Van Der Smidse hid a small laugh behind her delicate fingers.

Shalikova threw a nasty glare at the too-affable security team member.

“I’m glad you’re all still lively.” Aaliyah said. “Murati, depart as soon as possible.”

“Yes ma’am. Will do. Thank you for choosing me for this mission.”

“Of course. It’s our first outing in Imperial waters, but I trust in every one of you.”

Ulyana stepped forward and shook hands vigorously with each of the team members.

“Bring that refugee back safe, and we can start taking the Empire down a peg. Dismissed.”

Everyone saluted. At least, the Brigand would enter the war-torn Empire and begin its quest.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.3]

“We are now convening the first ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ on the Brigand.”

In the planning room of the Brigand’s command pod, a small group of officers gathered.

At the head of this meeting was Ensign Braya Zachikova, the Electronic Warfare Officer aboard the ship. She had been missing during the battle against ULV-96 since she was getting acquainted with the ship supercomputer at the time. Missing out on the glory did not seem to bother her at all: her response to being asked about it was to simply say, “Leviathans have no ECM capabilities.”

Zachikova was a distant young woman with a somewhat short and skinny figure. She had tawny brown hair tied into a single tail, which looped into a long, wavy spiral that was quite fantastic. This seemed to be the only point of vanity she allowed herself. Her face was rather expressionless, she used no makeup, and she wore her uniform to code.  Two metal antennae each about the width of her wrists adorned the sides of her head.

The agenda for the meeting was on a minicomputer she carried. When she set the minicomp down on the room table, she swiped the agenda text off her screen and directly onto the table screen for everyone to see. There were three particular items that she wanted to discuss with the group. Joining her in the room was Captain Korabiskaya, Commissar Bashara, First Officer Nakara and an engineer, Gunther Cohen.

At that moment, the Bridge was led by Semyonova temporarily.

“Zachikova,”

Captain Korabiskaya sighed deeply and brushed her fingers through her blond hair.

“That was a placeholder name for the project. But you still called the meetings–”

“It doesn’t really matter what they are called, does it?” Zachikova asked.

She looked at the Captain quizzically, as if she really didn’t understand the issue.

Commissar Bashara shook her head. “Don’t get distracted, Captain.”

Captain Korabiskaya crossed her arms over her chest.

“Fine then. ‘Meeting to Discuss Weird Stuff’ indeed. Zachikova, report your findings.”

Zachikova nodded. “First, a brief explanation for Nakara and Cohen about the project.”

Before the Brigand was handed over to its eventual crew, to prevent any leaks of its secrets, the sailors, mechanics, engineers, and officers were given very limited information about the ship in the lead-up to departure. It was understood that when the ship was underway its crew would have access to the finer details of the ship’s functions and would have a one-week shakedown period in peaceful waters. This time would be used for training, tuning and organization to make up for the secrecy and lack of onboarding.

The Captain accepted these terms. Mainly because she had no other choice.

Despite being attacked by a Leviathan almost immediately after setting off, the Brigand’s crew got underway and began to get acquainted with the ship per their schedule. Almost as soon as they started to touch things on the ship, however, they ran into numerous curiosities about the Brigand’s design.

Immediately, Helmsman Kamarik found oddities in the ship’s propulsion. Zachikova found that the ship’s supercomputer had several gaps where something was soft-deleted but the data was not zeroed out and could not be written over until it was properly reclaimed. Geninov and -de la Rosa took some mechanics to inspect the backup firing solutions on their respective weapons systems and found some strange parts in the hull armor when they dug themselves into the casemates for the guns and the guts of the torpedo tube. Supply staff found an inventory of unmarked spare parts in the cargo hold with instructions on destroying them.

The Captain halted any destruction of those parts until further notice.

Various confusing design “innovations” of this sort started to pile up.

Captain Korabiskaya tasked Zachikova with investigating as much as she could by digging into the ship’s computers and working with the engineers and technicians. As they sailed, Zachikova used drones to inspect every nook and cranny of the outer hull, gathering data on the materials and construction of the ship. She ultimately concluded that the ship had various functions that had been dummied out in the software.

“Cohen, you were part of the Cheka project, and traveled with the Brigand before. Can you shed some light on this? What do you know about the Brigand’s development?” the Captain asked.

Gunther Cohen nodded his head. “So, I will say up front, I didn’t design anything on the Brigand, and none of the guys who did were in contact with me. I know that, before the Brigand became fully seaworthy, it was a different, bigger ship. I know I heard folks talking about how they ‘chiseled’ the current Brigand out of the ‘rock’ that was the older one. I couldn’t tell you what that means, and it’s just hearsay, but this is a pretty mysterious ship. However, I’m not surprised they dummied a bunch of stuff out in the software. That’s standard procedure for Union design.”

“Standard procedure? To install a ton of extra equipment and make it inoperable?”

The Captain looked unsatisfied with the answer.

At that point, Murati interrupted briefly.

“It probably saves on R&D, doesn’t it? It’s easier than physically ripping out mechanical systems that were not properly completed, and then having to restructure the ship’s guts for it.”

“Murati has the right of it. Projects like the Cheka and the Brigand are pie-in-the-sky kind of stuff, we were dreaming big, and then we had to temper our expectations. I can imagine for a piece of machinery as complicated as a ship once you have added certain mechanical systems it’s not easy to rip them out entirely if they’re buggy or just unfinished. Those extra jets, for example, are way easier to dummy out in the software than they are to remove and redo the whole stern.”

Commissar Bashara rubbed her chin with one hand, resting the elbow on the table.

“Zachikova, could you list the equipment you were able to account for that has no available software? I would like a clear picture of the kinds of things we are talking about.” She asked.

Nodding, Zachikova read from her minicomputer. “There are two retractable devices in the prow and two above the stern that appear defensive in nature. We know they have motors, actuators and what looks like an agarthicite lattice associated with them. There’s a vertical missile tube that can fit standardized tube drones, dummies, and chaff, but Geninov can’t launch anything out of it. There are two additional small jets, but they do nothing if Kamarik tries to engage them. These are only a few of the larger objects. There may be finer systems we haven’t accounted for yet.”

“This sounds like such a massive waste of engineering.” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“I can understand your perspective as a soldier, you all want to have as many options as possible, but these things were dummied out for a reason.” Cohen said. “Already the Brigand is a bit of a patchwork and it was designed as a testbed for a particular capability and purpose. I think right now, we should stick to the basics of launching Divers out of it and supporting them.”

“Sometimes equipment that is dummied out is fully operational.” Zachikova said.

“That’s true, but we can’t know that here.” Cohen said. “Everyone who designed these bits is a high-level spook, too, I’m almost sure of it. I think we should leave it well enough alone.”

Zachikova turned to the Captain with something like determination in her eyes.

“Captain, Commissar, I must admit I am fascinated by these findings.” She said suddenly.

“So are we. Cohen’s points aside, though, almost everything on this ship is digital.” Captain Korabiskaya said. “So, if we don’t have software to run it, we can’t use it. Even if we can crawl someone through the ducts to that vertical missile tube, for example, they can’t launch anything.”

“Judging by your expression, Zachikova, you have an idea.” Commissar Bashara said.

Captain Korabiskaya stared at the Commissar and then at Zachikova in confusion.

Zachikova smiled for the first time. It was a small smile, but quite self-satisfied.

“You are right, Captain, that the Brigand is a digital being and we have no analog ways of using this equipment. It is conventional wisdom that for security purposes, it is not possible to write executable code to a ship’s supercomputer, so the ship’s crew can only use the included script and software bundles to carry out their tasks and can only perform minimal customization.”

“Wait. You’re insinuating that you can crack the computer?” Captain Korabiskaya said.

“Indeed. I can potentially edit back in some of the ship’s lost functionality, with time.”

Cohen looked terrified. “Ensign Zachikova, have you read a single treatise on engineering ethics? There’s a reason, other than security, that we don’t let people just write and execute code willy-nilly on ships. We’re supposed to be guaranteeing a certified, safe environment to work in!”

Zachikova turned her cold eyes on him. “Engineer Cohen, what if I told you I was a ‘spook’ myself at one point? That I was exactly the sort of unreachable, invisible person whose intentions you feared to probe? That where my actions were concerned, the ends justified the means, far above any regulation you could name?”

“Say what? Excuse me? Did everyone just process what this woman just said?”

The engineer looked to the Captain and the Commissar for support and found none.

“Zachikova was a ship saboteur in the Union Navy special forces.” Said the Commissar, calmly.

“I guess if anyone can crack something like this, it’s her. A very lucky personnel assignment.” Captain Korabiskaya smiled, perhaps a little nervously. Zachikova puffed out her chest with pride.

Cohen looked at them as if he could not believe what he was hearing.

Murati then raised a rather soft concern, in light of the other issues.

“Wait one minute though, how can you write executable code on a ship computer?”

Cohen tried to look to her for support as well, but as a soldier, she was also not opposed to the idea of trying to rehabilitate some of the Brigand’s more eccentric features. A piece of equipment was something to be mastered and perfected, both in the realm of strategy and logistics, and in development. They were owed full control and full power over this ship. She simply did not share Gunther Cohen’s passionate sense of the sanctity of workplace regulations. At least, not aboard an experimental military ship on a black ops mission.

Zachikova, of course, had an answer to Murati’s question.

“I found an exploit that would let me install software on Union ship computers.” Zachikova says. “In order to make it work, we need to briefly cut power to the computer, causing an unexpected shutdown and recovery. Normally only thin clients specifically mated to a ship are able to connect to its supercomputer. Those clients are knocked out when the supercomputer goes down. However, I am an independent, compatible device on the ship network, so I can exploit the recovery state to take unauthorized actions. I’ll install software to guarantee us continued, privileged access to the supercomputer so we can write our own code to it.”

She pointed to the two antennae on her head and demonstrated how she could remove one to expose a tiny serial port in her head, to which one might have connected networking or data cables. This port could connect computing devices directly to the mechanical parts of her brain, which had been cybernetically augmented. Cohen stared at it speechless, while the Captain and Commissar looked quite impressed with it.

“So you’ll use yourself as a computing device through which you can access the supercomputer. Interesting.”

Commissar Bashara seemed to understand the plan. Captain Korabiskaya looked a bit lost.

“Will you be okay, Zachikova? I’m not sure of the limitations of your brain implants.”

“I appreciate the concern, Captain. I will be fine. I’ve used my status as a living machine to great effect on missions before this one. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be on this ship otherwise.”

“You’re not a living machine, you’re a person, Zachikova. But I accept your reasoning.”

Zachikova looked indifferent to the Captain’s assurances of her humanity.

As the conversation developed, Cohen grew visibly more dissatisfied. “You asked me to come here to consult. My advice is, don’t do this. There is a world of problems with this!” He crossed his arms, seemingly offended.

“We value your input, Engineer Cohen.” Commissar Bashara said. Her tail stood straight and her voice and expression both grew stern. “However, this ship is not a collective farm. You were asked to advise us and we have listened to your advice. We have a mission, and our mission is led by a dictatorship. The Captain and I appear to agree about this course of action. We need all the power we can get. Zachikova, you will prepare the cracking software. We’ll work with you on a window of time to execute it. Then we’ll explore our options with each individual customization. We will be careful with them, and we will be as responsible as we are able.”

“Those devices were removed for our own good. But you’re right; it’s your decision.”

Cohen sat back and turned his head as if he were wiping his hands clean of this business.


After the meeting, Murati escorted Zachikova to the laboratory.

Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara headed to the bridge to set up a window for them to cut power to the computer to crash it. All of the ship had to be informed about the shutdown and to take a break until this task was accomplished. As they walked to the lab, Zachikova worked on her minicomputer.

From her jacket she withdrew a memory stick, worn and scratched, a sticker peeled off it.

“Is that the program you need?” Murati asked.

“It’s my toolkit.” Zachikova replied.

“Were you issued that, or did you make it yourself?”

Her voice turned colder fast. “No comment.”

She might have taken it with her after leaving the special forces. Maybe not fully reported.

Murati did not pry any further. It would not have been fair to Zachikova.

“I wanted to thank you for your work in proposing this to the Captain.” She said.

“Well, I’m glad at least the people who matter were happy with my presentation.”

Zachikova spoke in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone without a shred of doubt or hesitation.

“It may sound sentimental, but I respect your expertise. I trust you; because of your record.”

Everyone else had made such a big deal of Zachikova’s past in the Special Forces. Had it been her, Murati would have definitely felt ostracized by those kinds of comments. Zachikova was her peer. She had kept quiet at the meeting, but she wanted Zachikova to know she had support among her peers.

For her part, however, Zachikova did not acknowledge her intentions whatsoever.

“How do you feel about the special forces, Lieutenant?”

Interesting question.

How did Murati feel about the special forces?

She thought of what she knew about them: they handled critical missions, against external and internal threats. Asset protection, targeted liquidation, reconnaissance, sabotage, espionage. They were accountable to the internal security directorate and not formally part of the Navy. Training for the special forces was heavy, and it required a certain temperament to get approved for them. Or at least that was what Murati learned about them in her time writing papers about the military for the Academy.

She knew, basically, what they were and what they did — but how did she feel about them?

“I trust that your unit fulfilled its duty. Like all of us you worked to protect the Union.”

Even if she did not know exactly what Zachikova had done, Murati wanted to trust her.

Zachikova glanced sidelong at Murati in response. She put on a tiny little grin.

“I see. You would be really dangerous in the special forces, Murati Nakara.”

Murati waited for Zachikova to elaborate on that point, but she never did.

Zachikova stuck the memory stick into her minicomputer and connected to it via the serial cable on her left antennae. On the computer, the ordinary GUI for Union thin clients was taken over by a shell that was running a series of commands, scrolling through diagnostic text much faster than Murati could figure out. With that device plugged into her antennae, the hazy way her eyes looked while staring down at the screen, she really did look almost mechanical. When her eyes glanced sidelong at Murati once more, she briefly saw tiny digits flitting across them. They must have been cybernetic, like the antennae.

Most sufferers of Hartz syndrome needed both the antennae and the eye implants together.

She was not a machine, however. She was a person. Murati held firmly to that.

“You definitely joined this mission because you have a self-righteous streak, Murati Nakara. As for me, I just want a challenge.” Zachikova said, almost to herself. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Did I give such a bad impression? I won’t judge you. What matters is that you’re here.”

No response from the Electronic Warfare officer. She became immersed in her work.

Murati felt mildly anxious about whether Zachikova appreciated or disdained her kindness toward her.

At the meeting she had called herself a machine. Did she really believe that?

They had barely met; Murati resolved to give it some time.

It still weighed on her mind as she traveled.

Beyond the common areas of the ship was the Science & Observation section, closer to the tail of the ship and directly plugged into the conning tower — a ship’s “top fin” that contained a multitude of sensors, cameras, and other equipment. Through the sliding doors, the first object in Murati’s sight was the ship’s tree. Encased in a habitat and attended to using drone arms controlled from the outside, the tree was almost as tall as the room with a vast, beautiful green crown that brushed against the confines of the hermetic glass in which it was kept. Like many Union trees it was planted on a black mound — a combination of synthetic soil, heritage soil that was brought to the Union’s agrispheres by the Empire, and soil extracted from continental caves.

That tree would provide some of their fresh oxygen, but it was mainly symbolic.

Even under the Ocean, after the catastrophe, surface life continued to struggle. Humanity was part of this.

Arrayed around the tree in the center was the laboratory equipment. Each station had a different purpose that would have been better understood by a science officer. There were centrifuges, containment cells for biohazardous material, burners, dessicators, evaporators, distillation equipment, all manner of glasses; a few more mysterious devices like a “vacuum oven,” a “particle accelerator” and an “ultraviolet chamber” among others. In the rear of the room was a nondescript box about the size of a locker turned on its side, containing the supercomputer and an array of cooling racks and heat sinks that looked almost like an art station.

Along the sides of the room were the agri-units, one growing mushrooms, a second growing spinach and a third housing a bubbling vat of modified yeast, which would be turned into patties. These units could provide some of the ship’s fresh food needs. They could not feed the entire crew, but they could make sure the entire crew could have a bite or two of fresh food regularly, rather than relying entirely on their packed supplies.

“Murati! You came over! I can’t believe it took this long for my hubby to pay a visit!”

Managing of all this equipment was the task of the Science Officer, Karuniya Maharapratham.

Seeing Murati, she rushed to the entryway and threw herself into Murati’s arms.

Unprepared to have to catch her fiancé, Murati nearly fell over with her.

Karuniya nuzzled herself against Murati with a big grin on her face.

Murati held her, like Karuniya clearly desired, but let a tired sigh while doing so.

“We see each other every day. We live together!” Murati then cried out.

“You think that’s enough attention for a maiden in full bloom? What a frigid husband!”

“I don’t even know where to start with that!”

“You should start by giving me a big kiss, hubby–”

Murati turned her face away with a big grin, making a show of denying Karuniya attention.

For a moment, Karuniya put on a shocked face in response.

“In the first place, I’m a woman, I don’t know where this husband business came from–”

“Women can be husbands! And cold and mean as the river Cocytus! As you demonstrate!”

“Being called frigid and mean really puts me in the mood to indulge my needy fiancé.”

“Stop casting me as the villain. If you took better care of me, I wouldn’t be like this.”

For a moment, the pair indulged in this sort of teasing as if in their own little world.

Karuniya finally peeled herself off Murati with a big smile.

Murati could not help but smile, a bit bashfully. Being a “husband” was kind of charming.

After indulging in their aura of cohabitation, the pair suddenly realized they had company.

At their side, Zachikoya briefly looked up at them from behind her minicomputer.

Just as quickly, she went back into hiding behind the screen.

“Ah, sorry Zachikova.” Murati felt her heart sink with embarrassment. “This is Karuniya Maharapratham, the Science Officer. We’re getting married, and she gets carried away a lot–”

“You were playing along too.” Karuniya said, narrowing her eyes at Murati. She reached out a hand to try to be friendly, but Zachikova was not in the mood. As soon as Karuniya reached out, she had already walked past them toward the back of the room, headed for the supercomputer.

“Let me know when the Captain authorizes the shutdown.” She said, waving her hand.

As she disappeared behind the tree, she did not even glance at them once over her shoulder.

Karuniya crossed her arms and put on a petulant expression in response to the snub.

“What’s her problem?”

Murati sighed, rubbing her temples. She was so mortified she had begun to sweat.

“I think we made a bad first impression.”

“Whatever. I don’t care.” Karuniya was clearly mad. “So, what are you here for then?”

Murati almost considered trying to tease her, but her mood was simply too oppressive.

“Zachikova is going to do some work on the supercomputer.”

“Uh huh, this isn’t surplus junk at a station plaza, you know. What can she even do to it?”

“Apparently a lot. The Captain authorized it, so don’t worry about the finer details.”

Karuniya shrugged. “I haven’t done any important work on it anyway, so go right ahead.”

“I would’ve thought you’d have more to do than me.” Murati said, commiserating.

While Murati was completely idle, being a combat soldier without any combat or training to do, Karuniya was a scientist. She had drones and sensor tentacles and other equipment at her disposal to collect samples at any point. And she had other responsibilities too: her lab housed the ship’s tree and the agri-units.

Though mainly automated, they still required some supervision.

“We’re still in the Nectaris. Cascabel’s waters aren’t really any different from the Union’s. Once we’re deeper into Sverland and even the Imbrium, I’ll have research worth doing, samples to collect and all of that. Until then I’m just looking after the nitrogen levels on the tree and looking forward to my next meal.”

“Remind me to lend you one of my mixtapes. I can really waste away the hours to those.”

Karuniya perked up a little. She laughed gently with Murati. “I guess that’d help a little.”

On one of the monitors in the lab, Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Bashara appeared.

“Alright, we’ve given her a window! Make sure she’s okay, Murati.”

“Copy.” Murati said. Karuniya saluted alongside her.

At the appointed hour, the pair of them stood by as the supercomputer went down.

There was really nothing to see.

Zachikova sat next to the supercomputer housing, plugged into it with one antenna and her minicomputer with the other. She had a placid, glassy-eyed stare as if sleeping with her eyes open. She was like that for twenty minutes. At one point, Karuniya kneeled beside her and pressed her hand to the girl’s chest to confirm a heartbeat and breathing. She was perfectly alive and fine, but her consciousness was somewhere else.

Finally, Zachikova moved. She unplugged herself from the computer and shook her head.

“Let me run a test here quickly.”

Zachikova stood up and got to work on her minicomputer.

One of the monitors in the lab graphically glitched for a second then began to display a horrid looking line of text that seemed to have been constructed out of graphical assets normally used for the UI on ship programs, like the cute swirls on the corners of the screen, and the stylized buttons, but chopped up into bits and pieces.

It read: “80085”

“Boobs?” Karuniya shouted, her jaw hanging in disbelief.            

Zachikova smiled.

“Perfect. Tell the Captain we’re in business.”


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.7]

War and tragedy didn’t simply alter space. In a sense, they also altered time.

The threshold between an ending and a beginning was thin, ludicrous, and maddening.

A step through the invisible, past a shadow; the delineation between an era and the next.

Nobody had quite come to terms with the fullness of their condition before the ship had begun to move. In the preceding days they had not been able to; and the maybe in the subsequent days they would fail to do so as well. When war came to Thassal, everyone’s connection to their previous future had shattered. Since then they were just pantomiming with fate.

Needless to say, nobody was truly situated when Brigand began disembarking procedures.

They had a tight schedule, and a crew that was not used to launching a “brand new ship.”

So there were a lot of sailors lollygagging still, but three conditions had been met.

First, the essential bridge crew was assembled. They had the Captain, Commissar, Helmsman, and Communications, and they also had Sonar operational. Those were the basics for running the ship.

 Second, the Reactor crew had come with the ship from Solstice.

So they were accounted for, already in position, and knew what they were doing.

Third and finally, Specialist Semyonova’s beautiful, calming voice had called out to everyone on the ship to please access their nearest terminal or use any portable minicomputer to answer a roll call, which she then initiated. Within moments, the entire roster was accounted for.

At that point it didn’t matter if the sailors were looking for their rooms still.

Most of the systems were automatic anyway.

And the ship absolutely had to move.

Perhaps before anyone could regret what they had chosen.

As suddenly as everything else, and with as little fanfare as everything else, the Brigand undocked from Thassal Station. It was officially in open water and would officially begin its months long journey through the heart of the Empire. In the same confusion, surreality and haste that had characterized the rest of the crew’s life for the past few days, the Brigand now departed.

When it did, Murati Nakara did not quite notice it because she was passing through one of the workshops leading to the hangar. She marveled at all the amazing tools they had and became excited when she walked down to the massive, wide-open hangar to inspect the Divers they had. The Hangar was bigger than the Formidable’s, which was impressive considering the Brigand was the size of a cruiser. Big, but not dreadnought big.

There was equipment everywhere, being moved, or set up, by a platoon of sailors, so the final workspaces were still heavily in flux.

Most of the sailors on the Brigand were mechanics or engineers, and it felt like Murati was staring at all of them working right there. She felt a different sensation from her past forays. She felt proud.

This was her ship, in part, that these folks were setting in order.

She almost wanted to help them. To pick up a pneumatic bolt-driver and get to work on the gantries and get the charging stations cabled-up and tested. That was not her role, however.

It was at that point that a message finally went out.

“UNX-001 Brigand has officially departed Thassal Station!”

It was the saccharine voice of Specialist Semyonova, handling bridge communications.

Murati whistled with amazement. She had felt nothing stirring in the secondary hull.

Just like that, without even knowing it, she was now at sea. Her mission had begun.

Semyonova continued with an update on initial crew duties.

“All sailors not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time to inspect their quarters and the amenities of the ship, before joining their work cohorts for their first briefing. All officers not otherwise engaged will have an hour of free time as well. All essential personnel have already been engaged with their work cohorts and will have two hours of free time available in four hours.”

“How organized. Launch is really going smoothly, isn’t it?” Murati asked.

“I guess so. But nothing announced for essential officers?”

At Murati’s side, Karuniya was also inspecting the ship with ample curiosity.

They had been basically inseparable since their cohabitation agreement.

Though they would work different roles, they could at least live together in their habitat.

“Important officers would already be in the bridge. I’m guessing we’re not essential.”

“You’re the First Officer Murati. You should put in an appearance at the Bridge.”

“I will! I need to inspect the Divers first. I’m also Diver Leader, you know?”

“You’re just a hopeless military nerd.”

Ignoring Karuniya’s bullying remarks, Murati headed to the center of the hangar.

“Can you go ahead and see if our stuff got to the room ok?”

“Seriously? You’re going to treat me like the disposable wife already?”

Karuniya had a sly face on. Murati felt uncomfortable with the teasing.

“I’m really not trying to, and I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“You’re so defensive! I’m just teasing. You better make this up to me though.”

Murati smiled nervously. “I’ll think of something.”

Still grinning like a devil, Karuniya willingly left Murati’s side.

At the hangar there were six Divers in place, five of them in various states of disarray. Only one had a complete gantry and was set in its proper place, with seemingly all of its parts assembled. The rest were sitting against corners for lack of proper gantries to dock to, missing weapons and even limbs, and had their battery packs uncharged and laid out nearby. It was a mess, but it was exciting to see the Streloks that she may someday command into battle, in their nascent state.

However, it was the remaining Diver, the assembled one, that really caught her eye.

This Diver looked like an entirely different model. It was not just a Strelok.

Rather than the almost oblong shape of the Strelok’s central body, the new model had a somewhat more triangular body shape, with more angled surfaces forward and flatter surfaces in the back. The head, rather than being flat and square, was shaped more like a triangle as well, with a central eye and multiple rotating eyes. Angled points stretched from the “cheeks” of this “head”.

While the arms were slightly sleeker, they had armored extensions covering the elbow verniers, and the legs and feet much the same. It was a much more aggressive design. She could see that the back had been completely redesigned as well. The rear flaps flared out a bit more, and there were five hydrojets rather than four. Two were set on either side of a new central jet. The intakes had been integrated into the main hull rather than being run out to attachments on the hips and upper chest. There was an extra intake around the “collarbone” of the Diver’s torso for the extra jet.

“Diver Leader Nakara, right? Taken in by the new model?”

Coming in from behind her, a man called for her attention. He wore a yellow and orange work vest over the white and blue of the fake company they pretended to be, “TBT.” He had a hard hat and safety goggles, but removed them when he approached, revealing a strong, square face with a friendly smile and slick blond hair. He reached out, and she shook his hand.

“That’s me. Are you a mechanic?” Murati asked.

“Engineer, actually. I’m a Warrant Officer instead of a Sailor. Gunther Cohen.”

“Nice to meet you, Warrant Officer Cohen.”

He raised his arms behind the back of his head and laughed, in an affable gesture.

“Nah, nah, call me Gunther! We’re going to be at sea for a while, you know?”

“I suppose so. I’ve never served on a ship for long enough to get over the formalities before.” Murati replied. All of her missions lasted days or weeks. This was her first long-term post.

“Then let’s get over them right now. Most of the comrades here are on a first-name basis.”

He had such a chummy look on his face that she couldn’t help but be nice about it.

“Well then, I suppose you can call me Murati then.” She said.

Gunther nodded his head in acknowledgment and turned right around to the Diver.

“In truth, I had been hoping that you would pilot this one.”

Murati had not really given it any thought.

She figured they would be assigned machines.

“The Diver Leader should get the best machine. It’s only proper, isn’t it? And in truth, this one’s a little tougher to handle than the Streloks. It could use somebody with a bit more experience in the cockpit.”

“So it’s not a Strelok, then?”

 Just by looking at the machine it was plain to see that it was not a Strelok.

Murati still felt compelled to ask the question out of her own curiosity.

Gunther seemed to know a lot about the suit, and he was open about his desire to show it.

“Well, we can’t deny that the Strelok is in the DNA of all our Diving suits, the same way the Rabochiy is in the Strelok’s DNA. But they’re vastly different machines. We made this one to really push Union war manufacturing to its limits. We thought, if we could imagine anything we wanted, without worrying about the cost; and there it is, the ISU-100 Cheka.”

“What does ISU stand for? Diver models had UND designations before.” Murati asked.

“Ah, I guess a connoisseur would stumble into the grimmest part of this huh?”

Murati could not decipher Gunther’s bashful response to her question.

“Well, we don’t have to go into it, I was just curious.”

“No, it’s ok. I helped with this project for the past few months, to get it over the finish line. A couple of different groups worked on it, and we kind of put together everything at the end. But the genesis of the idea was for the Cheka to be a small production line of Internal Suppression Units for the Ashura’s security division. It had to be better than a Strelok, to suppress a mutiny, in case something happened where some rebel force got ahold of our current ships and divers.”

Murati’s eyes drew wide with the recognition of this machine’s purpose. She supposed even in the kind and caring society that the Union tried to be, there were people who were tasked with upholding the peace, and they had to be prepared for the worst possible circumstances. At least she could take heart that the machine would not be used on Union citizens now.

“So that’s why it is an ISU. It’s not a Union Navy Diver, but an Internal Suppression Unit.”

Gunther finished his explanation running his hand through his hair, looking offput.

“It’s fine.” Murati said. “Thank you for explaining it to me. I don’t hold anything against you or against that machine. I’m happy that it will get to see a more worthy use. I will pilot it.”

If for no other reason that no one else should be responsible for that kind of firepower.

“Great!” Gunther clapped his hands together and brightened up instantly. “I saw data from your recovered Strelok in Thassal. For someone who had never fought a real battle in a Strelok before, you showed a lot of potential. And, I mean, I say that as number-crunching nerd– I’m absolutely terrible as a pilot. From the data, I think you’ll love what the Cheka can do.”

“At a glance, it looks much more sophisticated. But what can it do, better than a Strelok?”

Gunther rubbed his hands. “I’m glad you asked. The Cheka is a meter taller than a Strelok, but it’s actually faster. It has more rear thrust, stronger verniers for better snap maneuverability in combat, and instead of using those huge battery packs, it has Agarthic energy cells built-into the works of the hull and backpack. That’s how we saved so much on space and weight in the design.”

“I see, but then, that means the power unit is not interchangeable. So if it gets damaged, it has to be repaired in place, and then it can’t just be hot swapped in the field, isn’t that true?”

Almost thoughtlessly, Murati came out with a criticism that floored Gunther.

“I mean– well, yes. That’s true. But the performance gains are crazy to make up for it!”

“And it has all the standard weapons, correct?”

“It can use the AK-pattern rifles, and tube-launched torpedoes. Um, well, funny you ask, but another place where we differ from the Strelok is encumbrance. It can’t really support huge cannons or a lot of the shoulder weapons. The Strelok just has a heavier, stabler center mass.”

Gunther sounded embarrassed every time he had to mention a flaw in the Cheka.

Murati understood the changes, however. This was a Diver meant for a new era, when outmaneuvering enemy fire and clashing with enemy Divers would become more important. It was forward-looking and highly specialized. Maybe it really was a suit tailored for her own ideas.

“That’s fine. I would love to take it out for a test.” Murati said.

“Absolutely! I can get authorization right now.” Gunther said.

He patted her on the back in a cheerful fashion, as if they were all best friends who had agreed to go to the bar for some drinks. Murati was nearly swept up in his frenetic energy.

“Wait, right now?”

As she asked that terribly important question, there was a sudden blaring of klaxons.

Everyone in the hangar stopped what they were doing.

First they looked up, at the alarm lights and sounds being played.

They then turned to the nearest console for an explanation.

For messages like this, a video from the bridge crew would play.

Soon enough, the pretty, round face of Communications Officer Semyonova appeared, her blond hair expertly tied up, her makeup neatly applied. Many of the sailors were captivated with her and began to joke that being startled by a test of the emergency system was a small price to pay for getting to finally see the face of the beautiful siren-like voice that had been bossing them around. For a moment, as they watched her appear, they smiled and waved at the screens.

It was not a test.

“Battle stations! All crew, battle stations!”

All of the sailors, men, women, both and neither, who had been expressing their feelings for Semyonova, practically fell over backwards on their discarded tools and messy work areas. They scrambled to find something to do or some place to be. Many had not been fully briefed. While the chaos reigned in Engineering, Semyonova continued to explain the situation.

“At roughly 1135 hours, our bridge crew detected the active biosonar of a Barding-class Leviathan approaching from roughly north-northwest in what we assume is a steep, high speed dive. Due to our heading, we must assume we have now been detected by the Leviathan. We don’t know the reason for the Leviathan’s appearance, but it is possibly injured, and therefore erratic and aggressive. We are now 10 kilometers from Thassal Station and must assume we will be the only responders. By procedure we have labeled this Leviathan “Union-Sighted Leviathan 96” or USL-96. All crew assume battle-stations and await further orders for action against USL-96.”

Semyonova’s face vanished from the consoles, which now displayed diagrams drawn up by the predictive computers. This showed the Brigand and its heading, and the potential route of collision with the Leviathan. They would do their best not to near it, but the Leviathan moved faster and with greater agility than any ship, so it was likely they would have to euthanize it.

Murati ran from Gunther’s side and made for the nearest console.

Authorizing herself as the First Officer she was able to get a priority line to the bridge.

In a moment, Captain Korabiskaya’s face appeared on the screen.

“Lieutenant, good to see you. I’m glad you were in the Hangar as I assumed.”

“I was inspecting the Divers. I apologize for not coming up.” Murati said.

There was no aggression whatsoever in the Captain’s response.

“It’s all fine. We expected to have more time to sort things out. We’ve barely left port!”

Murati nodded. “Ma’am, I need to deploy in the Cheka.”

Captain Korabiskaya drew back with surprise at this sudden demand.

“That experimental Diver in the equipment list? Is it even set up yet?”

“It is completely ready.”

In terms of firepower, any ship could potentially kill a Leviathan. However, firepower was the least important factor in a confrontation between humans and beasts. Larger vessels suffered much more from the impacts and attacks of Leviathans. They presented larger targets that a Leviathan’s biosonar would interpret as another Leviathan class enemy, and it would bring out the worst and most targeted of their aggression. Bigger, slower ships could not avoid a Leviathan easily, and might suffer terrible damage trying to fight off the faster, more flexible creature.

If they had a fleet, they could use their faster escort ships to engage the monster.

They did not have a fleet. They had one large ship, and Divers.

Murati’s heart was full of determination, and her face reflected it.

She believed strongly that if she did not protect everyone their mission could be over.

Captain Korabiskaya seemed to sense the stubbornness engraved in her brows and lips and sighed with exhaustion. “Lieutenant, I’m hesitant to authorize this. Right now nothing is set up, you’ll have no backup out there.” She said. “We need to get everyone organized, and then–”

“I’ve got enough help right here. Gunther!”

Murati turned around. Gunther was still near the Cheka, standing around in confusion as the world moved at a frenetic pace around him. Calling his name seemed to snap him out of his anxiety and he ran over to the console. When he laid eyes on the Captain, he immediately saluted.

 “What was all that about formalities?” Murati said.

“It’s the Captain! It’s different!” He said stiffly.

“Captain,” Murati turned back to the console and locked eyes with Korabiskaya. “This man worked on the Cheka. He knows more than just what’s on the datasheets or programmed into the computers. Gunther, do you think the Cheka could stand up to a Barding-class Leviathan?”

Gunther scoffed. “It was designed to fight Streloks 1 against 3 and win, of course it can!”

He collected himself immediately and made a nervous gesture at the Captain.

Murati gestured with her palm up toward Gunther and winked at the Captain.

“I have Gunther here who will help me deploy. And the Cheka can handle the rest.”

“You’re too stubborn, Murati Nakara. You’ll have to work on that when you return.”

Captain Korabiskaya’s gaze avoided her, and her lips turned in a worried expression.

At that point, the video feed cut off, and a message authorizing the launch appeared.

On the Cheka’s gantry, the locks were undone automatically by the bridge crew.

The suit’s heavily angled forward surfaces moved to reveal a hatch, allowing entry.

Murati was still dressed in the TBT half-jacket and pants, but she wore a full bodysuit under it, and told herself this was adequate enough for a snap deployment. Without changing into a diving suit, she rushed over the front of the gantry, climbed up to the Cheka’s hull and slipped into the cockpit. Behind her, the frantic energy of the Hangar was silenced as the hatch closed.

For an instant, she was alone in the pitch black. She could hardly believe where she was.

Then her instruments began to light up. It was all familiar.

She was a Diver; ready to fight.            

On one of the screens, the words ‘For the workers’ revolution!’ briefly appeared.


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Brigands [3.4]

Go fuck yourself, you drunk, womanizing cad.

Yana found a response written on a massive computer window left open in her room’s wall.

Her overnight partner, Aaliyah, was long gone. There was no trace for her. Even on the bed, any fluids they expelled in their passion would have been evaporated by the room as part of its cleaning routine. Yana sighed heavily, sinking into her bed. At least she would be leaving soon.

Maybe if she survived all of this mess she would skip town and move to Lyser.

Throwing her casual clothes on the ground, she laid in bed in her wetsuit for hours.

She asked herself, constantly: What should I feel about this?

For the past five years she had avoided work on ships.

Nagavanshi was right. She blamed herself for the Pravda. Nothing would change that.

Yana had thought the best medicine was to disappear.

She had served in the military since the revolution, going from cadet to Captain. She had been promoted faster than any of her peer group and completed many more assignments. For years she had been obsessed with work. It was her right to retire to a peaceful life. And she had some good years, some great parties, some amazing exes. Fun stories to tell. Those first few years of drinking away the memory of the disaster that had befallen her served to erase her past; but also her future.

Now that she was older, she felt pressured to change herself. To become somebody.

Old habits die hard.

“That’s just stupid excuses, Yana.” She told herself. “I keep wanting to do this shit.”

Anyone who wanted could judge her, for the drinking, (for the womanizing.)

None of them could hurt her more than she hurt herself.

None of them could her feel more ashamed than she did.

And none of them could change her or what she felt.

In fact, no one had even tried. Everyone, including herself, found it easier to give up.

Until Nagavanshi — that woman was a demon.

She had a way of dominating anyone.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the UNX-001 Brigand.

Why was she doing this? Nagavanshi had placed so much importance on this ship.

Yana almost felt scared. To think that she would be responsible for a crew again.

After all she had done, for years, to avoid any responsibility for her actions.

“It’s Nagavanshi who wants me there. She said all that crap, didn’t she?”

There was a part of her, buried deep beneath the detritus of the past few years, that felt a strange thrill at the idea of commanding a ship again. And it was a ship on a historic mission, too. Nagavanshi had called her a hero. She had praised her so much. That praise pissed her off; it was so presumptive. Yana did not see herself that way– but she hated that she couldn’t feel that pride.

“But what if I could earn it again? What if–”

Nagavanshi’s voice in her head interrupted her thoughts.

What if she could redeem herself?

That was what Nagavanshi had explicitly offered her.

Could she ever actually redeem herself? Was she redeemable at all?

Yana grit her teeth, shook her head. She could not keep thinking about this.

She was so exhausted. Her head was pounding.

Manipulating the wall computer, she summoned a gentle violin melody.

All around her the lights dimmed.

“Wake me up an hour before the meeting.” She murmured as she typed the words.

Yana threw herself back against the bed, shut her eyes, and had a long, dreamless nap.

Hours passed. All of the darkness of the past few hours washed out of her body in sleep.

She awakened a few minutes before her alarm, in time to hear it go off and feel annoyed.

Purged of emotion, and cured of her headache, Yana felt as ready she could ever be.

Standing at the door to her wardrobe, she hesitated, fingers hovering over the door handle.

“Nagavanshi said it can only be me. So, let her bear the responsibility then.”

Disabusing herself of the burden of her fate allowed Yana to throw open those doors and push aside the cocktail dresses, the tailored blazers and pants, the erotic lingerie, and other regalia of the life she had pursued. Behind all of it was her military uniform. Thankfully, her figure had not changed overmuch from when she was active duty. She had kept fit enough for uniform.

For the first time in years, she donned a full bodysuit, dress shirt, uniform skirt and coat. Her rank insignia, a yellow bar with three circles with a small star inside for Senior Captain, shone proudly on both the lapel of her coat, and just above her breasts. Her blonde hair was again tidied up behind the back of her head with a claw hair clip. Professional; confident; maybe even austere.

Maybe even too austere. She dabbed a bit of red lipstick on before leaving the apartment.

Having just a little bit of party girl in her would not hurt crew discipline.

With makeup, her face looked remarkably like she remembered it before the Pravda.

Was the woman staring back at her truly 36 years old? Had that much time passed?

Yana touched her own face.

“God, I still look like a girl.”

Having lost perspective on this, her idea of a girl was herself, in her late 20s.

That was the face she saw looking back, the face that surprised her.

For some reason she expected she looked much more wearied, worn.

“I guess there’s a little bit around my eyes.”

Yana really had to strain to see the tiny wrinkles there.

Nevertheless, she dabbed a little concealer from her makeup kit around her eyes.

Seeing herself in uniform, all made up, and moving on to a new ship, it surprised her. All of these touchstones to a past she felt had been completely obliterated, gave her a tiny bit of hope that allowed her to gird herself for the future. To go back to the Naval HQ, after half a decade of military abstinence. She almost enjoyed how she looked in the coat and skirt.

She struck a pose with her fists on her hips, leaning forward.

Mustering up her most commanding voice, she pointed a finger at her reflection.

“Launch torpedo #8! Go for the enemy’s forward ballast!”

Even more surprising, she found herself smiling in front of the mirror.

“My, oh my.”

She winked at her reflection before departing her room.

Nagavanshi had not given her a specific time she should appear at the HQ, so she figured she could make it in by 1800. That was the second shift at the offices. To simulate “night,” a concept which was scientifically understood but not experienced beneath the sea, the lights around the station started to dim. By 1800 the Station would start to transition to its night life. People would open up co-op bars and even tiny pop-ups in the halls and plazas. There was music and dancing, and a flurry of colors provided by party drones, balls of LED lights with basic programming.

All industrial production in the Union was controlled by cadres of workers that answered to the central Union government. This is what gave the Union its name at first. It had risen out of labor unionization. This continued to be the case, but the Union allowed home-made goods, and anyone who wanted could apply to purchase or trade the raw materials to make their own textiles, alcohol, and computerized devices. When there was a surplus, some materials were even free.

For alcohol in particular, there was an additional restriction that home-made drinks could not be sold during the “day” when people worked. So walking the halls at night, one would see all manner of tiny places open out of personal rooms or shared workspaces, selling their own brews.

Yana was tempted, but she valiantly resisted. She had work to go to, after all.

Her journey took her past a few makeshift clubs, like the ones she would have loved to frequent on any other night. There was beautiful music and gorgeous singing, people dressed in the nicest outfit they owned (or could borrow), close dancing. There was a tight, sweaty, sensual atmosphere to the clubs that, in the most intense places, would even waft out into the hall.

She pushed herself to walk faster and avoided looking through those doors.

For people who lived in and worked either in small, thriftily organized spaces, often by themselves or in tiny groups that would rarely deviate from their work; or worse, out in the terrifying void that was the Ocean surrounding the Station; there was something about the clubs, which formed in open or mid-size spaces, that gave the inhabitants like Yana a lot of comfort. Even the most packed club felt lived in, organic, in a way the Station halls and room could not be.

“No clubbing for you. You’ve decided to be a responsible adult, remember Yana?”

Finally she reached the elevators and took them up to the docks and the Naval HQ.

During the day, the Naval HQ was a chaotic flurry of activity, but at night, it was downright serene. Aside from a few Rabochiy still moving cargo, and a paltry few security officers patrolling with rubber-grenade rifles in hand, there was little traffic, and one could see how broad the thoroughfares were in the Docks and around the Naval HQ. Up above, and all around her, the glass panels looking out onto the berths were brightly lit and allowed Yana to see many ships at rest.

None of those berths contained the ship in the picture, the Brigand. (Her own ship?)

Yana wandered into the Naval HQ, where a receptionist was organizing the front desk, perhaps for want of anything else to do. When Yana arrived, she quickly made herself available.

“Commissar-General Nagavanshi is waiting for me.”

“Oh! Authenticate in the elevator and then tell it to take you to the Observation Spire.” The receptionist said. “While you’re here, by the way, did you see too many people outside?”

Yana shook her head.

“Great! Time for a break.”

With that, the receptionist pressed a button on her desk, and a window appeared on an LCD panel on the adjoining wall, indicating that the reception was closed for 25 minutes.

“Enjoy your break.”

Smiling, Yana ambled past the reception desk and into the elevator.

Inside, a robotic voice acknowledged her presence.

“Senior Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

It had detected the computer chip embedded in her coat. Her credentials still worked.

She saw a few buttons on the wall, but those manual controls were only for the publically accessible floors. In order to access the highest levels of the HQ building, one required credentials that had to be authenticated by machine. Yana had been authorized, so she could verbally select a normally classified destination. Those who were prohibited access didn’t even have the option.

“Observation spire.” She said.

There was no answer from the elevator.

“Observation spire. OX-1917.”

“Location not recognized!”

The elevator was not a thinking entity — no machines could think for themselves, no matter how advanced. It was designed to receive certain input and to take action in response. Clearly it was not working. Yana sighed. She got closer to the control panel and found a manual input for location codes. That was also the location of the elevator microphone. She put her lips near it.

“Observation spire.”

“Location not recognized!”

Grumbling, she put the manual code in for the Spire into the elevator.

Finally there was a slight vibration as it got going.

So much for the glitzy, computerized future.

There was a significant amount of computerization in the Union. They had less manpower than the Empire and less space. Any job a computer could handle was a job that a human did not have to do and freed those humans up to do jobs a computer could not be programmed or trusted to perform — such as firing weapons or offering good service. It was plain to see however that some automation decisions had been poorly thought out, poorly implemented, or both.

Once the elevator got moving it quickly raised Yana through the interior structure of the Thassal mound, and the core pylon holding up the mound and the station. She was lifted up to a point just over the docks. She exited out onto a room with a domed roof that appeared as if it was glass. In reality, it was all LCDs displaying feeds from high-powered cameras outside, making it seem like they were windows and that she was under a dome of glass. A central set of steps led up to three tiers of bulbous observation rooms that offered their guests an unimpressive view of the outside. It was all dark and murky, no matter how well lit or how powerful the cameras.

She could see the outline of at least one ship out there in the dark, however.

As she stepped out of the elevator, she saw a few people loitering about the area in uniform.

Two approached her. One was Nagavanshi, who had a friendless look on her face as usual. Beside her stood a woman in uniform.

Black coat with red trim, and a skirt, over a body stocking.

“There you are, Korabiskaya. I want to introduce you to the Commissar here–”

The Commissar accompanying Nagavanshi was a young woman. Her light olive skin and long dark hair looked devastatingly familiar, as did a pair of fluffy cat-like ears sticking out of the top of her head. Her slender figure, gentle orange eyes and thin, lightly reddened lips brought Yana back to a place she would have rather forgotten all about, and a time similarly fraught. Clubs, liquor pop-ups, the dimly lit station streets. Sweet words, invigorating conversation. A bedroom, the pair desperately undressing. Lifting her up, teasing her, gently nipping the tips of her breasts–

Yana wanted to sink through the floor and be crushed by the sea outside.

And the woman staring daggers at her looked no less mortified, but far more furious.

“This is Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. You two will share command of the Brigand.”

Nagavanshi introduced them. She seemed unaware of the volatile auras between them.

Aaliyah extended her hand silently when prompted.

Filled with a desperate need to cause no further trouble, Yana took the hand.

They exchanged a single, extremely stiff shake, before averting their gazes.

“Her role will be to help you with discipline and personnel decisions. I still expect you to take charge of strategy, but she is a great strategist also and will advise you. I fully vouch for her.”

Curiously, Aaliyah did not have a matching Naga armband. Nobody else in the room did.

That was perhaps the only comforting observation Yana had made of the situation.

“I’ll convene everyone for a briefing in a few minutes.”

Suddenly, Nagavanshi turned around and left them, heading upstairs.

An awkward silence ensued as Aaliyah and Yana stared at one another.

“Got anything to say to me?”

Aaliyah moved first, crossing her arms. Yana withered under her piercing glare.

Despite thinking over everything she could say, the words practically stumbled out of her.

“I hope we can have a professional relationship.”

It was so bad! The worst thing to say!

Aaliyah’s face softened at first as if she could not believe what she heard. Her ears stood on end, and her tail was curled. Then her shaking hands became fists. She bore her fangs.

“I’ll be perfectly professional. A word of professional advice: if you think a girl is so easy you can just fuck her and leave without aftercare, maybe you shouldn’t whisper so many sweet words to her and make yourself out to be so sensitive and caring and oh so in love. Be honest about playing me. Playing me so hard, you didn’t even want to see me wake up, or even two hours later.”

Like Nagavanshi, she turned around and walked away the instant of her last words. Yana was left standing there speechless, mortified, unable to mutter an apology.


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