“Captain, why are we doing this? We can just disembark right now.”
“A hospitality order means we have to keep them in here, but I just can’t accept doing so under the present circumstances. Not when neither of them actually knows the whole story.”
“We only have to keep one, technically speaking. Those are our orders.”
“We can’t just leave Republic Intelligence out to dry. We need them as allies.”
“Did you plan on doing this from the start? Orders are orders, you know.”
“We have to tell them. I’m not going to hold innocent people hostage here for months.”
“While I will support your chosen course of action, I disagree with it.”
“Aaliyah, I can’t live with myself if I tell them halfway to Carmen that they might never set foot on a Union station. If they end up leaving, I’ll take responsibility with Nagavanshi.”
“Ulyana, it won’t just be with Nagavanshi and it won’t just be you alone, you know?”
Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya stopped in the middle of the hallway.
She and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were just meters away from the planning room.
Ulyana had not considered how her actions might have affected Aaliyah.
It was this that gave her pause as she contemplated going against her orders.
She looked back at her Commissar, visibly conflicted. Aaliyah shook her head.
“You need to have the conviction to choose your course of action, Captain.”
“Well, I don’t want to end up making decisions like this for you.”
“I happen to agree with the ethical thrust of your decision.” Aaliyah said.
She sounded a little frustrated. Ulyana felt a bit baffled at her response to this.
She was such a ball of contradictions sometimes.
Perhaps that is what it meant to advise someone. Maybe this was just her style.
“So you agree with the sentiment behind my actions but not the actions themselves?”
“I’m just saying, Captain. Orders are orders. But I will support your decision. It’s my duty.”
Ulyana nodded in acknowledgment.
Silently, she turned back to the door of the planning room and stepped inside.
Around the table, Maryam Karahailos and Marina McKennedy waited with Akulantova.
Marina’s analyst was away: in security custody with Van Der Smidse for the moment.
“Greetings, comrades! I’m Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya of the UNX-001 Brigand.”
Marina gave the Captain a quick salute. “What does UNX stand for? Union Navy what?”
“Experimental. I’m Commissar Aaliyah Bashara. Care to introduce yourself, Republican?”
Aaliyah interceded. She bristled at Marina for her breach of etiquette.
“Marina McKennedy, I’m with the G.I.A Directorate of Operations.” Marina said.
Republic personnel had a reputation in the Union for having sloppy decorum.
Ulyana did think that Marina looked a bit disheveled, even in that sharp suit.
“I suppose I don’t have many questions, except, ‘how long from here to Ferris’?”
Marina grinned and leaned back on her seat with arms crossed over her chest.
Beside Marina, a cuttlefish Pelagis with a gentle smile raised her hand.
“I’m Maryam Karahailos. It’s nice to meet all of you. Thank you so much for taking me in.”
“Pleasure to meet both of you.” Ulyana said. “Agent McKennedy, your appearance was unexpected, but we welcome you board. In fact, having your Diver unit aboard has really fascinated our techs. So feel free to make yourself at home. Sister Karahailos, we will want to speak with you about the information you want to share and get it on the record.”
“Indeed!” Maryam said. Her hair and skin seemed to glow just a little bit.
“How long will I be making myself at home here for? I’m hoping for a clean run south.”
Marina seemed quite impatient, and Aaliyah looked to be chafing against her attitude.
“We’re here to talk about that.” Said the Commissar, her eyes narrowed and her hands on her hips. “And the reason we’re not disembarking yet is precisely because of that, otherwise we would have just stocked you with some blankets and roomed you in one of the torpedo chambers.”
“You’re right, there shouldn’t be much to explain. So what’s going on?” Marina asked.
“Simply put, we’re not going back to the Union. You got a bit unlucky with your rescuer.”
Ulyana heaved a sigh after saying this. She tried to play it cool, but the responses were dire.
Marina stared at her, briefly speechless, tentatively raising and lowering her hands.
Maryam turned momentarily pale white as a cave mushroom. Her whole body shuddered.
Her body’s color scheme seemed to “glitch,” a wave of disturbed, “noisy” color sweeping over her.
“What the fuck do you mean by not going back?” Marina shouted, standing up suddenly.
Akulantova reached out a burly arm and casually forced her back to her seat.
“Language. Address the Captain with respect, if not for her then for me, please.”
Marina scarcely resisted. Most people didn’t once they felt Akulantova’s grip on them.
“God damn it. So I’m just your hostage then, to wherever you’re fucking off to?”
“No. You can walk back out that cargo elevator and go back to Serrano if you want.”
Ulyana pointed her thumb over her shoulder to indicate the door behind her.
“In truth, we don’t really know where we’re going next, but it’s not the Union.”
“We’re part of a train and equip mission to sabotage the Empire’s ability to suppress the Bureni insurgency.” Aaliyah said. It was an accurate enough description as any, though Ulyana felt like she was being charitable about the ultimate goal of their journey. Certainly, Buren was a destination, but whether they would be able to train and equip anyone, and what that would do to the Empire’s fighting ability where it mattered — that was very much up to luck to sort out.
Even Marina seemed able to quickly tell the obstacles in front of them.
“No disrespect to your sense of duty, but you comrades are getting sent out to die.”
“You must understand what that feels like, as a G.I.A. agent, but also why we do it.”
“Sorry commie cat, but I’m not a blood and country type like the rest of you.”
“Well, you can always be a ‘washed up on the docks with no ride’ type instead.”
Ulyana interrupted before Aaliyah could respond to the ‘commie cat’ remark.
“Fuck you.” Marina replied. Akulantova sighed audibly. “You fucking know I can’t leave!”
“Nobody knows who you are! You could go back to the dockworkers and get another ship down South. The border’s all clear! We can even give you money for bribes. You can leave right now. If you stay here, I’m going to need you to really consider the situation and acknowledge your support for us. And you don’t have long to decide.”
Ulyana leaned down to the table, setting down a fist on it, and locking eyes with Marina.
Marina’s whole body was shaking with a visible fury and frustration.
“Excuse me, may I butt in for a second?”
Maryam raised her hand, and one of the tentacles coming from the side of her head.
She had a nervous smile on her face and her colors had returned to their lively hues.
“Right, sorry we forgot you for a moment.” Ulyana said. “Sister, to us, you are a VIP that we have orders to retain in custody. Those orders came from our direct superiors. That being said, I can’t in good judgment force anyone to stay that does not want to. It could undermine morale and cohesion to have people here under false pretenses.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I will stay.” She said. “I am valuable to you, so I know you’ll keep me safe.”
For a brief moment, Maryam’s gaze looked intense, full of determination and confidence.
Ulyana looked into those odd, beautiful eyes and felt a wave of reassurance wash over her.
She smiled back at Maryam. What a relief to have somebody cooperating with them.
“I’m glad to have you aboard Sister. So what do you think, Agent McKennedy?”
Marina scoffed. “Well, you have me by the dick so what am I supposed to say?”
“You can start by apologizing for that mouth of yours.” Akulantova raised her voice.
“I need to get out of this station, Captain Korabiskaya.” Marina begrudgingly moderated her tone. “I can’t risk waiting for another ship. I don’t have a tail now, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring. I can’t gamble her– my life like this.” She paused briefly, rubbing her hands down her face. “All I have now is you people and my Diver in your hangar. So I will stay. And it behooves me then to cooperate with your mission, so I will do it. But I want access to all of your intelligence. I want to be an equal partner in this. I can stand in your bridge; I can see everything you do. Clear?”
Ulyana crossed her arms. “I suppose that’s fair. Commissar?”
Aaliyah’s ears bristled. She really seemed to hate Marina’s tone of voice.
“I’m not against sharing information, but she’s not part of our chain of command.”
“If she wants to stand on the bridge, she can stand there, and I’m sure she can make herself useful. You and Maryam can be our advisors on Imperial culture and current events. Does that sound good enough, McKennedy?”
“Sure.” Marina shrugged. “And as for Elen, my analyst, I want her exempt from ship duties.”
“She can take a pleasure cruise then. Looks like we’re all agreed finally.” Ulyana replied.
Maryam clapped her hands gently. “Welcome aboard, Agent McKennedy!”
Marina gave her a weary, dismissive look. “So, where’s my torpedo tube?”
“Good question.” Ulyana said. “We’re going to need to clear out some room space.”
“All our officers are housed alone in two-bunk rooms.” Aaliyah said. “So we can assign each our guests to bunk with one of the officers. That would be the simplest solution to get everyone housed with the least trouble.”
“I want to bunk with Elen. Is there a spare room I can have for two?” Marina said.
“You ask for a lot, you know that?” Aaliyah snapped.
“I’ll give my room to her and Elen.” Ulyana said. “That should make everyone happy, right?”
“Overjoyed.” Marina grumbled.
“Captain, where will you go then?”
Ulyana turned from Marina to Aaliyah with an awkward expression.
“Well. I was hoping my next-door neighbor could help with that–”
Aaliyah’s ears and tail darted up as straight as they could go.
“Captain– We’ll discuss it later!” She said, clearly flustered. Ulyana should’ve known it’d become an issue.
“Serrano has cleared us for departure!”
Semyonova’s face appeared on every screen aboard the Brigand, informing the personnel that the carrier was departing Serrano, only a few hours since they first arrived. While there were some groaning sailors who wished they could have gotten to see the shore at all, almost everyone felt relieved that they had entered an Imperial station and could now leave it without incident. It meant that maybe the crazy journey they were on had a chance in hell of actually succeeding.
Around the Brigand, the glass and steel of the berth shifted, isolating them from Serrano’s port and then flooding their chamber. Finally, they were exposed to the Nectaris Ocean and then released from their docking clamps. The Brigand freed itself from the port structure and began once again to make its way through the ship traffic out from under the station and into the open ocean. In tow, the ship had a VIP, a Republic G.I.A. agent and her mech, an analyst of no repute, and several crates of pack rations courtesy of Warehouse No. 6. Their first mission was a success.
“We’ll talk about our next moves tomorrow. For now, just rest up. Have a biscuit.”
Captain Korabiskaya dismissed Maryam and Marina with a gentle nod.
They had resolved the long-term situation with their guests’ lodging.
Marina and Elen would be staying in the Captain’s room.
The Commissar reluctantly agreed to bunk with the Captain temporarily.
“Oh, what a cute bear!”
Maryam Karahailos was assigned to bunk with Sonya Shalikova and arrived at her room.
When she walked through the door, Shalikova nearly jumped off her bed in a fright.
“What are you doing here?” Shalikova called out.
She shouted with such a passion that Maryam’s colors briefly turned pale.
“Ah, I’m sorry for disturbing you. I was assigned to this room.”
“Assigned? This room?”
“I need a place to stay long term. After all, you’re not returning to the Union.”
Maryam closed her eyes and smiled, her hands behind her back, with a cutesy expression.
Shalikova felt a gnawing guilt in her chest, watching Maryam trying to act unbothered.
She knew it was only just acting. Shalikova was too observant not to notice the signs.
The Pelagis had hid her hands behind her back because they were shaking.
Her whole body language spoke of someone covering up what they really wanted to say.
That smile was all false; her cutesy posture and movements meant to hide her anxiety.
She had just caused Maryam more pain in the end. She had not really spared her anything.
“I’m really sorry. I– I could have told you back then and I didn’t.” Shalikova said.
Regardless of whether she was a soldier and needed to follow orders, Shalikova was raised as a communist. She didn’t know a lot of theory like Murati did; and she was not able to just blindly follow all orders like the Commissar might. But Shalikova was a communist and a soldier because she could never stand by and let people be hurt or trampled over. And maybe that meant keeping her distance from others. So she couldn’t hurt or inconvenience them herself.
Shalikova could have told Maryam the truth.
She lied because she was pathetic.
Because as much as she hated to, she was always hurting others too.
“Ahh you have such a sad aura suddenly! I understand, it’s ok! You’re a soldier. They asked you to come fetch me. If you told me you weren’t going to the Union, and I ran off in a passion, it would’ve caused you trouble. I get it. I don’t hold anything against you. I’d hate it if you felt guilty over something so small, you know?”
Maryam’s body language visibly relaxed. Shalikova was a little perplexed.
She really expected Maryam to hate her.
To have taken this room assignment solely for the purpose of confronting her.
Or something like that.
Maybe it was her overdramatic brain, twisting herself into knots. How stupid!
For a girl with such keen senses Shalikova’s feelings had become very unclear to herself.
Her heart was twisted up in a knot. It was– it was very unsoldierly of her.
“I told you, and I meant it. You help me feel comfortable. We’re on a first name basis, even!” Maryam beamed ever more broadly. “I was so nervous that I’d bother you by showing up here, but when the Captain said I could room with anyone, there was only one person I wanted to stay with. If it’s someone I could be around for months and months, then it had to be you, Sonya.”
That impassioned speech fell on Sonya’s head like a falling light fixture.
“Why are you like this? What is your problem?” Sonya shouted suddenly, in a cracked tone of voice like a crying child. Her face was burning red. “You’re so weird! Fine! You can stay in my room if you want! But stop being so familiar!” She raised the blankets of her bunk over her head, gritting her teeth.
Maryam stared at that particular display for a moment without any reaction.
“Ah, I’m sorry. Back in the convent the other nuns always said I was too emotional–”
Sonya grumbled. “It’s not about being ‘emotional’! What you are is much too ‘forward’!”
“Eh? Well, I don’t get it, but I’m sure we’ll sort it out over time, roommate!” Maryam said.
“That’s what I mean by too ‘forward’!”
Sonya remained defiantly under her blankets.
She had wanted to rest after the mission, and even secured permission to do so from the Lieutenant, who headed straight to her bunk herself. Now the prospect of resting was furthest from her mind. Her room had been invaded by a certain cuttlefish. And that cuttlefish was bringing a bag of clothes she got from the quartermaster into the room.
“Sonya, can you come move this bear?”
Maryam asked this quite innocently.
“I can’t move it, or can I?”
Sonya snapped. “No! Don’t touch Comrade Fuzzy.”
She threw off her blankets and stood up from her bed.
Dressed only in a pair of shorts and an undershirt, she was quite unprepared for visitors, but Maryam should not have been there, so it was too late to lament her wardrobe choice. She stomped past the Sister with her fists closed at her sides and carefully brought Comrade Fuzzy up into her arms, before stomping back across the room and hiding with him under her blankets once more. She put her back to Maryam and grunted.
Maryam watched without expression and then giggled at her.
“I knew it was special. It gave off your aura. It is very well cared for.”
Sonya’s eyes drew wide under the blankets, but she did not respond.
“I didn’t want to touch it without your permission.”
She was in no mood to say, ‘thank you for being understanding.’
Though no longer looking at her, Sonya could hear Maryam shuffle over to the other bunk and unfurl her bag of clothes on top of it. Then her locker slid open. She was putting her stuff away. While she did so, she hummed a tiny little tune. Sonya could not help but imagine it in her mind’s eyes. The purple-haired, pink-skinned cuttlefish in her black dress, skipping around. Those tentacles coming from the rear sides of her head wiggling around.
“At what times do you get up and go to sleep?” Maryam asked.
Sonya sighed. She really was just going to hash out the entire arrangement right then.
“0600 to 1800 at the ready, sleep at 2100 hours.”
“I can do that. I don’t want to disturb you. You have a really important job after all!”
Sonya successfully avoided saying more than one syllable at a time to Maryam for hours.
That also meant, however, that despite her best efforts, she talked with Maryam for hours.
“Hubby! Aww, look at you, rough day?”
Karuniya entered the shared room and instantly found Murati, whom she continued to cheerfully dub her “husband,” lying down on the bed drawn out of the left wall of their room. She had a pillow over her face. Too weary to say anything, Murati merely grunted in acknowledgment from under the pillow. Then she heard footsteps.
She could see a shadow fall over what little light she saw from under the pillow.
“Get up for a little bit, make room.”
Murati felt Karuniya’s hands patting her on the shoulder.
Without giving it much thought, she pulled the pillow off her face and wearily sat up.
Then, Karuniya sat beside her, grabbed hold of her head, and pulled her back down.
“There. Isn’t that better? Just like the picnics we used to have at the Academy.”
A lap pillow: Murati’s head now rested atop Karuniya’s warm thighs.
She looked up at her girlfriend, her eyes weary. A trickle of tears drew from them.
“You can talk to me, you know?” Karuniya said, stroking Murati’s forehead.
“I got back from my mission.”
“It was– it was tough, Karu. I just need a moment to rest.”
“You know, I’m going to be upset with you if that’s all you end up saying.”
Karuniya looked down at Murati, smiling, her fingers running softly over Murati’s hair.
“I told you that I am quite done with your whole strong, silent type posturing.”
At her girlfriend’s behest, Murati stopped fighting back her tears and putting up a front.
She lifted her arm and put the back of her fist over her eyes, weeping openly into her gloves.
“I hate that you’re hurting, Murati. But I’m happy you’re being honest about it.”
Karuniya’s hands felt so warm over her head. Murati almost felt that she didn’t deserve it.
“I’m here to comfort you, no matter what happened. So please let me in.”
“I just feel really helpless. I feel like I don’t know what we’re supposed to do here.”
Murati finally spoke up, raising her voice through a particularly violent sob.
“People are going to keep dying here. We can never save them all. And who knows if we’ll even be able to save any? Why would they help us at all? How could they possibly see this one ship and think it’s going to change anything? Against the enormity of what the Empire has built? They just dispose of their people so easily. It’s so monstrous.”
As a soldier, Murati had always been confident that she could win battles against enemies provided she had the resources: weapons, allies, solid intelligence, and the ability to move. But in the Empire, the enemy she was up against was not just soldiers with ships and divers. This was a whole society that was unleashing violence on multiple levels. Murati felt such immense pain in her heart from staring at the injustices of the Empire and not being able to do a damned thing about it. She felt that she had lost a battle that day, and it shook her faith in their ability to win a war.
Maybe the Brigand could kill Imperial soldiers. Maybe it could kill scores of them.
But their mission was not simply to engage and kill Imperial soldiers like in a normal war.
They were supposed to build a resistance against the Empire to help them fight.
How could they do so with one ship?
How could they do it if all they could do was kill soldiers?
Killing soldiers and destroying ships wasn’t going to save the downtrodden of the Empire.
Not by itself.
And if not the common people of the Empire, who was going to fight alongside them?
Murati felt herself falling down a spiral of hopeless thoughts until her fiancé spoke up once more.
“You know, there’s something about me I never really told you.” Karuniya said.
Murati lifted her hand off her face to look at Karuniya. Her eyes were red and puffy.
“I can’t imagine what it could be.”
Karuniya smiled knowingly. “You know, Murati, I love you more than anything in the world. I love you more than my own ambitions, and more than my own beliefs. So that’s why some stuff was not worth saying.”
She winked at Murati, who failed to understand what her fiancé was getting at.
“I really don’t follow, but now I’m getting kinda anxious Karu.”
“You don’t have to be. It’s really silly. But I really used to be afraid you’d be mad if I told you.”
“Could you come out with it and stop dragging it out?” Murati pleaded.
Karuniya giggled. “Sure. It’s about a line of theory that was suppressed by the Union.”
“What? What do you mean ‘theory’? What kind of theory? Karu, talk to me.”
Was Karuniya about to confess to being a capitalist or something?
That was the last thing Murati needed to hear on this rotten day!
“Okay, I’ll just tell you then. I had a professor when I was a teenager, who was exiled from the Empire to the Union for his beliefs on environmental conservation. Truth be told, he wasn’t much liked for the same reason in the Union. He believed that agarthic salt concentration was anthropogenic and rising, which is a bit of a doomsday prophecy.”
Murati let out a loud, heavy sigh. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“Ah, well, I’m glad you disagree with Union environmental policy writ large.”
“Everyone thinks I’m some kind of zealot. There’s a lot about the Union I disagree with.”
“Name one thing, honey.”
“What’s this theory of yours? Tell me the whole story and stop teasing me.”
Karuniya’s stroking became slower as she lost herself in thought.
“Let’s see, where can I start? I think I was still in preparatory school thinking about what I wanted my career to be. I studied introductory oceanography under Dr. Hans Wadzjik. I must have been fifteen; it was before we met. He never taught according to curriculum. There would always be fights between him and the Education commissar at Lvov Station, where I used to live. But his classes were really fun, and his ideas felt really convincing to me. He was stuck teaching in preparatory school because his life’s thesis, about agarthic salt in the Ocean, was too radical. Even the Union did not want these ideas to gain too much purchase. The Union has a dark side too; Dr. Wadzjik was always being censured. They didn’t throw him in jail or anything. But they made life just a little bit harder for him.”
“He should have stuck to the curriculum then.” Murati said callously.
Karuniya laughed. “Ah, there’s the Murati that I know and love!”
“What? He’s supposed to prepare kids for the Academy, not impart personal ideology.”
“You’d make such a horrible teacher Murati.” Karuniya said, her voice gentle and fond.
It was as if she found Murati’s attitude charming and cute. Her tone was quite annoying.
“Explain what his theory is in full and maybe I’ll agree.” Murati said.
“Okay. Basically, the activity of agarthic reactors and agarthicite mining is giving off an increase in agarthic salt in the ocean water. Agarthic salt is microscopic agarthic matter: basically the tiniest specks of dust, unable to react meaningfully. We used to believe that deposition from the surface, trickling down the water table, was responsible, but Dr. Wadzjik believed that human activity in the Ocean itself was actually responsible for the increase in Agarrhic content in the Ocean’s water table. He spent his life building as much solid evidence for this as he could. No one wanted to hear that, of course. Agarthicite is so important for our lives down here after all.”
“Without those reactors, we wouldn’t have stood a chance for survival.” Murati said.
“True, and it’s not even the station reactors that are the main culprit. It’s the inefficient miniature reactors on ships that are the problem. They’re built smaller and cheaper than Core Pylons at the cost of longevity and fuel efficiency. So of course, neither the Empire nor the Union wants to hear about this sort of thing. But I was fascinated by it. And I do believe it’s true! When I entered the Academy I swore that in my current thesis, I want to package his scholarship in a way the Union will listen to. He had one other belief that was a little too radical for anyone, as well.”
“More radical than the rest?” Murati drew up her eyebrows.
Karuniya laughed a little bit.
“He predicted in 200 years that we’d see the Calamity under the Ocean.”
“What? That’s just mad. Do you believe that Karu? The Calamity, again, down here, in 200 years?”
“No, I don’t believe it. I think the conditions under which he grew up in the Empire colored his perceptions. He was a bit of a misanthrope and a fatalist. For agarrhic salt to start reacting on its own, without human intervention to deliberately blow up the Ocean, it would take a truly insane level of salinity. Even when we try to make Agarrhic salts react, the reactions are tiny; there was a case where a red tide occurred during a black wind in Katarre, the most polluted place in the Ocean. In that case, the survey ship was coring the earth for Agarrhic deposits when it struck. The ship that recorded this event suffered extremely minor instrument degradation. So no, it won’t become a Calamity. At least, not in 200 years, at current conditions. Of course, things could become suddenly worse.”
She looked down at Murati with a cute smile, stroking her hair.
Murati sighed. Why was she telling her all of this now? It didn’t really matter.
In fact, the Lieutenant was mostly annoyed that Karuniya hid all this out of some irrational fear.
“I wouldn’t have said anything about this, you know? Are you that afraid of me?”
“I’m not afraid of you at all. I didn’t tell you this because it didn’t really matter.”
“If it’s something you’re passionate about, it matters to me. I wish I had known.”
“I’m passionate about conservation. That’s just one tiny aspect of it. That’s my point.”
Murati frowned. “You’ve neglected to make this point of yours at all, during any of this.”
“I was getting to it.” Karuniya puffed her cheeks and lifted her hand from Murati’s head.
“Well, sorry for being so annoying then, I guess.”
Karuniya laid her hand back down on Murati’s hair and ruffled it very harshly.
“My point, you blunt, stubborn, tragic fool, is that you can’t just give up because the problem is too large for you by yourself! I can’t save the Ocean by myself, but I want to promote and advance the science of Conservation to teach others to do their part, and maybe, slowly, budge society in the right direction with regards to our environment.” Murati blinked. Karuniya’s voice grew impassioned, so much that she herself started to weep just a little and started wiping her tears periodically. “If we feel helpless, the world doesn’t get better for our inaction. The Union Naval HQ didn’t see the Brigand and think ‘this will be useless because it can’t destroy every Imperial fleet by itself.’ They saw the larger battle of which we are a part and decided to act. You should know that! We can’t save everyone; but that’s no excuse for giving up. Even if all we can do is give the Empire a black eye, that in itself is not a useless undertaking.”
She raised a hand to her own face and wiped her tears.
“I think the Murati who pursues justice at any cost and never lets anything go, is really admirable and really sexy and really cute! That’s the woman I fell in love with. When you set your mind to it you keep trying, doggedly, standing in front of the same apathetic crowd again and again even if the outcome doesn’t change. You did it in the Academy, you did it in your military career, and I want you to keep doing it. That’s what I admire about you. And it makes me feel emboldened to take my own crazy ideas in front of people who don’t care. That’s it; that’s my whole point.”
Murati looked up at her fiancé as if seeing her in a new light. Was this something about Karuniya she had overlooked this whole time? She felt monumentally stupid for a moment, both deeply touched and deeply ashamed. She recalled when Karu teased her about being neglectful. Had she ever expressed to Karuniya this level of passion, of admiration?
“I’m sorry for making you sad, Karu. I seem to keep doing that.” Murati said.
“Don’t be sorry! I’m not crying because I’m sad.” Despite the presence of ever more tears, Karuniya continued to wipe her eyes frequently. Her lips slowly curled into a smile again. “I’m so happy that I’m here with you. I always thought that our careers would break us apart one day. I wanted us to be able to pursue our dreams together some day.”
“I could have stayed with you.” Murati said. “I could have left the Navy.”
“No, absolutely not. Because the woman I love doesn’t turn her back on her ambitions. All I want is for you to keep your chin up, and if you can’t take the pain, to please, please, come to me. I’m here for you. I want to be part of what makes you strong. And you don’t even know the degree to which you are part of what makes me strong too.”
Her words hung in the air for a moment. She looked down at Murati, locking eyes.
“I feel like you’re confessing to me all over again.” Murati said warmly.
“Think of it as my long overdue vows then.” Karuniya said, wiping more fresh tears.
Murati sat up from Karuniya’s lap and turned around on the bed to face her.
She took Karuniya’s hands in her own and looked deep into her eyes with determination.
Drawing out all of the feelings that she had trouble giving form to: her own vows.
“Karuniya, I admire you too. You’re so important to me!” She said. “You always felt so strong and casually confident. Like you knew you’d get anything you wanted. So maybe I haven’t been putting in the effort for you, from my end. Maybe I have been neglecting you. Ever since I met you, I wanted to be a part of your life. And I do want us to be able to pursue our dreams while having a home with each other. I’m sorry I’m telling you this on a fucking warship.”
“Sounds like we both need to practice that whole ‘openness’ thing more often.” Karuniya smiled.
“I guess so. But you know… there was always language we shared that we both understood.”
Murati took Karuniya, pulled her in and suddenly kissed her.
She seized her with such fervor that she stumbled over her in bed. Not one more word was said. Their eyes locked together, and the pair followed their hearts and bodies, laughing in each other’s faces, fumbling with each other’s shirts, kissing on the lips, on the neck, biting, clawing, breathing heavy with the weight of their passion.
Marina knocked on the door to the room but let herself in without waiting for recognition.
Not that Elena wanted to say anything to her.
When she saw who was at the door, she curled back up in her bunk and turned her back. On the floor, her coat and pants lay discarded. She had thrown herself to bed in her bodysuit alone. Covered up with the blankets, she wanted nothing more than to sleep for months, maybe years. To sleep until she couldn’t tell sleep from this nightmare.
“Settling in?” Marina asked with a sweetness Elena read as forced.
Marina stepped in and the door closed. Elena made a low, irritated noise in response.
She had stood for about an hour in the hall while Marina talked with the Captain.
Then the Captain returned, introduced herself briefly, and took her things to another room.
Elena finally got to lie down and had five minutes of peace before Marina barged in.
The more she thought about everything happening to her, the angrier Elena became.
Her feet hurt. She felt like she had never walked so much in her life without having a soft bed to settle into. The bunks in this ship were not the same. Everything seemed to be filled with a stiff gel, from the mattress to the pillows. Back in Vogelheim her pillows and her bed were feather-soft and held her body with perfect amount of resistance. Such a simple thing, and even that was denied to her in current predicament. She almost wanted to cry about it.
And she felt stupid for that. Stupid, small, helpless, unable to do anything for herself.
“I have to get a medical evaluation on the Captain’s orders. I’ll be back later.”
Elena turned around briefly to look at her self-styled guardian’s face as she responded.
Why would they care about Marina’s health? They would be gone in a few days, right?
That ‘why?’ seemed to go through Marina like a knife. Her face grew sullen.
“Shit. How do I explain this?”
“Explain what? Explain fucking what Marina?”
Curse words just tumbled out of Elena’s royal lips now. Maybe Marina’s influence.
Elena had become practiced in pinning every problem on that woman’s influence.
Marina sighed audibly. She covered her face with one hand.
“We’re not going to the Union anymore. The Brigand has a different mission–”
“Ugh. Whatever. I don’t even care anymore. Just go away and let me sleep then.”
After a sharp pang of anger all Elena felt was a hole in her chest, as if sucking in air.
She turned her back on the door again and covered herself in the stiff blankets.
“Tell me when we’ve arrived wherever we’re supposed to be.”
She heard a foot stomp on the room floor.
“Elena, I’m really not in the mood for your fucking attitude. You better start shaping up.”
Oh? Gears started spinning in the princess’ head and heart.
“Yeah? So what? Are you going to knock me out again? Stuff me in a crate?”
Elena gritted her teeth under her blankets. She let herself steep in hating Marina.
“I’m strongly considering it.” Marina grunted.
There was a little, pathetic victory swelling in the heart of the lost Princess.
She had hurt Marina finally. Finally pierced through her shitty little armor.
She could feel it. Radiating from Marina like a cursed fire.
“I’m not scared of you.”
“I just have to touch your bare skin; you’ll go down crying like a baby again.”
“It’s Elen, stupid, don’t blow my cover, especially if we’re going to be here longer.”
Marina’s breathing grew heavier and more audible.
“I can’t believe you. You ungrateful– I’ve done nothing but protect you–”
“Looking for a reward? You won’t get one from me. I don’t have anything anymore.”
“If your mother could see you like this–”
“Shut up about my mother! Just go get your head checked already.”
In an instant she heard the door slide open and closed again behind her.
All of this was Marina’s fault. And Marina didn’t even care about her anyway.
Your mother this; your mother that. Every other word out of her mouth was about Elena’s mother. If she was doing all this for Elena’s mother, well, that woman was dead. Elena barely remembered her. Certainly, Elena was not doing a goddamned thing for her mother’s sake. Her mother abandoned her in Vogelheim to be an accessory to the Emperor’s family gatherings. Had Marina even once said she was doing anything for Elena’s own sake alone? She couldn’t recall.
“I hate you. Just leave me alone.” She mumbled to herself, tears swelling in her eyes.
She did not want to say another word to Marina ever again.