Bury Your Love At Goryk’s Gorge [8.8]

This chapter contains a scene with uniquely graphic violence. Discretion is advised.

“What do you know about Norn von Fueller?”

Before they boarded the Antenora, Gertrude Lichtenberg had convened a private meeting with Sieglinde von Castille. It was not atypical to discuss conditions and protocol differences between ships when transferring personnel, to avoid committing any faux pas, and with someone as high profile as Norn von Fueller, it was an even greater necessity. The way Gertrude looked into Sieglinde’s eyes when she asked her about the Praetorian, however, spoke to a different and greater urgency than normal.

Sieglinde had not been too surprised to learn of their relationship.

There was a lot of gossip about the Praetorian after all.

But what was the truth? From someone who knew her more than passingly?

Seated around a meeting room table, the two of them conversed eye to eye.

With a locked door behind them, and all cameras and recording tools shut off.

“We worked together once.” Sieglinde said in response to the Inquisitor’s initial question.

“Are you at a liberty to describe in what capacity?”

Sieglinde found no need to hide anything from Gertrude. None of this was any secret.

“Lord von Fueller was dispatched by the Imperial Peership Office on behalf of the Emperor himself, upon the deaths of my parents, when I went on to inherit their assets.” Sieglinde said. “Because I am an only child, and involved in the military, and the Castille family possessed significant wealth, the Peership Office worried that there would be a feeding frenzy of lower nobles competing for Castille properties and holdings if I were to be killed in action as things stood.”

“I was not aware that Norn– I’m sorry, I meant Lord von Fueller–”

“You don’t have to correct yourself. I’m well aware of your familiarity with her.”

Gertrude seemed briefly at a loss at Sieglinde’s response.

“I had to learn the etiquette of the Imbrian nobility, but it’s all just for show. Please continue without interruption. I don’t want you to coddle my sensibilities. I am just a soldier on this ship.”

“Right. Then sure, I’ll call her Norn. At any rate, I was unaware she worked for the IPO.”

“Lord von Fueller was an enforcer, a bannerwoman; she managed whatever affairs the Fueller family needed her to manage. I’m sure that the many nobles she killed and dispossessed played some part in her wise and knowledgeable management of my case. Through her I was able to sell off extraneous possessions in an organized fashion and donate the money to charity, as well as develop a plan for my wealth to be donated or auctioned for charity in the event of my death.”

Gertrude looked downcast. “I suppose at this juncture, those plans are null and void.”

“Indeed. I had property in Rhinea, the Palatinate and Skaarsgaard. I assume it is all out of my hands, and that the Castille’s famous castles will go on to house soldiers for warring factions instead of needy women and children.” Sieglinde said. “Such things are out of my hands. I prefer to focus on what is directly ahead of us. So tell me, Inquisitor: what do I need to know about Lord von Fueller to work under her command? After that incident with Järveläinen, I don’t want any further conflict with her ranks.”

Gertrude told her a few brief and important lessons she learned about the Lord von Fueller.

Sieglinde would go on to confirm the Inquisitor’s account aboard the Antenora herself.

“The most crucial thing to understand about Norn is that there is nothing she hates more than liars. That doesn’t prevent her from lying, withholding information or speaking half-truths if she needs to, but she doesn’t really make a habit of lying. She’s blunt and straightforward in personality. She hates liars and she has a natural ability to detect lies. She doesn’t care about dishonesty, if you flatter her she will enjoy it, if you libel her she won’t care. But lying to conceal something will get you killed.”

“So if I have any ulterior motives then I would best tell them to her face.”

Sieglinde had said that with a note of sarcasm but Gertrude took it dead seriously.

“She would honestly appreciate it. She would not even consider you a threat.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Gertrude sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy; but please don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. You have to know, and you can be as skeptical as you want to, but I speak from my own experience. Norn helped me in an affair that demonstrated how powerful she is. What I’m about to say, I don’t say frivolously, and I don’t say it to aggrandize her. It’s the absolute truth.”

“After a delivery like that, I’m afraid I couldn’t judge you if I wanted to.”

What could she possibly be leading into with that dire expression?

“Norn has some kind of ability to control people. A supernatural ability.” Gertrude finally said. “It’s not just that she is intimidating or that she commands imperial authority. Everyone who succumbs to this ability becomes unnervingly loyal to Norn. They act mostly like normal people, but they will drop anything to follow Norn’s commands. A lot of the Antenora’s crew will be like this. Those who aren’t are people she can’t or doesn’t want to control this way. Maybe people she trusts; maybe people who are more useful outside her total control. I don’t know. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Sieglinde’s eyes drew wider as Gertrude spoke, with dire certitude, about literal magic.

“When she becomes angered enough to commit violence, Norn–“ Gertrude saw the look on Sieglinde’s eyes and paused for a moment, self-conscious of how this was all sounding, but she closed her eyes and continued. “Norn can move faster than can be seen by the naked eye. She can also manipulate objects from afar. There’s more but I will leave it that. Norn has some kind of power, I’ve seen it.”

“Next you will tell me that she is a Katarran too.” Sieglinde said.

“Like I said, you’re welcome to believe whatever you want. Just be on your best behavior.”

Her voice took a dark turn and her eyes bore a slight but growing malice.

“I apologize.” Sieglinde said, calmly and with poise. “I will– I will keep what you said in mind.”

Having been with Gertrude for several days, Sieglinde had characterized her as a woman of dark and fitful passions, whose moods seemed as errant as the tides. Sometimes she had to be managed carefully in order to work well with her. Sieglinde had her own storms, but she felt she could work with Gertrude by practicing a conciliatory attitude. Despite this, the turn in the conversation was difficult to navigate.

Although she had seen Gertrude be both a cursing fiend and a contrite maiden, Sieglinde had never seen her so superstitious. She knew Gertrude respected Norn von Fueller, but now she felt like Gertrude revered her. Like some kind of deity with whispered attestations to her great feats.

Or perhaps like the leader of a cult.

“Tell me more about the Antenora’s crew, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said. “Those people she brought aboard. I’m curious about their relationship. They seemed like a motley group to follow someone as elite as Norn von Fueller, who could have had her pick of the Empire’s best soldiers to follow her. If we are pinning our hopes on them as our trump card to rescue lady von Fueller, I need to know.”

Gertrude smiled a little bit for the first time in the conversation.

“Those are the Empire’s best soldiers.” She said.

Sieglinde supposed enough people had died by now to pass on such a title to this crew.

But she had personally seen far greater heroes than these come and go.

“Say that I believe that. How were they assembled? How does one earn the Lord’s grace?”

“I believe Norn values people who demonstrate an ambition to attain power or to commit violence.” Gertrude said. It was a curious response that made Sieglinde raise an eyebrow, but the Inquisitor said it without hesitation. “It would not be a stretch to say she collects people who interest her. I am only guessing her criteria, but she took me under her wing, so I can’t fault her taste in companions.”

“Fair enough. I can’t say I would criticize her for wanting an Inquisitor on her side.”

Around the Empire, the ascension of Gertrude Lichtenberg some three or four years ago to the office of High Inquisitor had set off a firestorm of gossip in the private chambers of the nobles.

On the heels of a conflict between Norn von Fueller and the High Inquisitor Ludwig von Brauchitsch, Gertrude’s star began rising. Even as a noble with high standing in the army, Sieglinde had never learned the full details of what transpired. She simply put together the pieces. Brauchitsch and Norn butted heads publicly over a snap investigation into the Heitzing Officer Cadet School, and in the ensuing year, Brauchitsch would go on to lose a steady trickle of subordinates to undisclosed events, and with them went his standing in the court, culminating in the Emperor personally insulting him.

Along with the steady fall of Brauchitsch came the steady rise of Gertrude Lichtenberg, who would go on to briefly serve as a branch Commissioner of the Ministry of Justice in Heitzing before soaring in rank to the High Inquisitorship that Brauchitsch would go on to lose. Heitzing being the seat of power of the ruling Fueller Family and their esteemed Praetorian, it was easy for everyone to connect these events. However, the nobles had respect, and a certain exotic sexual fascination, with the swarthy and gallant Lichtenberg, perfect in etiquette, swift in justice, a child of the Imperial Guard whose parents died tragically defending the royal family. So the gossip around her was always glowing.

It was this history which accounted for Sieglinde’s earlier comment to Gertrude.

She understood quite well the nature of Gertrude’s relationship to the Fueller family.

In fact, Gertrude’s seeming obsession with Elena von Fueller filled a missing piece of the story.

Sieglinde felt she now understood in full, the dark passionate theater of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

“Is there anything else you would like to know? I don’t want you to be surprised.”

Gertrude interrupted Sieglinde’s train of thought.

For a moment, the Baron wished she could simply have tea with Gertrude.

Maybe give her advice from experience about duty and passion–

But Sieglinde was around Gertrude’s age when her own future became immovable.

“Where would we slot into the rank structure of the Antenora?” Sieglinde asked.

“Norn is something of an iconoclast. As such the organization of her ship is unorthodox. There are a lot of highly skilled people on the Antenora at any given time who would have some degree of friction with each other and the world at large if Norn didn’t manage them. Norn is the center, and her officers orbit her exclusively. I believe the two of us would simply be another of the powers that would be hers to command. Don’t expect a tidy chain of command in there. Just do what you are told.”

“Understood. That’s all I needed to know.”

Gertrude nodded her head. “Then as soon as the Grenadier is loaded in, we’ll depart.”

Sieglinde nodded back. “Am I dismissed?”

“I have one more thing I wish to say to you, in private, for our confidence only.”

“Speak your mind, Inquisitor.”

Gertrude gave her a suddenly grave look.

“After our affair here is resolved, I think you should go with Norn.” She said.

Those words caused the Baron’s heart to shudder with surprise and even a hint of fear.

Sieglinde crooked an eyebrow. “For what reason would I do such a thing?”

“Do you have any other place to go?” Gertrude said softly.

“Have I displeased you?”

“Of course not. This isn’t personal, you should know that!”

“Then please explain your reasoning, Inquisitor.” Sieglinde said.

“You and Norn may be more alike than you think.” Gertrude said. Her words were going from honey to vinegar quite quickly. “Baron, I don’t have a grand ambition. I am confident that Norn will find Elena and bring her back to me. Once she does, I just want to keep her safe and bide our time. You, meanwhile, are an incredible warrior searching for a cause. I saw the justice in your eyes when you confessed to killing those Volkisch turncoats. If you want to purge the Empire of this rot, Norn will crusade with you. Norn’s list of targets for her vengeance should neatly coincide with your own.”

“You really think that is all I need? Targets for vengeance?”

“You’re raising your voice to me. Are you offended?”

“You’re the one becoming upset. I just want you to mind your own affairs, Inquisitor.”

Sieglinde fixed a sharp look on the Inquisitor, and her words took a sharper tone as well.

Gertrude’s own eyes narrowed, her expression darkened. She scoffed, her passion fully aroused.

“Fine. Then– just shut up and don’t question Norn! Follow your orders so we can get Elena back.”

Her storming out of the room neatly tied up their final hours together on the Iron Lady.

Sieglinde did as she was instructed. She remained quiet.

When they transferred over to the Antenora, and in the days after, she kept to herself.

The Antenora was any other military ship. Sieglinde had been in practically dozens of Cruisers. Her last ill-fated ship had been a Ritter-class with a very similar interior plan. Food was much less fancy than on the Iron Lady, the living spaces were adequate, and there were a few recreational facilities like a gym, a media lounge with films, and a social area with game tables. Everything was just a bit more cramped than in the wildly spacious dreadnought, but livable. It was as much a home as any other metal hull.

Sieglinde kept to herself.

She went to the hangar when she was called to standby.

She ate her meals quickly and quietly and spent much of her time in her own room.

While making the rounds, she confirmed many of the things Gertrude told her.

At first, it was difficult to believe. But the crew was indeed acting just a bit odd. Sieglinde had been impressed by their professionalism, but it was an inhumanly unrelenting professionalism. The Antenora, Sieglinde realized, was like the hive of Norn the queen bee. Most of the crew would be unfailingly in the same places at the same times, day by day, to the point that they felt more like part of the equipment than people. There were perfect cycles of activity. Inhumanly perfect cycles.

Then, Norn had a bout with the mystery woman who worked in the hangar, Potomac.

Suddenly she bared the icy fangs of a power Sieglinde could hardly believe existed.

As instructed, she said nothing. She made no remark and did her best to show no reaction.

At the same time, it was impossible for her not to consider what it meant.

Were there more people with powers like this?

Did Norn have anyone outside this ship under her control to suit her purposes?

Their frequent rendezvous with mysterious engineering vessels caused her great concern.

What kind of conspiracy was Gertrude asking her to overlook?

“Samoylovych.”

One afternoon, Sieglinde was on standby alongside Yurii Samoylovych, a long-haired and well-manicured lady Loup in a pristine uniform who was the most frequent standby pilot for the Antenora. Usually the Antenora put either her or Sieglinde on standby, never both, but as they were nearing Goryk Gorge and expecting some kind of presence there, Norn put both of them on standby for the entire day. Sieglinde decided it was a good opportunity to pick the brain of someone else on the ship, since they were both standing around near their mecha on the hangar floor with no other officers around.

“Samoylovych, what is your opinion of the Lord von Fueller?”

“Nice to meet you too.” Samoylovych replied with a cocky voice.

These were the first words exchanged privately between the two of them.

Sieglinde knew that this was a provocation however and did not further play along.

“I’ve only a passing affair here. I just want to know what you think, in good faith.”

“Need I have an opinion?”

“I can’t imagine someone to whom this vessel seems normal in any way.”

“She is right in front of you.”

Samoylovych raised a hand to her chest as if to acknowledge herself.

She then settled back against the leg of her Jagd and winked at Sieglinde.

“Baron von Castille, we don’t all have the privilege of skepticism. For many of us, life itself is inexplicable and our answers are incomplete. The Loup of the Kashak host– hell, all Loup for that matter– are a deeply religious people. People who believe in a creator God who made this world the way it is. The Shimii, too, are deeply religious and superstitious. Even among the secular, there is a lot of superstition and magical thinking. There are stories about explorers who ventured into the hollows of the planet and returned with great treasures. The legends of Nocht the First, founder of this nation, are entwined in fantasy. And these are things recorded on computers just hundreds of years ago.”

“I understand your point.” Sieglinde said. “You needn’t elaborate any further.”

Samoylovych had referred to it as a privilege, and in some sense it was.

Sieglinde could be this skeptical because she had the comparatively secular life of a noble.

As one of the powerful, she could look down in disbelief at the fantasies of the masses.

And she did look down on it, reflexively, without self-awareness.

To think that a world confined to metal stations in the sea could host such blind mysticism!

Now, however, she was staring that mysticism in the face.

Something about it unnerved Sieglinde, clawed at her, tore gashes inside her brain.

These were not just orthodoxies of control, crafted to perpetuate authority.

Norn was not a metaphor, or a deified ruler like Nocht the First.

She was real; and she was really tearing reality apart right in front of Sieglinde’s eyes.

Her brain could not stop reading it as a conspiracy. As a great lie told boldly in front of her.

Every time she allowed herself to feel vulnerable about these events, a million feelings burst forth. All the violence Sieglinde had committed– was it for nothing? Was it for a hidden agenda? How did she know she was not under some thrall right now? What was the extent of Norn’s power? Were there people even more powerful than her? Why was the Imbrium now in complete chaos then?

What else was real? What was truly false?

Could she have any say in the matter?

“As long as I can look forward to a filling meal and a beautiful woman in my bed, I don’t need to ask any questions that might put my job prospects in jeopardy.” Samoylovych added, perhaps noticing how sullen Sieglinde had become after her last speech. “Speaking of– if you’re having trouble acclimating to the ship, I wouldn’t mind helping you relieve some stress. I do love women bigger than me. Makes the conquest all the more fulfilling.” She turned a lascivious grin on Sieglinde–

–and Sieglinde turned the other cheek to it, bodily rejecting the offer.

That idiotic, crass, offensive request brought Sieglinde back to her infuriating reality.

Samoylovych shrugged. “You can find my room easily whenever you feel antsy.”

The nerve of that woman! For someone who was always being waited on hand and foot, Samoylovych was acting rather forward and the offer embittered Sieglinde. She was nowhere near so desperate for a partner. The Baron had given very little consideration to ‘her type’ and it had been years since she last had sex, but Samoylovych certainly was not compatible. For one who had disowned the noble’s etiquette, she still felt quite a sore spot at being asked for something so personal so easily. No woman who devoured life so easily could understand her– several times Sieglinde had thought the only way she would marry was to someone she knew to be in as much pain as her, or worse.

An insane thought, perhaps, but it was her only response to the pressure to marry.

“I would never. I would never! How dare you? Who raised you to be like this? Learn some self control before someone is forced to teach you! Turn your libido on that simpering friend of yours!”

Sieglinde responded with a venomous screed, her fist closed hard.

Samoylovych laughed gently and jovially, slapping her own knees.

“Petra? Absolutely not! She’s like an annoying little sibling! No! You are awful, Baron!”

At that precise moment, red lights began to flash in the hangar, interrupting the scene.

Sieglinde could hardly believe the timing.

“An attack?”

Adelheid van Mueller’s voice sounded over the intercom as if in response.

“All forces to combat alert! We’re intercepting the Pandora’s Box over Goryk!”

Sieglinde felt a sense of dread suddenly wash over her as the bearing monitors updated.

Pandora’s box. Gertrude’s mercenaries — and Elena von Fueller.

Given everything was on her mind, could she go out there again and fight?

She looked up at the Grenadier which had been entrusted to her.

For Lichtenberg’s evil passions– or Norn’s unknowable violence–

With the doubts lingering on her mind?

“Well, looks like I won’t get a chance to win you over. Take care, Baron!”

Samoylovych winked at her as the mechanics powered on her Jagd and the hatch opened.

“Baron von Castille milord, we’re powering on the Grenadier.”

At Sieglinde’s side, Norn’s brainwashed mechanics began to work on her Diver too.

A voice sounded, reverberating through the wickedest parts of Sieglinde’s own heart.

You’ve done as much killing for much less of a reason, Red Baron. You can’t atone for it now. Your future is decided, and the blood won’t wash from your hands even if you turn back now. You can’t escape this.

You can’t escape your own actions, much less those of Norn von Fueller.

Lips trembling, gulping through a dry throat, sweating, her skin brimming with anxiety–

Sieglinde von Castille slowly, silently, climbed inside the Diver and prepared for battle.

This was just another part of a destiny that seemed ever more inevitable, immovable.


Volleys of 20 mm gunfire from the Brigand repelled two dozen incoming missiles.

While the Brigand defended itself it also righted its course, pointing its armored prow toward the incoming Antenora. It was detected about three kilometers away from Goryk’s Gorge by its use of an active sonar pulse, likely in an attempt to image the surroundings of the gorge. Once the Brigand’s crew detected the sonar waves, the computer registered a high probability that they had been successfully imaged and identified, and the incoming missiles confirmed as much.

The Brigand responded with its own sonar pulse, which gave away its position.

But it also revealed the Antenora completely, leaving no doubt as to the ship’s class.

Ritter-class were the most modern Imperial Cruisers according to Union intelligence. They were sometimes referred to as the “sword-class” Cruisers because of their shape. Their pointed prows and long, angular hull, along with the scabbard-like fins and flared rear “winged” armor protecting the jets, made the ship silhouette resemble a sword. Its armament was top of the line, boasting a twin-barrel 150 mm turret, along with a suite of light coilguns and gas guns, and multiple launchers that could fire torpedoes and missiles. It had a complement of four Divers, with a fifth and sixth in storage. This was the Irmingard equivalent of Cruisers, a serious, state-of-the-art main combatant in any fleet.

“We’ve also got a Cruiser. If they want to slug it out, we can punch back just as hard.”

Ulyana Korabiskaya felt bolstered by the Brigand’s initial performance.

However, they had only surmounted a volley of unguided missiles.

There would be more in store, including the enemy’s Divers.

“Kamarik, set a course that takes us around the Antenora’s flank if necessary, but for now, just inch forward to communication range.” Ulyana ordered the helmsman. She then turned to her communications officer. “Semyonova, send an acoustic message to the Antenora. I want to talk to their commander. I would very much like to confirm whether it’s related to Lichtenberg at all.”

“Yes ma’am! I’ve also got Shalikova on for you! She’s preparing the Divers to sortie!”

Semyonova passed a video window from her station to the Captain’s terminal.

On it, Shalikova’s unmistakable indigo eyes were fiery and focused, her pale hair tied up.

She was dressed in her pilot suit and contacting the bridge from the hangar.

“Good readiness, Acting First Officer!” Ulyana said. “What’s the situation?”

“Khadija and Valya are deploying first ahead of us, so we have rapid response if needed. We’re affixing the anti-ship pack on the Strelkannon and I’ll deploy in the Cheka with it once it is ready. Sameera and Murati– well, you know. Aiden Ahwalia is apparently on his way here too.”

Ulyana nodded. Shalikova spoke with confidence, taking matters into her own hands. She didn’t even look tired. “I’m leaving all Diver-related decisions to you, Shalikova, make it work.”

“Then, ma’am, I have to add this. We have Marina McKennedy’s S.E.A.L ready as well.”

Beside Ulyana’s seat on the bridge, Marina stood with her back to the wall, one hand covering her eyes, breathing heavily. She was in no condition to fight. Upon hearing the name of the incoming ship, the Antenora, she began to babble a name, “Norn the Praetorian” and broke her composure entirely. It was the worst breakdown Ulyana had ever seen out of anyone in her command in a long time.

“Shalikova, I don’t think–”

“No. I heard everything captain. I’ll go. I can’t be here when you negotiate with her.”

Marina slowly stood herself up to full height and forced herself to salute Ulyana.

Ulyana wanted to say something. To stop her– to try to sympathize in any way.

There was clear pain behind the inexpressive face Marina turned to her.

Norn von Fueller had never personally participated in the Empire’s campaign against the Union twenty years ago. The Union had intelligence that she was an enforcer of the Fueller family, a sort of bodyguard and right-hand woman for the Emperor, but that was it. Intelligence about her skills and capabilities was vague. For Marina to react so adversely, they must have shared a dark past. In Ulyana’s mind, she had already formed a link between Marina and Lichtenberg, so if Marina had such a reaction to the Antenora, then Norn must be linked to the Inquisitor as well. This was all part of Lichtenberg’s chase.

This was all very bad news– but they could only play the hand they had been dealt.

Ulyana felt if she prevented Marina from going out to fight it would only insult her.

She had made a decision. Whether it was impulsive or not, Ulyana had to trust her.

“Marina, please take care of yourself out there and come back alive.” She said.

“Quit worrying about me. I’ve survived much worse than this.” Marina replied.

“I’m just glad to hear you have an intention to survive.” Ulyana said.

Marina smirked, just a little bit. “Like I said, you have nothing worry about. I’ll see you.”

She turned and left the room. Her running footsteps could be heard when the door shut.

Ulyana turned back to Shalikova, who had been hanging on the video call.

She could only pray that Marina would be okay.

Though she was a loud and offensive person, Ulyana had to protect everyone under her command.

Ulyana had already seen too many of her crews die in her lifetime.

Sometimes, however, all she could do was have confidence in them.

So she purged her doubts and put on a confident smile for her officers.

“Sorry about that, Shalikova. Marina is on her way.”

Shalikova nodded. “Ma’am, I’ll be sending Maryam Karahailos to the bridge when I deploy. I– I wanted her to be safe in the command pod, rather than down here where something could happen. If you will allow that I would be grateful. She absolutely won’t get in the way, I promise.”

“I’ll keep your girlfriend safe, don’t worry.” Ulyana responded with great delight.

The young pilot’s eyes shot wide open, and she raised her hands and flailed defensively.

“What?! No, it’s not like that–! You’re misunderstanding–!”

Ulyana cut off Shalikova, ending the call with a smirking expression.

Aaliyah stared her quizzically from the adjacent chair, having seen and heard it all.

“I’m happy she’s found someone worth coming back alive for.” Ulyana explained.

“We should all be so lucky as her.” Aaliyah said, shrugging, her cat-like ears twitching.

“Indeed. Commissar, let us once again walk into hell for this precious crew, hand in hand.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Aaliyah closed her eyes and nodded her head solemnly.

Ulyana knew that her Commissar understood at least some of the subtext of her words.

Despite the situation, her mood had livened just a little after Shalikova’s request.

When she saw how Maryam took to her, Ulyana’s romantic side started to hope.

To see that dour and standoffish girl living life after everything she had been through–

–It made Ulyana’s focus tighten. She had to surmount this. To give everyone a future.

“Captain,”

Euphemia Rontgen waited for the Captain and Commissar to turn their attention back to the main screen before interrupting. At that moment she approached the captain’s chair and stood beside it opposite the Commissar, to Ulyana’s right. There was an additional seat there that could be pulled from the wall, and Euphemia sat down there, and wiped her hands over her lap as if clearing settled dust.

“I have dealt with the Fuellers before. I might be able to get us out of this.”

“If the person on the other end allows us to get out of it.” Ulyana said.

“Do you agree to my presence? My fate is tied to this ship now. I want to help you.”

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Ulyana said. No reason to leave cards on the table now.

She looked over to Aaliyah for her opinion. Her Commissar seemed untroubled.

“You’re right, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe Solarflare LLC can pay for clemency.” Aaliyah said.

“Norn von Fueller, if it is her, won’t be swayed by money.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana blinked. “Then what would you even say to her?”

As far as she knew all Solarflare LLC really had going for it was money and supplies.

“We have history. I think I can appeal to her better nature.”

“What? The better nature of a Fueller? Well. I won’t hope for a miracle.” Ulyana said.

She would allow Euphemia to join but she had no illusions as to their situation.

In Ulyana’s mind all she could do was confirm the vehemence of their enemy.

Negotiating would be extremely difficult.

Moments later, Semyonova spun her chair around to face them again.

“Captain! The Antenora responded. They’re connecting to laser via the Goryk relay.”

“So they know about that, huh? We’ll connect too. Have Zachikova guard the network.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Put their commander on my screen when we have a connection.”

Ulyana waited, taking in a deep breath of stale smelling air, feeling acutely every little itch on her body, every hair out of place on her blond head. Talking to Lichtenberg had been touch and go, but this time she might be negotiating with the Imperial royal family, not just an overdressed thug. Those moments while her screen had nothing but connection diagnostics scrolling on them filled her with dread.

She feared as if there was something, anything more that she could do that she wasn’t, as if the seconds she spent staring at the screen could be dooming them all, the same way that the moments spent stuck in the substation had been enough for the enemy to catch up. The silence, punctuated by her officers working at their stations, was the tensest she had felt in years. She felt helpless, useless–

Deep breaths. She collected herself. Everyone was depending on Ulyana Korabiskaya.

After this was over, she could have a hearty cry in her own room.

She purged herself of emotions and waited until there was a picture on her screen.

“Greetings. Ulyana Korabiskaya, I presume?”

The woman on the other end had a fairly deep voice, but with smooth enunciation.

Her appearance was a bit more casual than Ulyana expected. A fair-skinned woman, with blond hair in a simple ponytail with short bangs and sidelocks that hid her hears. She wore what looked like a simple red camisole and pants, along with an open coat, half blue, and half green with gold trim, bearing, on the left, a series of gold embossed lines that seemed to mimic the circuitry on a semiconductor.

Her eyes were starkly red. Ulyana felt fixed into place by them, as if she was nervous to make any kind of movement that they could see. Though slight of figure, the presence of the blond woman on the other end of the call came through immediately and starkly, commanding all of her attention.

Ulyana felt as if there was an imperceptible weight around herself.

As if she had crossed into a room with a thick, palpable fog that resisted every movement.

Awash in some invisible scrutiny. She felt more conspicuous, more watched, more known.

For a moment, she thought she could understand the terror that Marina felt.

Norn von Fueller.

Her very gaze had a pressure that was indescribable.

“I am indeed Captain Korabiskaya. Your reputation precedes you mi–, milord.” Ulyana said.

That was one thing she did know– proper titles. She was almost caught right off the bat.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I am not one to dwell on pleasantries. Let me be clear and blunt, and get to the point quickly, out of respect for you and what you’ve already been through.” Norn said, raising a dismissive hand. “I feel that I have amply demonstrated that if I wanted to, I could take apart that overgrown can of sardines that you and your mercenaries are huddled in and extract just the one person I’m interested in while the rest of you die. I want you to surrender immediately.”

Ulyana felt something in the back of her head.

There was a sharp and sudden pain as if a nail was digging into her skull.

She couldn’t help it and flinched, unable to conceal it.

Just as quickly as it came, however, the pain was gone. Flinching was all she did.

“You’ll forgive me, Norn von Fueller, if I don’t find unguided missiles that impressive.”

Despite the pressure she felt, Ulyana managed to find a little humor to try to throw her off.

On the other end, Norn smiled. Not just a smirk or a little grin but a rosy, wondrous smile.

As if she had bore witness to something breathtakingly beautiful.

Ulyana could not place her sudden cheer.

“Interesting! Interesting!”

She crossed her arms and sat back. Now she was grinning to herself.

“I can see why you gave Inquisitor Lichtenberg so much trouble. Yes, you are not just a baker’s dozen of mercenaries, or else you would not have been able to fend her off like you did. Very well. Let us not mince words, Captain Korabiskaya. I know you are holding the Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller on your ship. Whether you were contracted to take her by a third party, or she herself escaped to you for some reason– the story doesn’t matter to me. Work for me instead. Hand her over.”

There was nothing Ulyana could possibly say to something that sudden and that insane.

She had never been prepared to come to an arrangement with Norn von Fueller.

Because she believed that the target of Gertrude Lichtenberg’s hunt was Marina McKennedy, Ulyana knew that giving her up was impossible. Not only because of the relationship between the Republic and the Union, and not only because of the honor that a Captain owed the members of her precious crew. Where it pertained to an intelligence asset like Marina, it was impossible to believe that the Empire could act in good faith. She could never trust Norn’s word. That being said, the appearance of handing over Marina could have been used to gain an advantage, to lay a trap, to buy time or to sneak away.

Such plans were predicated on them having what the enemy wanted in the first place.

Ulyana felt an icy chill stab deep through her chest.

None of her plans could possibly work if the enemy believed that what they had on hand–

was the Imperial Princess of the entire fucking Imbrian Empire!

Something like that was inconceivably urgent! There was no possible negotiation around it!

A nervous smile crept up on Ulyana’s lips. She could not conceal it. She tried to play it off.

“Milord, I believe I do not fully appreciate your humor.”

“You made verbal sport of my young, awkward subordinate, Captain, but I’m not like her.”

“I guarantee you I am not playing games. I am more serious than ever. You are mistaken.”

“My patience is running very thin, Korabiskaya. I will gladly pay triple, or even four times, whatever amount of funds you were promised, in any media that you desire. Gold, supplies, marks, bonds, fur rugs from real wild-grown bears from Thuringia’s eighth station. I have, Captain, a near infinite power to fulfill your wildest dreams, or kill you in the most brutal, painful, and evil ways that you could possibly imagine. I want your life, Captain, its up to you whether I own and cherish it, or crush it in my hand.”

Norn held out her palm and pointed a slender finger into the middle of it.

No matter how many gestures she made, however, Ulyana was unprepared for the situation.

“Of course, milord.” Ulyana said. “I’ll hand her over, if you–”

“Don’t lie to me, Ulyana Korabiskaya.” Norn raised her voice. “You can’t conspire against me.”

Ulyana found herself thrown off-balance.

Yes, she had indeed been conspiring.

She had to conspire– because it was impossible to surrender what she didn’t have!

“Norn von Fueller, we are innocent of the deeds that you unjustly ascribe to us. You have absolutely caught the wrong ship. It is ludicrous to think that a group such as ours could have possibly taken your Imperial Princess! It is my understanding that she was supposed to have perished in a collapse over two weeks ago! Isn’t that right? Have you any shred of evidence that we could have her?”

This was news that Aaliyah had learned from her time in Serrano station.

Marina had confirmed it too in one of their meetings about recent events.

Ulyana was taking an entirely different tack than she intended with Norn.

She was trying to tell the honest truth and swear the innocence of their crew.

And Norn was quite obviously unconvinced by it.

“You told Gertrude Lichtenberg you had her.”

“Gertrude Lichtenberg was speaking euphemisms. We have a VIP — she is no princess!”

Norn scoffed.

“I know you have her, Captain, because I know that you spoke with her.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Her voice is reverberating among your surface thoughts as we speak.”

“Excuse me?”

Ulyana was completely losing her cool. This was insane– farcically insane!

“Captain, allow me, please.”

From off to Ulyana’s right, Euphemia Rontgen suddenly peeked into the video call.

Norn began to stare intently as soon as she saw that hint of blue hair and teal eyes.

“Euphrates?” She asked suddenly.

“Euphrates?” Ulyana asked back.

“Quiet, Korabiskaya. Turn your monitor to face her, this instant.” Norn grunted.

Her voice took on a new urgency. She was rattled for the first time.

“Listen to her for now Captain.” Euphemia said.

Ulyana stared between Norn and Euphemia Rontgen with increasing confusion.

There was nothing she could do but play along.

She shifted her monitor– such that Euphemia could be seen but she was still in the picture.

That way she could continue to watch Norn.

At her side, she glanced to see Aaliyah’s reaction, but the Commissar shrugged helplessly.

This was moving out of their control quickly. Ulyana hoped Euphemia could do something.

“It is you.”

Norn put on a much different smile for Euphemia than she had for Ulyana before.

Cold, cruel, amused, arrogant.

For her part, Euphemia’s own softly smiling expression did not change upon meeting Norn. She had overcome even that briefest moment of concern Ulyana had seen in her eyes when she first heard the word Antenora. Having spoken to Norn now it was impossible to believe that Euphemia– Euphrates–? could possibly appeal to her “better nature.” Norn’s expression made this especially clear.

“It’s been a long time, Norn.”

“Incredible. It really is you. All of my troubles have ended up in the same ugly hauler.”

“Why are you after Elena von Fueller? Duty to your family?”

“Duty to my people, writ large.”

“So you don’t believe she died.”

“That’s neither here nor there, Euphrates.”

“Then I can’t confirm or deny the location of your princess, Norn. You’re right, it’s irrelevant.” Euphemia said calmly. “You see, these people are working for me now. Our existing agreements extend to them. I would offer to turn myself over to you in good faith, but I want to get my money’s worth out of them. So I would appreciate it if you ceased hostilities– if they do have the Imperial Princess aboard, which I highly doubt, I will do what I can to see her to safety when her business is concluded.” 

Norn turned a sharp-toothed grin on her.

“We can all get what we want here, Norn.”

“Euphrates–”

There went that name again! Ulyana felt frustrated. Rontgen was hiding far too much!

“Euphrates, Euphrates, Euphrates.” Norn shrugged mockingly, flashing a grin. “Seeing you among those hapless mercenaries confirms my suspicions. From the instant I saw you on this screen. Did you know that I met with not one, but two Sunlight Foundation vessels on the way here? Did you call for assistance when you became stranded? Why was I told to go to Goryk’s Abyss with no mention of rescuing you? Why didn’t an Alonso De Ojeda class come fetch you? I wonder, I wonder.”

Ulyana briefly glanced at the doctor to see if Norn had gotten under her skin.

She was not successful at first– but that changed very quickly as Norn spoke.

“Euphrates” looked surprised. As if there was a dawning realization on her face.

As Norn said more and more proper nouns known only between them.

“If you were sent to rescue me, then it is no longer necessary.” Euphrates said.

Her jaw was set. She was clenching her teeth.

“Rescue you? You’ve been abandoned, Euphrates. Face it. I’ve got you now.”

Norn smiled viciously.

“Norn, I’m pleading to the decency that I know you have, don’t do this–”

“This is the part where you beg for your life, Euphrates. See if it will move me.”

Ulyana sat in her chair staring at Norn and “Euphrates” in utter disbelief.

It was almost dreamlike what a sudden, inexplicable turn the negotiation had taken.

She felt like she was hearing a conversation in Shimii Fusha or in High Elvish.

To Ulyana these were all euphemisms, but Norn and Euphrates understood each other.

Euphrates let out a deeply held breath, her hands balling up into fists on her lap.

“Norn, if you’re set on revenge then go after me alone. Don’t involve these people.”

“I have all the power Euphrates, and I’m setting all the rules. I don’t hear you begging?”

Norn sat back in her chair, craning her head on one fist. Perfectly composed.

Euphrates fixed her with a smoldering stare.

A gaze full of desperation.

There was more emotion in those eyes than Ulyana saw her express since they met.

For a moment no words were exchanged. They were just two people staring at one another.

The Bridge fell so silent that the void in the sound itself felt palpable.

Ulyana was still trying to process what they were talking about previously–

Then Norn flinched on the screen, brought a hand up to her forehead clearly in pain.

Euphrates did the same–

–And the video cut out to a black screen. Sound off. Norn was gone.

Suddenly and without warning.

“What? Semyonova–!”

The Captain had scarcely called the name of her communications officer, when the bright blond girl whipped back around on her swiveling chair looking like she’d seen a ghost, pale as a sheet, her hands trembling. “I don’t know what happened, Captain! Everything was fine until now! I’m not seeing any disconnection requests logged on our end, but the channel just closed!”

Ulyana immediately suspected “Euphrates” had something to do with it.

Maybe a remote disconnection– with the implants–? She turned to accuse the woman of foul play, but when she did, she found “Euphrates” slumping forward, clutching her face. Blood trickled down her fingers. Her entire body was shaking. Ulyana laid a hand on her and there was no acknowledgment.

With one exchange of gazes she had fallen, unresponsive, and hemorrhaging.

“Call Kappel now! Right now!” Ulyana cried out.

Aaliyah shot up from her seat and rushed to Euphemia’s side as well.

Captain and Commissar grabbed hold of the doctor, peeled her hands from her face–

Immediately, blood, so much blood, from her nostrils, her mouth. Ulyana was speechless.

Euphemia shook as if freezing, her breathing was ragged, her eyes crawling into their sockets.

“Call Kappel for god’s sakes!” Ulyana shouted. “And tell Shalikova to deploy! Right now!”

Negotiations were over– and Ulyana could not possibly understand how and why.


Norn had both Euphrates and Ulyana Korabiskaya practically groveling in front of her.

She had been so excited — Euphrates! Euphrates had suddenly appeared before her!

Gertrude’s plight almost entirely vanished from her mind. This was the real prize!

Ever since Potomac had told her about Goryk’s Gorge, Norn had thought about this outcome as a distant possibility. Euphrates was always going after nests of abyssal denizens, and Potomac was no fighter. If she was sent anywhere near the Abyss of Goryk it would have been to report on the activities of someone like Euphrates to the Sovereign. Yangtze knew that Potomac was with Norn– so any mission she sent Potomac on would include Norn by default. Now Norn had a picture of the situation.

Either Yangtze was foolish enough to think Norn would just pass up an opportunity to get rid of Euphrates, or she was foolish enough to try to take advantage of Norn’s killer instinct to purge her. Norn had heard there was friction within the Immortals. Potomac being trusted as Yangtze’s right-hand woman was enough by itself to prove a rift between Euphrates and Yangtze. She never would have thought that this might lead to Euphrates falling so squarely, so helplessly into her grasp.

Norn had no intention of rescuing Euphrates. And she would not let her escape.

She would extract her from the Pandora’s Box and pop her head like a balloon.

A fitting first step in her vengeance. Unlike Potomac, Euphrates was unaffiliated with Eric.

She was alone, apart from all her defenses, out of communication with Yangtze.

In one moment, Norn was practically savoring her triumph–!

In the next, she found herself in some dark place full of swirling aether.

Without warning, without explanation, the Brigand and the Antenora vanished.

“Euphrates?”

It happened faster than a blink of her eyes. Before the instant where her vision went dark as the eyes shut, and the instant where they reopened again, she had already seen the darkness creep at the corners of the visible world like a snapshot of paint streaming down a wall. She felt a pinprick of psionic shock that her prodigious psychic defense battered down– but before she could confidently say she had repelled it, she found herself dragged into the aetheric current and brought out of the material world.

She was more annoyed and confused than she was alarmed at first.

How did this happen? An Apostle was nearly immune to mental attacks.

Even Mehmed had failed to alter her behavior or corrupt her senses, so how did this–?

“It’s not an attack. I’m inviting you here to settle our differences.”

Before her appeared Euphrates. That blue hair, those blue eyes, her butch mode of dress. It was unmistakable. Norn wanted to think at first she had blinked into existence, but she came to realize that Euphrates had always been there. Euphrates, and the glass-like floor upon which they were both standing, amid the dim void surrounded by the current of dull colored aether like the eye of a storm. They had both been in this place, and in the material world. This was their minds meeting, nothing more.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Good job Euphrates. I have hardly explored the currents, hardly ever seen this place. You’ve had many years of a head start on me in Clairvoyance. I commend you for exploiting this weakness and being a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing to discuss. I am going to return to the material world and kill you. You’ve only yourself to curse for this fate.”

Euphrates turned a look of gentle contrition on her that Norn despised immediately.

“All I want is to talk Norn. I don’t want to inflict any more violence on you.”

“When we last met, Euphrates, I still had hope in something. Twenty years ago. You have found me now at my most corrupted. I can think of nothing else than how much you’re responsible for this.”

“I know. I secretly hoped the Fueller Reformation would succeed and you would forget your vengeance.”

“Excuse me? I can’t believe you would even dare to say something so facile to me.”

“I know that simple contrition won’t suffice, Norn. That’s why I am here now.”

Her face was calm. Her expression toward Norn looked– resigned.

Her hand was trembling as she ran it through her hair.

Standing there in her white coat, her shirt and tie and dress pants.

“Norn, you’re right to hate me. I was the one who found you. So I’m the one responsible for everything you have suffered until now. I have regretted everything that happened between us for years. I know there is no way to expiate except to accept whatever punishment you desire, but I can’t let you endanger those people, not on my behalf, and not on Elena von Fueller’s. What you are now is not the result of their actions. I have brought you here to punish me, Norn. You can scar my soul in any way you need.”

“You’re lying.” Norn said.

Norn hated liars. Nothing infuriated her more.

Lying was an exercise of power. It belittled the recipient and aggrandized the speaker.

Everyone who knew about her powers assumed Norn could only read people psionically.

Nobody had ever realized that, perhaps, Norn knew a liar when she saw one, because of how much she had been lied to, abused, exploited. How much of her life was shaped by the lies told to her and how much proximity she had to liars. And in turn, how much those liars had belittled, underestimated, and humiliated her through the act of their lying. Liars were easy for her to spot. If she knew someone well enough she could always tell if they were lying. She could tell someone was lying through social cues, physical cues, information disparity– Norn wasn’t just reading Euphrates’ aura.

She knew that Euphrates was lying because of all these cues. Because–

“You did this to Mehmed.”

Over forty years ago, during Mehmed’s Jihad, Norn and the Immortals of the Sunlight Foundation had confronted him at the height of his power, when he was perhaps the most psionically gifted individual to have ever lived on Aer. Despite his power, skill, and unmatched understanding of psionics, in the end, Norn and Euphrates withstood him. It was Euphrates who stood by Norn in the final reckoning.

Norn felt her chest squeeze with the sudden, furious realization.

She had become Mehmed.

Euphrates had done something to her. Some kind of psionic trap in the aether current.

She could suppress people by casting them into the aether somehow–

This was how she weakened Mehmed enough for Norn to kill him.

Euphrates shut her eyes and bowed her head, her shame accepted and laid bare.

“You figured it out. I brought you into this space to keep you from hurting the Brigand. But I was not lying about my intentions. As I accepted a punishment from Mehmed, I accept a punishment from you.” Euphrates said. Her tone of voice was unnerving, infuriating. That sadness with which she spoke, that pity. “I cursed you with my knowledge and led you to be used by Yangtze, because I was too naïve. I didn’t see the Eighth for what she had become. The same thing happened to Mehmed, so I took–”

“Shut up! Shut up! You still don’t understand anything!”

Norn’s voice reverberated across the void.

The Praetorian trembled with fury, radiating her sheer seething anger.

Euphrates’ aura shrank as Norn’s furious cloud of black beset her like a tempest.

“You brought Mehmed here and he was killed Euphrates! He was killed, butchered, his body was used by Yangtze the Eighth for all manner of horrendous things, his blood begot a child who must now live with being born of a dead tyrant! You think letting him punish your soul in the aether makes up for that sin? Do you really, truly, believe that your affair with Mehmed was settled like this?”

All of that fake pity and self-aggrandizing grief faded from Euphrates’ eyes.

Panic, the panic that came with being bludgeoned by an unwanted truth.

That was what Norn wanted to see from her. To rattle her, to win the war of wills over her.

Mehmed could still move in the material world when Euphrates suppressed him. He had been slowed down, he had been clearly struggling under psionic attack. But as an Apostle, as the greatest of the Apostles, even at his weakest he was deadly strong. Norn had seen it face to face as she fought him to a standstill, as she brought him low. She could also escape from this trap.

When she escaped, she would give Euphrates the justice she had earned.

Euphrates was just using psionics. Her body could not withstand an infinite amount of the psionic feedback it would take to hold Norn down. As they spoke, Euphrates’ material form must have been suffering unimaginable pain to sustain the two of them in the Aether against their will. This was an incredible feat of mental power, but it had to have its limit. And when Norn escaped, she would command the Antenora’s attack, and Euphrates would cease to exist in any world.

In any psionic engagement, certitude was power, and doubt and fear created weakness.

“Norn– I– There’s nothing you want from me except my death, is there?”

Norn didn’t answer that pathetic whimper. Her silence spoke loud enough as a response.

Everything Euphrates had done to her could only be paid with her death.

“Death is the only thing I can’t give you, Norn.” Euphrates said, voice near bereft of breath.

That should have been a statement which was filled with defiance. Yet Euphrates looked at her with panicked eyes, the tears starting to stream down her cheeks. Her body was shaking, her gaze barely holding Norn’s own. So little composure, but the space had not yet broken down.

Norn could not place that reaction.

“How shameless can you be? Are you trying to stoke my sympathy?”

Euphrates hugged herself and fell to her knees in front of Norn.

“I can’t expiate with my death, Norn. I can’t be cleansed by death. I’ve replayed this encounter in my mind so many times, but death is the one thing I feared you most desire, but I can’t give you that, Norn. You can’t kill me. It’s been tearing me apart for years. I want so badly to release you from all of the pain that I have caused you, to allow you to lead the life you should have had. My interference ruined you and brought so much violence to this ocean; but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t satisfy you.”

“What the hell do you mean–? No– you can’t be serious–”

Norn stomped forward, grabbed Euphrates by her coat and lifted her up.

Euphrates made no attempt to resist, to struggle or fight back. Her feet weren’t kicking.

Her hands weren’t striking. Her eyes were barely meeting Norn’s own.

Norn had her completely under her power and yet the space was not breaking.

Why wasn’t she free of Euphrates’ power? She had broken her completely, and yet–

“No.”

A bitter, skeptical laugh escaped from Norn’s lips.

Her mind was running over an extremely horrible and pathetic possibility.

She knew that Euphrates was ageless, but–

“No, no, no. You’re not seriously– you’re literally saying–”

Norn’s eyes went wild. Her thinking became fogged.

In a violent impulse she seized Euphrates’ head and twisted it with all her fury.

Brutal strength issued a horrific cracking sound–

Neck snapped, the whole vertebra, sinews, and muscle tore–

Euphrates fell limp and hit the false ground of the void–

–head hanging like a bag of meat where Norn’s hands tore it.

She watched the corpse speechless.

Everything blurred from the mind fog of unreality.

Euphrates was alive.

Alive.

Glassy dead eyes staring far-gone but;

Red rings;

Psionic sight self-puppeteering;

Shaking arms rigid like a doll’s reaching;

Head snapped back into place like pushrod into hole;

Coughing breath reconnected to the windpipe like completed circuitry;

Blood spilling where neck muscle and bone tore and scarred refilling new skin;

ALIVE.

Watching as the hands worked dead. Unable to accept–

Norn;

laughing;

shaking;

seething;

crying;

To the colors of creation she had spilled red, brown, black and bile.

And yet–

Euphrates was alive.

There was no believing what she had seen. And yet the truth came to her lips quite simple.

“You can’t die.” Norn said, her voice trembling.

She reached out a hand toward Euphrates’ shaking blood-soaked body and sent a psionic pulse through her that popped her organs in her chest like bubble wrap. One after the other psychic hands pinching her heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach into boiling blood. Her corpse rattled, gore and spit spilling from her mouth, flailing like firecrackers from the force of her insides liquifying. Norn thrust her hand forward again and again and again like she was feeling the recoil of a firearm and Euphrates’ battered body with its helpless expression of death accepted each and every cruel blow like she was nothing.

“You’re not resisting! Resist it goddamn you!”

Norn shouted herself hoarse as the blood pooled in the eye of the storm.

Euphrates came to fall on her side, her arms still capable of enough motion to hold herself.

Fetal, ruined remains curled up.

In moments, her chest was rising and falling.

Blood gurgled in her throat when breathing resumed.

There was a guttural noise escaping her windpipe along with a gulp of gorey vomit.

There were holes cut into her shirt where rib bone had shredded out at acute angles.

Norn watched them recede as if her violence was playing out in reverse.

“You won’t release me.” Norn realized. “Because holding me won’t kill you.”

The Founder of the Sunlight Foundation who relinquished her dream to Yangtze the First.

She was not only ageless.

Norn had underestimated her, gravely, vastly, underestimated her.

Euphrates could be uniquely certain of her fate. She could not die.

Certitude was power in the mind. Just as her soul would not die, her body could not.

“Mehmed could still act in the material world when you were doing this.”

Norn still had to be able to influence the material world. Mehmed had done it.

She waited for Euphrates’ body to heal enough for her to speak. She picked her up again.

“Say something.” Norn demanded.

Holding Euphrates by the throat which she had not seconds ago completely shredded.

“Our hearts want to connect, Norn. That’s why I can bring you here.”

Her voice was rough. Her blood-stained lips curled into a little smile.

“Ganges’ childish philosophy.”

Norn put a hand to Euphrates’ forehead, ignoring her weak, pleading gaze.

Frost began to creep across Euphrates’ skin, bruising her, turning her purple and ghost white. Every bit of sweat and blood on her was turned into a needle that drove into her skin and released more fluids for Norn to freeze. She was in her sinews, sending cold-burning agony into her core.

Her eyes crawled back up her head, choked sounds of pain animal and automatic–

She was not resisting.

Euphrates had truly given herself up for punishment. For anything Norn could do to her. She stood holding Euphrates’ once-dignified form now frozen stiff in her hands. The closest thing Euphrates had to a soul was in her grasp. She felt nothing hurting it. She could not possibly have been satisfied.

This was not any kind of vengeance. It was not any kind of closure.

There was great certitude in what Euphrates did. A complete, unimpeachable finality.

There had to be a way– there had to be a way to break free of it.

Norn pored over everything she knew about psionics, the mind, the aether.

“Our hearts want to connect, you said?”       

Norn formed a conjecture in her mind. As soon as she did she tried to be certain of it.

She scanned around the void trying to thread the colors with her eyes, to follow the currents.

This was not a space in which only Euphrates had control.

Where she had brought her was a communal space, viewed in a way to unique to psychics.

Without vision, it still existed, in the back of everyone’s mind, in the core of everyone’s heart.

All of the colors around her represented the sum total of humanity.

Emotional footsteps which had left pain and elation imprinted onto the fabric of reality.

This was a unique place with unique possibility.

In this place, it was not only Norn and Euphrates who existed.

Their currents were the ones closest, most connected, but they were not alone.

“Ganges would have you told you. No matter where you go, you can never be alone.”

Norn focused her psionic vision to the fullest extent.

Inviting that hated swarm of aether that threatened to overwhelm her senses.

Inspecting with keen detail the feelings that swirled around her.

She felt the chains of her myriad connections that Euphrates represented–

Anger;

Pain;

Betrayal;

Entwining her and Euphrates in thorns which had driven Norn for years and now bound her.

Mehmed had been trapped by these thorns too. He could still move despite this.

To the very end, Mehmed had resisted. Resistance was his strength. His certitude.

It led to his death.

Norn was not Mehmed. She had neither his prodigious ability nor his all-abiding ambition.

But just as Euphrates had something Norn lacked, Norn had an advantage Mehmed failed to accrue.

Taking a deep breath, focusing all of her might and power–

Driving away the fear that crept in her heart as she felt the upswell of humanity–

She let go.

She let go of the grudge that tied her to Euphrates.

She let go of her guardedness, of her reticence, of her insecurity, of her need to have control.

She looked upon those scars in her heart as past things, as flesh wounds closed.

She let go of position.

From standing upright and separate amid the stream of humanity.

Norn fell through the makeshift ground that held her and Euphrates level.

Falling into the current of all the sinews which bound her heart with others.

As certain as she could ever be that there was one heart that would accept her desire to heal.

Her desire to be free. A unique possibility in this realm.

Falling–

And letting herself be filled with thoughts of a red-headed young woman’s childish grinning.

Of the look of understanding that those green eyes gave even to the darkest of Norn’s colors.

Adelheid van Mueller.

The woman to whom Norn had sworn her life.

Her gaze, her touch, her smell, the deepest depths of her being enveloped the falling Norn.

For the first time since she was introduced to the cruel Imbrium, she felt something close to bliss.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.9]

This scene contains graphic sexual content.

When the Captain and Commissar arrived at Doctor Winfreda Kappel’s office, they found her reclining in her chair, her face sullen, swirling a tiny bit of yellow-brown fluid in a small glass. There was an uncorked bottle on the counter nearby, along with a minicomputer with an open patient file. Ulyana glanced at the screen and saw a freshly-taken photo of a certain Marina McKennedy on the screen.

“No one on the crew is supposed to drink unless we approve it.” Ulyana said.

Her tone was more playful than it was stern.

Dr. Kappel smiled at them, arranging her colorful hair out of her eyes and behind one ear.

“Good Evening, Captain, Commissar. If I recall correctly, and I do, the regulation lists the specific alcoholic beverages that can only be drunk with a formal release by the Captain. However, the ship doctor’s standard-issue lemon brandy is actually exempt. It’s why I took this job at all.”

“Huh. First time I’ve heard of this. Is that true?” Ulyana asked Aaliyah.

“It doesn’t sound true.” Aaliyah replied. “It sounds like shameless excuses.”

“Wait, so you don’t know for sure?” Ulyana said.

“You’ll forgive me for indulging after the depressing visitor you sent my way.”

The doctor winked at them and took a small sip of her brandy.

“I’m glad you did see her, and not just the depths of your brandy bottle.” Ulyana sighed.

“I’ve got good news for you, Captain: she’s biologically alive.” Dr. Kappel laughed.

“We’d like to know the bad news then.” Aaliyah said. For a moment, the room quieted.

Then it was Dr. Kappel’s turn to sigh. She ran her hand over her forehead briefly.

“Let me think of where to begin. It was a lot of work I’ll have you know.”

Ulyana was afraid it would be something like this. “That bad, huh?”

“You don’t see patients like this in the Union very frequently.” Dr. Kappel replied.

“Start with the basics then and work your way to what’s actually bothering you.”

Dr. Kappel reached out to the countertop and picked up her minicomputer to glance at it.

“Marina McKennedy has a strong baseline level of health if you judge purely on her general physicality. She has the level of fitness I would expect from a combat soldier. No chronic illnesses. Lots of lean muscle, flexible and dexterous, not too dense, or heavy; full range of movement in her limbs, solid reflexes, good hand-eye coordination, perfect hearing; good eyesight, from her good eye. I’ll get to that shortly. Her weight can’t really be faulted, but she clearly has been eating poorly. Despite this, she maintains an acceptable level of fitness by Union standards.”

She spoke almost robotically and looked up at the Captain and Commissar for remarks.

Neither made any expression, so she continued reading from her notes. “She disclosed a single gender affirming chest surgery, but not the timeline of the surgery. I believe she has fully recovered from it. Upon learning of her status I prescribed her hormone treatments. She did not disclose any other health information: including that she had a second skin applied, which is visibly fading. I figured that out myself during our checkup. I did not disclose this suspicion to the patient.”

“A second skin? Over what specifically?” Ulyana asked.

Normally second skins were applied on certain parts of the body.

They were applied to the faces or bodies of performers to typify certain beauty standards.

Unblemished cheeks, the illusion of a beautifully toned body, different skin colors.

“Full body, except a patch on her chest where there’s an older scar.” Dr. Kappel said simply. “And I believe it’s not for gender affirming reasons. In fact, I don’t think the surgery she disclosed was for that either. I would know. As a trans woman and a doctor I can tell you nobody gets surgery for such a humble size when they can go bigger.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced briefly at each other. A full body second skin was quite rare. In the Union you rarely saw it. The ingredients were better used for other medical purposes. Applying a second skin required a lot of hours of precise work in order to look perfect.

“What is she trying to hide then? That’s what you’re implying, right?” Aaliyah said.

Dr. Kappel sighed as if it was painful to recall what she saw.

“Scars. Lots of scars and damage. All over her body. Not just surgical scars, either.”

“I’m not sure I understand the reaction you’re having here, Doc.” Ulyana said gently.

“I’m just upset whenever I see evidence of extensive and brutal torture, is all.”

Dr. Kappel turned a weary glance to her superiors. Her voice grew more impassioned.

Ulyana and Aaliyah glanced at each other again as if they hadn’t expected that.

“Marina McKennedy was traumatically tortured, Captain, Commissar. Any doctor could have told you that. Even the Security team’s medic. Marina is covered in irregular scars all over her body, that are becoming visible again. She styles her bangs over one side of her face to cover it, but I believe she suffered violent eye trauma too, necessitating an implant. Likely a back alley job, but I didn’t want to push her to let me check it. Psychologically, she is deeply troubled. She is afraid to be touched on her bare skin. Even if she knows she will be touched and if extensive consent is sought, she will allow the touch but react quite negatively.”

As she spoke, Dr. Kappel pulled back the sleeve of her coat and bodysuit to reveal a bruise.

“Even for someone with military combat training, it was hard to block her strike.”

“Solceanos defend.” Ulyana whispered to herself. Aaliyah’s tail turned stiff and straight.

“I don’t want you to think she’s dangerous. I think she’s just deeply, deeply hurt.”

Dr. Kappel set her minicomputer back on the counter and downed the rest of her drink.

“I understand. Is there anything else we should know?” Ulyana said.

“Her main vice is smoking, which she herself admitted.” Dr. Kappel said. She had the same tone of voice as when she was rattling off facts collected in her notes. As if she had walked herself down from getting too emotional about the patient. “I’ve informed her this ship is a smoke free zone, and tobacco is relatively rare in the Union, so I’ve prescribed medication to wean her off it. You’ll have to keep an eye she doesn’t bring any tobacco into the ship. It’s more prevalent in the Empire than the Union. She has a mild dependency on opiates, I also prescribed drugs for that. That’s all the pertinent information.”

“Do you think her judgment is impaired in any way?” Aaliyah asked.

“Bit insensitive to ask after all I just told you, no?” Dr. Kappel replied.

“I don’t see it that way. I have to know so I can help the patient be safer too.”

“Fair enough. I don’t believe so. I think she is fully cognizant and operating in reality.”

“We’ll just have to be patient and see if we can get her to open up.” Ulyana said.

“Good luck with that. At any rate, I did let her know we’ll be doing weekly checkups.”

Ulyana smiled nervously. “Thanks for volunteering, Doc.”

Dr. Kappel scoffed. She poured herself another glass. Her cheeks were starting to flush.

“I feel obligated to help, from one transgender sister out in the world to another. I can’t leave a patient to depend solely on you two brutes for her long-term health.” As the doctor berated them, Ulyana and Aaliyah simply stood in place and averted their gazes awkwardly. “But you understand that henceforth, I can’t tell you anything she confides in me, per Union regulations.”

“We get it. Don’t worry. She’s a spy, we know we’re being lied to.” Aaliyah said.

“As long as you keep her from blowing up on us, I agree to confidentiality.” Ulyana added.

“Good. Honestly, I should have braced myself to see such things, but still. What she’s been through, it’s so evil.”

Dr. Kappel looked up at the ceiling, as if referring to the whole ocean around them.

“I feel like we’ve all seen enough of the Empire to last us a lifetime already.” Ulyana said.

“Well, we’re barely getting started. So we’ll all need to toughen up.” Aaliyah said.

Her own droopy ears and tail belied her personal sense of demoralization, however.

For a first step, this mission seemed to have only reminded them all of their smallness.

There was nothing bold or glorious about it.

Of course, that was military work through and through. It was not always glorious.

Not for the officers, not for command, not for the sailors or even the doctor.


Ulyana did not have much to move from the former Captain’s quarters over to the Commissar’s.

Her personal clothes were packed in a neat bundle, and she could always get more TBT uniforms. They had extras. Aside from one nice dress, she only had a few good pairs of pants and their matching coats and dress shirts, and one good Union formal uniform. So she took these effects into the Commissar’s room right after the room was reassigned, pulled down the bunk on the right-hand wall and set them there. Her makeup kit was easily portable and slotted in nicely into the storage under the bunk. There was one item she had to be delicate with, a bottle full of something quite special.

It was this item she was fetching from a lockbox in the Commissar’s room wall, when Aaliyah entered in from the hallway, looking exhausted. As soon as the door closed behind her she took off her hat and set it on a hook, took off her long coat, and pulled off her tie and the top few buttons of her shirt. The way she did it, it was like ritual: a daily, trusted act of undressing, in the mindlessness of privacy, fully at ease with herself. Her whole body language softened that instant.

She even let out a little cat-like purr.

Of course, she then noticed Ulyana in the room and immediately jerked back.

“Captain!” She cried out.

Ulyana waved a hand, her lips curling into an awkward little smile.

“Warm greetings, Commissar. I live here now.” She said.

Aaliyah’s wild expression softened, and she averted her gaze.

“I– I know that! I thought you would be somewhere else at this hour!”

Her ears drooped and her tail curled, flicking behind her.

Ulyana extricated the bottle from the confines of its padded bag and pulled it up.

“I was planning on a shower, but first, I actually wanted to invite you to a drink.”

“What? A drink? What kind of drink?”

Holding it by the neck, Ulyana showed Aaliyah a dressed-up bottle of a fancy liqueur.

“It’s tuzemak infused with coconut.” Ulyana said. “Small batch, but good quality.”

Ulyana uncorked the bottle. She had already tasted it, quite a few months ago.

Her demeanor was guarded as she offered the bottle. She ready for Aaliyah to yell at her.

Instead the Commissar looked intrigued. She approached and gave the bottle a good look.

“That’s quite an interesting combination. How did you get your hands on this?”

“You’re acting like I stole it.” Ulyana laughed. “It was on a plaza table in Sevastopol.”

“Sevastopol is situated close to an agri-sphere. I guess it makes sense for a plaza find.”

Ulyana felt lucky that Aaliyah’s response was so passive. Maybe she was too tired to moralize. Feeling emboldened, Ulyana pushed things one step further, set the bottle on the commissar’s pull-down writing desk, and withdrew two small, clean shot glasses, setting them both neatly on the desk too. Aaliyah watched her quietly while she was doing this.

“Would you do me the honor of joining me for a toast?”

Aaliyah’s tail went from flicking back to swaying gently behind her.

“Well. One drink could not hurt I suppose.”

That response put a radiant smile on Ulyana’s face.

She poured a full shot glass for each of them and handed one to Aaliyah.

The second she took and raised to eye level.

“A toast: to a successful mission, and a victory for communism!”

Aaliyah and Ulyana touched glasses and lifted them to their lips.

A slick, sweet taste, sugar beet with a hint of coconut, burning all the way down.

It made Ulyana’s chest warm. Even in this ship, in this unknown ocean, it felt like home.

“That was amazing.” Ulyana said.

“It was delicious. Thank you for the toast, Captain.”

“Want to go for seconds?”

“Going to have to stop you there.”

Aaliyah put her hands on her hips and threw a narrow-eyed glare at Ulyana.

Ulyana took the shot glasses and bottle back with a knowing grin.

The Commissar stood there watching her Captain clean the glasses in the room’s water dispenser and remained like a fixture or a piece of furniture while she put them away. Once they were back safely in the storage under the bunk, Ulyana came face to face with Aaliyah again, and she, too, became a fixture in the middle of the room, between the bunks. They avoided staring directly at one another and neither spoke for several long seconds. Ulyana then realized she was standing in the way of Aaliyah’s desk, so she moved aside and sat on the bunk instead.

“We can’t go on like this.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s set some boundaries, Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

When presented with an awkward situation Ulyana would always smile.

Because it was a forced smile, it was usually crooked. It did not really improve things.

It was, simply, just what happened. “Not Captain Korabiskaya?”

“Ugh. If I had to maintain that formality at all hours of my life, I would go insane.”

“I agree. I just thought you would prefer it. Like keeping a bit of distance, even in here.”

“Not at all. I think you’ve misread me. In my room, what I want is to relax, and to be able to dress down from the mask I have to wear around the crew. I’m expected to help the Captain enforce discipline. I need to command respect even if the Captain is lenient. It’s a big burden that I take off for a few hours in solitude. I won’t be alone anymore, but I still need to have that time.”

Ulyana nodded. Maybe Aaliyah did not realize that the Captain wore her own mask too.

That was something she would not bring up. She was the guest, and she would fit in.

“I understand completely. I want to help ease your burden however I can, Aaliyah.”

Aaliyah’s ears straightened up. She averted her eyes again in a demure expression.

“Well, thank you. My routine is that I write a Chronicle entry in silence, so I can reflect on the day. I want to ask you to be silent and still while I do so. Maybe take a nap or go catch your shower at this time. I always do this at 2000 hours, and then I read before sleeping at 2200 sharp.”

“I’m fine to keep that schedule.”

The pair stared at one another as if they were each waiting for there to be more to say.

Another awkward silence fell between them. The ship was so quiet too.

“Well. I guess it’s all settled. Thank you, Cap– Ulyana.”

“You could call me Yana too. Most of my friends do. Even Nagavanshi did.”

Her face turned briefly warmer. Oh, why did she chance on saying that?

Aaliyah merely shook her head and walked past her to the desk and sat down. She reached over the desk and pressed her hand down on the wall, sliding out a fake metal panel to expose the Osmium lockbox in which the ship’s chronicle was kept. All the while Ulyana watched her as she unlocked the box, took out the chronicle, gently booted it up. From her holster, she took her snub nosed revolver and set it down on the table — of the Bridge officers, only the Captain and Commissar were so armed.

Then she began to write. With her back to Ulyana and her eyes staring down at the screen.

“Duly noted. I’ll go catch that shower.”

From the desk, Aaliyah waved at her. “Enjoy your shower, Ulyana.”

When she said her name there, it felt so pointed. Ulyana shrank just a little from it.

Like an arrow right through her heart. What a stupid thing to feel!

Of course, what was she thinking? That they could have another passionate night?

That sort of fantasy would have just gotten her in great trouble.

At least she was not cast out into the hallway without a bed to call her own.


Her body was flung from high into a jagged precipice and fell down a dark chasm. She watched a stark white sky shrink into a sliver as the walls encroached around her. Falling for what felt like eternities, skin unfeeling in a rushing wind until she suddenly hit the ground.

Her back arched from the impact and she cried out soundlessly.

Skin and clothes split off from her body like glass shattering instantly into dust, rising into the air like a cloud.

There was no pain, but she still settled with the wind knocked out of her, naked on the ground, sweating, heaving. Her skin, the only layer that was left behind over her body, was wet, soft, and pale like an insect’s callow after molting. Eyes heavy, dragging herself on the cold, blank floor, her surroundings a blur. Who was she? She could barely remember her name.

All around her there was nothing but a curtain of squirming shadows.

Footsteps. Why would there be footsteps? She was supposed to be alone.

She looked over her shoulder in time to see thin shadows lashing out of the walls.

Her leg was seized as if by a wet, black rope and she was lifted bodily by the ankle.

That tendril dragged her toward a gaping maw of shadows that seethed and curled.

A second tentacle whipped around her neck and pushed her head up.

Thin, inky limbs formed bonds around her wrists and forced her arms behind her back.

As suddenly as she was seized, her body was set down, forced to her knees with her back straight.

Before her eyes, a human figure appeared from the shadows as if phasing through a membrane. A woman’s upper body leaned forward, red eyes, grinning lips, nose to nose with the skinny, soft callow that she had caught in her arms. A bioluminescent glow upon certain areas of her skin gave delineation to a slender chest and its exposed curves. Her eyes pored over the pale figure.

“Sonya,”

That sweet, luscious voice recalled the nymph’s identity with great joy. Sonya Shalikova.

As the woman spoke, Sonya’s cold, unfeeling body tingled with the warmth of the woman’s breath.

Then the tentacles binding her arms pushed against her back, forcing her chest forward.

Limbs slid around her back, tracing her ribcage, climbing over and squeezing her breasts.

A tendril glided up her thigh, sliding heavy against her groin, its slender tip curling around her dick.

Breathing ragged, pulse quickening, her pale flesh slick with sweat.

Sonya’s body reacted in a primal way.

Hips shuddering, chest quaking, a building pressure in her core that caused her to bite down on her lip. She did not hate the sudden grip of pleasure she found herself in. She didn’t fight it. As her body bucked, the tentacles moved in rhythm with her.

Sonya let out a soft, soundless gasp into the face of her captor. Her own lips curled into a little, exhausted smile.

“Sonya,”

A human hand reached out and caressed her cheek.

Two fingers penetrated her lips. Saliva trickled from her mouth, her tongue struggling instinctually against the intrusion. The voice grew more possessive as its lips closed in on Sonya’s face, past her cheek, and dug into her neck, leaving a red marking.

As the figure neared, the arms around her body squeezed to the point Sonya felt crushed.

Pleasure and love that once danced electric on her skin became consumptive, choking–

“Sonya,”

In a deepening constriction, the voiceless Sonya finally let out a scream in agony.

Everything went dark.

Back aboard the assault carrier “Brigand,” Sonya Shalikova darted upright in her bed.

Her undershirt clung close to her heaving chest with patches of cold sweat.

She reached to the wall and struck the contextual button that appeared to dimly light the room.

Lying on the other bunk, Maryam Karahailos stared at her, covered up her neck in blankets.

Her skin and hair were completely white, and her expression was frozen in a vacant smile.

“What are you looking at?” Sonya shouted.

Though her facial expression remained unchanged, Maryam shook gently with fright.

“You were making strange noises that woke me up. Then you started screaming.”

As if expecting further verbal outbursts, Maryam pulled the blanket over her head.

That bundle of blankets continued to shake for a few moments with Maryam’s fear.

“You had a very scary aura.” She said. “I was afraid you were in pain.”

Sonya brought her hands to her face and dropped back into her pillow, squirming.

Fleeting images of some kind of dream emptied out of her head.

She felt unsettled. But she knew it wasn’t Maryam’s fault and she shouldn’t have yelled.

After a few minutes she rebuilt the courage to speak. “Sister Karahailos–”

“Please call me Maryam, Sonya! Oh I hate hearing that cold formality with your voice!”

“So you’re still just awake and staring at me under the blankets?”

“Well, yes–”

“Maryam–!”

At that moment, Sonya was interrupted by flashing red lights going off in her room.

There were no loud alarm sounds– no alarm sounds went off for silent running alarms.

Maryam pulled off her blankets.

“Sonya, is that something important? Oh– your aura is scary again.”


“It should be illegal to make me do late shift so much. This is cruel and unusual.”

“Then at home you should have remained, therein bemoaning your pitiable existence.”

“All you did was say the words in a weird order. You’re not as fancy as you think.”

“Silence, gamer.”

Fatima al-Suhar sighed under her breath.

In the background, the two other late shifters kept themselves entertained complaining at each other near-endlessly. Had she been the sort to gossip or provoke, Fatima would have joked that Alexandra and Fernanda sounded like a married couple. Maybe once upon a time, she would have done so. But she could no longer stand causing inconvenience. She was so thankful to be alive and so sorry to have ever done wrong in her life. So she bit down that troublesome instinct.

Instead she hunkered down and went to work.

Raising her headphones and tucking them into her ear fluff, tail gently swaying as the sounds of the Ocean overtook the cacophony that proceeded apace directly behind her. It was this sound that strengthened her belief in God, even when everything looked bleak. That sound of gentle rushing punctuated by the sharp notes of life beneath the water. Fatima thought of it was the heartbeat of an organism that encompassed all things — for Allah was exalted and seen in all things.

Most people did not understand that the Ocean was always singing with life.

Within the water table, the ocean itself moved, creating currents and underwater waves that made bubbling and rushing sounds. Their ships were designed to move by sucking in water and accelerating it through the structure, so at higher speeds the disturbance of the water as the ship passed could also be heard, and understood, if the operator had a good ear. There was life all around them, even in the aphotic depths at 1000 meters below. Fish swam, crabs scuttled, squid and cuttlefish hid in the benthic depths and rushed out for prey. Sharks and other large fish that dove deep for food could be heard distinctly from the rest.

They rarely ever acknowledged it, but there was so much more in the Ocean than humans.

Fatima loved hearing those sounds. It was soothing. Even with the tension of hearing an enemy ship always looming over her, she could be at peace with the sounds of Ocean life. Most of the time, her job involved her sitting as if alone, isolated even in a room full of people. The youthful, noisy gas gunners below her, the bridge officers around her, and the Captain and Commissar behind and above her, all disappeared, and she only heard the endless call of the deep.

As if she herself was surrounded in the water, adrift in the lightless blue.

When she looked down at her console, she had various diagrams to monitor.

There were three major ones: a square spectrogram display for the hydrophones, a bearing imager with its own graph using the acoustic data, and a digital visual drawn up using the acoustic prediction algorithm.

In her opinion, the predictor was useless, except as something to look at to pass the time.

Most of the time she was staring at the spectrogram, watching the sounds being recorded and keeping an eye and an ear out for anything strange. All of the sounds picked up would appear in her spectrogram as lines, and she was well trained in discerning meaning from those lines. Meanwhile the bearing imager had angle markings and displayed the paths of large objects as lines so that Fatima could tell what direction ships may be coming from. There were bearing imagers installed in various places on the ship, but Fatima was the one tasked with the one on the Bridge, and it was the most fully featured on the ship.

Below the imagers, a text terminal displayed predicted origins as well as spectrum data.

On that night, like any other night, Fatima expected to hear more “biologic” noises than ships.

And the ships she expected to hear were slow, noisy civilian vessels.

They were heading to the Nectaris jet-stream, a major byway for Ocean traffic.

So at first, when she heard a distant, but distinctive sound of a large hydrojet–

She second-guessed herself. Her reflexes were lightning quick, however.

As soon as her brain registered a sound, and the realization shuddered through her whole body, she looked up at the spectrograph, bearing imager, and even at the predictor. She read the data on the terminal, as it was sometimes faster than calculating from the frequencies in the spectrograph. In seconds, Fatima’s little world had gone through several convulsions. Her ears stood straight. Her tail started flicking in the air. Her eyes drew wide as she slowly accepted the truth of what she calculated.

“It can’t be– It just can’t–”

Even as she said this, she stood from her station suddenly.

Beside her was Semyonova’s station. She ran her finger across a touchpad to awaken it.

From the side of the station she pulled up the corded handset.

Red lights started to flash as Fatima raised the alarm.

“Attention! All hands, duty “Semyon”! Repeat, duty “Semyon”!

Semyon was the code phrase for the combat alert.

Fatima’s voice came out from speakers installed throughout the ship.

Fernanda and Alexandra turned sharply around from their stations in disbelief.

All around them the red lights flashed. Doors started to open throughout the ship, bleary eyed people stepping out. There were no klaxons, and she could not say too aloud the words “combat alert,” because the enemy could possibly pick out loud sound from within the Brigand and glean insight into their intentions. Instead, Fatima simply repeated, in a falsely calm voice, “Semyon!”

She could not say out loud that an Irmingard class vessel was tailing at combat speed.

Nor that it had brought company.



Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.8]

“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.

“Why?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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!”

“Okay.”

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.”

“I know.”

“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.”

Murati grumbled.

“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.”

“Why?”

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.”

“Elena–”

“I just have to touch your bare skin; you’ll go down crying like a baby again.”

“Elena!”

“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.


Previous ~ Next

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 put it 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