Sinners Under The Firmament [9.3]

The Medbay was finally lively enough that the sound-dampening curtains between each bed had to be extended to give each occupant privacy and peace. Within her own little curtained stall, Murati Nakara sat on the bedside. She was dressed in the TBT sleeveless shirt and long pants, with the jacket hanging from the backboard of the bed. Rather than Karuniya Maharapratham, it was doctor Winfreda Kappel, with her multi-hued blue hair, charming smile and sharp, appraising eyes, that sat at Murati’s bedside.

She examined Murati’s chest and abdomen, applying gentle pressure to her ribs.

“You’re not flinching, so I’m inclined to believe you that it doesn’t hurt. Or maybe you have a supernatural threshold for pain and you’re able to hide it. Your injuries should have taken upwards of a month to recover, and when it comes to medicine, I don’t believe in miracles. I will continue to have you come in every two days for followups. After a week of that, I might believe you’re well again.”

Murati smiled. It did hurt– a little. But she did feel she had recovered very quickly.

She knew herself, her body. She knew that she was a fast healer, for whatever reason.

“Thank you Doctor. Of course I’ll comply. I’ll even wear the brace and use my cane.”

“I’m glad you’ve decided to be responsible now. Since you helped bring about a bloodless resolution to our last battle, as a crew member, and even as a doctor, I can’t hold it against you. As a bureaucrat, however, I will have to give you a strike on your record for disobeying the doctor’s orders. It’ll be discussed when the mission is over. As ridiculous as that might sound to you.”

Doctor Kappel smiled at her as she showed her a red page on her digital clipboard.

“I would never ask you to let me off the hook.” Murati replied, smiling back.

Of course, it was incredibly silly to discuss.

They might not even come back alive from their mission, after all.

Both of them seemed to know it. Nevertheless, Murati did believe in upholding the process.

“Take care now, Murati. Don’t make your poor old doctor worry anymore.”

“I’m afraid I can’t promise that. I have a pretty grim profession, you know?”

They laughed, and Doctor Kappel left her side and went to the next curtain over.

Murati took in a deep breath and let it out to relieve some of the tension in her.

Her rib stung, just a little, but she could definitely walk. Even without the cane, too.

She would keep the chest brace for a bit, however.

There was an eerie feeling in the air. They had survived another battle. Outside the ship the ocean was bright and sunlit. It was– it was easier. It had become easier. After the Iron Lady, she was laid up in bed, but when she woke up, she really got to thinking about her brush with death. Now they had escaped the Antenora, and from the reports, something even worse after that. There were no existentialist thoughts in her brain, however. Confronting death was just getting easier.

Living with the aftermath of a battle, with the come-down from all the built-up anxiety. That was also easier now. Murati did not cry, she did not want to scream, she did not feel depressed or worried sick about the outcome. She felt, in a grim way, that this was becoming normal, routine. Dock workers got up every day, they hauled crates, checked off their manifests, got in their hard suits and performed repairs. That was normal, automatic, eventually a professional dock worker had no feelings about it. Murati Nakara got up every day and she was ready to fight, kill, and die.

Or at least, in that moment, that was how she felt.

Maybe she would reconsider when death was certain. For her, or someone she loved.

Her next visitor came through the door, distracting her from these morbid thoughts.

It was one of the senior mechanics, Gunther Cohen.

“Glad to see you up and about.” He said. “Are you really doing okay?”

“I’m fine.” Murati said.

“You’re not just being reckless again, are you?”

Murati shook her head. As if such a gesture would really change his mind.

He nodded back at her, clearly unconvinced. “I checked the storage on the HELIOS as you asked. Murati, I don’t know what to say, but there were no videos on it about your parents. There was visual data from the cameras, pattern data for recognizing leviathans and ships. That HELIOS has amazing compute capability packed in, for a Diver– but no files like the one you described.”

Another thing she did not quite know how to feel about.

“Maybe a hidden routine could have deleted it when the HELIOS network came online?”

“I was thorough. For a piece of survey equipment, any actions on its data must be logged methodically. And the logs were incredibly detailed: none of its data was deleted.” He averted his gaze briefly. He looked like he was clearly out of his depth. He had been tasked with something that was deeply personal to Murati and did not know how to break it to her that he had failed.

Or that, perhaps, she had been making it up in her own mind all along.

“Karuniya also saw it. I just wanted it as a keepsake. Could you search again, somehow?”

“I know I’m not missing anything. You may need to confront those two about it.”

His gaze was partially directed beyond the medbay walls, in the direction of the brig.

Euphrates and Tigris. The “Solarflare LLC” scientists they had rescued.

“Until the Captain clears those women– let’s not touch the HELIOS again. Is that okay?”

Murati nodded. She thanked Gunther for his help, and for his nagging but earnest diligence.

Of all the eerie things in the atmosphere– the mystery of those two women hung heaviest.


It had been a few hours since the Brigand had crossed the Upper Scattering Layer. While the alert state had yet to be rescinded, people were working slower, if they were, and a lot of others were taking a break. The Bridge had a strange confidence that nobody was going to be attacked by Leviathans and that no corrupted currents would sweep them off-course. So the sailors could not do anything about it except accept to treat it like any day, and let the officers worry about the rest.

This meant that there was a large flurry of activity to the cafeteria.

After everything that happened, Elena Lettiere was dreadfully hungry.

However, she did not want to eat with too many people– not yet. She still felt awkward.

After all, for all her convictions, and all her lovely rhetoric, she had lied to all of them.

To be Elena Lettiere– she still had to amend for what Elena von Fueller had done.

She wanted to talk to the Captain again– but first, food.

Elena waited for a while, until she saw more sailors out in the halls working again.

If they were walking everywhere else, the cafeteria was probably empty.

Still wearing her dress, Elena emerged from her room and made her way over.

Her instincts had been correct. There were a few men and women eating alone here and there, no big groups, and much of the seating was unoccupied. Those few eyes that were there on the long row seats, having their bread and soup, did not look at Elena as she approached the counter and looked over what was being served. She was so used to grabbing what she needed quickly–

That she didn’t really notice that the woman behind the cafeteria counter was watching.

When Elena looked up, the woman smiled at her.

She reminded Elena immediately of Bethany: a glamorous and energetic older woman, with dark eyeshadow, cheek-length black hair, and dark wine-red lipstick. Wearing an apron over the sleeveless uniform shirt and pants for that fictitious “Treasure Box Transports” company. Her arms were lean, with the slim muscles easily delineated. Her whole body was a good mix of sturdy and curvy– Elena almost felt envious. She approached the counter, still wearing that same smile.

“What’ll it be today, princess?” said the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Elena flinched. Did she know, or was it just a term of endearment–?

Minardo leaned on the counter, closer to Elena. She was laughing, but in good spirits.

“I’m an officer too, you know. And every officer’s been informed of your situation, but the sailors haven’t. Don’t worry though. Us commies aren’t so bad to helpless princesses, and I’m just a cook after all. Now, if you are plotting to raise your own Imperial army, all bets are off though.”

Elena laid a hand over her heart and sighed deeply. Minardo was just being silly.

“I’m plotting nothing of the sort, and I’ll have you know I renounced being a princess.”

“Haha! Well, that’s good to hear! Because you definitely won’t be eating like one here!”

Minardo laid a plate out for Elena. There was a fluffy yellow mound flecked green and red, a penny roll that was warm and only slightly tough-looking for ship bread, and a dollop of beans in a thick, brown sauce accompanied with rounds of something fried to a golden, honey-like color. Everything looked and smelled– fine? Edible; nothing like Bethany’s lavish midday feasts.

But– Bethany was gone. And Minardo was here– this was Elena’s life now.

“Don’t look so glum! Take a seat right here. I want to know what you think.” Minardo said.

She pointed right behind Elena to one of the seats at the edge of a nearby row table.

Though she felt a sense of trepidation, Elena could not make herself refuse either.

Pulling the chair over, she sat at the counter and picked up her spork, looking over the dish.

“Scrambled eggs and pepper, bread, and sweet baked beans with plantain. And, for you–”

Atop the eggs, Minardo scraped off a bit of margarine from a foil packet and laid it over.

Immediately, the dollop began to melt over the eggs. They were nicely steaming warm.

Elena dug her spork into the mound of scrambled eggs. They were fluffy– fluffier than they had any right to be. Though they reminded Elena more of a quiche in texture than the light and jam-y curds of scrambled egg she was used to, they were rich, cheesy, with a nice vegetal bite from the two colors of pepper scrambled into them. She tore the bread roll in half, releasing a bit of steamy warmth from the crumb. It was firm, but softer than she thought it would be, and nicely savory. Then she tried the beans. Sweet and savory, creamy, they practically melted in her mouth, and the fried plantain complimented the soft, creamy beans with their own sweetly starchy profile.

It really wasn’t like anything Elena had eaten before. She was used to fresh green salads, ripe tomatoes with mozzarella cheese, baked baby onions and stuffed peppers, around a big meaty centerpiece of steak, scallops, salmon, or duck. This plate was nothing like what Bethany served her, but it wasn’t bad. It was delicious. It would never taste like home, but it was full of love and care in its own way. So much so, that Elena almost wanted to weep with every bite of it.

“That bad?” Minardo asked, seeing the emotion growing red on Elena’s face.

“No! Not at all! It’s really delicious, thank you.” Elena said. Hopefully it sounded as genuine as she meant. “It is just– it’s clear you put a lot of care into it. It reminds me of someone who used to take care of me. She– she couldn’t come with me. She was the best cook I ever knew.”

Minardo nodded. “I’m flattered by the comparison. I take a lot of pride in my food.”

For a moment, Minardo dipped under the counter.

When she returned, she had in hand a few slips of foil packaging she set out on the counter for Elena. One was ripped from a container of powdered egg, another foil for multicolor pickled peppers, a third canned beans, freeze-dried plantains, powdered yeast, monosodium glutamate–

“What you’re tasting is indeed, a lot of love and effort.” Minardo said, smiling warmly.

Elena looked down at the foils, which must have come from the ingredients–

–and then up at Minardo with a sudden awe and admiration. She did start to weep then.

“Welcome to the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice, comrade.” Minardo said.

She patted Elena on the shoulder gently, and then waved her hand as she left the counter.

Returning back to the appliances and ingredients with which she had worked this magic.

“Our cook is quite something isn’t she? Nagavanshi recruited the best, even in the kitchen.”

Before she knew it, Elena turned her head and found Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya pulling up a seat beside her on the counter. She and Minardo were a lot alike, tall older women with a lot of vitality and youth to them, a certain radiance, but the Captain’s blond hair and bright eyes really made Elena struggle. It was not helping her feelings about Bethany to be surrounded by women like this– she felt a certain inadequacy, dealing with women so clearly, gracefully, beautifully mature when she herself felt like a helpless, idiot, under-developed child in comparison to them.

She wiped her tears and tried to fight off any fresh ones, nodding her head silently.

“Homesick?” Ulyana asked.

Elena felt even more stupid. “Were you eavesdropping?”

“Only a little.” Ulyana smiled.

Elena bowed her head, staring at her empty plate.

Ulyana patted her gently on the back. “You’ve been through a lot. It’s okay to cry.”

“I’ve done nothing but cry.” Elena said bitterly.

“Sometimes it’s all you can do.” Ulyana’s voice was gentle, soothing, and low, she was speaking privately, so only Elena could hear her. A soft cooing. “When you are hurt so deep and so bad that you can’t possibly find the spot that’s bleeding. You feel empty and at the same time you feel so, so heavy. Drinking won’t help; believe me, I’ve tried. It was always the crying that felt the healthiest. You can move on from a good cry– it feels like a reset, even a temporary one.”

“I’m sorry about everything Captain. It was all my fault.” Elena said suddenly.

Not just Bethany, who sacrificed herself because of how helpless she was–

Not just the communists whom she lied to and endangered–

Norn and Gertrude had been dragged into the horrible theater of Elena’s life too.

And she might never even see Gertrude again. She had pushed her so far, hurt her so badly.

Was Gertrude out in the ocean, aimless, heartbroken, her own eyes silently weeping too?

“Everything went the worst way it could have. Because I’m so stupid and useless.”

“You’re alive. And as far as we know, she’s alive too. Despite everything that happened.”

Elena hung her head in shame, tears trailing down her cheeks and onto the counter.

Ulyana continued to rub and pat down her back while Elena cried. Elena didn’t mind it.

“I’m not about to have sympathy for that Inquisitor.” She said. “But it is the absolute truth that if you care for her, these events could have turned out far worse. You two are still alive, and you might meet again. Hopefully not aboard this ship though. I, personally, will be doing my best never to see Norn’s psychotic grin, or the Inquisitor’s friendless, pent-up mug ever again.”

She retracted her hand and crossed both her arms over her chest.

“I suppose so.” Elena said. She was starting to come down from the sudden spiral.

There was a moment of silence. Ulyana seemed to be thinking of what to say next.

“Okay– Elena. It still feels surreal to be speaking to an Imperial Princess, but I just want to say that I respect your wishes. So long as you don’t hold any pretensions toward reclaiming your throne, you are welcome to stay. You are Elena Lettiere, and not a Princess, nor a Republic analyst– just a civilian in our care. Right now, I believe strongly that you’ve been a victim of these events as much as us. History transpired in the Empire that none of us can be held to account for; but Marina did bring you here under false pretenses, and we will need to hold her responsible.”

Elena nodded her head. “I hope you won’t treat her roughly. She’s been through a lot.”

She was still a bit angry with Marina, deep inside. Resentful for everything that happened.

It was childish. And she would have to come to terms with it sometime soon.

Still, she could not deny it. Marina was the visible face of all that had gone wrong.

She was also the only person Elena really had left. Elena didn’t want her to die as well.

Her emotions were complex enough she could neither condemn nor defend her now.

Ulyana spoke like she understood. Her voice, both firm and gentle– Elena really liked it.

“We know. We’ll be fair; but she needs to come clean. We can’t trust her otherwise. We’re running a military operation here. I just want you to be ready for us to potentially have to isolate or punish Marina. She’s not your boss or your protector anymore. You’re a civilian and she’s not. We’re going to treat you two differently, and I want you to stay out of whatever happens to her.”

“I understand. I will trust you Captain. You’re– you’re a very good person. All of you are.”

Elena couldn’t stare her directly in the eyes. She still felt too badly about everything.

Ulyana reached out a hand over Elena’s and squeezed her fingers gently, comfortingly.

“We’re just doing our best to represent the communist spirit.” She said, with a bright smile.


For most of that night, the brig had been quiet. Each of the solitary confinement cells was locked in fully soundproof mode, but Illya and Valeriya had been informed to be careful of breakouts, particularly from the cells assigned to Euphrates, Tigris, and Arbitrator One, all of whom would be held until their interrogations tomorrow. They were unknown quantities, and at least Arbitrator I had exhibited strange abilities that might have enabled her to make an escape.

Nobody seemed interested in escaping, however.

Eventually, Illya and Valeriya left the brig. They were scheduled to switch places with Klara van Der Smidze and Zhu Lian for the midnight shift. Those two were running late– but Valeriya and Illya worked on their own schedules. They were punctual, accurate to the second, a habit from their past. They would not wait for anyone who was not as attentive as themselves. So for a moment, the brig was left unguarded. Not that the two of them knew it, but it was by design.

A design not of any malicious entity but one curious Shimii who had spoken to the girls.

Khadija al-Shajara entered the empty brig and tampered with the rightmost cell.

From the control panel, she set the cell to one-way soundproof.

That meant the prisoner couldn’t hear the outside, but she could hear the inside of the cell.

And the prisoner in question was Sieglinde von Castille.

Khadija put her back to the cell door and stood for a few minutes.

Through the audio outputs on the door, she could hear the Red Baron’s quiet breathing.

She her fingers through her golden hair, waiting. She felt her own heartbeat, accelerating.

“This is so stupid.” She sighed to herself.

What was she hoping to hear? What was she thinking she might see? Ever since she stared into the Red Baron’s eyes she had felt a widening hole in her heart. Khadija was an old woman, an old woman with a past that stretched long behind her like a trailing bloodstain. The Red Baron was another old woman, almost as old as her. But she shouldn’t have been– this was Khadija’s demon to slay, the demon with whom she would bury her painful past. Killing this demon should have avenged all of those who died in the revolution, closed shut the wound from the past. Expiated for the inconclusiveness of that war, the hardships that followed, and begun a brand new chapter.

The Lion of Cascabel did not kill the empire’s Red Baron, however.

When she heard that regretful voice and saw those tear-stained mournful eyes.

She saw herself– and she couldn’t take it. She couldn’t accept that.

So now she was here. Looking for something. She did not even know what it was.

Did she hope to hear the Red Baron gnashing her teeth? Cursing them? Plotting vengeance?

She was probably asleep. It was late. There was probably nothing to hear now.

Yet– she waited. She waited, irrationally, in the silence, for minutes on, and–

“I’m so stupid. So completely, hopelessly stupid.”

–and heard something serendipitous.

It wasn’t her own voice airing this familiar sentiment–

Khadija turned suddenly to face the door. There was another voice coming from it.

Quickly, she put her back to it again. Her fluffy golden-brown ear up against the speakers.

Sobbing.

A blunt metallic sound, a strike on the wall. She could imagine Sieglinde punching it.

“I’ve been such a child. Thirty-eight years old– I’ve wasted so much time. An entire life.”

Thirty-eight– was she eighteen years old when they fought? She was just a kid–

Khadija was twenty-two years old back then. She hardly ever wanted to acknowledge it.

Were her own twenty years since then wasted? No–

Sieglinde let out a cry of anguish that shook through Khadija’s chest.

“Twenty years since and every day I told myself, nothing will change! You can’t possibly even regret it! You can’t do anything! And that girl– you useless idiot, you have less courage, less heart, than that poor defenseless girl! She turned her back on the throne of Imbria! What are you doing? You can’t acknowledge the evils you’ve done? You couldn’t for twenty years? Twenty years a murderer, a killer, and telling yourself you knew what justice truly was? You bastard!”

She screamed at the top of her lungs. Bastard. Monster. Killer.

Stop it. You were just a fucking kid.

Some part of Khadija wanted so badly to talk down to her like she was still a child–

But this was still the Red Baron and that seed of hate was still burning in her too.

Part of her hated this spate of self-pity. Part of her did say ‘how dare you?’ How could you even pretend for a second that you were hurt in any way by this? That your wretched soul mattered even for a second compared to the lives you took? Some part of Khadija wanted to rip open that cell and choke Sieglinde von Castille to death. To inflict the ultimate punishment for her crimes twenty years past. Sieglinde von Castille, you killed men and women who were fighting for their freedom. Cloaked in blue, green and white of the Empire, you fought to spread its oppression! How dare you recognize that just now?

However–

Who could blame her for thinking this way? She was being used; and she knew that now.

She learned the hollowness and hypocrisy of her ideals — and it filled her with self hatred.

Khadija felt ashamed of herself. Because she shouldn’t have been hearing this anyway.

Whatever happened next– this was not necessarily the person that Sieglinde wanted to present to anyone in public. Khadija was peering into her heart and private thoughts without permission. It was dirty, it was unfair to her. But she couldn’t tear herself away from that door. Not when her own eyes started weeping and she wanted them to stop. Not when she wanted to hate Sieglinde von Castille and lay all of the sins of the Empire upon her so she could crush them like her own little revolution.

“Twenty years– I’ve spent twenty years running. Running from the evil I caused.”

Khadija felt a strike against the door. She heard an anguished grunt.

She thought she saw for a brief moment– thought that she felt something, behind her–

The Red Baron, back to back with her. Her and the Lion of Cascabel.

Separated by opposite sides of that prison door. Unable to communicate.

“I almost destroyed these people, who fought so righteously, who saved her in the end. I supported cretins like Norn von Fueller and Gertrude Lichtenberg in their evil ambitions. I was part of it all.”

“Shut up.” Khadija mumbled. “Just saying that won’t change anything, you coward.”

Sieglinde paused for a moment. She recovered her breath– but then sniffled again.

“I’ve spent twenty years on the wrong side. Now– now I’m on the wrong side of this door.”

She broke down crying again. Khadija lifted a hand over her face, covering her own eyes.

“Stop beating yourself up. Do something! Do something if you’re so broken up about it!”

Khadija clenched her teeth. That anchor tying her to the past felt heavier and heavier.

She hated this. She hated herself for hearing this. She hated Sieglinde for feeling this way. For feeling, at all. For not playing the faceless demon to Khadija’s golden heroine. That miserable old story of vile monsters and grand heroes– no matter how much Khadija wanted to believe it–

She knew it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be just, because Sieglinde was not just a demon.

Both of them were just old women whose stories should have ended if stories had their say.

Sieglinde should have given way to the young heroes who would kill her and cleanse her sins–

Khadija should have given way (in death) to the young heroes to take up her vengeance–

Did Khadija have any right to demand that the story of Sieglinde von Castille cease being written? When she had declared so adamantly that her own story was not yet over? Could she look this woman in those mournful eyes and say, that she had no future, that her life didn’t matter? That nothing she did, no convictions she ever held, would ever be genuine, would ever be worthy, because of that bloody chain around their legs dragged from twenty years past? Could she tell her that nothing could ever change?

Right then– she couldn’t say anything. All she could do was weep along with Sieglinde.

“Why can’t I hate you?” Khadija mumbled to herself. Banging her own fist on the door.


Walking. Alone. Step by step over the dust.

Dust of people, places, memories, emotions, whole civilizations.

Walking over the dust, alone.

Her trail of color, the impression, the shadow, that she left upon the world, wherever she went.

Every place where she ever tread. If she tread enough, there would be a mark left.

Every person who saw her, whom she saw. There would be a mark left on them.

In time they would all return to the dust.

So she could not remain. She could not interfere. She could not be responsible.

She would not let herself. For their sake (for her sake).

“The burden of being only a witness is greater than you all know or understand.”

So she walked. She walked alone over the dust of ages. Even while accompanied: alone.

You are not here to save anyone.

“If I played the hero everything would be infinitely worse.”

Those would be the actions of someone taking responsibility

On her chest formed a tiny crack, as if she was a doll made of glass.

“Everything I’ve done is to take responsibility, everything.”

I made the same mistake that you made with

Crack.

From the wound in her blew dust that reconstituted itself in a great wave of color in front of her eyes. Becoming a smiling woman, hands in her coat pockets, tall and sure, honeyed skin and lacquered eyes, dark hair tied up in a long ponytail. She reached out her hand invitingly, with a warmth like the sun.

I will walk alongside you. I will take up your burden.

I didn’t want responsibility for the world.

“That’s an utter mischaracterization. You don’t know anything about me.”

Crack.

Again the dust bleeding out of her heart blew into a cloud that swept before her. Becoming a woman, tan skin and fierce eyes, bright red hair, in a dirty coat, surrounded by machines and instruments. She reached out her hand, with a bold fire like youth, a frenetic strength that lifted her out of the grave and a smug, assured grin. She could feel that touch, the comfort, the desire, the certainty of a partnership.

I will go wherever you do. I will be your inseparable confidante.

Feelings that she had to force herself to reject.

You are here– to defray responsibility.

“Stop it. You– you don’t get to say that to me.”

Crack.

Her chest peeled away shard by shard, shattering in a slow sequence from her breasts to her stomach.

Each shard became dust, the dust of dead things left behind.

If not dead materially then dead inside her, dead of neglect where she left them.

From the dust formed a figure, grey-skinned and white haired with brilliant red eyes. Her skin lightened, her hair turned golden, and from shabby rags she changed before her eyes, shimmering like a gemstone, crust polished off of her in real time by the dancing color until she stood how she had last been seen.

Euphrates reached out her hand to her, and she made the same mistake.

“Come with me.” She said. “You have the power to avert this tragedy. I’m sure of it.”

That innocent woman took her hand, and it felt like regret, mourning, lies of providence.

As that memory became dust, the last of Euphrates’ body shattered. She, too, finally joined the dust.

while you pretend to be the hero in the final accounting.

It could only have been her who shattered Euphrates. No one else could hurt so deeply.

But the shadow of her would not stop. No matter how many times she met with destruction.

Everything around her crumbled but–

Her own pieces inexorably picked themselves together.

Continuing her eternal march.

Walking.

Alone.

Because she had to be.

Step by grueling step on legs of glass, trudging through ever thicker dunes of the dust.

Just as she felt like falling to her knees amid the dust of ages in the plain of oblivion–

All of us are drawn together by a current, Euphrates. We’ll be destined to meet again.

With the voice, a different voice than before, reverberating in the hollow of her frail chest.

Euphrates stood unsteadily atop the dust and walked.

Step by step over the dust. Alone.

Then farther ahead, collecting in a front of her like the next dune to climb–

Auburn eyes, dark hair cut messily above the shoulder, a handsome face with the smoldering gaze of a woman with singular ambition, dark skinned, proletarian and boyish in manner but carried by a resplendant elegance in her speech. Guarded by two rapidly fading shadows, her touch feeling like weapons, bursts of gas, blood in the water and thousands upon thousands of deaths.

I really don’t know what to say. Or what to feel, right now. Thank you, Doctor.

She smiled.

Euphrates’ legs gave again. Kneeling with her head down in front of her.

Her voice shook out of a throat of shattering glass. “I don’t want to fail you too.”


Commissar Aaliyah Bashara breathed in deep and released that held breath audibly.

At the head of the table in the conference room next to the brig, seated beside the Captain. Both of them looked like they were exhausted just contemplating what lay ahead of them. There were seats reserved at the end of the conference table for the various suspects. Illya Rostova and Valeriya Peterburg stood at the far wall of the room with their assault rifles loaded with safeties off. Akulantova had assured the Captain and Commissar that those two young women were her very own “monsters” should they need to put down any aggression of their untrustworthy captives. Both of them were professional and lethal.

“I’m a peace-loving maiden with nonlethal training. Those two are real killers.” Akulantova said.

Ahead of the start of the meetings a few ‘stakeholders’ were also assembled.

Braya Zachikova and Murati Nakara sat in attendance, representing the bridge crew and the Diver pilots. Gunther Cohen was there to represent the mechanics and engineers. All of them were sworn to keep secret anything which was deemed classified, and they were all trusted to be able to do so on the pain of permanent incarceration until the end of the mission. It was a serious matter, this conference.

They had a lot of people to interrogate and many questions to pose to them.

“This is going to take us a while, so we’re going to start from the least complicated issue and work our way up to the most complicated issues. Illya and Valeriya, please escort in Marina McKennedy and sit her on the table. Zachikova, you’ll handle the official record of the meetings.”

Zachikova nodded. She plugged in a portable terminal into her tall, gray ear antennae.

She had the advantage of being able to take down notes by just thinking about it.

Illya and Valeriya escorted into the room a sedate and uncharacteristically cooperative Marina.

She sat at the end of the table, crossed her arms, sighed heavily.

“You don’t need to coerce me. I’ll come clean.” She held the Captain’s gaze.

Ulyana scoffed. “Fantastic. How is this conversation any different from the past ones?”

Marina let out a long sigh.

“You found me out already, that’s why. Look, yes, Elena von Fueller was on your fucking ship, I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I lied to you, but do you understand why I had to do it? How could I possibly have just told you that I am bringing Imperial Princess Elena von Fueller aboard? You have her aboard now, you must understand how different that is from having ‘Elen the analyst’?”

“As a matter of fact, no, Marina.” Aaliyah entered the fray. “On this ship, that girl is just a civilian. She commands no authority, and nobody here expects her titles to be fungible in any way. What did you think we would do to her? You could have just introduced her as a G.I.A. asset.”

“You’re fucking communists! One of your things is ‘eat the rich’ isn’t it?” Marina said.

“You really, honestly thought we would immediately persecute some kid, like that would be our most pressing concern?” Ulyana asked. “What does the Republic teach agents about communism?”

“The fact of the matter is, you lied to us, and we were unable to properly assess our security concerns because of it. Not only that, but you also had a tail and refused to acknowledge it.”

Aaliyah interjected again. Marina was already raising her voice again in response.

“I did not fucking know I had a tail! I had no fucking idea! I swear to you, I was not using you guys to fight Norn and Lichtenberg! I thought I had gotten away clean! I did everything I could to avoid suspicion, I dismantled an entire GIA cell to make my escape, to make sure I couldn’t be pursued, I gave up an entire mission and all of its resources to give Elena this chance to be free. I did everything I could!”

“Marina, we have always wanted to believe you, but you really burned us this time. So it is difficult for us to trust anything you say now, and it is difficult for us to trust your motivations here.” Ulyana said.

“My only motivation is that I want that girl to be safe.” Marina said.

“What’s your relation to Elena?” Aaliyah asked. “This is clearly personal for you, not a mission.”

This time, Marina did not try to deflect attention or change the subject.

She took a deep breath, held a hand over the closed buttons on her shirt, over her breast.

Speaking as if she had thought for a long time what she would say in order to come clean.

“Over twenty years ago, I was sent into the Imbrium by the G.I.A. on a mission to gather information on the security of the Emperor, to see if it was viable to assassinate him or anyone key in his regime. We told ourselves this would help achieve military victory in the Great Ayre Reach. This was in the lead-up to, what, the 30th? 31st? Some campaign for the Great Ayre Reach. It doesn’t even matter which.”

She continued.

“You all know how history shook out from there. The colonies rebelled en masse, the Republic attacked, there was a war on two fronts, the Empire retreated from both of them, but the Emperor wasn’t assassinated, the Republic didn’t break through to occupy Rhinea or Palatine to end the war– maybe the only good outcome of all this was that the Union got to stick around until now. It was a big, bloody stalemate. I failed– but the part that you don’t know is that I was involved with Leda Lettiere, the Emperor’s prized new wife, and her entourage. I was– I was intimately involved. I turned her–”

“Oh my god. Marina–” Ulyana interrupted suddenly. “Are you Elena’s real father?”

Aaliyah turned to Ulyana at that moment with a glare like the Captain had gone insane.

Indeed, Ulyana had made a very silly misreading of all the lurid drama and tension.

She felt, and looked, instantly embarrassed. Marina was speechless for a moment.

“What? Are you insane? Of course I’m not! What are you even saying, Korabiskaya?”

“I apologize.” Ulyana said. “I jumped the gun. Please go on and forget I said anything.”

“Fuck’s sake. I’m not her father! But I care deeply about her! She’s innocent in all this!”

“Lettiere– so that’s why Elena chose that surname.” Aaliyah said. “Honoring her mother.”

“We know the Emperor’s wife from that time period as Leda von Fueller.” Ulyana said. She recalled her history readings. “She’s a fairly minor figure in our history. We knew she was purged by the Emperor, and of course we knew there was a Princess Elena von Fueller. But in the Union, all of the events surrounding her death, like the storming of the summer palace at Schwerin, were cast in our narratives as just part of the Emperor’s brutal paranoia stoked by ongoing wars. We had no idea there was a real conspiracy.”

Marina nodded her head. She took a moment to collect herself, and resumed calmly.

“He had concrete reason to be afraid of her. We were this close to having his head and sending the Empire into chaos. Unfortunately, an impassable wall named Norn Tauscherer ended our ambitions. Konstantin was heartbroken about Leda’s betrayal.” Marina said. “I still don’t know why he killed Leda– he was obsessed with her. I know what he did to me, though.” She clenched her teeth.

“You don’t have to disclose any further. We can fill in the blanks.” Aaliyah said.

“Thank you for telling us all of this, Marina.” Ulyana said. “We will take a step closer to the middle with you and believe you, though we don’t have evidence of what you are saying. Can you tell us about current events, however? Aaliyah gathered information about Vogelheim and the disappearance of the princess while we were in Serrano. Those things didn’t matter to us then, but now– I want to know how you were involved. You don’t need to go into any… compromising, sort of details.”

“I was imprisoned for years– shoved in the darkest fucking pit of hell since Leda’s capture. The Empire’s hole in the ground where people go to be erased from existence, called the Ergastulum.” Marina said. She quivered a bit but mastered herself. “Time passes differently there. I couldn’t tell you whether I was there a year or thirty until my escape. I feel like I still don’t know. It had to be at least eighteen years.”

Aaliyah and Ulyana glanced at each other. They had heard something unbelievably grim.

Marina paused again, grinning a bit. “But I got lucky– it was a little over a year ago, a bunch of Bureni nationalists got bailed out. Some terrorist named Ganges staged it, she did a fucking brutal jailbreak. Really skilled Katarran mercs– they just razed everything. Killed every single guard, all the staff, even the fucking clerks got pulped. I saw them– door to door, room to room, they cleared everything methodically, they made Republic special forces look like a joke. Yours too, probably.”

Illya Rostova rolled her eyes behind Marina’s back, while Valeriya Peterburg growled.

“They came for specific guys and took them, but they opened all the cells, and there were guard ships still docked, untouched. I managed to crawl out of my cell and make my way to a ship. Most prisoners’ bodies in the Ergastulum are fucking destroyed, almost all the cells were full of zombies, there was no rioting, almost nobody could take advantage. I was scarred up to hell, and we barely got fed, but I always laid low and conserved all the strength I could. So I was alive enough to escape. Autopiloted out, ate salt pork that tasted like heaven, slowly started being able to hit the gym, and found my way back to the G.I.A in the Imbrium. Laid low for a few months, caught up with what I missed. Then I rescued Elena.”

Ulyana assumed a lot happened during all that laying low.

Like several gender affirming surgeries– possibly her entire body needing such repairs.

That was not something she would ever demand to know about, however.

In her mind, Marina had spun a satisfactory story. More than she had ever said before.

Aaliyah and Ulyana looked at each other, gauging their collective satisfaction with Marina.

“Captain.” Aaliyah said. She smiled toward Marina and then nodded toward Ulyana.

“Right. Thank you for being candid, Agent McKennedy. We hope to continue cooperating with you in the future.” Ulyana said. She smiled too. “Hopefully you won’t think ill of us for this situation.”

“No, I get it. If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have had to go through all this shit.”

Marina held a hand to her chest again and breathed in and breathed out.

“It was kind of good to finally tell someone some version of what happened.” She said.

“Whenever you’re ready to give a full account, we’ll be ready to record it.” Ulyana said.

“I’m trying not to live in the past so much.” Marina said. “Our future is looking rough.”

“We’ll tackle it with all of our skills, as it comes. Thank you, Marina McKennedy.”

Marina nodded toward the Captain and Commissar. Illya and Valeriya escorted her out.

“I have no hope for this next one.” Ulyana said to Aaliyah only. Aaliyah nodded solemnly.

“Bring Arbitrator I in next. Let’s get this over with.” She then declared to the room.

When Illya and Valeriya returned, they accompanied a lively woman, bloodless white skin covered in a robe only slightly darker, long red hair with white streaks flowing in her wake as she skipped into the room. Her thick tail trailed along the floor, white and mottled with four soft-looking wing-like paddles arranged at the distal end. Ulyana recalled that there had once been a spot on the side of her head where her hair was a bit thinner, perhaps a wound. Now her overlong locks were the same all around, falling over her shoulders when she stood at her end of the table like long sheets. Across the striking features of her exotic white face stretched a big smile– and her eyes were still the exact green color as Ulyana’s.

“One moment please, Captain.” Zachikova said.

She stood up from her seat on the side of the table and ambled over to Arbitrator I.

“Braya! I’m so happy to see you! I’ve been very polite. Is this a reward for me?”

Zachikova reached into her jacket and produced an object.

She then reached up to the taller woman’s neck and clapped something around it.

“Zachikova? What are you doing?” Ulyana called out.

“I’m taking control of her. You have nothing to worry about now, Captain.”

Turning around to the rest of the group, Zachikova showed them a remote detonator.

With a smug little grin on her face, she pointed the index finger of her free hand to Arbitrator I’s neck, which had been adorned with a black choker that stood out from the extremely pale skin. Upon that choker were a trail of LEDs and four thumbprint sized sockets each containing a shiny red object. Not gemstones, nobody had any gemstones here– it was just meant to look pretty while Arbitrator I wore it.

Ulyana couldn’t knock the craftsmanship, but it was clearly a bomb collar. She was shocked.

The Electronic Warfare officer kept pointing at it with that same quiet, self-satisfied expression.

As if to say ‘check it out, isn’t it cool’?

Murati and Gunther did not seem to understand, but the superiors knew immediately.

“Zachikova! That’s beyond the pale! I forbid this in the strongest terms!” Ulyana shouted.

Bomb collars were torture and control devices.

Beads of explosive material around the neck could cause precise lacerations, choking and bleeding out the victim. It would not be a humane death by any means as the brain would remain intact. This is what made the collar an effective threat to the victim. Once the circumstances were explained to them, they would almost assuredly buckle to their captor’s desires. As a former member of the special forces, Zachikova had surely been trained in the manufacture and use of such devices to control and coerce captives and untrustworthy assets. However, this was not a lawless “special operation” — Ulyana would not tolerate the use of such tactics on her ship. She stood up, demanding that the collar come off.

Meanwhile–

Arbitrator I smiled placidly. She raised her hand to her neck, briefly touching the object.

Then, on the finger and thumb she used, the white skin bloated and peeled back.

Everyone in attendance stared, speechless, as what were clearly two eyes appeared on her fingers.

These melted back into the skin almost as quickly as they had blossomed from it.

“Braya! It’s so beautiful! Thank you for the gift! I knew that you still loved me!”

Zachikova blinked hard, briefly speechless. She looked down at the detonator and tensed.

For the threat to be effective, she had to explain–

“Arbitrator I, if you make one wrong move, with a push of this button–”

Arbitrator I’s disarming smile, as she hung on every word Zachikova spoke–

“–ugh,” Zachikova had to pause and collect herself. “Listen, you– just, do what I say!”

She waved the detonator helplessly in front of Arbitrator I’s face as a vague gesticulation.

Ulyana stared, uncomprehending. What kind of relationship did these two have?

“Oh! I understand. It’s a form of play. You’re the master and I am the slave.”

“Shut up! I’ll blow your head clean off your neck! Shut up right now!”

What kind of relationship did these two have?!

“Ya Allah!” Aaliyah shouted, completely red in the face, ears and tail outstretched. “This is an interrogation not some raunchy kink thread on a BBS! Captain, get the meeting back in order immediately!”

“Me? You’re yelling at me?” Ulyana sighed. She was afraid this would happen.

Trying desperately to take control of the situation again, Ulyana brushed aside the issue of the bomb collar, which, while it bothered her personally, did not seem to trouble its intended victim in any way. Despite how foolish she was acting, Zachikova seemed like she was not going to send geysers of blood flying across the room either. She focused on Arbitrator I and started asking questions.

“Forget the rest of this! Your name is Arbitrator One correct?”

Arbitrator I turned her bright, smiling face on Ulyana and acknowledged.

“Indeed. You can call me Arbitrator I of the First Sphere.”

Ulyana stared at her, trying to appraise anything from her bright, smiling face.

“Not to belittle you, but I need to understand the depth of your current faculties: how much do you know about the present situation? Do you know you’re in Sverland, in the Imbrian Empire? Do you know what the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice is? Hell, do you even know what year it is?”

Arbitrator I put a pale finger on her chin and gazed up at the ceiling in thought.

“How to explain it? On the whole, I should know. But I need time to recall the specifics in detail.”

Ulyana sat back and crossed her arms.

“So, to make it simple, you don’t know where you really are or what’s going on.”

“At this precise moment, there are gaps in my understanding that are hard to explain.”

This was exactly the sort of behavior she worried about. In her mind, this person was certainly different than them, and she certainly exhibited some odd abilities — the fantasy nerd in Ulyana’s heart wanted to call it magic, but the responsible Captain in her mind did not allow this. Her ability to change her body was frightening, and that miracle she pulled off with the Leviathans– ordinary people not running on a crushing high of anxiety and caffeine might have panicked and broken down at the sight of such things.

However, Ulyana tried to take a step back and see things as rationally as possible despite everything. It did not matter what Arbitrator I’s capabilities were, not at the moment. It was her behaviors that were suspicious. Anyone could say they were an amnesiac, that they were from a vastly different culture, that they were ignorant of what they were doing and what was happening, whenever it was convenient. But when confronted with that, how did one believe it? How did one confirm it to be the actual truth?

Arbitrator I had appeared out of nowhere, and she had saved their lives from a catastrophic situation. She had dutifully remained in the brig without causing problems overnight. She seemed to wait on “Braya” to the point of obsession. She had a whimsical or idiotic response to everything said to her. What was her angle? She was cooperating, but what she did want? What were her motives and goals? Those were issues they had to resolve in order to secure the Brigand’s operational security going forward.

It was clear that the issue of who Arbitrator I was would be complicated and fruitless.

However–

“Amnesia aside: why are you cooperating with us? Is there something you desire?”

“Of course.”

Arbitrator I leaned in close to Zachikova, who nearly jumped from the touch.

“I would like to court Braya and to breed with her if she will allow it.”

Her words hung in the air for a few seconds. Ulyana could scarcely believe they were said.

Illya snickered, while Valeriya’s eyes wondered over to Illya as if she had something to say.

Gunther Cohen turned red and looked down at the table. Murati Nakara stared speechless.

“I’m going to push the button!” Zachikova shouted.

“Captain! Stop provoking her to say such things!” Aaliyah joined in the shouting.

Ulyana despaired. She thought this interrogation could be easy to get out of the way if they could reach some kind of agreement with Arbitrator I, some sort of conditions to her stay until they could divine her intentions. But it was clear that Arbitrator I was completely insane, or that she was playing dumb in a way which was uniquely disruptive to the people that were interrogating her. Whether it was stupidity or malice behind it, she was derailing everything quite effectively. Honestly; everyone was so immature.

“You’re all adults aren’t you? Just let the suspect speak already!” Ulyana shouted back.

“Oh, I apologize.” Arbitrator I said. She waved her hand, giggling. “I was– I was joking.”

“You weren’t joking! Don’t lie!” Zachikova shouted. “Answer the questions productively!”

“Oh my– Braya are you jealous again?”

“Do you realize I’m trying to keep you from being launched out of a fucking torpedo tube?”

“Oh goodness– I’m quite sorry. I just got a little eager when I thought about us.”

“For god’s sake. Arbitrator I– what is an Omenseer?” Ulyana shouted over them.

She recalled the conversation yesterday, digging in her memory for something concrete.

Silence fell over the room for a moment. Everyone’s eyes turned to Arbitrator I.

“Omenseers are a culture.” Arbitrator I said. “An ancient culture, though, I would say, its present expression is just sort of a facsimile of its true history. But, isn’t your civilization, also a facsimile of the ones that came before? At any rate– I am a relatively new member of the Omenseer culture.”

“How ancient are they, and how relatively new are you?”

Ulyana was finally getting her talking about something useful now. She pressed on.

“Hmm, the original mystery culture should be many thousands of years old, I think. However, the society that I belong to is significantly younger than that. As for my self, give or take 900 years I suppose.”

“Nine hundred?”

All around the room there were blank, staring faces. Clearly nobody could believe this.

“Hmm? You all look confused.” Arbitrator I said, furrowing her brow and frowning at the silent responses. “There was a world before your current civilizations, you know. I can’t recall much of it– but do you think 900 years is such an impossibly long time? Was the world made out of whole cloth 900 years ago? Obviously not– you are all facsimiles of that world, aren’t you? So you should understand.”

“I wouldn’t call us facsimiles of the surface world at all.” Ulyana said. “That is beside the point though. What we really can’t accept is that you, as a living being, are over 900 years old and still alive.”

“I apologize. I might be communicating ineffectively. You see, this body is not 900 years old, if that is the question you are asking. I suppose that when you refer to yourself, you refer to your current body exclusively. With that in mind, let’s say this: the totality of myself, all the experiences and knowledge that could potentially be called ‘Arbitrator I’, are over 900 years old together. Maybe older– but this body is far fresher than that. Let’s set it as a nice, spry, 22 years of age. How does that sound?”

“Right.” Ulyana said skeptically. “And yesterday, you said you were USL-0099.”

“Hmm?” Arbitrator I tilted her head in confusion.

“The Leviathan. The Leviathan outside, that withstood a mortal blow to save us.”

She was trying to word things in such a way as to universalize the specifics.

Arbitrator I nodded. “Oh, yes. That was my body for a long time. It is because of both the circumstances of its creation and destruction that I am having some difficulty remembering all that I should.”

“Whether or not you are a fish aside, you are indeed claiming amnesia?” Aaliyah said.

“Let me try to explain. You asked me what I know about the current world. I can speak, and I know many of the basic concepts which I need to know in order to interact with Hominins such as all of you, and I know enough to survive. That kind of knowledge is stored in my body. However, my old body was destroyed so I lost a lot of information with it. I still have a substantial amount of information that I can recall, in this body, because that is part of its function, as Arbitrator I. However, at the moment, it’s only contained in my body. It is not available for my immediate recall. It’s not been brought up here.”

She tapped on the side of her head. “To bring it here would be a bit of a project. Given time, I could do so. In fact, I’ve already remembered many things about being like a hominin and acting like hominins do. Give me time to acclimate, and I’ll do a better job answering questions with the information I have.”

Ulyana thought she understood in some way how this could work. Kind of like–

“Like interaction between RAM and storage.” Zachikova said suddenly, as if an epiphany.

She gestured in the air drawing two boxes– maybe to represent the different chips.

“With all due respect, that’s bunk.” Aaliyah said, scoffing and clearly frustrated. “In fact, it’s chauvinistic to think human brains act like computers. Even your cybernetics are more complicated than a computer.”

Her body might be an organic computer. She’s clearly different from us.” Zachikova said.

“It’s far easier to believe that this woman is either putting on an act, or if we take her at her word, that she has some kind of amnesia or mental instability and needs to reacclimate to society.”

“I’m not saying this from out of nowhere.” Zachikova said. “I’m not just making it up.”

“Aaah, Braya is appraising me. I can feel the warmth of her curiosity in the aether.”

Zachikova fixed her a glare and brought up the detonator again. Arbitrator I smiled.

“Captain. It’s time I told my own version of events. That might help.” Zachikova said.

She drew in a breath, her hands shaking. She looked nervous to be speaking about this.

And indeed, she sounded nervous, as she told the story.

During the battle with the Antenora, the Leviathan USL-0099 had interfered with Norn’s unknown agarthic weapon, sparing the Brigand from certain annihilation. Zachikova had felt some attachment to the creature and collected its body in a swirl of emotions and brought it aboard the ship without permission. Then she met Arbitrator I in the animal’s remains; with whom, Zachikova stated in no uncertain terms, ‘nothing happened’ in the utility hold for the drones. She took her to the captain right away.

“I’ve been flustered by her erratic behavior, because I’m not used to dealing with her– her interest in me.” Zachikova admitted. Her emotions were clearly on the rise as she told the story, and she was feeling the pressure of telling it, but she passionately continued to lay out her case. “And frankly, I am afraid that you will all try to hurt her or get rid of her for being strange– but she’s very valuable! Arbitrator I was USL-0099 that we had under observation. Because of this, I think that if we work with her, it might even let us prove the theory that Leviathans are man-made, biological machines. Also, wouldn’t it be convenient for us militarily if she can protect us from Leviathan attacks, and it wasn’t a fluke? We could go anywhere! I would like to request to continue USL-0099’s observation, personally, and that she remain a subject of study. I can take responsibility for her– it’s not necessary to involve Maharapratham.”

“I have to object. Karuniya will definitely want to be involved in this.” Murati added.

Zachikova looked annoyed to be argued with at the end of her long, impassioned speech.

“She will have to be. But clearly Arbitrator I and Zachikova have an– um– a rapport.”

Ulyana prevented herself from uttering words like tryst or in this volatile situation.

As they were speaking, the captain had come up with what she thought was a clever idea.

“Arbitrator I, imagine you lived in a world where Zachikova did not exist, but you still saved us. In such a world, what would your role be? What would you want from us?” She said.

Arbitrator I looked up at the ceiling again, crossing her arms.

“Fish don’t conceptualize a lot, so I’m a bit rusty when it comes to imagining different worlds– however, in such a case, I believe that we would abide by the ancient oaths between Omenseer and Hominin. In exchange for protein, shelter, and protection from other Hominins, I will help you navigate and act as a guardian for your journey. I will read the omens and guide you to safety, whatever your destination. In the current era, I can help you ward off the poor lost souls so you can navigate the sunlit seas.”

Read the omens– warding off lost souls in the sunlit seas–

“Like you did before. You scared off those Leviathans from attacking us.” Ulyana said.

“Indeed. I even said it in a really impressive way. Like a magic spell.” Arbitrator I said.

She looked happy with herself. Maybe she really was mostly harmless.     

“Zachikova, Arbitrator I can bunk with you then. We’ll get her a uniform.” Ulyana said.

She turned to Aaliyah. The Commissar crossed her arms and sighed audibly, ears drooping.

“I see no other solution to this. No humane one, anyway. I will support the Captain.”

Zachikova clearly tried not to look relieved– but her body language became far less tense.

Ulyana was satisfied. Somehow they had managed to get something out of Arbitrator I.

As sloppy as it had been, the interrogation had yielded some insights and stability.

“Arbitrator I, I have a few final questions for you, if you can answer briefly.”

“Of course, captain!” Arbitrator I said happily.

Zachikova stared but said nothing. Was she being overprotective? It was kind of cute.

“Dagon belongs to the Omenseers too, doesn’t it? What is its purpose?” Ulyana asked.

“Dagon is a warship.” Arbitator I said casually. “Its purpose is to kill and destroy.”

“Omenseer is a really fitting name for the lot of you.” Ulyana said. She felt a headache coming after all this mess. “Should we be worried about this thing roaming around the world? What do Omenseers other than yourself want? They just came out of Goryk Abyss all of sudden and swooped in on us.”

“Hmm. What do they want? Some of them can’t really want anything.” Arbitrator I said. “Others are following their leader and acquiring proteins. And others still are wild and free and living according to the ancient ways. At the moment, I am not able to judge the purpose of Dagon’s appearance, but the creature is also a facsimile of a preceding warship, and that Dagon was quite cruel and destructive.”

“I see. Very well. I suppose we can come back to that at a later date then.”

Ulyana was left with many more questions, but she judged that Arbitrator I was not a threat.

Had she wanted to sabotage them and kill them, she would have let Dagon do it.

It seemed like she really was interested in Zachikova.

So Ulyana would leave her in Zachikova’s hands and take advantage of her skills.

As far as Dagon was concerned– there was nothing they could do about it right now.

“Final question. Can you explain your abilities to me?” Ulyana asked.

“It’s called Omenseeing. It’s where we get our name.” Arbitrator I said. “It is an ancient calculation, learned from the great trees, that turns my will into truth. I used it to communicate with the Leviathans. After asserting my authority, they knew they should not attack this vessel. I can also alter my own body with it.”

“Well then. Okay– I guess I asked and I got an answer of some kind.” Ulyana said.

“She must be running some kind of adaptive biological program.” Zachikova said.

“We’ll leave the wild speculation to you then.” Aaliyah said, exasperated.

“I’m as satisfied as I can be.” Ulyana said, shrugging. “I had very low expectations.”

Because she never stopped smiling, it was hard to gauge, but Arbitrator I sounded contrite.

“I will commit more information to mind in the future, Captain.” She said.

Zachikova watched Arbitrator I intently. “DNA-based storage perhaps–”

Ulyana was not necessarily satisfied with Arbitrator I in perpetuity, but for the moment, she felt that the strange woman was not a threat, and perhaps was more of a victim of circumstance than anyone on that ship really knew. All she could do was file away what she knew about these fanciful new words, like Omenseer and Dagon, and trust that she could uncover more concrete answers in the future.

One thing that life had taught her was that it was impossible to wring all of the answers in one moment– answers about anything sufficiently important simply begat even more questions.

She had the answers she wanted. Arbitrator I was cooperating and did not seem to possess an ulterior motive that would bring harm to the Brigand, at least not one which was immediately discernible. Not only that, but Zachikova had hit the nail precisely on the head about the utility of this woman. They had spent close to a day in the photic zone without being attacked by Leviathans, and without running into any abnormal weather. Being able to travel in such a way, was essentially comparable to being able to fly while everyone else was stuck to the ground. It was a major boon– they would take advantage of it.

Someone more skeptical would have tried to probe further– was it really Arbitrator I who was responsible for their spate of good luck? But after everything Ulyana had seen on this insane mission already, it made no sense to be skeptical of that detail. It would have been harder to say that she had no connection to the events whatsoever, that it was all a huge coincidence. She made a big show of it, everyone saw it, and even if they couldn’t explain it, there was no way to engineer that scenario and its outcome.

Arbitrator I was an Omenseer, with strange powers over her body and Leviathans.

That would have to be accepted as fact. And they would have to live with that reality.

Perhaps they could ask their next guests about the nature of those powers.

After all, those two, Euphrates and Tigris, definitely knew more than they let on.

About everything that had happened.

“You can go, Arbitrator I. I’ll inform Kamarik to pay attention to your consultations.”

Arbitrator I bowed her head cheerfully, and with a final fond look at Zachikova, departed.

“Aaliyah,”

Ulyana turned to the Commissar next to her and spoke with her briefly in confidence.

“Let’s ask Euphrates and Tigris about the topics that Arbitrator I was dancing around.”

“Do you think they will have answers?” Aaliyah whispered back.

“HELIOS identified that monster as ‘Dagon’ too. They definitely know about Omenseers in some way, and importantly, those two can’t pretend that they knocked their heads about or that they have culture shock. And they have a longer way to go to prove their benevolence to us than Arbitrator I did. I’m almost positive we can learn more about all of this cryptic horseshit if we pressure them.”

“Good thinking Captain. Now I understand why you were so calm about Arbitrator I.”

Aaliyah really flattered her there– Ulyana had just been flying by the seat of her pants.


Aaliyah and Ulyana called for a short break for everyone involved in the interrogations.

They also reinforced that everything regarding Arbitrator I would be disseminated only to the officers, in an edited fashion. She would be introduced to the sailors as “Arabella.” There was no helping that she would probably act strange toward a sailor here or there– but contact and information about her would be as limited as possible and she would largely co-mingle with the officers exclusively. Zachikova was made the point of contact for anything regarding Arbitrator I, which everyone agreed to.

Finally, Illya and Valeriya brought in their next pair of guests. The calm, short blue-haired doctor in the pants suit and vest, Euphrates, and still wearing a worker’s jumpsuit, fiery red hair in a ponytail and fiery red temper completely out in the open, her companion Tigris. One was smiling placidly and seemed perfectly content with herself, while the other one glared at everyone opposite her.

“I can’t believe all of you!” Tigris cried out. “After how helpful I was! I can understand if you lock up this ingrate here,” she waved animatedly at Euphrates, who did not even flinch at the clear insult, “but I worked my ass off ever since I got here! I helped save you all! You should heap me with praise!”

“I’m sure they don’t disagree that you’ve been helpful.” Euphrates said calmly.

“They put us in solitary confinement!” Tigris shouted back.

“Comparing the environment I’m in now, with the environment I just left–”

“–Shut up!”

“–it was much cozier in the cell, to be frank.”

Euphrates grinned and Tigris looked like she wanted to wring her neck.

Aaliyah and Ulyana made similar expressions of putting their hands over their foreheads.

Murati spoke up in their stead. Unprompted, but Ulyana did not hold it against her.

“We are grateful for your assistance, and I believe that if you were truly intending malice, you had many opportunities to sell us out or sabotage us in the last few days. However, you still lied, and the information you’ve been withholding has exponentially increased in value.” She said.

“Well put.” Ulyana replied. “Euphrates, Tigris, we want to be able to cooperate with you. That’s why I authorized for you to be informed of events on the ship, even in captivity. We only imprisoned you as a safety measure in a chaotic situation, and to insure that you would attend this meeting.”

“In order to trust you, we’ll need you to disclose information about your real identities.” Aaliyah added.

Tigris balked at this, but Euphrates seemed to understand and accept everything.

“Tigris, please let me do the talking. You’re far too– animated.” Euphrates said.

“Bah! Why are you acting so cool? We’re both in the same world of shit right now.”

Tigris folded her arms in front of her chest, scoffed a few more times and averted her gaze.

“You could say I’m a changed woman. I’ve come to terms with what I have to do.”

“No you’re not! You haven’t changed a goddamn and you never will.”

Euphrates seemed to be trying to gently mollify Tigris– but the redhead wasn’t having it.

Ulyana cleared her throat loudly and deliberately. “Alright. First question.”

“Apologies, Captain. I’m listening.” Euphrates said.

“What is the Sunlight Foundation?”

“Ah. Interesting. That’s a good and meaty question.”

There was a very professor-like quality to Euphrates. Tigris had always acted almost like a sailor, and she had skills like a mechanic. She was boisterous and loud and interested in getting hands on. Euphrates, in her vest and suit blazer, her tie done up and her cotton shirt clean despite having spent a night in solitary confinement, projected a scholarly confidence, as if she knew how everything would unfold already. She spoke in such a clear and direct way Ulyana could almost feel the punctuation. Ulyana had hoped to rattle her with the question. She imagined, however, that Euphrates could rationalize many worlds existing, many possibilities transpiring just then. Euphrates always seemed utterly calm, always a step ahead.

In that mystery mind of hers, she probably did see a reason for them to know that name.

So of course she looked entirely unfazed by the question. Ulyana continued.

“It came up in your conversation with Norn, but Xenia Laskaris also mentioned it.”

Xenia had approached them overnight through Illya and Valeriya, telling them what little she knew.

There was not a lot of substance, but there were enough key words to ask Euphrates pointed questions.

“That girl really hasn’t been earning her paycheck recently.” Euphrates said, amused. “At any rate. The Sunlight Foundation is a community of researchers, engineers, theoreticians, and philosophers united by a shared goal that we hope to accomplish via multi-disciplinary support of the sciences.”

“Give me the explanation that’s not in your brochures, please.” Ulyana said.

“What explanation would be the most damning and sensational in your eyes? You could call us a secret society, maybe even a cult– would that be satisfying enough? It’s not even so important who we are but what we do. We acquire, create and hoard knowledge and technology; we have our fingers in a handful of key technology providers in the Imbrian Empire. Solarflare LLC is simply the one project that Tigris and I have developed over time. Our members have stakes in a dozen others.” Euphrates said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah narrowed their eyes. This was quite a grandiose declaration.

It was unsettling, especially when accompanied by Euphrates’ subdued delivery.

“Back up a moment.” Aaliyah said. “What is the shared goal this secret society has?”

“Turning back the clock.” Euphrates said. “Returning to the surface world.”

“That’s absolutely insane.” Ulyana said. “You can’t possibly be serious with this.”

She said that– but Ulyana also couldn’t imagine someone saying something so outlandish without believing it. Without it being true in some sense. Otherwise, why say such a thing? Euphrates seemed altogether too serious an individual to make up fancy stories on the fly for no particular gain. She might as well have tried to spit across the table at their faces. If she was being cooperative, then–

Then– they had to confront a situation where there must be some truth to her assertions.

Nevertheless, in the Imbrian Empire, no organization like this could act altruistically.

Nothing was truly free under capitalism, after all.

“You’re right. It is insane.” Euphrates said. “And like any insane dream, it has ultimately become subordinate to the steps by which it could be accomplished. To realize our dream we needed space, security and technical capital. We were connected to a few influential people many years ago, so that is where we got our start. Since then, we’ve been an invisible hand. We’ve done more to parasitize upon the robotics and cybernetics industries than we ever have to move humanity closer to its ascension. I regret to say, but we spend more time interfering in the markets for reactor technology and in R&D for navigation gear than we do dreaming about the sky anymore. That’s our mundane reality. We need to acquire funds and resources, and in so doing, we tell ourselves we are stewards rather than a cartel.”

Tigris briefly fixed her with a curious expression before pretending to ignore her again.

Ulyana felt suddenly like she was talking to a rich CEO lamenting the state of her asset portfolio more than a stately professor sharing secrets. It was hard to square the two dimensions of this conversation, the absurd high-stakes conspiracy of this Sunlight Foundation with the lofty, ideological goals.

“What is your role or rank in this organization?” Ulyana asked.

She was trying to extract something more concrete than a ledger of vague goings-on.

“I’m meant to be an upper manager, but I have pretensions of being a hands-on lay-worker, much like my partner.” Euphrates said. Tigris scoffed and seemed to avert her gaze even farther from Euphrates than ever, fully turning her back on her chair. “However, I was one of the founders and am part of the board of the organization. We call ourselves the Immortals. Tigris is one also. We call the shots– but mainly, we stay in the shadows and manage proxies who handle company affairs for us. We become involved if we want to or if our proxies require our direct support. Such as when we need to cover up suspicion.”

“I’m struggling to understand the scope of your operation here.” Ulyana said.

“We don’t have any political power, so you needn’t worry.” Euphrates said. “I did everything I could to prevent us from attaining it. We have a modest security force, a few secretive campuses and compounds, and most of our wealth is in the form of technical capital. Labs and patents. You can think of us more as a mafia than coup plotters. We have valuables squirreled away everywhere, but rather than going into real estate, our money goes to chemicals and minerals. We take advantage of supply efficiencies and good long-term planning. If you think I can overthrow the Imbrian Empire for you, then I have bad news.”

“A mafia, huh? And from what Norn said, they’re trying to whack you now.” Ulyana said.

“I–”

For the first time, the briefest moment, the formidable Euphrates was given a bit of pause.

“I cannot do anything to confirm that until I am back at a Solarflare LLC branch.” She said.

Tigris loudly scoffed once more. “You still have so much unfounded faith in Yangtze.”

“So you believe anything Norn tells you without evidence?” Euphrates said.

Tigris turned back to face the rest of the table.

“I don’t trust either Norn or Yangtze. But you esteem Norn a bunch, so give up on Yangtze already.”

“Like with everything else, I owe it to Yangtze to back whatever suspicions I have with evidence.”

Before Ulyana could ask what the hell they were talking about, Tigris addressed the table.

“Yangtze is the overarching leader.” Tigris said, almost dismissive in tone. “You could call her the most Immortal of the Immortals. When we can’t come to a decision together, we give her the last word. She is formally involved in all our endeavors, so she can mediate between everyone and have a bird’s eye view of the org. Or at least, that’s what she should be doing. But she’s insane– that horrible agarthicite attack you witnessed must be her handiwork in action. She is giving Norn all kinds of crazy toys for god knows what reason and is trying to kill us now. And this idiot here has a crush on her and won’t believe it.”

“I do not have any romantic feelings toward Yangtze.” Euphrates said. “You know that.”

“Do I? Hmm? Maybe I get suspicious whenever you trust her to such insane lengths.”

“It’s not really in my nature to be offended by you, but this is coming close.”

“Hmph. Korabiskaya.”

Tigris gave a smoldering glare at the officers at the end of the table.

“I’ll gladly give you assistance and any information you need to kill Yangtze.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes at her in annoyance.

“I’ll pass. Getting in the middle of your spat is not part of our mission profile.”

This was not a genuine offer of an opportunity, so it would not get a genuine response.

“Some mercenaries you lot turned out to be! You’ll never make in the world like that.”

Tigris was clearly just trying to get Euphrates riled up now. It was shamefully childish.

Euphrates for her part withstood the provocations with almost supernatural calm.

“You look cute when you’re pissed.” She said. “I’m blessed to see it so often.”

“Go to hell. Go to fucking hell, Euphrates.”

Tigris turned her back around fully on Euphrates once more.

“You make a lovely couple.” Aaliyah said. “Let’s get things back under control?”

“Euphrates, it is pretty hard to believe everything you’ve said so far. You’ve spoken about tech sector conspiracies and shadowy figures, nothing we can actually approach. However, you two have demonstrated before that there is far more to you than meets the eye. So I am quite willing to believe there is something the matter with the two of you. I just don’t know what.” Ulyana said.

“I don’t carry evidence of the conspiracy I’m a part of on my person often.” Euphrates said.

“Would the HELIOS system have anything?”

“Oh, indeed. Good idea. It has identification data for Sunlight Foundation vessels.”

“Then with your assistance, we will go over this data later today.”

Euphrates nodded in acknowledgement. “It may not seem like it, but I want to help you.”

“You have certainly tried. During the confrontation with Norn, for example.” Ulyana said.

“Indeed. That was very foolish. I apologize for giving your doctor a scare.” Euphrates said.

That contrition in her voice sounded more emotional than anything she had said previously.

It wasn’t enough to instantly accept it as genuine however.

“You and Tigris have earned some good will from us. The HELIOS was pivotal to the bloodless conclusion of our conflict with the Antenora and we hope to be able to keep it for our mission. And I want to honor our deal with Solarflare. But to insure our operational security, we have to know who we are dealing with and what kind of a past they might have. I suppose we are closer to that than before, but it’s fair for us to have reason to be skeptical, don’t you agree? And it’s fair for us to demand information.”

This was it– Ulyana was trying to set up her further demands from Euphrates.

Euphrates was unbothered and calmly acquiesced. “Of course. Anything you want.”

“Not anything.” Tigris interjected. “Anything that’s actually in our capability.”

“Ignore her. I think it’s serendipitous that we met.” Euphrates told Ulyana.

Ulyana nodded. “First Officer Nakara told me you said as much to her before.”

Finally, Euphrates was starting to sound candid, rather than just merely matter-of-fact.

“When I saw Nakara, I felt like I was meant to be here. To make up for past mistakes.”

Murati looked briefly surprised at this.

“You’ll never make up for shit if you keep licking Yangtze’s toes.” Tigris grumbled.

“Tigris, please don’t butt in if you have nothing productive to say.” Aaliyah said.

“Hmph!”

“Euphrates,” Ulyana said, “I want to believe that you are speaking genuinely right now.”

“How can I rebuild our trust, Captain?”

Here it comes, Ulyana thought. She had to sound confident and choose her words carefully.

“You and Tigris know more than you are letting on about the events that transpired since we rescued you from Goryk. About the attack of that giant Leviathan– about Norn and about the capabilities of the Antenora. You clearly recognize the weapon that Lichtenberg tried to kill us all with. We need to know that you will cooperate us in ways that count, that we can trust and consult with you when dealing with these unprecedented situations. Your knowledge is worth more now than Solarflare’s supplies.”

Euphrates silently nodded her acknowledgement.

Ulyana, chest tight, voiced her first request. “Tell me everything you know about Omenseers.”

Tigris looked over her shoulder suddenly.

“Oh!” Euphrates briefly became serious. “Interesting. What’s the creature’s name?”

“What’s it matter to you?” Aaliyah said.

“So there is one? You met one? That name will clarify a few things–”

She sounded strangely excited. Aaliyah looked discomfited by this response.

“Arbitrator I.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah frowned and glanced sidelong at her in clear disagreement but stayed quiet.

“Arbitrator I. Interesting. This is really fate, isn’t it?” Euphrates said. “Let me explain. Omenseers are like humanoid leviathans that can navigate the photic zone. They have a unique culture– they don’t really participate in our society, they almost exclusively are nomads. They cloak themselves as beasts, but they can become humanoid to shack up with individual ship’s crews. They offer to serve as photic navigators in exchange for shelter, access to human goods, and the keeping of their secret. They originate from ancient caves within the Deep Abyss, accessible only through the bottom of the Gorges. In their original forms they were highly intelligent, pale, gelatinous, fish-like entities, with soft bodies composed of many neurons– or at least, that’s my theory about their survival in the Deep Abyss. They can alter their bodies.”

Ulyana felt her heart lift, a weight fall off her shoulders. She felt excited, energized and triumphant.

Now they were finally getting somewhere. Euphrates was actually cooperating.

All that she said squared with what Arbitrator I had insinuated, too.

One more piece of the puzzle. Many more pieces in fact. It was coming together.

“What’s the meaning behind the name?” Ulyana asked.

“Hierarchy.” Euphrates said. She then began to speak as if in lecture, and again Ulyana heard that same confident, smooth dictation. She really was cooperating with them. “The Sunlight Foundation believes Omenseers have a hierarchical structure. They are divided into grouplets called Spheres– these may have served a purpose in the far past, but nowadays its basically an odd surname system. Each Omenseer’s name contains their role, their order of birth into the role, and their sphere. First Sphere Omenseers are the closest to the original culture, while Third Sphere Omenseers are far younger. An Arbitrator is an Omenseer leader, think of it like a tribal chieftain. Or at least, this may have been the case.”

“Arbitrator I was USL-0099, which we identified before we picked you up.” Ulyana said.

Euphrates nodded, unsurprised. “Omenseers can assume humanoid or Leviathan forms, like I said.”

“Wait a minute. Are all Leviathans Omenseers then?” Aaliyah asked.

Everyone on the table was quietly watching the revelations spill out of Euphrates.

“Even with our knowledge, I can’t confirm the origin of Leviathans, unfortunately. There are theories that they could be man-made, or a result of the surfaces’ corruption– but these are just theories. Omenseers are able to assume Leviathan forms, so we call them humanoid Leviathans. They are probably connected, but they are also mysterious enough that it’s difficult to ascertain the utmost truth about them. Did the Omenseers come first, and surface humans designed Leviathans in their image? Or did Leviathans come first, and Omenseers adopted their aesthetics because they were the apex marine predators?”

“That’s good enough doc. We weren’t going to uncover all the mysteries of the universe in one meeting.” Ulyana said cheerfully. “I’m curious: you keep referring to how the Omenseers were in the past, or what you believe they used to be like. How are they different now than they were before?”

Tigris grunted. Euphrates showed no signs of reticence toward the questions.

“There is a group of Omenseers called the Syzygy who follow an Omenseer leader called Arbitrator II of the First Sphere, known as the Autarch. The Sunlight Foundation has had conflicts with them in the past. I believe this creature severely altered the customs and way of life of the Omenseer ‘tribe’ to make them more aggressive toward humans. We killed Arbitrator II before, hoping it would free Syzygy from her.”

Ulyana became wary. She had already seen the results of an Omenseer “dying” before.

“Our Omenseer came back from the dead. So maybe yours did also.” Aaliyah said.

They were on the same wavelength. That Dagon sounded more dangerous by the second.

“That’s a possibility. However, there’s nothing we can really do about it right now.”

“We can’t even confirm the truth about any of this.” Aaliyah shrugged. “It’s all stories.”

“Some of the information will be contained in the HELIOS.” Euphrates said. “HELIOS was one of our tools for studying the Deep Abyss and trying to keep tabs on Syzygy. Furthermore, Syzygy as a group routinely performed small scale biological engineering experiments that it was part of our responsibility to put a stop to. Solarflare LLC was, in part, a front for researching them and preempting their movements.”

“We’ll check out the information on the HELIOS and evaluate further at that time.”

“What, do all of you want to go hunting for Arbitrator II now?” Tigris said.

“Getting in the middle of this bizarre spat is not part of our mission profile.” Ulyana said.

“Arbitrator II also lacks the power to topple the Imbrian Empire.” Euphrates shrugged. “So for now, if she is alive, she is neither an existential threat to you nor an asset in your mission. We should leave her be.”

A solid assessment by the good doctor.

There were all kinds of things cropping up that they would have to make note of and relay to the Union as soon as they were able to confirm any concrete evidence of them. But to interfere of their own accord would have been tantamount to going hunting for cryptids– as much as it made the world far larger and scarier to note the presence of these beings in it, Ulyana had to focus on what she could do right now, and the mission she had been given did not include uncovering all of the mysteries of the Ocean.

This was good information, but nothing immediately actionable.

“You are all remarkably calm about the biological horrors running around.” Tigris said.

“I’ve stared at enough Agarthicite annihilations, seen enough Leviathans and met enough varieties of Katarrans to not be too surprised with what the world contains anymore.” Ulyana said.

“Living underwater makes us all a unique kind of insane.” Euphrates said.

“Right, our brain chemistry is expanding and all that.” Tigris replied.

“Do you have any more questions about Omenseers, Captain?” Euphrates asked.

“One last one for today. Do you know about their ability? Omenseeing?” Ulyana asked.

“Oh boy.” Tigris cried out with exasperation.

Euphrates laughed a little. “I knew it would come to that. Oh boy indeed.”

Ulyana raised an eyebrow. “What’s this response for?”

“It’s a really broad and difficult subject to get into. Would you be satisfied if we said that they have a unique brain chemistry that allows them to affect the material world with their minds?”

“Are we satisfied?” Ulyana asked, looking at Aaliyah at her side.

“I haven’t been satisfied since we interrogated McKennedy.” Aaliyah said.

“McKennedy?” Euphrates said suddenly, her eyes drawing wide.

“Do you know her? She didn’t tell us she was famous.” Ulyana said sarcastically.

“I see. This is serendipitous. A lot of souls have ended up on this ship, haven’t they?”

Euphrates crossed her arms, closed her eyes, and seemed lost in thought about something.

While Aaliyah and Ulyana waited and deliberated among themselves in whispers–

Coming to a decision, the Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation raised her head.

“Captain, I’ll demonstrate.” Euphrates said. “I will need you to trust me. I have good intentions.”

“Hmm?”

Ulyana looked up at Euphrates–

–whose eyes suddenly glowed with a red ring around the irises.

In front of her

a digital pen for writing on portable terminal LCDs

lifted in the air

and turned over itself,

with it the world turned, the ocean turned, a vast, unknown world, turned,

“I am rotating the pen in the air, Captain.” Euphrates said.

“What the fuck?”

Valeriya and Illya suddenly assumed shooting stances and aimed for Euphrates and Tigris.

“Captain, orders?!” Illya shouted.

“Stand down!” Aaliyah shouted back, though her panicked eyes remained fixed on the pen.

Ulyana wasn’t really sure what she was looking at–

It was a pen, spinning in the air. Physically, that was what it was. However, there was a constellation of questions, vast sweeping nebulas and burning suns and rotating planets worth of questions, all surrounding how and why it was spinning in the air. Euphrates had said she was the one spinning the pen in the air, but she was sitting in her chair staring at it with her arms crossed. Tigris wasn’t even paying attention. That pen was in the middle of the table out of arms reach. It was still spinning.

Euphrates wouldn’t have had time to rig the room, she wouldn’t have had co-conspirators.

Magicians set up their tricks, they had rigged gadgets and stages, plants in the audience.

Euphrates said she was spinning the pen in the air. She also said she was a tech monopolist who was involved in a secret society of scientists who were trying to figure out how to return the human race to the surface. She had also claimed to fight Omenseers, the weird Leviathan creature that Arbitrator I claimed to be. All of that– all of that seemed entirely normal compared to–

–compared to the little pen –why of all things was the pen the thing driving her insane–

Euphrates turned those red-ringed eyes on Ulyana with a little smile.

“I was fated to induct you into these mysteries, Captain Korabiskaya. It was fate for us all to meet.”

In the air in the middle of the table, the pen ceased to spin.

Before all the drawn-wide eyes bearing witness, it folded into itself, twice, thrice, compacting.

It looked almost–

–cathartic.

Euphrates smiled, a tired, bitter smile that reflected not the stately professor or the mafia monopolist, but an ancient, weary sage buckling under the burden of eyes and the responsibility she had abdicated. Somehow Ulyana could understand it– as if voicelessly they had made a connection with just their gaze. She thought, against all rationality, that she understood it– felt an inkling of years of deep-buried pain.

She thought she could feel Euphrates’ thoughts spilling from her. They were– connected–

Ulyana, for a brief moment, understood her. At a fundamental and deeply human level.

An inkling of her goals, her desires, and a crushing, ancient agony.

“Nakara, the child of the tragic couple I did nothing to save; and the people begot by Daksha Kansal’s Union, whom I refused to join; I’ve been humbled. I’ve turned my back on too many people.”

Murati stood up at the mention of her name, her fists tight against her sides.

“Euphrates, what are you–”

“This time it won’t be a mistake. I won’t let it.” Euphrates interrupted her.

Tigris kept quiet. She let the gentle and mournful words of her partner cross the room alone.

And with those words, the pen, compacted into a flawless sphere of carbon, rolled onto the table.

Everyone’s eyes followed it, as it paused just short of falling to the ground.

Murati stared, uncomprehending, given pause. That anger in her face melted away.

Euphrates raised her hand to her chest as if in pledge, to a room of uncomprehending faces.

She wept. From the edges of her cybernetic eyes, real tears began to trickle down her cheeks.

Years of emotions repressed to a neutral smile spilled out of her.

Colors erupted from behind her like a smoke projection–

Tigris finally cracked a little smile herself. Turning around, she, too, joined Euphrates’ pledge.

As the colors around them became stronger–

“Murati Nakara,“ Euphrates said. “You can see it, can’t you? I can teach you what it means.“


Previous ~ Next

Sinners Under The Firmament [9.2]

“Large biological entity rising from the Goryk Abyss, 2 kilometer from stern.”

“Profile matches ‘Dagon’, fortress-class of the Omenseer military group ‘Syzygy’.”

“Shields are at 60% power, no coverage over breached area.”

“Port-side stern guns are not responding electronically. Could still be manually operated.”

“Milord, your orders?”

On the bridge of the Antenora the main screen filled with a red and brown fog as the levels of katov mass continued to climb. Deep within that fog an enormous monster had arisen. Taking turns and speaking quickly but not over each other, the drones delivered their reports. There was no anxiousness in their voices or mannerisms, but they knew this was a crisis and it necessitated alertness and alacrity.

Norn and Adelheid turned from Hunter III, who was caught in a strange panic squeezing up against a corner of the bridge, and they looked over the situation developing on the main screen.

“Retain course away from the gorge for now. Where is the Pandora’s Box?” Norn said.

“They are moving in the direction of the gorge.” Said one of the drones.

Norn’s lips curled into a self-satisfied grin. “Oh, nothing to worry about then.”

“Acknowledged.” Said the drones.

“Nothing to worry about?” Adelheid asked. “That monster’s like Hunter III, isn’t it? The drones said it belonged to those Omenseers. It’d be pretty tough to kill if that’s the case, right?”

Norn glanced at the main screen again, shaking her head.

“We don’t know the full extent of what they’re capable of, but I doubt it’s an Omenseer body. An Omenseer would need to consume an enormous amount of mass to assume such a gigantic form using their powers as I understand them. And even if they had all that mass, they would need even more mass to patch it up against damage from a ship’s gun– it wouldn’t be a fight like those soldiers had at Ajillo against Hunter III where they couldn’t harm her. Regardless, it’s the Pandora’s Box’s problem.”

The Antenora was navigating away from the Goryk Abyss and the Pandora’s Box was set on going to Rhinea, which would lead them to follow the Goryk Gorge westward, closer to Dagon. So in terms of who the monster would see and target first, the Pandora’s Box would present the closest target of opportunity. They would be worthy bait to allow the Antenora to flee easily. There was no danger to them.

Adelheid seemed to catch Norn’s drift– and seemed dissatisfied with it.

“I suppose so. I take it you’re not going to try to intervene for Elena then?”

“Why would I? She could’ve been safe with me, and she chose not to. She talked big about finding her own way– let her taste the consequences of her actions then.” Norn shrugged. “I’m quite happy for Arbitrator II’s timely return to the world. It’ll serve to put Elena back in her place.”

“Sounds like you’re holding more of a grudge than I thought.” Adelheid said, grinning.

Norn tossed some of her blond hair in a dismissive gesture. “Be quiet, you.”

Adelheid was briefly erased from her attentions, and Norn knelt in front of Hunter III again, who had her back to the wall, her eyes glowing with red rings. Hunter III was seeing past them with those eyes, past the walls, past the Katov mass, to the Leviathan in the waters behind them. She was performing psionics, which she would have referred to as Omenseeing, to try to ward off the Leviathan’s attack. And perhaps, for other reasons as well. From what Norn managed to dig up from the archives of the Sunlight Foundation, it was their understanding that every Omenseer had a connection to Arbitrator II. At this moment, if the Autarch was on that biological vessel, she was likely able to communicate with Hunter III.

That was how Hunter III was so certain that the Autarch was near.

What was she being told? Was she trying to resist her influence in some way?

It wasn’t the first time they had seen this. Hunter III and Norn went back a few years.

When she had first found the little creature, unconscious in a puddle of her own filth in the depths of an underclass station habitat, the Autarch herself had given her a warning, in Hunter III’s own voice.

“Titan of Ice, you offer sympathy to this little wretch at your own peril. I am watching.”

Presumptuous little bitch. If Euphrates and Tigris had killed her before, Norn could also.

Still, it was advantageous to be able to travel in the photic zone without coming to harm. This is why tales of things like the Omenseers were once legendary among the ocean-going caste. They had attained all kinds of names in the canon of sailing myths, but all of the stories cast the ancient navigators as kingmakers of legendary ships, bestowing power and treasure. That it came with potentially having a spy aboard at all times didn’t outweigh the benefits unless Norn needed to confront the Autarch directly.

But the arrangement always mystified her. The Autarch was up to something.

Norn had hoped to sever this connection, and thus truly command Hunter III.

However, her confrontation with Euphrates made her realize she was still lacking in ability.

She survived and outwitted Euphrates, it was only their familiarity that allowed her to find an advantage.

Challenging an entity that was powerful in the Aether was trickier than she envisioned.

Even with all of her powers and understanding, Arbitrator II felt farther out of reach than ever.

Norn knew about the act, about the exertions, about the effects of psionics– but not enough about the source of the power, and how it interacted with the invisible world. In order to become stronger she needed to understand and explore Aether itself. She needed to know more about the mechanics of Aether as force, and the makeup of Aether as the space for clairvoyance and spiritual journeys.

Her intuition was deep and broad, it made her strong.

But it was incomplete. It was not true knowledge. And so Arbitrator II still eluded her.

Norn set down her hand atop Hunter III’s head and stroked the creature’s hair tenderly.

“I’m sorry. Please endure, and do not fear for us. I promise that I will free you.”

Hunter III shuddered, blinked, and tears escaped from her eyes.


In the middle of the hangar, the crew gave plenty of space for the confrontation to play out.

The recovered Petra and Yurii, the crew extracting Selene, Adelheid, they watched silently.

“Get up.”

“Master, please–”

“Get up from the fucking floor Gertrude.”

She was kneeling, bowing. After everything she did! That shameless bitch–!

“I fucking said get up!”

Compelled by an invisible force, Gertrude Lichtenberg nearly jumped from the floor of the hangar as if picked up, lifted, and thrown onto her feet. She landed standing unsteadily, and almost fell back down, raising her hands in front of herself desperately as if trying to push Norn away. Norn approached step by daunting step, fists balled up at her sides, red eyes locked furiously on to Gertrude, and as she did Gertrude backed away step by step as if dogged by a predatory animal. In the middle of the hangar, with the drones working around them and the officers staring without expression–

“Please, Master Norn– please listen–”

Temporal control.”

Norn was too furious, so she could not stop time entirely.

She understood implicitly how slow or how fast time was moving during Temporal Control because of its effect on her heart. It was moving at about “half speed”, so Gertrude could have potentially still reacted, even if it was ineffectual, but Norn would not let her. Moving quickly, she kicked Gertrude’s legs out from under her. She controlled her strength so as not to break Gertrude’s legs.

She only wanted to trip her.

In order to allow Gertrude to begin falling, Norn breathed in–

“Norn–!”

Gertrude cried out in time for the second Temporal Control to take place.

She was suspended in air, parallel to the floor.

Norn raised her hand. She wanted to punch Gertrude to the floor.

In her mind she was already plotting the next few ways she’d inflict pain on Gertrude.

A punch to the stomach hard enough to smash her right back to the floor.

A psionic push to force Gertrude back to a stand, and as she stood, a punch to the face.

Hardening her sweat– freezing her tears against the spheres of her eyes–

Maybe ask her a few rhetorical questions to feed back into her own anger while she beat her. What did you think you were doing? Why did you countermand my order? Selene could have been killed! You could have been killed! Elena could have been killed! Did you want to subvert my command? Don’t you realize I am the one who controls you? Through your actions were you trying to control me?

Her heart and lungs moved even slower– Temporal Control had strengthened slightly.

Enough for Norn to look at her own fist, closed, ready to attack. As if she too was slowed.

That fist– her hand– it was as many things as she was. Locked in a multiplicity of states.

Apostle of Ice.

Immortal of the Sunlight Foundation.

Praetorian.

Head of the House of Fueller.

Commander.

Katarran–

Norn von Fueller. Astra Palaiologos. She was all things that in the world were made to kill, destroy, to unmake and reduce. Her fist was an extension of her great power to kill which she had wielded countless times. She had killed such an innumerable amount of people with her bare hands that she felt her closest instinct was not to touch but to bludgeon, to choke, to gouge, to tear apart. In her mind there was a red haze of spilt blood that reeked of iron. In her ears a tinnitus of snapping bone.

Born in a palace she couldn’t remember; growing up in a hole she wanted to forget.

Had that little creature huddling in the dark even been aware of her destructive destiny?

Was that always the person she was meant to become–?

And– could it ever– change–?

Norn peered deep into the wide, fear-stricken, tear-studded eyes of Gertrude Lichtenberg.

In the time bubble, with her heart slowly failing and her head slowly clouding, it was as if she was transported back in time to when she first met Gertrude, prostrated before her. Alone, pleading, begging for her life. Having no resources, no parents, nobody to rely on in her hour of need. For the first time she called Norn “master.” Back then– she wasn’t useful to Norn whatsoever. However–

–she reminded Norn of him, for a second, didn’t she? It tugged on her sympathy.

She realized that she couldn’t have let Doenitz and Brauchitsch have their way with her.

Now–

Gertrude had disobeyed her. She had almost killed Selene, Elena, maybe even herself.

Her body was suspended before her, awaiting punishment.

Alone, pleading, begging for her life. At her own lowest moment, having lost everything.

Norn drew in a deep breath.

Before her, Gertrude fell suddenly on the floor, on her back. She grimaced, clutching her stomach.

She realized that Norn had not struck her. “Master, thank you! Thank you for sparing me!”

“I’m not your Master anymore, Gertrude. I have nothing more to teach you.”

She wouldn’t make the same mistake as with Konstantin again and again and again.

Looking down at Gertrude, at her expression of renewed horror as she realized–

“Please forgive me.” Gertrude begged. “Master, please I still– I still need you–!”

Norn kneeled down and spoke in a low voice, one only Gertrude could hear.

“I forgive you. I have all the forgiveness in the world for someone like you. It’s my greatest flaw as a person, even greater than my rages and all the blood on my hands. My boundless sympathy for powerless people with dark ambitions. My crazed desire to give the world to fools with nothing but lofty words.” She said. “So I forgive you. But I won’t help you chase after Elena. It’s over, Gertrude.”

It hurt. It really did hurt in a way Norn thought she could never be hurt.

What was Gertrude to her? What did it mean for her to call her ‘master’?

As a teacher, she was neglectful. As a guardian, she was clearly a dismal failure.

And yet, it still hurt– not to be able to crown this pitiful girl king of her own wanton desires.

Norn had really cared about her– she had actually come to esteem her. It had been fun.

It had been fun having someone, for a while, that she thought could aspire to her position. Someone who could learn through her skin the violent language of power and humanity and become a villain as Norn had. She realized too late where she had erred — exactly as she had with Konstantin. Every damn time. She realized too late that the passion she so admired had become a blind, consuming wildfire.

Now, all she could do was continue to play the villain like she had been.

Norn von Fueller could never be a hero, after all. Not even to one single person.

So she stood, turning her back to Gertrude, leaving her in the middle of the hangar.

“Gertrude Lichtenberg! You’ve graduated from Norn Tauscherer’s own school for temerity and bastardy!” She put on a grin and shouted to let off some emotion. Hopefully it was funny to someone else. To anyone else. “I have nothing more to teach you. I will return you to the Iron Lady and should our paths cross thereafter, don’t expect I will ally with you easily. Erich has not been keen on his own support for the Inquisition. I recommend you head to Konstantinople. Your only allies lie there.”

Gertrude stood, slowly, with a grim expression on her face.

“Ma’am, I accept your terms. I have no other choice. But I’d have to go through Rhinea to return to the seat of the Inquisition, and the Volkisch bar the way. It’d be suicidal to head back.”

Even now, Norn felt compelled to give her a parting gift of sorts.

Maybe, if it was Gertrude– if it was her who saw it–

She might understand–

So, foolish as it was, vulnerable as it made her, Norn lowered her voice to the girl again–

“Between Sverland and Veka lies the Abyss of Kesar. Descend Kesar’s Gorge and seek the habitat that lies at 3000 depth, and beyond that, if you have the will, continue descending through the Katov mass. If you can’t find something there to help you, then you were not meant to succeed, Grand Inquisitor. You could give yourself up to the Union, perhaps. They’re certainly more principled than the Volkisch.”

Norn knew it was stupid and sentimental to have said such a thing, even to Gertrude.

But this was the sum total of the legacy that she could bequeath to anyone.

Kesar’s Abyss, where she had grown in the deepest darkness.

And beyond that darkness–

Agartha.

Where Gertrude might acquire greater power and understanding– or die.

Did she believe in her–? Norn didn’t want to have hope for it. She had already said enough.

Gertrude in return had nothing to say to that. Norn imagined her expression darkened and embittered, the way she had raged all throughout the time they chased the Pandora’s Box. Norn did not turn around to face Gertrude again. With her back turned, she made herself depart the hangar entirely.

Whatever happened from now would be Gertrude’s own doing under only her own power.

For the rest of her stay on the Iron Lady they would neither see nor speak to one another.

Samoylovych and Petra detained her for her misdeeds, and she remained quietly in the brig.

“You told her about Kesar. I read it in your lips. Don’t even try to hide it.” Adelheid said.

They took the elevator together, hoping to be ready in the medbay for Selene.

“It doesn’t matter.” Norn said, though it clearly did.

“You’ve never even shown that place to me.” Adelheid added.

Norn laid a hand on Adelheid’s head and ruffled her red hair dismissively.

“Norn–!” She began groaning.

“You already believe and trust me, so you don’t need to see it. But I’ll take you someday.”

“Hmph. Fine. Keep your secrets. I’m keeping mine too.” Adelheid teased, grinning.

Norn narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Hey. What is that supposed to mean?”

As it was normal for them to do, they bickered childishly the whole way.


Floating in the water before her, crosshairs deadly sited. Enemy suspended between life and death on the instant mercy of a trigger pull. Weapons locked, vision wavering with rage and anxiety, killing blow one twitch removed. Her face reflected on glass across dozens of screens and meters, eyes on rainbow fire, sweating bullets, breath like steam, grin like a knife-slash across the bottom of her face.

Sonya Shalikova!

Your pretend powers are insult to genetic perfection!

Accept your place as a born-to-be corpse!

Die! Die as many times as it takes!

She pressed the trigger again and again and again–

Purple tongues of a great daemonic power surged across her arm.

Selene saw a white-haired white face almost exactly like her own.

Apparition on every screen, pink lips spreading with sympathy to speak,

“I will save you.”

Her arm shattered, her fire leaped back at her in judgment.

What?! No! I’m your master! Shoot her! Shoot HER!

Bolts of purple lightning tore across her own armor, tunneling hex-shaped scars through her cockpit and slicing across her seat like razor serpents, crawling over her body tearing out hex-shaped cross-sections of her face, blood bursting from her like great smoking geysers, organs melting into gore slush, her trapped body writhing and twisting and thrashing, her face frozen rictus of unimaginable agony–

“No!”

With a jump, Selene found herself suddenly no longer out at sea.

Distant furious thoughts that had spun in her brain like a whirlpool suddenly quelled.

She was in a bed, dressed in a patient gown with nothing under it.

In a sudden surge of anxiety she raised her hands to her head. Her indigo hair was all there. Her antennae were still affixed. Her cheeks, her shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, everything she touched was still attached and unbroken. Selene breathed in and out. She scanned the room in a mute panic.

“Welcome back to the world of the living, little ace.”

At her side, Norn and Adelheid took up two chairs adjacent to the bed.

Across from her, the doctor, Livia Van Der Meer watched from her desk.

Selene stared at them, quivering with anxiety, struggling breaths quaking in her chest.

On a wheeled chair, Livia rolled around to the other side of Selene’s bed.

“Take a look, kiddo! It’s pretty fun-looking isn’t it?”

With an amused look on her face, Livia showed Selene a mirror. The girl observed that her right eye had aggressive red veins around the edges, and that the outline of her irises was completely distorted. Half of it had become a rainbow-colored fractal shape three branches deep into the white around it. Her heart jumped at the sight of it. Selene had never seen something like it before in her life.

“What the hell is that?” She asked, turning sharply toward Norn. “Do I have a disease?”

“No. It’s the lingering effects of a psynadium overdose.” Norn said.

“You can overdose on that shit?” Selene asked.

“You can overdose on it! You can even die! Psynadium has been described in the literature of a certain unsavory group as a ‘neural accelerator’ that increases blood flow to the brain and ‘dilates thought pathways’, whatever the hell that means!” Livia said cheerfully. “Thankfully I have been administering psioxone, a ‘neural accelerator antagonist,’ to keep you whole and hale!”

Selene was speechless. Not just at the doctor’s manic behavior, but at her own foolishness.

She had pumped a lot of psynadium during her confrontation with that girl–

Sonya Shalikova.

To think she had to go this far to try to outmatch her and even so–

“I fucked up.” Selene mumbled. “I totally fucked it all up.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t suffer permanent brain damage. Maybe you really are a fucking ubermensch.” Norn said, openly sighed once her last glib statement left her lips. “Because of the psioxone, you’ll be unable to use psionic abilities until you recover. Don’t even try to read auras or look at the aether. It will only frustrate you. You will stay put here and rest until I say otherwise. Understood?”

“Yes.”

What else could Selene say? She felt foolish, like she had lost her credibility.

That manic wind which had swept her since she learned about her origins was no longer rushing her forward. Her first real test of strength, and she had been taken apart by some nobody. She had her at the end but– only with a gun that she couldn’t really fire. A small bitterness arose when she thought of that. When she recalled the events that had transpired at the edge of memory. She needed to know.

“Norn, why didn’t you let me kill her?” Selene mumbled.

“Selene, this isn’t a bloodsport, you know? Think about the bigger picture.” Adelheid said.

Selene shot a glare at the incongruous red-head. “I wasn’t asking you.”

“You weren’t, but she’s right.” Norn added, a quick and sharp retort. “Sure, you could have killed that girl with the cartridge, you can tell yourself you won that bout if it makes you feel better. But our goal was to extract Elena from the Pandora’s Box, and you were no closer to doing so in that situation.”

“Fine, I fucked up. I fucked it all up. Then just– just toss me aside like trash, then.”

Selene’s fingers squeezed the blankets over the lower half of her body.

She gritted her teeth. A spasm of anxiety shook through her chest.

Tears started to build in her eyes. She was useless now. Complete garbage.

Without the Jagdkaiser, or any other Diver to pilot, she wasn’t anything special. Some colossus of genetics she had proven to be. She felt like she was back to square one. She wasn’t some great and invincible psionic super-being, and she hadn’t even proven herself a particular capable pilot either. That Sonya Shalikova had completely outmaneuvered her. Her psionics couldn’t reach that girl. She felt like an idiot, thinking back to every stupid misstep she made during that fight which had grown in her heart to have such a frenzied, insane importance that she had lost sight of everything surrounding it.

Norn reached out a hand and set it right on top of Selene’s head.

Gently ruffling her hair like she was petting a small animal.

“You’re still my ace and the best pilot on this ship.” She said. “I’m telling you already to stop thinking about that one engagement. That goes both ways– don’t focus on it as a source of victory or as the potential for ultimate defeat. At the end of it all, as your commander, I take responsibility for our defeat. I underestimated the enemy, and I entrusted tactical command to the wrong individual. I don’t blame you for the mess that Gertrude Lichtenberg and I created in the first place. Just lay down and relax, ok?”

That hardly assuaged Selene’s fears. It didn’t change what had happened at all.

“I don’t want your pity. How the hell am I supposed to keep going after all this?”

“Live to spite your enemies. Grow stronger to take your revenge. Remember what I said?”

Norn withdrew her hand, and patted Selene on the shoulder.

“I’m not giving you my pity. Once you recover, I’m going to put you through hell.”

Selene raised her head and fixed a quizzical look on Norn’s determined eyes.

“What is that– what do you mean–?”

“I’m going to train you personally. You’re my ace; I’ll make sure you’ll be worthy of that.”

Norn smiled at her. It was one of her usual awful grins but Selene felt it was different too.

“You shouldn’t go too hard on her.” Adelheid said, crossing her arms.

“You get ready too. Your piss-poor psionics are beneath my standards as well.”

“Excuse me?”

Selene felt a strange excitement brimming under her skin at the prospect.

Could she become the true protégé of Norn the Praetorian? Immortal Apostle of Ice?

“Norn, why?” Selene said, interrupting the lover’s quarrel playing out in front of her.

“Why what?” Norn asked.

“I don’t understand. I– I failed you. Why would you bother with me anymore?”

Selene started to actually weep. She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.

She was a product who had failed to live up to her designed expectations.

Despite all the lofty ambitions which had been ascribed to her birth, she was a failure.

So why–?

“You mean why would I train you? Because you need it, obviously.”

“What? It can’t be that simple.”

“You cry too much. Just calm down already. I’m not such a bad commander, am I?”

Adelheid butted in again with a little shrug. “I can see where she would get the impression.”

“No one asked you. If you’re not going to be productive then be quiet.” Norn said.

“I told you Selene– you would hate it the first time she scolds you.” Adelheid teased.

Those two were putting on an act to try to make her feel better, she realized.

They always did that. They started bickering with each other like a couple of kids–

And it made any situation, no matter how awful, feel run of the mill and every-day.

What a stupid bit of theater, wasn’t it? But it made Selene chuckle just a tiny bit.

“I do think you’re something special, Selene. I didn’t lie about I wanted with you.”

Norn looked at her again with that determined seriousness she had before.

“It’s not because of your psychotic mother’s obsession with eugenics. Nor is it because of Euphrates taking you under her wing. It’s because you remind me of another girl who felt born from nothing in a deep, dark hole in the ground, growing up secluded from everything. That girl who was whisked away from hiding and fed a grand destiny. I always wished that she could have been freed from that destiny.”

“That’s–” Selene’s face turned a little bitter. “That rhetoric is totally empty to me, Norn.”

“I want you to attain the power to surpass your obligations and protect your own freedom.”

Selene could not say anything to that. They had already had a conversation like this and back then Selene had wanted to say the same thing she wanted to say now: did she want a ‘thank you’ for that? Because Selene would not thank her for this self-serving sophistry. All her life Selene had grown up wanting an answer to a simple set of questions: “Who am I?” “Why was I born?” “What am I meant for?”      

Nobody was giving her a straight answer. All of them could go to hell for that.

She wanted to hear: “You are Selene Anahid. You were born from love and into greatness.”

For the past few days, before she sortied out to be defeated by that Shalikova.

Selene had really come to believe that she was special. That her life had meaning.

That she was born with a great destiny inscribed in her genes.

Because if you weren’t born with a such a destiny, how did you attain it?

Who could give it to you? Who could tell you your life wasn’t just an empty whim?

How did you come to know whether or not your existence had any meaning to it?

People who were born from the womb had destinies imbued into their very flesh.

Families, communities, territories, states and nations, ethnicities, all with their own history.

Selene wasn’t even a Katarran. She was a blank slate. Where did her purpose come from?

“Norn, I– I just want to be able to tell myself I’m more than nothing. Do you get it?”

Norn shut her eyes briefly. She had a little smile again. “I know. But I can’t relate to your anxiety Selene. Because I’ve regretted all the easy answers I was given. Unlike you, I wish that nobody had given me their lofty purposes and made me believe in my own grandiosity. And I don’t wish that regret on you.”

She reached out again and laid her hand on top of one of Selene’s hands.

Still looking her in the eyes. That strange tenderness disarmed Selene momentarily.

“For now, is it enough to be Selene Anahid, ace pilot of the Antenora?” Norn asked.

“I don’t know.” Selene said. Her defiance was weary and waning, however.

Hearing the word ‘ace’ and feeling Norn’s touch really did set her heart alight a little.

“Selene, I need you. Will you stay with us? At least until you have found a better answer.”

That word, ‘need’, really shot through Selene’s chest like a bolt of lightning.

She quivered. Her stomach felt fluttery. What could she say? She tried to be defiant, but–

“Quit patronizing me. It’s not like I can fucking go anywhere else.” She said.

“I can drop you off at the next peaceful dock we find. Free of obligations.” Norn said.

“Fuck no! What would I do with myself? Just shut up and just– keep using me, then.”

Selene laid back in her bed. She felt stupid, like a little kid giddy with her parent’s praise.

A facile, pathetic feeling– to be so validated by such a vacuous thing as being ‘needed’.

“I’ll rest and recover and think about my future after I’m through with your stupid training.”

Selene turned her back on Norn and covered herself up in her blankets with a huff.

Under them, her face felt red and hot, and she wanted to cry. But she felt– less bad.


“How’s life treating you, little Hunter? Oh wait– I can just see it for myself.”

Hunter III of the Third Sphere found herself in a void surrounded by all kinds of colors.

She was seeing through her brainself, dragged to meet the progenitor who lived in all of her kind.

Long red hair, a single horn, a grinning face that was white as bloodless flesh.

Hovering just above the ground. Her arms spread out so the colors could coil about her.

The Autarch of the Omenseers. Arbitrator II of the First Sphere.

“Please don’t make me hurt ‘em. I really don’t wanna. I really don’t wanna, boss.”

Hunter III kowtowed in front of Arbitrator II, weeping openly, her body shaking violently.

Arbitrator II furrowed her brow in consternation. Her lips formed a brutal grin.

“Huh? Really? Weird! But I thought all that you cared about was eating, Hunter III!” Arbitrator II said dismissively. “I was convinced that you were just a stupid little animal who just wanted to stuff your gullet with meat from whatever source you can get it. Last time I ever trusted you with anything you just ran off like an idiot to gorge yourself and ruined my plot! Do you remember? Of course you don’t! Don’t even answer! I know you only remember the taste of meat. That’s all that fills your dim little brain, is meat and eating and looking for your next meal of meat. Even after I uplifted you, rotten little vermin. So would you really be so upset if you ate the Titan of Ice and the miserable hominins in her employ?”

Hunter III looked up from the floor and Arbitrator II’s face was directly in front of hers.

Wide-open furious eyes locking with Hunter III’s own.

“Please don’t– Please. I’ll do anythin’ boss. I’ll really do anything but hurt ‘em, please.”

Hunter III’s weeping eyes just centimeters from the cold, heartless gaze of Arbitrator II.

In the next instant the Autarch returned to her hovering position, laughing to herself.

“You’re lucky that almost to the very last individual, you Hunter caste have all turned out to be totally useless to me. I don’t expect better from any of you, so don’t worry, I have no grand punishment planned. Having you eat the Titan of Ice and her crew would be really funny, even more now that I know you esteem them for some bizarre reason. But it’s better you just stay so I can keep an eye on them.”

Arbitrator II made a subtle beckoning motion with her slender white hand.

In that instant, some of Hunter III’s colors fled from her and formed a bubble.

In the Autarch’s hands, that bubble began to reflect images with Hunter III’s memories.

Eating the delicious steer– killing all the bad men Norn told her to– saving Adelheid–

Norn patting her head– and all the feelings that rushed into her chest when it happened–

“Liberate you? Oh that’s funny. I’d like to see that evolutionary dead-end try it.”

Arbitrator II closed her hand around the bubble of Hunter III’s memories, crushing it.

Colors swirled around her and drifted up into the air like gas.

“You may remain at her side. She’s a Titan, after all. We’re destined to do battle.”

Hunter III looked up from the floor again. Surprised to have received a little mercy.

When she did, Arbitrator II’s face was hovering directly in front of hers again.

“But. Remember this. You and them, are bacteria compared to me. I am infinity itself.”

Arbitrator II gave her that wide-eyed, terrifying stare once more, gauging her reaction.

“Take advantage of their kindness all you want. But if you hold any notion that you can escape from me, you will only suffer for it. I can assume control of your body any time I want. Don’t give me another reason to notice you, little Hunter. Be meek and know your preordained place in my natural order.”

Her slender white finger touched Hunter III’s cheek and laid a scratch mark upon it.

A thin trickle of blood formed on it. Hunter III felt it sting, felt the skin part.

She felt the influence of Arbitrator II’s power over flesh creeping into her body.

“Yes, Autarch! I’ll obey! Please don’t do anythin’ rash!” Hunter III begged.

“Good.”

Arbitrator II returned back to her floating position, this time on her back, facing skyward.

She held the overlong ends of her robes over her face as if shielding her eyes from light.

“Little animals who know their place get to stay in their place, unharmed and undisturbed.” She said. “I must say, I’m really disappointed though. When I uplifted you, I really thought you would appreciate the gift I had given you. Restoring your lost humanity, awakening your potential, giving you mastery over the world. We are divine beings, exalted of the flesh, the apex of biological life. And yet you would give away your holy dignity to comport yourself like a beast anyway. Beasts care only about eating and fucking. Humans should support my Godly ambitions. It makes me angry. It makes me furious that I couldn’t restore the fullness of the humanity you lost– and you don’t even care about it.”

Hunter III felt herself be pulled up as if by invisible hands.

Raised up by her wrists, dangling like a doll in front of the lounging Arbitrator II.

“It makes me seethe to think that bastards from 1000 years ago are still getting their way.”

She made a dismissive gesture, and Hunter III’s aetheric self was instantly torn apart.

Her arms limbs ripped in opposite directions, her torso pinched in half at the belly.

Head burst like a blood-filled boil squeezed by an invisible hand.

That colorful void in which she had been suspended disappeared instantly.

Her eyes had been wide open the whole time, her jaw hanging. When her brainself returned to her biological form, Hunter III blinked, and awakened as if from a daydream. For a brief instant she felt intense pain throughout her whole body, shaking itself out through her limbs, down her narrow chest. She gritted her teeth and wept. But the agony was gone as quickly as it came.

She was on the bridge, her body against a corner on the floor.

Looking up, Norn and Adelheid had gone, but–

“Finally awake, cutey?”

Hunter III looked up and saw the tall, long-haired dog-woman in the gray uniform.

Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.

She waved at her. Hunter III responded with a far less enthusiastic wave of the hand.

“Where’s Norn? And Adelheid?” She asked.

“They’re tending to Selene in the medbay.” Samoylovych said. “They wanted me to keep an eye on you now that we’ve tidied up everything else around here. And of course, I couldn’t turn down taking care of a cute little snack like you.” Samoylovych winked at her with a big grin on her face. Hunter III pointed a finger at herself in confusion, as if to ask silently if she was really referring to her.

“Me, a snack? What’re you talkin’ about?”

“A delicious morsel. If you were willing, I’d absolutely devour you.”

“Y’wanna eat me? Like really eat me? No joke?” Hunter III asked in disbelief.

Samoylovych laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m a gentleman. I’ll make sure you enjoy it.”

“You gotta be jokin’. I dunno how anyone could enjoy being ate.”

“Ah ha ha! How charming! Well, maybe someday I’ll teach you personally what I mean.”

It wasn’t very alarming, if Samoylovych took a bite out of her she could grow the bits back.

More than anything it was just confusing. But at least it confirmed she had truly awoken.

Hunter III let out a deep-held sigh and collapsed against the wall, relaxing her tense body. Though the bridge’s main screen still showed a lot of red water, she couldn’t feel the Autarch anymore. That was an incredible relief. As if a dozen spotlights had ceased to burn on her specifically. She couldn’t remember exactly what the Autarch told her– but she felt it. As if it had been burned under her skin.

“Hey, can you tell Norn everythin’s okay? I wanna take a nap.” Hunter III said.

“I’ll mention it in my report. But she wants you to check in with the doctor.”

“Okay. I’ll visit Livia after I’ve had some z’s. Night night Sammy. Don’t eat me, okay?”

While an incredulous Samoylovych watched her, Hunter III shut her eyes, relaxed her breathing, her mind slowly emptying of difficult thoughts. Refilling with innocent dreams of juicy, red meat.


That night, Norn and Adelheid assembled together in one of the planning rooms, setting down a pair of bedrolls on one of the fold-out benches along the wall. The officer’s habitats were sealed off due to the breach the Pandora’s Box had carved in their social pod, so they were planning to bunk in this room for the time being. It had a central table, a few ancillary benches, and a terminal screen.

However, they also had an important conference to attend. The Antenora had left the waters of Goryk Gorge, escaping the cloud of Katov mass. They reconnected to the laser relay network once more, and established an encrypted connection to the palace at Heitzing, seat of the Fueller Dynasty and capital of the former Imbrian Empire. On the screen, a young blond man in a lavish suit appeared before them, in the background a great blue and green standard hung from a colorful wall.

A rose on his lapel suggested that he was perhaps readying to attend a party.

“What’s with the getup?” Norn asked.

“Salutations to you too, esteemed Aunt.” Erich said dryly.

He then nodded his head in acknowledgment. “And her adjutant, of course.”

Adelheid bowed her head. “May you live long and prosper, milord.”

She was on her best behavior in front of the Prince. She had already been scolded once.

“Erich, we recovered the defector. Did you know it was Samoylovych’s girl?”

Norn and the Samoylovych family had some history. Pleasant, for the most part.

“I had an idea that was the case.” Erich said. “Did you get a chance to peruse the goods?”

“Yurii is a very attractive girl, athletic, handsome, voluptuous. In full bloom, you could say.” Erich had no reaction to the joke. Adelheid clutched her skirt in clear irritation. Norn continued without acknowledging either. “We’ve discovered that the Vekans are planning a major security alliance with the Union, and furthermore, that they are under pressure from the Hanwans. I suspect the Hanwans will take the opportunity with all that’s going on to make a swing for total control of the South Nobilis gap to secure their mining colony. The question is how hard will Carmilla swing the hammer down?”

Erich shut his eyes as if contemplating what he was told.

“The Union? That’s interesting. I thought they would bide their time until the very end.”

“No reaction to a possible Hanwan incursion from the esteemed tactician?”

Erich shook his head. “Hanwa is an Empire in rhetoric only. Veka will defeat them.”

“If you say so. Then how will you respond to the Vekan overtures to the Union?”

“I’ve got a few levers I can turn when it comes to this Union-Veka alliance. We’ll see.”

“The Union could be an interesting player in all this. None of us have influence in there.”

“What we can’t get done with influence, we can get done with force. I am untroubled.”

Norn smiled to herself. That was the end of the official business she had with him. Aside from the question of what their next move would be, she turned over in her mind whether or not to tell him about Elena. Would he even have a response to it? She was certain he had engineered things such that she would come to harm from the Volkisch. Even if he had not pulled a trigger on her himself, he had implicitly told several willing gunmen where to point their cannons. Did it even weigh on him?

“I have someone that I want you to talk to.” Erich said, interrupting her train of thought.

“Oh?”

“To clarify: she wanted to talk to you.”

Without asking for permission, Erich split his own screen. Himself in one half–

–on the other half, appeared a woman with long, olive dark hair tied up in a ponytail, a pair of modern, chic black glasses perched on her sleek nose. Her skin was very lightly tan, her features typical of an Imbrian save slightly narrower eyes. Wearing a white lab coat over a dark green turtleneck that looked soft enough to have been real cotton. Seemingly youthful, but Norn knew that was all a façade.

Even this particular iteration of the Sunlight Foundation’s “Sovereign,” Yangtze, was at least thirty-nine years old if not “older,” depending on when her body was decantered and reprogrammed.

Certainly, from what Norn knew about her, her mental age may well have been as old as the world they inhabited, counting from when humans first fully settled the ocean “After Descent.” As a group with ambitions to return humanity to the surface one day, the Sunlight Foundation’s most prized talent was the ability to live long enough to see that happen. This unsavory group was therefore led by a collective of people who had cheated death, the Immortals. Yangtze, Potomac, Hudson, Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, and Ganges. Norn herself, as one of the psionic Apostles, had ‘honorary membership’ even to this day.

Once upon a time, even Mehmed– no, even to this day, Mehmed was an Immortal to them.

No matter what she wanted. They would always count her in their number, and him too.

“Cocytus, or should I say, Norn von Fueller.” Yangtze said by way of greetings.

“Don’t call me by your stupid codenames.” Norn said. “What do you want?”

“Such hostility!” Yangtze feigned injury, putting on a childishly petulant face. “Potomac contacted me and told me you treated her roughly. It’s understandable. She was never very friendly with you, and I should have realized there would be tensions. I just wanted to apologize for any offense she caused.”

“No you don’t.” Erich said. “Quit screwing around. What do you really want with Norn?”

“Everyone’s after me today!” Yangtze moped, shutting her eyes, and frowning in a very exaggerated fashion. “Norn, did you end up going to Goryk’s Gorge? Euphrates disappeared there and I wanted to know what happened to her. You must be on your way out of there now, aren’t you?”

“Don’t bullshit me. You know what I would do if I got my hands on Euphrates again.” Norn said.

“Oh dear. Maybe there are a lot of things I’m not realizing.” Yangtze feigned innocence.

“You pathological liar. I’d twist your head off if you were here.” Norn hissed.

“Did you kill her then? If anyone could, it would have to be you.” Yangtze said.

“This is interesting.” Erich interrupted. “Norn, did you kill one of the Immortals?”

“Euphrates can’t be killed. But this bitch already knows that.” Norn replied.

“I resent these accusations!” Yangtze said. “Euphrates has been awful distant from me lately, but I was sending Potomac and Norn to seek her purely out of concern for her wellbeing. I thought you would just rescue or resupply her. I had no idea that it would end in violence! None! I am innocent.”

Norn tried to push down the raging flame lit in her chest by the very sight of the Sunlight Foundation’s Sovereign. Out of anyone in that organization, nobody was responsible for more suffering than this bitch. She was a fixture atop Norn’s to-kill list. “Yangtze, I refuse to participate in your internecine drama. If you want to kill Euphrates, next time, do it yourself. I informed her that you sent me, by the way. She’ll be coming after you now. I can’t wait to see your little club torn asunder by your collective vanity.”

“Euphrates won’t attack me.” Yangtze said, waving her hand dismissively. “She isn’t like you, Norn.”

“You’re right, she’s been a complete pansy. But I’ve seen a lot of people change lately.”

“Yangtze,”

Erich spoke up. His eyes narrowed, his first display of emotion on that call.

“If you attempt to interfere with my personnel again you can consider our partnership over. I can launch simultaneous attacks on every Sunlight Foundation facility in the Palatine, where all of your most precious laboratories are situated. Don’t test my patience. Norn and I are not here to do your dirty work. You are here, and you continue to breathe, to do my dirty work. Do you understand?”

“How can I respond to that when no one believes a word I say? Hmph!”

Yangtze’s half of the screen shut off. Erich heaved a sigh, returning to fullscreen.

“Whatever. Waste of my time. Norn, as you must have realized, I have somewhere to be. Please make your way back to Heitzing. Extract any combat data from the version one Jagdkaiser for analysis and dispose of the chassis. Use the version two model from now on. If you need to make repairs, we have influence in Aachen station on the Rhinean northern border. The Volkisch authorities there are tenuous.”

“Thank you, dearest nephew. Perhaps we will make a stop.” Norn said.

He bowed his head slightly. “Take care. And keep your eyes out for that sun cult.”

At that, the screen went dark. Norn and Adelheid breathed out, releasing some tension.

They were alone in the room again, and it was about time to go to sleep–

“Norn, what the hell was that about Samoylovych?” Adelheid grumbled.

Norn grunted. “Huh? Jealous? Maybe you should tell me about those secrets of yours.”

Adelheid lobbed one of the bedrolls at her in response, a blow which Norn took gracefully.


The Antenora’s brig was entirely standard for an Imperial combatant ship. There was very little thought put into the taking of prisoners, particularly by a flagship. There was a simple brig outfitted with one barred cell that could cram a few dozen people like sardines in a can, and four solitary confinement cells equipped for a variety of punishments. They could be made lightless, soundproof, cold or hot, humid or dry, the fold-out bed could lock against the wall to be unavailable, and so on.

“Put me in a solitary cell. I don’t want anyone to look at me.”

Gertrude Lichtenberg made this request immediately as Petra Chorniy Sunnysea brought her into the brig. Petra stared at her, tipping her head to one side in mild bewilderment. She had walked ahead partway to the barred cell. For a moment she looked between Gertrude and the solitary cell. She walked over to it, opened the door, and peered inside. It was not very spacious. With the bed folded out, there was very little space to stand or walk in. Petra turned back to Gertrude with a small frown.

“Are you sure? Um, this kind is usually for driving people insane.” Petra said innocently.

Without a word, Gertrude entered the cell and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Configure it however you want. I just want to sleep and be alone.” She said, once seated.

On the adjacent wall, a touchpad panel configured the cell’s potential torments.

“If you say so. I’ll make it a little dim so you can doze off then. Nighty night!”

Petra shut the door behind Gertrude, locking all of the lights and sounds of the brig and the Antenora’s halls instantly. Even the air she breathed inside the cell was controlled differently. A cluster of LED lights provided the cell’s illumination, and these dimmed to a very dark blue. She was completely isolated from the rest of the Antenora. Gertrude pulled her legs up onto the bed and laid back upon it.

The mattress and pillow were stiff, and there was only one thin blanket.

She threw her hat on the floor and undid her ponytail, letting her hair down.

Unbuttoned her greatcoat and threw it over herself as an additional blanket.

She stared at the wall.

Without any sound in the cell, and without any sounds from outside, her brain furnished something for her ears to hear in their place. At first it was only ringing, the dull ringing or whistling of metal clashing with metal as if the battlefield had followed her even into this isolation cell. Then came the voices. Of course there were voices– Norn’s shouting, Sieglinde’s final threats, her own cries.

Bury your love for me in this gorge–

Elena’s voice hurt the most. Even more than Sieglinde, who had tried to kill her.

Gertrude turned in bed, staring directly up at the ceiling.

Minutes became hours. Hours became days. Days must have become weeks.

She tossed, turned, wept, scratched herself. Rages overcame her. She pounded on the walls.

Her moods became as unpredictable as the corrupted weather of the surface.

Alone with her thoughts she would find herself swept up in mania, thinking of herself as some ridiculous and farcical character, laughing, unable to see a future before her. Then just as quickly, just as unbidden she would be stricken with a sudden feeling of immense loss. Clutching her hair, shaking all over. Mumbling to herself. Elena. Elena. She would never see her again. She would never touch her.

Gertrude was hollowed out and quickly refilling with gut-wrenching catastrophe.

After Vogelheim Gertrude had turned the uncertainty of Elena’s disappearance into a mix of hope and despair. Knowing nothing, she could be buoyed upon fantasies of coming to her rescue, because there was no evidence she was dead and no evidence she was alive. That Elena was “out there, somewhere” and their relationship had been untouched by the destruction wrought by the Volkisch. Gertrude filled that gap. Sometimes in feverish mourning, sometimes in a grand empowering insanity.

Elena, perpetually in distress, pushed Gertrude to keep moving forward.

Those dreadful events which had transpired in Goryk’s Gorge were completely different than the tragedy at Vogelheim. Elena had “died” to her in a different way. She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that Elena was alive– and that Elena had rejected her. There was no room for doubt. No gaps to fill herself.

She knew, definitively and without a doubt, that everything was her own fault. She had attacked Elena. Boldly and without excuse. This was nothing she could fantasize about. This was a hell of her own making. There was no amount of delusion that could protect Gertrude or give her hope. She had in front of Elena and in front of many others, unleashed arms upon her, endangered her. In her desperation she called upon a weapon she hardly understood, violating the trust of her benefactors, and making herself a villain. She was lucky Elena hadn’t been killed by her hand that day, but that was no silver lining. What overcame her at that moment? What kind of madness was she capable of on a mere whim anymore?

Gertrude stirred up a storm of self-hatred that she wished would slash her skin off.

Sieglinde was right. The Red Baron had been right to try to kill her. To treat her as the villain.

In her world, Gertrude had styled herself a hero, but more and more, she knew otherwise.

As an Inquisitor she had beaten innocents, incarcerated protestors, jailed political dissidents and enforced laws she knew, without a doubt, to be evil and written for cruel purposes. For her own advancement and selfish wishes, she had reached into the guts of the Empire and pulled out handfuls of gore that caked her hands, and she had more than a taste of it. With a grimace she tore into that meat like it was medicine. Fueling her bloody climb to the highest echelons of power off the despair of weaker men.

Even as a Grand Inquisitor she would not have been a class equal to Elena.

She would have been adjacent to her, however.

Access to power meant continuing access to the woman she desperately loved.

And in loving her, protecting her, exalting her, the bloody beast consecrated herself.

It made all of the loss and the pain mean something. Made it worth anything at all.

The Empire was not worth anything to her. Elena, however, meant the world.

For Elena, she would have killed, annihilated, repressed, crushed all of Aer, with a smile.

And in the absence of Elena. She would have done those things also–

–wouldn’t she?

She would have even,

unleashed

that same

violence

upon Elena herself.

If I couldn’t have her, no one would.

That was the dark proof that unmade her delusion.

Because Gertrude Lichtenberg was a being of irrepressible violence. She was a truncheon slamming down on a skull over and over. She was a shield crashing into the ribs of a body and the steel-studded boots crunching it underfoot. She was a rubber bullet smashing the side of a skull and squeezing out the eye like spurting jelly from its socket. Gertrude was not a knight in shining armor.

Knights in shining armor ended their stories with a princess in hand, and a kingdom saved.

Gertrude was the dragon in the tower.

She was the claw and flame, the brick and steel.

Greedily coveting the Princess.

Complicit in her captivity.

Killing to get close to her, to keep her close, to prevent her being taken.

Smiling at every step of the way. I’ve saved her. I’ve made her happy.

Of course she is there only for me. Of course I know what she needs.

Elena was hers to consume. And she had consumed her. All of her that she could have.

Until

she was

gone.

Thoughts descending on her brain like knives carving, neuron as traced lines of agony.

Memories shook her like the volts of the electric chair.

Was it all so pointless, so doomed?

She held herself, held her head, squeezing herself in that bed, tension in every muscle.

“I love her. I love her. I love her so much. What was I supposed to do?!”

She screamed. “What was I supposed to do?”

She was powerless! The world was so vast and cruel! But she loved her! She loved her!

All she wanted was for her own filthy unworthy visage to fill those perfect indigo eyes!

All she wanted was a taste of the paradise promised in that pearl skin!

Could everyone but Gertrude Lichtenberg possess selfish desires?

Was it only her who was cursed to suffer the final judgment for her own?

“Ever since we met as kids! I loved her! Was that so wrong? Was it so evil?”

Elena loved her back! Elena had never said she hated her, never turned away!

She had every right to reject Gertrude’s advances and overtures before, but she never did!

Elena always had the power. She always held the advantage. And even still–

They even consummated their love! They were both in love! Elena loved her back!

If they had been any two other women, there would have been no obstacle!

Not even laws, not even political and military movements! They could have simply been!

But no–

They were Princess Elena von Fueller and Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg.

There was always that wall–

–and in trying to shatter it had Gertrude made some unforgivable sin?

“It’s this world.”

Clutching her own face, Gertrude opened her eyes peering through the gaps in her fingers.

Shaking in the dark, her tearstained, red-flecked eyes drawing wide, her mouth grinning.

“It’s this putrid Imbrium ocean and the bloodsucking amoral mob that owns it!”

I’ll kill everyone, she thought! I’ll send this whole edifice tumbling down into hell!

Erich, the Volkisch, Millenia, Carmilla von Veka, the Royal Alliance–

She would tear their heads from their necks and pull their spines from the orifice and crack their marrow with her own teeth like a fucking dog! She would send their stations tumbling into the ocean floor, send their people screaming in their stupid masses in a great all-encompassing cloud of gore that would spread across the hundred million meters of Imbrian Ocean between continents! Cast their laws into oblivion and consign their history to global amnesia by a sheer, unrelenting brutality!

You want a villain? You want an unworthy swarthy-skinned beast? Gertrude laughed.

Laughter shook through her like shell-quakes in the water.

Uproarious laughter, kicking her legs, squeezing her fingers on her face.

She laughed and laughed and laughed until she sobbed, wept, screamed, and bit her tongue.

Everything drained out of her. She laid limp in her bed rejecting any stimuli.

Mind in a fog, heart stilling, making no sounds but a few involuntary coughs and whimpers.

Cycles of mania and crashing depression wracked her. She turned the same thoughts over and over in her head until they meant nothing. Her head was a revolving door of the same agonies.

Every dreadful thing that she had done was irreversibly inscribed in history.

Sieglinde had been right. Gertrude had been made and unmade. There was no changing it.

Elena was gone. Her hands were stained. Nothing could be the same anymore.

“Excuse me.”

Light intruded suddenly upon the dark world Gertrude had entombed herself in.

She looked to the light as an intruder, an offender. She felt a surge of anger.

“What is it?” She snapped.

She was sweating, her eyes were red, her clothes all half-undone.

At the door was Petra Chorniy Sunnysea once again.

“I was going to bring you food, but actually, we made contact with the Iron Lady.”

“We made contact? How long has it been?”

“You’ve been in there for 14 hours or so. You must have been really tired.”

Gertrude felt her chest tighten with anxiety. Petra made no sense to her.

“Have I been sleeping?”

Petra nodded, her floppy dog ears shaking as she did.

“Every time I checked the camera, anyway. Sometimes you looked a bit rough.”

“A bit rough? I feel like I’ve been kicking and screaming for weeks.” Gertrude said.

“Aww! Oh, that’s so sad miss! You ought not to have stayed here!” Petra’s ears drooped. “You know, I don’t feel any grudge against you, so if you want, I can bring you a hot chocolate and some sweet bread while you wait for your friends to pick you up. We should meet them in a few hours. Norn says you can wait in the hangar if you want too! But if you do that, Master Yurii has to keep an eye on you instead.”

Gertrude could hardly muster a response to that.

She felt like her thoughts were being vacuumed out of her skull.

Raising her shaking hands over her face in disbelief.

That light which Petra had brought into her cell had obliterated her. Hollowed her out.

“I’ll stay here. I– I need to sleep a bit more.”

“Okay! If you say so! Nighty night!”

Petra cheerfully shut the door again, slowly shutting the light back out of the world.

Gertrude sat in the bed. Alone without thoughts. Minutes felt like hours.

And those hours felt like days.

There was nothing she could do alone with her own mind to solve anything.

No matter how much she hurt herself, it would neither expiate nor reverse her mistakes.

She did not want to think about what to do. Not right now.

All she wanted, all she begged for, was for something to make her feel human again.


The Iron Lady and the Antenora reconvened in the northern Serrano region.

Using a natural rock formation to hide the bulk of the vessels as they tried to dock together.

There was a sense of urgency to their meeting that neither side had counted on.

“Milord, the situation in Sverland has changed dramatically,”

On the bridge of the newly-repaired Iron Lady, now spotless compared to the damaged Antenora, Norn appeared on the main screen. Captain Dreschner and his adjutant and communications officer Schicksal exchanged information they had collected on the way to Goryk Gorge with her. Norn briefly perused the data and had a visibly surprised expression on the screen. She gestured something for one of the crew off-screen, before returning her attention to Dreschner with a darkened expression.

“Did you verify this? How are both the Volkisch and the Union here?” Norn asked.

Dreschner had handed her several files which were making their way through the Laser Relay Network from Serrano station. Civilian-captured images of black Volkisch vessels hovering outside the Serrano dock in the midst of being torn apart by shells. Packs of dark blue liveried Soyuz-class Frigates pursuing disparate Volkisch vessels like sharks descending on bloodied prey. Shuttles in Serrano’s docks unloading green-uniformed Marines with AK rifles led by black and red uniformed Commissars.

“While we repaired the Iron Lady we had routine drone patrols out to several kilometers as an early warning system. These drones picked up distant, but ferocious sounds of battle, and hours later, we began to see leisurely and confident Union patrols, and were forced to retreat our drones to avoid discovery. We accelerated our repairs and escaped as stealthily as we could.” Dreschner said.

“What’s your assessment of the current situation?” Norn asked.

“I believe the Union has the upper hand on the Volkisch forces for now. Judging by the ferocity of the acoustics alone, there was a titanic battle near Serrano. Then came the patrols, which were calm and orderly. In my experience, if the Union is now controlling the battlespace, the Volkisch may lack the forces to counterattack. We don’t have a lot of time to spare, lord Praetorian. We should move quickly.”

“Interesting. We will maneuver to dock. We have some supplies we want to drop off and Gertrude Lichtenberg will return to your care, Captain Dreschner. Then we go our separate ways.”

Dreschner bowed his head in supplication, and the two ships set about their work.

There was a hectic atmosphere within the Iron Lady from hours of high alerts brought about by the apparent Union incursion. It was an easy leap to make that if they had already been bested by some Union-equipped mercenaries, and then a Union invasion transpired some time thereafter, then there was a complex Union operation underway that was beyond their ability to contend with.

Within this stewing anxiety, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong had been unable to get a certain Inquisitor out of her head. Even as she worked hard and did her best to keep the crew focused in her own way, she was preoccupied with the fate of Gertrude Lichtenberg. She was so worried. She did not trust Norn, she did not trust Sieglinde, and she was silently furious about Gertrude chasing after Elena.

More than anything, Gertrude’s vulnerability and mortality turned over in her head.

“Gertrude should have taken me.” She mumbled to herself. “She’s got no one out there.”

Ingrid had felt bitter and hurt.

She had always stood up for Gertrude since they met. Fought for her, killed for her.

Always she had thought of herself as Gertrude’s strongest soldier, her ace, her protector.

But she wasn’t strong enough. Sieglinde was stronger. Norn was stronger.

So they could do for Gertrude what she couldn’t.

For days, she struggled to distract herself with the work throughout the ship, with morale and supervision, trying to fill in the hole that Gertrude had left. A mixture of worry and bitterness fermented in her chest. She couldn’t even drink– she was working around the clock. In time she was even grabbing tools and pushing crates with the sailors when she wasn’t yelling and leading work songs.

Then she finally saw in the bridge’s bearing monitors the approaching Antenora.

Her mind instantly emptied of its previous contents.

And immediately, she ran out to the hangar and rushed to the docking chute.

That one name rang in her mind and in her heart endlessly. Gertrude Lichtenberg.

She was back. She had returned to her. Nothing else mattered to her then.

Ingrid waited, tail wagging behind her, arms crossed, tapping her feet nervously.

Would she be hurt? What kind of violence had she gone through? How would she feel?

The name “Elena” did not occur once in her mind. All she cared about was Gertrude.

When the bulkhead door opened, it was like it had shone the sun upon her face.

There, the very first and only person that she saw was her.

Her Gertrude had finally returned. Clad in her grandiose uniform, seemingly unharmed.

Head bowed, clearly sulking, but alive. Whole. Gertrude Lichtenberg in the swarthy flesh.

Ingrid walked tentatively forward, her lips curled into a smile, her eyes bright and wide.

Gertrude cut the distance between them in a few long strides of her own.

“Gertrude–!”

In response, the Inquisitor grabbed hold of Ingrid, taking her into a tight embrace.

Those strong arms immediately took the breath out of the Loup. One hand around Ingrid’s waist and behind her back, another on the back of Ingrid’s head, stroking her hair and scratching the back of her ears. Ingrid thought she wanted to say something funny– but she felt an unfamiliar intensity in Gertrude’s grip that prevented her from even speaking. Now she really was thinking about Elena– there was no one else coming from the Antenora. Gertrude was there, alone, with only Ingrid in her arms.

For a moment they simply held each other silently. Then Gertrude finally, briefly, spoke.

“Ingrid. I have to talk to Dreschner. Once we set sail again, please come to my quarters.”

She rested her head on Ingrid’s shoulder, they were cheek to cheek.

Ingrid could not see Gertrude’s eyes, could not see her face in that sudden embrace.

Gertrude held her for several minutes more, gripping Ingrid’s clothes as if trying to prevent her from being ripped from her grasp. Subsumed into the Inquisitor’s warmth, Ingrid could not offer any glib retort, could not even interrogate what was happening. She embraced Gertrude back, leaned into the taller woman’s chest, savored the warmth between them. She shut her eyes. It was so calming.

She wanted to weep. Her Gertrude was back– the woman whose hands deserved her leash.

“Of course, ‘Trude.” Ingrid finally said. “I’m so happy to see you. I’ll do anything.”

“Thank you. I’ll see you then.”

When Gertrude released her, without another word, she quickly left the docking hallway.

She had left as fast as she had come. They both had responsibilities to carry out.

Gertrude returned to the bridge and set a course — to Kesar’s Gorge near the Vekan border.

Dreschner informed her that the Union was launching an invasion into Sverland.

“That changes nothing. Our next destination is Kesar’s Gorge. We have received a mission to investigate that area and recover important data from it. I’ll explain in greater detail tomorrow, Captain. For now, we need to escape from here, and I need to get some rest. I’m sure the crew also needs some rest.”

She had spoken with enough conviction and passion that there was no further dissent.

On that bridge, everyone felt that their commander was finally returned to them in full.

Everyone seemed glad to have a destination. It gave the crew something to focus on.

Slowly, the atmosphere of anxiety began to change. There was a plan– they had a mission.

Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg was back, and the Iron Lady was back in business.

Meanwhile, Ingrid supervised the unloading of a shuttle of goods from the Antenora.

When the rear ramp of the shuttle touched down on the hangar, it unveiled the “supplies.”

To her untrained eye it looked like two damaged Diver chassis. It was quite mysterious.

“Gertrude, what happened out there?” She asked herself. She hoped to soon find out.

Because, in addition to the Divers, which were quickly unloaded, there was also a visitor.

Norn von Fueller. The Praetorian herself– her presence gave the mechanics a bit of pause, but she waved them up and urged them to work fast in unloading. As the mechanics and engineers rushed past her, Norn walked down the ramp at a leisurely pace, grinning with the same distant malice that she always wore. Ingrid, at the bottom of the ramp, watched her approach, eyes fixed on one another.

“Milord,” Ingrid bowed her head, quickly, with the least respect she could offer.

“Sotnyk.” Norn said. “I thought I would see you. That’s what I had been hoping, anyway.”

“How can someone so lowly as me assist you, milord.” Ingrid replied without emotion.

“You desire the power to save Gertrude, don’t you? To surpass the great aces of the sea?”

Ingrid’s face briefly flashed surprise, and a bit of anger, that she had to master that instant.

Norn seemed satisfied with the reaction. “Gertrude failed in her mission, and Sieglinde von Castille is not coming back to this vessel. You must have noticed neither the Baron nor the Princess are here. You don’t need to care about transpired, but what it means is she will be relying on you more than ever.”

Before Ingrid could respond, Norn clapped a hand on her shoulder.

Her lips turned into a dark smile, eyes shaded by her hair, a macabre expression.

For that moment it was almost as if time had stopped, and Ingrid was alone with her.

“That machine was once called the Jagdkaiser, terror of the seas. If you and your crew can repair it, Ingrid Järveläinen-Kindlysong, the machine should be yours and yours only. Among these gnats, only you have the will to wield it. It will grant you incredible power. But power is nothing without an ambition to channel it. I only ask that you have it and that you use it to realize your desires. Protect Gertrude for me.”

Ingrid knew, almost implicitly, she was referring to the larger, darker-colored chassis.

With a pair of severed arms soaked in seawater. Heavy damage all over the hull.

She knew, in that moment, that she could not respond. That she was not meant to.

And as soon as Norn had spoken, in a fleeting, blink-of-an-eye instant, she was gone.

Turned back around, headed up the ramp, striding confidently away.

Leaving Ingrid wondering if a conversation had even happened.

Moments later and with little additional interaction, the Antenora and Iron Lady completed their exchange, and bid farewell. Once the ship was underway, as she had promised, Ingrid left the hangar, which had become abuzz with engineers and mechanics going over the new goods. She made her way to the end of the Iron Lady’s second tier, to the door opposite her own, where her master and friend waited.

She tried to put out of her mind what Norn had told her.

“Some gift, a bunch of junked Divers. But my Jagd is fucked up anyway.”

They could kitbash the parts from her Jagd into that Kaiser-thing. Whatever.

More importantly.

Gertrude Lichtenberg, waiting in her room. They had not seen each other in so long.

Ingrid knocked on the door, and without awaiting a response, let herself in.

“’Trude, I take it you need a shoulder to sulk on?”

Ingrid had finally made her little joke, but she was just a little taken aback as she entered the room and shut the door behind herself. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Gertrude had removed her coat and hat, draping them over a chair. Her white button-down shirt was near entirely unbuttoned, revealing a simple black brassiere which she wore beneath. She was swirling a glass of wine in her hand.

When Ingrid came in, Gertrude smiled warmly. She did not appear to have drunk much.

“I’m happy to see you.” She said. “I was waiting– I broke out the good stuff.”

She raised the glass and pointed out the bottle and an additional glass on the nightstand.

“Oh! Hell yeah!” Ingrid said. “That’s what the fuck I’m talking about, ‘Trude.”

Laughing, she made her way to the nightstand, and poured herself a glass.

Without waiting a second more, Ingrid downed the entire thing in one gulp.

A glossy mouthfeel, a complex hint of sweetness, and rich, boozy warmth. Crazy good wine.

“Shit, you weren’t kidding.” Ingrid said. “This is the good stuff.”

“It’s the finest vintage on the ship. A gift from Vogelheim, once upon a time.”

Gertrude took a sip, set her own glass on the nightstand, and stood up from the bed.

She took a step directly into Ingrid’s space.

Spread her arms and took her close; so suddenly Ingrid nearly dropped her empty glass.

“Hey! Aren’t you handsy. You sure you haven’t put down a few glasses already?”

Ingrid was more than happy to embrace her back. To feel even the briefest closeness.

She was shorter than Gertrude, so when they were close, when Ingrid was being held–

The handsome Grand Inquisitor looked down at her, just a little. Smiling softly at her.

“Ingrid. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I made so many mistakes.” Her hand stroked Ingrid’s hair.

Her touch without gloves was lightly callused yet so soft, so firm. Ingrid could’ve melted in it.

Gertrude bowed just a little deeper, touched her forehead to Ingrid’s own.

“Ingrid. Ingrid.” Her voice was so soft. Her lips so near. “Ingrid. Let me comfort you.”

Ingrid said nothing. She felt the warmth in her own cheeks, her vision hazy, tail wagging.

When Gertrude finally kissed her, she practically dissolved into her arms. She was floating.

“Ingrid. Ingrid. I love the sound of your name. I love you. I love you so much.”

Kisses, tugging on clothes, a hungry grasp upon her breasts, sucking bites on her neck–

Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid–

Her name like song, heard from lover’s lips. Gertrude finally took possession of her.

Ingrid closed her eyes and lost herself to the release of years of brimming lusts.

Collar and leash seized, pulled, with enough force to make her gasp.


Previous ~ Next

Overheard In The Waves #1

On a particular evening that could have been like any other, the perennial pair of late shifters Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa found themselves once more drawn by duty to the bridge of the UNX-001 Brigand. Both of them were ordered to stand ready for another night that would be assuredly full of petty bickering and sniping. Though they tried their best not to do so, procrastinating some amount of time in their rooms to give the other a head start, the two quickly ran into one another in the hall and found themselves at the exact same pace to their destination.

Fernanda gave her blond-and-purple hair a haughty toss and turned her cheek.

“One would think you were shadowing my steps, gamer, with how regrettably often I meet thee!”

Alex rolled her eyes, but made no effort to keep her lanky frame at length from the smaller officer.

“Well, since you’re here, listen: you can’t just drop a thee at random when you already used you.”

Fernanda bared gritted fangs and closed her fists. “Oh, just be quiet, Geninov!”

Alex raised her hand to her own cheek and put on a silly expression.

Had her silky brown hair not been tied up in its usual bun, she would have tried to do a mocking toss of it.

Silence, ye pitiable gaming worm— or something like that, would be more appropriate.”

“You–!”

Met with narrowed, unfriendly eyes, Alex felt rather satisfied with herself until, distracted as she was, she stumbled right over a folding chair which had been left in the middle of the hall. Even in the evening, with the hall to the bridge becoming quite uninhabited, one would not have expected a folding chair to be in the way, and so Alex hit her leg with it, lost her balance over it, tipped right across the seat and slid off, coming to rest on her back with the wind knocked out of her. Staring up at the ceiling, with the world spinning around her, she almost thought, maybe Fernanda did have dark powers locked in her eyes, or the ability to perform vile hexes, or all the other strange things she talked about.

“Be careful with the chairs please.”

At that point, Alex thought she heard the droning voice of Braya Zachikova.

But it couldn’t have been. Why would she be out in the middle of the hall for no reason?

In a strange display of camaraderie, Fernanda stood over Alex and actually helped her to get back up.

It was at that point that Alex noticed that along with the folding chair, there was a table in the hall.

A black folding table, behind which was a second folding chair.

And sitting on this particular folding chair was, indeed, Braya Zachikova.

That spiral-shaped ponytail was unmistakable, as well as those two thick antennae she had for ears.

“Please return the guest chair to its neutral position.” She said, giving Alex an unkind look.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Alex started shouting.

Fernanda let go of her in response to her thrashing, and Alex nearly fell over again after being released.

“Zachikova, the fate of certain gamers aside, this behavior stands much unreasonable from you.”

The haughty gunnery officer put her hands to her hips and gave Zachikova a stern look that did nothing to faze her.

“‘What I am doing’ is I’m setting up a fortune-telling station.” Zachikova said.

Her unaffected tone of voice made it sound like the most natural thing to be doing at this hour.

“You’re setting up a fucking, what?” Alex asked. “And fucking, why?”

“An absolute refuse heap of vocabulary, Geninov.” Fernanda shook her head.

Zachikova gave the two a smug little grin. “There is a simple reason. I am bored. Entertain me.”

“I’m gonna flip this table right into your face!” Alex shouted.

“Will you flip it over with your entire body, like the chair?” Zachikova teased.

Fernanda grabbed hold of Alex before she could do something she may have regretted.

While the two of them vainly struggled in this way, Zachikova withdrew a minicomputer.

She set it down on the table, turned it toward the pair and pressed the power button.

Focusing on the screen for a moment, Alex and Fernanda stopped horsing around.

Green text on a black background scrolled by, to be replaced by a logo formed by text characters.

It resembled a crystal ball, lightly shaded, with the words “AugRy v.1.4” below it.

“While the graphics may look unimpressive, this is a fortune telling program honed by advanced machine learning of the sort used for our algorithmic predictors. All it needs from you is for you to touch the screen and speak any word. Using the underlying mathematics behind acoustics, it will divine your future, just as it can divine geometry and the classifications and bearings of enemy ships. And just for tonight, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is yours.”

Zachikova waved her hand over the device like a magician proudly revealing a trick item.

“What kind of sense does that make?” Alex said. “Just touch it, and say anything? Acoustics?”

Zachikova nodded her head silently and without expression. At Alex’s side, her blond companion scoffed.

“Fortune telling finds its provenance in the grandeur of the romantic epics.” Fernanda said. Her thin lips took on a serious expression. “It is unconscionable that a mere machine could divine the twisting fates of mortal souls!”

“What she said.” Alex replied, pointed with her thumb at Fernanda.

“Everything about ‘fate’ can be determined by mathematics.” Zachikova said. For a moment a tiny hint of passion crept into her voice. “From the moment you were born everything about you is a formula that a computer could have already figured out with the right data. Except when this idiot touched a Dendy and allowed it to ruin her entire life.”

“Well I bet your stupid computer wouldn’t have known I actually started on an Imperial Poly-Play–”

“I don’t care about your tedious opinions whatsoever. Just do the thing or go away.” Zachikova said bluntly.

Zachikova stamped her index finger on the table repeatedly like a demanding kiosk owner.

Fernanda and Alex glanced briefly at each other, sighed, and shrugged their shoulders.

“You know what, fine, I’m curious now what the hell this thing will even say.”

Alex put her finger down on the touchscreen and spoke into the hidden microphone at the bottom of the compact, square minicomputer. “Leviathan Fury.” She said. It was the first thing that came to mind — a title she loved to play and for which she held official high score records. Soon as the words left her mouth, the screen on the minicomputer turned into a scrolling wall of green text. Alex watched as the computer slowly generated a coherent message.

You will find lasting love in an unlikely place. Look near before you look far, and keep an open mind.

“That’s it? You just have an RNG in there don’t you? Sophisticated machine learning my ass.”

Alex crossed her arms and casually looked over to Fernanda, who was giving the screen a deathly glare.

“I– I believe I shall concede my own turn! For what adventure is one’s fate, if not unknown?”

There was a tiny tremor in her voice and a blush on her cheeks that Alex simply couldn’t place.

Regardless, all of the mystery had gone out of Zachikova’s little theater, and they were late for work.

“Well, the witch and I are needed on the bridge for late shift, so, uh, bye I guess–“

“I would rather you stay for a moment, actually.”

A gentle voice came from down the hall that send a chill down Alex’s spine.

Fernanda and Alex turned their heads and found a very large figure casually approaching the trio.

Waving one hand, long overcoat draped over her powerful shoulders, a smile on her soft and girlish face; it was none other than Security Chief Evgenya Akulantova, the enormous grey phantom stalking the halls of the Brigand ready to chomp on unsuspecting night shifters found goofing off. Despite her size and power, she could be whisper quiet when she wanted to, and never missed her mark. Alex and Fernanda had a powerful reaction even to the cheerful and maidenly demeanor of the Security Chief, who came to a stop between the two and looked down at the table.

“This is such a novel way of causing trouble that I’m more excited than pissed off.” Akulantova said.

She crossed her burly arms over her broad chest and stared directly at Zachikova.

Zachikova’s dull, unemotional expression did not change with Akulantova’s appearance.

“So, since you’re seated at the table that’s presently being a safety hazard right smack in the hall like this, Zachikova, can you explain to me what you’re even up to? Are you all gambling? I frankly can’t read this situation at all.”

“I’m administering a sophisticated fortune-telling program created by advanced machine learning.” Zachikova said.

Akulantova smiled and let out a toothy, jovial laugh.

“Fortune telling? Why are you doing this out in the hall at the start of the late shift?”

“I am bored and wanted attention.” Zachikova said simply.

“Kinda childish, don’t you think? You have important work to do, you know?” Akulantova said.

“I have already completed all my important work. My superior IQ and untroubled neurology renders me much more efficient at my tasks than the rest of you. This is both good and bad. It allows our ship to operate in the information space at much higher capacities than crews of which I am not a part of. It also means I am frequently very bored.”

After explaining herself, Zachikova’s lips curled into a tiny self-satisfied grin.

Akulantova smiled vacantly at Zachikova for a moment.

She set her jaw, and clicked her tongue.

“You two can go.” She said, briefly clasping her hands on Alex and Fernanda’s shoulders.

For her part, Alex felt like she was close to passing out from the brief but intense pressure.

“Zachikova, since you’re so bored, I’m going to give your mighty self something to focus on.”

Akulantova gently took Zachikova’s computer with one hand, and seized the folding table with the other hand,.

With a metallic creak, the table began to warp and buckle in Akulantova’s clearly wrathful grip.

“To make amends for your flagrant safety violations, you’re going to keep an eye on the bearing monitor in the hall here for two hours, and while you do that, just so you don’t fall asleep on me, and to get your blood pumping, you’ll do squats. Hundreds of squats. If you don’t know the form, I can show you like I’m showing this table I got in my hands how to squat.” Akulantova’s grip tightened on the table to the point her fingers went through the plastic surface.

Zachikova, still seated in her chair, did not hesitate to stand up and walk across the hall to the bearing monitor.

Standing in front of it, she lowered herself into a perfect squat and made sure she was being watched complying.

Watching her squat away, Akulantova sighed deeply and shook her head, murmuring “Officers,” to herself.

She then looked down at the minicomputer in her hand with a weary curiosity.

“Hey Chief, if you want your fortune told, just touch the thing and say a word.” Alex said.

She was trying to be amicable, but Akulantova merely glared at her sidelong.

Alex and Fernanda took the hint, saluted, and quickly went about their way.

Once they were out of earshot and Zachikova was well engaged in her punishment, Akulantova laid her thumb on the touchscreen and raised the underside of the minicomputer near her lips. She whispered a name, “Syrah,” into the machine and watched the text churn for a few moments. Looking about in a conspiratorial fashion, hoping no one else would appear in the halls, she then looked back down at the screen in time to catch her fortune spelling itself out.

Do not expect a second chance. Forgive yourself even if she doesn’t forgive you, and seek a new flame.

Akulantova stared at it for a while and sighed to herself, running her free hand over her face.

“Ugh, god damn it. Doesn’t take sophisticated machine learning to know that.” She mumbled bitterly.

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 [5.1]

In a dark corner of Serrano station, packed tightly between nondescript storage buildings, a young woman stood over an older man and brought her hand down to his forehead. He stared up at her with eyes wide and blank in horror, jaw hanging. He could neither move nor speak to her. She could see in the crevices of his mind that he was a Union spy. She could not see enough to form a clear picture of his deeds and capabilities, but she could feel the texture of his identity. She could reach into him and feel the fingerprints of his soul.

Molecular control.”

Small tendrils extended from her fingertips which only she could see.

Like tiny currents of air, they curled into the man’s nose and eyes.

Something called to her with a deep, mocking voice. It was not the spy’s voice.

Wow, look at you! I’m so proud! Despite your disdain, you’ve truly mastered my “evil” methods!

“Shut up!”

That voice in the back of her head quieted, though not out of respect.

She had to make a concerted effort to silence it.

Had she been less gifted, she would not have been able to both control herself, and the man prostrated in front of her. She pried from him what she wanted — a way out of Serrano. A way out of the Imbrium Empire. It was not possible to escape to the Republic, and returning East was too dangerous. The ruined state of Katarre stood in the way of any possible escape through Skarsgaard so there was only one place to run to.

She had to escape to the Union to have any kind of future.

“You will do everything in your power to get me aboard the next Union smuggling ship.”

At her feet, the man under her control nodded his head.

Blood started dribbling from her nose.

Even though this was an Apostle’s ability, and despite all the power she had, it was not enough.

She could not sustain the control for very long.

All that she could do, she found, was plant in him a way to become involved with him.

“I have information for the Union. I’m a political refugee. Get me aboard their next ship.”

“I will get you aboard their next ship. No problem, doll.”

“Contact the Union to pay the smugglers. Set everything up like a real Union job.”

“I’ve done it a million times, babe. Just relax and I’ll take care of it.”

Under her hand, the man’s lips curled into a self-satisfied smile. Her control was flagging.

As satisfied as she could be, she tore her hand away and tried to look innocent as possible.

He kept smiling as he came to his senses.

He trusted her.

She had made his memories reflect that.


There was a figure, black and white, grinning viciously. Its eyes had a red glow around them.

A hand reached out to her, its fingers going right through the bridge of her nose.

Fingers became thick tentacles. Followed by a spectacular shower of blood–

“Aaah!”

Ensign Sonya Shalikova woke suddenly, gasping for breath, struggling with her blankets.

A nightmare– then, moments after she sat up and began to breathe, her alarm sounded.

Her back shot up straight, and her head struck the hard plastic privacy cover half-closed over her bed. Falling back onto her pillow, rubbing her head furiously, images of blood and brains still rolling over in her thoughts. Tears escaped from her eyes in a tiny trickle. Everything felt the most wretched that it possibly could. She smelled sweat and the stale metallic air of the ship; everything was dark save for a strip of light through a tiny crack below her door. She was cold. She felt the movement of the air in the room on her clammy skin.

She shivered, a cold tremor running down her spine.

“Fuck.”

It was 0600 hours. She was on a ship: The Brigand, a next generation “assault carrier.”

Nothing about it felt special. It was as dismal as any other ship.

Certainly, it had nothing on the Dreadnought she had fought with at Thassalid Trench.

Shalikova stood up from the bed. She was on a ship; nothing bad had happened.

Ambling to the other side of the room, she laid down on the second bed in her room.

On this bed there was a very well cared for stuffed bear, Comrade Fuzzy.

Shalikova took Comrade Fuzzy into an embrace, laying in that empty bed in her underwear.

As a pilot, Shalikova had the luxury of an officers’ quarters all to herself.

Though the size of the accommodations was the same as that of a Sailor’s, she did not have to share it with anyone which gave her more space to work with. A space that bunked eight people was more than roomy for a single young girl with two bunks. She never really felt lonely in there: being with other people, if anything, would have been worse in her opinion. Her meals in that noisy canteen were frequently annoying.

All she needed was Comrade Fuzzy to hug when she felt too stressed.

Soon, however, a second alarm sounded at 0630 hours.

Shalikova grit her teeth.

“Sorry Comrade Fuzzy. I have to go to work.”

Not that there was any work for her to do, but she was expected to be around.

She had been sailing with the Brigand for a few days since the attack of Leviathan ULV-96, in a battle she did not participate in. Her itinerary had been empty during this time since she did not have a Diver. Her Diver was due to be set up in a day. At some point Nakara would convene the squad formally.

Until then, they were just infantry, taking up space on the ship.

Shalikova therefore had a lot more idle time to look forward to.

What did one do on a ship with that amount of time to burn?

For Shalikova, that was something she discovered day by day.

First, she really needed a shower. Her whole body felt disgusting.

Why had she sweat so much? Why was she having nightmares now?

Of course, she was no longer on a station. So, to shower, she had to go out into the hall and walk into the bathroom. Aside from the toilet stalls it was an open floor plan. For the first day, this had been a mortifying ordeal. On the second day, it had been merely stressful. She expected that today, it would only be annoying. Thankfully, everyone on the ship received a vinyl robe with their bunk that they could wear to go shower and take off and on there.

Everyone respected the code of the vinyl robe — whoever was wearing one was going to shower.

Leave them alone.

When she walked out in her robe, there were very few people out and about.

The floor was cold, even with plastic slippers. She hurried to the bathroom.

While Shalikova lived in one of the least crowded places on the ship, that never stopped her from complaining, or feeling stressed out that someone might show up. And indeed, her worst fear was confirmed as soon as she neared the sliding door into the bathroom. She could hear the shower going, and worse, someone making all kinds of noise inside. She even recognized a voice.

Sliding open the door, Shalikova peeked inside.

On the Brigand the bathroom was split into two halves. An open shower spread out right across the door so that anyone coming in was bound to get an eyeful of breasts or someone’s dick — in Shalikova’s case that morning she saw both at once. To get to the closed stall toilets or the mirrors and sinks, one had to hit a left turn from the door. Shalikova found the design completely psychotic.

Their showers amounted to little more than a slightly angled bit of the floor plan with drains and showerheads on the walls. In Stations, the showers would mist your body to conserve water so that tens of thousands of people could have enough fresh water for their daily needs. The Brigand, on the other hand, was sucking in water all of the time and could easily desalinate enough for 200 people, so it had full showerheads and amazing pressure. It was the only upside to sailing.

“Good morning! Oh! It’s you Shalikova! You’re so consistent in the mornings!”

Alexandra Geninov immediately greeted Shalikova as she entered. A tall, lean young woman with broad shoulders, of course completely uncovered in the shower. Her honey-brown skin glistening wet under a gentle spray of water; rinsing her long, silky brown hair. Shalikova had met those odd eyes in the shower before. Alex seemed to like that time before 0700 to catch a shower.

“We should all be getting up by 0700.” Shalikova said, in lieu of any explanation.

Alex was playing with the soap in her hands. Moving it from one hand to the next.

“That’s where you’re wrong! This ain’t the Academy anymore! You’re an adult now, you can make your own schedule. As long as you’re with your work group by 0900 anyway.”

Alex turned a big grin on her.

Left and then right; she passed the soap between her hands. She wasn’t thinking about it.

When she brushed the soap bar against her skin, she used her left hand preferentially.

An observation Shalikova made, quickly, unconsciously.

“If you need to be ready by 0900, you can’t put much of anything on your own schedule.”

“You can get a couple good runs of Climbing Comrades in that time!”

“Maybe you can.”

Talking to Alex further would just be stalling. Shalikova wanted to be out of the shower.

With a heavy sigh, she began to disrobe.

Alex had never stopped looking her way. She had her back to the shower and water was falling over her head, but her eyes were wide open. She kept playing with the soap– did she realize how annoying she was being? Shalikova and locked eyes with her hoping to communicate her unbridled antagonism in that moment; but the happy-go-lucky Geninov was not so easily deterred. Was she just that thick, or did she enjoy this?

“Geninov, could you turn around?”

“Huh? I thought we’d built up a rapport! Shower buddies!”

“We really have not. I don’t build a rapport with anyone by showering.”

Alex turned around, so Shalikova was now staring at her ass rather than the rest.

“Didn’t you do this kind of thing at the academy too? We all had communal showers back then. Talking in a communal shower is kinda fun, it builds trust. Don’t you think so?”

“Clearly I don’t. Trusting you wouldn’t change this situation at all for me anyway.”

“You’re so shy! You know, we’ve got the same junk, we don’t need to be ashamed–”

“Shut up and stay turned around or we’ll see who paid more attention in combat training.”

Shalikova finally discarded her robe and bra at the edge of the shower.

She walked to the wall and turned the dial to start the water jet.

Something slid across the floor and struck her softly on her foot.

A yellow bar of soap covered in foam and a bit of brown hair. Hurled by Alex’s left hand.

“Need help washing your back?” Alex said, looking over her shoulder with a smile.

Shalikova picked up the soap and started to rub it against her own skin.

“Quit teasing or I’ll hurl this back at your face.”

Alex smiled. “That’s some serious hand-eye coordination! You ever play any games?”

Shalikova gave her a violent glare. “I’ve played enough to hit your head from here easily.”

Was she really getting anything out of peeping at and teasing a skinny girl like her?

Thankfully, she really did stop teasing her when Shalikova threatened to whack her.

Done rinsing her hair, again primarily with her left hand–

And yet, Shalikova was sure she had seen her use her right hand before.

Maybe ambidextrous? Not that it mattered. Just minutia her eyes couldn’t help but pick up.

Soon, Alex was gone with a tittering goodbye, seemingly untroubled by their interactions.

Shalikova stood under the water, unmoving, in silence, until she used her allotment of shower water. At that point, there was a beep and the shower simply stopped dispensing any more water. It took around fifteen minutes. It was blissful, quiet. Nothing to see and nobody to see her.

“Whatever.”

Without fanfare, Shalikova toweled off her white hair and with her pale skin still slightly wet, she put on her vinyl robe and walked back to her room, dripping slightly on the floor. On the way back, she walked across Alex in full uniform, who waved at her. She was probably coming back from her room after having dressed. Shalikova did not wave back; she just walked past her. 

She had been correct. It had not been mortifying or stressful; it was simply annoying.

Now she could go through the rest of her morning routine.

Once she was back in her room, she pulled out a drying shelf from a nearby wall panel and hung her robe on it. A gentle, warm fan would dry it off. She pulled tube off the side of the drying shelf and blew some warm air at her hair and face. Her underwear she dropped down a chute, where a pneumatic tube would deposit it in her clothes basket in the laundry room. Before donning a new set of clothes, she kneeled in front of her bed, pulling open the personal chest beneath.

From the chest, she dug out a box of patches, simply labeled E+.

Using a cloth, she dried up a spot on her rear and applied the patch there. She then took a big yellow pill from a bottle and brought it over to the wall with the drying rack. From a panel next to the drying rack, she brought out water-dispensing arm. Taking the pill into her mouth, she bent close to the waterspout and took a drink to swallow it. She slid the arm back into the wall.

Careful that her estrogen patch remained in place, she slid into her black bodysuit.

Using a tool to reach behind her back, she zipped it up tight.

Over the bodysuit she wore the black pants and white, sleeveless button-down of her new uniform. She had no opinion on it; a uniform was just a uniform. It was not what she would wear casually, but what she would wear casually was not that much different from it. She had a couple of things to complain about, and the uniform ranked low on that list. One thing she did take some umbrage to was that “Treasure Box Transports” was such a childish-sounding fake name.

She ran her hands through her white hair. It was damp, but not dripping anywhere.

For now, she did not put on the teal jacket, and walked out of her room without it.

Her next order of business was securing some rations.

Then she would think of anything else to do.

The Canteen was big enough to sit sixty people at a time on three long tables that each had ten seats on each side. In one corner there was the kitchen counter, behind which the ship Cook whipped up meals in big batches. There was also a table that always had broth, crackers and dried veggies set out for the crew, and anyone could take some if it satisfied them, at any hour of the day. Despite the size of the crew, the Canteen ran smoothly, and was rarely filled to capacity.

Shalikova felt like an actual breakfast that morning, so she approached the counter.

 There was another woman behind the counter with the Cook. A blond, green-eyed, and olive-skinned Shimii whom Shalikova had not met before. She had foregone a hair net and had her hair tied up in a ponytail instead. Those big, tall, yellow-furred ears probably complicated wearing the net just a bit. Shalikova noticed her hair was starting to go a little gray in parts, and there were hints of crow’s feet near her eyes she had gone to some lengths to obscure with fancy red wine-colored makeup. She was holding a big plastic spoon with a grip that resembled how a pilot would hold their control sticks.

When Shalikova approached, she was unnoticed by either of the women.

“…so I did tell him that I was not interested at all! But can you imagine, the nerve?”

“Hah, that’s brazen, asking someone out two days into the trip! Only sailors would do it!”

“I was flattered, but he’s so young. Maybe if it had been a woman I would’ve been–”

Shalikova frowned and narrowed her eyes at them. “Excuse me.” She mumbled.

“Don’t let the Commissar and the Captain hear you saying things like that!”

“Oh, then you didn’t know. There’s a bit of a juicy rumor about those two.”

“Really? Do tell, do tell! I won’t be in this kitchen forever you know.”

“Well, I met with them for menu stuff the other day, and the chemistry they have–”

“Ah, I see, I see! I suppose a Captain and a Commissar is a popular romance trope!”

“Oh, this is more than just tropes. I can tell those two have some saucy history–”

Every day, a few people were “volun-told” to go help serve food to the sailor and officers. This gave them a break from their other jobs and allowed the Cook to focus on cooking. Or in the Brigand’s case, fooling around. Shalikova realized the older cat and the Cook were very immersed in their discussion. Shalikova had met the cook yesterday: Logia Minardo, a chronically energetic older woman with short dark hair and elegant red lips, dressed in a white apron over her TBT uniform and a red bodysuit. She had her sleeves rolled back showing off some strong arms.

Logia Minardo had probably been in the infantry years ago. Whenever she got distracted while chopping vegetables, Minardo briefly flipped her knife as if she were going to thrust into an enemy combatant, with a brutal reverse grip. But she corrected herself quickly, maybe so quickly she herself did not even know she had assumed a combat stance for any amount of time. Then she would chop whatever vegetables. Nobody else seemed to be paying attention to that. Someone in the Union who left basic training and went on with their life would not develop such habits.

Not that it was any of Shalikova’s business and she certainly would not have made it hers. It was solely a curious observation which she made and then filed away, never to reference. Minardo chopped vegetables routinely, however, so it was not an uncommon sight in the kitchen. That was another habit Shalikova noticed while staring at her: she composed meals very lovingly. Some cooks just threw the ingredients into a pot and made stone soup. Minardo rehydrated the dried mushrooms for the day’s meal using a bit of broth, chopped, and fried them gently in oil.

Shalikova shook her head. This was no time to write a mental dossier on this lady.

Her stomach was rumbling.

“Hello! I would like the beans please!”

Shalikova raised her voice.

She pointed her finger at the tray of white bean stew behind the counter.

Both women suddenly glanced her way and then looked terribly embarrassed.

“Oh, I’m so sorry dear! I’m such an airhead. I’ll take care of you.”

That Shimii woman was all smiles now as she served Shalikova. Having heard her earlier talk, Shalikova now viewed her chipper attitude with suspicion and maintained an unfriendly glare.

“So, you want the white bean stew; do you want any mushrooms?”

“No thank you. I’ll take the white bean stew and the pickled salad sandwich.”

“Lovely! By the way, I’m Khadija. I apologize for not noticing you.”

Every meal on a Union ship or station was composed of a protein, a vegetable or fruit, and a carb, usually a bread. Breakfast was the lightest meal of the day and usually composed of a cup of soup and a small sandwich. It was entirely replaceable by the broth, dried veggies, and biscuits Minardo and Khadija had laid out for the crew to self-serve, but there was still a cooked meal. Small triangle half-sandwiches with pickles and dressing accompanied either fried mushrooms or white bean stew. Not much of a selection, but all of it looked appetizing to Shalikova.

Whatever their faults as people, these two old women could cook.

Khadija ladled soup into a cup and set it on Shalikova’s tray with two triangle sandwiches.

She winked. “You can have an extra. Don’t tell anyone.”

Behind her, Minardo sighed. “We don’t have so much that you can give out extras.”

“Just this once!” Khadija laughed.

“Fine, fine.”

Shalikova really wanted to say this wasn’t at all necessary, but to avoid further contact with Khadija she sighed and went along with it. Yesterday, the volunteer helper was Alex Geninov, and whatever one might say about her own issues with professionalism, she at least paid attention to what she was doing and followed the rules. Shalikova held firmly to her dim estimation of Khadija as she walked away from the counter, and the two women went right back to their cheerful gossip.

Her social energy already completely exhausted for one day, Shalikova found a corner with a three-seat gap to the nearest person and sat there so as to not be disturbed and hopefully not be accompanied. She set down her plate, picked up her reusable spork, and started to eat. For a moment she felt just the slightest bit thankful to Khadija for the extra sandwich because the savory, crunchy, oily bite she took was quite excellent. The stew was rich and creamy with a hint of tomato.

People started to come in and sit down.

Shalikova watched from afar.

Everyone always had some mannerism that they did that only Shalikova seemed to notice.

Whether it was the way Alex Geninov held her hands like she had a joystick in them when she was lost in thought, or the way the cook Minardo chopped vegetables or how Khadija’s tail swung faster when she was speaking about women than men, or the way that Captain Korabiskaya rapped her fingers on the table with one hand while eating with the other– there was no end of people coming and going in this hall, and so no end of things that Shalikova saw. Sometimes it fascinated her to watch them. She also sometimes feared they were all watching her too.

No one ever looked her way. But that did not stop her from being anxious.

If she could see them to this degree, could they look back and see the same in her?

She had practically been able to measure Alex’s torpedo in the shower.

So, was Alex staring back to that degree?

What would she think?

Did everyone see Shalikova as some kind of busy-body, or a pest? Did she have some little despicable habit that made all of them miserable? She tried her best to seem as normal as possible to everyone around her, and to be sparing with her words to avoid trouble. Perhaps in doing so, she seemed unsociable or unfriendly– hell really was other people! Shalikova sighed openly.

She tried not to think of such stress-inducing things again and focused on her food.

Soon as she had finished the last of her stew and ate both her sandwiches, there was a bit of a press of bodies in front of the counter. A large workgroup of sailors showed up, all at the same time. There were so many people, it really felt like a quarter of the crew had just decided to swamp the canteen that morning. A lot of them were covered in grease and looked rather bedraggled.

Owing to their lax pace before this surge hit, the two women behind the counter were nearly out of food and between batches. Sandwiches were found in a variety of stages of completion, and the careful touch that characterized Minardo’s cooking meant there were all sorts of ingredients in pots and pans but very little out on trays for people to get. And for a crowd this big that had been working hard, biscuits and broth were not an acceptable substitute for a good breakfast.

Khadija tried her best to charm everyone, but there was a bit of unease from the crowd.

Shalikova watched for a few minutes.

Visually, it was a terrible mess.

It was impossible for her to figure out where to put her eyes.

Just an absolute mess of limbs and heads. She could make out nothing from the crowd.

Nothing except how annoyed they were and how much stress she felt.

And the line was interminable. Something had to be done.

She felt an increasing pressure looming over her, especially as grouchy people started to sit closer and closer. Either she could leave, or she could try to do something about it. What would the rest of her day be like? Without piloting duties, she just had free time. She did not even have a workgroup to show up to. Short of personally asking Murati Nakara for work to do–

“Oh god damn it.”

Shalikova stood up from her corner and walked with gritted teeth over to the counter.

She slipped between people as much as she could and made it to the side door.

“Chief! Let me in. I’ll help cook for the day.”

Screaming at herself internally, Shalikova waved her hand at Minardo.

Minardo stared at her briefly, and then beamed at her.

“Oh goodness! Our heroine has arrived. Come in! Get an apron and get the soup going!”

She opened up the side door and Shalikova stepped in with her fists at her sides.

Khadija briefly noticed her, and her eyes lit up with a sudden happiness.

Shalikova avoided her staring, picked up an apron, and set about her day’s work.

“Idiot,” she mumbled to herself, stirring a pot, “can’t ever turn a blind eye, huh Sonya?”


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