The Past Will Come Back As A Tidal Wave [13.1]

After Descent, Year 958

Sitting with her back to a metal wall, legs hugged close, tail curled around her waist.

Silencing all of the cries of pain and hunger from every part of her body.

All her heavy eyes needed to focus on was forward. Forward to a new life.

It was dark, the only light provided by the intermittent strobing of sensor LEDs on a few instruments. She could see the impressions of crates, fastened by metal cables and plastic tarps. She shivered, rubbing her hands together. While she was in the cargo hold, she thought about what Aachen would be like. She had heard that Shimii were not hated there and even that Mahdist Shimii did not have to change their names. She expected that the Rashidun Shimii would still be tense, but maybe the Imbrians would be kind.

At least there would be stable work. That much had to be true.

She could endure any kind of abuse; if she could get a job, she could live.

When the cargo hauler got closer to Aachen’s Stockheim port, the bulkhead door separating the hold from the rest of the vessel opened, allowing a spear of light to cut the shadows on each side of the hold into two halves. Rahima remained in the shadow, huddled behind the line of crates. When she heard footsteps into the room, she stood up, dusting off her old ill fitted brown coat and her pants. She walked out from behind a crate and waved lethargically at a man in uniform. He smiled at her and produced something from a pack for her.

“There you are.” He said, “Thank you for your work. As promised,”

A few polymer banknotes to the tune of about a hundred Imperial mark.

And a piece of bread.

At least she would have something in her pocket to start her new life.

Other than her immigration papers.

“Listen, when you leave the ship, take the people conveyor into Stockheim and stop by the immigration office. I know it sounds scary, but you’re smart and you have your papers, you don’t have to worry. Just be polite and answer the questions honestly.” Said the sailor. “Get registered and ask them if there’s some place you can stay. It won’t be good, but you don’t want to be on the street. After that, it’s all up to your luck. There’s honest work out there. You’ve got two good arms and two good legs. Don’t do anything stupid or indecent okay? We don’t want to regret bringing you here.” He patted her shoulder with a smile.

Rahima smiled a little in response. She took a bite out of the bread.

It would have to be enough to get her legs through the day.

Finally, the hauler entered one of Stockheim’s cargo elevators.

Once the area was drained and properly pressurized, the ship laid down its ramp.

Rahima slipped out of the back.

She dropped down onto the metal floor, her thin shoes barely offering protection from the awful cold. She was in a dimly lit cargo processing station and elevator, the ship in the middle, and a variety of instruments to shuffle crates around hanging distantly in the dark. Before the station security figured anything out, she made for the automatic door leading into Stockheim. It opened for her, as it did for everyone– for a moment she had feared it would know she was an immigrant and refuse her. Inside, a people-mover belt sped her from the dim cargo elevator facilities to a brightly lit, extremely modern lobby, glass dividers funneling foot traffic several ways. It was here that Rahima first saw a crowd.

There were holidaymakers heading in, businesspeople heading out,

ten different paths she could take,

a crossroads of living,

She lifted her head and found the direction of the immigration office.

Her clothes were shabby, she had no luggage, and there was no hiding her ears and tail.

However, nobody gave her grief– everyone had some place that they were going to.

Following one nondescript hall after another, she finally found the open door into the immigration office on the side of one such hall. There was a small line of people, slowly moving from just outside the door and into the immigration office. Rahima stood and waited. She was through the threshold in about fifteen minutes and in about fifteen more she was sorted into one of three lanes of people waiting for immigration officers in glass booths to call them forward to talk and show their papers. Rahima was one of the few Shimii in the line. At first, this eased some of her nerves about the situation she was in.

Until, while she was waiting, a Shimii talking to an officer was taken away by guards.

Then her heart began to pound like it wanted to escape from her chest.

Imbrians, too, were subjected to the same treatment, for who knew what reasons.

Soon it felt as if, every other person in the line was made to disappear.

She inched forward, the sight of the faces of those taken away burned into her eyes.

Struggling and begging. Where would they be sent? What would happen to them?

Shaking, she almost missed being called forward to the glass-shielded booths.

Rahima was summoned by a middle-aged woman, blond-haired with a stately face.

Was it better to be processed by a woman? Would she be kinder, have more sympathy?

No– Rahima had seen women before who were as vicious and evil as any man.

“I’m opening a slot. Drop your papers in. Keep your hand away from it.”

In front of Rahima a little drawer popped open suddenly. She almost jumped with surprise.

From her coat, she withdrew and unfurled a few crumpled-up sheets.

Careful not to have her fingers near to it, she dropped the papers into the slot.

In a second it instantly slid closed. Behind the booth the woman withdrew the papers.

With a sour look on her face, she unfurled them, sighing and grumbling, patting them flat.

“I can read these. Sometimes they get too beat up to understand. Be careful next time.”

“Y-Yes.”

“Rahima Jašarević, correct?” She pronounced it flawlessly. Rahima was surprised.

“Y-Yes.”

“Brennic Shimii? Eighteen years old?”

Rahima nodded her head quietly, her chest trembling.

“Answer the questions verbally please.” Demanded the woman guard.

“Yes to both.” Rahima said, trying to gather her wits at the insistence of the guard.

Then the woman held up one of the papers.

She tapped a finger from behind the paper, over a section that had a seal. That seal had a moon with a green and red pattern indicating the religious category of the person immigrating. For Rahima she had no choice in the matter due to how she was processed for those papers. She could not have lied nor was she given a chance to change anything.

“Mahdist. Is this correct?”

“It is.” Rahima said. She then added, “Will that be a problem?”

Instantly she felt like a fool for asking such a question. Why say anything unnecessary?

“Not with me,” said the woman behind the glass, “might be a problem with your kind.”

Then the woman, still holding up the paper to the shield, tapped a different finger.

This time over an Imbrian-style name listed near Rahima’s own.

“Your sponsor is an Imperial Navy officer. We will contact him. Is this name correct?”

“Yes, it is correct.”

“Alright. You’ll hear from us if he’s never heard from you. Understand?”

“Yes.”

In that fashion they went over many rote aspects of Rahima’s identity documentation.

Each question felt like a nail being pounded into Rahima’s chest.

At the start of each line, a pound, unknown whether pain or respite would follow.

Then, at the end of each line, the nail was dug in and no longer hurt. So, then– next nail.

Whether she would bleed out and her heart would stop or whether she would be allowed to continue living, this was a question asked by each lifting of the hammer and each pounding of the nail. Tapping fingers, sharp clicking of the tongue, the slight plasticky sound of the shield being touched or the border guardswoman fiddling with something on her desk. Every time, Rahima asked herself, will this answer have me taken from here?

“Staying for short term or long-term residence?”

Rahima paused. Would it be better to say short term? Would she find it more palatable?

But– staying in Aachen for a short term was useless to her. Where would she go after?

“Long term.” Rahima said.

In that instant she practically saw the truncheon come flying out of the corner of her eye–

“Okay. You’re a solo traveler, do you have any living family? Husband? Kids?”

“No. No family, no spouse– I’m too young for children I think.”

“Alright. We just need to know in case you pass away. Any medical issues to disclose?”

“No. I am healthy.”

“Good for you. Any banking anywhere? Immigrants must get accounts here in Aachen.”

“No. I’ve never had a bank.”

Nothing happened. Just more questions. They were almost through with the papers.

After going through the last lines in the documents, the guardswoman gathered up the documents. She flattened them out one last time, placed each in a plastic sheet and placed each plastic sheet inside a folder, into which everything fit perfectly. She deposited the folder into the slot, which popped out on Rahima’s end.

She gestured for Rahima to pick them back up.

“Compliments of the immigration office. Treat those papers better, that’s your life.”

Rahima reached in, took the folder, and as soon as it was out of the slot, it snapped shut.

“Rahima Jašarević. Welcome to Aachen. You’ll get an entry pass on the way out.”

“I– everything is okay then?”

“Everything is okay.”

“T-Thank you.”

Rahima looked down at the folder in her hands. She could almost cry.

“I’ve got some advice for you, Rahima Jašarević.” Said the border guardswoman.

“Oh– that’s right– I wanted to ask about possible lodging.” Rahima said.

“I figured you would.” The woman said. “Listen– don’t go down to the Shimii block. It’s awful, they hate your kind. You’ll end up a thief or a whore with those lowlives. You can read and write, you’re polite, and you finished secondary school. You can get an Imbrian job. I know someone who can help. She’s part of the liberals here. She’ll get you a good job.”

Surreptitiously, the border guardswoman beckoned Rahima to come closer.

Rahima walked up as close to the shield as she could get.

On the woman’s desk, there was a card, with an address and a logo.

A figure with a dress, a woman, playing a flute. Rahima made out the address on the card and read a name: Concetta Lettiere. It was some kind of women’s organization– before Rahima could make out more of the text on the card, the guardswoman hid the card and gestured for her to move back again. Rahima repeated the address in her head.

“Did you get that? She can help you. Go there. Don’t go down to the Shimii.”

As much as Rahima felt that the border guardswoman was being horribly racist–

–the money and opportunities were all with the Imbrians anyway, not in a Shimii ghetto.

She might as well see what she could get out of this “Lettiere” woman.

Having processed Rahima, the border guardswoman opened a door between the booths.

Following this path, another woman handed Rahima a plastic pass card and led her out.

Past the immigration station, there was a long hallway that led to a different lobby.

In this one, there were signs pointing her to the path into the Aachen Core Station.

She was through– she was just another soul in the City of Currents.

There was so much that she had lost. But she still had her life.

And she might have lodging.

From Stockheim, Rahima took one of many small, frequently moving trams between the port structure and the core station. At no point did anyone ask for her card. She was still guarded, but gradually began to feel that there would not be anyone coming after her immigration status. Her clothes elicited some looks– everything was old and scuffed and ill fitting, with faded colors and fraying fabric. But she expected that. She could endure being stared at for being visibly poor. She sat in the tram, caught her breath, and she almost relaxed.

At the drop-off from the tram, Rahima found a tall panel with a three-dimensional map of the Aachen Core Station. The structure was cylindrical with both vertical tiers and concentric horizontal divisions. There was an outer ring structure connected by elevators that contained thousands of offices and apartments. The centermost ring had a novel layout, essentially a vertical mall wrapped around a central atrium spanning multiple floors, with the atrium space hosting floating trees, art installations, small parks and plazas, and other attractions depending on the floor, sometimes accessible, sometimes hovering out of reach.

Rahima followed a lit path from the trams. As she walked, the path expanded, until it fully opened into the landing at the base of the Core Station. Surrounded by people, Rahima raised her head to a ceiling higher than she had ever seen. A sweeping circular path connected platforms with restaurants and businesses encircling a glass shield containing the tall, brightly lit atrium. Suspended under the lights was a series of hanging ornaments in a variety of shapes, shimmering various colors and in turn coloring the landscape.

Rahima was stunned.

She had never seen anything so grandiose in her life.

A ceiling so high, and lights so bright.

Her destination would not take her further into those lights, however.

Judging by the map she had pulled up; she was headed for the outer ring.

Away from all the trendy shops and the colored lights and gold-rimmed glass.

But she lived here now, she had the card, she was a citizen. She would see it again.

From the base of the core station Rahima followed a hallway to the outer rings. This area was much the same as any other place she had lived in before. Grey and blue metal, white LEDs, no luster, just utilitarian pathways, boxy elevators, and doors separated from one another at consistent intervals, indicating each interior to be the same dimensions. She finally found the door she was looking for, distinguished from any other only by the number on its plaque.

She laid her hand on the panel under the plaque. Indicating she was waiting at the door.

Then the door slid open, and she heard a voice calling for her.

“Come in. No need to wait in the lobby, I don’t have anyone else today.”

A woman’s voice with the slightest hint of an accent Rahima could not place.

Rahima stepped through the door. There was a small lobby, just one long couch seat and a small screen playing upbeat jazzy tunes set to video of café ambiances. A second door had a plaque on it with the words ‘Feministiche Partei Rhinea’ and the logo of the woman with the flute, same as Rahima had seen on the business card. She did not know what to expect when she opened the door, and hesitated with her fingers drawing near the handle–

but the door opened, nonetheless.

Inside, there was a white room, with a table in the center, a digital whiteboard taking up much of the far wall, a few screens projecting from one of the near walls, and a small plastic desk. Sparsely decorated, meticulously tidy. There was a neat stack of cards on the desk much like the one Rahima saw at the immigration office, as well as a stack of synthetic shirts and banners. To Rahima, the goods looked like they had not moved for some time.

Behind the cheap, thin desk, there was a woman.

Working on something on a thin-panel monitor, using the surface of the desk as a touch keyboard and saving everything to a memory stick. She was shorter than Rahima, paler, with dazzling green eyes and a soft, almost girlish face. Her hair was white-blue, some collected into a ponytail, some framing her face. She was dressed professionally, grey-brown checkerboard vest, white button-down and tie, pencil skirt and heels.

And her sharp, long ears said even more than that: this woman was an elf, Rahima knew.

“Are you Concetta Lettiere?” Rahima asked.

For a moment the woman looked up from her desk and met Rahima’s eyes.

“It’s not pronounced like ‘conceited’ it’s pronounced like ‘conch’. But I would prefer you call me Conny. Everyone else does and it’s easier for anyone to say. Conny Lettiere.” She said.

“Sorry. Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m Rahima Jašarević. At immigration, a woman–”

Conny interrupted Rahima with the sound of her chair scraping across the floor.

She stood up from her desk and walked over to Rahima and stood near. Conny was almost a head shorter than Rahima, but her confidence movements gave her a strong presence.

“How long has it been since you ate?”

Rahima was too tired to demand she be allowed to speak without interruption.

“I had some bread this morning.” She said, without further elaboration.

“I’ll order us something and have it brought over. Do you have a place to stay?”

“No. I just arrived here today. Do you want to see my papers?”

“I don’t care about your papers, I’m not a cop. It’s fine. Right now, I’m more worried that you might drop at any moment. Are these your only clothes? Do you have any luggage?”

“Nothing but the clothes off my back. I’m really okay– I just need a place to stay.”

Rahima tried to say this, but as soon as she thought about it–

All her body ached. Mind turned to fog. She was hungry. Her mouth was parched.

Her lean, slightly lanky frame had gotten so much thinner since her journey began too.

Before she realized it, she was turning to skin and bones.

So focused on making it to Aachen she never cared in what condition she might arrive.

Conny urged her to sit down at one of the chairs near the table.

“You can stay here. I’ll pull out the futon from storage– I sleep in this office sometimes. Helps me brainstorm. You can stay until you can find your own place. Can you read and write? There are a few jobs you can do around here. I’ll pay you out of the party budget.”

Rahima was taken aback by Conny’s sudden energy. She was talking so fast.

Though she wanted to ask why Conny was so concerned, and why she was so kind–

What came out of her lips was, “what is ‘the party’?”

Conny wore a slightly proud smile as she responded. “The Rhinean Feminist Party. We advocate for the rights of women in Rhinea. We’re only local right now– a subsidiary of the Aachen Liberal Party. But I have huge ambitions! Right now, you’re a girl who needs help, so– some feminist I would be if I just threw you back out the door just like that.”

Despite Conny’s enthusiasm, Rahima understood very little of that through the fog.

It was as if the fear and tension built up over the weeks had been load-bearing for her body.

As soon as she sat, she felt like she would not be able to stand again as easily.

With a moment’s peace to think, the brutality of her struggle finally caught up to her.

“I’ll get you some food and a change of clothes. We’ll talk more when you’re cleaned up.”

Conny smiled, with a hand on Rahima’s shoulder. Rahima nodded weakly at her.

For whatever reason, for the first time in a long time–

Rahima felt like she might be safe.


After Descent, Year 979

“See? I had full confidence that you could walk out here on your own and easily.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s that easy, but I’m not tripping over.”

“You sound so down. Come on, it’s a new station. We’re on a mission! Out and about!”

You’re on a mission. I’m just coming along.”

“Not at all. I need you. They will relate better to you than to me.”

Homa felt so pathetic about it, but that ‘I need you’ reverberated in her mind for a while.

It was so exactly what she wanted to hear that it pissed her off.

“Whatever. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you.”

Kalika smiled at her. Her makeup, the sleek contours of her face– she was so pretty.

It was impossible for Homa to meet her gaze too directly for too long.

So instead, she turned her eyes on Aachen, laid grandly before her outside the entry lobby.

Never in her life had Homa seen a station interior so broad and ostentatious. Even the mall in Kreuzung had a ceiling closer to the ground than Aachen’s central structure.

There was an atrium so high up it was impossible to see the ceiling, and spiraling around it was a sweeping blue path with frequent stops next to platforms holding what seemed like shops, cafes, offices, and venues of that sort. What stunned Homa the most was that the central atrium structure was sealed off with glass and filled with water, so that the art installations floating inside a cylinder filled with sea water and stirred by machines forming artificial currents. Like bells or chimes, stirred by the water rushing past them, spiraling to the top as the pathway did– but instead of sound, they made color.

And so, it seemed that in front of Homa’s eyes there was a vortex of glass, water, and gems.

That dwarfed any given person crowding the paths that surrounded it.

“They change this every so often.” Kalika said. “Last I was here; it wasn’t full of water.”

“To create the stream, and to pump in the water, I wonder if they connected this to the sea.”

Kalika glanced at Homa. “Good point. I’ll write that down for later investigation.”

Homa averted her gaze again. “I was just saying stuff without thinking.”

“No, it’s a good observation Homa.” Kalika said. “Even if it doesn’t help us right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be useful. Reconnaissance is about gathering any information that might be important and letting HQ sort it out. Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Homa said. “But don’t regret it later if I start talking too much.”

After the Volksarmee arrived in Aachen on the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown, Kalika was given a mission to scout out the station for them. There would be other scouting parties going to different places where they might blend in better, and they would collate all their information through encrypted ZaChats each day. Kalika’s mission had a particular focus on the Shimii Wohnbezirk, a residential and business area that was largely if not exclusively populated by Shimii. Homa was given to understand that it was located beneath the core station cylinder and that while Aachen was not technically segregated, the Shimii Wohnbezirk was affordable to live in and had an established religious community so most Shimii chose to live down there. Kalika explained this during their last session of physical therapy– she would be going away for a while and find lodging in the Wohnbezirk.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye then?” Homa had asked.

Their last session was almost a formality. Homa proved she could walk without assistance.

She tried not to feel too downcast– after all, it was inevitable Kalika would–

“Not yet. I am taking you with me. I want you to pretend you’re looking for your family.”

“Huh?!”

Kalika smiled so sweetly and innocently as if she was not dragging Homa along by the arm.

Though Homa wanted to be dragged along she still acted as if she was complaining.

In her heart there was a mix of trepidation and excitement.

Excitement, because she was going on a trip into a station with Kalika, who was so cool, beautiful, classy and collected– she seemed like an inhabitant of an entirely different world that Homa should have never been able to access. The trepidation, while partly related to Kalika, was more related to their mission. Homa had never felt at home within Shimii communities, and it was a bit farcical to pretend that having her along would make the Shimii Wohnbezirk more accessible. Homa lived as a Shimii but hardly knew the culture.

If anything, she was worried she might screw everything up for Kalika by being there.

Homa had found that Shimii had extreme double standards. Their own people they would judge extremely harshly in all facets, but Imbrians were like an alien race that could go about their business with their only excuse being, “well, that’s how Imbrians are.” Homa never understood that mentality, and the expectations behind it were one of the few ways she felt like a Shimii despite being mixed race. She knew she was a Shimii because of the judgmental eyes on her when she walked by the masjid without attending, when the public prayer bells rang and she kept walking, when she showed up to shops with her Kreuzung passes, when she dressed up in Imbrian clothes. They treated her like they would a Shimii.

She had never been to Aachen but assumed Shimii were just as judgmental everywhere.

Nevertheless, she could not deny Kalika when she was ‘needed’. Homa followed along.

Dressed up in a simple brown coat provided by Kalika, and tough blue worker’s pants from the Brigand’s sailors, over the typical sleeveless button-downs the communists all had on. She finally got her work boots back and tied her dark hair up into a ponytail using the teal necktie instead of wearing it right. Her ears were groomed, her tiny tail fluffed up.

Like Kalika, she wore gloves now to hide her prosthetic.

Around her neck, she wore her good luck charm, the necklace with the piece of silica inside.

Every so often she continued her habit of grasping it gently.

But the beings inside it– the trees?– had not spoken to her again in some time.

“My, who is this handsome stranger? I feel so safe with her around.” Kalika teased.

“Shut up.” Homa said, but her heart soaked in the praise like a sponge filling with water.

Kalika was dressed in her usual attire, with her sword hidden in her bag as always.

Fancy jacket, silver, with see-through sleeves, classier than punk but edgier than formal; synthetic silk shirt, pencil skirt and black tights on her long legs; purple hair pulled up into ponytail framed by her rectangular horns, with tidy bangs covering her forehead; stark pink skin, wine-colored makeup. Shimii had a prevailing idea of Katarrans as being unrefined and monstrous, mostly the same as Imbrians thought of them– but to Homa, Kalika belonged on the cover of a magazine. The contours of her face were so sleek yet so soft-looking.

She was drop dead gorgeous.

“Are you thinking the same about me then, stranger?” Kalika said, winking.

“I wouldn’t call you handsome, I think.” Homa said, folding her ears.

She was, though– she was everything admiring that Homa could say.

Kalika was mystery and beauty and danger and sensuality, on a dazzling pair of legs.

And so, with Homa guarding her heart carefully and Kalika whistling casually, the two of them crossed from the Stockheim tram, into that stunning Aachen lobby, and finally into an elevator bank from which they were headed straight down through the crust of northern Eisental. While the central cylindrical block of Aachen was incredibly beautiful and colorful, this treatment did not extend to the utilitarian sidepaths and the elevators.

Everything outside that atrium and the surrounding mall was what Homa was already used to– cold metal lit by white and yellow LEDs. Like the rest of the world.

“It looks like Aachen has an offset reactor.” Kalika said, while the elevator descended. She laid a finger on a visual representation of the station and their elevator, which was descending into a wireframe box. “The Shimii Wohnbezirk is this box on the map, so the reactor must be this one just off to the side of it. Interesting. I wonder if the Shimii work in the reactor? It would be convenient, but Imbrians aren’t usually so trusting– not that it’s particularly kind of them to let Shimii breathe the salt and get pseudoburns.”

“Well, Shimii can get work in the Kreuzung reactor, if they have a pass and get lucky.”

“Lucky, huh? Well, if that hellhole Kreuzung allows it, Aachen might just allow it too.”

Homa meant ‘get lucky’ in a socioeconomic sense– reactor work paid very handsomely.

Reactor workers could more than make up in cash and benefits the years of life they lost.

Homa had never been brave enough to apply for a job like that, however.

Even at her most desperate, she did not want to trade an untimely demise for money.

When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, Homa stepped out into the light of bright white LED clusters hanging high on street-light poles. There was no illusion of a sky. Towering rock walls and a rough, cavernous ceiling surrounded and loomed over a main street with discrete plastic buildings on both sides. Homa got the impression of long alleyways and winding paths just from looking between some of the buildings. She saw an electronics shop peddling the type of portable Homa had once been given by a certain unsavory woman; restaurants and cafes; a Volwitz Foods affiliated grocer and a high-end sneaker shop side by side. As far as she could see, there was activity.

Homa was reminded of Tower Seven immediately.

A parallel world that Shimii did not need to leave with everything in it except whatever rights the Imbrians must have stripped away. In terms of the architecture the buildings were shaped for functionality, none exceeded two stories. Many did not even have a coat of paint and were weathered beige or an off-white, while others were painted in simple greens, yellows and browns. Homa felt more at home once she took a look at all the signage. There were no logos or promotional artwork that had human figures on them. Shimii religious beliefs frowned upon depicting people– so the logos predominantly boasted elaborate Fusha calligraphy and geometric patterns. For the Fusha signs, Homa could barely read many of the characters, but thankfully most had Low Imbrian signage with a translation too.

On the main street, it was all chain stores and affiliates of Imbrian megacorporations, but Homa could still pick out familiar scenes happening all around the LED-lit plastic. A caucus of aunties visiting a stylist; young men haggling with a pawn shop owner; older men with overgrown tail fur sipping tea at the café; kids running ahead of their mothers.

She was surprised to see a lot of flowing hair and ears up in the air, however. True, not all women, especially young women, heeded the scripture when it came to donning a hijab, but Homa had not seen a single traditional hijab anywhere, which she did find odd. Not even the aunties were wearing the traditional headgear. She did see some women with trendy-looking see-through veils attached to caps with pretty patterns on them– a not-uncommon way of modernizing the garb, but not an exclusive one. She wondered whether Aachen’s Shimii were more liberal than normal or whether there was something else. Even in Kreuzung she was used to seeing as many women wearing some kind of headgear than not.

“What do you think, Homa?” Kalika asked, smiling gently at the sights around her.

“I feel so weird being here.” Homa said. “It’s not that much different from Kreuzung.”

“You’re right– whether technical or not, this feels like segregation to me.” Kalika said.

“Well, I don’t know if you asked some of these folks, if they’d want to live with Imbrians.”

That did not make it right– but it was always the most complicated thing about Kreuzung.

Probably also at work here as much as Homa hated to have to think about it.

She was not the one equipped to solve this problem, only the one haunted by it.

“How about we take a look around? I’m not in any hurry.” Kalika asked.

“Lead the way, I’m just following you.”

“Alright. If you want any treats, we can stop somewhere. Don’t be shy.”

“Fine. I’ll let you know.” Homa sighed.

Kalika stepped ahead and Homa followed closely, but still allowing her to lead.

Following the main street, past the throngs of people and the rows of stores, they eventually came up a town square with a small park with a few olive trees growing with a minimal support system. Nothing but lights and irrigation. There was a three-story building with a waving flag that Homa had seen before, and which caused her heart to jump– a Volkisch black sun. Imani Hadzic had an armband with that same symbol. Kalika had noticed it too– she turned Homa around and led her down a side-street deeper into the alleys.

“Let’s go somewhere more– local.” She said.

Homa did not struggle– she did not care where they went.

So into the depths of the Wohnbezirk, the two went.

Kalika made idle chatter as they walked through the winding, intermittently lit paths.

“Homa, I’ve always had a certain curiosity.”

Homa frowned slightly. “A curiosity about–?”

“What does ‘Shimii’ mean?”

“Uh. I think it’s an ancient word for cat?”

Homa pulled gently on the upright, cat-like ears atop her head, by way of illustration.

“I see.” Kalika said. She looked like she was containing some amusement.

Homa let go of her ears, giving them a ponderous rub before doing so.

“I mean, I don’t know how all this happened, obviously. But cats are very admirable.”

Kalika nodded her head thoughtfully.

Rather than list the admirable qualities of cats, Homa delved thoughtlessly into conjecture.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if like– ancient ummah admired cats enough to become cat-like.”

“That is a very cute origin story.”

“Yeah, but– I’m just joking– obviously nobody believes something that silly.”

While the main street had been populated by chain stores, the parallel roads had a few locally owned businesses and a few small religious schools and some homes. The deeper they went through the side paths the less people they saw. But there was still local traffic everywhere they went even if it was only a few people or a small group. They saw a small theater playing new Imbrian movies; a butcher shop that had Homa staring for a few moments at the beef hanging on the window; and a pharmacy selling both Imbrian-affiliated medications and local naturopathic concoctions; among a variety of places with darkened windows and shut doors, where they had no idea whether anything was inside.

There were less streetlamps, so the side paths were gloomier than the main street.

None of the people walking past seemed to mind the span between lamps, however.

After some walking through nondescript blocks, they reached one of the girder-reinforced rock walls and found a map of the Wohnbezirk on an interactive panel. Kalika stopped and began poking on it. Judging by the map, there was not just one street or three– the layout was an entire town under Aachen with a few kilometers of space and several districts hewn into the rock. There was an entire residential district they had not even gone near.

And a small village off on a corner away from everything else.

“So many people, and I haven’t seen any Uhlankorp. I guess that’s convenient for us.”

“But is it convenient for the people here?” Homa said.

“I think so– do you think the Uhlans would administer fair justice here?”

“I guess not.” Homa sighed.

She had never lived anywhere that had ‘friendly’ police. She had grown up being taught to be respectful but to keep away and keep quiet; the implicit understanding that police wielded justice for Imbrians and not her– hell, maybe not even for Imbrians. Maybe only for themselves. Could not one single thing in the world be fair to everyone?

“We’ll do what we can to help Homa. Maybe not short term– but be patient with us.”

Kalika offered her a small smile while looking up directions in the map.

“Homa, I want to see some local color. Where would you go in this situation?”

She gazed back at Homa. Homa averted her eyes and shrank a little bit.

“It’s not like I have any experience with this. I guess I would want to go to people I know– if I just ended up here by myself I might go to a grocer or a barber or something. Places where you find young guys or aunties– those are the types that are always chatty. I wouldn’t bother with the chain stores in the main street or trying to go to the masjid for small talk.”

“Why don’t you pick a place and lead the way? We can start running our little scam.”

“Don’t call it that– someone might hear.”

Kalika’s ‘little scam’ was for Homa to ask about ‘her family’ like a pathetic lost child.

It was a valid idea for learning more about the town, but Homa did not like it.

She approached the map and saw there was a greengrocer a few blocks away.

Without saying anything she put her hands in her pockets and nodded for Kalika to follow.

Homa turned her eyes on the ground as if she did not want anyone to see them.

Walking casually on her prosthetic leg should have felt like a triumph.

But replicating the miserable, lonely walking she did in Kreuzung, trying to seem small and to draw no attention–

It was depressing. Even with Kalika alongside her it all felt so depressingly circular.

Every Shimii habitat in the Imbrium– was it all the same? Homa wandered in thought.

No sooner had they turned the corner, however, that Homa walked into someone.

She felt a shock the instant of the impact. How foolish could she be?

Especially for Kalika to have seen her–!

“Watch where you’re fucking going– oh, oh hey, who the fuck are you? Katarran?”

Homa’s heart sank as soon as she recovered and caught sight of who she had run into.

In front of them on the street was a group of four young men, all of them skinny-looking, maybe even younger than Homa by a year or three. The one Homa had walked into had a fiery look in his eyes, gesturing with his hands as if demanding an explanation (or compensation) be laid on his palms. The whole group was dressed in Imbrian fashions, with zip-up hooded jackets with see-through vynil sleeves and big black pants and colorful sneakers. Their tails were straight, and their ears were folded, and their body language was tense, coiled-up, ready to release. It was supposed to be forbidden for a good Shimii to imitate Imbrians too much, but to Homa, these boys were archetypical Imbrian hooligans. All they were missing was jewelry and a football game in which to hurl verbal abuse.

“What’s a Katarran doing down here? You gawking? Here to fuck with us?”

Homa glanced briefly at Kalika and saw her staring down the lead hooligan.

She was not saying anything in response to the provocation.

Did she want Homa to be the one to talk?

“Not gonna talk? Did you bring her here, you little punk? I don’t recognize you.”

With Kalika, the obvious discrepancy, keeping mum, the hooligan turned to Homa again.

“I’m not from around here! I’m just visiting! She’s– she escorted me here!” Homa said.

Kalika sighed openly.

“You’re here visiting? Here?” The hooligan looked at his friends who all had a laugh with him. “And you bought a Katarran?” He turned sharply back to Homa, reached out a hand and shoved her. “You ought to make a donation, then, you rich bitch– you ran right into me and scuffed my favorite jacket. Do you know how much I had to hustle for it? I can’t afford to travel all over like you. So, you should make a contribution to the less fortunate.”

“We’re not looking for trouble here. But if you touch her again, you’ll regret it.”

Kalika stepped forward.

Homa thought that would have been enough to get them to back off–

“Want some? Katarran bitch! Go back to the fucking vat you got shat out from!”

But a sense of invulnerability was a universal folly of young men, inculcated by a system designed to insulate them from any consequences. So even these boys, who had no concept of what they were messing with and nothing but the chip on their shoulder to strike with, still formed up in front of Kalika as if Katarrans were everyday targets of their fists. It was enough to unnerve Homa, but Kalika was unmoved in their presence.

Homa saw her fingers sliding over her bag.

None of the boys knew what was in there– but Homa feared what might come to pass.

So, she stepped forward even closer than Kalika, directly in front of the hooligans.

Not knowing what she could possibly say to sound intimidating–

She lost her opportunity and received an even more forceful shove than before.

Thrown back to be caught by Kalika.

Homa could practically feel the burgeoning anger in Kalika’s grip.

It punctuated her own helpless foolishness. She was shaking with frustration at herself–

Suddenly a new voice sounded across the street.

“Hey! Knock it off! Stooping to street harassment now, you lowlives?”

Hurried steps sounded behind them; then a dark-skinned girl appeared in front of them.

Homa saw long black hair, the glint of golden eyes, a brief glance of a fierce expression.

She interposed herself between Kalika, Homa and the boys, standing firm.

With one hand in her pocket of a brown jacket made of a thick fabric.

Despite the difference in numbers the boys seemed more hesitant to approach her.

They still had to posture like they could fight, but they were slowly beginning to back off.

“Where the hell did you come from? You need to get your ass back to the Quarter, bitch!”

“Fuck off! I’m not afraid of you! Why don’t you step up to me like you did to them?”

Not even the taunt could get any of the boys to reach out for a shove or throw a punch.

Surreptitiously they drew back even as they continued to shout.

“Mahdist bitches! We’ll kill you if we see any of you again!”

There was a note of desperation in that voice.

“Get out of here already!” The young woman shouted at them.

Hurling slurs and abuse, the boys ran from the scene, dispersed with surprising urgency.

Kalika lifted her hand from her bag. And the young woman took her hand out of her jacket.

While Homa composed herself, her chest fluttering with shame.

“Calling me a Mahdist like it’s a slur, the nerve of them.” The girl said, grunting.

She was someone who had to be around Homa’s age, not a child by any means and yet not experienced in the fullness of her adulthood. Her face and body Homa thought resembled her own, like someone who was young and unmarred by the world, but frequently worked with her hands. She had a stronger back and shoulders than Homa did, however. She looked visibly poor– Her jacket was well worn, with scuff marks and frayed edges and missing buttons, but very sturdy, worn over a blue blouse. She wore black pants that were ripped in places and thick boots. Her ears had messy fur and her tail had a few scars on it.

“Are you okay? They didn’t rob you or anything, did they?” She asked.

Homa was surprised at how dark her skin was, almost as dark as her long, sleek and shiny hair, flat down her back but grown unruly in the sides and front with a lot of bangs and stray wavy locks. Her eyes contrasted the flesh around them to an intense degree. She had a mix of familiar and interesting facial features; she had an oval face with thin lips, her eyes had a slight narrowness to them, her nose was very straight, her eyebrows were a bit thick.

The contemptuous expression that the handsome young lady had directed at the hooligans melted into a much gentler look of concern for Kalika and Homa.

“Thanks to your intercession, it did not get that far.” Kalika said.

“Yes. Thank you.” Homa said, still feeling like too much of an idiot to say much more.

The girl put her hand on her own chest as a gesture of greeting.

“I’m Sareh. I hope those guys won’t leave you with a bad impression of us.”

“Not at all.” Kalika said, smiling. “I’m Kalika, this is Homa. Trust me, we’ve seen worse.”

Homa waved half-heartedly, still keeping mum.

“I appreciate you not putting them in the dirt. They’re just a bunch of morons.” Sareh said.

Homa thought Sareh must have known a thing or two about Katarrans to have judged that.

If she was hiding a gun in her jacket, then she wasn’t oblivious to this sort of scenario.

She might have interceded on behalf of those boys as much as she did to stop them.

“Usually when Shimii immigrate here, there will be an introduction by their family at the Rashidun masjid on the other side of town– or they get sent straight to the Mahdist quarter.” Sareh said, directed primarily at Homa. “It is odd for Shimii to just visit; especially with a Katarran. Tourists stick to the main street to buy trendy stuff. Back here, it’s all locals. So that’s why it looks kind of weird for you two to be wandering around these streets.”

“I’m–” Homa felt ashamed lying to Sareh, who seemed genuinely friendly to outsiders like them. But it was necessary. “I’m not immigrating. I’m looking for my family– when I was a kid I was sent to Kreuzung by myself. My surname is– Messhud. Homa Messhud.”

She picked surname that read as Mahdist since Sareh had been called a Mahdist. But she also picked an uncommon one and pronounced it quite strangely, in the hopes no locals had it.

“Huh. Well, I don’t know everyone here, but I know someone who might be able to help.”

Sareh pointed in a direction where the rock ceiling lowered, and the walls narrowed.

“Over that way is the Mahdist quarter. I can take you to my part– my friend, there.”

Kalika seemed to pick up on her correcting herself. Mild amusement crept into her smile.

Homa looked back to Kalika as if for permission. Kalika nodded her head.

And thus, fortune led them ever deeper into the Wohnbezirk– to a Mahdist ghetto.


After Descent, Year 961

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima, and I am calling on behalf of the Rhinean Feminist Party. Do you need assistance registering to vote or accessing your local polling office to exercise your right to vote? We would be happy to assist you, free of charge.”

Another call sent to voice-email. Rahima tapped on her keyboard to end the call.

She had a headset to make calls to people’s rooms notifiying them of upcoming elections.

Hands on the keyboard, headset always ready, a list of room addresses to call up.

She could go through a dozen rooms quickly– if nobody picked up.

When someone picked up, Rahima felt much more nervous than leaving voicemails.

Guten morgen, my name is Rahima,”

Since she had immigrated a few years ago, Rahima had been doing much better for herself.

Her hair had grown out, richly brown, and her cheeks had filled again. Her arms and legs were no longer so skinny and her back had broadened a bit. She had new clothes, Imbrian business attire; a vest, shirt, a blazer and pants. Her skin, which had been turning pale and yellowing with neglect and sickness, had returned to its light brown richness. All of this thanks to her new income. She was the workhorse of the Rhinean Feminist Party, carrying boxes of logo-branded goods to and fro, fixing things around the office that Conny did not want to bend down or climb up a ladder for, picking up lunch, and now, making calls.

Guten morgen,”

At first there was not much to do around the office but menial manual labor.

Even so, Conny hardly wanted to do it, and so happily paid for it to be done.

Now, however, there was a buzz of excitement.

Emperor Konstantin von Fueller had made a historic decree. The Imperial monarchy and its offices would no longer contradict local decision-making in the duchies provided it was done through legally approved means. This was being referred to as ‘the Emperor’s retreat from politics.’ Law enforcement between the territories would continue to be carried out by the Inquisition, Patrol and Imperial Navy, but each Duchy could control its economy and social policies without intervention. For territories like Veka with an authoritative duchal family, little would change. For Rhinea, however, this was a moment of great opportunity.

Rhinea’s duchy had long since relinquished decisionmaking power to generations of the noveau rich who had then formalized that power in the Rhinean Reichstag.

Now the Reichstag would have more weight than ever as Rhinea’s policy-making body. Established parties like the Liberals and Conservatives attracted real corporate investment, as it became clear they could be a nexus for further reform of the economy to suit some interest or another; and even niche parties like the Rhinean Feminist Party now had opportunities to grow. The All-Rhinea stage was still barred from them, but if they could make a strong showing in Aachen’s local politics, they might turn their fortunes.

Right now, they were under the Rhinean Liberals, but they could grow, attract members.

With greater membership, they could run on their own ticket for council and executive.

And with any amount of victories in a real ticket, they might then attract real investment.

Therefore, Conny had Rahima making phone calls down the entire room registry.

Rahima kept making calls, running through the script, trying her best when picked up.

Until she felt a gentle squeezing from a pair of hands on her shoulders.

“You’re working hard. Want to get lunch together?” Conny Lettiere said.

“I’ll never say no to lunch. Your treat?” Rahima said.

“My treat.” Conny said. Rahima could feel her smile even without looking at her.

When she turned around to look at her, she immediately thought–

Conny looked gorgeous.

Wearing a cardigan that had a pattern of thicker and sheerer material across its surface and bits that hung from the hem and the end of the sleeves, over a plastic tanktop with a deep cleavage plunge that cut off mid-belly, both quite provocative. Bell-bottomed pants and open-toed shoes gave her such a bohemian look, and her hair being collected into twintails added to the almost girlish style. Colorful, full of youthful vibrancy.

Rahima could have never dressed like that.

Conny had the energy to be more frivolous because she had Rahima to be serious for her.

“Is it the outfit, or is it me?” Conny said, grinning at Rahima.

“It’s both.” Rahima said, smiling as she stood up.

If only she had Conny’s courage– but that was something she could work on.

They relocated from the office to the central ring of the Aachen Core Station, following the spiraling walkway around the central atrium and its bright decorations. They stopped off at a platform three stories high and sat in a corner table of a small restaurant that served homestyle Imbrian fare. It was a small, homey venue, little more than a serving desk, an unseen kitchen, and six tables with four chairs. Very few people took up the very few seats in the establishment. Most of the people on the lunch rush picked up their meal from the counter and walked back out, headed back to their offices or workplaces.

Conny ordered cheese-stuffed dumplings served in a meat and tomato sauce.

“You know, this is based on the Elven dish ‘Ravioli.’ It’s an Imbrian take on it.”

“You don’t say?”

Rahima, meanwhile, ordered a pickled cucumber soup with a simple dinner roll. The soup had a base of chicken broth full of earthy vegetables, flavored with pickle brine, and topped with a dollop of cream and a big mound of grated pickled cucumbers and peppers. Rahima mixed everything together, broke off pieces of bread and dipped it into the unctuous soup. It was rich and tangy; it warmed her heart; it was just what she needed to soothe her throat after hours of talking. Even something this simple felt luxurious– especially with Conny.

“Rahima, do you go down to the Wohnbezirk often?” Conny asked.

She meant the Shimii town in the rock under the Aachen core baseplate.

“I’ve been visiting more often since I got the apartment. Easier to do now that I don’t have to worry about someone seeing me going back and forth from the office.” Rahima replied.

“Do you go to the religious festivals? I don’t see you praying often.”

Conny took a bite of her dumpling, and Rahima could have sworn her sharp ears wiggled.

“It’s a bit tough for me Conny.” Rahima said. “I’m a Mahdist so if I want to go celebrate I have to go into the Mahdist ghetto– and then the Rashidun in the town will know about it.”

“Will that put you in danger?”

“I don’t know. It’s just another thing that could be a problem. Common prejudices.”

“I see. That’s so unfair. But I don’t want you to be overly concerned with appearances.”

“No, it’s better this way. We need to be careful about things like that, Conny.”

“Rahima, I might not know the cultural nuances that resulted in the Shimii’s troubles. But what we have going for us at the Rhinean Feminist Party is that we stand for radical politics! I want this to be a place where you can dream of a better world! You should never have to hide what you are or believe in here. I want women to be equal to men in the Imbrium, to end forced marriages, to get equal wages, to make workplaces safer; so, what are your dreams, Rahima? What can we do for the Shimii, and especially for Shimii women?”

After a long contemplation over the pickles in her soup, Rahima finally answered.

“I want to end the hijab ban; and to decouple Shimii suffrage from residency.” She said.

Her voice was a bit meek, as if there was a secret sin to saying such things.

Conny smiled brightly. “That’s what you’ll stand for then! We’ll fight for it together!”

She reached across the table and laid her hand over Rahima’s own, firm and supportive.

Rahima had never thought it about so closely before– it almost made no sense to her that she might be on the ticket for the Rhinea Feminist Party. They had few members, so if they wanted to run someone other than Conny, she had to be on the ticket. But she had an unexamined idea that only Imbrians got to be in the government, and a Shimii like her, a Mahdist even, could not have possibly been put on the ticket. Perhaps even the first time she saw her, Conny’s unspoken radicalism had already imagined Rahima on that ticket.

“I’m kind of nervous about this, Conny, if I’m being honest.” Rahima said.

“Don’t be. I’ll coach you. You’ve already got an advantage– you dress more formally!”

Conny reached out and rubbed her fingers over a bit of Rahima’s blazer, laughing.

Rahima laughed with her. Her heart was racing, but she felt strangely positive.

It would be nice to give the Imbrians a black eye in their own game.


After Descent, Year 979

“Kalika, I have a curiosity.” Homa said.

As she spoke she mimed Kalika’s earlier tone a bit, with a hint of mockery.

“Ask away, dear.” Kalika said, clearly ignoring Homa’s taunting.

Homa’s eyes narrowed a bit when Kalika did not take the bait.

“What does ‘Katarran’ mean?” She said.

“It means ‘the damned’ or ‘the ones born cursed’.” Kalika said casually.

Homa quieted down for the rest of the walk. She had not expected something so dark.

“Almost there,” Sareh said, looking back at them as she led the way, “can you tell?”

On the northern end of the Shimii Wohnbezirk the cavernous ceiling descended closer and there was an area where the walls tightened. For a stretch, there were more exposures of the rock wall, less buildings and other structures to cover it up. There were more boarded-up, old and empty buildings too. Some had signs indicating they were for sale or rent but many, many more were just shuttered as if permanently abandoned. The road under their feet roughened slightly, it was less paved down, and even the air felt a bit thinner.

Eventually Homa could see the square entryway to another area up ahead.

“Shit.” Sareh said. “Our oxygen generator must be going again. Ugh, this sucks!”

“That’s not good.” Kalika said. “But hey, maybe we can help each other out.”

“Do you really mean that? I am not sure what you could do.” Sareh said.

“We’ll talk when we meet your friend, but try to trust me and keep an open mind.”

“Well, alright. We’re basically there. Our own dusty little corner.” Sareh said.

Homa could see it too. As soon as she caught her first glimpses of the village–

Her fist closed and shook with an impotent rage.

They crossed under an archway with an open gate that had a few bars broken on its doors. Here the ceiling was close enough to form something of a short tunnel, but then it opened back up into a little village. It was much more haphazardly planned than the main street of the Wohnbezirk. There were less streetlights, and only one short street that seemed to terminate on a double-wide building being used as a masjid. However, behind the masjid, and behind each house on the one street, there were more buildings set up, like a haphazard little village arrayed from the masjid as one of its central features.

There were a few dozen people hanging out in this little main street. They were like Shimii were everywhere– they dressed as nicely as they could, they had lively conversation, their ears were standing, their tails swaying. Homa noticed a few more frayed and discolored items of clothing here and there. There was also nowhere for them to go. This village was much smaller than the rest of the Wohnbezirk but there were a lot of people in it.

All of the buildings were plastic, but shabbier ones, less maintained. Rather than paint, many of them had pieces of patterned fabric for decorations. Just like the rest of the Wohnbezirk, there were shops here, but very few. There were no restaurants either. Homa saw a cobbler, a stylist, and a clothing atelier. All had very lively crowds like they were bright little local hangouts. There might have been more. But the streets looked mostly residential.

Other than the masjid, what drew Homa’s attention the most was a small clearing to the right a few dozen meters from the entrance gate. On this clearing, a plastic stage was in the final stages of assembly, with chairs around it, and a curtain that could open and close around it with poles and pulleys and carbon cable. It was sturdy and relatively new, the color of the plastic looking much fresher than that of the plastic in the surrounding houses.

In the back of the stage there was a square structure erected which resembled a small building facade, the size of an adult human being, with numerous arched entryways and a sweeping upper rim. Colored gold and red with blue patterning, its the spires dome-like and green, it was perhaps the most inventive little thing in the whole Wohnbezirk, nicer looking than any of the real houses. Homa wondered what monument it was supposed to be a replica of, since Shimii never built structures like this nowadays. Perhaps it was supposed to be a palace, maybe of one of the ancient kings, or maybe it related to the Mahdi.

“It’s a Tazia.” Sareh explained. She must have caught Homa staring at it. “We’re preparing for the Tishtar festival– it’s a yearly celebration we have around here. On Tishtar we recall the heroism of Ali Ibn al-Wahran, blessed be he, who opened the ocean for the Shimii. We build a replica of the mausoleum that his companions built. It’s not actually anyone’s grave though– the great hero al-Wahran is not really dead. Tradition stuff, you know? It’s kind of a hero festival, kind of a water festival, kind of a folk– well if you join us, you’ll see what I mean.” Her tone grew a bit awkward as if she either did not know how to explain it well.

Homa suddenly froze up upon hearing the name of the blessed old Hero, however.

She recalled a dream in which a red-headed demon of a woman spoke that name to her.

“I recognize your kind. You are of his flesh. What was his name? Hmm. Oh yes.”

Ali Ibn al-Wahran.

What had she meant– when she said Homa was– of his flesh–?

Was it just because she was a Shimii–? Or was she– a Mahdist–?

“I’ve– I’ve never heard of him I think. I’m sorry.” Homa said, suddenly nervous.

“Huh? Really?” Sareh said, staring at Homa with curious surprise. “You don’t know? He’s like, the most important of the ancient kings. For Mahdists, we are also taught he is the Mahdi, a great hero who will return to us. I guess you must not be a mahdist– but I mean that’s okay! We don’t judge anyone here as long as they don’t judge us. So don’t stress out over it.”

Sareh continued to act a bit awkward around the subject of her religion and its rites.

Kalika continued to smile neutrally, her expression collected as Homa and Sareh spoke.

“Ah, thanks. It’s okay. I’m– I’m non-denominational–” Homa stammered as awkwardly.

It was just a stupid dream– she shouldn’t take it so seriously–

But–

didn’t the trees sing to her,

and the red-haired woman awaken the colors–?

wait, what colors?

“I’d love to stick around for the festival. Wouldn’t you Homa?” Kalika said suddenly.

Homa jerked her head to look at Kalika, eyes drawn open. “Uh. I mean. Sure! I’ll stay.”

Kalika must have had some plan to make use of the Mahdists here to her advantage.

Or– maybe she just wanted to help them.

She and the Volksarmee were a bunch of communist weirdos after all.

Homa did not know if she considered herself one, but she was still just following Kalika.

So she had little choice but to do as the communists did.

And also–

When she looked around this tucked-away piece of the Shimii world, cast into obscurity–

She felt angry. And there was no good outlet for that anger.

So perhaps she should help. It could be educational as well.

Without a family, Homa had never been afforded much of her religion.

Leija certainly never cared to teach her anything, except vague prejudices against Mahdists.

For all she knew she really could have been a Mahdist just like them.

“Alright! The more the merrier!” Sareh smiled at them. “Then let me introduce you to the lady organizing things. She happens to be the friend of mine I told you about. We can talk with her about getting you two into the festivities– and maybe other business.”

Kalika nodded, smiled, and followed behind Sareh.

She glanced at Homa and winked at her.

Homa blinked, confused, but followed along. Kalika was definitely plotting something.

Hopefully something good and kind– and not too troublesome.

Sareh led them to the masjid, and then around an exterior walkway. Behind the masjid there was a solitary old olive tree, living with an oxygen controller grafted onto its trunk, and a path of flattened out rock that led to a small plastic house next to one of the few light poles that were installed in the village. There was enough empty space between this house and the rest of the village that it felt more a part of the masjid than part of the residences.

Sareh pointed it out as their destination.

“Baran! Are you home? I’m back from town! I’ve brought some visitors too!” Sareh called.

“Welcome back! Yes, you can come in! I’ll be happy to welcome them.”

Homa had not known what to expect, but the voice greeting them sounded pretty young.

Sareh waved her hand toward herself, inviting the guests in.

Rather than a door, the house had a curtain over its entry similar to ones on its windows.

Sareh pushed away the blue and green curtain. Beyond the entry, there was one room that contained almost all the acoutrements of living. There were a few plastic chairs around a little table, in one corner. On one wall, there was a screen with a cable snaking out of one of the windows. Plastic buildings did not have built-in computers and projection monitors, like the metal rooms in the station. Another corner was taken up by an electric pot and kettle stood up on a small refrigerator, their cords snaking into the wall.

Finally, there was a set of plastic shelves that held cutlery, bowls, cups, and a variety of little knick-knacks. There were dolls of Shimii girls, with colorful dresses, and a little resin horse, and a cup and ball game– kid’s toys and handicrafts. While the horse was stitcher-machined, the rest looked a bit rougher and might have been hand-made, Homa thought.

At the end of the room there was another curtain. Out from it stepped their host.

Her bedroom must have been behind there. Homa did not see a bed anywhere else.

“It’s so nice to have visitors! Not many people come by here. Introduce me, Sareh!”

“This is my– friend, Baran Al-Masshad.” Sareh said.

She looked to have been reaching for words for a second.

Baran giggled and put her hand to her chest by way of greeting.

“As-Salamu Alaykum.”

Her voice was quite lovely– Sareh seemed momentarily stricken by it and averted her eyes.

In general, Baran might have been the prettiest girl Homa had seen in a very long time.

She looked about Sareh’s age and therefore, Homa’s age. Unlike Sareh, who dressed in utilitarian Imbrian clothing usually typified as boyish, Baran wore a long blouse and skirt. Her eyes were deeply green and her skin a light honey-brown, with bigger eyes and slightly softer cheeks than Sareh. Her hair was worn long, and it had a very light reddish-brown tone. Like the other religious women Homa had seen in Aachen she did not wear a hijab but instead wore a see-through veil with a small cap. Hers was blue with little moon patterns on it, through which tall, fluffy ears poked. Her tail was a bit skinny, but as far as her figure, she had more than Sareh or Homa. She thankfully looked like she got to eat regularly.

After seeing the state of the buildings, Homa had been worried there might be starvation.

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Al-Masshad.” Kalika said. “I’m Kalika Loukia.”

She put a hand to her chest as she had seen Sareh and Baran do.

“Um. Salam. I’m Homa– Messhud. Homa Messhud. It’s– it’s nice to meet you two.”

Homa also put her hand to her chest. She was feeling rather awkward with her cover story.

“Oh, my whole name is Sareh Al-Farisi.” Sareh said, after receiving a little look from Baran.

“It is a pleasure to meet all of you.” Baran said. “Please just call me Baran.”

“I hope our unannounced appearance won’t trouble you, Baran.” Kalika said.

“Not at all. I was just resting. It might be my imagination, but the air is feeling thinner.”

“It is thinner. I think the air generator must be busted again.” Sareh said, sighing.

“I truly hope not– nevertheless, we can check on it after we have treated our guests.”

Baran gestured for Kalika and Homa to sit and then approached the electric pot.

Cracking the lid open, steam rising up, filling the room with a savory aroma; Baran scooped up steaming pulao rice into two bowls and passed them to Sareh, who in turn passed them to Homa and Kalika. From the kettle, she poured two cups of lukewarm tea. Homa looked down at the bowl of rice, eager to spot some chicken or beef within– instead finding only raisins and onions. While the aroma was incredible she could not help but feel disappointed.

Kalika looked down at the contents of her bowl, mixing things up further with a fork.

“We should accept it.” Homa whispered. “Turning down food from a Shimii is very rude.”

“I figured.” Kalika whispered back. “I was getting a bit peckish anyway.”

Baran handed Sareh her own bowl and cup and served herself as well.

Together, they all sat down on Baran’s table, with Kalika setting down her bag beside her.

“I’m afraid I am out of yogurt and sabzi, or I would offer you some.” Baran said.

“This is fantastic on its own. We can’t thank you enough for your hospitality.” Kalika said.

Homa nodded her head, trying to hide her wan expression at her continuing lack of meat.

“Baran, if you’re out of something, you should have told me!” Sareh said.

Baran shook her head. “I’m being thrifty now so we can spend more on the feast.”

“You shouldn’t have to do that.” Sareh grumbled but seemed to give up the argument then.

Homa looked at Kalika. While she ate, she was clearly observing Baran and Sareh.

She hoped dearly Kalika was not going to cause them any trouble.

All the communists she had met had been nice to her– but Kalika was “on a mission,” now.

Would she behave any differently? Would she try to take advantage of these people?

Helpless to do anything about it, Homa took her first spoonful of pulao into her mouth.

Her ears stood on end as the smooth, deeply savory flavor coated her mouth. Pops of tart sweetness from the raisins, and the crunchy red onions, lended the dish some complexity. The rice itself had a bit of cumin and Shimii pepper, maybe– but the real mystery was the deeply savory, velvety mouthfeel that came with each spoonful of rice, and the meaty flavor that it carried. Her mouth was slick with thekind of flavor she had been craving.

Baran saw the expression on Homa’s face and smiled proudly. Sareh stared at her in turn.

“Want to know the secret, Homa? Rendered down chicken trimmings and bones!” Baran smiled like she had been clever. Sareh looked at her as if with mild embarassment. Heedless of this, Baran continued. “It’s the cheapest stuff from the butchers out in the town. I can make my own chicken oil and stock with it, and have my meat that way!”

A proud, smug little smile remained fixed on Baran’s face while her guests ate.

Homa savored the rice like it was the last time she might ever taste any meat.

“And before someone comments on the state of my pantry again, I am saving up so there will be meat on Tishtar. You are welcome to partake if you’d like to attend.” Baran said.

She looked at Sareh with a self-satisfied little face. Sareh looked back, exasperated.

Homa felt rather ashamed of how much this made the festival more attractive to her.

But not enough to reject the idea of showing up for the feast outright.

“As you can see, this is the sort of character our village chief is.” Sareh replied, grinning.

“Now, what is that supposed to mean? Good with budgeting? A genius chef?” Baran said.

Sareh shrugged and did not pick any of the available options.

“Oh interesting, she’s the chief? I thought she was just putting on the festival.” Kalika said.

“I don’t consider myself important.” Baran said. “The Imbrians are the ones who have true power over the Wohnbezirk. But my father and his family were very respected within this community. When my father passed away, the villagers wanted me to take up his hereditary titles. I just help around town and I consider the title purely ceremonial.”

“Is it because of the Imbrians that this place is so run-down?” Homa asked.

Kalika shot her a glance as if surprised. Homa realized she was being too blunt.

Sareh shot her a look too– but Baran was not offended. She began to explain.

“They are not solely responsible. However, they could fix things if they wanted to, and they do not. So that is a form of responsibility they must be criticized for.” Baran said. She put down her cup of tea and put her hands on her lap. “I’m sure you know, Homa, that there is a lot of bad blood between Mahdist Shimii and Rashidun Shimii. I don’t know the entire history of the Wohnbezirk, but it’s been segregated for as long as I have lived here. There are harsh rules imposed on us. For example, we are not allowed to grow food, we can only buy it in town. We also need to get any materials we use from the Shimii economy. Rashidun Shimii won’t offer us any charity, nor prefer us for anything. Sometimes, people will be upset if we try to buy too much or buy things that are scarce. Sometimes the Imbrians help us, but we are in essence responsible for everything here by ourselves. But despite that we–”

Here, Sareh suddenly interrupted. “Don’t mince words. Look, the problem is, this is a town of mostly women, children and old people. We risk being harassed every time we try to leave so only some of us go out infrequently. Very few people here earn outside incomes and we have limited imports; some families get remittances from kids who got work in the Core Station, and we have some aunties here who do clothes and shoes, but they are basically all trading the same reichmarks around. These conditions are supposed to put pressure on us– they want us to renounce our culture and become Rashidun and move into town to kill the village. All of the shiftless piece of shit men here left because of that–”

“Sareh, please, that’s enough.” Baran interrupted. Homa picked up a note of desperation.

Sareh stood up from her chair and left the table suddenly. Baran sighed as she watched her.

Homa raised her hands as if she wanted to stop her or apologize but could not speak out.

She sat back down on her chair feeling defeated. Kalika remained silent and calm.

After a minute’s silence Baran turned to their guests and tried to smile again.

“I’m sorry about that.” She said. “Politics and religion should not be off the table; we just need to be able to speak about them politely. That’s what my father always taught me. So please do not feel responsible for what just happened. Sareh is extremely dear to me; and I know I am dear to her. She just needs to cool off and we will rejoin her then.”

“Um. Right. Thank you.” Homa said, nervously.

“I’m glad Sareh is that tough– she seems like she needs to be that way around here.” Kalika said. She had finished her bowl and tea. “I feel like I’ve seen enough so I will be forward. Baran, Homa and I can help you. We want to stay for the festival. Homa has some money– she’s looking for her family here. Right Homa? And I’m a Katarran mercenary.”

Kalika looked over to Homa with a casual and untroubled smile.

Homa straightened up in her chair and put her hands on the table, stiffly.

“Yes. That– That’s all completely true.” She said.

“Then– you will help us with the festival, so Homa can search for her family here?”

“That’s what I’m thinking.” Kalika said.

“I would be happy to help– but there’s a lot to do for the festival. It’s an unequal trade.”

“Homa’s family means a lot to her.” Kalika said, glancing at Homa again.

Homa stiffed up more. “Uh. Yeah. I’m– I’m a real family cat.” She wiggled her ears a bit.

“You said your surname is Messhud?” Baran asked. “I was thinking– it could be a weird way of saying my surname, Al-Masshad– or maybe I just don’t know everyone around here. Surely some of the aunties would know more. I can ask them. Would that be okay, Homa?”

For a moment Homa felt extremely stupid about how close her hastily chosen fake surname came to being Baran’s actual surname. Had she tacked on an ‘al’ prefix there she would have been cooked. Somehow, the close call felt more embarassing than being completely caught in an outright lie, and Homa was growing to hate the entire situation.

She began evaluating everything she wanted to say to the very simple question of whether she was okay, running it by an intense committee in her own brain. The result of this was that for close to thirty seconds she was saying absolutely nothing to Baran.

“She’s shy– hasn’t gotten around much.” Kalika kept smiling. “Please do ask around.”

Baran looked at Homa for a moment and then smiled more warmly at her.

“No need to be shy– it means so much to me that you want to help us.” Baran said.

“I am actually a communist. If I ignored all this, I’d bring shame on myself.” Kalika said.

THIS WOMAN–!?

Homa’s ears and tail both shot up as straight as they could go.

She shot Kalika a glance from the edge of her eyesockets, without moving her head.

Trying with all of her body to say WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!

Without in fact saying a single word or even making so much as a noise.

“That’s so interesting. You might like to talk to the NGO people then.” Baran said happily.

Homa shot a glance at Baran. She felt like she was in an alternate universe suddenly.

Wasn’t she going to inform on them to the Volkisch? She just heard the c-word out loud!

Kalika continued to look and act as if nothing odd or auspicious was happening.

Did she just tell everyone she met she was a communist?! Did she want to die?

“Maybe I will. Homa and I have no prejudice towards anyone anyone except evildoers.”

“Right.” Homa finally said. “We– we hate those. Because of– communism?”

“Yep. Honest truth to Allah, Subhanahu wa-Ta’ala.” Kalika said in suddenly perfect fusha.

Homa felt more ridiculous than she had since the last time she felt utterly ridiculous.

Such moments seemed to transpire with increasing frequency.

Mashallah! It is the first time I’ve ever set a table for communists, and also communists who know of our religion too. I’ll always remember this day.” Baran said excitedly.

Perhaps Baran was just more innocent than Homa would let herself believe.

Or maybe she did not really know what a communist was.

“If you don’t mind, I would like to take a look at the oxygen generator.” Kalika said.

“Oh, yes! Follow me. I am hoping it’s not actually broken.” Baran said.

“I’m handy with things like that.”

“Sareh is too. She’s quite reliable. Maybe she already scouted it out?”

With their course decided, the trio stepped outside of Baran’s house.

They immediately found Sareh with her back to one of Baran’s walls, waiting for them.

Her arms crossed, her head down, and a wan expression on her face.

“Feeling better?” Baran asked gently, stepping in front of Sareh and beaming.

Sareh averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for yelling. You don’t deserve that.”

“Maybe not– but I earned it, and I accept responsibility. I’ll always forgive you, Sareh.”

They briefly held hands, perhaps cognizant of their guests reading too much into it.

Homa had pretty much already deduced those two were something or other together.

Perhaps they might have only seemed like friends to someone with less life experience.

If the concept of homosexuality had already burrowed into one’s brain, it was easy to see.

Homa herself was a complicated girl with complicated feelings so she understood.

And it would have been quite a sight for Kalika of all people to be homophobic.

Not that anyone here knew that– of course they would not trust them on appearances alone.

Together, Sareh and Baran led Homa and Kalika from the house behind the masjid, off the paths wound around houses, and closer to the undeveloped, rocky surroundings of the village. They followed a series of exposed ventilation tubes that ran into the village. Near to the rock wall, they found a metal plate with a machine in a square housing that served as the epicenter of all the tubes they had been following. There were several bolted plates that could be removed and reaffixed and a few gauges that seemed to be stuck.

“This generator doesn’t actually generate oxygen, but it pumps it from an oxygen plant in the Wohnbezirk and out to the rest of the village.” Sareh said. “We just call it the oyxgen generator because its easier to say. We used to have some CO2 converters in the village but most of them broke, so this thing has been working harder than ever as our main source of oxygen. Then it breaks down every once in a while and gives us all a headache.”

“We’ve tried to have someone fix everything in the village, but there’s always a problem.” Baran said. “When we ask for major repairs from the Wohnbezirk, they say they have to special order parts because of our outdated systems, so little fixes are all they can do. In the past I sent mail to Councilwoman Rahima, who is a very kind Shimii politician in the core station, and she helped speed things up; but I don’t want to bother her too much.”

“If it’s just a pump, I don’t see how their complaints could hold water.” Kalika said.

“You have a good point there.” Sareh said. “Sometimes I just kick it and it works again.”

“Sareh, please stop kicking things. They need to be fixed properly.” Baran said.

“Hey! I do that too sometimes. I just barely ever have parts or tools.” Sareh complained.

Kalika kneeled down near the machine. She put her ear to it. Her brows furrowed.

“I don’t even hear it doing anything.” She said. She opened an accessible panel on one side that had a handle– it was the door to the circuit box, Homa thought.

Homa walked around with Kalika and peeked at several different parts of the machine. She did not know a lot about electrical circuits, but she agreed with Kalika that a machine that pumps oxygen should not be too hard too fix. Even the circuits or the sensors that determined the oxygen level should not have needed special order parts.

“None of the junction box LEDs are on. This doesn’t look too good.” Kalika said.

Baran sighed and raised one hand to her forehead, and Sareh closed her fists, agitated.

“It’s fine. I’ve got some Katarran friends who are handy with this kind of thing.”

Kalika stood back up, wiping dust and rock fragments from her knees and coat.

“You would really do that for us?” Sareh said. She looked at Kalika with narrowed eyes.

“Yes. It would in fact cost me almost nothing.” Kalika said. “I’ll get a friend down here to run a diagnostic, and then I’ll get a friend to find the right part, and then I’ll find a friend to go get the part I’ve got a lot of friends, and it pays to have them.” She winked at them.

Homa thought she knew who some of those friends might be.

She had heard Kalika mention that Olga, the bodyguard of Erika Kairos, could locate any object if she saw it once. There was also the chirpy and energetic Khloe Kuri, another of the Rostock’s special agents, who was allegedly good at sneaking around and stealing things. And as far as fixing things, the Brigand had no shortage of engineers and mechanics around– so in terms of friends they were well positioned to solve this particular problem.

“It’s not your responsibility, Ms. Loukia.” Baran said, shaking her head.

“Just call me Kalika. And like I said, I am not able to ignore something like this.”

“Because of your beliefs?” Baran said.

“Because it’s the decent thing to do. Because I refuse to ignore your pain. Is that enough?”

“Forgive my skepticism. It feels too good to be true.” Sareh had a conflicted expression.

Baran seemed to appraise Kalika and after looking her over finally accepted her assistance.

“It’s alright, Sareh. Kalika is a communist. I think she’s sincere.” She said.

“Huh? Oh– you mean like the NGO people. I guess that makes sense then.”

Homa stared, incredulous. What kind of NGOs did they have around here?

Sareh still seemed to be having trouble believing Kalika, but her body language relaxed.

Kalika patted her hand on the chassis of the oxygen generator with a big grin.

“Just let big sis Kalika take care of it. In return, let Homa eat a lot of meat at the festival.”

Homa’s tiny tail suddenly started to flutter, and she struggled to quickly make it stop.

“Um. Err. Yeah. We’ll– we’ll definitely repay your hospitality.” Homa said.

“Whether or not you assist us, we would still love to see you on Tishtar.” Baran said.

“Kalika, let me help with the repair job too. I can’t just accept charity.” Sareh said.

“A familiar form of stubborness. Fine– there will be something for you to do.” Kalika said.

Homa glanced sidelong at Kalika and Sareh but resolved to say nothing about that.

She was turning over imaginary kababs and kuftas in her mind, juicy and slick with fat.


After Descent, Year 967

Whispered sweet words and low, heavy groans of desire from an empty office.

Two shadows in a corner, a different corner every time, practiced, well-rehearsed.

They would not be found, not today. Today was an especially easy tryst.

Having come off a major victory in the council, everyone left early after the celebrations.

Leaving behind only the two party bosses, with what work was left, and what play was left.

“Rahima–”

Before Conny could say whatever was on her mind Rahima quieted her with a deep kiss.

Pushing her against the wall, her fingers slipping into Conny’s bell-bottomed pants.

Savoring the taste of booze, smoke and lipstick– things her religion denied her–

Things that she could nonetheless claim from her partner-in-crime.

Rahima almost lifted Conny against the corner, pushing herself as close as she could.

Looming over the shorter elf, having to bend to take her due to the difference in size.

Conny raised her hands to Rahima’s chest and gently pushed her back.

Until her tongue parted from Conny’s lips, a slick string tying them together still.

“Mm. Relax. Nobody is here.” Rahima said.

There was a grin on her face, hungry and confident, savoring what she had claimed.

Rahima had grown in the intervening years. Ambitious, self-assured, and powerful.

At least, compared to what she once was– it was quite a leap.

“It’s not that. Ugh. Everything– everything is all wrong now.”

Conny had a demure expression. Her hands remained on Rahima, creating a bit of space.

When Rahima tried to get close those hands would not push but would keep her separated.

“Conny, after all we’ve fooled around, you can’t be having regrets now.”

“It’s not that, Rahima. I wish it was only that. I wish this was just about the Council.”

Rahima’s eyes opened wide. “Conny, what happened? Tell me.”

She laid her hands on Conny’s shoulders. Conny could not meet her eyes.

Their heartbeats both accelerated, and the heat of their passions became a heat of anxiety.

Rahima wracked her brain. Everything was supposed to have gone perfectly.

They had finally achieved a long-term goal– extending suffrage to the Shimii Wohnbezirk.

With this and Rahima’s support from the Shimii, they would be an undeniable force in the politics of Aachen, practically impossible to dislodge in the local elections. As long as Rahima postured as a liberal and non-demoninational Shimii and treaded the lines between radical and moderate as she treaded between Rashidun and Mahdist, she could look forward to a practically secured seat in the Council. It would enable the Rhinea Feminist Party to throw their weight around and push more of their agenda on the Liberals.

And of course, Conny, her mentor, her lover, the one who pulled her up from darkness–

Of course, she would be with her every step of the way. Of course. She had to be there.

“Rahima, I’ve been served a motion of Censure from the Reichstag. My career is over.”

Hearing those words, Rahima’s heart sank.

It was like someone had twisted a vise inside her chest and cleaved her guts in half.

Shaking fingers clutched Conny’s narrow shoulders. Both of them wept.

“How? For what purpose? That can’t be possible. We’re local politicians!” Rahima said.

“I went too far with the anti-slavery stuff. They’re calling me a communist.” Conny said.

“But you’re not a communist! That doesn’t matter! You can resist this, Conny!”

Conny finally met Rahima’s eyes. Rahima felt her heart jump again from the contact.

That fondness– a love within that gaze that Rahima hardly even knew had existed.

There was such admiration and gentle support from that simple meeting of the eyes.

“The more I fight it, the more it will drag your good name down too Rahima. They will bring up my sister, and the Union, call me a spy, run inquiries crawling into every part of my life. They will find out about us. They will ruin you too. I don’t need to resign but I will– because you’re more important than me, Rahima. More important than us. You represent a possibility I can’t achieve here. Your people need you. I resign, all of it stops, and you keep rising.”

“No.” Rahima said. “I can’t accept this. I can’t accept this, Conny. We are in it together.”

Conny averted her eyes again and seemed to speak past Rahima.

“Herta Kleyn of the Progressive Party has agreed for you to caucus with them.”

“What? You’re dissolving the party?” Rahima said. It was one blow after another.

Conny continued to speak without looking at her and Rahima continued to spiral.

“You’ll be a mainstream Liberal now. Your Council seat will remain secure. Even with me gone the Liberals will retain a majority. Don’t involve yourself in the special election. Let it go.”

“Conny don’t do this to me!” Rahima shouted. “Don’t do this to me! How can I–?”

“Rahima. I love you. Thank you for all these years. Don’t ever let them stop you, okay?”

Conny reached up to touch Rahima’s cheek, moving her hair from over the side of her face.

Rahima’s own hand reached up, and grabbed Conny’s and pressed it tight against herself.

Feeling as if she might never feel a hand that soft and that close ever again.

Like Conny would dissolve into a mound of ash right in front of her.

What had she done wrong? Was this God’s punishment for her indiscretions?

Had she not been modest enough? Had she not been sincere? Why was this happening?

“There’s nothing more to say Rahima. This was never going to be able to last forever– but I will keep rooting for you. You’re extremely strong. You’re stronger than me. I just had the money to rent an office and print things. You came up from nothing. You did all this work– and look where you are. You are proof there is something worth fighting for here. Someday all Shimii will believe in that. Don’t throw that way for me, Rahima. For anyone.”

Weeping, Rahima pressed the hand tighter against her face. She did not want to let go.

“I don’t want to lose you. I wouldn’t have known what to do without you.”

Conny seemed like she truly did not know what to say.

For minutes, she seemed partway between leaving and staying.

Watching Rahima cry in front of her face; crying herself, wiping the tears, crying again.

“Rahima–”

She hesitated. Then she kissed Rahima back. Quicker than she had been kissed.

But this time without hesitation or distance.

“Rahima. Then– get so strong nobody can deny your claim on me, despite everything.”

A kiss as fleeting as a passing breeze–

with incredible alacrity, Conny slipped out from under Rahima’s arms and ran away.

There one second and gone the next as if she had never met that dazzling, vibrant elf.

Leaving Rahima with the suddeness of that departure, holding and staring at an empty wall.

Shaking, weeping, with the cruel sweetness of that final kiss on her lips.

Her legs buckled. Rahima fell to the floor. Screaming into the ground.

For all of the night she remained huddled in that corner, in pain like she had been set alight.

Sometime in the twilight, between colors of dusk and dawn and every possible emotion–

Rahima stood back up. She fixed her shirt and blazer, washed her face, and left the office.

Head and heart empty save for the purpose that remained to animate her.

Even if Conny did not need her anymore– the Shimii needed her.

Her work was not complete; without Conny that was all she had left.


After Descent, Year 979

“This house used to belong a small family. They had teen boys. But they renounced Mahdism and left the village so they could live in the bigger part of the town. Since then, I’ve kept this place as a little guest house. We have a TV, the lights work, there’s a mattress there with blankets. Behind the curtain, the little door that looks like a closet is actually the bathroom. Oh! And I always try to keep some long-lasting snacks and water in the fridge too.”

Baran bent down to her knees to open the small fridge to show them the goods.

A small jug of water and some assorted nuts and candied dates.

“Anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask. You’re my honored guests.” Baran said.

“I am quite grateful. Hopefully I will have good news for you tomorrow.” Kalika said.

Baran put her hand to her chest again and bid farewell, leaving Kalika and Homa alone.

Homa wandered over to the television, flicked it on and sat down on the old mattress.

At first with a neutral expression, tired from the day, depressed by her surroundings–

Then immediately, absolutely furious at the image of the blond woman on the screen–

“Nasser!” She shouted, despite herself, it had to come out, she was surprised and livid.

Vesna Nasser– that fiend who had robbed her of everything.

Homa had never seen this woman in the flesh, but she knew, she knew that was her.

Standing in uniform, swaying her tail and smiling like nothing had happened.

Her cold, dead heart untouched with an ounce of guilt for what she had done.

While Homa scurried in holes, Nasser was in that high tower, on regional television!

Unspeaking, but firm, confident, even smug. Homa practically gritted her teeth in anger.

Beside Nasser was the actual speaker for the program, amid a speech on a podium.

Dressed in that foul black uniform with the most medals and armbands of anyone Homa had ever seen. Ridiculous pink and blue hair, her speech eloquent and intensely confident for what she was saying, with inflections of passion and grandiosity punctuating certain words–

“…it has been only mere months since Rhinea embarked on the Revolution of National Awakening. Already, the Party-State is being dilligently constructed. All national socialists are joining as a single force under the Party-State. Together we deliver swift punishment to the liberals and reactionaries who opposed the Nation’s Destiny and tried to drag the national proletariat to the shadow of their former ignorance. Even now, the cultists of those dead ideas plot in the corners, trying to rewind our chosen future. They will find their reckoning soon. National Socialism is an idea that cannot be contained any longer! National Socialism is modernity! Our Volk has had enough of Liberal divisions and Reactionary elitism! We will bow neither to the man on the ballot nor to the man with the crown and scepter! The Party-State will unite the people, protect them, and enrich the Nation! Through blood and labor, the Volksgemeinschaft will be nurtured, and the national peoples unleashed! These are no longer things which can be resisted! The many will become one under the nation! One people, one nation, one party-state! With our blood and labor! This is Destiny–!”

Homa sat fuming as the speech progressed further, until Kalika finally swiped her finger across Violet Lehner’s face. She disappeared and a Shimii clerical channel took her place.

“Kalika, what is everyone else on the ships doing while we’re out here?” Homa asked.

Kalika sighed. She must have been able to tell how frustrated Homa was.

But Homa was not in a mood to care about her tone or appearances anymore.

“A lot of things, Homa– it’s a bit difficult to summarize. Right now, the crew is preparing for the United Front negotations.” Kalika said. “It might not seem that way, but we are helping.”

“Are we any closer to getting revenge on those Volkisch bastards?” Homa shouted.

“Quiet! Look, you’ll need to defer your revenge. We don’t expect things to be so simple as shaking hands and agreeing to fight the Volkisch– every group has an agenda, and they will push their own way of doing things.” Kalika sat down on the mattress beside Homa and patted her back. Homa did not feel appreciative of the support in her current state– but she also did not want Kalika to stop touching her. That warmth on her back kept her from crying.

“Why wouldn’t it be as simple as shaking hands, and agreeing to fight the Volkisch?”

Homa felt such a boiling-over frustration with everything around her.

Looking back at everything that happened, the Volkisch Movement was clearly the enemy.

So why could they not set aside everything and fight them, and discuss the rest later?

“Homa, people need concrete structure and leadership. They can’t just go out and fight unprepared.” Kalika said. “Three huge organizations coming together will have to work out priorities, supplies, targets, and delegate intelligence and action work. Furthermore, these are three political organizations, who will need to sway Eisental’s people to their side as collaborators, allies and recruits– so they need to decide on a message, too.”

Homa grunted. She turned a disgruntled look at the clerics on the screen instead of Kalika.

“Homa, our job is to support the Volksarmee’s effort by carrying out our mission. And our mission is to be down here.” Kalika said. Her patting on Homa’s back grew a bit more vigorous. “It might not seem like we are doing anything, but getting support from the Shimii here is something no one else is doing. The social democrats and the anarchists are not making efforts to touch base with disenfranchised peoples. We have eyes, your eyes, my eyes, where they don’t. That does matter; please just work with me here, ok?”

“Fine. It’s not like I can do anything else. I am just your helpless little orbiter.”

She laid down on her side, putting her back to Kalika with a disgruntled noise.

“Homa, it’s not like– ugh.” She could feel Kalika moving behind her. To lie down too.

For a moment, Kalika did not finish her sentence. She sounded a bit exasperated.

Homa felt both nervous that she had angered her, but also had a disgusting satisfaction too.

Had she finally needled this woman enough, who had no reason to care for her–?

A sigh. “Homa. We’ll have some big days ahead. Get some rest. You’ll feel better.”

Her voice was surprisingly gentle– none of the expected fury, no lashing out.

For a moment, Homa felt so ashamed of herself that she might have burst out crying.

She hated herself and her thoughts and her ugly, stupid little soul so much. So intensely.

If she was not so tired, and did not drift off to sleep, she would have beaten her own head.

But she did drift off to a dreamless sleep. A sleep like a comfortable shadow engulfing her.

Until that shadow and its attendant silence were suddenly parted by a scream.

In the near-total darkness of the room Homa shot upright from where she had lain.

Her head turned immediately to face the doorway and the swaying curtain to the outside.

When she tried to stand she felt a hand move to stop her.

“Homa, stay here!”

From her side, Kalika darted to her feet and ran out of the house.

Parting the curtain, a glint in the steel of her sword as it sprang from the handle.

Heedless of the warning, Homa scrambled to her feet and ran right after.

When she got outside, the shouting was far clearer–

“No! Stop it! Why are you doing this?”

Baran, pleading–

“Shut up bitch!”

There was a man’s voice– familiar–

Baran crying out–

in pain

Homa’s running steps practically thundered on the rough floor.

She crossed the side of the masjid and caught sight of several figures on the Tishtar stage partially illuminated by burning flares thrown onto the middle of the street.

Baran on the edge of the stage, weeping, three people with face coverings and long clubs or truncheons in their hands. Beating at the beautiful Taiza that had been erected on the stage with a hellish glee. Between Baran’s shouting and sobs there was their laughter and jeering as they destroyed the villager’s art. They taunted Baran as they struck the object.

“We won’t let you Mahdists hold your evil rituals!”

“Stop it! That’s enough, aren’t you satisfied?”

“I said shut up!”

One of the boys swung at Baran, striking her leg and knocking her off the stage–

Into Kalika’s arms, catching her and setting her down roughly.

Jumping up onto the stage.

Homa was not far behind, she saw Baran fall and dropped quickly near her, to support her.

Up on the stage the assailants realized instantly what they were dealing with.

They ceased beating the Taiza to pieces and laughing at the act. They stopped to stare.

In the silence they left–

Kalika’s vibroblade buzzed and whirred audible with killing power.

She said nothing as she approached, her wildly furious eyes glowing in the flare-light–

“I– I told you I’d fucking kill you–!”

One of the men threw himself forward, screaming, and he swung,

Kalika caught the blow with her bare forearm, battering his arm aside,

blade splitting air with a low whistle as it flew–

“Please don’t kill them!”

Baran cried out, tears in her eyes, caught in Homa’s bewildered grasp.

Kalika held her blow.

She sliced across the chest of her attacker, blood running slick on the edge of her sword.

Leaving a shallow cut across the man’s chest where his guts might have otherwise flowed.

He stumbled back onto the stage, dropped his club, screaming, begging,

From behind Homa a gunshot rang out.

There was a brief spark as it struck one of the assailants on his club.

Sending a finger flying into the air and the weapon rolling down the stage.

Sareh ran to Homa’s side with a pistol in her hand, preparing to shoot again–

And stopped as Baran’s hands reached up to her, pleading silently.

Lika Kalika, Sareh stopped her retaliation and watched as the assailants fled.

Bloodied, crying, but still throwing curses borne out of their hatred.

“If you cross that gate again you’ll leave in a bag!”

Kalika shouted after them, at the top of her lungs, an anger in her voice that was chilling.

Holding the stricken Baran in her arms, with Sareh standing dumbstruck beside them.

Homa felt completely detached from reality. Her skin was clammy. Every muscle shaking.

“Stupid, worthless bastards.” Kalika said to no one. Her sword hand was shaking.

Sareh finally put down her arms, with which she had been aiming her pistol the whole time.

She put the weapon into her coat and kneeled down and took Baran from Homa.

Into her arms, holding her tightly. Baran was crying. Sareh was mumbling, weeping too.

“I’m so stupid. Why did I go to sleep? I should’ve known they would do something!”

Baran reached up to Sareh’s face, gesturing for her to come close.

They put their foreheads to each other and touched noses, crying together.

Behind all of them, a few villagers began to emerge from the back streets.

Homa’s eyes were fixed on Kalika, glowing red on the stage amid the sparks of a flare.

Her hand remaining on her sword, her eyes on the gates, gritting her teeth.

Clutching the handle.

Not knowing what to do, Homa climbed up on the stage.

Standing side by side with Kalika amid the light of the still-burning flares,

and the pieces of the ruined Tazia behind them.

“Kalika. I’m sorry. I couldn’t do anything–”

Suddenly, Kalika turned to Homa. She flicked her wrist, snapping her blade folded again.

She reached out and took Homa’s clenched fist, opening her fingers.

Then on that cold, shaking, helpless hand, Kalika laid–

“Don’t make me regret this, Homa.”

–a firearm.

A light, synthestitched pistol, materially light but heavy with deadly potential.

She had entrusted Homa with a lethal weapon, a killing weapon, just like her own.

Homa stared at it and back at Kalika and felt like she would sink into the earth with shame.

In her mind she had done nothing to earn this. Nothing but lash out and complain.

But she accepted it. She felt that to do otherwise would have squandered everything.

With her hands still shaking, she put the gun into her coat. She said nothing.

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t understand anything she was seeing and feeling.

“You’re not helpless anymore, Homa. I trust you will make good judgments.”

Kalika’s voice sounded, for the first time Homa had ever heard– openly nervous.


After Descent, Year 978

Rahima and Herta Kleyn convened alone in one of the rear storage areas of the Aachen Council’s Assembly Hall. Underneath the debate floor where policy fought for its life, the two of them stood over a disused desk in a dusty corner, their faces half-shadowed in the dim light of a sputtering LED cluster. On the desk, there was a portable computer with an open digital letter with official digital letterhead, demanding confirmation of receipt.

From the collective body of the Rhinean Reichstag.

To Governor-Elect of Aachen Rahima Jašarević.

“Interfering in our local politics again.” Rahima grunted.

“I’m afraid so.” Herta said. “But this is not just a party insider squabble, Rahima. The Liberal-Proggressives and the Conservatives all passed it in the special session. Only the Nationalists abstained from the process. Our folks caved, Rahima, but so far the contents are not public. They want you to respond discretly and avoid a bigger scandal. I advise you should.”

Rahima closed her fists with anger, staring impotently at the filigreed letter on the screen.

“Why should I abide by this?” She said.

Herta sighed. They had worked together long enough now that she knew Rahima’s moods.

Still her voice remained collected and calm.

“Unless you resign from the governorship they will practically crawl down our throats, Rahima. They are saying they will turn up the Progressive party’s ‘ties to Kamma, piracy, communism and foreign nations’ . The Liberal-Progressives cannot afford this.”

“So what if they investigate? We have no such ties!”

“We do technically have ties to Kamma. Through you, Rahima.”

Rahima felt a shudder hearing the implication and shot a vicious glare at Herta.

“I know you are not seeing her. I know! I trust you. But the Reichstag will not care.”

“Kamma is just an NGO! They distribute lunchboxes and blankets! They aren’t radicals!”

Herta shut her eyes and shook her head.

“Rahima, you know as well as any of us that the substance of this threat does not matter. It does not matter whether they can turn up anything. It does not matter whether you fight it. You are not getting a fair trial here. By making the threat, they are implicitly saying they will turn up something– they will put on a show to damage our credibility. Your credibility and that of the main party. Right now, the Progressive-Liberal coalition is facing a hard fight against the Conservatives and Nationalists in the upcoming elections. The Heidemman bloc supported this motion in order to appeal to moderates and to seem reasonable.”

There was nothing Rahima could say in return because what she wanted to do was scream.

For years– years!– she had fought in the Council, debated and defeated Imbrians on the merits. She had passed successful bills, and not just her projects for the Shimii. She had fought like hell for a Progressive agenda. She had compromised, she had toed the lines.

All of the Aachen Liberal Party had gotten behind her for the Governorship.

Aachen’s people cast their votes! She had won the Liberals an important governorship!

Rahima had won them the Shimii! She was turning them into Liberal voters!

None of it mattered. Her local successes were nothing to the Reichstag Liberals.

They were focused solely on the presidential battle next year and nothing else.

On those two Imbrian men whom the nation now revolved around. Not any Shimii.

Sacrificing her to look more moderate and serious. To show they were not radicals.

“There is still a shot, Rahima. You don’t have to give up your dreams.” Herta said.

“And what is our shot, Herta.” Rahima replied, her voice turning slowly into a growl.

Herta started staring directly at Rahima’s darkening expression with a wan little smile of her own. “The motion specified the Governor-Electship– we can comply and still retain your Council seat. I will replace you as Governor, and we will salvage our local slate. After Ossof Heidemman is elected next year, things will calm down. You’ll be able to run again.”

Rahima looked at Herta dead in the eyes. She could hardly believe this naivety from her.

“What happens if Adam Lehner defeats Ossof Heidemman?” She said gravely.

Herta’s expression grew concerned. “That won’t happen Rahima. I know we’ll win.”

Rahima grunted. Who was this ‘we’? Was Rahima now included in Heidemman’s circle?

“Herta, look at how dirty they are playing me– do you think Adam Lehner is above that?”

Herta turned around and paced toward the opposite wall with a heavy breath.

As if she did not want to meet Rahima’s eyes while speaking her next words.

“Rahima, I am truly sorry. But you are still here and have responsibilities. Don’t squander what we have built. I taught you to be pragmatic. You have decades in politics still. You’ve opened a path for other Shimii to follow. You must remain in the council, for them.”

Rahima threw her hands up in fury. “So, what–? I was only a path for others to follow?!”

She gritted her teeth. What about the path she had been treading so tirelessly all this time?!

How could it be that after all this struggle she was relegated to holding open a door?!

What did this say to the Shimii?

You can become a local councilwoman who will tidy up things in your ghetto and that is it? You will never even reach the height of these pitiful confines? All of these games that she played, not even able to get her kin out of the fucking ground– and no amount of polite words saved her when the hatchets came out. The Liberals simply abandoned her.

Was all of that for nothing? All of her sacrifice? All of her pain?

Herta had no answer. Nobody did.

So one more time, Rahima toed the line and compromised for the Liberal-Progressives.

As if she had anything left to compromise.


After Descent, Year 979

On the morning after the attack, Homa stood with several dozen Shimii around the stage.

Ears folded and tails down, examing from afar what remained of the intricate display.

Smashed pieces in a heap, colorful debris only recognizeable if one saw the complete thing.

Enough of it remained to mourn over the whole.

There were several villagers with their heads hung low or shaking, covering their mouths, crying for the smashed Taiza. They looked from afar, helpless. There were a few older men, but most of the people coming out of the shabby little houses and the few bigger business buildings to look, were women and kids, and the kids looked to be mainly girls.

Baran had been right– Homa wondered if the men last night were–

She immediately stopped her train of thought. She felt so angry about everything.

In her coat, the pistol Kalika had given her weighed down her pocket like a stone.

Suddenly the villagers turned to face the masjid.

Out from it, Baran, Sareh and an older, slightly more formidable man walked out.

Homa noticed immediately that Baran was walking with a stick to support herself.

Upon seeing this, several of the women stepped forward to her, stroked her hair and her shoulders. Many of the women started crying fresh tears over her injury, the heavily bruised and bloodied ankle quite visible through Baran’s sandals. They copiously recited Fusha prayers for her and begged God’s mercy and safety and for God to seek answers from the criminals for this. That seemed to be the prevailing question among the villagers–

why inflict such pointless cruelty?

Even though they all knew the answer, deep down in their hearts, but nobody wanted it.

That answer which was too painful to consider and too impossible for them to resolve.

Homa considered it and turned it over so thoroughly it lit her heart ablaze with wrath.

“Homa! Are you alright?”

Baran called out to her and walked out from between all the aunties and teen girls.

Knowing how she felt when she was using crutches, Homa did not try to tell Baran to slow down or not to come forward. Such little kindnesses just bothered Homa and made her feel inept when she was the one who could not move well. She stood where she was, suddenly the center of attention in the middle of everyone in the village. It felt like there were not just a few dozen people around now but thousands in the pitted streets.

“Everyone, this is Homa Messhud! She helped me last night! Please pray for her too!”

Baran stood by Homa and put a hand on her shoulder, with a big smile.

Confused eyes turned to warm smiles at Homa, in an instant. Baran’s word was all it took.

They really loved her– Homa felt like everyone in the village cared about Baran a lot.

Homa felt she had not done anything deserving of praise but did not deny Baran.

Even though they were all heaping praise and prayers on a fake surname.

There was no helping it– it’s what Homa had to endure for her mission.

Compared to what the villagers had to go through this was nothing.

After that declaration, Sareh also walked up. She reached out to Homa.

They shook hands together, and Sarah also patted Homa on the shoulder.

“Homa, thank you, truly. Baran could have been killed– I’m sorry I wasn’t any help.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Sareh. Please.” Baran said gently, squeezing Sareh’s hand.

“I know. I’ll try not to.” Sareh said. “Where is Kalika, Homa? She was incredible.”

“Asleep.” Homa said. “I didn’t want to wake her– that situation was really rough on her.”

After they drove off the attackers the night before, everyone slowly dispersed.

It was as if they were caught in a delirium, and nobody knew what to do in the moment.

Sareh took Baran into her home. She must have administered first-aid.

Homa knew that Kalika had not gotten any sleep. She had remained on-guard all night.

“Homa, let me introduce you– this is Imam Saman al-Qoms.” Baran said.

From behind the girls, the man who had walked out with them approached Homa.

He stopped several steps short of her and put his hand on his chest with a smile.

“As-Salamu Alaykum. God sees all praiseworthy deeds. Thank you dearly, Homa Messhud.”

Imam al-Qoms was a sturdy older man, definitely older than Leija would have been. He dressed perhaps the most appropriately, to the typical picture of a Shimii man, than anyone Homa had seen around Aachen so far. He had a blue Tagiyah cap, with holes for his ears, and very short hair. He had a simple, long, covering and loose robe the same blue as the cap and wore glasses and sandals. A simple man, like a Shimii educator and prayer leader ought to be.

After the introductions, the Imam, Baran and Sareh walked up to the stage. Sareh and Homa helped Baran make the short hop up onto the stage. But Baran surprised them by immediately and without assistance dropping down beside the shattered remains of the Taiza, flinching from the pain in her ankle as she sat beside it, and collected the pieces.

Despite everything she still smiled.

“Baran, please–”

“Sareh, we can put it back together! Most of the pieces are pretty big. We’ll repaint it too!”

Sareh looked down at her partner on the ground, sighed, and sat down next to her.

Quietly, Imam al-Qoms also sat opposite the girls, collecting more pieces of the Taiza.

Homa stood off to the side. She was a stranger to all of this; it held no significance for her.

Everyone in town seemed invested in this presentation and the traditions behind it.

All Homa could focus on was the fact that someone violated their safety to destroy it.

She did not hold the dearness they all had for this– she could not.

To her this was just a thing– but it was a thing that inspired brutality against them.

She wished she could understand. Both their love for it; and the hatred that it drew.

Maybe if she could understand she would have an answer for herself, that she could bear.

But she did not– in that moment she felt more like an Imbrian than she ever had.

Just some fool watching from the sidelines, shamefully able to leave if things got too ugly.

Why did this have to happen? Homa felt that anger swelling in her heart again.

All of them were thrown in a hole out of sight of the Imbrians in the Core Station.

And their response was to recreate all the violence of their past, but here, in the hole?

It was so senseless she wanted to scream.

“Homa,”

A gloved hand laid upon her shoulder, heavy and a little cold, but familiar.

Without turning around, Homa laid her own hand over Kalika’s.

“Are you okay?” Kalika asked, standing on the stage beside Homa.

Behind them, the villagers had begun to return to their homes and businesses.

All of the younger girls followed some of the aunties into the masjid.

Homa looked around for a moment before giving her answer. “Kind of not.” She said.

They spoke together in whispers at the edge of the stage.

“Is it your heart or your head?” Kalika asked.

“I’m not hurt or anything. It’s just depressing. I don’t know why they would do this.”

“Because it’s what they are steeped in– it is their value system.” Kalika said. “Out in the town, our friendly little villagers, and their customs, are seen as dangerous to the–”

Homa sighed bitterly. “I– I don’t need you to answer, Kalika. Or– well– not like that.”

“I understand.” Kalika said gently. “Keep a keen eye out and decide for yourself then.”

She patted Homa on the shoulder and walked past her to Baran and Sareh.

Sareh helped Baran to stand up from the floor so they could greet Kalika.

“You saved my life, Kalika Loukia. I can’t thank you enough.” Baran said.

Baran offered her hands and Kalika held them. Sareh then offered her a handshake.

“Yes, thank you. I styled myself as the protector of this village– and I–” Sareh began–

“You saved Homa and I, remember? You’re doing what you can.” Kalika reassured her.

“I don’t feel like you needed my saving.” Sareh said. Still ashamed of herself.

“No, for you and I, fighting is completely different.” Kalika said. “It is easier to stand in front of someone and fight when you are not tied down to anything. That requires no conviction. It is more difficult to fight when you might be endangering yourself or your kin. Most people would choose to keep their heads down in that situation. You had the courage not to.”

“Thank you. I’ll try to remind myself of that.” Sareh said. Baran comforted her.

“If you need any crafts supplies, I might be able to help with that too.” Kalika said. “I’ll be contacting my friends soon to get things moving. Homa is here to help if you need a body.”

Homa bristled slightly at being referred to ‘for her body.’

“You’ve done so much; I don’t want to ask for even more. Please understand.” Baran said. “We can put this back together. We’ll glue it and then repaint it in a way that can make the cracks stand out less. I’m sure we can do that. For things like this I would prefer we work with what we have. It is part of the story of the festival now, for better or worse.”

Homa thought in that moment, Baran sounded very wise, as sad as it was.

“But. There is something else that troubles me.” Baran said.

“I think I know what you mean.” Sareh said, looking down at Baran’s ankle.

“Go on. I want to help.” Kalika said.

Baran suddenly turned from Kalika to Homa, who was caught off guard by the attention.

“Homa, do you know how to dance? Did your mother ever teach you?” Baran asked.

“Huh? Dancing?” Homa’s nerves instantly fried. “No way, no– I’m too clumsy!”

She waved her hands defensively. If she had to go up on stage she would die.

Plus she imagined the kind of outfit dancers wore– flashing back to Madame Arabie–

Baran slumped, clearly disheartened. “Your body looked like you might’ve been a dancer.”

“Really?” Now Homa was suddenly interested again. “I guess I look pretty athletic huh?”

Sighing, Kalika waved her hands between Baran and Homa. “Leave her be– I’ll do it.”

“Oh!” “Huh?” “REALLY?”

Baran, Sareh and Homa responded at once, wagging their ears with surprise at Kalika.

“I spent years living with Shimii.” Kalika said. “Those folks had their own local festivities, but I learned all kinds of traditional arts including dances. With Baran’s help I can absolutely learn the moves she was meant to perform for the festival. That’s the issue, right?”

“Yes, ever since I was a teenager I danced whenever we could hold Tishtar.” Baran said. “Everybody in the village looks forward to it! Sareh plays the music and I dance.”

Sareh put her hands behind her head and acted casual, as if she did not want recognition.

“We’ll find time for you to coach me.” Kalika said. “Then I’ll dance on the big day.”

It was an idea that captured Homa completely and immediately.

There were a dozen things put into her head. She wondered whether Kalika might be perceived as too old to dance in Baran’s place, but she did not voice this dangerous rumination, for fear of making an eternal enemy out of her most cherished ally. Another dangerous thought that came to her unbidden was that it might have been thought of as silly for a Katarran to perform traditional Shimii dance at a Mahdist festival. That one, too, had to be shelved very quickly. However, one observation of value did arise– Homa felt she finally understood Kalika’s real and unspoken motivation for helping the villagers.

Perhaps she was getting a rare taste of that feeling she so cherished– community.

With that in mind, Homa finally put on as much of a smile as she could muster.

That– and her third dangerous thought. Seeing Kalika in a traditional dancing garb.

Such outfits varied greatly– but what if Kalika wore something as sexy as Madame Arabie?

Those outfits were embellished versions of traditional Shimii wear– for sex appeal.

In a sense, they were even more lewd than having seen Kalika in the nude before–

“You’re finally smiling Homa. I don’t dare ask what has come over you.” Kalika said.

Homa visibly snapped out of her reverie and put her hands in her coat’s outer pockets.

Averting her gaze and not answering the question. But still grinning a little bit.

Baran meanwhile was also smiling wider and brighter and more openly than ever.

“Kalika, Homa, you are life savers! This will be the greatest Tishtar ever, I promise you!”

“I can’t wait.” Kalika said. She seemed to be soaking in the girls’ enthusiasm.

“I’m glad to see everyone in good spirits. But Shaykhah, it seems you have company.”

Imam al-Qoms spoke up again– Shaykhah must have been in reference to Baran.

He pointed to the gate, where a woman walked in with small wheeled drone following her.

Homa could tell from her pointy, long ears and her very pale and shiny blue hair that she was an elf; such vibrant hair colors difficult to find naturally in anyone but an elf. Her figure was thin and she was pretty short in stature, with fair skin that had a very, very slightly golden tone. Her hair was collected into two tails dropping down her back. She dressed in an open white blazer coat with what looked like a striking blue tasseled bra top underneath, cut off above the belly, and bell-bottomed pants. Homa hardly ever saw anyone dress so flashy.

Everyone was watching as the woman calmly crossed into the village. There was a small flag hoisted from a pole on the back of the drone’s boxy chassis. The drone seemed like it might have contained cargo, its insides rattling a bit. The flag had a half-white, half-black, vaguely diamond-like emblem made up of knotted lines over a bright blue background.

All of the village onlookers seemed excited by the new arrival.

Homa saw them looking at the flag. Did they recognize it?

“Oh, she’s from the NGO! What excellent timing– let’s go greet her!” Baran said.

As the elven woman approached the stage, she waved at the group with a carefree smile.

“Hello, hello! Is this a bad time? I’m Conny Lettiere. I’m with the NGO Kamma.”


After Descent, Year 979

On the table laid a portable computer with a digital letterhead begging confirmation.

Beside the portable was an unopened plastic box. Lit only by the screen of the portable.

And in a dark corner behind the desk was Rahima Jašarević. Legs curled against her chest.

No longer weeping– she had not wept for a very long time. For years now she had been smothering the softness deep in her soul and trying to forge it into steel. Nevertheless, whenever she needed to think, she found hiding behind the desk helped her do so. As long as nobody saw her in this childish circumstance she could find comfort in it.

It made her feel less– surveilled.

Ever since that night, where she spent hours and hours seething behind her desk.

On that night, she ceased to be able to cope in the ways she had done before.

Sometimes she thought back to that night, and to the nights preceding it.

When she arrived at Aachen she was barely an adult. So much time had passed.

In her mind she remembered the things the immigration officer told her and laughed.

Look at what I’ve become, would you think I am decent now or just a lowlife?

She remembered the sailor, too, who brought her to Aachen.

Would he regret it? Had she done something stupid and indecent now, in his mind?

Going into politics; giving all her spirit to budge the status quo even a centimeter.

What did they all think now? Was she upstanding now? Was she respectable?

She had always been young for politics. She had liked to think that gave her an edge.

That youth had its own vibrancy and power. Perhaps it did once.

Now, however, it was completely lost.

Having nothing but her experience of time and in that sense youth relative to the mean was worthless, and relative to itself even more so. She was alone. Simultaneously too old for assistance and too young for pity. No mentors she could trust to ask for counsel. No peers to stand beside her during her tribulations. She was the mentor, and without peer. As she grew older, the more and more people she left behind and replaced with only herself. It was so unfair– she had never wanted to abandon anyone nor for anyone to abandon her.

Uniquely positioned; uniquely alone. The only Shimii councilwoman.

Once, the only Shimii governor.

Now–

Since she arrived at Aachen, she gained so much, and yet lost so much.

She did not know where the scales came to rest in the end.

All she knew is that when she needed someone, now, there was no one around her.

Was this her punishment? Had she done wrong?

Was it hubris to ever have any hope? Was it heresy to follow her dreams?

At first all she wanted was to help Conny– then she slowly found her own dreams.

Those dreams, her pursuit of something, anything, for her kin living beneath her.

So no one else would have to lose their whole families and homes.

So no one else would have to bear the slow destruction they were subjected to.

No more name changes, no more deportations, no more deprivation–

Was that paradigm so hopelessly ordained? Was even God against them?

That pursuit of power and those grand intentions for it had destroyed everything she held personally dear– and for what? Shimii could cast their ballots for a slate of Imbrians and Rahima to judge their lives from on high. Again, and again, but now from the masjid in the Wohnbezirk. Never from anywhere else. Even Rahima, symbollically, voted there.

They always voted for her. She was all that they had now. That was all that changed.

Was it her fault? That she became a tool of their callous power?

Her heart tightened with a growing anger.

No– she was just doing what she could. She was doing what one woman could do.

It was the Imbrians, at each turn. It was them. It was their fault!

So deathly afraid of being the equals of anyone. They fought her at every step.

That was the cruelest irony of everything. They raised her up, they broke her down–

–and they would face the rip-current, thrashing in the waters they themselves filled.

In that instant there was only one foreseeable thing that she could do.

Only one Destiny.

Rahima shot to a stand with a sudden fervor, raising her arms and practically clawing the desk on her way to her feet. She took up the portable from the desk and without thinking it, without feeling, with her breath in her chest and her heart motionless, skin tingling, face sweating. Her finger struck the confirmation, the knife she would plunge into Aachen.

There was an instant of recognition. The portable slipped from her fingers back onto her desk. Her heart started thundering. Ragged, rasping breaths of a woman choking.

Tears welled up in her eyes. She slumped over the desk, the moment of fury passed.

Hands raised over her face, brushing salt from her eyes that only drew more tears.

She wanted to scream, but no one would hear her.

She wanted to beg for mercy she ill deserved.

On the desk, the box taunted her.

You are the one, it jeered, who will be judged for your wickedness now.

You are the one who has crossed the line now.

Rahima picked it up, overturned it. The lid fell off, and inside were a pair of armbands.

For a moment, she stared at them. Then she affixed them to her arm.

Black Sun. Hooked Cross. Red, white, black.

Her discarded portable lit up again, blue light crossing the desk. Rahima righted the object.

There was a call– she routed it to audio and tried to calm her voice.

“We have received the confirmation. I assume you are ready and willing?”

A woman’s voice, courteous, and perhaps, even excited for what was to come.

“Yes. I will prepare the lists. Doubtless you’ll have additions.” Rahima said.

Her voice left her lips as it always did. Commanding, confident. Like on the debate floor.

She knew what she had to do. She knew what she agreed to.

“You have the lay of the land here– we will trust and support you.”

There was a request to turn the audio call to a visual call. Rahima denied it on her screen.

“We will need to be thorough. Hold your hand until your preparations are ironclad.”

“Indeed. Do not fear. The Special Detachment will protect you with our lives.”

There was room for neither shouting nor tears. She had cried for herself all that she could.

Rahima had exhausted all of the means at her disposal. She had tried to work righteously.

Every way that one woman could hold on her shoulders this mountain of human agonies.

She had tried. She had tried everything. Done all the right things, the kind things.

All of the rational arguments, the statements in even tone, the logical, respectful pleadings.

Signing her name as if in blood, her gut wrenched with shame.

But the fingers that made the final confirmation brimmed with electricity.

For the first time in her life, Rahima felt real, actionable power in her grasp.

And that, one way or another, the Shimii would carry out their vengeance.

“Based on the fuhrerprinzip, you are to follow my orders without deviation. Correct?”

“You have done your reading– yes, unless you are contradicted by the Reichskommissar.”

“Good. Let me know if you need any access. I’ll make sure you have it.” Rahima said.

There was a girlish titter on the line.

“You know– you sound so formidable– I look forward to meeting you in the flesh.”

That voice was almost lascivious in its tone. Rahima could not be bothered by it anymore.

It was the last of her concerns now.

That armband on her bicep felt like a wound that had been ripped open in her.

Rahima laid her hand upon it. It had to bleed then. There was only the bleeding left.

Whispering in her mind an apology to Conny Lettiere–

and to everything she had once stood for.

“I will get to work then, Rahima Jašarević. I look forward to serving, Herr Gauleiter.”


Unjust Depths

Episode Thirteen

THE PAST WILL COME BACK AS A TIDAL WAVE


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.8]

“Descending through Upper Scattering Layer. Depth 550 meters. Depth 575 meters–”

“Reducing velocity. Thrust development capped at sixty percent due to battle damage.”

“No sign of upper level scanning from below, neither acoustic nor radiation-based.”

“No sign of Republic mines or drones, nor any leftover Grand Western Fleet ordnance.”

“Depth 600. We will soon descend into Southern Ayre, on the border with Rhinea.”

As the drones reported on the situation, the main screen showed a diagram of the water table with the four main depths that mattered to humans. Between the surface of the water and the corruption that lay beyond, and the 500-550 meter depth mark, was the Photic Zone, where the sun’s light could still penetrate the water– that is, if the rays could actually penetrate the befouled atmosphere first. From around 550 to 700 was the Upper Scattering Layer, where the most significant quantities of fish and marine life congregated. There was so much activity in this region and it was so consistent that sonar and LADAR imaging would capture it as a sort of continuous wall that received a name. Then, there was the Aphotic zone, from the end of the Scattering Layer to a depth of about 3000 meters.

This was the new home of the human species.

In certain places, called the Great Reaches, humans could live at lower depths– but the average human lived around 1000 meters below the sea, and a significant amount lived much deeper. War and intrigue; love and hope; these things moved from their birthplaces in the surface of the planet Aer, to this particular depth of its oceans. Below 3000 meters was the Hadal zone, or in the parlance of the ocean’s humans, the Abyssal zones. Utterly lightless, these depths were usually encountered only within deep wounds gouged in Aer’s crust, called Gorges or Abysses, named after the first foolhardy soul to have found them and likely died in them. To civilization writ large there was nothing there worth going so deep. But to various individuals and even some organizations, these depths held such value that it was worth the risk of never being heard from again, and dying a horrific death.

To those who truly knew, deeper than the trenches, there was a fifth depth–

Agartha.

But– that was not the concern of Norn von Fueller on this day.

As the Antenora breached the cloud of fish and squid and krill and other creatures, it descended into the world of humanity, where human problems awaited.

Soon, at about 800 meters depth, the ship ceased its descent. It was just over the bottom of a vast, sandy slope that led north into the heart of the Great Ayre Reach. Their destination was to the south, even deeper down the slope to the rocky, dark terrain of Eisental– but for now, they remained, sailing above the sand. Eerie waves sifted tiny particulate clouds from dunes below, the earth colored blue by the water’s consumption of the light.

Suspended in the murk above the dunes, the sleek, sword-shaped Cruiser glided through.

“Connect to the Myrkr relay and loiter. Keep an eye out for any patrols.” Norn said.

“Yes, milord.”

“Why are we loitering? Can I download some magazines?” Adelheid asked.

“Not now. Wait until we’re about to leave again. I have some calls to make.” Norn said.

Adelheid pouted, but Norn left her behind on the bridge without another word.

She made her way to a meeting room with a video monitor and some privacy.

Every room had a bearing monitor on the wall, a small LCD that displayed information, the same in every room, about the current situation. In battle it might have profiles of enemy ships, their positions and any damage incurred by the vessel. At rest, it would have current headings and any relevant ETAs for the ship’s current journey.

At that moment, the bearing monitor in Norn’s meeting room showed her when they would be in range of the Myrkr relay. This was one of the few data relays laid in the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Officially managed by Aachen, it could also be used to transmit to the “illegal settlement” Trelleborg in the southern Ayre trench.

Even in the current state of war, Rhinea and the Palatine had not cut these cables yet. An Empire-wide cable data network that was accessible wirelessly via the relays, was, in 979, still a relatively young piece of infrastructure in the grand scheme of things. It was one of Konstantin’s few innovations that actually bore fruit and changed the lives of his citizens for the better. Its usefulness for business and military matters alike meant that it had to continue to exist, even if in a stagnant state, as the Empire itself began to die.

So Norn could show up to her digital rendezvous with a certain Frederich Urning.

Once the Antenora was in range of the Myrkr relay, the communications drone in the bridge put out an encrypted call to the Naval HQ for the Grand Western Fleet. Using the high command’s cypher code it would indicate to the operator that this was a very high ranking officer seeking to communicate with another very high ranking officer. They would discreetly connect Norn through to the correct commander and record none of it. Within moments, that meeting room on the Antenora connected to the Naval HQ in Klagenfurt.

Across the wires, through the digital encryption, she first heard one word. “Norn.”

By way of greeting this was the only thing Admiral Frederich Urning said at first.

He appeared on the screen with a blurred backdrop, only his face and body were visible.

For someone close to Konstantin’s age (and not grown out of a vat) Frederich looked half his years. There was an onset of wrinkles around his eyes and forehead, advanced, but not widespread; his hair still had streaks of its original black color, brushed long down his back, alternating with grey; his skin was still uniformly fair. High cheekbones and deep-set eyes gave him an intense countenance. His only facial hair was a bit of grey cultivated on his chin.

While Konstantin withered, Frederich remained mountainous. Strong shoulders, broad-backed, with a wide chest and midsection and lean, muscled limbs. All now covered under silk finery, ever the nobleman-general. But through his eyes Norn could still see the killer in him. She could sense his vindictive feelings. She knew the only reason why he would have asked to speak with her alone. But she was not going to let him have his answers so easily.

“Frederich, how lovely to see you. How are you getting on? Need another loan?”

Frederich remained stoic to the provocations. “I am on the crossroads of a major decision and I wanted to seek your counsel. There are questions I have which only you can speak to.”

“You look surprisingly more sober than last I saw you.” Norn said, continuing to needle.

“Norn, you know me. Anger is the medicine that does me the most good.” He replied.

“Indeed, they call it the Vekan temperament, no?”

He had no response to that. He never confirmed nor denied that part of his heritage.

Nevertheless Norn continued to tease him about it in perpetuity for that very reason.

“Let’s get the point. Norn, were you involved in the death of Konstantin?” Frederich asked.

His voice was calm, his words direct; but she could detect a hint of that anger of his.

“Yes.” Norn said. She had no reason to lie; no fear of him nor of any consequences.

“Qualify that.” Frederich said. “Erich was part of it too, wasn’t he?”

There was no reason for Norn to lie, but neither would she give everything up to a fool.

Frederich knew her– and because he knew, he knew what to ask her that she would respect.

Had he forgotten, she would have just let him stay half-informed. But he still knew her.

“Indeed. Throw in Leda too– you never could fill the woman-shaped hole in his heart.”

That did bother him. She could tell by the vaguest twitch in his left temple.

In his aura, and in his overall expression, the anger was cleverly hidden.

Both of them knew each other too well. They were both Konstantin’s close companions.

“I do not care about your reasons. But you know what I must do now.”

“Honestly, I have no idea what you will do, except that it will be tedious, like you are.”

Frederich, who had wanted to bend the knee to Konstantin as a lover more than anything.

Right-hand man pledging as a right-hand, never turned away–

Konstantin did love him, but not as he wanted to be loved.

Even when it became sexual between them.

“I received information implicating you and the Prince in the death of the Emperor. But as a comrade-in-arms, and because you are Konstantin’s dearest sister, I wanted to confirm for myself what Code Weiss found.” Frederich said. For the first time in the conversation his expression subtly darkened, his brows furrowing slightly. His tone rose, just a hint. “Norn, I knew when I called that I would see your mocking grin. I knew you would be without sympathy. You only understand violence. It is all you propagate. You ask what I will do?”

Frederich lifted his hand so it appeared on the screen. He showed Norn his bare palm.

Then in his other hand; he held a dagger to the first. Cutting across the palm to draw blood.

“A blood feud on you Norn. I will hunt you like the animal you are. I will bleed you dry.”

“I’m so scared.” Norn mocked. “Go on. I’m practically quivering to hear the rest of this.”

“With blood, there is certitude.” Frederich replied. “I know what I will do; I know what I will do to you when I get my hands on you. But I don’t have even the faintest idea about whether you will speed here to try to defend Erich. Or whether you will inform him of my intention to murder you. Will you warn him what intentions I might have for him, as I require his power to satisfy the requirements of my hunt? How do you truly feel about the boy, sister?”

“Ah– I’m not in the mood to snitch. You all have your fun over there.” Norn said calmly.

“I see. Give me one final piece of tactical advice then, oathsworn sister– do I send Code Weiss after Erich, or after you? It won’t alter the final result of my intentions.” Frederich asked.

Norn shrugged. “If you send Code Weiss here I’ll send her back to you in gift wrapped pieces. Send her after Erich– well, I do not care what happens. At any rate, you have no idea who you are fucking with, Frederich.” She was starting to become just a bit annoyed at this man’s confidence in insulting her and hurling threats. “There are nowhere near enough fools in the Palatine for you to gather up and throw at me, that will stop me tearing your head off. I am not a Jager; there is no one of them, not even the whole Korps, that walks in step with me.”

“I very much know who I am ‘fucking with’, Norn.” Frederich said. “I will not underestimate you. I will make every preparation, and if you see me again, you will know it is the last time you draw breath. Should I fail, I will make sure I first drive the wedge between you and Erich. Then, should you see him again, it will be his blade that cleaves you. I will win, regardless.”

“Fascinating.” Norn laughed. “Do what you will then. But remember, if you’re coming to meet me, don’t come alone. And don’t just bring Weiss. You’ll need the entire Western Fleet.”

Frederich shut his eyes to Norn’s boasting. The connection to him cut out shortly thereafter.

Her heart remained unmoved by this display. Except, perhaps to feel a bit of pity for him.

Ultimately this would be Erich’s problem– to use any of the Palatine’s resources against her, Frederich would have to convince Erich to go after Norn, or get Erich out of the way and take over using Code Weiss. Then, even assuming the best possible scenario where the revenge killings and chaos in the political class and military remains perfectly contained, Frederich would have to cross into Eisental and fight the Volkisch Movement to even get near Norn. She could easily go to ground in Rhinea. If Erich, who was talented, and greatly respected, and young, with inherited authority, had not yet launched an invasion of Rhinea–

–then Frederich’s chances could not be any poorer.

In the grand scheme of things this was low on the list of things that concerned Norn.

Nevertheless, it was strangely gratifying to see that man again, and she wished him luck.

Maybe, if he succeeded– there would be some sort of justice in it.

For a man to kill for romantic love, in the stories of the Imbrium, was more righteous–

than for a woman to kill for justice or family– or for a son to kill for ambition.

“I’ll be expecting you then, Frederich. I hope you still fight like old times.” Norn sighed.


The Antenora continued to loiter around Myrkr relay for several days.

Anchored to the relay structure and hovering over the calm, sandy slopes of southern Ayre, it presented a more stable platform for the completion of certain crucial repairs. Anything that they could do themselves now was worth doing. Norn did not fully trust the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild. Much of it was composed of trade unionists and leftists, who did not trust her either; however her specific hosts were the rightists among the Guild, made up of imperial loyalists and pseudofascists with private holdings in Stockheim infrastructure, who only joined the Guild as necessary obeisance to carry out their own business unmolested.

While they played nice with the rest of the Guild as a kind of honor among thieves, they had a more venal impetus toward their work and customers than the unionists. They would be looking to use her for their own profit; she would be doing the same just as much.

Leftists could sometimes be comradely, but among rightists, it was always a den of snakes.

To prevent them from wringing every last pfennig out of her, she opted to have her own crew fix as much as they could in the relative calm of Southern Ayre. Due to the fact that Ayre was a constant battlefield for the Imperials and Republicans, subject to unpredictable skirmishing even between the apocalyptic all-out battles that took place in it; Ayre, for all its beauty, was largely off limits to most traffic. It was infrequently patrolled by flesh and blood humans. Instead drones and mine fields held sentinel over much of the Great Ayre Reach and its surroundings. Murmurs of such things kept people out– there was too much risk.

Excepting the trench, where there was always a buzz of illicit activity around Trelleborg.

This meant the Antenora was likely to avoid both Volkisch and Palatine forces there.

If she ran into anybody, they were likely a Trelleborg traveler minding their own business.

Scavengers in the great fields of ruined ships, recently watered; smugglers bridging local black markets in Rhinea and the Palatine; gang bosses looking to profit off them all, jockeying for position within Trelleborg and the right to set the rules of trade. Between all of them, people who had no place to go, outlaws, mercs, victims of Imbria’s unjust laws, people who fell through gaps, human traffickers and the trafficked, information brokers and brave or foolhardy merchants for whom the den of iniquity was just one more spot on the map to hawk goods. Trelleborg was its own nation crammed into ships jammed between rock.

All this life, skirting the beautiful, calm and sunlit waters of the Reach itself, that bore witness to the unending historical hatred the Republic of Alayze held for the Imbrian Empire.

When she looked outside, Norn saw none of that romanticism in front of her eyes.

Only sand, and the blunt spire-like structure of the relay with its massive laser receptors.

She left the bridge in the hands of her adjutant and made her way to the lower deck.

In the hangar, Selene was still dressed in power armor, without a battery pack.

All manner of obscenities had been spoken in that hangar over the past day.

In the background of Selene screaming, cursing, insulting anyone close to her–

Norn spotted her most reliable standby pilot, Yurii Annecy Samoylovych-Darkestdays.

Arms crossed, not looking at Selene but clearly amused by her predicament.

Selene was incredibly strong, but Yurii was a soldier. She took and executed orders well.

Having picked her up as a defector from the Empire of Veka, Norn had initially questioned how useful she would come to be, but the more that was thrown their way, the more she appreciated that in spite of her hedonistic behavior, Yurii did every job she was told to do. A consummate professional hid behind that devilish playboy smile.

Smiling similarly, Norn approached her.

“Yurii, I’ve been meaning to talk to you, but as you can see, I’ve been rather busy.”

“I’m at your service always, milord. I have no qualms to being on standby.”

Yurii, still smiling, put a fist to her chest and bowed on her feet.

Shimii never bowed to another, it was against their religion to bow because only God was superior to a human; Southern Loup, however, often bowed to the waist while remaining standing. Unless it was required of them to get on the ground, such as in the presence of the Emperor, it was against their culture to put their heads to the floor. Of course, depending on the circumstances, anybody of any religion could be forced to beg.

Norn understood that Yurii was truly a loup’s Loup: raised within the culture.

“Do you envision yourself remaining in my service for long, Yurii?” Norn asked.

Yurii raised herself back up.

She continued to smile, that confident little grin, a predator’s grin.

There was a lot backing that confidence up.

Yurii was a strikingly beautiful girl, youthful, athletic, well-figured, with a wild character both to her soul and flesh. Dark olive skin and earthy green eyes, her black hair falling down her shoulders and back in wild waves, stiff dark fur on her tall wolf’s ears and her long, slender tail. She had an agile body, with lean, flexible muscles, more visible in the pilot’s bodysuit she wore than in the white and purple men’s suit that she had arrived wearing.

“For as long as you’ll have me, or until I go down with this ship.” Yurii said.

“I’m curious to know your reasoning for this. Do you think you will profit here?”

“A pragmatic soldier would prefer to work for someone who is strong and connected, than for someone weaker and less influential. There is more danger, perhaps, but more resources to tackle that danger. For me, personally, I have always wanted to serve a great lord and enjoy killing, women, riches– and I have a deep respect for the way you carry yourself.”

“I am glad to have made a positive impression.” Norn said, smiling with amusement.

There was nothing facetious about the way Yurii spoke.

She was not heaping idle praise.

“I admit I was a keen liar, but around you, everyone is stripped of such pretenses. It’s not just that you are powerful. You command respect because you will not tolerate disrespect.” Yurii continued. “I have always wanted to command respect and demand my own dignity.”

Norn nodded.

“You have potential, Yurii. You are strong, dutiful and sharp; and despite your pretensions, as a liar, a snark, and as a womanizer, you are also finally demonstrating some humility. That’s good. I knew you before; or well, I knew of you. I worked with your grandfather. He worried about you, but I believe you have turned out well enough as an adult.”

She had a small laugh at her own description of Yurii, and Yurii laughed with her.

Yurii turned out well, despite her vices. Vices were beside the point for Norn after all.

“I was aware of your involvement with my grandfather. I am thankful for your praise.”

“I accepted your defection on its own merits, of course. Not for your grandfather.”

“Of course. I would never want nor expect someone like you to be swayed by noble blood.”

“You do have a storied lineage, Yurii.”

Yurii’s grin very slightly softened. “We had an illustrious past.” She said.

Emphasis, past– but it did not need to remain that way.

Norn looked her in the eyes.

Though she spoke of completely esoteric subjects, she was serious in every word she said. “Your ancestor Samoylovych-Daybringer, was a great champion of the Nocht Loyalists who took refuge in Veka after the Fueller coup. He was a legendary warrior said to have had the knack known as Volshebstvo, granted to him by a fairy. Your grandfather, the High Inquisitor Samoylovych-Deepestshore– I can confirm he also exhibited these abilities. I want to know, Yurii, whether you were taught such things, and who taught them to you, if it is so.”

“My family never recovered its martial glory after the Fueller Reformation, milord. I have no such great powers. As you said; my grandfather worried about me. As he grew older, and deferred his retirement more and more, he distanced himself. He did not train me.”

“Truly? He was always such a family man. I thought you would have been his pride.”

Though Yurii had other family, she inherited many titles as her elders and siblings perished.

Her grandfather should have had no one else to carry on his legacy.

Norn thought Yurii sounded just a bit more bitter than before as she explained her situation.

“I was born under a bad star. Everyone could see it. The birth book assigned me the spiritual name Darkestdays– and I just grew up a bad kid. A violent kid; I loved fighting and making trouble since I was very young. Many would say, I am still a thoroughly wicked person. I think that my grandfather feared how far I might go to seek glory in bloodshed. To worsen matters, I inherited a male position as a woman, which is traditional but inauspicious.”

Norn nodded along as Yurii spoke. That certainly made sense, but made no difference.

“I am not your grandfather– I do not fear you becoming more violent nor more influential. I will grant and teach you Volshebstvo. Yurii, I believe you have the potential to be the second coming of Samoylovych-Daybringer. You are steady and ambitious. Hungry. Passionate. All good things when it comes to mastering the power your ancestors wielded half in ignorance. Once you awaken, I could confidently leave any matter in your hands. Right now, more than ever, I need someone I can trust to cut through men as Daybringer could.”

For once, Yurii’s façade of confident mockery seemed to melt into genuine surprise.

“Milord– As always I am at your service.” She said, as if not knowing how to respond.

“Good. I knew you would not deny me. I am curious to know one more thing.”

“Anything, milord.” Yurii said. She was clearly still trying to hide her emotions.

“Were I to be killed, what would you go on to do?” Norn asked.

Yurii crossed her arms. She averted her gaze for a moment, and then smiled back at Norn.

“Well, first, I would annihilate the bastard responsible. I’d try to make sure Adelheid and Selene and Hunter III are okay; any of your crew would be welcome to follow me. Then– perhaps I would return home and see if there is any opportunity left in Veka. I’m sure somebody must be plotting against that trumped-up horse breeder calling herself the Empress. I am sure I could maneuver myself into an influential position.” Yurii said.

Norn smiled. She was quite pleased with that response.

There was not a hint of a lie in what Yurii said. Good– Norn liked honest people.

“I will induct you soon. We will need privacy. You will be vulnerable for the duration.”

“I have heard tales of the grand visions that accompanied the fairy’s blessing.”

“I’m the fairy here, so your vision will be horrific. But you’ve come to expect that, right?”

Yurii blinked. “I see. Well, I am open-minded toward anything that grants me power.”

Norn turned her sight back toward the center of the hangar.

After a few more minutes of tantrums, Selene was once again quietly in concentration.

She finally managed to lift one foot, and set it down hard a few centimeters ahead.

Her power armor boot stamping on the metal with a loud thud.

“Atta girl!” Norn shouted. “Keep it up! You’ll have walked a meter in no time!”

“Fuck you! I hope your heart stops! I hate you so much!” Selene shouted back.

She could not turn her head completely to face Norn but still stuck out her tongue at her.

“Milord, I usually make a point to stay out of things.” Yurii said, also watching Selene. “But the abilities Selene possesses to link up with her machine, that’s also Volshebtsvo, isn’t it? So what she is doing now is a form of training to improve her power, isn’t she?”

“Right. You’ll have to do this too sometime.”

“I see.”

“Power stagnates without challenge. You know by now what kind of place this is.”

Norn reached out and patted Yurii on the shoulder.

Yurii’s ears bent slightly at the tips as she watched Selene struggle from then on.

Despite this, she never turned her eyes away, nor did she stop smiling.


When she came to, the skinny girl caught a sweet and sharp scent that wetted her nostrils.

Her vision was a little bit hazy. Her mouth tasted like blood.

It was good– there was almost a sense of euphoria. She was calm, her breathing steady.

There was a bit of weight over her body. She had to make an effort to lift her arm.

Blankets. Several layers of blankets stacked over her body.

Her nude, pale body, which would have been completely exposed without the blankets.

Sweat trickling down her neck and back, over her breasts. Her tail dangling off the other end of the bed. Between her legs, she felt hyper-aware of her dick, slightly moist, vaguely twitching. Flaccid. Her hips wanted to shake when she thought of it, and she stiffened a little. When she saw it she felt momentarily confused as to what had happened–

then it all seemed to hit her all at once.

biting down on a woman’s shoulder,

smelling her hair,

tasting her skin, her tongue, her heat,

the heft of her body, breast against breast,

feeling her from inside,

until she lost the sense of herself to the sense of her

For a moment she was stunned at the idea that she had sex with a Hominin.

Even more that she had enjoyed it.

That thinking about it made her want to get hard again.

Hunter III pulled the blankets back up over herself and looked to her right.

In the bedroom, the only source of light was a monitor brought up on the wall near a desk.

There sat Livia, fiddling with her injector in one hand, and scrolling through a document.

Her golden hair disheveled, wet, trailing down her back. Dressed in only her white coat.

Slightly falling off her fair shoulders.

Long legs bare, playfully balancing one heeled shoe on the tips of her toes.

Hunter III thought Livia must have heard her shuffling under the blankets.

But she did not turn around to acknowledge her. Was she working?

After– all of that–? How did she feel about it?

Perhaps the most complicated feelings that had ever crossed Hunter III’s brain came to her in that instant. She did not know to feel about anything. Was it special, what they had done? Was it unique? Why did she want it to be? Or was it just simple consumption–

like eating good meat?

Some part of her felt like she was in danger. Fight or flight.

It was the most proximate feeling to the mix of thrill and anxiety now swelling in her chest.

However, she was also happy– sated– contented–?

Like she had eaten something tasty. That sense of the fulfillment of her vices.

She felt like she could lay in Livia’s bed forever.

Her life, often a blur of hunger and urgency and mania– was suddenly slow and peaceful.

But there was too much on her mind for her to stay silent.

“Hey– Doctor– are you there?”

From the Desk, Livia turned around. Legs shut, but breasts completely exposed.

She really was wearing nothing but her white coat.

Her makeup was a bit smeared. She smiled like Hunter III had never seen her smile.

“Had a nice nap, little Hunter?” Livia asked. “Did you dream of being a fish?”

“No, no dreams.” Hunter III said.

“I’ll have to write that down. How do you feel?” Livia asked.

“I feel really weird.” Hunter III said.

For a moment Hunter III felt an intense and sudden sense of anxiety about Livia’s words.

“Were– were you just toyin’ with me? Like a test?” Hunter III asked dejectedly.

“Oh no, I greatly enjoyed myself. It was an experiment, but not a frivolous one.”

“Not like the kind when you stick me with stuff?”

“Absolutely not.” Livia said. “I hope I gave you as good a time as I received.”

“I felt real good.” Hunter III said. She smiled back, bearing her teeth.

Livia laughed. “I will write that down as well then.”

“Okay?”

“How would you feel about another round? I can make more time for you.”

Hunter III’s eyes drew open and she felt a tightening sensation between her legs.

“Eh– No– I think I oughta be watchin’ out for Leviathans.”

“So you can’t do that during sex? I’ll write that down.”

“Are you sure you didn’t do this just to write down stuff about me.” Hunter III mumbled.

“My priorities were pleasure first. Yours and mine.” Livia said gently.

“But you’re still writin’ stuff down.”

“I am always writing stuff down, little Hunter. But I did not sleep with you just for that.”

“Okay. I guess– that makes me feel some kinda way.”

“A better way?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad. I really don’t want you to feel like I used you. I think we both stood to gain.”

“I guess so, huh?”

Hunter III laid back in bed, sighing, swinging her tail.

They had done this, so, would things change? Were they like Norn and Adelheid now?

This was an aspect of humanity she only really understood in relation to examples.

She had observed Hominin, spied on them, watched their cultural products.

So she was not entirely alien to these concepts, but she still did not understand them well.

Her feelings were so much more complicated than she could explain.

“So– do ya want me to do anythin’ now?” She asked.

“Just be yourself. Continue to serve in your capacities.” Livia said.

“That’s it? You’re really not gonna ask me anythin’ more?”

“Yes. I do not want to interfere with your life, and Norn would be displeased if I asked for your exclusivity or loyalty.” Livia raised a finger to her lips, wearing a coquettish grin. “Of course, if you could devote time and visit my clinic more often, I would be ecstatic at the prospect. I am– intrigued with you. I would love to– understand you better.”

She hesitated a few times.

Hunter III could see in her aura that Livia’s feelings were complicated as well.

She did not push her to say anything. She didn’t even know what she’d want to hear.

That they loved each other, or whatever? Hunter III hardly understood what that meant.

She did know that she would look forward to fucking her again. She enjoyed it.

Livia tasted good. Her skin, her sweat, her blood– suddenly, Hunter III felt anxious again.

“Hey, uh– you don’t seem like you have a good sense of like, keepin’ alive. I feel like oughta say. Someday, if I get too outta hand– I could end up eatin’ more than y’bargained for. I could bite down, and keep bitin’, and not stop until I’ve bitten through everythin’. I would feel really bad if that happened– I don’t wanna eat any of Norn’s friends! I really don’t wanna. But if we keep doing this it could happen! I can’t say that it never won’t, do you get it?!”

She was so distressed. Her head was full of conflicting emotions.

Who cares if one hominin went missing?! What kind of omenseer would bother?

Who cares– she was so delicious, even! Maybe Livia was more delicious than anyone!

And yet, in that moment, this was also bound up in a grave and painful feeling.

In any context– not being able to see Livia again would really hurt her.

Livia had given her meat, and taken an interest in her, and said nice things–

(They had explored each other’s flesh as never before– more intimate than eating–)

–there was no replacing her, she was not just any hominin anymore.

It would hurt Hunter III if she ate her, and she was gone and would never come back.

(It would hurt Hunter III if Livia could discard her as easily as Hunter III could kill her.)

“I’m not completely helpless. Nor suicidal.” Livia said. “But I’ll keep it in mind and take appropriate precautions, for both of our sakes. I admit, being eaten by you would be such a fascinating biological experience in its own right– but I know it would distress you.”

“You’re so weird.” Hunter III said, averting her gaze. Feeling embarrassed.

“Do you want to know why I became a doctor, Hunter III?” Livia asked, grinning again.

“It’s because you’re kinda crazy.” Hunter III said meekly.

Livia laughed. She crossed one bare leg over the other.

“Because the human body fascinates me.” She hugged her arms around herself. “I want to feel the thrill of biology, to touch the source of being alive. Taking care of patients ended up being something of its own reward, sometimes– but I purely, selfishly wanted the chance to influence my own body and those of others in every possible, available way. To study every surgery, to learn every drug, to know every chemical, to observe every protein.”

Her slender fingers slid along the exterior of the injector she was fidgeting with.

Hunter III thought that this woman sounded insane.

However, she had to admit also, she was fascinated by her too.

Yurii might have wanted to eat her, but Livia wanted to be eaten. That was appealing.

“So you did all this because you like injectin’ yourself for fun huh?” Hunter III said.

“An efficient way to put it.” Livia said, spinning the injector in her fingers.

“Well. I like you so I’m glad you’re here, I guess.” Hunter III said. Averting her eyes again.

“I like you quite a bit as well, little Hunter.” Livia said. She smiled. Hunter III felt calm.

Casually and calmly, Livia then turned around to her computer, nonchalantly back to work.

Hunter III simply watched her silently from the bed.

Contentedly demanding nothing.


“I’m back in the same meeting room. Spin up the line to Trelleborg.”

“Yes, milord.”

From the bridge, the Antenora reconnected to the relay and contacted Trelleborg.

Trelleborg continued to be connected to the laser relay network because it technically used a relay set up by the defunct Imperial Petroleum Company. It was one of the earliest cable relays, running between Rhinea, Palatine and the Great Ayre Trench. With the entry of Bosporus, Veka and Sverland into the Empire, the supply of petroleum increased to such a degree it bloated the reserves, and therefore, the price of petroleum collapsed so deeply that even the poor could drink some with every meal– if they had peculiar tastes.

The Imperial Patroleum Company abandoned its now meager extraction operations in Ayre and the Palatine, and the earliest Trelleborg outlaws converted much of their infrastructure– including taking over data communications themselves for clandestine purposes.

After the Fueller Reformation, when the network was revamped and wireless capabilities were added, the Trelleborgeans added laser and acoustic capacities to their own relay. It could not be reached automatically by Imperial computers, but with knowledge of Trelleborg’s data address there was nothing to stop communication with them.

They were never blocked, and the cables were working as they always had. Much like other illicit operations in the Empire, they were unacknowledged and unthought of, and this was enough. Those who wanted to make use of Trelleborg still could. That was that.

So long as they were discrete, anyone with wealth and connections could play with fire.

This time, rather than connecting to the Naval HQ operators at Klagenfurt, the Antenora connected to an automated system ran on the Trelleborg mainframe whose only function was to receive the appropriate data address and connect the requester to it. There was no human element. If you knew the address, you could input it and reach someone. If you did not, and you guessed wrong, you were kicked out for some amount of real time. The Antenora knew exactly who it was trying to reach, so it was soon connected.

“So I’m allowed to watch this one? How gracious of you.”

“Quiet.”

Norn was accompanied in the private meeting room by Adelheid.

She was annoyed at being left out of other business, so Norn mollified her for once.

On the screen, a metal wall came into view first. Bare, nothing in it.

However, Norn could see the blurring edges near the bottom and center of the image. There was something being censored so that there was only the bare wall visible. There was no sound for a few moments– then, suddenly, the screen flashed, and there was an inversion of white and black. Adelheid nearly jumped, frightened by the sudden shift.

A pencil-scrawled smiley face appeared.

“How did you get your hands on this address? State your business!”

As a distorted voice came through the screen, the childishly-drawn smiley face flapped its scrawled lips in turn with the voice. Mentally, Norn overlayed the familiar voice she remembered of this character, over that which was being broadcast.

Before Norn could speak up, the voice resumed with greater intensity.

“Don’t even think about trying anything– I can easily take advantage of the direct connection to fuck with you in ways you can’t even imagine! I’ll lock you out of everything!”

“I don’t doubt it, Amur.” Norn said. “But I would find some way to go wring your neck for it.”

When the distorted voice next sounded, it took on a more emphatic tone.

“Huh?! Cocytus?! Cocytus is that you?”

“Indeed– but henceforth, call me Norn, or our business is concluded.”

“Oh! Indeed! Indeed– for one so great as you–! I– W-w-wait one moment please.”

Audio and video both briefly cut, but the connection remained stable on both ends.

“Hmph. Are all people from Trelleborg this far up their own crevices?”

Adelheid stared at the screen with an aggrieved expression, arms crossed.

“It was a cheap scare, you don’t have to be embarrassed.” Norn replied.

Narrowed eyes and a turned cheek. Adelheid refused to look at the screen again.

Her cheeks soon glowed with the light of the LCD as the picture resumed.

Now they were clearly looking at someone’s office.

There was a desk, a big chair with leather backing and barely any of that bare metal wall from before. Most importantly, there was now someone occupying the desk. Gloved hands briefly steepled in front of her face before laying on the desktop to unveil grinning lips. A fair and girlish and pretty face– belonging to the excommunicated Sunlight Foundation Immortal once known as Amur, and apparently still going by that codename.

Amur seemed to be doing well for herself, judging by her clothing. A gold-trimmed purple sportcoat buttoned over what appeared to be a ruffled silk shirt, hugging her thin frame close; gold cufflinks, dark wine-colored gloves; resting lightly atop her head was a purple kepi military cap with a golden badge in front depicting what seemed to be a waveform graph. Out from under her kepi, a wavy bob of silky, light blueish hair fell neatly to just over her small shoulders, with swept, sleek bangs over her forehead. Her eyes were clearly cybernetic, blue with subtle but visible rings of millions of photoreceptors.

Norn could also see the vague impression of her antennae, which were very thin, neon-blue and semi-circular, jutting out of where her ears would have been. Only the vaguest impression of their existence was perceptible beneath her hair, but Norn had known her when these antennae were larger and more obvious and far less aesthetically pleasing. Given the upgrade, Norn surmised Amur had access to a laboratory. Or was still friends with people on the bleeding edge of cybernetic research– but very few people other than herself would be doing such advanced research into new gear for Hartz syndrome victims.

“Greetings, Co– ahem, Norn! Norn the Praetorian! Of course, I knew this already. You quite liked that story of the fate-spinning Norn that Ganges told you– so when I heard that an Imperial operative by the name of Norn was making waves, I knew it had to be you. I’m glad that you were able to escape Yangtze’s clutches. And ecstatic that we can do business!”

An enormous sunshine-y smile appeared on her face, and she raised V-signs in both hands.

“I am also glad Yangtze did not keep me sedated and preserved in a jar forever.” Norn said.

“Of course, what an unreasonable and evil woman. Did you know that vile Yangtze IX tried to contact me to repair our relationship? Hah! I told her where to stick it! Never again!” Amur said. She put on an expression of exaggerated and fake pity and sympathy, pouting almost as childishly as Adelheid. When she spoke again, she talked so fast. Her nasally voice and conceited tone were just as annoying as Norn remembered them. “You know Norn, I would have absolutely resisted such actions being taken against you, but I did not know until Yangtze VIII was dead and the Alamos facility imploded. By that point I had been kicked out by Yangtze too, that bitch! She accused me of running away when we fought Mehmed, like I didn’t do my best?! Like it mattered against that monster?! At any rate Norn–”

“Amur, I don’t care.” Norn said. “You are on my shitlist just the same as the rest.”

Amur’s eyes drew wide and she froze with an index finger in the air, mid-sentence.

“Huh?! So you did mean it when you talked about my wringing my neck–?”

She looked suddenly frightened as if Norn was in the room and able to wring her neck.

“Amur, I am here because I want to put you, specifically, off my shitlist.” Norn said.

Amur just suddenly put her hands back down, crossed her arms, and looked smug again.

“You do?! I mean– of course you do. You always had a fantastic eye for a talent and such a good head on your shoulders, Norn! Yangtze and Euphrates and all those fuddy-duddies were just holding you back! Keeping you down! You were always destined for bigger and better–”

Adelheid narrowed her eyes. “How do you stand this woman always lying to you?”

“I make an exception because clearly something is wrong with her.” Norn replied.

Amur continued talking and gesticulating without acknowledging the interruption.

“–as always, dear Norn, you may consider the door to my humble shoppe open–”

Norn sighed. “Fantastic. Shut up now and listen to me.” Amur stopped in her tracks, and began staring nervously at the screen. Norn continued. “I am headed into Rhinea to refit my vessel. I need a few things from you. Primarily, I want to purchase your services as a crew member. I will need electronic support in Aachen. I am limited in what information I can gather, and I am walking into a pit full of vipers with very little intelligence. I cannot rely on the Fueller family or the military anymore, and I burnt my bridge to the Inquisition. It has to be you. You can work from Trelleborg if you can’t make it to Aachen. I’ll go pick you up later. Secondly– What’s with the gesticulation? Are you not able to deliver, Amur?”

“No, no, no!” Amur said. She had been waving her hands defensively. “Not at all, dearest Norn! I would be thrilled to work for you and of course I have the capability you need and more! A genius such as myself would be running digital laps around anyone in the City of Currents!” She put on a little smile again and gestured to herself with her hand. “It’s just, my services are generally paid through a flexible package deal, sliding scale, based on the task, and you know, my costs and fees and deductibles and hazard insurance and such–”

“I’ll pay you in Palladium reserve bars. Guaranteed pure by Fueller treasurers. Doesn’t that sound more appealing than bullshit Imperial marks? I bet your buddies in Trelleborg would love it. And, I’ll throw in something you’ll find even more valuable.” Norn said.

Amur’s eyes lit up at the word ‘Palladium’ and her mouth opened slightly for the rest.

Adelheid glanced at Norn with a skeptical expression on her face.

Norn pulled out a portable she had laid on the desk in the meeting room beforehand.

Switching it on, a wireframe model of a Diver and its various parts appeared.

For a moment Adelheid looked a bit scandalized, but quickly hid her expression.

“Yangtze has a fascinating new toy.” Norn said. “I will give you all the data I have on what she calls the Jagdkaiser type I, including field testing and maintenance data, machine logs, and any blueprint and stitcher data Yangtze offered to support operations. You can keep the data, but I want you to analyze everything, and create a machine on this basis. I know of your interest in prosthetics– you have just enough materials science pedigree for this, don’t you? I’m sure your renowned genius can fill in the rest of the blanks– what do you say?”

Amur’s eyes drew bigger and wider with each additional clause.

She blinked, seemingly realizing her mouth was hanging open.

Quite suddenly, she smiled and shut her eyes and put her hands behind her back.

Leaning forward, sticking out her skinny chest.

“Consider yourself the new employer of a renowned genius, indeed! Indeed! It can only be Amur, the trickster goddess of cyberspace!” She said. Pausing for a laugh that made her voice sound even more nasal for a moment. “I will make sail for Aachen posthaste– until I get there, I will work remotely in whatever capacity you need. Digital intelligence? Electronic warfare? Signals? I can do it all!” For a moment there was a bit of a glow underneath her hair– she had increased the power to her antennae as a demonstration. “Norn, I am so looking forward to our partnership. I haven’t been this excited to work in decades!”

“I knew you would come around.” Norn said. Grinning to herself.

Amur had an– excitable– personality, but she was potentially incredibly useful.

Especially her connection to Trelleborg. Having access to a Host was valuable.

Norn might need a place to run to in the future, if nothing went well.

“In fact, let our partnership bear fruit right away.” Amur said. A conspiratorial gaze and a mysterious grin appeared on her face. She closed in on the screen as if whispering. “Norn, I have connections in the Sunlight Foundation still. There’s been juicy drama recently– the rest of the Immortals are quarreling! Even Yangtze and Euphrates are not getting on–”

“I was aware of this.” Norn said, interrupting. “I appreciate you telling me all the same.”

“Oh! I must give you something to prove my worthiness though, on my own honor.” Amur said. “Did you know then, that Hudson has apparently relocated to Rhinea? Several cargo ships from Theseus Applied Cybernetics, her front company, left Bosporus and the Palatine for Rhinea with significant loads. At the same time as the Volkisch Movement in Eisental is debuting a Shimii brigade under the influence of the Nasser family– don’t you think it’s a big coincidence? Could Hudson be a Shimii nationalist, perhaps? A crypto-nasserite?”

“Now that is something I did not know. Something juicy, too– let’s keep an eye on it.”

“Aye, aye! Captain!” Amur made a mock salute. “Say, may I ask a– clarifying question?”

“Of course. No need to be so stuffy– aren’t we old war buddies?” Norn replied.

Amur looked briefly uncomfortable. She tapped two index fingers together.

“It is about that actually– am I off your ‘shitlist’ as you say, now?” Amur asked sheepishly.

Norn smiled. “Completely. I would not think of touching a hair on your head– that is to say, I will not seek vengeance for past slights. You know how things work of course– if you make poor decisions on this job, your neck will quickly become imperiled again. So rest easy, knowing you will render excellent service and not piss me off so monumentally. Right?”

Continuing to twiddle the same two index fingers, Amur averted her gaze, smiling.

“Of course. I would not dare think of it. I will be a real MVP on your team!”

“That’s the spirit. Start making preparations. I’ll give you bearing data periodically.”

Amur turned back to the screen. She smiled, again– but it was a different kind of smile.

Gentler and much less conceited.

“Norn, I wanted to say– business and profits aside– it is actually nice seeing ‘Cocytus’ again. I– I am truly sorry for what happened. I know– It’s been decades.” Her voice sounded pained. “This must seem like a joke to you, but I think, all of us held you in high esteem.”

Anyone else, Norn would have just cut off and told to fuck themselves. How dare they?!

Euphrates, Ganges, Yangtze, any of them, the pathetic ringleaders of that horrific circus.

However, seeing Amur break her pretense gave Norn just a bit more patience.

She would not give an answer to it. There was no answer to it. It was too painful to touch.

Because Norn recalled the joy she felt in the presence of the Immortal’s “esteem.”

And it was a void in her heart that nothing would ever fill.

Like family she wouldn’t have again. They destroyed it; she destroyed it. It was gone now.

“Let’s talk business later, Amur. I have preparations to make. Good luck; and be cautious.”

Amur nodded solemnly in acknowledgment. Norn shut off the monitor. Her hand lingered.

“I think she turned sincere at the end, Norn.” Adelheid said. A bit of unearned melancholy.

Normally Norn would have told Adelheid to mind her own god damned business–

“I know. But it doesn’t matter. Let’s check up on Selene again and get this boat moving.”

–but her heart had softened a bit, and the only defense against more was to keep moving.


The Antenora soon resumed its journey from Southern Ayre, skirting the Aachen Massif and the Ayre slope down to almost 2800 meters deep in the Northern Eisental plain and hooking west-bound to the other side of the mountains, heading for the station itself.

Along the way the floodlights and cameras caught glimpses of the eerie, alien and desolate landscape of the deep plains. Long stretches of barren, rocky ground or mounds of sand. Life gathered around the dunes, where marine snow collected on solid ground for detritivores to consume; around hydrothermal vents where tube worms fed on minerals surging out of the earth in great billowing gas jets; around red coral born of agglomerated katov mass, eerie tumors on the cracked skin of the planet; and it teemed on the corpses of large animals, like whales and collossal squids, edible to masses of worms, abyssal crabs, and small, bony, blind fish. All of that life, hiding until the death of something made them alive anew.

Through small gatherings of abyssal fish; crabs flitting across the sand; undersea clouds of drifting jellyfish passing through the empty water like their own storm, their very life the thunders; and the glowing circles of beautiful death represented by massive siphonophores, colony organisms lashing out at the little lives around them with neurotoxin-filled stingers. It was so difficult for humans to see such things, for the dark depths of the ocean battled their comparatively weak electric lights to the bitter end. Viewed only through the cameras, the world seemed to empty. But with all of a ship’s sensors, it was possible, at times, and across the spans of days and weeks of sailing, to connect many lives together and see the Ocean still not dead. Perhaps impossible on a station, where lives were stationary.

Out on a ship, however, the instruments awaiting death caught these glimpses of life.

“Siphonophore– 30 meters long– attaching the picture– ahh! A lovely little addition!”

Using pictures from the ship’s navigation cameras, Petra Chorniy-Sunnysea filled a digital scrapbook page with an image of the siphonophore they passed by and her thoughts on it. It was very long, and it was shiny, and it looked blue, when it was lit up by the Antenora’s spotlights. She thought its enormous size and colors were impressive. She had filled the pages with pictures, observations and little lessons she picked up. Her portable computer, with her diary and scrapbook, were Petra’s only valuable possession aside from her weapons and armor, which her lord, Yurii Samoylovych, had taught her to hold dear.

Petra eagerly catalogued the many animals the Antenora went past, as well as the sights.

In her heart, and in her pages, there was a journey through a world teeming with life.

Some people thought her behavior was childish and hypocritical for a murderous knight.

However, Petra had an enthusiasm for all things. She was alive and she loved living.

Her heart was simple and untroubled. She did her tasks with a clear head and good humor.

Petra did not think that her relationship toward death precluded her interest in life.

Whalefalls begot new life; assassinations and assaults created new political possibilities.

Some things died so others could live. Her master lived; her enemies would die.

There were many wicked people in the world; Petra thought Yurii was a very virtuous lady.

Yurii loved life; Petra loved life too. So aligned, master and servant remained in harmony.

Petra killed to live; for her master to live; and so they could enjoy the beautiful world.


“Alright, we’re commencing the briefing. Everybody sit down and shut up.”

Next to the Antenora’s bridge there was a specific meeting room used for debrief and for strategic planning with large gatherings. There was a monitor at the end of the room that could be divided into eight discrete cells with different videos, and desk-chairs in six rows of four. Normally there was a podium but Norn had moved it to the side. In attendance were Norn’s trusted officers, including Adelheid, a tired-looking Selene in a pilot’s bodysuit, a very bored-looking Hunter III, and the working regulars like Livia, Yurii, and Petra.

Neretva had also been summoned, along with three drone managers, one representing the security team, a second representing the sailors and a third representing the bridge. They would relay the information to the rest of the drones and create work schedules.

“I’ll begin by stating that while our objective for the foreseeable future will not be combat, there may well be outbreaks of violence so we need to be prepared.” Norn said. “Part of avoiding combat is knowing where we stand, who to distrust, and having plans laid down.”

She gestured toward one of the divisions on the main monitor.

Then, a logo with a scrawled smiling face wearing a kepi cap appeared on every cell.

“We will be receiving electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and signals support from Amur. She will deliver the rest of the briefing on Aachen. Take it away.” Norn said.

She stepped away from the center cells of the divided monitor so Amur could claim them.

Her real face briefly appeared, greeted everyone, and then a diagram of Aachen appeared.

Including its sub-structures, like the interiors of the Aachen Massif, Stockheim, and so on.

In the audience, Neretva was suddenly scandalized and stood up with a nervous expression.

“Milord, that woman is an excommunicated member of the Sunlight Foundation.” She said.

“So?” Norn asked. “That’s my problem, not yours. Sit back down.”

Neretva’s voice trembled. “But– what if she steals data? You don’t know what she’s–”

“You continue to involve yourself in matters above your station at your own peril.”

At Norn’s warning, Neretva froze up. Selene reached up and pulled her down by her shirt.

Successfully getting Neretva to sit, her hands on her lap and her eyes down at the floor.

Amur’s face appeared on one of the monitor’s next to the diagrams, smiling cheerfully.

“Milord, that Neretva is one of Hudson’s direct apprentices. She might be a liability.”

“No she won’t.” Selene spoke up suddenly. “She’s too much of a wimp to do anything.”

Norn found that assertion a bit more defensive than she would like– but she ignored it.

“I am the only one here who needs to be worried about personnel decisions. I will not hear a word more of this from any of you. Continue with the briefing, now.” Norn said sharply.

“Absolutely, milord! I was merely serving my advisory capacity! Your wisdom and charisma are, as always, deeply impressive and worthy of your grand legend.” Amur averted her gaze as soon as Norn threw her a sharp glance for her flattery. She then cleared her throat and finally commence with the actual meat of the briefing. “At any rate– welcome, ladies and gentleladies, to Aachen Station. Our present objective is to dock at Stockheim and begin the Antenora’s refit. We will also resupply the Antenora, and secure the continuing cooperation of Fueller family loyalists within Aachen to ensure a smooth journey onward.”

Amur extended a hand to her left, where one of the monitors displayed the Stockheim port.

“We will be staying with the Stockheim Shipbuilder’s Guild, under the auspices of a private ship repair and luxury ship design company, Quicksilver Cruising Limited. These guys have a pretty dodgy history within Aachen, but they pay off the Shipbuilder’s Guild for the badge, so they look legit to the untrained eye. Somehow they finagled an exclusive contract for luxury craft to the Matternich family, who are aligned with the Fueller family– so in essence, they are our allies once removed. They have been accused of supporting organized crime, but that’s common for port companies. Nevertheless, we should not rely on them for anything more than discretion and exterior retrofit work. Limit contact with Quicksilver Limited and its employees as much as possible. I’ll keep an eye on them too.”

With another wave of her hands, as if performing a magic trick, Amur dispersed the wireframe diagram of Stockheim and brought up one of the main tower. Its interior was made up of ringed walkways encircling different multi-story atrium spaces each of which hosted something different, like central hanging gardens and sculptures.

Superimposed on the main tower was a logo of a knight’s helmet with two wings growing out of it, one black and one silver and gold, all surrounded by flourishes of cloth.

“Security in Aachen is provided under contract by Rhineametalle’s exclusive subsidiary and military contractor, the Uhlankorp. Specifically,” an orgchart briefly appeared, but Amur quickly selected one particular part and zoomed in on it without heed for the rest, “by the Third Regiment of the Uhlankorp, which operates as a service called On-Site Security Outcomes or OSSO. None of the Uhlankorp has ever seen battle, but the OSSO are especially just trumped up Patrol with the least restrictive recruiting policies. That being said, it would be annoying to get in trouble with them, so just do your best to keep things above board. However– Norn, it does appear someone actually got to them before us.”

Once more, the screen shifted, now showing a picture of Aachen’s surroundings.

Several dozen kilometers south of Aachen, Amur pointed out a circular area.

Itself encompassing a few kilometers of empty wilderness.

“OSSO kept it on the DL, but a ship full of body armor and heavy weapons sent from Stralsund to Aachen went missing recently and they have no idea what happened.” Amur said. “Rhineametalle wanted to stock up OSSO as a precaution owing to recent events in the region. They saw what befell a certain group of thugs called the KPSD in Kreuzung when things got out of control over there. It would be embarrassing if a certified regiment of the Uhlankorp failed to protect their station from a terror attack, right? So who took the guns then? Well, I can come up with a quick list of likely suspects for you–”

Three more organizations’ names appeared over the diagram of the main tower.

“The Nationale Volksarmee, Reichsbanner Schwarzrot, and Eisern Front. Three leftist terror groups now rumored to be joining forces– with Aachen as the negotiating table.”

All three of the organization flags melded into a red, black and yellow flag, labeled,

Eisental United Front.

“We’ll be walking into a fairly volatile situation in Aachen! All we want to do is resupply and refit, but it looks like we’ve been assigned a hell of a place to do it!” Amur said, sounding quite amused. “Eisental’s political situation is tense enough as it is. The liberal government in Aachen is on the cusp of being replaced by a Volkisch Gau, and who knows what they’ll be scheming. Now the United Front will be sniffing around too, sizing each other and the Uhlankorp up while they work out this rumored alliance. And who knows whether their members will be able to maintain basic discipline? There could well be an unforeseen incident. And that shipment of missing Uhlankorp guns might just be the dynamite waiting to be lit up and thrown. On top of all that, there’s the Mycenae Military Commission in Stralsund, and then the Shimii post-jihad groups simmering in the background–!”

“Yes, it’s a very fertile ground for trouble.” Norn said, interrupting Amur’s excitable rant. “Which is why everyone needs to be on guard and on their best behavior. I want daily activity reports from anyone who left the port, and before you leave, you’ll be submitting a shore leave request. Unless I personally go with you, nobody leaves Stockheim without submitting a strict timetable. If you are even a second later than written, I will make you regret it.”

Norn cast eyes around the room but most prominently cast them at Selene.

“Huh?” Selene responded near immediately. “What are you looking at me for?”

“You will control your volatile moods in the station. Are we clear?” Norn said.

“Of course we are!” Selene said. “I’m not fucking insane I have tact, you know!”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll be expecting those forms soon if you want to go goof off.”

Selene turned her cheek with a pout. Adelheid patted her on the shoulder.

Norn then turned to Hunter III, who had been mostly staring at her own hands or at Livia.

“Hunter III. You will also be under strict scrutiny. I will have work for you, but it must be conducted exactingly.” She said. Hunter III pointed at herself as if she was confused about who was being yelled at. “There’s no other numbered little cannibal here is there? I will be using you for what you were allegedly made for– infiltration, asset retrieval, maybe even assassination. When I give you a target, you will meet it, without deviation. Are clear?”

Technicwise y’all aren’t the same thing as me, so it’s not cannibalism.” Hunter III said.

“Are we clear?” Norn asked again. This was her final but foremost concern.

Hunter III grumbled in response, crossing her arms and hiding her face with her hood.

“I know how to follow orders! I’m not dumb! Just tell me what the heck to do!” She said.

“If necessary I can always apply certain drugs to make her compliant.” Livia suddenly said.

Hunter III nearly jumped with surprised. Norn looked at Livia briefly then grinned.


Weeks removed from Goryk’s Gorge, the slightly less damaged Antenora finally docked in the Stockheim port in the row of berths that was administered by Quicksilver Limited.

The Antenora’s first day at port was taxing– a flurry of calls, payments, accommodations for the ship. Veiled threats leveled at Quicksilver orderlies to mind sensitive information when dealing with Fueller family property; reservations made with various people and venues; gathering the permits they needed through the liberal government or the grey market.

Owing to this chaos, everything that needed to be done in Aachen was briefly deferred.

In a rare turn, Adelheid was almost as busy as Norn, having been the one to take inventory and so now assisting in victualing and resupply by contacting various wholesalers and brokerages in Aachen. There were a few notable shortages plaguing Aachen, such as fresh spicy peppers and coffee beans, and so Adelheid ended up chasing as many tails throughout the day as Norn had to and put in a very remarkable effort. She was ordered to rest and relax the following morning and stayed in Norn’s own room after a night spent de-stressing.

On the second day, a drone informed Norn that an ‘enemy vessel’ had docked beside them.

“Clear the target paint, it’s nonsense. What vessel could it be?” Norn said.

“The computer has identified it as the Pandora’s Box at a 68% confidence.”

“What? Let me see.”

On the bridge, Norn watched the cameras pan over to the neighboring berth.

Her smile then stretched slowly from ear to ear–

–at the sight of that very slightly refined but still quite unseemly olive-colored hauler.

“I’ll be stepping outside for a moment. Tell Adelheid I’m greeting some old friends.”

“Yes, milord.”

Alone, Norn left the ship through the boarding chute connected to the station berth.

She found herself in a tube-like hallway of steel and glass, elevators connecting it to lower floors, conveyors connecting deeper into the actual port infrastructure of Stockheim. One continuous hall, sparse in decoration, connected every ship in this particular level. Norn’s berth and every vertical row beneath and above it was owned by Quicksilver but right next door there was a berth owned by a league of leftist trade unionists instead.

And in that berth, they had a clandestine guest, the same as she was.

When she exited out onto the hallway, she turned quickly to the bulkhead for her neighbor.

Both ships had pointed their cameras at each other, so they both likely flashed warnings.

Norn waited with amused expectation, hoping to see a certain conceited blond captain–

And found herself more surprised and amused when the bulkhead door finally opened.

Not Ulyana Korabiskaya, not Euphrates, not Elena– nobody she expected aboard.

Instead, a Katarran woman and an equally Katarran companion walked out onto the hall.

From their differing modes of dress, Norn could derive the hierarchy quite quickly. To her the woman with the long red coat and matching military cap, with the button down shirt, pencil skirt and tights– she gave off the energy of someone almost a Katarran warlord. Her dark blue hair falling down her back, heeled shoes, the sword at her hip, and the quiet confidence with which she carried herself, the beauty and grace evident in her every movement.

She was someone who was groomed for command.

Meanwhile the pale-haired girl in the hoodie and pants was just some punk she hired.

“Is that ship under new management?” Norn asked, grinning all the while.

Her appraising red eyes met the wayward, mismatched eyes of the Katarran leader.

“Norn the Praetorian is carrying out ship inspections far from home, it seems.”

The woman responded. They walked to within a few meters of each other.

Close to the bulkhead leading to the Pandora’s Box.

“You know me, of course– but may I have the pleasure of an introduction?” Norn asked.

“My name is Erika. I am an independent security contractor.” Erika said. “This is my ship.”

Erika– she felt like someone familiar. Norn almost had the connection made.

“You were sold a strange bill of goods, lady.” She said. “I’ve had trouble with that ship.”

“Have you any trouble with it today? Consider its business to be my own business.”

“I am merely curious. I hope those bastard cutthroats are still doing alright.” Norn said.

Erika smiled. “All of them are whole and hale, and rendering excellent service.”

“Now I know who you remind me of.” Norn said. “Ever since I saw you, I was thinking.”

“Indeed?” Erika said.

Norn gestured toward Erika’s coat with an even more self-satisfied expression.

“You’re the mercenary who fulfilled that suicidal contract put on Admiral Model’s head. Mismatched eyes, blue hair, horns, and running around Rhinea.” Norn said. Erika blinked her eyes and drew them a bit wider, for just an instant– recognizing that she had been correctly identified, not just as a Katarran or a mercenary, but for that specific deed. Norn saw her hand come to settle on her hip just over the pommel of her sword, but remain there.

“Have you come to settle the grudges of the defunct Rhinean navy, Lord Praetorian? Or have you only come to settle your own?” Erika said. To her credit, her determination held firm.

Norn could not see a shred of fear or hesitation in her aura. She was standing her ground.

And yet, she was also not making any overt aggression. She had a very cool head.

“Neither.” Norn said. “Model would have been an enemy now, so you did me a favor. And you gave Rhineametalle a black eye in the process too, from what I’ve heard. I’m surprised that you are able to continue operating in Rhinea after such brazen deeds. I respect it.”

“I am able to continue operating precisely because of my brazen deeds. Mercenaries who take no risks may not die, but they are unable to live. By risking my life for something I may lose my life, but my convictions earn me comrades and benefactors.” Erika said. “Killing Model made me more allies than enemies. I would hope to count you in neither group.”

Norn grinned at her after her little story. “Truly? You don’t desire to court my favor?”

Erika’s expression remained perfectly dispassionate and neutral.

“If you’ve a job, I will evaluate it like any other, and if accepted, I will carry it out.”

“Ah, so you’re not above working for me.”

“No, but I am above coming into your debt, and seeking to put you in mine.”

“How honest. I am fond of honest people.”

“I am simply keeping cautious of the fire which I recognize now burns in front of me.”

“Well, enough flattery.” Norn said. “I feel I’ve taken the measure of you, Erika Kairos.”

Erika reached out a hand to offer Norn a shake.

“No flattery. You are known to be a woman of great pragmatism, with an agenda of your own. I think neither of us need to stand in each other’s way. In this time of chaos we don’t need to fight hard to accrue new enemies. So we should not make them casually.”

Norn took her hand and gave it a firm shake.

“How is Elena von Fueller? What if I wanted her back?” Norn asked in a hushed tone.

For a moment she saw Erika’s aura shift. She wondered how this woman would respond.

“She is a civilian free to do as she wishes. And I will protect that freedom.” Erika said.

She meant every word she said. There was no lie from those lightly red-painted lips.

“I am glad to hear that. That foolish little girl is luckier than she appreciates.”

Norn let go of Erika’s hand and turned around with a dismissive air, showing her back.

Of course, Erika would do nothing with that opportunity, nor take offense.

There was not another word for her as Norn casually returned to her ship.

For the Pandora’s Box to be under Katarran management made no ordinary sense.

Erika Kairos must have had something to do with the leftists in Aachen.

And she had augmented her strength with the Union-backed troops in the Pandora’s Box.

Things in Aachen were about to get very interesting. Look at what the currents swept up!

“Pandora’s Box– I don’t know whether you are cursed or blessed anymore.” She laughed.


As soon as Norn disappeared from her sight, Erika’s solid purple aura turned a deep green.

Wafting up from her shoulders as if no longer anchored to her body. Broken, suddenly.

Her breathing grew more labored, and she felt discomfort in her tightened chest.

“You did really well, Erika.” Olga said. “I was surprised at how cool you kept during that.”

“I used Saint’s Skin to smooth over my emotions for a while. I was terrified.” Erika said.

Her voice was chattering. Repressed fears began to pour out of her mind.

Norn the Praetorian– even just her presence seemed to stir the world around her.

All of the legends of her brutal power swirled in Erika’s mind.

When she laid on the pressure, even subtly, it was so difficult to retain one’s peace of mind.

Had she been trying, or had ill intentions, who knows what could have happened?

Maybe Erika and Olga could have matched her if their meeting came to blows.

Maybe. None of them would have walked out of it unscathed.

Thankfully, she suspected Norn would not have picked such a pointless fight.

“I am glad I took the initiative on this.” Erika sighed. “I feared Ulyana saying something out of hand, or worse, actually exposing someone like Elena to Norn. Now that we have satisfied her curiosity, I think she will carry on with her own business. She is powerful enough that she could have had any opportunity she wants to attack us– I don’t believe she is interested.”

“I’ll have people patrol here to keep an eye out nevertheless.” Olga said. She sighed. “We just touched down and we already have to have security at the port. We’ll never have peace huh?”

“We’re not in the business of peace, I’m afraid.” Erika said. “It’ll only get harder for us.”

Both of them cast eyes at the conveyor that would take them deeper into Aachen proper.

They had finally arrived, where the currents of their own war had taken them.

Past and present converged on the City of Currents; and may well decide their future.

Inside that shell of metal and humanity, the United Front would begin its ordeal.

Eisental United Front Status

Nationale Volksarmee (Provisional)

Reichsbanner Schwarzrot (Provisional)

Eisern Front (Unknown)


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.6]

Slender fingers twined around the handle of the porcelain cup.

Warm water poured over flowers and herbs and a bit of rough raw agave.

Mixed vigorously with a steel stirring stick. Dried with a flick, put away in a drawer.

Next to the loaded pistol. Precise tools for specific problems.

She lifted the cup to her lips and absentmindedly sipped of it. A touch of agave gave the tea sweetness and a bit of unctuousness. Otherwise the taste was very mellow and grassy. She had prepared the cup purely because she wanted a warm drink. There was no caffeine, because she did not permit herself to drink caffeine. Caffeine was not healthy.

However, this made it difficult to work deep into the night as she was.

She continued to work even as her eyes grew heavier.

Not out of a sense of the value of this labor; out of obsession with the result.

And a touch of paranoia.

Next to the cup was a portable on which she was writing with a digital pen.

With her fingers, she could swipe up and down between digital workspaces.

Taking notes over them in digital ink. It helped her process the information.

On one workspace, there was a series of dossiers with detailed personal data.

Swiping left, she saw numerous faces scroll past.

On the other workspace there was a spreadsheet of locations and offices in Eisental.

Swiping left on that workspace showed her the vastness of her new realm.

These assignments were a monumental task and she would delegate them to nobody.

Everyone for whom she had a dossier was qualified to serve.

However, not everyone could be completely trusted to be loyal to her designs.

“The National Socialist Labor Unions.” She mumbled to herself as she looked over a file.

Some of the dossiers were not people she was appointing, but people she was investigating.

So far, there was little resistance from labor leaders in the core strategic industries to the prospect of joining the state-sponsored labor unions. Because the previous liberal governments had done so much to support strike-breaking and extortionary labor practices, and tacitly approved the firing of union workers and the hiring of scab labor, especially in the strategic sectors– the very idea of the government reaching out to labor at all was viewed as a ground-breaking positive step in pro-labor sentiment. Labor organizers in high-grade steel, plastics, primary and middle manufacturing of plates, missile engineering, and semiconductors, had all approached her about the N.S.L.U scheme with interest.

However, she could not take them all at their word so easily.

Therefore, she had the Sicherheitsdienst investigate several of these labor leaders.

That only added to the amount of information she had to personally sift through.

Her self-appointed task tonight was to get through the highest government positions first.

Sleep could come later. There was always time to do nothing.

It was the window to act that Destiny constantly tightened in its white-hot grip.

She had to at least be sure the Gauleiters were all people that she trusted.

Aachen’s Gau office was staffed much more quickly due to circumstances–

Everywhere else, Reichskommissar Violet Lehner wanted to be more dilligent.

In the middle of going through the potential appointments for Stralsund, which were tricky owing to the presence of the Mycenae Military Commission in the area– Violet’s thought process was interrupted by the door into the office opening and the sound of boots.

Rather than the grandiose main office once occupied by station governor Werner, Violet was working in a small meeting room in the eastern wing of the government building. Only a few people knew where she was and could interrupt her. Nasser would have been praying at this hour, and was instructed to go to sleep without her– so it must have been–

Esteemed Reichskommissar, seeing as how you’re working late, may I report now?”

Magdalena van Treckow. A few associations immediately came to mind.

Semi-disowned twin sister of Hedwig von Treckow of the Treckow clan.

Aristocrats with a military tradition; one of the few families with recent achievements.

Once upon a time, such things mattered among aristocrats–

now, this Treckow was just a Standartenführer.

“I am always happy to host you. Would you prefer to sit or stand?” Violet asked.

“May I move as the mood strikes, your grace?”

“Very well. Continue.”

In response, the officer performed a stage bow that made something in her leg creak.

Her body bore all manner of evidence of her already brutal career.

Magdalena was very similar to her twin sister– a tall and stately woman, beautiful, gallant, lean and long-limbed, like many in her once-noble house. She had dark hair down to the shoulders and cut a handsome silhouette in uniform. Then the similarities ended.

While the Treckow family were known for their stoicism, Magdalena’s resting face was a conceited grin on glossy black lips. She had streaks of white hair, perhaps prematurely aged by her experiences in life. She bore a complex scar across her neck that looked as if she had survived a deep slitting of her throat from jaw to collarbone. Exposed owing to her style of wearing her shirts and coats quite undone near the top. One arm and one foot missing; the foot replaced by a blade in her boot that Magdalena liked to show off at times; the arm by a multi-digit replacement limb that was more in line with what Violet had seen before.

On her sleeves, she had the armbands for the Zabaniyah and the Esoteric Order, along with an armband bearing a black box with a white hooked cross inside. It was a curious object to some, as nobody else in the organization wore it. This was because it was old– the armband signified the former Aktionsgruppe IV, a fake transport flotilla that Violet used to manage in order to smuggle goods to fund and supply Zabaniyah auxiliaries, thus hiding the fact that her personal forces were larger than they seemed. Violet no longer had to hide her ambitions or the size of her total forces in Eisental. Still, Magdelana kept wearing the band.

“As you requested, I’ve been on alert. However, despite the candor of his words during your little meeting, we have no signs of incoming reprisals of any kind from Adam Lehner. His attention appears to be fully directed south. He is losing his window to act on us.”

“He is aggravated with me but he cannot afford more enemies.” Violet said.

“Not only can he not afford them– according to my information, both his physical and his political capital would fray at the seams against any attempt to bring us into line.” Magdalena said. “I have credible evidence of growing support for us within important parts of Lehner’s coalition. Rhineametalle is of course obvious– but in the political classes, several of the Gauleiters in the Rhinean heartland expressed willingness to collaborate and made public statements congratulating you on ending the strikes in Kreuzung. No sanctions from corporations; no attempts by the main command of the fleet to subordinate our forces, or even to call for inspections in Eisental; we appear to be silently tolerated. Your father has been put in check.”

As she spoke, the woman wandered side to side in front of the desk.

She would flourish her arms, make exaggerated expressions.

“I appreciate your vigilance, Magdalena. But don’t call him my father. It annoys me.”

“Duly noted, your grace. To have caused you to frown would cause me to wilt.”

Violet ignored her flattery and put down her digital pen.

She closed and opened her fists.

Everything was going her way but she could not help but feel unsettled.

“I do hate that we are at the level of divining intent from public statements.” She said.

Her intelligence inside Thurin, and in the office of the Fuhrer, had to be improved.

She wanted to know the instant that clown in the high seat blinked.

Magdalena did not look too concerned. Her wanderings brought her over the desk.

“Once we have formal contact with more of the Rhinean Gau, we won’t have to guess. It is only a matter of time, Reichskommissar. You must relax!” Magdalena leaned much closer to Violet’s face, meeting her eyes with a viper’s smile. “Everyone can already see your ascendancy. Adam Lehner is squandering his moment, he is too much of a fool– he has influence and connections, but you, Reichskommissar, have all the brains. You have done in weeks more than he has in months. It is an unequal contest you are certain to win.”

Magdalena licked her own lips after speaking.

She leaned in so close that Violet could smell the tobacco smoke from her lips.

Any further and she might have stolen a kiss.

Violet said nothing. And so the flattery continued.

“Not only that, but you are a true revolutionary. Aside from the Esoteric Order, the Libertarians and the Neotribalists are already seeing that unlike the so-called Fuhrer, you will not betray the revolution of the Volksgemeinschaft to the wealthy and the intellectuals. You are looking out for the national worker and the soldier, lifting them up! Only you have the rhetoric and organizational skill to sway all of the rightist groups to your side.”

Violet turned her cheek, offended by the reek of the tobacco.

Magdalena reared back just a little bit.

“The Libertarians and Neotribalists are unreliable bellwethers.” Violet said calmly.

Her biggest weakness outside the Esoteric Order was that she was a degenerate queer.

Within the Order, such things were secondary as long as the correct obeisances were spoken.

They cared about the mythology of nationhood and supremacy much more than the details.

Outside of the Esoterics it was much more of a minefield.

Violet was almost certain that she was mixed race, and this was only successfully hidden because it would have made the elder Lehner appear less photogenic to the extreme right-wing organizations. So on her papers, Violet was any ordinary Imbrian. They could see it, however. The Libertarians, the Blud Bund, the Neotribals, the Traditional Fatherhood Front. They could see it. It was part of the reason she focused on Nation and Service over racial polemics. Violet had to be careful to continue playing with the fire of the Volkisch fringe.

Whether or not Magdalena caught or understood the subtleties did not matter though.

Whatever Violet was now, it would all be obliterated by what she would become.

Her plan was to attain power such that her own identity could be anything and not matter.

She would simply become the sword of the inexorable Destiny of the Imbrian Nation.

All the fools who had childish ideologies failed to understand the true driver of change.

Violet had applied herself dilligently, exploited opportunities in business and law, built up her wealth, made corporate connections– because she understood the nexus of power.

Capital could buy strength; and power was crystallized through the execution of force.

She would not rely on the purely ideological support of troglodytes like the Neotribalists.

Fools like the Libertarians could take their multi-point social plans and swallow them.

Violet had already seen her own future. With Eisental in her hands, she would acquire legitimacy through stability. Crushing the dissidents, rewarding the collaborators, and exercising effective management of capital. She would fix the problems that plagued the buffoon in Thurin. And then she would build her spearhead. With the applause of the common folk, she would recruit and equip the best troops, build ships, and march.

And the Shimii would be the core of her new order, the phalanx of her Destiny.

A fierce warrior race with discipline, humility, scholarship, and a long history of grievances to fulfill. Properly prepared with Eisental’s bounty, her Zabaniyah would align all of the disparate elements of the Volkisch– by force. They would never fully accept her, but they would bow before her sheer strength. She would make them. That was ultimately the glue binding the Volkisch Movement. Adam Lehner took over power formally, he got the votes– but he executed that power to legitimize arbitrary violence, and in the terror was his real strength. Idiotic niche ideological groups only followed him because of this violence.

Rightists would cower and fall in line; leftist dissidents would be exterminated.

Soon their opinion on Violet’s lifestyle would not matter.

Endsieg was close at hand.

Violet was a slave to this future. She would not exist without that vision.

For now, however, she had to play within the rules of the game so she could break them.

“Has Imani set sail for Aachen yet, Magdalena?” Violet asked, returning to business.

Her subordinate was not so keen to step away from the desk, however.

With the way she bent, exposing so much through undone buttons– quite lascivious.

And that gaze– it almost gave Violet pause from the hunger in it.

Exuding the aura of a predator.

Sizing Violet up as if for an attack.

Treckow, business? Now? Get a hold of yourself. I am not joking.”

Violet snapped her fingers. Magdalena grunted a bit.

Looking offput by the response.

“Hadžić just got out; it will be a while yet before the fireworks start.” She said. Her eyes wandered as if the subject bored her, but she continued to hover in the personal space of her Reichskommissar. “Sawyer’s militia was slow to muster. Apparently the main command of the militia in Bremen sent her a very large gaggle of underage soldiers as reinforcements.”

“Fine by me,” Violet replied, “I was hoping the casualties would fall as much on the militia as possible. Wiping out a generation of Blud Bund morons in the process is a bonus.”

Magdalena smiled and began to rub the fingers on one hand over the surface desk.

“The Uhlankorp’s involvement is being discussed as well. Rhineametalle is agreeing to supply everything en route. I am not sure Hadžić will sort it all out, this feels a bit messy.”

“Hadžić will indeed work it all out. She’s one of Nasser’s inner circle.” Violet said.

“And that’s all it takes for you? So easily impressed by wagging tails?” Magdalena said.

Violet fixed her eyes on Magdalena, again meeting the woman’s own cryptic gaze.

There was an ardor in that expression that Violet continually met with apathy.

“It’s too late for you to bring that sort of agenda into this. You know how I am.” She said.

“Oh, Reichskommissar, that is not it at all. Race aside– I’m simply wary of their commitment. They are unproven. I am skeptical; because I have killed a lot more for this movement.”

“I’m not skeptical and only my opinion matters. So be at ease. Shimii have done dirty work for the Lehner family for years now. I trust Nasser more than anyone.” Violet said.

“More than me? I’m hurt. I’ve done so much for you, your grace.” Magdalena whimpered.

“I’ve done quite a bit for you too. Enough that you still owe me more than I owe you.”

“How cold. You reject me so easily. If you wanted, I would protect you from anything. I would relieve you of every burden and give you any comfort you wanted. We are all alone here, nobody would have to know. As the supreme leader, you could easily have me.”

“If you are done reporting, you are dismissed.” Violet said.

Magdalena leaned even closer over the desk.

Falling over it like a misbehaving cat.

“Violet– In Bosporus I was a wild animal– it was you who gave me back a human soul.”

Suddenly, Magdalena laid her hand like a claw on Violet’s own.

Her fingers pinched Violet across three knuckles. There was an instant of pain.

Violet jerked her own hand back.

This prompted Magdalena to burst out laughing.

“Very funny, Treckow.” Violet said. “Whether or not you are sincere, you are dismissed.”

Not angry, there was no point in it; just mildly annoyed at this amorousness.

She returned to her work, expecting Magdalena to see herself out.

“I am just playing my role. This play needs a chaste heroine,” Magdalena gestured to Violet, “a courtly, heroic romance,” she gestured toward the walls, at no one in particular (Nasser), “but also a devilish rake, whose temptation might steal away a tender heart.”

Finally Magdalena gestured to herself, laying a hand on her chest and bowing slightly.

Violet finally looked up from her work again with a sudden smile.

“Treckow, you don’t understand the genre. I am not a chaste heroine– I am a Valkyrie descended to make humanity pay for its sins with blood and iron. So who are you?”

For a moment, Magdalena simply smiled. Looking entirely too satisfied with herself.

With a final, silent bow, she took her leave from the stage. Casting one last look at Violet.

Violet almost heard the applause following in her wake, before returning quietly to work.


On the upper story of the John Brown’s interior pods, the hall was wide enough for two (somewhat short, somewhat thin) people to walk abreast. Ulyana and Eithnen were almost scraping the ceiling with their heads. While the wall plates were bare metal, the floor and roof were green. There were removable panels with obvious bolts everywhere. Flanked by doors on either side, the hallway was shorter than the Brigand’s upper hallway by half.

Eithnen and Tahira led them down those crowded halls and ducked into a small room.

Ulyana and Aaliyah followed.

There was no empty space in the room that they entered.

There was a table in the center and two long booth seats made up the walls. There was a monitor on the wall opposing the door they entered through. When closed, that door formed the final wall of the room in its near totality. So they had all the amenities to hold a productive meeting, with the table itself serving as a digital pad for writing or displaying graphs and documents. But they had to do it without room to stand.

“One more is joining us. He’ll be here shortly.” Tahira said.

“Will he fit?” Ulyana asked, smiling to show she was not serious.

Eithnen grinned in response. “Beats standing out in the hall.”

“Good point– I can see why you laid the sick men in the hangar.”

“I had to! Our infirmary is like a god-damn morgue. Only room enough to die in.”

“Are all Republic frigates this tight?” Aaliyah asked.

“I’ve never served in anything smaller than a Cruiser until now.” Eithnen said.

“To be clear, the layout of the John Brown is not in itself designed as a punitive measure.” Tahira said from Eithnen’s side. “This is indeed the layout that is standard to all In-Line-2 class Frigates as designed by StanDy Innovations– it is a deliberate design. There are many advantages to it– it’s easier to run maintenance as all systems are tidy and accessible. It’s also cheaper to manufacture. But our doctrine relies on a fleet support system.”

“Like having access to a fleet hospital ship.” Eithnen said.

“In the Union it would be seen as inhumane to not have a stocked infirmary.” Ulyana said.

“Wish I’d been born on your side of the planet.” Eithnen said, smiling a bit.

At that moment the door slid open again.

Eithnen waved at the entrant while Tahira sidled up closer to Eithnen to give him room.

Owing to his height, he had to slouch. He was taller than Ulyana or Eithnen certainly, and fit too, with strong arms and a wide back. His skin was dark brown, and his black hair was tied into a multitude of long braids which themselves were collected into a ponytail with a fluffy yellow hair scrunchie. His uniform consisted of a blue jacket worn over a white shirt and long pants. He was probably older than Ulyana– more signs of aging on his face.

From the moment he sat down, he had a big smile on his face.

“Burke Zepp. G.I.A.– or, well, ex-G.I.A. I guess. Pleasure to make your acquaintances.”

He reached across the table and gave a firm handshake to both Ulyana and Aaliyah.

“Pleased to meet you as well.” Ulyana said. “I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.”

“Aaliyah Bashara.” Said the Commissar.

Ulyana noticed her infrequent glancing at Tahira. Aaliyah was wary.

“So, everyone’s here.” Eithnen said. “Let’s talk, Ulyana. I’m sure you have questions.”

“How in-depth are you ready to go, Aaliyah?” Ulyana asked.

At her side Aaliyah looked surprised by the question. “I trust your judgment, Captain.”

“In that case, I’m curious to know how you came to be in this predicament, Eithnen. I would also like to know what your status is with regard to the Republic. It will not change any of my judgments as to how we could cooperate, it will just help guide my interactions with Republic personnel– for example, if the G.I.A. could re-arrest you, I need to know.”

Tahira seemed to want to interrupt, but Eithnen noticed and prevented her from doing so.

“It’s fine Tahira. None of us are bound by the regulations anymore. We abandoned that.” Eithnen said. Tahira still looked quietly offput by the notion, but Eithnen continued speaking, meeting Ulyana’s eyes. “I’ll give you the short version Captain. Everyone here has their own story of how they were confined here. At the root of it all is that we were all convicted of felonies in our respective home regions in Alayze. If you’re a felon in Alayze, you basically have no rights even if you serve your sentence. Can’t vote; undesirable for jobs; and it’s tough to even get a bed to sleep in. In that situation, there’s only one thing you can really do: if you ‘volunteer’ to a penal unit you can get your record cleaned. That’s why we are here.”

“That is why most of us are here.” Burke said, interrupting. “Do they know about Kitty?”

Eithnen nodded. “They’re pretty well-informed. And they saw her handiwork first-hand.”

Burke nodded back. He turned to Ulyana with a conflicted expression.

“I was a G.I.A. agent in perfectly good standing, but my mission failed. I laid low for years, moving in the underworld, cautious not to attract the attention of the Imbrians– until I heard about Kitty’s operation. I was all ready to go back to fighting for my country like a fucking clown– and then for all my trouble as soon as I met Kitty she immediately cast suspicion on me as a traitor and saboteur and had me trapped here. Unfortunately for her, the bombs they strap to the reactors on these penal ships aren’t a match for my skills. So I helped Eithnen and her crew get something of their freedom back in Kreuzung.”

“Those are the nobler stories. I– I was– just was one of the jailers.” Tahira said suddenly.

Ulyana and Aaliyah both stared at her. Eithnen shook her head and sighed.

“She’s being dramatic. She has helped us immensely, we wouldn’t be alive without her.”

“Regardless– up until recently, I fully participated in their incarceration.” Tahira said.

“Tahira, stop it.” Eithnen said. “I trust you; don’t give them the wrong impression.”

“That does not change the facts of what happened Eithnen, or who I am.” Tahira said. She turned a pensive expression on their communist guests and paused for a moment before speaking. “Captain Korabiskaya, you want to know our probable standing with the Republic? Most people on this ship are criminals. I am a traitor, having aided and abetted their escape. Should the Republic catch up to us, they will take the ship, which is the valuable asset– and exterminate the rest of us. Shot and thrown out to sea like trash. We represent dissent among worthless people who should only be able to fall in line for our masters.”

“Tahira was a Republic intelligence agent before.” Burke said. “Like me, she’s better aware than most people here how the Republic operates. She’s also being way too hard on herself.”

“She is.” Eithnen said, holding a hand on Tahira’s shoulder and squeezing gently.

Tahira reached up her own hand to touch the Captain’s. She nearly broke into tears.

Ulyana had assumed a few things about the condition of the ship as they spoke.

She noticed Eithnen was fair-skinned, but most of the crew were darker-skinned like Tahira.

Imbrian racism was more complicated than that– they could hate fair-skinned Eloim and Volgians quite dearly– but this was still a signifier that Ulyana well understood. Tahira must have been someone who made it within Republic intelligence despite her ethnicity.

How unbelievably cruel to make her the boot on the necks of her kin.

Ulyana could not imagine what she was feeling.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya, this ship is still sailing, but its crew is not alive. We have no future.”

Tahira pulled down her glasses and wept into her glove.

“Tahira–”

Eithnen spoke up to try to stop her adjutant from further breaking down.

Ulyana spoke first, however.

“Tahira, this is not the Republic of Alayze. It is time you stopped thinking like it is. You are in the Imbrium Ocean, and we are officers with the Labor Union of Ferris, Lyser and Solstice. Right now, you are speaking as if the Republic can do anything about your situation– but the Republic’s presence in this ocean has been utterly destroyed and furthermore, I would argue the Union would not want the Republic to have a strong say in what is done militarily this deep in the Imbrium. So it’s not up to Alayze to dictate your fate any longer.”

“Are you offering to give us shelter? That is unrealistic, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You are allied with the Republic. Your country will have to comply with their laws.” Tahira said.

“Not necessarily. In the future, the Union and Republic may well go to war.” Aaliyah said.

Just as Tahira had spoken suddenly, and surprised the room; now Aaliyah did the same.

“Aaliyah!” Ulyana said, more amused and surprised than she was angry or annoyed.

“It’s the obvious truth.” Aaliyah said. “Right now, we are talking as if the Union is a state with sovereignty on par with the Republic, so let us examine that scenario in detail. Should the Imbrian Civil War end in a position where the Union’s continued existence means anything at all, the Republic will demand the Union open itself to the Republic’s economic sphere, which we’ll resist. Furthermore, say that in theory the Union ultimately declares itself to be the successor state of the Imbrian Empire, and guarantees the territorial integrity of the Imbrium– then the Republic might even seek war reparations for hundreds of years of battles with the Imbrian Empire. The Republic is a capitalist state. Its ideology, just as much as that of the Imbrian Empire, assists in the extraction of wealth, nothing more than that. Eventually they will desire to have an extractive relationship to us as well.”

Ulyana did not want to enter into the topic of total war with the Cogitum ocean.

However, the topic had been opened, like the Pandora’s Box that she had come out of.

She sighed deeply and could not stop herself from putting a hand over her face.

Eithnen looked somewhat amused at the behavior of her guests.

“That’s uh, pretty grim, to consider.” Burke said. “Though, not wrong, I suppose.”

Tahira wiped her tears and readjusted her glasses.

Eithnen continued to squeeze her shoulder.

“So, Aaliyah Bashara– what you are suggesting is that, since you believe Solstice will go to war with Alayze, and that this is an inevitability, you will give us asylum as defectors to the Union. In return, we can assist in your future conflict with the Republic.”

“No ‘in the future’ is necessary. I was never going to demand that you submit to military service in perpetuity. However, you can join us in our current battle, right now.”

“Absolutely!” Ulyana interjected, finally recovering. “Help us fight the Volkisch!”

Her sudden enthusiasm seemed to bring a smile to the face of her Commissar.

Burke crossed his arms and smiled a little too. Eithnen put on a warm grin.

“Tahira might have reservations; but I have no problem saying: to hell with Alayze!”

“Then our soldiers will never see their homeland again.” Tahira said.

“From what you said, they have no future there any way.” Aaliyah replied.

“I would not have put it so bluntly– but there is truth to it.” Ulyana said.

“I understand Tahira’s concerns.” Burke said. “For some of the crew here, they did truly believe there was a chance of getting their records cleaned and seeing their families again. Even now, they might not understand that the law is rigged against them because they love their home. They might not take kindly to being told we’re all joining the commies.”

“Then that’s my responsibility as their Captain to give them all the information and the choice to leave or stay. However much of a bad joke that might sound to some of them.” Eithnen said. “I’ve let everyone else speak up, so now it’s my turn. In my eyes, the Republic betrayed me and all of the people on this ship. None of this should have happened. In a just world, none of us would be on this ship. We were abandoned! I blame that squarely on the Republic of Alayze. I am on this ship at all, because I dared to speak out against this very policy. They court martialed me on spurious grounds and then made me responsible for the lives of this crew. Ulyana– when a Captain of a penal ship refuses to serve, she goes back to jail, but the crew are almost always people with long sentences or a stay of execution. They would have been buried and never given another chance– that is why I am here now.”

Ulyana was unsurprised but only by the degree of malice the Republic employed.

It was the specifics of the malice that continued to shock her.

Not even Nagavanshi would do something like this. It was so cruel for so little gain.

“Ulyana, I want asylum to the Union.” Eithnen said. “And I will take it upon myself to talk to the crew. If enough of them want to leave, would you agree to give them the ship and let them go? They don’t stand a chance– but I can’t keep coercing them to follow me even if I think my decision is the correct one. They’ve been fighting under duress for too long.”

“I agree.” Ulyana said, near immediately.

Aaliyah glanced at her but said nothing to the contrary.

Ultimately, Aaliyah would defer to whatever decision Ulyana made.

However, from her expression– it didn’t seem like she disagreed much with Ulyana.

“We should inform Premier Erika Kairos about this.” Aaliyah said.

“I will. I think she will agree with my decision.” Ulyana said. “Eithnen is right– ethically, I refuse to press gang the people of this ship. From a practical perspective, it would be disruptive to drag them along unwilling. So I will leave it to the officers here,” she gestured toward the other side of the table, “to organize your crew, and make your decisions. However it goes, we will do our best to see you off with food and medicine.”

Ulyana and Eithnen shook hands on it, both wearing a very similarly jovial smile.

“Captain, I want to apologize to you.”

Tahira spoke up again and extended her hand toward Ulyana as well.

“I misjudged all of you. I thought communists would be more severe to us.”

“Honestly, what do they teach all of you intelligence people about us?”

Ulyana smiled and shook Tahira’s hand, accepting her apology.

“Thank you so much, Captain.” Tahira said. “I– all of us really care about the people here.”

“We’ve been through a lot together.” Burke said. “This is the first ray of light we’ve seen.”

“We’re happy to help.” Ulyana said. “Say, Burke– do you know a ‘Marina McKennedy’?”

Aaliyah glanced suddenly at Ulyana and then averted her gaze entirely.

Burke shook his head. “Never heard that one. I assume she’s G.I.A.?”

“Yes. She’s on our ship– it’s a long story, but she might like to meet you.” Ulyana said.

“Long story huh? Well, now I’m real curious.” Burke said.

“We’ll have more chances to talk. Long stories are perhaps best left to text.” Aaliyah said.

“Yes, we will get everything squared away here as soon as possible.” Tahira said. “After that we can formally sit down and develop our communications if we decide to join your group. No use starting that process right away if we might not get crew consensus in place.”

“Quite sensible. Well, I am hoping we get a chance to work with you all.”

Aaliyah reached out a hand and shook with Tahira.

Neither gave the other any further suspicious looks.

Ulyana felt satisfied with the result.


“Fuckin’ commies.”

Marina swore at the walls of her cell, knowing it could have been much worse.

Knowing she was in the wrong but still wanting to resist.

That had been entire life in a nutshell, she thought. Being wrong; struggling uselessly.

“At least Elena is doing okay, I hope. I didn’t get to teach her much.”

The Union’s solitary confinement cells had a bit of gradient to their level of torment. Depending on the settings that the jailers allowed the prisoner to access, it could be made more or less stressful. It seemed the commies did not have the heart to torture Marina psychologically for weeks, so the cell bed was out and the cushioning was adjusted to actually be comfortable to sleep on. There was a small device on the wall that played a selection of Union songs– most of them annoyed Marina and at first she thought this was one of the punishment rather than comfort settings. Every song had some kind of risible commie seasoning to it. “Love like proletarians,” “the rhythm of the factory floor,” “the collective farm worker’s song,” Marina was quickly sick of it. She did find a few songs that did not have lyrics and manually put these on repeat every so often for stimulation.

Befitting its function, the cell was very small. There was room for her body on the bed, and a bit more room next to it where she could walk up and down along the bed. It made the rooms on the ship feel like luxurious suites in a Stralsund pleasure hotel. While the lights were dim by default her jailers had engaged the cell-mode that allowed Marina to select the color. This was an exercise in doing their work for them and driving herself insane– she could make the interior of the cell a dim purple, a dim green, a dim blue or have it cycle through the rainbow. She would not bother with those settings for too long.

Three meals a day were guaranteed to Marina. Each of them was some kind of reconstituted mush. Buckwheat and oatmeal porridge with apples; potato salad that was more like a vinegary mashed potato; hummus with dried tomatoes, mercifully served with a fresh soft biscuit. Out of everything the biscuit was the most healing thing– Marina had really come to enjoy Minardo’s fresh cooking despite the commie vegetarian food ethos.

A particular source of amusement for Marina was the tool she was given to eat with. All of the commies normally ate using sporks. But Marina was handed a disposable, very thin plastic scoop thing that looked like a tiny coaster. When she asked about the utensil, the Yu girl (as Marina mentally nicknamed Zhu Lian) told her it was an Absolute Safety Utensil. Marina could not cut herself with it, fashion it into a weapon, or even use it to take her own life, since it was easily swallowable by an adult. She could only eat with it.

“Kinda overkill isn’t it? I’m not trying to break out or resist or anything.” Marina said.

“We’re just following protocol.” Zhu Lian said.

Her meals came in through a slot and the plastic safety tray went out through the same slot.

So went her first day of solitary confinement.

Marina had been locked up in the Escatulum for over a decade.

She could handle this much.

Probably the commies also knew this. They just had to do something.

She did not blame them, so she complied with her punishment as much as possible.

Even if she tried anything, those two psychos Ulyana kept around would easily kill her.

Just as Marina was thinking about them, time had passed, and she requested a shower–

And at her door, appeared the autistic blond psycho with the mask, in a security bodysuit.

Along with a full-size AK-pattern assault rifle over her chest, on a shoulder sling.

Marina raised her hands. “Whoa! What the hell are you doing with that?”

Valeriya Peterburg looked down at her rifle as if it was nothing interesting.

“It’s protocol for high security prisoners.”

“Protocol?! It’s protocol that you’ll dome me if I request a shower?!” Marina shouted.

“Lower your voice.” Valeriya said.

It was impossible to gauge emotion from her voice.

She lifted the rifle to show Marina that it had a bright blue colored magazine and barrel.

Indicating that it was a rubber pellet rifle– a less lethal option.

Marina was still incensed.

“Why did they send you? I formally request the Yu girl or the Gallian girl to help me.”

“I am unsure of who you mean.”

Valeriya was nearly whispering and it drove Marina up the wall.

“The other security girls! Don’t act like you don’t know!” She shouted.

Valeriya narrowed her eyes slightly.

“I am required to perform routine security tasks now. I will take you to your shower.”

“I won’t be part of your sensitivity training! I want to talk to the Captain!”

Marina was well aware that this dead-eyed freak and that Illya were both loose cannons.

She wanted nothing to do with either of them. They were dangerous!

Valeriya audibly sighed and stepped back from the door to the cell.

Laying a hand on the underbarrel and trigger guard as prelude to a shooting stance.

“Please follow my instructions or I will have to use force to secure compliance.”

“God damn it! Fine! I will be filing a complaint!”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Valeriya walked Marina to the showers, and waited at the door while Marina doused herself in cold water and grumbled, shooting her venomous looks every so often. She had been secretly hoping she might meet Minardo or Kappel in the showers, but there were only two other occupants: a loud waifish blond girl with a purple dye job and a brown-haired mixed chick with a huge dick arguing about something incomprehensible with her.

Annoyed, Marina showered, got dressed and got out of there as fast as she could.

“I appreciate your cooperation.” Valeriya said on the walk back.

“Fuck you.” Marina replied.

Valeriya silently returned her to her cell, locked her in there and left just the same.

Marina pounded her fist on the wall in a fit of anger.

She immediately regretted doing so.

Then she sat on the bed, holding her hand, and listening to the Union anthem instrumental.

Until some indeterminate amount of time later, there was a knock on the door.

Because the food slot opened, Marina thought it was just meal time.

She sat on the bed waiting. She then saw an eye peeking in through the slot.

“Marina, it’s me, Ulyana. Is it okay to open the door?”

“You’re the boss. You open it whenever you want.” Marina said, surprised to see her.

“Alright. Sorry about Valeriya– Anyway. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

That was unexpected. Wary, Marina said nothing as she stood from her bed.

When the door opened, Ulyana was accompanied by a tall, dark-skinned man.

Someone she had not seen in decades– but across that time she still knew him instantly.

“Burke?!” Marina shouted with surprise. One of her first G.I.A. field agent partners!

“Wait– that voice? Blake McClinton? Is that really you?” Burke responded.

Marina started smiling and the tears just came out without warning.

“It’s Marina McKennedy now. But yeah.” She said. She sniffled. She couldn’t believe it.

“Oh my god! Man– I mean, girl! Holy shit!” Burke was just as taken aback.

Burke and Marina both stepped forward and embraced tightly, laughing together.

“Holy shit! I thought you were gone off the face of Aer!” Burke said.

Running his hands through Marina’s hair and squeezing her closer.

He was tearing up as much as he was laughing. Marina had the same uncontrollable joy.

She pushed herself into him with all her might. Her heart was soaring.

“I thought I was too! Look at you! You look so hard, but you’re still a big softie!”

“That was my charm! You know I can’t afford to lose it! But oh my god! You’re alive!”

They were practically jumping in place. Burke! He was alive! Marina wept profusely.

“Wow! I had no idea you two knew each other closely.” Ulyana said, laughing with them.

“This guy right here was one of the best! One of the fucking best!” Marina shouted.

“Aww come on, I don’t deserve that! God damn though– I’ll accept it!” Burke replied.

Aaliyah stepped in from outside the room, staring at the scene with the tiniest smile.

“Marina, we rescued a Republic ship from the Patrol.” Aaliyah said, into the happy cacophony of Burke and Marina’s reunion. She was barely listening at first, but gradually she and Burke stopped laughing and cheering and let Aaliyah continue speaking. “Since you two are good friends, this might go more smoothly– we are offering to transfer you to Burke’s ship.”

“That’s right.” Burke said. “After you were gone,” he paused for a second, “Marina,” and smiled at getting the name right, “I got caught up in all kinds of mess trying to survive out there. I ended up back on a Republic ship and got caught up in Kitty’s insane plan– similar to you, I hear. It’s a frigate, the ‘John Brown.’ Penal ship actually– but we’re free of that now. We could use your help, Marina. We have a good Captain over there, but she’s seen way less of the Imbrium than us. We need more people to get the crew in order.”

Marina averted her gaze. She stepped back from Burke’s arms. She was conflicted.

She did not know the whole story, but if Burke and this crew were trapped by Kitty–

That was also something Marina was partially responsible for.

After all, she had supported Kitty in doing all of this.

She never even considered that Kitty might be dragging penal ships into this fight too.

All she thought about was rushing to help a fellow G.I.A. agent, despite her lack of merits.

“Burke, I don’t know what they’ve told you.” Marina said. “But it wasn’t the same for me as it was for you. I decided to get wrapped up in Kitty’s plan. I did that, I made that choice myself, nobody coerced me. I helped her to find mercenaries, to get gear, and to refine her plan of attack– that Core Separation would not have happened without me. Or it might have happened, and then Kitty and the entry team would’ve been killed quickly. I don’t know– it’s useless to imagine worlds where I’m not culpable. I was an accomplice to Kitty.”

“Hey, Marina, it’s– I get it– I get it,” Burke said, “G.I.A business is always murky.”

Marina could not meet his eyes again. “Burke, I appreciate it, but this is more than that.”

“Marina, this is a way you can make up for becoming embroiled with Kitty.” Ulyana said.

“We’ve turned over several relevant files to Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin of the ‘John Brown’ concerning this matter.” Aaliyah said. “And we informed her briefly of what we know of your involvement so she could make her own decision. She was not against taking you on regardless. We’ll amend your sentence here in return for your involvement with the John Brown. They are understaffed, and they lack the real world experience that you have.”

Marina looked at the Captain, Commissar and at Burke. She felt strangely conflicted.

She was never going to be a communist nor agree with their worldviews completely.

Despite how much she hated the Republic for what it did to her, that hate within Marina was a hate for political ideology broadly. Anyone who was proselytizing for any cause made Marina wary. Hell– in her head there was not that much of a difference between the Volkisch Movement and the Union itself except for who was the target of the rhetoric and the resulting violence. Whether or not she was wrong, Marina had fallen into an apolitical centrism she did not want to make any effort to disabuse herself of. Rhetoric was too meaningless for her, she had no hope that any political theory would lead to peace.

Liberty; National Awakening; the Revolution of the Proletariat. It was all the same to her.

Pablum. Excuses for conflicts and power grabs. Liquidating some people, elevating others.

Nevertheless, Marina had come to develop a respect for the commies as people.

Out of everyone she had met, they seemed to actually give a damn about other people.

That core of ethicality, particularly expressed by Ulyana Korabiskaya, gave her some hope.

Whatever she thought of communism, the crew of the Brigand were good folks.

She knew she had burned a bridge with them– and knowing that hurt.

Had she not been so dismissive and truculent she could have befriended them.

There was another way to have done everything she had done– but she fucked it all up.

Nevertheless, they were still here now, offering her more than a bullet to the head.

Staying on the Brigand and ‘serving her sentence’ wouldn’t repair that between them.

However, she was also conflicted about going on a Republic ship too.

As much as she claimed to disdain the ‘commies,’ she did not miss her people much.

No matter what, it would not be easy to leave behind this dumb little ship full of dreams.

“Could I visit Elena every once in a while?” Marina asked suddenly.

“Elena can visit you, Marina.” Ulyana said. “She’s her own person, you know?”

Marina grinned and crossed her arms.

She ran the fingers of one hand through her hair.

Thinking.

“Heh. Right. Ah– whatever. Sure. Send me over there. I’ll straighten them out.” She said.

“Maybe they’ll straighten you out instead. I would strongly prefer that.” Aaliyah said.

Both she and the Captain were smiling in such a surprisingly friendly fashion.

“Welcome aboard, miss. We’re glad to have you. It’ll be like old times, huh?”

Burke extended a hand and he and Marina had a big shake.

Then they knocked elbows together, both grinning.

For Marina, who never believed she would get a second chance let alone a third or fourth, this was an unexpected but happy outcome. She wanted to try to make the best of it; maybe she could do everything over and do it right now on the John Brown. If Burke and his crew also saw something in these people too, then maybe it wasn’t her delusion.

Maybe the commies were actually alright.


After the battle, the first several hours were tense.

It was entirely possible that they could be detected again and pursued.

However, the response from the patrol fleet was surprisingly sluggish and noncommittal.

Once Fatima began to detect the use of active sonar pulse scanning from the enemy, it was far enough away that they could easily disguise themselves as ordinary ocean-going traffic. By forming the John Brown up between the Brigand and Rostock, and towing a camouflage sail to distort the detection picture of the John Brown, they could pretend to be a Cruiser and her support vessels and the patrol fleet was none the wiser– they never picked up the trail and the Volksarmee’s journey to Aachen therefore resumed in earnest.

They were only one day out, so the crew began to think about what they would do there.

Some of the sailors admitted they were sad to only have been sailing for a week. They preferred the rhythms of everyday work at sea and did not want to be stationary.

Most of them were excited about going to another station, however, particularly one that was not so strict as Kreuzung. Brigand sailors had heard stories about Aachen from the Volksarmee sailors on the Rostock. It was a city that had both a rich history and tradition but also had become a hub of modern and idealistic dreams. As far as they knew, Aachen had no enforced racial segregation within the station, so the Shimii, Bosporan and Katarran crew could go out and eat, enjoy the sights and be merry– within the means of their limited stipends. After the Kreuzung adventure, the Brigand was not as rich in its supplies of Imperial Marks as it once was– and Erika Kairos did not have infinite pockets.

Nevertheless, it was the next leg of an adventure that had already proven quite eventful.

“Proven quite eventful,” they could say– because the dangers had been surmounted.

There was still a chance for tragedy, in the back of everyone’s minds.

And one girl who had often been preoccupied with tragedy was Sonya Shalikova.

However, even she was starting to think about what she would do in Aachen.

She started to think she should ask Murati out for drinks or something like that.

That’s how adult coworkers socialized, right? They could go to a bar or a restaurant.

Shalikova felt that she had been silly to avoid Murati. She wanted to get more familiar.

Illya scolded her about building a confident rapport– she needed to overcome that anxiety.

Her plans depended on what the Captain needed them to do in Aachen, of course.

But if they had some free time– maybe she could get Murati alone and have a chat.

Thinking idly this way, Shalikova took the elevator back up to the upper tier. She had been in the hangar, helping to put the simulators back up. They had been uninstalled during the retrofit and they left putting them up for last. After the ship left Kreuzung, they were extremely busy integrating with the Volksarmee, running the protocol and inventory rationalizations, and in addition, the hangar was messy with additional Divers and parts.

With everything cleaned up and sorted out after the last battle, the sailors wanted to reinstall the simulators again as a token of their appreciation for the pilots. Valya and Shalikova assisted in getting the default scenarios and features set up again.

Now she was returning to her room– where there was a curious lack of cuttlefish.

“That’s weird. Maryam usually waits right here, or follows me around.”

She had not seen Maryam in a while– but she felt immediately silly about her fear.

“Oh come on. Maryam isn’t attached to me by a chain, she can go anywhere she wants.”

Wasn’t this a good sign too? Maryam could not become too dependent on Shalikova.

At any point, Shalikova could die out at sea. Maryam had to be resilient and find her own place on the Brigand in case that happened. Whatever she was doing, in her head Shalikova now completely endorsed it. Some part of her feared that Maryam was bothering people, because she heard a story about her badgering the sandwich cart guy a few times during battles– but bothering other people was all part of a healthy social life wasn’t it?

People naturally created friction right?

“Why am I so focused on this? Who cares. Maryam sleeps here. She’ll be back.”

This must have been part of being someone’s girlfriend– missing her when she’s gone.

Rationalizing away her silly fears by talking to herself at the door to her room.

And then accepting that she will return– that was what love was, wasn’t it?

“I need to lie down. I’m starting to annoy myself now. I must be more tired than I thought.”

Shalikova shook her head and walked into the room, the door shutting behind her.

Taking off her jacket and unbuttoning her shirt, she laid down on her bed.

Immediately grabbing and hugging her bear, Comrade Fuzzy, close to her chest.

She tried to empty her head, and in the course of this, she finally fell asleep.

Dreaming of nothing but raging and swirling colors of an incomprehensible nature.

For an amount of time indeterminate to her Shalikova slept, until a ‘wah!’ sound woke her.

Slowly, she opened her eyes to her gaze meeting a certain cuttlefish woman’s own.

Green W-shape pupils close to her own. A big, delighted smile.

Shalikova raised her hand blearily and poked Maryam in her nose.

“What are you doing so close? I almost jumped.”

“You just look so cute when you’re sleepy Sonya! And you didn’t jump!”

“I almost did.”

“But you didn’t– that means you’re more comfy with me now!”

Shalikova grunted and pushed herself up to a sitting position.

She hugged Comrade Fuzzy tighter.

“I guess that’s true.” Shalikova smiled, just a bit, at Maryam. “What have you been up to?”

Maryam crossed hear arms, stood up straighter and wore a smug little grin.

“Sonya, I’m very important and high in demand you know. I’m a real cuttleformant–”

“You were telling the captain what you knew about Eisental. Okay. Makes sense.”

Shalikova stared inexpressively and Maryam briefly lost her haughty façade.

“Um, I mean– yeah– but I had lots of juicy info on the Katarran hot spots here!”

“I’m glad. So what’s around here anyway?”

Maryam sat down on the bed across from Shalikova’s with a disinterested expression.

“Not a lot around here precisely, actually, but there’s Trelleborg farther north. It’s like a station made out of a bunch of ships docked together.” Maryam spread her arms wide in a gesture attempting to convey the size of Trelleborg. “To get into Trelleborg, you have to get in good with a ‘Host’ who has a bigger ship connected directly to the primary tower, the Trelleborg Bazaar. Every other ship is connected to a Host’s ship. The Hosts were there first– they’re the big movers and shakers there. The Bazaar is strictly business– nobody is allowed to control it completely. There’s strict hours of business and everyone agrees to be out of the Trelleborg Bazaar and back onto a docked ship by ‘night time’.”

“Wow, that’s pretty wild. I’m sure people violate that decree a hell of a lot don’t they?”

“Yep, they call it honor among thieves. People get sent into the Bazaar at night to lay bugs or traps or try to sabotage competitors. But if you get caught, your gang must disavow you.”

“How do you get caught if nobody’s supposed to be there? Who would be watching?”

Maryam smiled. Her head fins flapped. “The underworld has a lot of complexities, Sonya.”

Shalikova grinned. “You’re making stuff up aren’t you? You fibbed yourself into a corner.”

“Hmph! Hmph!! I do know! I’ve been there you know! It was a leg on my big journey!”

Maryam puffed her cheeks up and went red, prompting Shalikova to stop teasing her.

“Alright, of course,” Shalikova laughed, mollifying her girlfriend. “Hey, Maryam, there’s a few days still to Aachen and we’ve gone down to stable alert again– is there anything you would like to do? I don’t really have any work; might not even have any work when we get there.”

“Sonya! I do!” Maryam turned purple and her skin became brighter and shinier. “I want to watch more films! I was fascinated by the one the crew put on a few days ago! I want you to show me your favorite films! Or television! We didn’t really have any of that where I was growing up! I want to know all about the pictures that Sonya really likes!”

“Not even TV? I would have thought they would at least play some propaganda stuff.”

“Screens were primarily a military tool for Athena. Maybe there were some pictures and I never got to see any– I was pretty busy with the maps and junk, you know?”

“I see.”

Shalikova thought about what her favorite movies and shows were.

Her face turned a little red. Surely she could not actually say what she was thinking.

“Sonya, you’re going all blushy and bashful! Now I’m super curious!”

Maryam leaned forward with a mischievous expression.

Shalikova leaned back against the wall.

“You know I wasn’t a big movie watcher. There’s really nothing–”

“Sonya, no fibbing from you either! You have to tell me or I will keep bugging you.”

Making good on her threat, Maryam went as far as to sit beside Shalikova and poke at her.

Rubbing her soft purple cheeks against Shalikova’s face like a needy cat.

“You have to promise not to make fun of me. You have to swear on your very soul.”

Shalikova was being completely serious when she said this.

“Of course, Sonya! If it’s important to you, I will stop teasing. I promise.”

Sighing, Shalikova brought up a computer window on the opposite wall.

Side by side in bed, she and Maryam navigated through the ship’s media library. There were many search parameters that could be employed to narrow down the films and television available for the crew. Shalikova sorted by “Union State-funded,” and then “Commissariat of Education,” then “Political Programs” (propaganda) and finally, chose–

–“Children’s Media.”

Within this category there were only a few libraries.

Maryam’s eyes lit up as Shalikova selected the library for “Comrade Company.”

“It’s a kid’s show.” Shalikova said, hiding behind Comrade Fuzzy. “It’s a kid’s show about these little animals who learn stuff about the Union. You have to promise you won’t laugh or I will never show it to you. If you laugh at me I’m going to throw stuff at you. I’m serious.”

Shalikova’s voice was practically trembling. She felt incredibly pathetic.

“No, Sonya! It’s wonderful! Please show it to me!” Maryam said.

Sighing, Shalikova played a random episode for Maryam.

Comrade Company was an eclectic mix of presentation styles– depending on the segment the Comrades could be puppets, or they could be cartoons, or they could be stop motion clay or foil papercrafts, usually in real life settings. There were three comrades– a cat, a dog, and a bird. They always went to different places in the Union and they always had a “friend” from the specific place who helped them to understand it better. When they visited the farms in Lyser, they had a hydroponics engineer with them; when they visited the Sevastopol shipyard there was a Chief Mechanic; when they visited the Academy there was a teacher.

They would sing songs, or play educational games or get quizzed on things that they learned– in such cases they would turn to the audience to ask them for assistance.

Each comrade had their own personality. Comrade Growly, the cat, was always a bit of a skeptic and know-it-all but learned valuable lessons in trusting others and being curious; Comrade Barky, the dog, had an enormous imagination and often learned about how real things differed from their exaggerated expectations; Comrade Chirpy, the bird, was usually goofing off, and learned that the work being done by the episode’s designated Friend was very important, and learned to respect the hard work they did for the country.

At the end of each episode the Comrades would be seen with a Commissar who checked up on them and made sure everything was okay and that they were happy with their adventure. Unlike the Friends who rotated in and out, the Commissar was something like the adult in their lives who was in the background taking care of them so they could have fun and learn things. They always wore an embellished Ashura uniform. A distant but loving figure, much like the parents of a lot of Union children would be. Or a facsimile of a parent, since many Union children grew up without them and did not know such a relationship.

Shalikova was one such child who had grown up without any parents.

She had her sister Zasha, and her friends Illya and Valeriya too, but they were usually busy.

In the Union, the state spent the most time with children.

Through teachers; through caretakers, pediatricians; and through storytelling.

For her and her old roommate Klob, the Comrades were invaluable friends every day.

They showed Shalikova the world and taught her to grow up to be respectful and dutiful.

“Wow! Sonya! What an amazingly cute show!” Maryam started clapping cheerfully.

Shalikova was lucky that Maryam was a bit of a kid inside still.

So she could appreciate the show even after all she had been through.

Meanwhile, Shalikova had to avert her gaze a few times as they watched the episode.

Not as much anymore because she was embarrassed to love something so cutesy.

Rather, watching something so care-free and childish hurt her adult heart a bit.

She found herself with tears in her eyes and hugging her bear ever tighter.

After all she had done with her life– was this ridiculous?

Was it a big joke for a soldier to love this cute, silly harmless thing?

“Sonya, why are you crying? I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have been so bossy!” Maryam said.

“It’s not you.” Shalikova said. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

“Oh no, is the show bringing up bad childhood memories?”

“My childhood was fine.” Shalikova said. “It’s my adulthood that kind of sucks.”

“I understand.” Maryam said. “But Sonya, as an adult, you have a lot of freedoms to do things that kids don’t. One of those freedoms is you can always choose to keep feeling like a kid. It’s okay to watch cute shows and have a stuffed bear– nobody can tell you different!”

Maryam only half-understood the pain Shalikova felt at that moment.

However, the solidarity was enough to patch up Shalikova’s broken heart just a bit more.

Enough that she could stop crying, at least.

And think a bit more clearly again.

Just like Zasha– as an adult, Shalikova had chosen to fight. She had chosen it.

So some other kids could get to grow up with her favorite cartoon.

Maybe someday she could sit down and truly enjoy it again.

“Thank you, Maryam. Do you want to see any more?” Shalikova asked.

“Not if it’s going to make you cry.” Maryam said. “I don’t want you to feel bad.”

She was so gentle– Shalikova felt like she might cry again, but because of Maryam’s love.

“No, I’ll be fine. If you want, you can even tease me for it.”

“Never! Sonya liking cute things is something I deeply respect!”

Maryam looked down at Comrade Fuzzy for a moment and then back at the screen.

“You noticed?” Shalikova said. She held up Comrade Fuzzy and offered it to Maryam.

Surprised, Maryam gently picked up Comrade Fuzzy and hugged it as Shalikova had been.

“Comrade Fuzzy was my ‘Comrade’.” Shalikova said. “I learned to sew to make him.”

“That’s so cool, Sonya.” Maryam said. “What is he like? Did you give him a story?”

“I think he’s a grumpy guts like me, and he learns to lighten up.” Shalikova said.

“I want to make my own Comrade! Can you teach me sometime, Sonya?” Maryam asked.

“Of course. I don’t know when we’ll get sewing supplies, but I’m happy to teach you.”

Maryam’s smile was like the sun that Shalikova would otherwise never see.

She raised her arms and threw them around Maryam, pulling her in close.

Perhaps they made an odd pair, and the circumstances of their romance were tenuous.

But Shalikova loved her so much. She truly loved every second of her presence.

Without Maryam, Shalikova felt that perhaps, her life would have ended in Goryk.

Selene Anahid would have crushed her, because she had not learned how to live.

Maryam helped her to see the value in her own life. She had been through so much hardship and abandoned everything she once knew– but she continued to smile and laugh.

Shalikova wanted to live, just like her.

Not as a martyr making up for her own existence– but as a person who wanted to exist.

A person who could live and be happy.

Even when it hurt.

“Maryam, if something were to happen to me– take care of Comrade Fuzzy.”

She had been wanting to say something different– but that was what came out of her lips.

Maryam seemed to get the message even in code.

Returning Shalikova’s embrace as tightly as it had been given.

“Of course, Sonya. But I know you’re much more resilient than you think.”

“Thank you Maryam. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

Shalikova started weeping into Maryam’s shoulder.

While Maryam continued to smile and shower her in her kind and gentle affection.


“There we go. You’re so much more stable now!”

Homa held Kalika’s hands tightly as they walked together up and down the medbay.

Without fanfare, after a few rounds, Kalika softened her hold on Homa’s hands.

“I will let go until the wall, okay? But I’m still here, and I can still support you.”

Homa watched Kalika’s fingers slowly let go of her hands.

She did not fall and tumble forward; nor did Kalika disappear from her sight instantly.

For several paces, Homa walked unassisted.

Her gait was not the most collected and elegant, but she was stable and steady.

At the far end of the medbay, Kalika gave Homa room to walk to the wall.

Homa walked past, put her hand on the wall, and turned herself around on her own power.

She started walking by herself back to Kalika’s side.

“Are you feeling okay? No soreness in your legs? Feet don’t feel slippery?”

“I’m doing okay.”

“Want to take my hands again?”

Homa shook her head.

“Let me see if I can get to the other end.” She said.

Kalika nodded her acknowledgment and let her walk past.

Watching cautiously, shadowing Homa as she tried to walk to the opposite wall.

Step by careful step, still dealing with the slight difference in weight of her new limb.

With the wall coming closer and closer in sight, Homa felt her heart rise.

She stretched out her arm to touch the opposing wall–

and inadvertently crossed one foot with the other.

Before she could fall, a pair of hands took hold of her and kept her up.

“You’re doing amazing, Homa!” Kalika cheered, ignoring the fall.

Homa did not grumble or get depressed at the fall.

She sighed to herself and felt a little embarrassed but she recognized her own progress.

A week ago she thought she might never move under her own power again.

Now she was so close to walking by herself. Dr. Kappel and Kalika had been right.

Making progress with walking buoyed her heart, even though she still had a lot to think about. All the things she had been through felt easier to stomach if at the end of it she could still walk and feed herself and regain some kind of power over her own life.

She could eat with utensils in both hands now, or hold a drink while she had a spork in the other; when she went to shower, she could walk along with Kalika, balancing herself on the wall or holding Kalika’s hand if she got too unbalanced; and she had gotten to know a bit more of the ship. Kalika took her to the cafeteria and the social space.

Now as she sat on the edge of her bed in the medbay, everything felt closer to a resolution.

Or at least, to the next step in her journey.

Nobody forced her to do anything; but Homa felt a mounting pressure to make a choice.

A pressure she exerted upon herself. Wary of her caretakers; unsure of her future.

“Kalika, you’re a mercenary, right?” Homa asked.

“Oh? What’s this about?” Kalika looked amused. “Well. It’s more complicated than that.”

“What do you mean ‘it’s more complicated’? Are they paying you or not?”

Kalika laughed a bit. “Theoretically. Perhaps I’m more of a consultant on retainer.”

Homa frowned. “Don’t be coy with me! Is someone paying you to take care of me?”

“I feel like you’ve concocted ten different ways to ask this by now.” Kalika said. “Technically I am supposed to be paid for everything I am doing. But if I asked Erika for every pfennig she would become insolvent. Having a self-sufficient crew who looks out for each other is its own reward. As for you, I already told you a million times, I am just being nice to you.”

“I’m sorry you’re so fed up of me asking questions. Maybe I’ll stop.” Homa grumbled.

“What if I said you’ve really helped me work on my patience? Would you accept that?”

Kalika smiled. Homa averted her gaze, not appreciating the humor one bit.

“Are you afraid that if they stop paying me I’ll just ditch you immediately?” Kalika asked.

Homa continued looking the other way and did not answer her immediately.

“Haven’t I earned a little bit more trust than that?” Kalika asked again.

“Kalika, I don’t know anything about you other than you’re nice to me for no reason.”

“But I already told you my reasons so many times.”

“Okay?”

“It’s because you’re so cute, you know?”

“Stop it. I’m being serious.”

“Alright. Let’s talk about me then. Are you curious about the mercenary life?”

Kalika moved from the wall to take a seat right beside Homa on the bed.

Homa’s small tail stood on end and her ears lifted with surprise.

She mustered the willpower not to meet Kalika’s eyes.

“Maybe I am. I don’t know what’s going to become of me with all of you scoundrels.”

“Weighing your options?”

“Maybe I am!”

“Then I can be your career counselor for the mercenary life. How about it?”

No answer from Homa.

“If you’re curious about being a Volkisch informant, I can find a counselor for that too.”

Homa snapped right around to lock eyes with Kalika in a sudden outburst.

“Kalika! I was just mad that day– I didn’t actually mean that, come on!”

Kalika poked Homa’s nose with a long index finger of her biological hand.

“Ugh! Don’t treat me like a little kid! You’re just pissing me off!”

“I’m just substantiating my claim– I’m helping you because you’re so cute.”

“Kalika!”

THIS WOMAN–!

Perhaps knowing she was pushing her luck, Kalika allowed Homa to stew a few minutes. Homa was annoyed, but she was also experiencing a conflicting emotion. She wanted to actually believe Kalika’s teasing because she truly did not want Kalika to abandon her as soon as she job was done and Homa was able to be independent again.

Homa felt that it was stupid to feel so attached to Kalika, whom she did not know and who was assisting her on a condition of pity for her health. In the dire situation she found herself in, where she was on a fighting ship that was antagonizing the governing faction in Rhinea, Homa had to think carefully about whether to leave or stay aboard. However, even knowing this rationally, she still wanted to stay with Kalika. She was– curious– about her.

She also knew all of her fantasies would be difficult to fulfill.

Could she even keep up with Kalika at all? If she stayed, wouldn’t they still be separated?

Homa was useless in a fight and only barely an adult.

Kalika was a dashing mercenary.

She was older, more experienced, and lived for danger.

Their worlds had briefly collided– but staying on the ship did not guarantee anything.

However, leaving the ship meant leaving her behind for good.

Never seeing her again. Foreclosing on the possibility.

Not only Kalika either. Dr. Kappel, to whom she owed so much for her care.

Captain Korabiskaya too, who had taken her aboard without reservation.

And the pilots who saved her after Nasser had parried her childish retaliation so easily.

When she thought about it, she owed the entire crew so much.

Even if she had selfish reasons to stay; she also had accepted too many people’s kindness.

Homa did not believe in free things and charity– she felt pressured to repay them.

“I’m leaning toward staying aboard.” Homa said suddenly.

“Oh! I’m happy to hear that. I was worried you wouldn’t be safe by yourself.”

“I can take care of myself– I’ve always lived alone. I just want to repay all of you.”

“I understand. Look, it’s not that I don’t have faith in you. I want you to know that.” Kalika said. She looked at the wall and seemed to turn suddenly wistful. “But it’s so difficult to be turned out without a home. Especially in a tumultuous era like this. I kept thinking: could you have found a job to sustain yourself? Could you have formed a new support system so you wouldn’t be lonely and could turn to someone for help if you were hurt or exploited? Being ripped from everything you knew is terrifying. I know what that is like. But the people on this ship are good-natured. Having this community might be good for you.”

Kalika reached out and rubbed Homa’s shoulder.

“Community, huh?” Homa said, in a low voice meant mostly for herself.

“Something you can lose; but also something that spurs you to protect it.”

She sounded melancholy. Homa recalled that Kalika felt kinship with Homa’s struggles.

That she had fought for something with all her strength and lost it.

Kalika told her in the shower, when she was vulnerable. She had not forgotten it.

“Kalika, can you tell me more about yourself? How did you end up here?” Homa asked.

“I did say I would talk about myself.” Kalika said.

Then she dropped back onto the same bed as Homa, lying with her hands behind her head.

Crossing one leg over the other knee. Homa tried not to gaze in an untoward fashion.

After a few moments, Homa decided to just lay down next to Kalika too.

“You know how Katarrans come into the world, Homa? Most Katarrans are actually infertile.” Kalika began. Homa vaguely knew about this but stayed silent and let Kalika speak. “We are grown in artificial wombs. Katarran sperm and eggs are often incapable of conceiving even when collected and manipulated under the strictest conditions– but there is a technique that introduces outside material from a fertile animal, and uses chemicals to create a life in the vat. That’s how Katarrans come to be, overwhelmingly. I was no different.”

Gazing up at the ceiling as if to a place very far away.

“Kalika Loukia– was made in an Embryo Farm in Northeastern Katarre, territory of the Pythian Black Legion. Most Katarran warlord states barely have structure. They consist of armies that commandeer a region for their own benefit. Pythia was exactly that. A bunch of might-makes-right nihilists who declare their extortionism to be survival of the fittest playing out. They believe the world is drawing closer to an apocalyptic conflict between all nations and peoples, and that they must amass strength to win this battle.”

“That sounds horrifying.” Homa said. “How did you escape from there?”

“Like a lot of Katarrans in the border with the Imbrium: I was part of a raiding ship and it got knocked out in the Imbrium. I was lucky to be captured by Bureni nationalist insurgents.”

“I don’t know that I’d call sinking and being caught lucky.” Homa said.

Kalika laughed. “If I had been caught by the Imperial Navy, I would have been killed or jailed, Homa. But the Bureni insurgents were just defending one of their hideouts– they knew that Katarran youth had a hard time and did not blame the survivors for the incursion. They killed our officers and set us free. Some of the other crew joined the Bureni nationalists even. I trained there for a time, but I went my own way after that– that’s how I started my career. In the Imbrium you hear all kinds of stories abouts Katarrans who make their own way in the underworld. Amassing riches, building their own crew, and forging their legend. Even among the outcasts in Buren I could not escape the allure of the Katarran fantasy.”

She turned her head aside to try to meet Homa’s eyes, but Homa was staring at the ceiling.

When she realized it, Homa tried to suppress her embarrassment and turned to look at her.

Meeting her eyes and trying not to feel nervous as her glossy red lips moved.

“Can you predict how that went, Homa?” Kalika said.

“I assume it went fine, since you’re here?” Homa said.

“Well, I am alive, but did I forge a legend? The reality is that mercenaries don’t become legendary, Homa. A legend is just a tall tale– Katarrans just get used and abused. Whether we exploit each other, or get used by the Imbrians, it makes no difference. A mercenary doesn’t actually work for herself. She is just a vagrant with a story she tells to herself. She is a slave whose chains are invisible. We are inexorably outlawed from decent society. From town to town, job to job, all that changes is how bad the racism gets, and how developed the parallel structures of the underworld are. I learned that the hard way.”

“Kreuzung was particularly racist.” Homa said. “I barely ever saw Katarrans around.”

“Right. In Kreuzung, I could dare to walk around the same streets as Imbrians, getting dirty looks– but if a cop saw me they might ask for an ID I don’t have and can’t get, so I have to be careful. Businesses will reject my patronage arbitrarily. Sometimes a place will take my money, sometimes it won’t. I could never get a legitimate room, and I could only work a job under the table, without legal protections. If I do not relish being an undocumented migrant worker my only alternative is the underworld, in the darkest corners of a station that have not seen civil use in forever. Down there if we learn the ropes nobody will teach us, we can smuggle goods, play the black market, push drugs, or kill people. Maybe you can open a shop or a bar for other bastards to enjoy, if you can pay protection money and get goods. Most Katarrans will just die– never taught how to live, and then exploited and killed.”

A grim story, but one that made sense to Homa, once it was laid out in detail.

Homa figured that Kalika must have somehow learned how to survive in the underworld.

All the specifics she did not go into– were the things she had to do to live.

She wondered how many Katarrans fled to the Imbrium only to find this kind of life there.

And then to die without being known by anyone, or missed by anyone.

“Again, I was pretty lucky– before I could get into too much shit, I was rescued again.”

Lying on their sides on the bed, facing each other– Homa could barely meet Kalika’s eyes.

She was too embarrassed to see her smile. Kalika was just– too pretty–

“My path crossed that of a Shimii legend– Radu the Marzban.” Kalika said.

Homa tried to hide the surprise that came over her upon hearing that name.

Her heart skipped a beat. All manner of emotions began to flutter in her chest and gut.

Homa in that moment was so afraid she might have to talk about her own connection.

Had Kalika seen it in her? She did not change her expression nor how she told the story.

“I became part of a Shimii village for years. It was a Mahdist group, actually, at the bottom of one of the towers of Holstein.” Kalika continued. “I learned to do all kinds of things there– things other than killing. I also got to refine my craft as a fighter too– I picked things up here and there from every place. There are too many stories to tell from there. How do you sum it up? That place– it’s where I learned what a community was. People taking care of each other. Grocers who saw you were hungry would give you a snack. You could go to the Masjid and learn to read. They had so much hospitality even for unruly Katarran teenagers.”

Kalika shut her eyes and sighed. Her expression darkened.

“Eventually, though– well, I think you’ve heard my insinuations about it already.”

“That community was destroyed, wasn’t it? And you couldn’t save it.”

Homa said it bluntly, but she was repeating what Kalika had said in the shower.

Kalika did not look offended by it.

“That’s right.” She said. “You understand– that is why I relate to you a lot.”

Homa felt a sudden swell of shame and embarrassment and she wanted to say–

“I am not like you. You fought for something real– I was just being stupid and naive.”

But she remained quiet. She did not want to sound so pathetic in front of Kalika.

And it was Kalika’s story to tell– if she thought it sounded like Homa’s, so be it.

“Anyway, I used what I learned and became a real mercenary in Rhinea. I knew the rules and I told myself I knew how the world worked. For a while, I had no hope in anything anymore. I’d take any job, no matter how bad. I developed a reputation for being particularly professional, because I had no pretensions anymore. I was fully immersed in the life. It was a dark time for me. To this day– it still feels weird that I’m alive, after all of that. I can still feel that hopelessness and listlessness. That kind of thing will keep haunting you, I’m afraid.”

“That doesn’t sound like you. You’ve been really kind to me.” Homa said.

“You’ve been seeing a particularly nice side of me.” Kalika winked. “I can be kinda awful. I know that my crew thinks I am cynical and faithless and pretentious. I probably am.”

Kalika turned on the bed again, lying on her back once more and staring at the ceiling.

She reached her mechanical hand up and flexed her fingers, blocking out the ceiling LEDs.

“I ended up here– because I took on a contract to kill a foolish merc named Erika Kairos.”

Homa blinked. She was confused. That was the big boss everyone here worked for.

“So perhaps they have reason to be wary. But– I’m here because despite all the things I stopped believing in, I started believing that woman.” Kalika added, laughing a bit.

She then outstretched a hand and laid it on Homa’s ears, stroking them suddenly.

“Now that you know– I hope you’ll excuse my rougher edges if you see them.”

Even before hearing all that– Homa could have never stayed mad at Kalika too long.

Now that she knew though, her heart positively fluttered with admiration for her.

To have survived so much, gotten stronger and continued smiling.

Could Homa do something like that? How alike were the two of them really?

As she lay beside her in that bed, staring up at the ceiling together.

Homa wondered. Whether she could follow her.


“It’s so disgraceful how you will come all the way here to be able to drink.”

There was a voice coming from behind her that she did not want to acknowledge.

So Khadija simply lifted the can of corn beer to her lips and took a deep drink from it.

“It’s not illegal here, that’s why I came here to drink. It’s not grape wine, so who cares?”

“Yes, the selective readings of fringe scholars are very convenient to you, I know.”

“What’s one mortal man’s reading of scripture over another’s worth?”

“You become such a philosopher exclusively when it’s time to justify your vices.”

Khadija looked over her shoulder. It was impossible not to identify her accuser already.

There was a blond woman behind her, with a stern expression, and a very bushy tail.

Younger than her. Less makeup. Fluffy ears. Still pretty, in an annoying fashion.

And all the pretentious little ornaments on her uniform. Her stupid little beret.

Milana Omarova, the vozhd of the Shimii troops in the Union.

She had followed Khadija all the way from New Karach to a neighboring sub-station some thirty kilometers away, Sarai sub-station. A dock for patrol frigates, housing a search and rescue team and a few repair facilities, responsible for supporting the endurance of patrol missions on the southern border. It also had an officer’s lounge that was stocked with beer and every so often a cute younger officer would show up for her to wink at and tease.

Owing to the vozhd’s reign of moral terror in New Karach, alcohol was banned there.

However, Sarai was secular, run by nice communist Volgians who liked to drink.

Thankfully for Khadija’s vibe as the friendly, mature beauty of Sarai, the station was usually somewhat empty and so while she was sitting down at the lounge, there was nobody to see her get scolded by Milana Omarova. It was just her, the machine that spat out beer cans, and four baby-blue walls and a couple of tables. She had been hoping some sweetie would come in from a patrol frigate but instead, it was her “younger sister” Milana being a nag.

An utter waste!

“I don’t want to argue with you. What do you want?” Khadija said.

At that point, Milana sat down next to her.

Khadija did not meet her eyes. She continued drinking.

“You’re wasting your life here, elder sister, when our kin need you.” Milana said.

“I’m doing perfectly fine. I recently won a big battle even– what did you do then, hmm?”

“I did as I was ordered. You didn’t waste a second going back to drink, rather than see me.”

“Oh I wonder why that is. I wonder why I tarried in receiving my weekly scolding.”

Milana narrowed her eyes. “Come to New Karach and train my troops. I need you there.”

Khadija burst out laughing. She almost spat out her beer at her idiot sister’s face.

“Are you insane? I’d rather fight battles of Thassal for a year. No! Fuck no!”

Milana put on a more serious expression– a differently serious expression.

Even nearly drunk, Khadija could see the shift in her eyes and lips.

“Nagavanshi is summoning you back to Thassal, to send you to the Imbrium.” Milana said.

“Indeed. A glorious mission isn’t it? I’m a very important person.” Khadija said.

“You’re a big-headed person.” Milana said. “Say no. I’ll protect you. Khadija, it’s suicide.”

“Again, you must be out of your damn mind. I’d truly rather die than work for you.”

“Khadija, you’re clearly at a dead end in life and trying to destroy yourself. I can see it.”

Khadija put down the can of beer. Her chest constricted. The tips of her fingers tensed.

“You’re getting far too free with your criticisms, little sister. You should know your place.”

To Khadija she was just a bitchy little sister– she was not the vozhd of shit to her.

Despite this, Milana did not act offended at the discourtesy, like she did to her underlings.

“I’m not wrong.” Milana said. “It was a stroke of luck for you that you were even near Thassal to be deployed to our first battle in decades. Otherwise, you would have kept drinking and debasing yourself in whatever hole, doing nothing with yourself. I can’t accept that.”

“I repeat. I don’t care what you think. But I am not tolerating your disrespect any longer.”

“Come back with me.” Milana insisted. “Train our people to survive like you did! Don’t just let Nagavanshi throw you out like garbage! And don’t treat yourself like garbage either!”

Khadija practically pounced on Milana right there and then.

Both falling from their chairs, Khadija on top of Milana, squeezing the collar of her clothes.

Before she could even think of striking, however, she felt the air go out of her.

Milana struck her in the stomach, and got out from under her in a quick, fluid motion.

Now suddenly, Khadija had her face to the ground and Milana on top of her back.

There was no arm twist, no knee to her neck, no kicks– just as quickly, Milana let her go. Stepping back from her quickly, in case she retaliated, as their father trained them. Except Khadija did not keep fighting. She remained on the floor, out of breath and utterly ashamed.

“Do whatever you want.” Milana said. “On father’s birthday, I’ll visit him for you too.”

Her voice sounded so mournful. Stupid girl; if only she understood Khadija at all.

Maybe then they wouldn’t stubbornly hate each other so much despite everything–

Suddenly, the walls of the lounge stretched and warped– Milana’s voice reverberated–

Khadija opened her eyes. Light became as if particulate matter viewed through the thin film of tears that had formed between her eyelids as she slept. She wiped her eyes vigorously, casting troubled glances across her space. She was not back in the Union. She was on the Brigand. She had just been taking a nap. Her emotions were turbulent as she rose. Khadija was fed up with the past. And of all the things to remember– but she had already proven wrong Milana’s disdainful appraisal. Her story was still being written.

She was living her own way. Her life was not wasted.

Whether Milana respected that or not was her own prerogative.

Nothing to do with Khadija.

Just as she began to look around the dim room, everything lit up a sudden blue.

On the door, a picture of a soft-faced, tall woman with a lot of long, blond hair appeared.

She was requesting entry into the room, and the blue computer window was rather bright.

“Khadija, are you decent? Can I come in?” asked Sieglinde Castille.

Khadija averted her gaze. “We’re not children, just come in.”

Sieglinde walked inside, briefly looked at Khadija’s bed and quickly looked away.

Lounging in a tanktop and briefs, Khadija smiled wryly at the eros she had provoked.

“Another productive day of being a sailor?” Khadija asked.

Two meters away, Sieglinde zipped down a gray jumpsuit she had been wearing.

She pulled it off her wide shoulders and laid it on her bed.

“I’m just pushing things and picking things up. Their job is so complex, I had no idea what they go through.” Sieglinde said. She sat down on her bed, facing Khadija. For the first time since she walked in Khadija could see the smile on her face. “I don’t have any of the skills they do, but I’m glad I can do anything to help. Have you ever thought about it, Khadija? All the while, a hundred sailors are doing so much for all of us, and we barely interact with them.”

“No, I’ve never concerned myself with it. They have their role to play and I have mine.” Khadija said. “Some of them will work in the navy for years, rack up a ton of promotions, and end up running a whole supply depot or managing a shipyard team or doing all kinds of things that are more stimulating than this. And some of them do just want to fix leaks for a while, leave the army, and go do something else with the skills they picked up. They’ll work on a nice station, show up for labor union meetings, all that. None of them are just going to do manual labor on this ship forever. They’ll be fine– as for me, I have a different set of expectations. I can rest up here because I’ll be going out to die someday.”

“I suppose that’s true.” Sieglinde said. “How did you get this wise?”

“I’m not wise.” Khadija grumbled. “I’ve just been around a while.”

“I haven’t been around as long as you, but I still feel like just a stupid kid at 36.”

“Your problem is you’re a brooding wreck with zero confidence in yourself.”

“I can’t deny that. But it’s hard not to second-guess myself. I’ve made so many mistakes.”

“Quit navelgazing already. It’s so fucking boring.”

“Fine.” Sieglinde sighed.

“Do you want to become a sailor?” Khadija asked.

Sieglinde paused for a moment. “I don’t see a future for myself in that.”

“Well, what do you see in your future? Anything?”

“I’m still thinking about it.”

“Tell me.”

“I will keep it to myself for now.”

“I see. Thinking about becoming a Reform National Socialist?”

“What is that supposed to mean? Don’t even joke about that.” Sieglinde said seriously.

Khadija cracked a little grin, laid back with her hands behind her head.

“The Imbrian Empire was corrupt and oppressive, of that there is no doubt.” Sieglinde said, speaking over the silence that Khadija had left. “But the Volkisch Movement have no pretense that they even want to institute a rule of law. All they want is the power to kill with impunity. I’ve see first-hand what that unholy mob wants to do to the Imbrium.”

“I appreciate your candor, but you’re looking at a victim of slavery.” Khadija said. Sieglinde’s eyes drew wide and she went quiet. She looked immediately ashamed of herself. Khadija turned in bed, shifting her body to look at Sieglinde directly. “It was not any part of the Volkisch Movement who rounded up hundreds of thousands of Shimii to put to hard labor in the colonies. Scores of us died before we had an opportunity to rebel. Those of us who survived did so watching the sick and old fall around us. That was before the time of these Lehners that run Rhinea now. Perhaps they picked this up from somewhere?”

“I’m sorry.” Sieglinde said.

“Ugh. Stop that. I don’t want you to be sorry.”

Khadija turned around her again, this time putting her back and her tail to Sieglinde.

There was a long and awkward silence between them.

Such was its length, Khadija thought she would fall asleep again waiting.

“Khadija, I’ll tell you something about myself if you’ll allow me to ask you a question.”

“Finally you’re done moping? Sure. Whatever. Tell me about the Volkisch and you.”

“Alright.” Sieglinde said. “Six years ago, a student movement broke out in Bosporus duchy over censored works. However, a loose-cannon High Inquisitor, Brauchitsch ended up escalating the conflict. It soon spread across three stations, and outside of just students.”

“That sounds about right for Bosporus.” Khadija said, laughing a little again.

Sieglinde continued. “Brauchitsch thought he could just beat everyone into submission. For all her faults even Lichtenberg was not such a meathead as he was. He fanned the flames of the violence and then retreated like a coward, giving poor direction to the police who just continued fighting like fools. It started turning into a full-on revolt very quickly. Protestors fashioned improvised weapons and shields to defend themselves. There was bleeding and bruises and a few vehicles got torched but nobody had been killed– yet.”

Khadija turned back around, to see Sieglinde’s sullen face. She looked– haunted.

“But then– there was a sudden turn in the street violence. Within the riot, a group of the Volkisch’s militia had begun to go after activists. They were armed with military weapons and were organizing raids on places where activists took shelter. Even Brauchitsch did not sanction assassinations to deal with the mess. But the Volkisch were. They went after Južni and Eloim groups first, and then went after Vekans, and then the anarchist-leaning groups. For them the breakdown in order was an opportunity to kill undesirables.”

“Obviously I agree with you that the fascists are bastards.” Khadija said. “But have you considered how convenient that situation must have been for the police? The Volkisch volunteered to suppress the activists. Tell me– did the authorities do anything?”

“There were arrests.” Sieglinde said. “But you’re right– certainly not enough.”

“Arrests in that scenario are totally meaningless, the murders already had their effect.”

“You’re right.” Sieglinde said, a note of helplessness in her voice.

“Don’t just yield that I’m right like that–” Khadija sighed. “What was your involvement?”

“There was a change in tactics. The Inquisition was drawn back and relegated to investigative duties. Norn the Praetorian took command of a Rapid Response Force and then set up heavily armed checkpoints all over the affected stations to separate the groups and ‘choke out’ the rioting. I don’t think it worked– I just think by that point the rioters didn’t have a second wind. Anyway. I was part of the forces involved. One of the checkpoints under my management responded to a Volkisch-led massacre. This was one of the few raids of theirs fully documented, responded to in progress, and yielding arrests.”

“So you had to see them in action.” Khadija said. “You got to hate them that way.”

“Yes.” Sieglinde said. “I was a fool. I didn’t realize the actual nerve-center of Volkisch activity was Rhinea until years after. I was blind-sided that the Volkisch won the elections here. But we never went after them when we could. So they got to infest this entire place.”

“From my perspective every Imbrian has a bit of that fascism in them.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde averted her gaze with a pained expression.

“You’re not actually an Imbrian right?” Khadija said. “So I’m not talking about you.”

“I mean, I guess– but I was raised like an Imbrian. Not Campos, Eloim or Južni or Volgian. And I did plenty of evil. So I really can’t dispute about myself what you claimed about them.”

“Stop it. Look– I’m sorry about painting you with such a broad brush.” Khadija said.

Sieglinde did not respond.

Khadija immediately lost the little patience that had allowed her to apologize.

“Do I have to assuage your fucking feelings about everything? All the time?”

“No.” Sieglinde’s voice trembled a little. “I’ll ask a question. Are you really a communist?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Khadija said, arranging locks of hair away from her face.

“I’m just a bit confused. You’re a Shimii, but you drink and you don’t pray–”

“Are you my younger sister all of a sudden? C’mon I pray sometimes!”

“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just trying to understand you better. I’d just never met a Shimii communist. I thought Shimii communities were bound primarily on a shared religion. And I thought communists hated religion and would not tolerate such things.”

“Hah! Shimii in the Imbrium barely share a religion at all.”

“If it’s a touchy subject, I can–”

“Oh shut up. Have some spine for once. Stop needling me and then retreating.”

Sieglinde frowned and seemed to finally lose her temper. “Fine then. Khadija, where do you come from? Who even are you? I want to know on what grounds do you always judge me!”

Almost as soon as she raised her voice Sieglinde seemed to look horrified with herself.

Hearing the shouting almost in her chest was a strangely satisfying feeling for Khadija.

She smiled, utterly unoffended by this display. “That’s better. Sure. I’ll tell you.”

Leaving Sieglinde briefly perplexed as to her expression, Khadija sat up in her bed. She pulled her blankets around herself, such that her face, framed by her hair, and her unbrushed ears, were all that stuck out of the little mound of blankets. Getting comfortable.

She laid back against the wall and thought about where to start.

Or really, how to abbreviate her life enough for this fraught conversation.

“I was born in the Imbrium, just after Mehmed’s Jihad. During the Jihad, several prominent Shimii families supported Mehmed. He had accumulated enormous wealth and had prestige as an effective fighter against the Imbrians. Mahdists sided with Mehmed in far greater numbers than Rashidun. We wanted to believe he could free us all. My family, the Al-Shajara family, were prominent in Shimii ethnic politics, and staunchly backed Mehmed. After he was assassinated, the Jihad was over– his lieutenants and supporters scattered. During this time, many Mahdist clans were targeted for reprisals, as punishment for the Jihad. The Nasser family led many such reprisals; to mutual destruction. They lost elders and children, and we lost them too. Eye for an eye. It was then that the Mahdists were truly driven out– first out of Rhinea and soon out of everywhere in the Imbrium. The Imbrians came up with a much more effective solution for us than the Nasser family declaring blood feuds.”

Khadija looked over Sieglinde’s face to find her brief flicker of fury had sputtered out.

She listened quietly to what Khadija had to say and had no interjections.

“I survived a bit longer in the Imbrium though. I wasn’t old enough to understand a damn thing when my family sent me away. I was taken in by the Omarov family in Bosporus, at first. They did not become involved with Mehmed directly, but they had connections to the Mahdist families both through religion and through clandestine business. Even after the first punitive enslavements of Mahdists, the Omarov family stayed bold. The Omarovs back then were smugglers and mercenaries and just generally mafiosi. But if the Imbrians fucked with us, we fucked with them right back. My adoptive father, Mogliv Omarov was viewed one of the last heroes of the Shimii for this. Back then, if you resisted the Imbrians or committed reprisals on them, you would make a legend for yourself. We all wanted to cheer for every Imbrian we might see dead. We really thought that was making a difference.”

“Eventually, though, Mogliv Omarov started getting ideas.” Khadija continued. “He was not much of a theory reader, but he made some odd acquaintances and had some odd conversations. Daksha Kansal; Elias Ahwalia; Bhavani Jayasankar; these people started coming and going in the underworld for more than money. They were planning something big– and they all failed. Mogliv Omarov failed with them. I and everyone I knew, we were all enslaved and sent to the colonies if we were not killed. But the funny thing is– the Imbrians enslaved all the weird people, like the Bosporans and Shimii. They executed Imbrian communists– those were the people they saw as dangerous. Someone like me was a commodity, not a threat. Without an Imbrian to lead me, I could not have been dangerous to the regime right? But they were dead wrong, about everything. So here I am now. To answer your question: yes, I am a communist. I read the books my father did not, and just like him, I came to agree with their view of how the world could be better. But I will always be my father’s inferior, because he did not have to read a damn thing to have that hope.”

Khadija took in a deep breath. It almost felt good to have been able to say all of that.

Perhaps, she herself had been needing to recontextualize all of that, for her own mind.

“So that’s who I am, Sieglinde Castille. I am a Shimii communist. No, I do not follow Shimii religious doctrine to the letter. I’ve already said it before that if God pulls me down to hell for not having prayed enough after everything I’ve been through then I will accept my lot. But until then, I’ll live my life the way I want. Does that satisfy you?”

There was a creaking from the opposite bed. Its occupant had stood suddenly.

Sieglinde bowed her head deeply in response to Khadija’s story.

Tears from her eyes falling copiously onto the cold metal floor.

She did not say those hated words, ‘I’m sorry,’ that Khadija did not want to hear.

But her whole body was saying such things without her voice.

Khadija lacked the conviction to try to move her from it again.

This time she simply, quietly, accepted the apology from the once-Red Baron.

Even though Shimii did not tolerate bowing– this time, she would just let it pass.

Even though– she had some tears in her own eyes after recalling that heavy past.


On the night before their arrival at Aachen, just as Ulyana felt like she might doze off–

There arrived a message. Picked up over ultra-low frequency– a message from the Union.

“It’s been a while hasn’t it!” Semyonova said cheerfully.

She and Fatima cooperated to compile such messages and deliver them to the Captain. An enormous underground facility created these messages by sending data through shockwaves in Aer’s crust that could be picked up thousands of kilometers away. Only ships with specialized equipment could even detect that such messages were being sent. And to any ship other than the Brigand, it was impossible to make sense of them, since the messages were encrypted for software only the specific recipient would possess.

“Captain, it appears this message is intended for you and the Commissar’s eyes only.”

Semyonova folded a stone-paper printout with the message and handed it to Ulyana.

After being printed, all traces of the message were deleted automatically by the computer.

A top-secret message– it was already stressing Ulyana and she had not even read it.

“Commissar, let’s retreat to our quarters. It’s late. We can read the message in privacy.”

“Good idea. I’m reaching my limit.” Aaliyah said, stretching out her arms and tail.

“I can handle the change in shift.” Erika said, waving goodbye. “Have a good rest.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah took their leave from the bridge.

In Ulyana’s hand that piece of stone-paper folded up felt like it would take her arm down.

She felt its weight all the way down the hall. She was silent.

As if she had to concentrate on carrying it.

Nagavanshi had not messaged them in so long. Last time, it was a VIP mission.

One that led to all manner of difficulties, and resulted in an inconclusive reward.

(Except perhaps to a certain Sonya Shalikova.)

But it was not bitterness toward potential meddling that bothered Ulyana then.

Rather– the fact that this message was for her eyes and the Commissar’s only.

When Nagavanshi had something to conceal, it was never good.

“Captain, you’re looking terribly nervous.” Aaliyah said.

“You can tell?”

“Anyone can. Please relax. Whatever this is, we’ll deal with it together.”

Aaliyah reached out and squeezed the hand carrying the paper message.

With that touch, it felt like Aaliyah was single-handedly helping her lift a mountain.

Once they arrived at their room, they huddled in the center between bed and desk.

Ulyana spread open the folded paper and read the message:

REMEMBER THE YOUNG AND SIMPLE MAIDEN

LET THEM HEAR HOW SHE NOW SINGS

–SWAN, IGNORE MISSIVES WITHOUT LOVE

–BEWARE THE HERON AND HAWK

“What does this mean? Are you supposed to be the swan?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana was briefly speechless reading the message.

It had been so long–

“It’s full of old codes between Nagavanshi and I.” Ulyana hesitated to explain, but she needed Aaliyah to understand more than she needed to uphold the privacy between herself and Nagavanshi. “When Nagavanshi wants to send something only to me, she sends lyrics from a folk song, and refers to them as ‘missives with love’. That’s how I know it is from her and that it is not someone else. We also refer to people as birds– I’m the swan.”

Aaliyah blinked with confusion. “Then who are the Heron and Hawk?”

“Heron is Admiral Andreeva Vlasovskaya, of the 26th Fleet.”

“I can’t believe this. So there is some conspiracy within the 26th again?”

“And the Hawk is Admiral Geranium Zvereva of the 18th Fleet.”

Aaliyah raised a hand to her forehead like she had a sudden headache.

“What is this supposed to mean? How could these people contact us?”

Ulyana sighed. “I don’t know. I think Nagavanshi wants me to be aware that there is some kind of plot. I don’t think it’s something she thinks she’ll gain anything from. We’re not going to be turning around– I think she just wants me to be aware as a friend, perhaps.”

“Thinking about how the time has passed, it’s almost Bhavani Jayasankar’s reappraisal by the Council.” Aaliyah said. “Could it be the Ahwalians are going to try something then?”

Ulyana felt if she heard any more of this speculation she would explode.

“There’s nothing we can do about it but lose sleep over it.” Ulyana said. “Damn it.”

She crumpled the note in her hands, feeling helpless.

“You’re right.” Aaliyah said. “What we can do is continue our mission. That’s it.”

Ulyana sighed. “That always seems to be our only answer to any problem.”

Aaliyah reached out again and held Ulyana’s hands. She met her eyes.

“You’re not alone, Ulyana. We can deal with this together as it unfolds.” She said.

Hard as it was to breathe calmly in the face of what she could be facing–

Well, if more unexpected blows fell upon her, at least Aaliyah was on her side.

All they could do was keep fighting the war they were given, in the now.

And pray that the situation at home would not escalate.


“Final approach!” Helmsman Kamarik called out. “Take in the beautiful scenery!”

“E.T.A. 30 minutes at reduced speed! Contacting the Stockheide tower!” Semyonova said.

“We’re finally here, huh.” Ulyana said, laying back on her chair and deflating.

“It’ll only get more complicated from now on Captain.” Aaliyah reminded her.

In the distance, the station complex of Aachen finally came into view.

After over a week of travel, the Brigand had finally arrived at its next fated destination. Accompanied as before by the Rostock; and the John Brown, its crew unanimous in joining the Volksarmee against the Volkisch. In Aachen, the fleet would take part in the final deliberations of the United Front, and plot the shape of their anti-fascist campaign.

Within the fleet, there was excitement and trepidation in equal measure.

Aachen was much humbler in size than the massive Kreuzung and its enormous towers, and it had a simpler layout. However, that did not make its architecture any less striking. Aachen had a central tower with an interesting design– a central spire abutted by two supporting wings that enveloped the main tower at different heights. This made the central spire appear as if an art piece, the middle of a curling wave of metal. In addition to the central complex, there was also the Stockheide seaport, a squat and very wide tower attached to the main spire by trams. It was situated in the near southwest of the central complex. On the opposite side of Aachen was a habitation tower also connected by tram tubes.

All of this architecture was framed by the enormous underwater mount against which the Aachen complex was set. In the distant past the mountain was mined for precious minerals, and there was still some mining that transpired within, though dwarfed in volume by the richer veins of Rhein-Sieg-Kries in the central southwest. This access to precious minerals, including some rare metals and even agarthicite, made the Aachen Massif a source of early wealth for the Imbrian Empire’s historical development. It also led to the development of Aachen’s shipbuilding tradition and in turn, to the growth in influence of the Stockheide Shipbuilder’s Guild, a strong labor union within the shipyard and drydocks.

“Gloria and I have contacts in Stockheide.” Erika said, waving a hand toward the main screen on the Brigand’s bridge. “We can dock the Rostock and have its presence concealed by the Guild. The John Brown is not a problem– the Republic fleet docked in there for weeks before they rejected Gloria’s offer to join a United Front. However, the Rostock will not be able to take part in any commercial dealings or pick up any supplies, because it will have to dock in a Guild workspace and stay there in hiding. So we will depend on all of you to run some errands for us. Hopefully that will not be much of an issue. I am sorry to trouble you.”

“Of course it won’t be a problem.” Ulyana said. “We pledged to follow your orders.”

“You can leave the restocking to us– we’ll need funds, however.” Aaliyah added.

“Funds I can help with.” Erika said, smiling. “I’ll also see if Gloria might assist as well.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath.” Olga added, crossing her arms and lowering her head.

“It’s fine nevertheless. I amassed quite a tidy sum through the years.” Erika said.

Ulyana and Aaliyah smiled and sat back, watching the final approach.

Traffic to Aachen was sparser than the traffic at Kreuzung.

There were less ships coming and going from the shipyard. However, these ships were usually larger supply ships that resembled the Brigand outwardly. There was also a beautiful luxury cruise ship that began departing the main seaport and moved close to the Brigand on its exit from Stockheide. And for a moment, Semyonova and Fatima had a twinkle in their eyes as they vocally fantasized about going on a pleasure cruise together.

Moving closer to the Stockheide tower, the delineations between the hundreds of berths on the outer hull of the tower became visible. The Brigand and its flotilla coordinated with Stockheide tower to descend into the Guild’s berths on the eastern side of the seaport complex. Enormous steel doors opened to allow each ship in the fleet into a Berth just large enough for a Cruiser. The Brigand and Rostock were next to each other and the John Brown was situated one tier below. All of them could access the Guild facilities.

Docking clamps held the Brigand anchored to the berth and lifted it aloft as the water drained. A boarding chute attached the ship to the port. Past the outer steel doors and frameworks, the interior walls were made of thick glass, allowing the crew to look through the cameras and see long lines of ships to either side and even below. It was an interesting visual effect. All of the seaport facilities were deeper inside the complex– it was all berths across the exterior. So the Brigand would largely be resting within its berth while the crew took care of business with the Guild while on foot inside of the complex.

“Alright. We’ve got a lot to do.” Ulyana said. “Let’s convene a planning meeting–”

On the main screen, the predictor computer suddenly started flashing a yellow box.

That was usually painted over targets that could pose a threat, based on prediction data.

“What’s the computer’s problem?” Ulyana asked. “Did it spot some Imperial ship classes?”

Zachikova shook her head. “I reprogrammed it after the false positives on the Rostock.”

“So then what is it seeing? Pull up the camera feeds and let it complete the target paint.”

On the main screen, the camera picture of the seaport wall disappeared.

Instead, the yellow target was being painted by one of the starboard-side cameras.

On a Ritter-class– but it was triggering because this Ritter-class had been seen before.

It was not a false positive– it was a known enemy.

Ulyana blinked as the target designation appeared. “Wait– oh no. No fucking way.”

Aaliyah lifted her hands to her face and kicked her feet on her seat.

“Hmm. This might complicate things. I’ll disembark first, Captain.” Erika said.

“I’ll disembark with.” Olga said, with a deep, troubled sigh.

Everyone on the bridge watched the screen with dumbstruck horror.

Their neighboring berth was occupied by a ship known by the computer and the crew.

Long and ‘sword-shaped’, the Ritter-class Antenora— flagship of Norn the Praetorian.

Unbeknownst to either until the very last moment, their paths had crossed once again.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.5]

Red lights flashed silent alarm across the UNX-001 Brigand, while a calm voice spoke through every implement from which sound could be heard. “Alert Semyon!” She said, careful not to shout or betray anxiety, while still speaking in a clear voice. Alert Semyon would only be raised verbally three times and then Fatima would go quiet on the audio system.

Everyone on the ship understood what this meant. Sailors hurried to their positions, crossing paths in the halls. Sailors who had been resting in their barracks rushed to their assignments upstairs; sailors eating in the cafeteria or taking a break in the social pod rushed downstairs to the hangar. They checked on the walls, were bearing monitors indicated current information of the threat and ETA until probable active combat.

Upstairs, the sailors assigned as rapid response had their tools handy. They would watch out for any malfunctions or damage and make spot repairs. They would sound the alarm if they thought circuitry or water system functions were threatened by the stresses of the battle. Several of them received a new assignment that had been worked out during training in Kreuzung: clearing out and locking down the social pod and cafeteria and other unnecessary facilities with anti-flood barriers, to prevent a repeat of the scare that resulted when the Antenora breached their sidepod in Goryk, almost destroying the social area.

Downstairs, the main focus of the sailors was in getting the Divers ready.

Batteries were checked twice a day and refilled if necessary, so there was not much charging that needed doing to top the Divers off. All repairs and maintenance had already been completed on the main combat units. Owing to the recovery of Homa’s “DELTA” as well as the stripping-down of one of the reserve Streloks, there was an area of the hangar that was quite messy and in disarray, but the mess was pushed to the far side. Deployment chutes were prepared to be opened into the hangar in case of mobilization. Weapons were loaded and equipment attached to the Divers based on the pilot’s stated desires.

Throughout the ship, people communicated in whispers, sign language and hand signals, or by writing on portables and showing the words to one another. Sailors were trained to walk quickly with soft footfalls and to work with precision and care so as to not bang on metal. This minimized the amount and intensity of identifiable noises that an enemy could potentially pick up prior to combat. It was very little, and the ship was not entirely stealth capable, but it could be very quiet if the distance and conditions were right. Once the cannons were firing, all bets were off, but until then, there was an eerie combination of haste and silence as the alert was sounded, and then executed upon.

Many of the upper pods were soundproofed, however, and the Bridge was no exception.

On the bridge, Captain Korabiskaya arrived and took her seat, followed by Commissar Bashara. At their side, Premier Erika Kairos also arrived along with her bodyguard and attendant Olga Athanasiou, both taking their places. Kalika Loukia had briefly held the bridge while the rest got ready to coordinate another day’s worth of rationalizing the inventories of the Brigand and Rostock and connecting the two ships and their crews– but that work would be put on hold. Fatima al-Suhar stood from her station, ready to give her report. She pointed at the main screen, where the simulated silhouette of a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate appeared along with those of Imbrian Cutters and Frigates, as well as an old, very large and bulbous shaped cruiser, two generations old, a Serclaes-class.

“Captain! Our situation is as follows–”

One more time, the door to the bridge opened.

Scurrying inside and trying to appear as if they had not interrupted–

Murati Nakara, in the company of an unfamiliar face.

A young lady that had the same uniform as the rest but making her first appearance on the bridge. Cheerful-looking, her pretty face unbothered even as the red alarm lights cast an eerie color over her– the brown-haired Loup with the ponytail and makeup elicited a few curious glances. Murati wanted to say nothing upon entering the bridge, but practically everyone was looking at her directly, even Fatima, who was also waiting to speak.

“Sorry to interrupt– I was kept– taking care of something. Um. This is my new adjutant.”

Stumbling over her words, Murati at first gestured toward the woman beside her.

Almost immediately she underwent every conceivable human emotion in an instant.

What would anyone think if Aatto talked some nonsense? She nearly interrupted herself–

“My name is Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather. I will give everything to support your cause.”

She spoke politely and vowed her head and held her portable computer to her chest.

Wearing a demure and innocent smile.

Murati stared at her for a moment. She could not believe what she had heard.

And everyone else’s gazes shifted between Murati and Aatto with confusion.

“Okay, thank you, Aatto.” Commissar Bashara said, clearing her throat. “Fatima.”

Standing next to the sonar station, Fatima al-Suhar’s ears and tail stood on end.

“Oh! Yes. My deepest apologies. I was simply being polite. So, the situation–”

Ten minutes ago, Fatima first detected distant noises in the water that to her golden ears registered as explosions from middle caliber ship ordnance. Soon after the predictive computer parsed the same sounds as ordnance, and in addition, detected a wide-area active sonar pulse. Per protocol, Fatima responded to being picked up by active sonar with a return pulse scan from the Brigand, and the Rostock responded similarly.

They discovered the combatants several kilometers away in the northwestern direction. There was a Republic “in-line-2” class Frigate, so called for its two rows of guns in fixed positions integrated into the ship’s bow– chasing it was an Imperial Marder-class Frigate, a fairly ubiquitous class that everyone on the bridge was familiar with.

Complicating the situation, the Marder, having acquired a Republic Frigate and begun to chase, also reported the discovery to other nearby Imperial ships. Converging on the republicans were three additional Frigates from the North-Northwest as well as an old Serclaes-class Cruiser from the North. All of these ships were assumed with reason to have belonged to the Rhinea patrol fleet. If these patrol ships received the retrofit that other Volkisch Frigates did, then this entire force could be said to include 20-30 Divers in addition to the ships themselves, as each ship likely carried 4-8 Divers. Though she did not know the reaction her command would have to these discoveries, Fatima called for Alert Semyon just in case– they had been detected by sonar, so they had to be prepared.

“That was a quick and sound judgment Fatima. We commend you.” Ulyana said.

Fatima’s ears wiggled slightly and she smiled.

“Now we have to decide how to respond.” Aaliyah added.

“Right now, we have some cover for our actions, I believe,” Erika said, pointing at the screen, “As far as they know, what they have on sensors is a dumpy-looking hauler, no offense,” she smiled and waited a second as if to allow anyone to take offense if they would, but finding nobody disagreeing with her on the Brigand’s comeliness, she continued, “and an Imperial Ritter-class. Much of the time we have found that low level patrols will ignore the Rostock’s movements because they assume Ritter cruisers are led by big shots who they couldn’t hold accountable for anything if they tried. So we end up slipping by without effort.”

“In that case, all of those forces will converge on the Republicans.” Ulyana said.

“They won’t be able to survive it.” Murati said. “They will absolutely be overwhelmed.”

“Zachikova, get a graph of all enemy positions on the main screen.” Ulyana said.

“Yes ma’am.”

On the electronic warfare station, Zachikova got to work. Arabella peeked over the top of her desk curiously, having been sitting beside it the whole time. After a few seconds of typing, the predictor displayed for everyone in the room the surrounding area.

To think they were so close to Aachen’s hydrospace– but this situation was even closer. Murati took a few steps from the entrance to look more closely at the main screen. There were no landmarks to speak of. Any battle would take place in open ocean. So everything came down to the state of the combatant’s equipment, their tactics and formation, and whether they could gain any advantage in the information space. In terms of pure hardware on all sides, the Brigand and Rostock could be put at a disadvantage.

There was something of a plan forming in her mind, but she did not have enough data–

“Would it not be prudent to avoid this battle entirely?” Aaliyah asked.

Murati turned around and stared at her. Aaliyah seemed to notice but ignore her gaze.

“I’m positive if we decided to intervene, we could also still get away.” Erika said.

“Right, but– the Republicans in this area have all carried themselves awfully and they did not even want to join the United Front to begin with. They have caused us major inconveniences, they wasted significant manpower, and for what? Very nearly destroying a station full of innocent people. We could just leave them to their fate and speed on to Aachen.”

“That’s a bit cold.” Ulyana said. She smiled a bit nervously at Aaliyah’s words.

“But not unwarranted.” Aaliyah said. “Our intervention could cost us lives and equipment.”

“You are right.” Ulyana said. “Our most practical response is just leaving this be.”

“I will defer to your counsel in this matter.” Erika said, crossing her arms.

“They’re our allies! You’re going to hand out a death sentence to this one frigate crew?”

Murati raised her voice near to a shout, her hands curled up into fists.

Ulyana stared at her a bit in disbelief; Aaliyah rolled her eyes; Erika smiled suddenly.

“It’s true that the command of the Republic fleet in this area supported a heinous atrocity for very little strategic gain. It’s the truth that they went out on their own, foolishly. They could have never held Kreuzung. It was more likely they would destroy the core than successfully occupy it.” Murati said. “I am not denying that. But it’s horribly disproportionate to abandon these soldiers to die for that, when we could rescue and recruit them!”

“Then moralizing aside, our personnel could die carrying out this rescue.” Aaliyah said.

“That’s always a risk! It’s a risk of anything we do! That in itself is not an argument!”

“Now who is being cold toward other’s lives, Lieutenant?” Aaliyah spat back.

Having that statement turned on her gave Murati a brief pause to consider her words.

Her chest felt like it constricted and prevented her from making an angry response.

Was she being callous toward her comrades lives–?

Her head fogged from the sudden anxiety.

No– of course she was not– she was just trying to get them to see sense–

There was a loud clapping of two hands from the side of the bridge.

“Enough!” Erika said.

Firmly but not unkindly.

A sound that prompted Murati to take a deep breath and right herself.

Erika seemed more amused than aggravated about the argument. “Murati is correct. For the insurgent any action taken is done at the risk of their lives. If we wanted to preserve our equipment and lives we would bury them in a hole and do nothing, but that does not advance our objectives. So then the question is, how do we turn the cost and benefit of this situation to our advantage. In this, Aaliyah is not wrong to say, we have no idea what we are dealing with when we deal with the Republic here. We could be fighting for nothing and thus dying for nothing. So it is not so easy as to rush in and save the day at any cost either.”

For a brief moment, the room was silent– until one still-unfamiliar voice sounded.

“In that case, we just need to come up with a battle plan that will lower our risk.”

Stepping out from near the door and joining Murati’s side was Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.

Murati looked almost surprised to have her support despite her supposed adjutant status.

“I strongly believe we can succeed if we entrust our strategy to my master!” Aatto said.

She gestured toward Murati as if framing her with her hands, smiling brightly.

Murati felt like her heart dropped lower into her chest.

Eyebrows furrowed and raised all across the bridge in confusion.

Ulyana stared at Aatto, speechless; Erika suppressed laughter; Aaliyah looked livid.

“What did she say? What did she call you? Is this your instruction, Murati?!”

“I– It really isn’t– she’s just–” Murati tugged on her own collar with growing anxiety.

“Now, now,” Ulyana spoke up suddenly, “it’s my turn to say not to indulge in silliness.”

She patted Aaliyah’s shoulders as if gently trying to prevent her jumping over the divider.

“Ms. Jarvi-Stormyweather is not wrong either!” Erika said. “I’ve read the files; this is Murati’s specialty, is it not? Her tactical plans have turned around some bad situations before! I do think having the Republicans in our debt might be advantageous in the future– and besides, the destruction of five patrol ships, including a Cruiser, can only be helpful to us.”

“I am not being silly.” Aaliyah said. She sat back in her chair. “I just want to clarify.”

“Don’t worry. We all understand you, Commissar.” Erika said, amused.

“It is my job to provide perspective. I am not mad and I am not being silly.” She said again.

“Yes, that’s very true. Thank you Commissar.” Ulyana said, also amused.

“Okay, okay, the first matter is concluded. We are intervening.” Olga said, sighing audibly.

Murati breathed a sigh of relief herself. She then made eye contact with Aatto.

Putting on such a furious gaze that she almost sent a psychic wave out to her.

Aatto seemed to notice and looked bashful for the very first time since they met.

You will ask permission to speak!! Murati shouted in her mind.

It was very rare that she spoke like this with anyone, so she was not sure it worked–

Yes, master!! A million apologies! No, a billion! I will accept any punishment!

Thankfully it seemed Aatto really did have some modicum of psionic experience.

Where she got it from and how far it extended was a question for another time.

For now, it was good enough that she did actually support Murati when it mattered.

As objectionable as some of her language and habits were– maybe she could actually help.

“Since we are intervening, we need a plan and we need it soon.” Erika said. “Tarrying too long will be effectively the same as abandoning this ship– they are taking fire as we speak.”

Murati knew this quite well. She turned back to the main screen.

At the moment, her thinking was that this reminded her of the Battle of Thassal.

That Republic frigate could hold out against that single Marder, if not in the long term then at least for the moment. In this scenario the real problem was the reinforcements. They were divided up and trying to converge on one target to overwhelm it. Murati was trying to think of a way to keep them from coming together and thereby disrupt their operation. She could not assume that each element of the patrol was moving closely and with coordination the way that the enemy fleet groups were in Thassal, however. Depending on the speed of each different element, the timing to defeat them in detail might be too tight.

One solution could be splitting their own forces. Should she recommend the Rostock engage the Marders while the Brigand commits to the rescue? That would depend on whether the enemy Marders were modified to carry more Divers, like she knew other Volkisch units had been. It was possible if they sent the Rostock alone it could be overwhelmed by that many Divers. The same might happen if the Brigand went alone. The more she thought about it, dividing their own forces was out of the question. She grunted. What was the answer?

“Aatto.” Murati said. “Is the Serclaes-class roughly as fast or faster than the Marders?”

Aatto smiled. “As a matter of fact master, it is actually slower than a Marder.”

“Really?” Murati asked. “Tell me more about it. I know it didn’t see front-line service.”

Behind them Aaliyah seemed to want to ask why Murati kept being called “master”–

Ulyana continued to work to calm her down, however–

“It’s true, the Serclaes class never saw service in the Grand Fleets.” Aatto said. “Because the class is heavily overburdened compared to thrust and while well-armed and armored, it was considered a crippled design due to its lack of speed. After all, a fleet is only as fast as its slowest element, and it is unacceptable for a Cruiser to be that slow. It was used in Imperial propaganda to emphasize its size and armament and was dubbed a ‘Heavy Cruiser’ but that was all it was, propaganda. Few were built and only used for interior defense.”

“Then out of this group, the Serclaes will surely arrive last.” Murati said.

“Significantly so, I predict.” Aatto replied.

A small smile crept across Murati’s features. Newly energized she turned left.

“Zachikova, can I get a more accurate depiction of the distance between the Marders?”

“I’ll try to get the computer to rerun it with greater fidelity. No promises.” Zachikova said.

On the main screen, the Marders were zoomed in on. A different became apparent.

In the broader picture of the scenario, the Marders looked like they were grouped together.

Upon zooming in on them, however, they were not arrayed in a standard arrow-head.

Two were coming in a line together and were not observing a shooting formation.

And the third was two kilometers behind the rest and moving as if to flank, not join them.

Murati pointed at the screen as if her finger would stab the frigates out of existence.

“I’ve got you!” Murati said excitedly. Her smile turned into a bloodthirsty grin.

Aatto wagged her tail and joined Murati in smiling– hers more admiring than violent.

“Captain, Commissar, Premier, I have a plan. But once we deploy, we have to be quick.”

Murati turned around to look her superiors in the eye. Determination swelling in her chest.

Even Aaliyah was not looking so skeptical as before. Ulyana looked a bit relieved.

“Go on, Murati. I’m ready to see your sorcery in action.” Erika replied.

For a moment, Murati was surprised to see it referred to as sorcery– but she liked it too.

At no time was she as conceited as when she figured out a problem like this.

“First, we need to converge all forces on the Republic In-Line-2 and rescue it. Then–”

Murati laid out her thoughts before anyone.

Though she felt her observations were not so revolutionary– people were impressed.

“Remind me to doubt you a bit less next time, Murati.” Ulyana said, as the plan unveiled.


Orders from the bridge relayed down to hangar engineering, and to the Rostock as well.

The Brigand and its new sister ship changed course, veering north-east together.

On the Brigand’s hangar, the pilots of the 114th rushed to their machines and suited up in black, thermal-padded pilot bodysuits. Murati Nakara ordered a quick huddle and advised on the overarching plan. For the pilots, it was not anything too complicated.

At first, the overall goal for everyone was to eliminate all targets and secure the Republic frigate from enemy fire. Then they would have to switch strategies. Dominika Rybolovskaya and Sameera al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun, with their Strelkannon and Cossack, would be tasked with guarding the fleet from ordnance and Diver attacks. Khadija, Shalikova, Valya and Murati would intercept the incoming enemies and look for openings.

“We can’t be too reckless, but speed is of the essence. Unless we can break through each enemy in turn, it is possible that we may be outnumbered and encircled.” Murati said. “Rostock and the Brigand outgun the enemy ships significantly, so our focus needs to be the enemy Divers. If we allow the enemy Divers to act freely then we will be defeated.”

Around Murati, her fellow pilots nodded their heads in acknowledgment.

“Any questions?” Murati asked. She intended this to be about the plan, but–

“Yes. Who is that?” Khadija, smiling mischievously, pointed over Murati’s shoulder.

Behind Murati, a set of tall, brown-furred dog-like ears wiggled; a very fluffy tail wagged.

“That is my new adjutant, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” Murati said, as if it was enough.

“Huh?! Isn’t that the woman who was threatening you in Kreuzung? Isn’t she a fascist?”

At Murati’s side, Tigris spoke up, her jumpsuit stained with accidentally spilled lubricants.

“She defected– we’re working on it– she’s– she’s a reform fascist.” Murati said nervously.

“What? What does that even mean? Are you okay, Murati?” Shalikova said, confused.

“I am not a fascist anymore. I am for the supreme power of the proletariat.” Aatto said.

“Do you mean the national proletariat?” Khadija said, suppressing laughter.

“The proletariat is the proletariat. It’s all the same isn’t it?” Aatto said, shrugging.

“She’s a reform fascist.” Murati said. “Stop asking me about my adjutant and move out!”

With a few laughs and stares, the pilots left Murati’s side and headed to the machines.

Tigris stayed behind for a moment. She pointed a wrench in her hands at the Agni.

“I’ve got some fancy ideas I haven’t gotten around to, but for now, it can hold a gun.”

“Thank you, that’s all the capability I really needed.” Murati said.

“I also removed some of the ‘hadal armor kit’ I developed. Since it won’t be going below 3000 meters deep or encountering Leviathans, probably– with the extra weight off, it’ll be faster. I recommend you do not try to play the hero. Hang back, and act as support for now.”

Tigris briefly explained the changes and then left Murati’s side to assist around the hangar.

All of the pilots were taking care of final personal and practical matters before deploying.

“Aatto,”

Murati turned to face her new adjutant. Her heart was a bit heavy.

Certainly she was sympathetic to Aatto or she would not have tolerated being a made to look foolish in front of people to cover up for her. She knew Aatto must have been dealing with trauma. And she was beginning to see first-hand what she hoped to get from Aatto– someone who had lived in the Empire, worked for them, had access to regional knowledge Murati lacked. In the best case, Aatto would not just take over some of Murati’s busywork, but she would help cover up her blind spots or gaps in her strategies. That was the role of an adjutant– like the Commissar and Captain, who had a productive rapport.

However, Aatto had a long way to go in terms of fitting in with the Brigand.

Murati could not help but feel, still to that moment, that this might all be a mistake.

“Yes, master?” Aatto said.

“Ugh.” Murati gave up on dissuading her from saying that. “What do you see in me?”

Aatto seemed to understand Murati wanted a serious answer.

She took a moment to think before speaking.

“I see power, intellect, determination and the will to sunder the petrified Imbrium Ocean.”

“I think you have me wrong. I’m not that big of a deal. I’m not vying for power here.”

“Perhaps not yet. But I see it in you. You want to topple the current order, don’t you?”

She recalled the things Aatto said in her cell. Some of them with great nervousness.

“I want to topple it because it hurts people. Not for my own sake– or because of Destiny.”

“That’s more than enough for me, master. I will assist you in this endeavor regardless.”

“You need to do more than that. You must realize there is a burden to being a defector.”

Murati took Aatto’s digital computer from her hands and showed her the files on it.

“There are books on Union politics. Read them. You’ll take the pledge too.”

Aatto nodded her head. She had a demure smile throughout. It reminded Murati of cafeteria workers. Service personnel had difficult jobs, and smiling was a part of the job. In the Union cafeteria workers were treated well, and they were respected, because they had been entrusted an important task. But it was strenuous labor that they would often perform regardless of how they were feeling. That smile was just a part of preparing and serving food. Murati felt that Aatto’s smile was for her, and so ‘part of the job’. It hid whatever Aatto was feeling inside. That was why she would not stop smiling for anyone on the ship, even after all she had been through. It troubled Murati that she felt this was the case.

But there was nothing she could do about it in that instant.

“I would say, ‘good luck, master’ but I have the utmost confidence in you.” Aatto said.

“And why is that?” Murati asked, meeting her eyes and trying to smile.

“Because I saw the look in your eyes when you realized your strategy. You don’t just want to carry out your duty solemnly for its own sake. You want to destroy this enemy.” Aatto said.

At first it was Murati’s snap reaction to deny to herself that this was the case–

However, it was entirely true.

Murati wanted to punish the imperials and bring justice to them since she was a child.

At Thassal she had gotten her first taste of their blood.

Standing amid Imperial ships exploding, thousands of their people dying, she thought,

All of you deserve this.

So she could not deny what Aatto was saying– but neither would she acknowledge it.

“What kind of plan would you have come up with, Chief Petty Officer?” Murati asked.

Aatto kept her answer succinct– after all, it was almost time to deploy.

“I would have just abandoned the Republicans. But– I like your way much better.”

“Well. Thank you. It’s your first day on the job, so do your best.”

“In service to you, I will never falter, master.”

Murati turned around and left Aatto’s side, heading for the Agni. Her heart remained heavy.

At the foot of the Agni, she found her fiancé Karuniya Maharapratham in her pilot suit. She had been tasked by Murati with overseeing the loading of the HELIOS drones into the shoulder binders on the Agni. Upon Murati’s arrival, she turned to face her, put her hands on her hips, smiled and leaned into Murati’s personal space. She had a strange look on her face.

In that moment, Murati feared for the worst.

“Soooo, I heard a weird woman is following you around and calling you ‘master’ now.”

All of Murati’s fears cascaded over her shoulders until she thought she would fall.

“Who told you that? It’s nothing. She’s– she’s just a little– odd in the head.” Murati said.

Karuniya continued to grin and stare at Murati. Chest out, hands on her hips, smug.

“Nothing untoward is happening! Why are you looking at me like that?” Murati whined.

“Oh nothing~– to be honest, I’m glad you made a friend. Maybe you can be besties.”

“Karuniya, I have friends.” Murati said suddenly. “I have no problems making friends.”

“None of the officers count. And I don’t count either– I’m your wife~” Karuniya teased.

“It’s not fair that you don’t count– okay, fine, let’s just drop it. We need to get moving.”

Similar scenes seemed to play out at some of the other gantries in the hangar.

At the foot of the Cheka, Sonya Shalikova held hands with Maryam Karahailos.

“Sonya, I believe in you! Score super awesome kills and become a Diver Ace!”

Shalikova blinked. “Maryam– that’s a bit macabre– it isn’t a game you know–”

“Oh, but I heard that for every kill you get to put a notch on your Diver, and at five–”

“That’s not untrue, some people do that– but it’s kinda weird when you just say it.”

Between the open cockpits of the Strelkannon and Cossack, their two pilots met.

The taller Sameera looking down at Dominika, who put on an aggrieved expression.

“I’m warning you to reign in your gallivanting attitude this time.”

“I will control myself if you promise me a reward when we get back.”

“Sameera–! You–!”

Meanwhile–

In front of the Strelok One~bis, a tall and pensive blond woman stood with her head bowed. Compared to the Shimii she was speaking to there was a visibly humorous contrast of their size difference and the level of deference of one to the other. Sieglinde von Castille was nearly bowing to Khadija al-Shajara, who looked none too amused by the body language and nervous stuttering. She waited for a moment for Sieglinde to struggle with speaking.

“Khadija, I– I’m here because– I just wanted to– for you–”

“Oh come on, hold your head up! Speak clearly! This is pathetic!”

Khadija reached out and with one index finger forced Sieglinde’s chin up.

Sieglinde looked briefly stunned by this level of physical approach.

For an instant she seemed to flinch as if she was expecting to be struck.

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that really what you wanted to say to me?”

“No.” Sieglinde sighed. “I wanted to wish you good fortune. On the sortie.”

Khadija put on a smug little smile, her tail waving behind me.

“Unlike you, dear, I don’t need good fortune. It’s all skill in this cockpit.”

With a teasing little wave, Khadija hopped onto the ramp and ducked into the open Strelok.

Sieglinde stood watching as the cockpit closed as if in disbelief of Khadija’s response.

And rushed out of the way when the gantries released the trundling mechas.


“UND-114-D ‘Cossack’! Sameera al-Shahouh, deploying!”

Mother’s surname again. Perhaps it just felt right for Eisental.

Under the feet of Sameera’s modified Strelok, the deployment chute piped in water and piped out any air until the chute equalized to the outside and then opened its hatch, releasing the machine into the ocean beneath the Brigand. Because the Brigand was moving at speed, Sameera had to immediately hit the pedals in her cockpit in order to begin generating thrust and avoid being left behind by the ship. Once she got to speed, she could keep up with the ship easily. Her feet on the pedals, her hands on the sticks, fingers ready to flick switches and press buttons installed by the stick housing or on the stick itself.

Sameera quickly checked her cameras.

She had a multi-sectioned screen in front of her that was technically split into 16 regions that could have different pictures. Most of the time, she split the picture only three ways. One main forward camera occupying half the real estate but directly in the center of the monitor; a rear camera on the left quarter; and a variable camera on the right quarter of the screen that she flipped between an upward and a downward camera, sometimes compulsively.

Below her camera monitors her communications equipment was installed. This box parsed communications data and piped it to her headset and monitor. Presently neither the Brigand nor a fellow pilot was in direct communication so the picture contained only her camera feeds. By default, communication was wireless data brought by laser, the most efficient means of data transmission underwater. Acoustic data transfer was the first fallback, because laser was incredibly range dependent, while acoustic wave decoding was less so. Imperial communicators, and old Union communicators, had a second fallback to radio, but radio equipment was not installed anymore on the latest Union designs as it was nearly useless underwater. They saved a bit of weight omitting traditional wi-fi and radio.

At the moment, there was nobody on the screen, and the communicator was silent.

That state of affairs would not last much longer, however.

From an adjacent chute, Dominika’s Strelkannon dropped out soon after.

Her machine was designed for heavy fire support.

For this mission, however, the heavier shoulders of the Strelkannon had been equipped with two pods each housing a double-barreled 20 mm ‘gas gun’, the same sort that ships equipped. With this equipment her role was ostensibly to fire light caliber munitions at dizzying rates hoping to intersect enemy munitions. Sameera, meanwhile, had to make sure she got to fulfill that role by killing anything that got too close to her.

Sameera quite fancied such a protective role.

She had set her sights on making Dominika her woman, after all.

“Dominika, how’s the water?” Sameera asked cheerfully.

“Dark like always.” Dominika replied, her disinterested voice coming out of the earphones.

At that moment Dominika’s expressionless face appeared on a corner of the screen.

“Unquestionably it is dark– but I don’t feel like it is ‘dark as always.’”

It was her first time out in it, and Sameera felt that the water in Eisental was much darker.

Fighting against Leviathans in Lyser, or against the imperialists in Serrano, there were still blues and greens to be seen in the water. Faint, but nevertheless apparent. In Eisental, an additional thousand meters down from those locations, her spotlights parted nothing but pitch black water. Not even with strained eyes could she see any green or blue.

“Sameera, I’m going to conserve ammo as much as I can. Can I count on you?”

“Got it. Don’t worry about a thing. They won’t get through me.”

“Also– I’m serious when I say this. Don’t run off like when we were escaping Serrano.”

“I won’t. I have someone who needs me now. I don’t need to impress anyone but her.”

For once, Dominika did not respond to that with sarcasm or a sour remark.

Soon after, the entire squadron formed up under the Brigand.

To the right of the communicator there was an LCD with sensor output. For most Divers the only capability of this device by itself was to display directional sound acquisition, and this was nearly useless in combat. However, in the presence of a ship, the Diver could sync with its higher-fidelity sensor data and acquire a sonar picture and even LADAR topography.

Once the 114th had formed up, this screen began to display a map with marked targets.

Updating in real time as the ship and the squadron approached their objective.

And even marking distant boxes on the camera feeds using overlays.

On the monitor corner, Dominika disappeared.

There was a priority shared feed to all pilots from the squad leader’s mecha, the Agni.

Karuniya Maharapratham in a pilot suit smiled and waved.

“Operator Maharapratham here! How is everyone? We will begin scattering the HELIOS drones shortly. Scanning and network propagation will follow after. It’ll take some time, but please wait warmly and look forward to all the data goodness coming soon!”

“Karuniya…”

Distantly in Karuniya’s audio, Murati could be heard saying something.

Sameera laughed to herself for a bit.

Between her comrades’ speech, she could hear distant sounds of ordnance.

Low volume booming that seemed to wash over her.

As they neared, the sound was accompanied by vibrations that stirred her machine.

On the map, the object marked “VIP” and the object marked “TARGET 1” approached.

“It’s time, disperse!” Murati ordered. “You know your roles! Begin the operation!”

“Yes ma’am!”

On Murati’s command, the Divers of the 114th launched out from under the Brigand, breaking up into loose sections of two units in mutually supporting range. Sameera led the way for Dominika, the Cossack and Strelkannon grouped closely together as they charged out into the black, empty expanse in front of them. There was neither seafloor beneath them nor sky above them and the Brigand grew distant in the marine fog.

Soon they knew of its existence only in the tracking data.

Similarly both VIP and enemy vessels were nothing but overlay elements and map blips.

Until they came into view.

First as brief flashes of ordnance in the water. Stronger vibrations accompanying each.

Then in the middle of the void of water appeared a long, rectangular silhouette.

Lines of gas gun fire burst from its midsection and aft, intercepting torpedoes and middle caliber rounds hurtling toward it every minute. Specks of light going off by the dozens followed by much larger explosions from the intercepted ordnance. The ship was fighting for its life, enduring explosive fire every minute. Though she could not yet see the Marder-class chasing after the frigate, she could track it, based on positional data which her computer would update in real time using logic given by the Brigand during the sync. In this way, she knew where her enemy was relative to the ship that they were trying to rescue.

“Captain Korabiskaya has made contact with the Republic ship.” Murati said to her pilots.

Regardless, they would have to be careful of its gas gun fire.

Having confirmed the position of the VIP ship, the 114th veered eastward away from it.

Moving towards the enemy instead.

“Avoid enemy ordnance, but intercept if you have a shot.” Murati said.

“I’ve got a hundred shots a minute, Lieutenant.” Dominika replied.

“Use them judiciously.” Murati instructed.

Dominika acknowledged, moving her Diver closer to Sameera but farther behind her.

“Acknowledged. I’ll take the lead.” Sameera said.

On her diver’s arm, she revved up the engine on her diamond spear in preparation.

Rotation was good and smooth. No motion lag– it had good heft when she moved the arm.

She grinned to herself, leaning forward just a little and flooring her pedals for more thrust.

Minutes after contact with the VIP, a second silhouette began to emerge from the dark.

Along with six figures disturbing the water, as they broke away from the “Marder” frigate.

Their first enemy had shown itself and the battle was joined.


Republic “In-Line-2” class Frigates resembled the Union Soyuz class in overall silhouette, but in the sum total could not have been more different. Integrated main guns on the bow meant that the Republic frigate had very stable shooting and twice as many barrels as the Union vessel, but could only bring its main guns to bear on targets it was directly facing.

This design was born out of the Republic’s obsession with breaking out from Ratha Flow and through the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach, reasoning that there was little opportunity to maneuver in that type of warfare and not caring what would happen in a prolonged campaign in Imbria. Everything else seemed designed to paper over this.

Beveled surfaces on the bow and aft gave a rounded and aesthetically pleasing appearance to the ship, unlike the boxy, completely rectangular Soyuz. Because of the guns in the prow it had a flat face that was not efficient in water-breaking. Integrated hydrojets in an armored stern gave the ship’s thrusters greater resilience, unlike the Imbrian-style exposed hydrojets that only had a flared skirt around them, but this also added weight. Despite the supposed higher efficiency of the Republic hydrojets, the added armor made the craft only slightly faster than a Marder or Soyuz. While viewed from the side the ship appeared to be a single rectangular block, the design actually possessed two broad sections. There was a very slight taper near the midsection to a thinner rear. It was there that the rear fins attached. They had a different design from Imbrian fins, slightly diagonal and strangely adjustable.

In total, this meant the In-Line-2 could never completely outrun a “Marder” or “Soyuz.” Whenever a Republic ship turned, it lost maneuver efficiency compared to Imbrian designs. On the maneuver this meant that despite higher top speed, the nimbler Imbrian frigates would catch up. All they had to do was keep shooting to force the Republic ship to snake.

Thankfully, the Republic ship in this particular chase had outside assistance.

As the 114th moved to engage the “Marder” chasing after it, the UNX-001 Brigand and the Volksarmee Rostock moved to cover it. The Brigand moved parallel to the Republic frigate while the Rostock sailed past and moved to engage the chasing Volkisch Marder-class along with the 114th Diver Squadron. Diver gunfire would soon begin trading.

Captain Korabiskaya sent an acoustic message to the Republic frigate along with the shared Union-Republic diplomatic cipher attached. This would inform the ship computer on the Republic side that it was allied traffic being received. Even if the Republic ship wanted to do anything drastic out of paranoia, it had to turn around to face and fire at them, so neither the Rostock’s Captain Daphne nor Ulyana on the Brigand felt threatened.

“Captain, the Republic ship answered.” Semyonova said, her fingers slowly brushing some of her blond hair behind her ears as she spoke. “They are identifying themselves as the ‘R.N.S. John Brown’ and the Captain is requesting a laser transmission to speak with you.”

“Right. Is HELIOS up? Can Daphne join the video meeting?” Ulyana asked.

“HELIOS coverage is at 43% but there are drones we can bounce to.” Zachikova replied.

“Semyonova, Zachikova, hail the John Brown and Rostock and connect us.” Ulyana said.

On the main screen, the picture displaying the LADAR topography and the sonar-based live target tracking was shrunk and pushed to one side. Still visible as needed but subordinate to an incoming laser call taking up most of the screen. In a picture-in-picture, there was a small square with Daphne, who was muted because she was soon to engage the enemy directly– but the larger picture unveiled the captain of the John Brown. Ulyana had not known what to expect, as she had met few Cogitans in her life and knew little about their demographics.

She was still somewhat surprised to see a woman around her age.

“Greetings, Captain Korabiskaya. I can’t thank you enough for your assistance. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Eithnen Ní Faoláin — in the Republic database this is rendered as Ethna Whelan to simplify. I, technically, am the Captain of this fighting vessel.”

She had given two slightly different pronounciations.

Ulyana was not sure her Volgian accent could handle either of them well.

The John Brown’s bridge was notably more cramped than the Brigand’s as there were several heads of hair visible around on the bottom edge of her main camera picture. Eithnen was a fair skinned and good-looking woman, the middle of her face full of freckles, her cheekbones high and slim, with brown eyes and a slightly long nose. Her hair was long and voluminous and shockingly red, so bright that any individual darker strand seemed to stand out, of which there were few. Parted more to one side with longer bangs on that side as well. She was dressed in a button-down shirt that was partially unbuttoned over sweat-slick skin, along with a blue military coat worn loosely, paired with a skirt and tights. There was a hat hanging on a guard-rail off to her side. Eithnen’s bridge seemed to be tight and concentric, with herself in a small central enclosure without much legroom and surrounded by her officers on a ring slightly below her. The door seemed to be directly behind her.

Certainly such a design was efficient, but Ulyana could not imagine fighting like that.

“Our nations stand united, and so do we, Captain.” Ulyana said. “What is your current status? More enemies are on the way from the north. We have a plan to attack each approaching enemy group to rescue your ship; but your support would maximize our success.”

“My crew is exhausted, Captain, but we have been exhausted for days. We will continue fighting to the best of our ability. To do otherwise would mean lying down to die.” Eithnen replied. Her expression did not change as she relayed her situation. She had a look of almost amused resignation in the face of this danger– bitterness, too. “We lack in almost every human need except ammunition for the ship’s guns. No medicine, eating a meal a day, and with nary the supplies to do more than keep the ship afloat if a bit leaky.”

“Those are desperate conditions. Should we prepare an evacuation?” Ulyana said.

“No, the ship can endure a bit more yet. I appreciate your concern.” Eithnen said.

“Then once the waters are calm again, we can at least make sure you can get to Aachen.”

“I do not relish returning there– but you are right, there is no other choice long-term.”

“It is admirable that you have maintained control of things in such a situation, Captain.”

“We have a new lease on life Captain– we can almost see the light at the end. While at first I and my crew consigned ourselves to death, we disabled the trap that was set to detonate our ship in case of our escape from our Republic Navy captors. Therefore I would greatly enjoy living at least a little bit longer– and in that, we do require your assistance.”

Ulyana narrowed her eyes in confusion. “What happened to all of you?”

Eithnen’s eyes drifted away from the screen, as if she was looking at her crew below.

She sat back in the little seat cushioning she was given in her tight bridge.

One hand running through her hair.

“Captain Korabiskaya, I hope you can be sympathetic even knowing this– but the John Brown is a penal ship. We are the 808th Penal Battalion.” Eithnen said. She spoke quickly as if she did not want Ulyana to have time to react before hearing her whole story. “We are all former prisoners and in fact former prisoners slated for execution. However, none of us here are violent offenders or sexual exploiters! All of us are victims of social and economic discrimination! That we are trapped here is a horrific injustice, Captain!”

“Captain Faoláin,” Ulyana smiled while troubling the pronunciation she had heard from Eithnen, “Regardless of your circumstances I would not just abandon you to be killed by the Volkisch Movement, having taken painful efforts to reach out to you. I have seen first-hand that the Republic can be quite unjust despite its promotion of ‘liberty.’”

Eithnen bowed her head to Ulyana, her hands clapped together in a gesture of submission.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Captain. If I am the last Republic officer alive here that can be held to account for the Core Separation at Kreuzung then I will submit to any punishment. I understand I have participated in heinous actions and that my own survival is not an excuse. I only want the rest of the hundred innocent souls on this ship to be safe.”

“There is no justice in punishing you in place of those who coerced you.” Ulyana said.

“I agree with the distinguished Captain Korabiskaya as well.” Daphne said suddenly, her first shared opinion in the discussion. “Forgive my interruption, I am Daphne Triantafallos of the Katarran communist ship ‘Rostock.’ I will be leaving the call now– battle will soon be joined!”

Daphne looked strangely cheerful to be on a collision course with an enemy ship.

Her face disappeared from the picture in picture, and the square disappeared with her.

“Communist Katarran mercenaries?” Eithnen asked.

“Communist Katarran comrades. Much more reliable.” Ulyana said with a smile.

“I see. Captain, allow us to join your attack. We don’t want to sit helplessly.” Eithnen said.

“We’ll take every gun we can get. Do you have any Divers?” Ulyana asked.

Eithnen shook her head. “We were not trusted to serve as more than interdiction support.”

“So human shields essentially.” Ulyana said. “The Republic– I’ll hold my tongue for now.”

“Hah! Insult that rubbish country all you want. I’ll gladly join you there too.” Eithnen said.

Ulyana found herself full of compassion for the plight of that lone frigate. Judging by Eithnen’s expressions and hesitations, her story felt genuine. Increasingly she felt such a distaste for the Union’s ‘greatest ally’– but for now she had to settle the immediate account.


One by one the missile hatches atop the forward deck of the Marder-class sprang open.

Trails of bubbles floated up from each bay as its Sturmvolker diver launched, six in all.

These modified Volkers lost their round chassis for a body plan closer to a Strelok.

Looking more like the intimidating footsoldiers they were meant to be, armed with 20 mm Diver caliber submachine guns, the Sturmvolkers dispersed from the side of the Marder they were meant to be guarding, charging into an expected melee. None of them stayed together in units. In every direction a lone Sturmvolker went, hunting after the blips on their synced sonars. One particular unit shot straight up over the battlefield before pulling into a steep dive, employing gravity and its superior position to attempt to meet its enemy with an advantage in maneuver. It moved with great confidence as if it would surely score a kill.

In the middle of its dive, it crossed the path of Sameera’s Cossack as she darted forward.

Stopping, turning, raising its submachine gun to open fire believing it had taken her back.

And meeting a spinning drill that instantly bored through the thin chassis of its SMG.

Through arms that shredded to pieces–

Into the hull directly through the cockpit seams in the chest armor.

Water pressure doing bloody work.

Perforated, the Sturmvolker imploded suddenly.

Bursting pieces deflecting off the drill.

Nothing but a cloud of red foam and formless metal shreds gently falling down the water.

Sameera retracted her blood-flecked drill and accelerated away from the debris.

“Finally got to debut this Diamond Spear. Simple, yet delightfully brutal.”

Anyone in a mecha she was ordered to kill was no longer a person in Sameera’s mind.

Like Leviathans in Lyser, they were just things to be hunted.

For a moment, she had thought, “would it be more taxing to kill humans than Leviathans?”

Then, in battle with those humans it never crossed her mind. She had her orders.

On the hunt for humans doomed to the wrong side of her attentions.

Because there were as many enemies as the attacking mecha of the 114th, the battle was not immediately intense. Pops of confused gunfire from the Marder’s gas guns sounded the loudest and punctuated the chases transpiring around its hydrospace, but these fusilades were ineffective. The dispersed Sturmvolkers swam in directionless arcs, briefly firing their SMGs at the flitting shadows of the Union mecha darting all around them but failing to make contact with their targets. Shalikova and Khadija took to the chase, and went after a Sturmvolker each as soon as they saw one. Murati and her Agni hung back. Valya drew away one of the Sturmvolker from the reach of supporting units. Sameera scored first blood.

“HELIOS will be up momentarily!” Karuniya replied. “Zachikova, you can start!”

Sameera spotted Zachikova’s vaguely cetacean-shaped drone go swimming past.

Dragging behind it a crate on a hook that it was taking to the east.

“Moving to block the laser relay.” Zachikova informed the team.

“Sameera, Dominika, can you tie up the Marder’s guns?” Murati asked.

Sameera waited a second for Dominika to speak up first.

“Acknowledged!”

So she could then say: “I’ll do you one better than tying them up, Lieutenant!”

Though the battle had begun far enough from the Marder to only vaguely see its outline in the distance, the ship was only a hundred or so meters away– and closing. Flashes from its 20 mm defensive gas guns shone brighter and faster but began to dim anew. Owing to the 114th attacking, the Marder ceased to shoot at the John Brown and turned northward, away from the Rostock. Sameera wondered if they knew the Rostock was an enemy.

“Dominika, can you follow me as close as possible?” Sameera said.

“The gas gun pods aren’t as heavy as the cannons, I can keep up.” Dominika replied.

“Awesome. This is how we used to do it to bigger Leviathans in Lyser. Floor that pedal!”

Sameera began the attack run approaching the Marder-class from the starboard side. Gun pods on the Marder were divided into four bow, two aft, four keel and two each port and starboard. Hurtling toward the ship on final approach, Sameera was acquired by two of the bow guns and one of the starboard guns, turning and opening a flurry of gunfire. She approached high and threw herself into a diving turn to break through.

A dozen shells detonated in a long trail sweeping over her.

Flashing light briefly overcame her cameras.

Booming noises; tinnitus in her ears.

Heavy vibrations transferred into her cockpit, rattling over her back and under her fingers.

Explosion after explosion, bursting in the surroundings, blossoming fiery bubbles–

“Dominika!” She cried out.

“Still here! Focus!” She was relieved to hear a response.

Shrapnel bounced off her armor, pockmarked it, she could feel each impact–

Nevertheless she broke through the interdiction fire with minimal damage.

Sameera and Dominika swept across the broad side of the ship, too close to be fired on.

Close enough that the forward camera view was like a looming horizon of metal.

Within seconds the skirt of armor around the hydrojets came into view.

“Near the aft; up and on the deck!”

“Got it!”

The Streloks climbed suddenly, swept gracefully over the aft armor skirt.

Turned sharply, banking in a half-moon arc–

and began to cross the length of the deck, passing the conning fin,

completely under the firing arcs of the gas guns.

“Now cause some havoc!”

Taking the neck of the ship, its Divers too distracted to come to its rescue.

Sameera reared up her drill as she charged, and landed on the deck with a thrown punch.

Thrusting her diamond spear through a gas gun pod and gouging its magazine from inside.

Meanwhile Dominika planted herself in the middle of the three remaining deck guns.

From the Strelkannon’s shoulders, quick, controlled bursts of gunfire hammered the pods.

Perforating the housing and detonating each gun into a bubble of gas and debris.

“Rostock, the deck guns are out!” Sameera called out.

The Rostock’s Katarran operator picked up the message immediately.

“Got it! Torpedo incoming!”

Having created an opening, Sameera and Dominika thrust up with all of their power.

Within seconds the enormous sword-shape of the Rostock penetrated the shadows.

Filling the hole in the Marder’s defenses with fire.

Sameera noticed the brief flash of the explosion on her underside camera.

Faster than she could see in the darkness, the torpedo hurtled toward the starboard side of the Marder’s deck detonated just short of a direct hit, but it was enough. Enormous shearing forces caused by the detonation, expanding and contracting as the air bubble “stuck” to the ship’s side. Such was its fury that it tore a gash separating parts of the deck from the starboard plate. Water rushed in. Atop the ship, the main gun turret was paralyzed.

Though the watertight interior was not penetrated, the Marder listed.

Tilting just enough to expose the upper deck directly to the Rostock’s 150 mm guns.

From behind and under Sameera the guns thundered.

Twin massive flashes lit up the deck of the Rostock for a brief instant.

Lancing across the water splitting the sea, the munitions put two massive holes in the deck.

Penetrations too violent and too near for the anti-flooding measures to prevent.

In moments the Marder began to unravel beneath Sameera, bulging apart with successive compartment implosions until it was split open like a ration box. Everything transpired with devasting speed. Debris and blood, foaming clouds of shredded humans and ripped steel and crushed objects, lines of ripped-up cabling. From the top of the disemboweled hulk that was once a ship teeming with life, everything that had constituted its strength now bled out into a homogenous cloud. Its remains slowly descended to the sea floor.

For a moment Sameera floated amid that macabre geyser with a neutral expression.

Another hundred or so human souls cast into the water never again to return.

“No– it isn’t as hard as killing a Leviathan.” She said to herself.

Too low for the communicator to pick up and transmit.

When she took a Leviathan’s neck and drove her weapons into it, wrung its life out herself.

She had to see the face of a dead creature before her and meet its lightless eyes.

Something she saw moving with vigor and purpose just seconds ago, became extinguished.

With humans, in their ships and Divers– there was too much metal between all of them.

That was quite lucky. She wouldn’t be much use to anyone if she could not kill people.

“Sameera, are you alright? Don’t just suddenly go silent on me!”

Through the communicator, Dominika’s voice. Her lag-distorted face on the screen.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been through much worse.” She said, smiling at the screen.

Once again engaging her controls, Sameera’s Cossack rejoined Dominika’s Strelkannon.

Diving back down to where the sinking Marder once was, and now the Rostock settled.

“Marder down! No danger of agarthic detonation!” the Katarran operator called out.

Murati’s voice sounded next.

Sameera realized the fidelity of her sensor package had now improved. HELIOS’ high-bandwidth information network was established and she could see the surroundings much more clearly both on her map and even on her cameras due to the predictive overlays. It was as if there was actually some light and air down here in the depths of the Imbrium.

“All enemies down. Good work! But it’s only the first phase of the operation.” Murati said.

“Distress signals from the Marder to the relay were successfully intercepted by the net.”

Zachikova’s voice. In the distance Sameera could see an unfolded, massive sail-like object.

An X-shaped rigging between which there were enormous sectioned aluminum nets.

The Marder had been slain, and due to the laser-blocking net, its communications with the nearby laser relays were blocked, preventing its allies from knowing the details of its final fate. Nevertheless, despite the flawless execution of the first phase, the enemy, to whom the plan was unknown, continued making their own adjustments to alter the situation.


“W-what’s going on? Is there fighting? They’re fighting the Volkisch?”

At first Homa could hardly believe any of this was happening.

Soon she felt that the truth was washing over her like ice-cold water.

She was going to die.

From her hospital bed, Homa watched the bearing monitors on the wall. Hands shaking, teeth chattering. She felt suddenly cold because of how much she was sweating, and her chest quaked with the rushing of her heart. She felt that if she took her eyes off the monitors that would be the moment where her life suddenly ended. On every wall there was an update on the battle– the enemy ships, cycling topographic maps.

Along with a message, also cycled every so often–

Steel yourself and keep fighting! These monitors were meant for the sailor’s edification.

This propagandistic affirmation did nothing for Homa, however.

In her mind, this felt like the same hopeless folly she had engaged in back at Kreuzung.

The steel colossus of the Volkisch, immense and immovable, was coming for them.

Homa was not safe. She felt this in every centimeter of her skin.

She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to die. She was going to–

“Homa! I’m so sorry, I was setting up the aid stations. Are you okay?”

“I’m– of course– I’m not–”

Homa struggled to breathe and speak. Alarmed, Dr. Kappel rushed to her side.

Dr. Kappel held her by the shoulder and laid a hand on her forehead.

“Your temperature feels normal. I thought you might be having a rejection symptom–”

“How can it be normal?!” Homa cried out.

For an instant the doctor looked surprised by her shouting. She was not angered, however.

“I’ll get you a serotonin inhibitor– it’ll help you calm down.” Dr. Kappel said gently.

“How are you so calm?!” Homa shouted. “They’re going to kill us all!”

Dr. Kappel sat beside Homa’s bed, still smiling gently.

She reached out and carefully held Homa’s hands in her own.

“I understand your fear. But I’ve seen them do miraculous things before.” Dr. Kappel said.

Homa’s eyes filled with tears. She could not stop shaking. She looked down at her hands.

“Is– Is Kalika out there too? Where– where is she–?” Homa stammered heavily.

“Kalika is not fighting. She is helping in the hangar. She’ll be fine. I’m here for you.”

Dr. Kappel stayed at Homa’s side in the infirmary. Stroking her hands and comforting her.


“HELIOS is at full propagation! Please enjoy the scenery and thank your gracious host!”

Karuniya Maharapratham’s cheerful voice rang throughout the Brigand’s bridge.

On the main screen the prediction overlay on the camera feeds became clearer and slightly brighter. They could almost see the seafloor and the undersea mounts in the distance became outlined as if in fog. It was impressive, but even a miracle technology like HELIOS could not perfectly part the sea in such a dark and deep place as Eisental. It was comparatively far less rich in visual quality than it was in Goryk, when they first used it. They would not be able to navigate exclusively by sight even with the HELIOS network.

However, they were not using it for the visual overlay effects.

High-fidelity real time positional tracking and seamless laser communication with all of the pilots and ships in the fleet was the actual boon– and that was still working quite well, even over 2000 meters deep. On the Brigand’s bridge, the faces of their six pilots appeared on the main screen. Everyone had come out unscathed after the last sortie, but this was only the halfway mark. After a quick evaluation of the battlefield, the 114th returned to the Brigand as the Rostock and John Brown also formed back up around it. In an arrowhead formation, they headed for the next set of Marder-class. They had about twenty minutes before the next sortie, so the divers stayed in their deployment chutes.

Sailors passed charging cables and additional ammunition to them.

There was light damage on the Cossack and Valya’s Strelok that was assessed to not to be compromising for the machines. Shalikova and Khadija had each scored two enemy kills and received light shrapnel damage from close-range SMG munition bursts, while Sameera had taken out one enemy diver and Valya another. Murati’s Agni was the least worn and torn of the divers, as she had done no combat maneuvering and only focused on giving orders and covering for the HELIOS drones. While Ulyana ribbed Murati on her passivity in the last sortie, Tigris actually spoke up to agree with her decision to stay back.

“I’m recommending the Agni not engage in intense combat if possible.” She said.

“So when is Murati going to be required to do any work again?” Ulyana teased.

“Why is everyone suddenly acting like I’m lazy? This isn’t funny!” Murati shouted.

“She can go crazy once I’ve finished up the ‘Tigris Pack 1’ for the Agni.” Tigris said.

“Very well, I can accept that for now.” Ulyana replied.

“Why are you ignoring me now?!” Murati cried out, to a few laughs from the pilots.

On the video feed, they could see Karuniya’s hand reaching down to squeeze her shoulder.

Beside Ulyana, Aaliyah shook her head with a sigh, and turned to Zachikova.

“Can we get an updated picture of the incoming frigates? Has their course altered at all?”

Zachikova nodded her head and did as she was told, prompting the main screen to update.

In place of the pilots, the tracking map with predicted movements of the enemy returned.

Showing the two Frigates still in a line as they approached– and the third now closing in.

“It appears that their formation is tightening relative to what was calculated before.” Zachikova said. “We will meet them all together. No more than a minute apart.”

For a moment, Murati seemed to freeze up.

There was an unexpected change in the enemy’s composition.

And it was the most dangerous group too– those Marders and all their Divers.

Regardless, if Murati was afraid she was not showing it.

“We will adapt then.” Murati spoke up. “Captain, are we willing to use our missiles?”

“They’re difficult to replenish so I hoped to save them for a worse situation.” Ulyana said.

“Well, this situation is worsening. I think this a good idea from the Lieutenant.” Aaliyah said, gesturing to the main screen, where Murati’s face once was. “With the Rostock also shooting, we could drop sixteen missiles right into the core of their formation and cause a lot of chaos if not an outright rout. Patrolmen might not retain cohesion after that.”

“I’d gladly spend some missiles to seize the day. The Rostock will assist.” Erika said.

“Very well. We’ll prepare the missiles to fire.” Ulyana said. “But what about the timing?”

“Good point. Fatima, have we detected any more active sonar?” Murati asked.

“No, not since they sent us into alarm.” Fatima said. “They’re likely going quiet now.”

“Zachikova blocked the final communications from the other Marder. Jamming started before the Rostock attacked the Marder. It’s likely the enemy is missing some critical details about that battle.” Murati said. “They will know there was fighting and they will know something of our composition depending on what the Marder reported. But do they all know that the Rostock was also their enemy? We could use the situation against them by constructing a false narrative to have them take up a predictable formation.”

“How can we manipulate them in this situation? They’ll be on alert.” Aaliyah asked.

“Does the Rostock still have its original Imperial communications equipment, Premier?”

Erika smiled. “I think I see what you’re getting at Murati. Yes, we do have it.”

Zachikova altered the main screen picture so Murati’s face could be seen over the map.

“You said that regional patrol crews assume the Rostock is an imperial vessel with a higher command authorization than themselves. That means they are not aware of each specific ship in the inventory and they are not doing due dilligence and demanding authentication.” Murati said. “Zachikova could use the Rostock to send an Imperial-encrypted acoustic communication to the Marders informing them to predeploy their divers in a boxed defensive position. We will pretend we are chasing the Rostock toward them.”

“Clever.” Erika said. “I quite like the idea. Let’s contact Daphne to set things up quickly.”

“Zachikova, do you think you can do it? And do it quickly?” Murati asked.

Zachikova stared at the picture of Murati in her cockpit with clear irritation.

“Who do you think I am? This is technically really easy to do. But will they believe it?”

“Is it underestimating the enemy’s intelligence if we all agree they’re not too bright?”

Murati smiled confidently on the screen. Zachikova sighed once more and got to work.

The Rostock pulled out ahead, deliberately being missed by a small amount of gunfire.


Alerted to enemy activity but not exactly what kind, three Marder-class did their best to pull tightly together before making their final approach to the expected battlefield. Hatches opened on all three, their missile bays releasing sixteen Sturmvolker divers divided into sections of four, each occupying a cardinal direction as to guard their intended ships.

As far as the patrol knew their mission had changed. From capturing a Republic vessel that had somehow penetrated Eisental’s defenses, to stopping a large-scale enemy operation that was even threatening a Ritter-class Cruiser responding to the nearby battle. Since their local heavy support, a Serclaes, was lagging behind as usual, the brunt of the response was their responsibility. They were just patrol– they would not question orders.

Approaching to within a kilometer range was the Ritter-class that had sent the orders.

Trailing behind it as expected were a pair of enemy vessels launching ineffective attacks.

Aside from the Imperial cipher the ship had attached no relevant authentication.

Nevertheless, the patrol crews could come up with their own excuses for that.

When a brand new Cruiser like that gave an order they simply complied for their own sake.

The Marders in their defensive box sailed confidently. With a Ritter, they had the numbers.

Then, within 750 meters, the Marders spotted a series of successive flashes.

From behind the Ritter– and from the Ritter’s own missile bays.

Over a dozen lines cut across the water. Supercavitating missiles had been launched.

Both Imperial Taurus class missiles and Union Biryuza class hurtled toward the flotilla.

At this range the Marders had roughly 7 seconds to respond to being fired upon by missiles.

In that time gas guns could engage and fire a few rounds in haphazard directions.

Divers could be issued and execute single-word orders.

It was not enough.

“INCOMING!” was all that went out across the patrol flotilla.

Explosions blossomed violent gas bubbles across the top of flotilla’s hydrospace.

Gas gunners and divers struck some of the missiles, but even those intercepted munitions traveled too close to the fleet. Such turbulent detonations inflicted shockwaves that shook the frigates and sent Divers flying out of place. Cavitation bubbles formed by the explosion expanded and collapsed, pulsating violently. The walls of these bubbles “stuck” to steel when expanding and inflicted shearing force on the same metal when collapsing. Unlucky Divers caught in their wake imploded, torn open; ships within the radius of the explosion had armor and gun turrets and sensor bundles torn off their hulls and cast out into the sea.

Each missile warhead caused an explosion large enough to engulf two divers.

Tightly packed and not expecting such an attack, the flotilla quaked from the blasts.

No direct hits were scored, but significant damage was inflicted to turrets, fins, towers.

In an instant, combat capability had dropped from near-overwhelming to nil.

A predictable formation and a well-chosen attack made the difference.

Ephemeral flames and streams of bubbles and clouds of hot vaporized water spread a fog throughout the formation that the flotilla’s ships and divers struggled to escape. Once certain that they had survived, the individual ships lost cohesion, realizing it was a trap, and began to flee outside of mutually supporting range. In the confusion their divers floated helplessly, gathering their wits and tentatively fleeing in random directions.

Little did they know that while focused on the death raining down from above,

their keels had been taken.

Beneath the enemy flotilla, several divers shot up and attacked from the sea floor.

Khadija al-Shajara was at the head of the group and rushed at heedless speeds, her targeting computer putting a yellow box around a nearby Sturmvolker that had been spotted on her path. She reared back one of her swords as she climbed, sweeping up and just over the Sturmvolker suddenly. Twisting her Strelok’s body, engaging the jet on her diamond blade and cleaving diagonally through the center armor around the cockpit.

Saw-teeth chewed-metal disintegrating in front of her as her target imploded.

“One more for me, little Shali-Shali~!” Khadija said sweetly.

“It’s not a contest! Focus up!” Shalikova shouted back.

One blade in each hand; Khadija engaged both saws and rushed to the next target.

She was unaware of how many enemies had survived, she was not looking at her sensors.

Her mind had a honed instinct for moving quickly and attacking without hesitation.

Above them, there was a Frigate trying to climb away–

From the distance, a thundering cannonade. Three blasts perforated the side of the ship.

The Rostock, Brigand and John Brown were bringing firepower to bear on the flotilla.

Thanks to HELIOS, they did not have to worry much about hitting their own divers.

Metal rained down from heavens. Khadija navigated the debris of the dead and dying ships.

Pieces of the ships deflected off her armor as she charged.

Snaking toward a Sturmvolker overwhelmed by the chaos.

Within the rain of blood and iron it sprayed its SMG haphazardly.

She could almost hear the pilot screaming and shaking within the cascade of death.

Bursts of ineffective gunfire grazed her shoulderplates and hurtled past her hip armor.

Not once did she slow down; not once did she lose confidence in her approach.

Khadija crashed into the enemy with her swords in front of her and tore across.

Ripping two massive gashes in the metal, severing an arm, engulfed in skin-color foam.

Barely recognizing a kill before engaging her vernier thrusters and kicking off the carcass.

Her computer had already identified the next enemy within the storm.

She reveled in it.

“Looks like I’ll be the one carving a notch on my cockpit today, Shali-Shali~!”

By the time Serclaes-class Cruiser arrived, it was to the scene of a slaughter.

Heavy and roughly spearpoint-shaped, the Serclaes bristled with 76 mm guns on its angled surfaces, as well as a single 150 mm gun turret with one barrel designed for precision fire. It would avail itself of none of these accoutrements. Arriving blind, having received only a few panicked transmissions from the Marder-group and nothing more, and now unable itself to reach the nearby laser relay to communicate with the rest of the patrol, it saw an enormous field of mutilated debris spread out before it– and two enemy Cruisers banking away.

Drawn to the enemy it could see, the Serclaes moved to bring its guns to bear on them.

Unaware of a third enemy, the original target of the chase, that had been laid in wait.

Coming in quickly from the opposite flank just as the Serclaes committed to turn.

Four resounding blasts from the 100 mm guns on the John Brown impacted the Serclaes.

Tightly grouped, the shots punched deep into the armor in quick succession causing the ship’s interiors to disgorge from the wounds like a bag turned inside-out. Water violently filled the ship and disgorged each compartment in turn. Once the remains of the ship began to list, it seemed a beast wounded, red frothing humanity and steel innards copiously bleeding from the perforations as its body gracefully arced toward the sea floor.

Demonstrating the inflexible but brutal firepower that characterized the “In-Line-2” class.

“They called us cowards. But here we are.” Captain Eithnen Ní Faoláin solemnly declared.

Not even a murmur got out about this engagement. The Serclaes died quietly.

In the distance, an aluminum sail folded back into its rigging and ceased blocking the relay.

Within the cockpits of several divers, pilots broke out into laughter, tears, or sighs.

Inside each ship, the officers and sailors stood briefly speechless at the circumstances.

Before breaking out into celebration.

Five ships, twenty-four divers, over 500 enemy lives. No casualties of their own.

Mere minutes decided whom would pay the balance with their dead.

An advantage that would have seemed overwhelming swung from one side to another.

Quick decisions; lucky guesses; irreparable mistakes, parceled out between combatants.

Incomparable levels of experience played a part; but so did the plan and its execution.

So did quick thinking and the determination to do battle in the first place.

For the Volksarmee it was an unlikely victory against the type of enemies they would have once run away from. Fighting the patrol in open water– it signaled a change in the era.

“All of you really have me believing in miracles here.” Erika Kairos said. “Good work.”

In each pilot’s cockpits and throughout the Brigand and Rostock, her voice broadcast.

Even after all they had been through, it proved that their survival had not just been a fluke.

Somehow, almost before they even knew it, they fought and won the Battle of Haaren Hills.

Opening the way to Aachen, testing their cooperation, rescuing a stray Republic ship–

And catching the attention of several different forces, once word of the event spread.


“We’re recovering the Agni! Get the crane here! C’mon, don’t leave our hero waiting!”

Chief Galina Lebedova shouted amicably at the surrounding sailors in the hangar.

Everyone had a smile on their face as they got the mobile crane over to the deployment chute and hooked the chain to Agni, pulling it up and onto the floor of the hangar. When the cockpit door opened, Murati stepped out into a wave of hands, patting her back, shaking her shoulder, clapping. They called her a hero and a genius. They saluted and cheered.

Ulyana had credited her with the battle plan.

Murati wilted under all the attention. She barely knew how to take a step forward.

So many people were smiling and laughing that she could not help but laugh awkwardly.

And she had some experience speaking in front of people, so it was not stage fright.

Rather, the sheer size of the group in the hangar led her to realize–

how many lives were at stake

in her conceited decisions,

recalling the Comissar chastised her

was all of this what she put at stake–?

“Hey, hey, don’t crowd us like this, I have a migraine! We need to rest!”

Karuniya stepped down from the rear seat of the Agni, gently pushing Murati forward.

Murati silently thanked Karuniya for being there with her.

Urged by Karuniya, Murati stepped off the cockpit ramp.

All of the sailors made way for them to go through to the elevator. Partway through they started clapping. Murati did not know why but the clapping bothered her a lot in that moment. It sounded much louder in her ears than it should and it rattled through her chest. Booming, thundering, vibrations transferring from metal through to her– no not from metal she was out of the metal. It couldn’t have been so loud as to move through the floor. She could barely meet the eyes of the sailors– they became an indistinct mass around her. Did Karuniya see all of this? Murati thought that she might stumble and fall–

“Please allow the Lieutenant through! She must attend her post-combat checkup!”

At the entrance to the elevator the crowd cleared away from a shouting Aatto.

She helped Karuniya to usher Murati through the elevator door.

Once the doors shut, all of the sounds shut out with them.

It was like a pair of hands had clapped in Murati’s ears and awakened her from a dream.

“Murati, are you okay?” Karuniya asked. “You look so pale– and you’re shaking!”

“I’m fine.” Murati said. “Really. I haven’t eaten today, I must be hungry.”

“Jeez. I should have had you eat a survival bar or something.” Karuniya said.

Karuniya turned from Murati to the Loup woman who had entered the elevator with them.

“You must be Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! It’s our first time meeting isn’t it?”

“I believe so! I was only officially elevated to this role this morning.”

Aatto reached out a hand across Murati’s chest to shake with Karuniya on the other side.

Karuniya shook her hand with a strangely cheerful expression.

“I’m Murati’s wife, Karuniya Maharapratham. Pleased to meet you.”

She emphasized the word. Was she angry? Aatto had no reaction to this.

Between the two of them Murati felt like she had been trapped in a cage.

Everything was happening across the length of her like she had been made an object.

A firm hand shake. Smiling faces. An almost mock-saccharine atmosphere.

Aatto’s fingers then slipped from Karuniya’s grasp, to hold her hand by the tips instead.

She leaned forward in front of Murati and kissed Karuniya’s hand.

Karuniya went red. Murati drew her eyes wide.

“The Queen herself!” Aatto said. “I can already see it– a worthy partner to a king!”

Murati almost wanted to scream at her–

But the two of them were chirping too much for her to get a sound in edgewise.

“Oh my! She’s such a charmer!” Karuniya laughed.

Now it was Aatto’s turn to smile in a strangely cheerful fashion.

“I studied the roster. A formidable scholar is a perfect match for a consummate soldier.”

“Oh ho~! Murati, I already like her. You’ve got a keeper here.”

“I am flattered you think so. I simply wish to support unique talents in this world.”

“Thank you Aatto. My hubby can be difficult, so please be patient with her.”

“Of course, of course–”

“I’m the one who is being monumentally patient here.” Murati spoke up, fists tightening.

Aatto and Karuniya both giggled at the same time and in a frighteningly similar fashion.

Murati wondered if she might break their camaraderie by reminding Karuniya that Aatto had been a non-commissioned officer of the Volkisch Movement, but she decided against it. She did not want to hurt Aatto’s feelings when she could just be the bigger woman and endure her wife joking as she always did. It might even do Karuniya some good, Murati thought, if she made a friend. For as much as Karuniya joked about this, the same rules of friendship that she used to say Murati was friendless applied just as much to her.

At least the two of them were not fighting.

Karuniya could have easily decided to be offended by Aatto rather than amused.

After the door opened to the upper tier, it revealed Erika Kairos standing in the hall.

Murati saluted to her. Erika waved for her to put her hand down.

“Ah, Murati. May I accompany you for a moment? I wanted to talk.” Erika said.

“Of course.” Murati said. She turned to look at Karuniya and Aatto.

Karuniya waved her fingers as if to tell Murati to go on ahead, staying with Aatto.

Erika started down the hall with Murati following at her side.

“How are you feeling? Triumphant?” Erika asked.

“Not really. A little shaky I guess.” Murati said. “I haven’t eaten today.”

She was beginning to suspect it was more than food and maybe her nerves were shot.

But she did not want to admit that nor seek support for it.

Preferably, it really was just hunger affecting her.

“Does it feel surreal, to come out the other end of a successful plan?” Erika asked.

“A little bit. I don’t know whether to feel like we clawed out a victory, or won too handily.”

“When a battle starts, there are no even odds between the combatants. Nothing is fair and nobody is keeping score. There is just, always someone who will triumph, and someone who will die. You know– I felt that you are someone who would not appreciate being called a ‘genius’, so I called you something whimsical on the bridge, a ‘sorcerer.’”

“Even that feels unearned.” Murati said. “I’m not special for just making observations.”

“Perhaps not, but you are the one who spoke up. You had the courage of conviction.” Erika said. She smiled a bit more than she was before. Shutting her eyes and grinning with satisfaction. “Murati, what I find special about you is not how much you know about military matters– it’s what’s in here.” Erika reached out and suddenly tapped her fingers just above Murati’s breasts. “Before you chastised us, we were going to leave those people on the John Brown to die. I was leaning that way too. It was your words that saved their lives. It was your determination to abhor injustice even if looking the other way was the easier path.”

Murati had honestly never given her ‘attitude’ such as it was, that elevated sort of merit.

In her mind, what mattered was all the time she spent thinking about war, studying history, trying to determine correct understandings. Her heart, was just that of a communist, she thought. Anyone could have made that judgment; anyone with her knowledge could have made that plan. Everyone in the world should have had her convictions.

“I’m of the opinion you could use a bit more malice.” Erika said. “But I also just like you.”

Erika met her eyes with such a fond and gentle gaze.

Murati felt a bit embarrassed suddenly.

She felt like she needed to justify herself better to someone like Erika.

“I wouldn’t have made the suggestions I did, if I did not believe we could win.”

“And when the situation changed? You know– we could have run away at many points!”

“I still believed we could rout them. And I believed it was the best action long-term.”

“Keep believing wholeheartedly. Speak when you must, and then argue with whoever you need to, including myself. If needed, I’ll put my foot down as the malice that you lack.”

Erika reached her hand out again and patted Murati on the back.

Murati smiled at her and felt her head clearing just a bit more than before.

Her heart just a little bit less heavy than it had been. She felt just a bit less burdened.

She was not singularly responsible for everyone’s lives, not today, and not ever.

They had not done all of this just because Murati said so, but because they believed her.

Someday, if she was wrong, if they thought she was wrong–

There were many people with their own judgments around her who would guide her.

Murati was stubborn, she knew she would argue her own way no matter what.

But everyone was responsible together. Erika was right.

She needed to have confidence.

Sometimes the most callous thing toward life was to stand by saying nothing.

“I appreciate it, Premier. But I am not afraid to deploy the little malice I have.”

“Then I won’t underestimate you again. How do you feel now?”

“Better.” Murati said. “Could you tell I was troubled?”

For an instant, Erika flashed the red rings around her eyes that indicated psionics.

Then she crossed her arms over her breasts, shut her eyes, and looked a bit smug.

“You could say it was a mix of my own judgment as a leader; and a little diagnostic.”

“I see. Nevertheless– thank you, Premier.”

“My pleasure. Ask me someday to tell you the story of how I stole the Rostock.”

“Was it a plan comparable to what we pulled off today?”

“It was so much better. Intrigue, death-defying risk, with Katarran soul. Pure noir.”

“I thought noir stories are supposed to have bad endings?”

Erika remained quiet to that question but continued smiling to herself.

Eventually she ducked into another meeting room and bid Murati goodbye for the moment.

Murati thought that perhaps the story of the Rostock did have a bad ending.

And that there could be ‘bad endings’ where Erika still lived to tell that story anyway.

Whatever else she intended to communicate, Murati was simply glad for the reassurances. When she arrived at the infirmary some of the cheer she lost the past few days had returned.


After the sinking of the patrol fleet’s Serclaes-class Cruiser, the Brigand, Rostock and John Brown quickly fled the scene of the battle. Though each fleet had been prevented from transmitting to the relay during battle and therefore to the rest of the patrol, it must have already been common knowledge that the flotilla was moving to engage a Republic ship in the first place. If that specific operation took too long and suddenly went out of contact, then more of the patrol would immediately be sent to the area to investigate.

Ulyana gave the order to depart as close to combat speed as possible without raising further suspicion from any arriving patrol fleet vessels. An object moving too fast underwater would stick out too much– commercial vessels and off-duty military ships all traveled at restricted speeds either due to hardware, legal or doctrinal limitations. The Volksarmee had to get to Aachen as soon as they could, but without raising too much dust in the process.

“According to Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather, the patrol fleet in Eisental was stripped pretty bare so most their newer ships could be assigned to the Volkisch navy and their war in the south. However, we must retain a sense of urgency. Even a dozen Cutters can be a problem. Furthermore, we have to assume that Violet Lehner’s forces will be moving north to secure personal control over the region. They will likely be far more formidable.”

That was Erika’s assumption but Ulyana supported it, having watched video of her speech.

Violet Lehner’s “Zabaniyah” would be their eventual biggest problem.

For the moment, however, the state of the John Brown was the immediate concern.

To that end, Ulyana contacted Eithnen Ní Faoláin.

In the hangar, the Brigand’s shuttle was prepared.

Over the past week they had gotten some good practice with shuttling people and supplies while on the move between the Brigand and Rostock. This time the shuttle would be loaded with a large crate of tightly packed dehydrated ration bricks, making up a week’s worth of meals for 150 people eating three bricks a day. Part of the Brigand’s survival stash– but it would last the John Brown a bit, and provide needed calories efficiently.

Along with the crates, Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara would hitch a ride.

The Brigand’s shuttle was a wide, semi-cylindrical craft. It exited the ship via a moonpool that essentially acted as a much bigger deployment chute near the back of the hangar. Its cargo bay could hold one Strelok lying on its back, but was most useful in ferrying people and cargo crates to and from ships and stations without docking. Just like the Brigand, the shuttle had undergone an upgrade too. Its cargo bay and crew pod pressurized separately, so it was possible to actually dump out a Strelok somewhere as a neat trick.

Ulyana had no idea when they would make use of that, but Murati had suggested it.

So she would defer to that wunderkind’s judgment on such matters.

Aaliyah and Ulyana boarded the crew pod, containing the pilot and co-pilot’s seats and compartments where they could store emergency equipment and personal effects for their own use, and behind them, one long seat that could hold six passengers. Additional passengers could ride with the cargo. The seats were slightly stiff but comfortable enough for a quick shuttle trip. With just the two of them, the ride was not too cramped.

For this trip, their pilot and co-pilot would be Zhu Lian and Klara Van Der Smidse.

The two young stars of the Brigand’s security team, frequently seen patrolling together.

Over their security team armored bodysuits they wore work coveralls with grey hats.

Both of them had tied up their hair into buns. Klara was all smiles and amused with herself.

Zhu Lian retained a professional demeanor, while occasionally cracking a grin at Klara.

“The Captain should not visit another ship without an escort.” Lian said as they stepped in.

“I understand, but,” Aaliyah spread her jacket to reveal her revolver on a holster.

“Chief Akulantova insists.” Lian said, opening a compartment to reveal a submachine gun.

Klara showed that there was a grenade launcher under her chair in addition.

“I don’t think we’ll need any of these things, actually! Please calm down!” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse engaged the electric power of the shuttle and locked down the compartments. Much like every other vessel, the shuttle was completely windowless. Cameras were used for navigation instead, and like a Diver, the shuttle could sync to the Brigand’s sensors as long as it was within laser or acoustic data range, receiving sonar and LADAR updates from it to navigate more accurately. For the passengers, a “window” was projected on the walls at their sides. Pilot and co-pilot had a multi-section display that could be divided among the shuttle’s cameras. Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were not dedicated pilots, but every marine trained enough to be a capable shuttle pilot.

Below them, the moonpool filled, and the shuttle descended.

Once the hatch above them was closed, the hatch below opened to let them into the sea.

Hydrojets propelled the shuttle, quick enough to keep up with the ships in the fleet.

Their journey would only take a few minutes, but Ulyana still laid back against her seat.

She had not been on a small craft for a very long time.

Looking out the projected window and at the ocean next to her. On the bridge, the main screen picture made the ocean look so much smaller and easier to understand. While the view she had in the shuttle was no more authentic than that which she had on the bridge, it still felt closer, and the water outside felt darker and more vast. At the head of a ship, there were so many people and so much equipment working to give Ulyana a sense of what was out in the water with them. She never had to contemplate it herself for an instant.

In this shuttle, there was only her eyes and the unvarnished feed of a camera.

And the endless, teeming darkness of the Imbrium yearning to swallow her whole.

It unsettled her, momentarily. It made her feel weaker than she otherwise thought she was.

None of their pretensions mattered to the crushing, overwhelming fury of that water.

“What do you see out there, Captain?” Aaliyah asked.

“A lot of nothing.” Ulyana replied, covering up her brief bout of introspection.

“Truly? You looked like you would say something poignant about it.” Aaliyah smiled.

Ulyana looked amused. “Our pilots go out there all the time; none have come back poets.”

Aaliyah had a friendly laugh at the remark, sitting back along with the Captain.

Maneuvering with ease through the waters disturbed by the passing of the ships, the shuttle approached the underside of the John Brown. A hatch opened and a cable anchor helped guide the shuttle up into the ship. The hatch under them closed, and the top hatch opened. Three cranes lifted the shuttle from the water and the hangar hatch closed beneath them, setting the shuttle back down. Zhu Lian and Klara checked to make sure the atmospheric pressures inside the Brigand and John Brown matched, which they did– then shut off the motor and opened the side doors, putting down a step-ladder using a crank.

“You two will unload the cargo.” Ulyana said.

Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse both stared at her.

“Unload the cargo and stay here. We’re not going to have any trouble, I assure you.”

However, regardless of what Akulantova said to do, the Captain’s orders were absolute.

So they remained behind, watching like a pair of predatory birds while unhooking the crate.

Outside, Ulyana and Aaliyah stepped out onto a comparably very small hangar.

For whatever reason, everything was painted some shade of an odd and unwelcoming set of greens. Compared to the Brigand’s hangar it was narrow and the ceiling was low, which Ulyana expected, but the degree to which it was both of these things still took her by surprise. It was tighter than a Soyuz’s insides. There was only barely enough space for the shuttle in the back. The John Brown perhaps had the space for a Diver or two on the other half of the hangar, but there was only a single deployment chute, and no gantries. There was no workshop. The John Brown did not have stitcher machines of any kind.

If they kept any equipment here, it would be tough to maintain it.

Perhaps owing to the lack of space there were very few sailors in the hangar. All of them wore blue jumpsuits, and they were sitting and lying, overturned in various corners. Blankets and pillows had been given to them, as if the hangar had been converted into an infirmary. Someone who looked like they might be a nurse was tending to them, but had no supplies on hand. Several men looked only partially conscious. Simple hunger was not the only cause of this. Ulyana recalled that Eithnen told her they were without medicine also.

These sailors were ill, and going without treatment.

“You can see plainly our situation here, Captain. Thank you again for your support.”

An elevator opened near the shuttle bay and Eithnen Ní Faoláin stepped out to greet them.

She was accompanied by a shorter, comely woman with a thinner figure, properly wearing the blue Republic military skirt uniform that Eithnen wore only loosely. She had very dark skin, and black hair that was tied back into a braided tail. A pair of sleek glasses perched on her nose. Atop her head, she had a beret. Because the uniform was blue it reminded Ulyana of the cadets of the Union’s Academy in Mt. Raja. However, she recognized her uniform from her diplomat training. Eithnen’s companion must have been part of Republic military intelligence as an attaché. Not every ship in the Republic navy had an officer like that.

“Let me introduce you to my indispensable adjutant, Tahira Agyie.” Eithnen said.

“Pleased to meet you. On behalf of the crew, thank you, Ulyana Korabiskaya, and you as well, Commissar Bashara. We could scarcely hope for any relief. We were prepared to die.”

Tahira shook hands with Ulyana and then Aaliyah in turn. Hers was a quick, efficient shake.

She wore at all times a measured expression on her pretty face, betraying no emotion.

Ulyana did not judge her for this. It was not easy to smile in their circumstances.

Eithnen on the other hand was very affable, so it was an interesting contrast.

“We come bearing some gifts. Enough food for the journey.” Ulyana said.

She gestured to the back of the shuttle, where Zhu Lian and Van Der Smidse were working on getting the ramp down using cranks to conserve battery. Once the ramp was down they hooked the heavy crate to a winch and gently slid it down to the ramp and onto the floor of the hangar, before unhooking the crate and leaving it. While they were doing this, the Captain, Commissar and their counterparts continued their conversation off to the side.

“We can shuttle in medicine next.” Aaliyah said, glancing at the lethargic sailors.

“I can’t thank you enough. Some of these men, we have known about their deteriorating conditions for weeks now. Some have chronic illnesses, others just picked things up in Aachen. Most got worn down over time from lack of food, but kept working to keep us afloat.” Eithnen said. “Before the fleet was dashed to pieces in Kreuzung, our ‘commanders’ treated us like dirt. We were afforded nothing and kept locked up inside this ship.”

“That is horrific.” Ulyana said. “We’ll do what we can to assist your crew.”

“Thank you again, Captain.” Eithnen said. “Let us move to a meeting room in order to talk more comfortably. They’re also pretty cramped, but at least we can sit down there.”

“Of course. We can discuss the situation in-depth.” Ulyana said.

“This way.” Tahira gestured to the elevator.

Before leaving, Aaliyah turned around and shouted for Klara and Lian.

“You two put on some masks, get the first-aid kits and help out where you can!” She said.

Aaliyah pointed at the shuttle and then at the medical staff looking over the sick men.

Klara and Lian, sitting on the crate, looked helpless for a moment before moving to comply.

They were not medical staff, but Union marines received basic aid training too.

At least it gave them a different context for interacting with foreign sailors than suspicion.

“You’re all frankly amazing to me. I haven’t died and gone above, have I?” Eithnen said.

“We’re communists, it’d be a sad sight if we just sat around while people suffered.” Aaliyah said. “Trust us that you’re quite alive; we just have a different spirit than the Republic.”

Tahira stared at Ulyana and Aaliyah wordlessly for a moment before averting her gaze.

Eithnen put on a big, cheerful grin. “Well then! God bless the commie spirit!”


Aboard the Brigand, the door to the medbay slid open and closed quickly.

Hurried clacking steps from a pair of heels.

“Homa, are you okay? We’re out of danger now. I’m sorry I couldn’t support you.”

“It’s whatever.”

Homa recognized the horns and ponytail first, at the edge of her vision.

Kalika had come to visit.

Homa was lying sideways in bed, clutching her blankets as Kalika took a seat beside her. Even though she had her prosthetics installed, she was under observation until she had a few days’ worth of therapy. Her gait was still clumsy, though she was making progress.

More than that, she did not want to leave the infirmary during the commotion–

Because her heart had been gripped by an ice cold fear.

A shameful, chilling, awful fear.

Even now, lucid and medicated, she felt like she had been dowsed in ice water.

“Thanks to the crew, we were able to pull through.” Kalika said. “You’re safe now.”

Homa grumbled. She was ashamed. Ashamed of how frightened she had gotten.

“Did you go out and fight?” Homa asked, her lips trembling.

“All I fought were a few leaking pipes near the infirmary and the cafeteria. And some of the anti-flooding shutters.” Kalika said. “I was just doing this and that, trying to help out.”

“Why did they go pick a fight with the Volkisch?” Homa asked. “It’s just crazy.”

“They were rescuing some poor folks.” Kalika said. “It’s just the way they operate.”

“It’s useless– trying to be big dumb fucking heroes like that– they’ll just get killed–!”

Kalika did not respond. Homa snatched a look at her face. She was just silently smiling.

For some reason Kalika never judged Homa, never called her an asshole or a coward.

Sometimes it infuriated her. She wished someone would just slap her across the face.

Someone should just tell her already that she was worthless and lower than dirt.

They should just leave her crippled husk behind! Just launch her into the sea!

There it went again– she was crying. Crying and blubbering and shaking.

It was all she could do. Unlike Kalika, she could do nothing. She was utterly broken.

“Kalika,” Homa whimpered, “Can you– can you get me that necklace– on the table–”

Kalika nodded her head. She picked up Homa’s necklace from the bedside table.

Kneeling close to Homa’s bed, she put the necklace in her fingers directly.

“Rest up Homa. When you’re feeling up to it, we’ll resume your therapy.”

Homa did not respond to that. Once she had her necklace she hid under the blankets.

She clutched the necklace tight against her chest with her biological hand, crying openly.

Wishing she could hear the stupid little voice calling her ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ again.


Previous ~ Next

Mourners After The Revel [12.4]

Through the Osmium shutters, a hair’s-width of purple rays still bled through.

Dim purple sliced the shadows of the upper wall of the reactor engineering pod– leaving the steel thankfully intact. Just a hint of purple touched down upon the tea table set down incongruously below the raised reactor structure in the back of the pod.

Enclosed within enormous osmium and titanium structures flanking the main reactor were steam generators, circuits, converters, backup batteries, and turbines, that captured and converted and stored and transmitted as much energy that reactor had to give as possible. The heat of the agarthic reaction, the motion of the core array suspended in water, the erratic flashes of agarthic radiation that were characteristic of the lower grade agarthicite used in ship cores compared to station cores. All of it was the life-giving gift the sovereign mineral gave to its After Descent subjects. None of it could be wasted.

God lifted and encased upon its throne of carefully alloyed minerals.

At the back of every ship, this was the face that He showed to his subjects.

And within this temple, a few officers infrequently held tea parties.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara were both in attendance, on the opposite end of the table. Between the table and the reactor there was a protective shield of lead and osmium for the occupants. Aside from thin, stray rays of agarthic light, the only illumination was a wax candle that had a musky, mineral-like scent. Compared to an electric torch, this knickknack was a waste of resources– but the woman who requested it received any such thing she wanted. She had a supply of such charms for the journey.

“Thank you for once again indulging me, Captain, Commissar.”

“Of course. Compared to everything else, this is an oasis of calm.”

“Strange, isn’t it? I have to consider the end of my life every second of every day that I reside here, but even so, every day is so peaceful. I could not ask for a better place to spend my final days. Even when the ship is shaking, and battle raging– I just have to tend to the temperatures and monitor output. If the worst happens– I’ll be painlessly erased.”

“Ah– no need to be gloomy, Chief! I’m sure you’ll have many long years ahead!”

“Oh, don’t worry. It has no bearing on my mood. I’m simply being realistic.”

Across from the ship’s leadership cadre was the least often seen of its officers.

Chief Core Engineer, and Hero of Socialist Labor, Iessenia Kurchatova.

Iessenia was a few years older than Ulyana but her actual age was not too evident. She was a pale and petite woman, pretty and vibrant, with girlish features and very long hair that had been dyed green to cover the drain of their color over time. Long locks fell over her shoulders, reached down her back, and she had fluffy bangs swept to either side. She wore a touch of lipstick, a bit of eyeshadow– but a lot of blush, coloring the middle of her face. She wore the Treasure Box button-down shirt and tie with a black mini-skirt and tights, with a white coat over it. On her wrists were steel cuffs attached to collapsible mobility aids that, in their resting position, stretched partway down the length of her arm.

More noticeable than these basic facts of her appearance were the vestiges of her vocation.

In several places in her body there were hexagonal burns, colored purple-black like bruises. There was a stretch of these burns across the upper left corner of her face, having claimed one eye which was replaced with a cybernetic implant. Her eyelid and eyebrow were reconstructed such that when she smiled and shut her eyes it looked pretty natural. Bits of less severe patches of burns could be seen on her neck and creeping over her right breast, slightly visible due to a few undone buttons. In the dim illumination in which Iessenia kept the room, there was a dim purple glow from the sinews on her neck and arms.

Ulyana knew this was owed to the level of agarthic salts in her bloodstream.

On her remaining biological eye, the color had been slightly altered as well. Purple was creeping in from the lower right quadrant of the eye. Close inspection revealed that the purple was actually made up of tiny hexagons, as if the visible pixelation on a low quality video monitor. Iessenia disclosed to Dr. Kappel that her circulatory system was largely colonized by Agarthicite in its microscopic “salt” form. Eventually enough agarthic salt inside her would react, causing an annihilation that would maim her internally.

It was likely that she would die from this– and not painlessly as she hoped.

Thankfully, that did not seem to bother the smiling woman who offered the Captain tea.

Unlike all the coffee-drinkers in the ship, she had this special dispensation as well.

Much like her scented soy-wax candles.

All for the comfort of the Union’s Agarthicite genius, awaiting her untimely demise.

Iessenia, like most core engineers, was the sacrifice at the altar of God.

For the sake of Humanity– so anything could be spared for her happiness and comfort.

“Today’s tea is my favorite. Masala chai. Black tea with sweetened milk and spices.”

Iessenia stared at her teacup quietly for almost a minute before taking an indulgent sip.

Ulyana lifted her cup to her own lips. Sweet and creamy and with a complex flavor from the aromatic spices. It was the richest cup of tea Ulyana had ever tasted. Like almost everyone on the ship she had a strict coffee habit to keep herself going during the long hours– but she could appreciate the delicate craft of preparing a nice cup of tea.

Minardo was a quiet genius with tea.

At Ulyana’s side, Aaliyah took a delicate sip.

For a moment, her stony demeanor melted, her ears folding, smiling with pleasure.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? I try to limit myself to one good cup of tea a day– I don’t want to be greedy, you know?” Iessenia said. “Minardo always makes an exactingly beautiful cup.”

“It is pretty good.” Aaliyah said, as if downplaying her earlier reaction.

Behind them, there was a sudden racket from sliding metal.

Double locks on the door into the pod automatically undid themselves to allow access.

Another young woman, also rarely seen among the ship’s population, joined the tea party.

Dressed in the treasure box uniform with a pair of black pants, she was younger than Ulyana and Iessenia and maybe even younger than Aaliyah too. Characterized by short dark hair that was a little bit curly, and light brown skin and a serious face that made small movements in its expression. Her figure was slightly fuller than Iessenia’s but not by much. Her body had not yet incurred any agarthic damage common to her chosen vocation. She was in as good health and spirits, or better, than the typical crew member.

In her hands she had a tray of snacks from Minardo.

Biscuits with a mayonnaise spread flecked with finely chopped pickles; and simple doughnuts filled with an equally simple jelly and cream. There were not a lot of provisions on the ship for fancy cafe desserts, but something could always be baked, and with sweeteners, preserved fruit and powdered milk a lot could be done. The new arrival set the tray in the middle of the table and took seat beside Iessenia with a small smile.

“Thank you for fetching the snacks, Petty Officer.” Ulyana said.

“It’s no trouble at all,” replied the young woman in a quiet and serious voice.

She was once Iessenia’s intern and student. Now closest companion on the voyage.

Petty Officer and Assistant Core Engineer, Nina Srivastavi.

“I’m thankful to you for helping our Hero of Socialist Labor over here.” Ulyana teased.

Aaliyah’s ears twitched slightly as if she picked up something in her tone of voice.

“It’s truly nothing major.” Nina said.

“She has been utterly indispensable to me.” Iessenia added, laying a hand over Nina’s own.

Aaliyah’s eyes darted down to the hands. She sipped her tea as if in lieu of speaking.

Ulyana noticed Aaliyah’s growing concern and steered things back around to business.

“We had a concern we wanted to share with you, Iessenia.” Ulyana said.

“Not about my social life I hope?” Iessenia smiled.

Aaliyah averted her gaze, still sipping tea.

Ulyana laughed it off without a direct response. “It’s about the shield we installed.”

“Oh yes!” Iessenia said. She raised her hand and gestured behind her as if waving to the reactor. “Clever little piece of tech! I am glad we got it to work in the end. I was aware that the ship had channeled paneling installed during its construction– such things have been theoretically possible for a very long time, but a bit useless in a fleet context, so it was not seriously pursued except by the Ahwalia administration. Ahwalia’s people wanted to have a very small, very high tech and elite navy– Jayasankar promoted a doctrine closer to that of the Imbrian Empire. Lots of ships, lots of fleets, lots of shortcuts. In a contest between dozens of ships, a shield on one or two just doesn’t matter to the end result.”

“In our context, it could be incredibly useful.” Ulyana said. “If it could work.”

“Indeed! It sucked a lot of power at Kreuzung, even threatened to blow a few circuits!”

“Initially we believed it was because we were running it out of the water.” Aaliyah said, finally entering the conversation. “But looking back at the maintenance logs, it seems like even with proper cooling we might not be able to sustain the shield for long. What do you think?”

“As far as the reactor is concerned, we certainly have enough capacity for it.” Iessenia said.

“Our problem is the ancillary parts, I think. I recall there being issues there.” Nina said.

Iessennia raised her index finger to her lips. She took a moment to think about it.

“I think the issue is with the converters. Reactor behaviors have to be converted to usable energy. We need to look at the steam capture, heat transfer and electric transformers. That is the bottleneck– the reactor’s effective power is as high as the converters can actually introduce to the rest of the system. So the converters– and then perhaps higher-tolerance cabling from converters to boards. That should enhance energy transmission.”

“Thank you both.” Ulyana said. “It’s a start– I can float the idea by Euphrates and Tigris.”

“My pleasure.” Iessenia said. “Say, can you arrange a meeting between us?”

“You and Euphrates and Tigris?” Ulyana asked.

“Yes! We have only met on brief business during the refit– I’d love to sit down with them as a social occasion and pick their brains. There are not many people in the world who are aware of systems like agarthicite shields– these are high-end theoretical pseudophysics with very little practical use or development. I want to know what else they worked on. I want to talk about stuff that only comes out of dreaming big, like Project Red Star.”

“We’ll see what we can do.” Aaliyah said. Her tone was a little bit more brusque.

Iessenia spoke more fondly about the scientific developments of the Ahwalia regime than anyone else on the ship. Project Red Star was like a bad joke to the Jayasankar regime– Iessenia had been right there in the middle of it, however. Given heaps of resources to “dream big” despite practicality and giving her all to advance science. None of the rank and file on the ship knew enough to begrudge her participation with Ahwalia’s biggest policy failure– but Ulyana thought it might have been the reason Nagavanshi consigned her to this dangerous journey, rather than keeping her working in the labs in Solstice.

“They’re busy, but I’m sure we can arrange something.” Ulyana said.

Her voice was gentler as if trying to smooth out what Aaliyah had roughened.

Iessenia did not look like she minded at all. She continued smiling.

“Thank you, Captain. If you have any other questions, I am at your full dispensation.”

She took another delicate drink of her tea. Her hands slowly began shaking.

“Ma’am, I think it’s time for your Neurotin.” Nina said.

“Oh, true. Can you be a dear and fetch it please?” Iessenia asked, putting down her cup.

Nodding, Nina stood from the table.

She crossed a door on the side of the room, entering a small shielded living space in which she and Iessenia slept and cleaned up and stored their things. She searched for the medicine.

Back at the table, however, the tea party simply continued.

“Silly hands.” Iessenia said, ever smiling. “But that’s just part of doing what you love.”

Perhaps in reactor engineering, the mood was always a tea party.

For those fighting aboard ships in this fallen era, perhaps life had to be like a party.


“Homa? Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Hovering over Homa’s eyes was a hand, with only the middle and index fingers raised. On each finger, the nails had pink and blue colors beautifully patterned. To acknowledge the owner of that hand, Homa slowly raised her own hand with two fingers up, the “peace sign.” Only, she found that the arm which she had raised, and the fingers which were at its end, were completely black and had a sheen to them. She stared at the fingers, flexing them in front of confused eyes. She had not known what to expect– they were just limbs.

Each digit was visibly articulated, as if exposed bone. She could see the jointed metal bones turn as she flexed. Her fingers were slightly thicker than she was used to, but only slightly. They had tips that seemed soft, like plastic padding, but– Homa could not feel that they were soft. There were some sensations that terminated at her shoulder. Though she was moving something, there was a missing bit of feedback from her new limbs.

“I– I can’t feel it–” Homa mumbled. Talking mainly to herself, as if alone in the room.

“I’m sorry Homa, for military prosthetics, we do not carry nerve stimulators. We had to make some concessions between comfort and utility. It is certainly possible to reinstall the prosthetics with stimulators in the future, once the– current troubles– are in the past and we have the benefit of safety and better supplies. But these prosthetics are very durable and responsive. You will be able to live independently again in no time, I assure you.”

Through a mind fog, Homa vaguely recognized the voice of Dr. Kappel.

She followed the fingers that were adorned with pretty nails, up the arm, and to the face, with its blue makeup and multi-shade blue hair. Dr. Kappel smiled at her, and wrapped her fingers around Homa’s prosthetic hand. Homa could not feel the touch. Right in front of her eyes, she could see contact between skin and the prosthetic, but it lacked the warmth she expected to feel. This made the gesture just a little bit frustrating to receive.

Nevertheless, Dr. Kappel smiled brightly at the result.

“Good. Looks like the basics are in order. All the kinetics parts are working, the plastic sleeves are flush. Don’t make dramatic movements yet. Between the anesthesia and getting used to the neural interface, your arm may not exhibit the fine control you are used to– yet. I can assure you with time, your standard of living will be exactly as it was.”

“Except for the beef pot– I’m afraid we can’t do anything about that for now.”

“Ms. Loukia– please.”

Homa weakly turned her head and saw Kalika sitting on a chair beside the operating table.

She smiled a little.

Kalika smiled back, and playfully waved the fingers of her prosthetic hand.

Rather than the medbay, the operation had taken place in Dr. Kappel’s office, on a table that was set between the door out of the office and the door into the medicine vault. The table was pulled out of the floor and folded out, and would be folded and pushed into the floor when Homa left it. Anesthesia had been administered in the medbay, so Homa was only then getting her first look at the new surroundings. Her head was swimming.

“If it helps, I do not use nerve stimulators.” Kalika said. “I’ve become accustomed to swinging an unfeeling arm. It allows you to push it to its limits. Makes a handy shield too.”

“It will be a little more troublesome to have a leg that you cannot completely feel under you.” Dr. Kappel said. “But only a little. Most of the focus of our physical therapy will be to get you walking, Homa. With confidence and a good balance. We can begin soon. For now, rest as long as you need. You’re almost at the finish line, so no sense in rushing.”

Homa nodded her head. Despite the anesthesia wearing off, she was extremely tired.

There was a small part of her that was a bit sad and a bit bitter.

She had hoped that the surgery would dramatically change how she had been feeling the past few days. That she would wake up on the operating table like nothing bad had happened to her. Feeling whole again– not just functionally but in spirit. There was a part of her that felt that an arm was not simply a tool for grasping, but that she had been afflicted with a condition in which she lacked possession of an arm. She lacked a completeness of self. With that arm many things had been torn from her. Her future, the people she knew, her home. That arm had a spirit– it was touch, it was warmth, it was a sense of tenderness that flowed from her heart, through her veins, into the flesh. That arm was the things it had done just as much as it was the things that it did. That arm was an interlocking part of the puzzle of Homa Baumann’s life. With the prosthetic this was simply just not so.

Perhaps she would feel differently once she was off the table and active again.

But she could not help but to feel disappointed with the result.

Functionally, she could have the things which an arm did returned to her.

However, she still felt anxious at the idea that she would never be whole in her parts again.

Those anxieties festered into self-criticism of her own ungratefulness to the communists.

That ungratefulness, however, finally led her to think–

I never asked to be rescued. I could have been left for dead.

What do I have to be grateful for?

It was so presumptuous of them– my life should have just been over.

I have nothing– no home– no reason to live–

–not even all of my own body.

How am I supposed to live like this? How do any of you live with all of this?!

In the throes of a growing distress, she started to fall asleep once again.

Before she could find the energy to shout or be frustrated she dozed off completely.

Her head, fogged by bewilderment and confusion and pain, emptied completely.

Flexing in her sleep the fingers of the metal thing that had taken the place of her.


“Illya, I’m coming in.”

Shalikova stood in front of the door to Illya’s room for a moment, enough that she should have been acknowledged. When she heard nothing and realized the door was completely unlocked she delivered her intention and walked right through the door. Inside, Illya was surprisingly missing. There was only Valeriya, in a corner of the room, standing near a pull-out desk surface on the far wall. If Valeriya was there, Illya must have been fine.

“Oh, sorry for barging in, Valeriya. I just wanted to see whether you two were okay.”

Valeriya nodded her head silently.

There were a few curious details about the scene that drew Shalikova’s attention. Valeriya was dressed in an atypical fashion– she had a pair of underwear shorts and a flimsy little tanktop but her thin and fair figure was mostly covered up by what looked like a synthestitched plastic apron. On the apron there was a design of a teddy bear with a chef’s hat. It reminded Shalikova of one of her rejected designs for Comrade Fuzzy. Valeriya’s long, blond hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she had thick plastic gloves.

Hanging from her neck, and sitting atop her breasts, was her tactical mask.

She did not look in a hurry to wear it, even though Shalikova had walked in on her.

On the desk in front of her, a small metal frame had been set up. A recyclable canister of alcohol fuel had been set beneath the frame. To Shalikova’s surprise this canister produced a clean flame that was heating up a small metal cup-pot with something bubbling in it.

Shalikova dimly recalled these items.

Her Diver had a survival kit with food and a petroleum-derived ethylene fuel burner just like this. It was mainly a placebo– Shalikova could not imagine a scenario in which she would need to heat up food to survive inside her diver, where she was not already doomed.

“What are you up to? Is that a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked.

Valeriya nodded her head.

“You are cooking a last resort ration?” Shalikova asked again.

“I am a wife now.” Valeriya mumbled. “So I am cooking.”

Shalikova stared. “Not sure I understand. You’re a wife now?”

Valeriya nodded her head.

It began to dawn on Shalikova what that must have meant.

“Wait. You’re serious? Did Illya– did she really–?”

Valeriya nodded her head again.

Shalikova whistled with surprise and a bit of sudden cheer.

“Wow. I thought you would just shack up forever. Congratulations!”

Valeriya smiled.

A small smile, but for her, it was brighter than the sun.

Even a reserved girl like Shalikova could not help but feel a swell of joy for Valeriya.

For all the time that she had known her, Valeriya had been Illya’s shadow. As teenagers they were always together, and even when Zasha was around, it was clear who Valeriya had a crush on. They went to school together; they went into the Academy together; they went to war together. Even in the special forces, as far as Shalikova knew, they were inseparable. And now, on the Brigand’s historic mission, Valeriya continued to follow Illya without pause. Shalikova knew that Illya reciprocated Valeriya’s feelings romantically, but she also had a low estimation of Illya’s ability to commit– she figured Illya would have sex with Valeriya all her life without even saying the word ‘girlfriend’ to her much less ‘wife.’

In Shalikova’s mind, Valeriya deserved this marriage proposal.

“It’s vinaigrette with beans.” Valeriya said suddenly.

She pointed at the cup-pot, beginning to come to a boil over the alcohol-burning element. Normally in the Union ‘vinaigrette’ referred to a salad of chopped boiled root vegetables pressed together and dressed with vinegar and fat. Usually beets, carrots, potato, onion, and to add protein, red or white beans. Normally all the vegetables used would be pickled, or canned in salted water. Valeriya was cooking from a last resort block, so all the items were vacuum-pressed and dehydrated. She had brought water to a boil, to create essentially a mushy last resort vegetable stew. Judging by the flecks of fat in the water and the smell of vinegar, the vegetables were dressed before dehydration and compression.

Valeriya looked a little proud of herself as she stared at the bubbling little pot.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your meal.” Shalikova said. “Will there be a ceremony?”

“Not now.” Valeriya whispered. “We’re being punished.”

“Oh! Right– I had wanted to ask what happened at the disciplinary hearing.”

Valeriya pointed at the cup. As if to silently say that was the punishment.

“I see. Well– I don’t know whether to say ‘you got off light’ or to wish you luck enduring the torture.” Shalikova said, crossing her arms. “I guess it can’t be that bad when cooked.”

Using a steel spork, Valeriya mixed the stew up as it cooked.

Shalikova realized then that throughout all this talk, Valeriya had never raised her mask.

“You can pull your mask up if you want to. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I want to talk to you.” Valeriya said. Her voice was still quite whispery.

“I see– just don’t push yourself just to be nice to me.”

Valeriya quietly nodded her head again.

Quickly stirring the little stew, breaking up pieces. She looked dedicated to the work.

“Sonya– how do you feel about Illya? Do you still admire her?” Valeriya asked.

Without meeting eyes, she asked the question, still stirring the stew.

And what a question it was– it caught Shalikova by surprise.

What kind of answer did she have to that? What DID she feel about Illya?

Shalikova stuck her hands in her pants pockets.

“That’s– I mean, I’m not a kid anymore, you know? So it’s kinda complicated now.” She took a moment to consider the question. For Valeriya, she tried to be honest. Sometimes Shalikova was quick to be difficult to Illya, but she tried to be kinder to Valeriya. “I don’t idolize her or anything– but like, I got on hormones because she did. I wanted to be a cool soldier like her and Zasha. Illya always encouraged me, even against Zasha’s wishes. So like– Illya is family to me. I care about whether she’s okay or not. I ask her for advice. But we’re both soldiers now and I am an officer too. I can’t ‘look up to her’ anymore like a kid does.”

“She would want you to respect her more than admire her.” Valeriya said suddenly.

Still not looking her way, just messing with her stew.

This was perhaps the most words Valeriya and Shalikova had exchanged in years.

“I guess that’s what I do. I am trying to take her seriously when she says I need to stick up for myself and make my own arguments. That’s something I’m trying to do with her too.”

“That’s good. Thank you for answering.”

“Alright?”

“I love Illya– more than anything in the world. And she cares about you.”

“So in the transitive property of doing the exact same stuff as Illya, you care about me too.”

“Yes.”

“C’mon– don’t just say ‘yes’ to that– I was teasing you–”

Shalikova felt instantly ashamed at her own mean-spirited humor.

Valeriya simply smiled and worked on the stew.

Behind them the door opened once more.

Illya walked in through the door, absentminded.

She had begun partially unzipping her security uniform bodysuit. She must have been working. She zipped it back up when she noticed Shalikova was in the room. Valeriya removed the cup-shaped pot from the spent alcohol burner and laid it down on a separate pull-out desk surface as if to set the table for dinner. She then waved at Illya.

“Sonya, what a pleasant surprise. Came to see whether I was still alive?” Illya asked.

She cracked a grin that Shalikova did not return.

“Uh huh. Looks like you’re good though, so I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Not staying for lunch?” Illya’s continuing sarcasm. Shalikova did not play along.

“Maryam is waiting for me.” Shalikova said. “But– Illya, you better treat her right.”

Illya stared at Shalikova. “Hey, where do you get off on telling me that?”

She was not mad– she looked more amused by the rebuke than anything.

No one knew better than Illya herself all that had happened with her and Valeriya.

“Sonya.” Valeriya mumbled, shaking her head gently.

“Nah, it’s okay. She cares about you.” Illya said. “Trust me, we’ll be fine.”

Shalikova sighed but she had essentially said what she had come in to say.

“Maybe I’ll have a bite, just out of curiosity.” She said.

From the floor, Valeriya pulled up a pair of metal seats around the pull-out desk. There was nowhere for Shalikova to sit, but she did not intend to stay long. Illya sat across from Valeriya, each with their own metal spork, and the reheated and boiled vinaigrette mush between them. Valeriya took a sporkful of the stuff, which was tinged red from the beets, and blew on it– then she gestured for Shalikova to taste it from that spork.

In order to satisfy her curiosity, Shalikova leaned in.

“It’s just like when you were a little beet yourself.” Illya said.

Shalikova felt immediately more embarrassed about it, but still ate from Valeriya’s spork.

She did not know what she expected from it. It was a bit– challenging.

There was some flavor. A bit of tang from the vinegar, some savory notes from MSG.

Owing to all the root vegetables, it was very starchy, and a little bit sweet.

However, the foremost characteristic of the meal was its lack of texture. It was impossible to discern an individual bit of carrot or beet despite the sizeable bite that Valeriya had gathered. All of its elements had become homogeneous mush. Even baby food was more of an eating experience. It was not so bad as to make her spit it out, but anyone with even the slightest sensitivity to the mouthfeel of their food might have felt disgusted by it.

With an untroubled expression on her face, Illya began to eat.

Valeriya retracted her spork and waited with a smile as if for Shalikova’s response.

What did she want her to say? She cooked a last resort ration, so her cooking was gross.

Still– it was impossible to be mean to Valeriya. Even about this culinary misfortune.

“Um. It was lovely. Thank you. You’ll– you’ll make a fine wife, ‘Riya.” Shalikova said.

Valeriya nodded quietly, looking pleased with herself. Just like Illya, she began to eat.

Neither of them looked troubled by the meal. They ate almost mindlessly.

For a moment Shalikova just stared at them. What a husband and wife they would make.

In the back of her mind she wondered whether Maryam knew how to cook anything.


“Aww, I hate to see those bright little cheeks of yours frowning. What’s on your mind?”

“Ugh. I’m feeling worried. There’s nothing I can do– Marina really stepped in it this time.”

“Oh dear. I would characterize what she did as much more than just step in it.”

“Agh, sorry– I don’t mean to reduce what she did, she really sucks– I’m just– blegh.”

“My, oh my. A lot of undignified noises coming out of the princess today~”

“I’m not a princess! Proletarians have the freedom to make noises.”

“Anyway, is it even your problem whatever happens to Marina? You’re your own person.”

“I mean– I don’t want her to be hurt. She was my mom’s– uhh– bestie.”

“You don’t say?”

On the Brigand’s cafeteria, a young woman laid over a table, making faces.

She was seated close to the front serving counter, with her head and arms on top of the table. Sometimes her arms would hang, while at others she would hide her head in them. She was easily identifiable to the crew by now: long purple hair, unblemished and heavenly-soft looking skin, a girlish and simple prettiness to her face. Were it not for the partial elfin ears which she had — and the perhaps exotic color of her hair, which was natural — it would have been easy to call her the perfect picture of the Imbrian woman.

Teasing that young elf woman was the ship’s cook, Logia Minardo.

Seated on the opposite side of the same table, taking a break. She pulled off her cap and set it down on the table, loosening up her sweat-slick, wavy black hair. Minardo was a formidable lady, with a big chest and wide hips and thick legs, lean muscled arms and shoulders. Atop that shapely figure was a soft face with a bright smile, eyes like jewels, red lips and gentle eyeshadow. Elena had begun to think, maybe she appraised older women differently from younger women. Maybe, just maybe, she had something of a thing for them– but even besides that, Minardo could only have been seen as staggeringly beautiful.

She must have been seen as such by anyone else too.

Thinking about that, Elena averted her gaze.

“Should I not be at this table? I can let you sulk if that’s what you want.” Minardo said.

Gentle, with just a bit of her ordinary teasing tone of voice.

“No, it’s fine. I should stop. There’s nothing I can do.” Elena mumbled. “Even if I could do anything I think Marina deserves to be punished. She’s been so– awful.”

They were talking around it, but Marina’s participation in the Core Separation Crisis was a deed of such disgusting callousness toward innocent lives that it was hard to quantify it. The Captain and Commissar had spoken briefly with Elena about it and seemed more concerned with the breaches of trust, or at least that was what they told her– but maybe that was just processing the horror that lay in the moral dimension of the transgression. Marina nearly abetted the deaths of potentially thousands. Millions? Elena hardly knew the scale.

In her own mind, it was such a crime she could only sulk about it.

She could not possibly process the actual scale of what had happened.

It was simply too big, and she, too small in its shadow.

“Cheer up, she’s just locked up. She’ll be out again.” Minardo said. “You know– I put in a word with the Captain, alongside Dr. Kappel, that I hope Marina will not be mistreated beyond what is necessary to instill discipline. She is a– troubled person– and I sympathize.”

Elena looked up at Minardo’s hesitating tone voice. She narrowed her eyes a bit.

“You’re friends with Marina too? I’ve never seen you together.” She said.

It sounded more accusatory than she wanted it to– but she did not take back the words.

Minardo looked more amused by this response than anything before.

She smiled and laughed and laid her head on her hands while staring down at Elena.

“You’re not her shadow! She can move when you aren’t around.” She said.

Knowing the kind of woman Marina was Elena could imagine she made passes at Minardo.

Something about that annoyed her but she did not interrogate this feeling any further.

Elena remained collapsed against the table and hardly moved except to turn her head away.

“Well– whatever then. I’ll stop worrying.” Elena said.

“Why are you so pouty all of a sudden?” Minardo asked, poking Elena’s cheek.

“Oh, looks like someone is a bit jealous?”

From seemingly out of nowhere, a second attractive older woman swooped in.

Elena let out a groan as Khadija Al-Shajara sat on her side of the table.

“Can you two go easy on me?” Elena moaned. She was practically surrounded.

“I just showed up, and already my character is under question?!” Khadija said.

Her wine-colored lips turned in a little grin; winking a heavily wine-purple shadowed eye.

“She knows what you are.” Minardo said. “Don’t worry Elena, I’ll protect you.”

“Uggghhhh.” Elena put her arms around her head.

Khadija made a cutesy shrug.

Those two played together far, far too well, Elena thought.

“I’m just here to have some lunch. I don’t know what anyone is talking about.”

“Ah, but where’s your new lady friend, Khadija?” Minardo teased.

Khadija averted her gaze with a suddenly sour expression.

“We’re not friends. She’s helping move crates around for the inventory and shuttling.”

Minardo laughed. “She is such a big lady. Glad to see she’s helping out around here.”

“Checking her out?” Khadija accused.

“What? No. But there’s no way to look at her without thinking she is big.”

“Well. You ought to help too. Those guns of yours could use some action again.”

Khadija reached over Elena to poke Minardo’s bicep.

“I do plenty.” Minardo replied. Like Khadija was finally getting under her skin.

“You both are doing plenty right now.” Elena mumbled childishly.

“Elena, did you know? Minardo was an absolute combat monster once upon a time.”

Khadija looked pleased with herself at how annoyed Minardo was getting with her.

“What was it they called you?” She acted dumb for a moment, letting the question hang.

“That was a long time ago.” Minardo grumbled, as if to signal Khadija to drop it.

“You’re not proud of it? Elena, our esteemed cook once earned the title of ‘The Human Stronghold’. Can I tell the story?” Khadija stared at Minardo with her tail swishing merrily behind her. Elena slowly sat up and looked at the two of them with a dull expression. Minardo sighed and shrugged and waved as if to say ‘fuck it, just go’. Khadija took exactly that meaning from it. “Elena, Minardo was part of a landing party in the revolution– all by herself, she held a narrow passage into the Sevastopol port structure, keeping a way open for close to an hour. She killed 26 imperials, turning back their assaults and protecting our beachhead in the port. Then she joined the arriving assault sappers and charged deeper into Sevastopol, and killed 26 more imperials in close quarters.” Khadija punctuated the numbers in her speech each time. “Those station battles were absolutely brutal. It was necessary for us to get foot-holds inside stations to evict the current, disagreeable occupants. And the defender always has the advantage inside of a station’s confines.”

Elena blinked, staring at Minardo for a moment before catching herself.

In turn, Minardo grunted and sighed and looked a bit helpless for just a moment.

“Those Imperials were pansies. It wasn’t much more to say you killed 26 or 52 than to kill two or four, when it came to close quarters battle.” She finally said, grudgingly acknowledging Khadija and her story. “By the time of the revolution I had already been doing like ten years of hard labor. The slave colonies were like a vacation for imperial nepo babies. I was slaughtering stupid kids, not even the guys who clapped the chains.”

“Well, they all deserved to die, and I’m glad they’re burning in hell.”

“Khadija.”

“But yes, it’s that brutal energy now kneading bread and stirring soup.” Khadija said.

“From an old friend to another, please drop it already, kitty-cat.” Minardo said.

“Of course, I’ll win the round graciously.” Khadija replied, winking and pawing.

Elena looked between the two of them with an appraising expression.

She was impressed by Minardo’s strength–

but seeing that it bothered her, she buried her reaction.

She did not want to hurt her feelings.

“Are you actually friends or do you hate each other? I can’t tell.” Elena mumbled.

Minardo and Khadija both looked at her pouting and snickered to themselves.

“Khadija is like this with almost anyone who gives her an opportunity. It’s fine.”

“Minardo needs my labor in the kitchen far too much to ever be rid of me.”

Elena stared at them with the same narrow-eyed look she once gave Minardo.

Minardo reached out and pinched Elena’s cheek suddenly.

“Are you jealous?” Minardo said. “Elena, we’re not romantic at all. You’re so silly!”

“I’m not jealous. I do not care!” Elena whined, pulling Minardo’s hand off.

“Minardo is not my type. You, on the other hand, have a chance, little Elena.”

Khadija winked again, leaning closer, chest on the table.

Elena averted her gaze again.

“Why do I keep trying to come here to relax, when you two don’t let me live in peace.”

“It’s because the practiced teasing of a mature woman wipes away all troubles.”

Elena suddenly broke out into a laugh. She could not stifle it that time.

Khadija was completely right– Elena felt much less troubled than when she first sat down.

Though she would not admit as such with the two of them waiting for a reaction.

She appreciated what they were both trying to do and felt– cared for.

There were other troubles she had in mind that she just could not tell Khadija and Minardo about. Things they would not understand. But coming here and getting fussed over did instill the feeling that these two women cared about her well-being in their own way. They wanted to see her smile and laugh, they wanted her to feel special and receive some attention. Attention that she took for granted when it was easy to come by– Bethany would not have approved of her being so needy and bratty, but it was nice to have that freedom.

“So– what’s for lunch today?” Elena asked. She raised herself back to a proper sit.

“Oh, good idea! You’ll love this, I’m certain. We’ve got gazpacho, eggplant fries, and a little sandwich with pulled soy, brown sauce and tomato pickle.” Minardo said proudly.

“Sounds delicious.” Elena said. She smiled at her companions as brightly as she once did.

For just a little bit she would allow herself to luxuriate in Minardo and Khadija’s attention.

Maybe having someone to fuss over was something those two appreciated as well.


“Braya.”

“Hmm? What’s up?”

“Do you think I should be nervous about my check-up with Ms. Maharapratham?”

“No.”

“What do you know about her? Can you tell me more?”

Braya Zachikova briefly put down her computer and looked over her shoulder.

Their shared accommodation was completely dark except for the light from the portable computer, and a bit of bioluminescence produced by strands interspersed in her partner’s blue hair. Behind her, Arabella smiled, her hands hovering just around Zachikova’s waist, squeezing and loosening in turns. They were sitting together on one bed, as they often did since meeting, Arabella’s back to the wall and Zachikova’s back to her.

Zachikova leaned back against Arabella, her head resting on Arabella’s breasts.

Arabella raised one of her hands and toyed with the end of Zachikova’s spiral ponytail.

“Back when you were a Leviathan, in order to keep you safe, I had to partner up with Karuniya Maharapratham and make you a subject of study.” Zachikova said. It was almost surreal to think back to that time, just weeks ago, when she knew nothing. “During the work we did tracking you and studying video of you– I thought that Maharapratham seemed very compassionate towards you. She cares about animals. I’ve seen how other sickos in the Union think about Leviathans, like it’s free target practice until they fuck up and get eaten. She really cared, and she wanted to prevent unneeded harm. You’ll be fine.”

“I see, so you entrust me to her. I feel relieved then.” Arabella said, smiling.

“You make it sound way too dramatic. She’s just going to take your blood or whatever.”

“Braya, do you think any differently about me now? After all that’s happened?”

“Yeah. You’ve ruined me for life and I can’t get away from you.”

“Hmm? I’m sorry– I’m just nervous is all.”

“I’m joking.” Zachikova sighed.

She tried to think of how to word what she wanted to say.

Even as she spoke, it felt like it did not convey the fullness of what she felt about Arabella. She still tried with every new word and did not relent even as she let her passions slip. “I don’t think any differently about you. If anything I feel closer to you than ever. I’m also someone whose head got fucked with– not as maliciously as with you, but I’m still not normal. Like– I’m just a nobody. Before the surgeries, and going into the Academy and then the spec ops, I was just some orphan of slave parents who died. I was nothing. When I think back, I’m still kinda nothing– I didn’t have friends, I didn’t fuck around with other girls in my school or win a video game championship or whatever. I can remember all the nothing I did but when you think about it, I effectively have no fucking memories anyway.”

“I see. In that sense– I guess our situations are more similar than I realized.”

“Memories don’t make you Arabella to me. You’re Arabella right now.”

Zachikova reached down and intertwined her fingers with Arabella’s own.

Arabella started to wiggle happily behind her back.

“Braya! Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” She said.

“It’s fine. I know you’re scared and that a lot of horrific shit has happened to you. But I’ll help you– and there’s good people on this ship too. I think it’s insane how much you’re taking on your shoulders. It’s not your responsibility, to make up for your sister, or the fucks who created you, or anyone else– but I’m still here for you anyway. Whatever you want to do, I support it. God knows it’s not like I have my own ambitions anyway.”

“We’ll find you an ambition while we search for my memories too.”

Arabella leaned down on Zachikova’s shoulder, rubbing her cheeks against it.

She was so warm.

A few weeks ago Zachikova might have pushed back.

Now, she was still a little annoyed– but she wanted to feel Arabella through her skin.

Until she felt a bit of a sting–

“Hey.”

Arabella nibbled on her childishly.

“If you need blood, just say it. Don’t just bite me out of nowhere.”

“Oh, I’m fine for blood. I ate a lot of human meat back there–”

“Don’t remind me–”

“–I’m biting you out of love Braya.” Arabella’s voice turned suddenly coquettish.

“That can wait until after hours. I’m working right now.”

Zachikova picked her computer up and stared down at the screen while Arabella’s head remained firmly on her shoulder. She felt another little nip from her lover, a deep nuzzle, and even the warm slickness of her tongue sliding over Zachikova’s neck, her fingers prodding her belly. She did not allow it to distract her. She was setting up a digital co-working space for the Nationale Volksarmee and Brigand to communicate together– essentially a glorified self-hosted BBS. It was a simple program. Much of the code was “in-strata” from similar programs and the predictor computer generated a decent user interface for it after a few proddings for it to do so. But she had to put it all together in a day or two, while her leg still hurt, and then also make sure it was not horrifically insecure or buggy.

On the Brigand, anyone who wanted to talk to someone could go and find them and talk to them in person. And in a fleet context, the only thing that mattered was following orders and the battle plan. Inventory comparisons only mattered to the logistics officers in the fleet command. One ship was not shuttling junk to another ship unannounced. Two ships did not randomly send engineers to each other to share ferristitcher blueprints or coordinate dangerous underway repairs. Fleet coordination was just totally different.

But the Volksarmee and Brigand were not two Union ships in a Union fleet with a grand battleplan drafted by a dozen Rear Admirals and a Fleet HQ with responsibility for all logistics. There was no huge staff to plan things. They had to exchange a lot of information between two ships on almost impromptu basis. Their work was like an ongoing conversation between new friends, and it needed a place to happen. Engineers did not have standard protocols for cooperating with each other, and there could be miscommunications. When the Captain approached Zachikova for a solution, she felt that a BBS was a more permanent and simple avenue than staging hundreds of video calls between the ships.

Such a piece of software was not in demand in the fleets, and was only used by civilians.

Sailors could use it to goof off; it could also engender bad information management habits.

Nevertheless for the specific use case of the Volksarmee and Brigand, it made sense to her.

It would likely be okay since the first version was deliberately extremely boring.

Nobody would be sharing nude pictures or lewd audio logs ZaChat.

It could not do so.

Or so she hoped. Computer programming in Zachikova’s era was a bit…odd.

Still, ZaChat was a predictable and simple thing.

Eventually she would upgrade it– but by then there would be better access controls too.

Her work was nearly complete.

She had released the beta version of ZaChat to a control group of officers and engineers. She monitored usage closely. Making sure every message was encrypted in transit between the ships, that chat logs were being retained on both the Brigand and the Rostock, and that data and access credentials were not coming or going anywhere they should not. So far everything seemed to go smoothly, for a thing Zachikova simply threw together.

“What are you working on?” Arabella asked, staring over Zachikova’s shoulder.

“It’s a program for people to message each other across ships.” Zachikova said.

“Can’t they reach each other and talk on the computer screens?” Arabella said.

“We want to keep Semyonova from going insane with hundreds of inter-ship calls.”

“Oh, true. You’re so considerate Braya. What are they saying on the program now?”

Zachikova looked at the board.

So far, the top posters were Erika Kairos and Murati Nakara, by orders of magnitude.

Largely talking to each other. Zachikova sighed audibly.

Utterly hopeless dorks talking about history and music in their own little thread.

In a few other threads on ZaChat, Katarran engineers from the Rostock were thankfully having productive discussion with Brigand crew like Chief Galina Lebedova and her nibling Valya Lebedova. They were hashing out work and equipment transfer schedules that worked for both crews as well as discussing events candidly in open chat threads. The atmosphere seemed jovial and there was actual verifiable progress being made.

Judging by that alone, Zachikova felt she could declare ZaChat a success.

Soon she could talk to the Captain about opening it up to more users.

Hopefully the sailors would not be too rambunctious–

It dawned upon Zachikova at that point she may have to moderate ZaChat–

She shut her computer off after a wave of stress.

“Arabella.” Zachikova said, sighing. “I’m taking a break. Bite as much as you want.”

Behind her there was a contented little noise.

Arabella drew her closer, pressing their bodies tight.

Once Zachikova felt the teeth start to dig,

and Arabella’s hands snaking down her belly, under her pants, between her legs,

she felt far more relaxed– until the first tight, warm contraction shook her skin.


“Ahh! That’s the end of the day for me– well. Until the fucking night shift anyway.”

“Indeed, gamer– do not so easily forfeit the call that beckon us to the dance of shadows.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.”

It was late in the afternoon and the weapons officers on the Brigand’s bridge were taking their leave for the “day.” They would be back in six hours to attend the “night shift” that was their main assignment during noncombat duty. Until then they had unstructured time to do with as they pleased. Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-De La Rosa were meant to use some of this time to catch up on sleep so they could be ready when needed.

However, Alexandra, at least had other plans for today.

She kept them to herself– for now.

“So I got to the part where Ythyria starts looking at the prince– I thought this story was supposed to be lesbian? Like what’s going on there.” Alex asked Fernanda.

“Gamer, oh Gamer– how easily you lose faith upon any confrontation with intricacy! As with any endeavor, tribulation and torment enrich the quintessence of experience!”

Fernanda laughed openly while Alex stared at her as they walked down the halls.

Alexandra Geninov, self-described “sexy biracial chick,” with her light brown skin and messy brown hair tied back in a messy bun; Fernanda Santapena De La Rosa, with her fairer skin and straight blond hair with purple streaks. Blue and brown mismatched eyes alongside bright pink-red irises, the work of lenses; tall and short;  pants uniform and skirt uniform. Their animated chatter filled the halls, Alex’s deeper voice and Fernanda’s nasally tone.

Despite their contrasts, they seemed to always arrive anywhere as a set of two.

Arriving at their shared room, they dropped onto their individual beds and sighed audibly.

“Hey, Fernanda. Before nodding off, can I show you something?” Alex said.

“Is it about video games?” Fernanda said, briefly dropping her pretentious diction.

“Yes. But– before you stop me. It’s a kind of video game you would like.”

“I’ve told you already, that I have played games before– it’s not like I hate them.”

Two sentences without any thee’s or thou’s? A rare undressed Fernanda indeed.

“Okay, then you won’t object will you? For me? Just this once.” Alex said.

“I’m well aware it won’t be ‘just this once’– but sure. I have nothing to do.”

Fernanda sat up in bed. Smiling and laughing, Alex crouched next to her own bed.

From the set of drawers under the frame, Alex pulled out something wrapped in plastic.

She ripped apart the taped-up plastic wrap and unveiled a little beige plastic box.

“What? How did you get a Dendy?” Fernanda asked, staring incredulously at it.

Alex grinned, rubbing a finger over the slightly rough textured plastic on the case.

For now she would not comment on Fernanda being able to spot a Dendy instantly.

“A Dendy II, actually. One of our new allies uncovered this for me.” Alex said.

One of the Volksarmee officers, Chloe Kouri, loved video games and she apparently had something of a knack for infiltrating even crowded Imbrian places and going mostly unnoticed. After discovering this one morning in the Brigand’s cafeteria, Alex got the scheme in mind to see if Chloe could return to the street market and search for a video game console. Through sheer luck the console in question happened to be a Dendy II–

even Chloe did not realize it as she picked it up and brought it back.

Alex did not tell this story out loud– not wanting to try Fernanda’s patience.

It was enough to say that her scheming had paid off, in the familiar beige box in her hands.

Fernanda blinked. “So there was a Dendy in Kreuzung? And you bought it?”

“I also got a few classic Union storytelling games that run on it.” Alex said.

“I am a bit speechless. What the hell was a Dendy doing in Kreuzung?”

“I’m sure there are Imbrian enthusiasts curious about Union gaming.”

“But how would they get access to it? The Union does not have trade with Imbria.”

“Smuggling or something? Who cares– let’s play!”

Alex pulled out a serial cable that was rolled up in a little shelf in the back of the Dendy and found a serial port on the wall to plug it into. She flicked the switch, and in moments, the wall monitor created a window near the pull-out desk in the back of the room. Alex stuck one of the game cards into a slot on the side of the box and pressed a button to lock it. From the front of the Dendy, Alex pulled out two little controllers, with a cross-shaped directional pad and three buttons. She handed one to Fernanda and kept the first one herself.

At first the screen appeared completely black, and then appeared a block-font DENDY logo.

Then, a message from the Union Commissariat of Entertainment stressing that eyes strain, repetitive strain on the hands, headaches, and addiction might result from playing video games too much. The player had to tab through many screens of guidance and informational health material required by the Commissariat of Entertainment specifically for video games. Once this was done, another Commissariat of Entertainment screen urged the player to set an amount of session time, after which the Dendy would automatically save the game progress to battery memory and shut down. Alex set the session time for four hours, which was as long as the Commissariat would allow a single session to stretch.

“We are not playing this for four hours.” Fernanda warned.

“I knooooow.” Alex said. “Relax.”

Fernanda stared at her, sighed and picked up her controller.

They sat on the pull-out chairs near the pull-out desk and watched the screen.

Watching the little crab dig down and down as the game was prepared.

It was the kind of screen that, to a citizen of the sea, screamed– video games!

Perhaps incongruous– perhaps deeply mysterious.

Displayed on the screen, was a true miracle of underwater entertainment, recently arisen.

Each pixel in itself represented the combined efforts of hundreds of years of computing.

Of course, Alex knew all about how video gaming came about.

In order to truly understand “Dendy”, as Alex did–

one had to first understand the “Strata Crab” seen digging so industriously on screen.

Overwhelmingly, small devices in the Imbrium civilizations were thin clients, deferring some or even all of their computing to a vastly powerful supercomputer in their range, either part of a station mainframe or a ship supercomputer. These larger computers were referred to as “Predictive Computers.” True to their name, their primary design function was to assist in underwater navigation, identification and communication through analyzing data and “predicting” environments, trajectories and other partially known conditions with a degree of accuracy. Predictive computers were designed to take many sources of information, acoustic, visual, thermal, electric, and allow ships and stations to see and speak underwater– two things that were far more troubled by the deep than on the surface.

Predictive Computers performed these functions as part of their advanced and highly stable Base Code. This Base Code ran flawlessly in less than seconds and performed incredible computational feats in its specialized functions. Beyond prediction, the Base Code was imbued with a few other useful features. It could store information in databases, accept human language requests for data or analysis, decode acoustic text messages, and compare any number of like things with each other– byproducts of its function to guide humans on their underwater odyssey. However, there was one problem that the Imbrium civilization and, presumably, every other underwater post-surface society stumbled into. They did not understand how the Base Code worked. It was something of a black box.

Presumably, the Base Code had been worked out as a highly advanced form of machine learning, at some point. Predictors were often updated with new data for ordnance and vessels so they could properly identify them. But what the computer did behind the scenes with the data was a mystery– this design remained largely inscrutable to Imbrians.

It was impossible for a human to read the Base Code because there was far too much of it and none of it was legible in Low Imbrian or even High Imbrian– it was inherited from the surface world and went into widespread reproduction after the Age of Strife with the founding of the Nocht Dynasty. Even the scientists and engineers that had survived the Age of Strife had no idea how to actually read Base Code– seemingly, everyone just accepted the Base Code as an immutable part of computing that was inherited from the past.

Much like Agarthicite reactors, the form of the thing could be replicated, but it was not fully understood. Rather it was painstakingly observed to deduce workable interactions.

Base Code was simply copied onto new computers from old ones, making new predictive computers that all had the same functions. Base Code limitations and uses became readily apparent upon observation. It was possible, at times, to get a predictive computer to spit out a breakdown of a base code function through direct querying, but the predictive computer’s own understanding of base code functions was found to be utterly false.

Direct querying became a technical process of its own. Predictive Computers could be asked in various ways to attempt to do things outside of their known stated functions. Results would vary widely. Predictive Computers processed human language querying in bizarre ways, only answering consistently to known functions of the Base Code. A bad query would simply return false information or pretend to be doing something while doing absolutely nothing. This led to the widespread belief in the unreliability and inaccuracy of predictive computing. However, one miraculous function that was discovered was the ability to run subordinate instructions. This allowed the “Base Code” to be expanded through grueling trial and error with the foundations of civilian computing, “Strata Code.” Strata Code was, as its name suggested, piled atop Base Code in a variety of troubled ways.

When Braya Zachikova coded, or Alex Geninov played video games, or Homa Baumann read books on a portable computer, they were interacting primarily with features of Strata Code– these were the Programs most legible and understood to them, built on top of “Strata Functions” that were discovered to work through the expansion function of Base Code. Code that was not itself Base Code but was understood by the Predictor Computer. Knowledge of working Strata had been uncovered throughout the run of the A.D. years.

Therefore one arrived at the venerable “Strata Crab.”

There was a popular illustration of how computers worked in the Imbrium, known as the “Strata Crab.” The Crab was a program that wanted to do something, and its intended functionality was a tasty worm hiding somewhere beneath the sand. However many layers of sand, and the trajectory of the crab, illustrated the layered execution of Strata Code. There were several layers of cruft the Crab had to dig through to find its meal. A Program hit all of the working strata code in the right succession– dug through the layers correctly– to ultimately execute correctly. Of course, this was a simplification that also obscured the fact that a program, or crab, could also itself dump more sand on top– new Strata Code.

Or that most modern Strata Code was executed by flavors of “Silt Code” written in different, simpler programming languages developed over time that varied quite widely.

And so, on screens everywhere, the crab could be seen to dig, loading complex programs.

For those still following along with the history, the worm was in sight– video games.

One of the things Base Code could do was generate graphics. One of the things it did poorly was generate new graphics on command, rather than synthesizing environment graphics from natural sources. Strata Code was eventually invented to provide a graphical display layer for more things than just dataset text or predictive imaging graphics from sonar or LADAR data. However, this code ran devastatingly poorly at first. In addition it was difficult to eke out more performance from supercomputer hardware without impacting its ability to perform Base Code. Owing to a variety of economic, political and social reasons, the Imbrium did not put any of its engineering prowess behind the development of accessible computing or code execution for a very long time. But ultimately, enterprising generations of Imbrium engineers embarked on the creation of ancillary hardware, such as the various thin clients, which were in some ways more sophisticated units than the supercomputers– because they assisted in the running of feature-rich Strata Code.

Thus, the stage of history led inexorably to the video game console.

An ancillary piece of hardware specialized in innovative video game code and associated strata functions, to a degree previously thought impossible. Creating new, rich content experiences for civilians. Not simulations of military hardware, nor the realistic machine graphics used by films, but a brand new form of entertainment all its own. Beautiful, state of the art sprite characters easily generated by small devices, which could be moved on command by the players using various inputs. This allowed the setting of challenges for the player to overcome, the creation of stories for the player to experience and highly stylized characters some might have even considered more beautiful than life.

And it all began, with the hopelessly inscrutable Base Code, and the humble Strata Crab.

As for the Dendy itself– it was a somewhat sloppily reverse-engineered form of an Imbrian video game device that Alex Geninov played as a teenager in the Union during the Ahwalia years, where civilian entertainment products had a boom. That it ended up back in the Imbrium ocean where Imbrian video game enthusiasts became fascinated with this strange foreign device and its games, perhaps said something profound about society.

Or perhaps about Katarran smuggling predilections.

“I already have a headache.” Fernanda groaned.

“Huh? We haven’t even gotten to the title screen.” Alex said.

“I feel like just turning this thing on is radiating tedium.” Fernanda replied.

“I don’t get you. Just hush, you’ll love it when it actually starts.” Alex said.

On the screen, several progress bars appeared, and a graphic of a little crab digging.

Building pixel stores– compiling silt codes– pre-organizing post-routines–

Finally the title screen appeared: “The Solstice War.”

There was a young woman in a military uniform, looking through the glass of a digital porthole at a sphere of annihilation going off in the distance from a destroyed imperial ship. Everything was rendered in gorgeous 12-bit color 2D graphics. Sophisticated and stylized designs lent a certain beauty and attractiveness to the characters and made excellent aesthetic use of the color restrictions. Such was its style that gamers throughout the Union had fallen in love with the brooding, handsome, and charmingly autistic protagonist of the game, whose default name “Madiha” was used to represent her in various fanfictions and fanarts, erotic fancomics and even in small tribute fangames continuing her story.

Alex renamed the character upon starting a new game, to, of course, “Alex.”

“Why am I even here, gamer?” Fernanda grumbled.

“You haven’t played this one? I thought I’d get you to admit you had.”

“I have only read the erotic comics and fanfictions of it.”

“There’s a second player. You can name her after yourself.”

Alex pressed one of the buttons to move to the next screen.

Fernanda turned a bit red. She must have known what this entailed.

That second player had the default name “Parinita”– “Madiha’s” love interest.

Nevertheless, she did as she was instructed, renaming her to “Færn.”

Alex stared at the odd spelling. “Wait– is that like your–”

“Just get on with the game.” Fernanda warned.

At first blush, “The Solstice War” seemed like any standard “dungeon” game.

There was a protagonist and a supporting party member, they had parameters that determined the success and failure of certain challenges, they had items to collect. Maps of locations were presented to the player with “nodes” to which they could travel– these would then expand into “screens” of the dungeon that players could interact with in greater detail. There were battles, talking to NPCs, and puzzles to solve, either with logic, collected tools, or keys or other knickknacks uncovered along the way. Both Player 1 and Player 2 were asked to make decisions and could even separate, splitting the screen in half.

But “the Solstice War” was not known as a “dungeon” game, but a “storytelling” game.

Many challenges could be skipped with a careful eye to the character’s personalities and predilections. Charisma was the most powerful parameter, and a keen understanding of the magic spells, called “tactics” due to the game’s militaristic flavor, could enable the player to sidestep many difficulties. There were hundreds of thousands of lines of text to enrich the story and characters. Developing the love story between Player 1 and Player 2 was one of the game’s joys. Players 1 and 2 were sometimes asked to talk about each other.

Combat was there for those who desired it, but it was not strictly necessary.

This was all quite unlike “dungeon” games, known for their violence and treasure.

A collaborative storytelling experience about a romantic story.

Even across just the first hour of the game, Fernanda seemed to arrive at a burgeoning understanding of what made it special and unique among video games. Alex, who had played the game before, led Fernanda down a path that was richer in stories. She was gripped from the first scene, where “Alex” executed the corrupt military commander who had been verbally abusing “Færn” and blaming her for the many inefficiencies of the outpost. Just as “Færn” was stricken at first sight by the melancholy beauty of “Alex”, Fernanda herself realized they were written as tragic lovers and her face began to light up.

In the next scenes, the two navigated an attack by an Imperial force that outgunned and outnumbered the characters’ and the outpost’s forces. But through their bond, and timely decision-making, as well as “Alex” uncovering her hidden powers, they turned back the tide and bought the Union precious time. There would be more tribulations to come.

So began a story of war, conspiracy, betrayal, and sapphic love.

“Gamer. I hardly knew you had it in you, to appreciate culture like this.”

Alex grinned. “So what do you think of video games, huh? They’re an artform aren’t they?”

Fernanda grumbled. “Hmph! I never said I hated all video games! Don’t act so smug.”

It was not all rosy– some systems and solutions were a bit inscrutable.

Dialog was sometimes very convoluted. Fernanda loved this, Alex not so much.

And the audio was not great– especially on an old, well-traveled Dendy like this.

Room computers and wall-windows were not the best interfaces either.

Without a dedicated “gaming monitor” the fullest beauty of the graphics was lost.

However, by the second hour, the two were practically leaning against each other.

Unaware of their proximity due to how engrossed they had become in their roles.

Talking like one was Madiha and the other Parinita, working through the various challenges– and Alex pretending not to know the solutions, gleefully roleplaying along and letting Fernanda take the lead on what objects to interact with, who to talk to, what conversation strategies to use, what fights to pick and how to succeed. Though they would eventually have to go to sleep to get ready for their shift, Alex felt quite elated.

By the time they shut off the Dendy, Fernanda had Alex promise they would play again.


“Ah! I haven’t had such a good workout in forever! It’s nice to be back to the routine!”

“Hm. I guess it’s nice when the gym is kind of empty too. Though– it could be emptier.”

“Hey. You wound me. I spotted for you and everything.”

“Yeah you were a great help, and you had an amazing vantage point on my tits I bet.”

“Again, your sarcasm wounds me. Ascribing such impure motives.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I don’t actually care anyway. Take a gander as long as you like.”

Aside from the two figures in conversation, the Brigand’s gym was completely empty.

Just past the social area of the Brigand, also nearly empty at peak working hours, was the gym, a vital part of the operation. Everyone got a chance to use it if they liked, and everyone was encouraged to. Physical activity was important to keep a healthy body and mind on the ship and to pass the time healthily. To that end there was something for everyone. Running machines, staircase machines, and stationary bikes were popular. There were of course weights of all sizes, and racks for climbing and pull-ups; punching bags, a small sparring arena with a padded floor; and even a ten meter long range with adjustable targets for archery or air-guns. A dispenser for electrolyte-rich bottled drinks in two different flavors, stationed near the door, reminded everyone to keep hydrated as they worked.

Standing near the exercise machines, pilots Sameera Al-Shahouh Raisanen-Morningsun and Dominika Rybolovskaya stretched their arms and legs on top of padded plastic mats. They had just gotten done with their daily workouts. Not all pilots took exercise as seriously as they did, so they were often seen together at the gym even when it was nearly empty otherwise. This happened enough Sameera had begun to notice Dominika’s preferences– she was drawn to the archery range, the stair climb and the weights. Sameera in turn loved to push the exercise bike hard, and then she took out a lot of steam on the punching bag. She thought that perhaps Dominika was just more meticulous than her.

Lately, she thought a lot of things about Dominika.

Under the glow of the yellow sunlamps and the white LEDs, Dominika’s pink skin glistened with sweat as she stood to full height from stretching her legs. She went still for a moment, catching her breath, staring down at the floor in her shorts and sports bra. So lightly dressed, more of the chromatophores on her body were exposed, small bumps on her skin that glowed gently. They ran down her chest, on her hips, her back. Interspersed within her long red and brown hair were black-striped, fleshy strands dimly glowing.

And her eyes– bright pink with a blue limbal ring. Absolutely captivating.

They met, Sameera’s admiring gaze and Dominika’s narrow-eyed look of disdain.

Rather than scold her, Dominika sighed and turned around.

“You’re catching a shower too, aren’t you? Come on.” Dominika said.

Sameera was quite sweaty herself. Even the fur on her ears and tail was moist.

She smiled and followed behind Dominika.

To their shared surprise, the Brigand’s shower room was also pretty empty.

Dominika quickly threw off her sports bra and pulled down her shorts. She started walking toward the showers without acknowledging Sameera. Behind her, Sameera disrobed a bit slower. Dominika was so thin and lean and her figure almost nymph-like that she could not help but watch as she left her side. That she was a head taller than Dominika was a fact that buzzed around in her brain infrequently, and always ended up somewhere else.

After a truly laborious removal of her own sports bra and shorts, Sameera followed her to the showers. She sat next to her, set the temperature and dispersion of the showerhead, and relaxed as cool water crashed over her head. Two backs to the wall, smiling with relief as the sweat washed off them. Sameera undid her ponytail, and her long, wild brown hair fell over the sides of her and down her back. Her tail splashed on the water. There were no sounds but the running water and no smell but the shampoo and soap dispensers.

“Nika.”

“Sameera.”

Sameera laughed. “I heard there’s some kind of social function going on tonight.”

“You want to take me out on a date.” Dominika said. She shrugged. “We’re just on the ship it’s not like it’s anything special. So whatever– I’ll go with you. Happy now?”

“Ecstatic.” Sameera wagged her tail excitedly.

“What’s with you?” Dominika asked with evident, narrow-eyed disdain and skepticism.

“What are you asking?” Sameera replied, acting dumb.

“I mean–” Dominika reached behind herself and switched the water from falling in a mostly uniform stream to widely dispersed pattern. “I had fun on our date in Kreuzung, but if you think I’ve fallen in love with you or something– I’m not so easily impressed. You can’t just act like it’s a given I’m letting you have me. You’re not so charming that you can just–”

“Oh? You want to be pursued more aggressively then?”

Sameera practically sprang. Cornering Dominika under her showerhead.

One arm on the wall, another on the floor, their faces centimeters from each other.

Eye to eye, nearly nose to nose. Dominika lying back against the wall. Sameera atop.

Locked eyes, a bigger body, a hunger in her eyes and mischief on her face.

Sameera inched forward and took Dominika’s lips into a kiss.

Tasting her briefly, feeling her out, tentative but energetic–

At no point did Dominika struggled or kick her off.

Encouraged, Sameera slipped her tongue past Dominika’s teeth.

Raising a hand to hold Dominika’s cheek, closing her eyes, kissing her with ardor.

She had demonstrated her intent.

Approached, played, savored– and stepped back.

Smiling with the width of a finger between herself and Dominika.

“Was that more impressive?” Sameera asked.

Dominika averted her gaze, keeping a neutral expression.

“Only– a little– playboy.” She said, struggling to catch her breathe.

Never had such critical words made Sameera so contented.

She winked and got off of Dominika and sat next to her again, laughing.

“At least I know the right direction to take!” Sameera laughed.

Dominika grunted, but smiled just a little.

As much as Sameera liked when Dominika played hard to get, reciprocity was far sweeter.

In the shower, Sameera’s hand laid over Dominika’s hand and was not refused.


Having sailed for months by now, the Brigand’s crew was used to the rhythm of daily activity and they had gained some confidence in their response times should an alarm sound. Union ships valued a balance of readiness and morale. Because the crew had been through so much recently, Captain Korabiskaya had the idea to stage a screening of a film so everyone could get together, relax and have some communal fun for a few hours after work.

She left the decision of what film to show–

To First Officer Murati Nakara. Whose eyes drew quite wide upon hearing the news.

“I– this is– this is a bit sudden.” Murati said.

“Just look at the ship library and see what interests you, Murati!” Ulyana said cheerfully.

“You need to get used to making command decisions again.” Aaliyah said bluntly.

Murati blinked. “I’ve– I’ve been making decisions– I’ve been working hard–”

Even she knew this was not exactly the case. Certainly, Murati had not been doing nothing this whole time. She had been in important meetings. She had delegated a few tasks to her own subordinates. She had gone over Diver combat data working with Valya, and wrangled Aatto– but she had also been writing her book an awful lot handn’t she?

And mostly posting a lot on ZaChat the past day–

Neither of her superiors would have it– Murati had a command decision delegated to her.

“Just pick something, Murati. We’ll show it tonight. It’ll be fine, pick anything.”

“No, Captain! Murati, don’t just pick anything. Pick something that will improve morale.”

Two pats on the back was all she got after that. Murati was left to make the decision.

A few minutes later, she had made her way further to the back of the ship.

Walking stiffly and with a clearly troubled expression.

Crossing the door into her wife’s laboratory.

“Hubby! You’ve come to visit! I haven’t seen you in days!”

Karuniya Maharapratham called out in a sweet voice and clapped her hands together.

“You see me every day.” Murati mumbled this so as to be just barely audible.

“So what has dragged you away from your book, to see your boring old ball and chain?”

“Karu– please– I’m not that bad to you am I–?”

Eventually Karuniya stopped teasing Murati and invited her to a desk around the back of the tree. They sat together and Murati confided her predicament to her wife. It was not necessarily that Murati did not know any films. She had seen films, played video games– she had experienced entertainment. However, none of those things were her first choice for distractions. She was much more of a reader. What movies did sailors enjoy?

Weren’t they rowdy and rambunctious? She had always been cloistered among officers.

“I’m so glad you confided in me, Murati.” Karuniya said. “Your salvation is here.”

She raised an index finger pointedly and winked at Murati.

“Are you a film fan Karu? I really had no idea. We always went to restaurants or concerts.”

Karuniya crossed her arms, and smiled with great confidence.

“I am not an expert. But I can make trivial decisions without thinking about them so much.”

Murati raised a hand over her face. “Karu– Come on– This is serious here–”

“I don’t understand why you are soooo anxious, Murati.” Karuniya said, giggling.

“This is a command decision Karuniya! Captain Korabiskaya and Commissar Aaliyah must be wondering if I can handle the burdens of a commissioned officer and judging whether I can be promoted. I let my guard down and kept working on my book and testing Zachikova’s program, and now this. This can’t be something trivial– they are testing me.”

Karuniya stared at her for a moment, laid a hand over her mouth and stifled a laugh.

“Murati, you really are so cute. I’m so glad I have you wrapped around my finger.”

In turn, her hubby met her eyes with a helpless expression.

That was what it took for her to realize she was being just a bit ridiculous.

“I’m glad you think so, though I object to this characterization.” Murati said, sighing.

Karuniya reached out and squeezed Murati’s hand for comfort.

“I’ll look at the media library with you, and we will pick a movie together.”

“I’ve only got a few hours to pick something. It’s going on tonight. It’s just so sudden.”

“It’ll be fun! Just don’t take it so seriously. Between the two of us, we’ll find something.”

Silently, Murati thanked Karuniya so much for deflating all the tension in her chest.

Taking up a chair next to Murati, Karuniya brought a portable computer for both to use. She accessed the Brigand’s onboard media library, which served the books, music, comics, art collections, programs and films that were approved by the Union Navy. With a few taps of Karu’s slender fingers, she brought up the library of films. There were hundreds of films to choose from. A few independent or classic Imbrian films with “appropriate ideological content” were canonized as part of the Union’s “film history.” But the Union also had a film culture that had produced a few hundred films in the nation’s twenty year existence. There was movie-making going on even during the Revolution.

As soon as there had been a Union, there had also been Union film-making.

Everything from comedies to dramas, romances, morality plays, action stories, and propaganda pieces. They could sort the media library based on a lot of criteria, like the year and the genre, but they looked through everything just to see what was on offer. Karuniya arrived at a good suggestion as they scrolled through. She figured that sailors would appreciate a good comedy. Everyone could use a laugh, and even the cheapest jokes could draw one out, but not all people had a taste for romantic films or dramas.

“That is a very good point. Narrows it down, but it’s still so much.” Murati said.

Karuniya tipped her head closer to Murati, leaning into her while showing her the films.

“Oh, look at this one. A comedy about a ne’er-do-well father-in-law ending up being cared for by his son and the son’s newlywed bride. Sounds like universally-beloved shenanigans!”

“I don’t know that I want to sit and think about these particular themes for an entire night.”

“Huh? But your taste shouldn’t matter– well, look here! There’s a raunchy sex comedy!”

“The Commissar would absolutely object to this! I don’t even know how that got in there.”

“It’s there because we’re all adults who fuck, Murati. Jeez– okay, how about this?”

“A comedy about an Imperial falling into a coma and waking up in the Union during the early years of the Jayasankar regime, experiencing culture shock–? I don’t know. I think we have enough culture shock right now. We want them to take their minds off things right?”

“How is it you’re being this sensitive? They’re sailors–! Oh! Look at this one!”

Karuniya pointed her finger at a movie called “Supply Ship Groza.”

Physical comedy taking place in an inter-station supply ship. It seemed light-hearted.

“Karu, I think this might be the one!” Murati smiled.

Suddenly, she put an arm around Karuniya, pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you! This is perfect. I’ll send this to Semyonova. She’ll help set up the projection.”

Karuniya rubbed up against Murati with a placid little smile.

“You’re welcome. But I require a reward for my services.” She said mischievously.

“Oh?”

“First, you’re going to take me to the movie tonight.”

Then, Karuniya raised a hand to Murati’s cheek and drew her in for a deeper kiss.

It was a quick embrace– but her tongue crossed Murati’s lips in its span.

When Karuniya drew back she looked Murati in the eyes.

“Second, you’re going to do more than kiss me after the movie.”

That coquettish grin on her face said it all.

Murati felt the tensions of mere minutes ago wholly leave her body.

To be replaced by other, more electric sensations.

“You know I can’t ever say no to that face. I’m all yours, Karu.”


Semyonova announced the movie night on every screen in the Brigand, so everyone was instantly made aware of it. It came as a pleasant surprise with immediate effect. There was a burst of excitement from all corners, slightly deflated when a clarifying announcement was issued that there would not be liquor rations. Still, the mood was electric, with everyone in the halls wondering what movie would be shown and looking forward to it.

Homa Baumann was not planning to go watch the movie.

She had woken up in the afternoon and had her wholly vegetarian dinner and felt off.

From the operating table in Dr. Kappel’s office, she was back in the infirmary.

Waiting.

“Sorry Homa! I got pulled aside to take care of the bridge for a bit!”

Through the door into the infirmary, Kalika Loukia reappeared with a bag in hand.

Homa stared at her with an unfriendly expression.

“Was I gone that long?” Kalika asked.

Homa sighed. “Whatever. I don’t care.” She raised her voice, almost without meaning to.

Kalika smiled. “I hoped the prosthetics would cheer you up a bit– I understand though.”

She unzipped the bag and laid some clothes on the bed where Homa was seated.

There was a sleeveless white button-down shirt, a teal half-length jacket with long sleeves, a pair of pants and a skirt both of which were black, a set of white underwear, a green tie, and a pair of shoes. This was the uniform she had seen most people on the ship wearing. Everything was cheaply synthestitched, and the shoes especially looked a bit formless and unappealing. Homa would have to ask if they could give her work boots back.

“I’m not wearing a tie. Can they synthestitch me some casual clothes?” Homa grumbled.

“No~” Kalika bent down a bit and flicked Homa’s nose gently.

For a moment, that little teasing brush felt almost scandalous. Could she do that?

It was the momentary outrage that gave Homa some perspective on her own behavior.

Still– she was not able to fully control herself. Her tone of voice remained a bit elevated.

“Ugh. I get it– I’m being a brat. I’ll just– I’ll just shut up then!” Homa said.

Kalika remained bent forward in front of Homa and leaned even closer.

Speaking almost nose to nose with Homa’s face. A small smile on her red lips.

“I’ve told you, I understand you’re frustrated. I’m not going to ask you to pretend everything is fine. But I also am not giving carte blanche for you to yell at me all day. Let’s cool it a bit. Take a deep breath.” Kalika looked at Homa expectantly. “Deep breath, Homa.”

With Kalika right in front of her face, she could not refuse.

Homa drew in a deep breath.

Then she let it out.

There was nowhere for it to go so she practically blew right into Kalika’s face.

Kalika did not look bothered by it. She looked more content than before.

“Feel any better?”

“No?”

Her head and chest felt a bit less tight and knotted after she let the air out.

But she did not want Kalika to be right.

So she denied anything changed.

“Alright.” Kalika drew back from Homa and gestured to the clothes. “Pants or skirt?”

“That’s actually a really hard decision for me.” Homa said.

“It’s not a final decision, though. You can always wear one or the other.” Kalika said.

“I don’t know, Kalika. Do I look like I should be wearing a skirt?”

“You would look lovely in a skirt. Take it from a real fashionista.”

Homa’s ears folded against her head. She averted her gaze.

“No offense– I’ll just take the pants for now.”

“None taken. Would you like to dress yourself, or would you like my help?”

“I’ll do it.”

Kalika turned her back to Homa. “I can whip right back whenever you want me to.”

They had already seen each other completely naked before, but Homa appreciated Kalika having discretion nevertheless. If she struggled with dressing herself, Homa did not want someone staring at her and trying to gauge whether to jump in to save her or not. That would have made her furious. It made her a lot less self-conscious about relying on Kalika to assist if she could choose at any time when to cut her out or let her in.

Homa reached the end of her hospital gown.

Her biological fingers, and the fingers of her mechanical hand, closed around the hem.

She pulled it up and off of her body. As natural as breathing.

Nothing odd happened.

So far the prosthetic was responding fine.

Homa grabbed the synthetic brassiere, put her arms through.

Reached behind her back.

Her mechanical fingers dropped the clips a few times. It was a tiny bit frustrating.

Nevertheless, with time, her quite modest breasts were quite modestly covered up.

Similar to the brassier clips, it was a bit of a challenge to button up the shirt. Holding really small things in her hands and manipulating them precisely was strange. Her fingers on the prosthetics would drop and slip over the buttons, and even if she tried to switch the hand she was using, it was tough to hold the fabric around the button-hole open. Her hand was just so much clumsier than she was used to, and she could not feel it, no touch, no smoothness of synthcloth nor the roughness of the hard button.

Just as with the brassiere, however, the shirt was buttoned up in due time.

Homa clenched her jaw and let out a low hiss.

With the shirt on, she put on the panties and the black pants she had been given.

No problems with those. Everything fit fine and the efforts to put them on were simple.

Finally, she slipped the shoes right on. Cheap shoes like these just fit like a thick sock.

“I’m done.” Homa said.

Kalika turned around. She clapped her hands. “Look at this handsome young lady!”

“C’mon.”

“You really were serious about the tie huh? Don’t you want to look really professional?”

“Not interested.”

“Fair enough.” Kalika held out her hands.

Homa looked at them for a moment before raising her own arms and taking them.

Entwining her fingers and Kalika’s own. Kalika gently urged Homa stand.

To get her legs off the bed, Homa turned sideways.

She set her prosthetic leg on the floor first. Shifted her weight on it, tested its strength.

Everything seemed firm but–

For a moment, as she made the effort to stand, she could feel the flesh weighing on metal.

There was an uncomfortably cold sensation because of this.

Alarming as it was at first, Homa choked the feelings down, and made to stand straight.

Kalika held her hands tightly, supporting her.

“Do you want to try taking a step?”

Homa nodded her head. She lifted her prosthetic leg, inched forward, set it down.

Again she felt that cold sensation where the metal met flesh, but it was not as bad as before.

However, as soon as she set her foot down, she felt her weight slide a bit.

Kalika steadied her as she stepped back herself.

She cooed to Homa as they walked. One solid step; one clumsy step; one solid step.

“Good, good. Take it easy, one step at a time.”

“Okay.”

“Everything in the world worth doing can be done one step at a time.”

“I don’t need your amateur therapy during all this.”

“One step at a time, and you’ll be less grouchy in no time.”

Kalika laughed a little. Homa grumbled.

She held that hand tight however, felt Kalika’s own steel fingers with her own flesh.

Mirrored her steps, relied on her guidance, leaned into her when near falling.

For a moment, holding Kalika’s hands and walking step by step, almost with grace–

It almost felt like dancing, which Homa had never really done. But she had read about it.

Seen it in films; fantasized about it, maybe, once or twice. Dancing with someone nice.

Homa was not some hero, she chastised herself.

Kalika was not her storybook princess.

But–

it made it easier, and feel better, to think of the infirmary as a grand ballroom.

Her fingers closed tighter around Kalika’s hand.

She met her eyes more closely than before.

Step, by step.

Their little clumsy storybook dance down the aisle across from the beds.

It made Homa feel a little bit more whole than she was before.

Her steel walls and the plastic smell, took on color, took on a floral scent, took on grandeur.

“See? You’re doing great. Soon you won’t need to hold anyone’s hand.”

A chill ran down Homa’s back that she would not admit.

Because she immediately thought–

“I still want to hold your hand.”

She did not say this out loud. She did not want to admit it. She felt ashamed of it.

Such feelings were useless to hold for someone who only pitied her.

And Homa had already been hurt a few times by allowing herself such vulnerability.

Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless.


“Sonya’s taking me out to a movie! I could turn gold with happiness!”

“What ‘taking you out’? It takes minutes to walk down from my room–”

“Sonya’s taking me out~ Sonya’s taking me out~”

Shalikova looked at Maryam bobbing her head happily and simply smiled.

They walked down the hall holding hands, toward the social area.

Game tables, couches and other furniture were moved or folded into the floor. Chairs were set up for the movie watchers; there was not enough space for everyone so a similar arrangement was made in the middle of the hangar so more would get a chance to join a movie-watching party. Dispensers for pickles, bread, broth and watered-down juice were moved from the cafeteria to the social pod and hangar to give everyone easier access to snacks. On the stage a black rectangle appeared on the wall to demonstrate where the film would be displayed from. As Shalikova and Maryam approached and took a seat at the back row of chairs, there were already dozens of people seated and chatting lively.

There was a lot of curiosity, since the film to be shown was kept secret.

“Sonya, I bet you’ve seen so many movies.” Maryam said.

“Not a lot actually.” Shalikova said. “I preferred the arcade when I was bored.”

“Oh right! You did say you were the ‘terror of the tables’!” Maryam said.

“Not so loud.” Shalikova whispered. “But yes I played a lot of table games back when I was in school. Pool, and table hockey and tennis and all that. All the student lounges had a bunch. Solstice had nice arcades too. I liked going around town looking for them. You could wander off in any direction and find lounges and games. Theaters were a bit less prevalent.”

“I haven’t seen very many movies.” Maryam said. “Do you not like them, Sonya?”

She must have noticed Shalikova’s sour expression as she waited for the movie to start.

“No, it’s just– theaters are really crowded. With pool or whatever it was just a few guys.”

And just like a theater, the social pod was now quite crowded.

Shalikova endured it for Maryam’s sake, however.

It was very difficult to infect Shalikova with enthusiasm, but Maryam was so happy that she could not help herself but to crack a little smile. Watching her on the edge of her seat, hands on her lap, staring at the screen with stars in her w-shaped eyes. Bobbing her head with enthusiasm and waiting for the scenes to fill with color. Maryam had been through so much– and she was on this damn ship now going through even more tribulations.

She deserved a moment of excitement and levity.

To be taken care of and made to smile.

Everyone on the ship deserved it, really. These were the moments they worked hard for.

So when the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up with the film and everyone clapped–

Shalikova reached out and squeezed Maryam’s hand in the dark, for her own happiness.


Movie night came and went, with applause, laughs and a brief respite.

“Supply Ship Groza” became a new favorite among the sailors. Around the halls and hangar they could be heard quoting the jokes at each other, and calling each other Mykolas, after the clumsy protagonist. Having a social function was good change of pace. For everyone, they spent some cherished time shoulder to shoulder, but the work, as always, continued. It was a new day, the Brigand and Rostock were ever closer to Aachen.

It was busy again, and might soon get even busier.

Officers led a different life, however.

On that morning, Murati stood outside of the brig.

She was quite happy with last night. But the task in front of her was a daunting one.

Once the door opened– out walked the task. In full Treasure Box Transports uniform.

Bushy brown tail swinging behind her, now coming out of black uniform pants. Her brown hair tied into a very professional ponytail, a garrison cap between her tall ears. Shirt buttoned up completely this time, a brand new jacket in freshly synthestitched teal. Afforded a ration of makeup she had used to doll herself up quite presentably.

An almost comically saccharine smile on her face upon seeing Murati.

“Chief Petty Officer Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather! Reporting for adjutant duties!”

Murati could hardly believe these were words she had to hear.

“How do I look master? It’s such a cute uniform. A very clever disguise.”

“I told you not to call me ‘Master’. How many times do I have to say it?”

“But it befits your great stature and the profound respect I have for you!”

In fact, Aatto had made out like a bandit.

Normally, defectors were viewed as something of a burden to their new country. They probably had a limited amount of intelligence, and limited military utility. Under normal circumstances, unless it was a Katarran mercenary with a crew, a defector was unlikely to be allowed to keep their military rank, or join the host nation’s military. Defectors were usually just a small influx of specific intelligence, and a moral victory for the host.

Because of the Brigand’s unique situation, however, Aatto was getting golden treatment. The Brigand had to be open to defectors as a way to acquire manpower. She had actually been advanced a rank– in the Volkisch, she would now be a Scharführer instead of a Rottenführer. Special assignment adjutants to commissioned officers could not be entry-level Petty Officers. Delegating work to someone with minimal clearance who lacked the rank even to organize the specialists was a waste of everyone’s time, so Aatto had to have a senior non-commission rank. If it worked out with Aatto, raising the Brigand’s practical skeleton crew of officers by one was a significant boon to acquire.

Of course, it might not work out with Aatto. She was a former Volkisch after all.

“We are not going to have a big fight about this. It’s decided. She’s your responsibility, Murati.” The Commissar had said. “I believe you when you say she wants to turn over a new leaf. The Captain and I had this conversation prior– we can’t refuse even Volkisch defectors at this point, and you could use somebody to assist you. But you can consider this a test of your judgment. We are trusting you, not just her; and if she burns us, it’s on you.”

Murati could be putting everyone at risk, and even moreso, her chances for a promotion.

With a sigh, she turned over a portable computer to Aatto.

She then set her shoulders, took a deep breath and fixed her gaze on the Loup.

Taking one step into her personal space and standing taller than her counterpart.

“This is yours because it is crucial to your work. It’s disconnected from the network and contains all the data your clearance allows plus some educational products. For now, you will work off this device and if you need anything not on it, you will request it through me. Prove to me that you are reliable and trustworthy and you can get access to the network. Just know and understand this, with great specificity, Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather: if you scheme against or betray us, I’ll follow you to the ends of Aer to tear you limb from limb!”

Murati jabbed her finger into Aatto’s chest, frustration clearly spilling out of her.

She had hoped to sound commanding and intimidating, but lost control to her passions.

Her speech had an effect, however.

Aatto’s eyes drew wider, her grin more twisted, smoldering with a bizarre euphoria.

She clutched the portable computer to her chest, her entire body shaking.

“There it is! That grand and dominating power dormant within you–! Such radiance–!”

“I’m being serious!” Murati shouted back at her.

“Of course– of course–” Aatto’s breathing became briefly troubled. “I live only to support you and witness your deeds! I will absolutely, without a doubt, employ every part of this body in most excellent service! Master, what ordeals will you subject me to today?”

Why did she sound so happy to be subjected to ordeals?!

Just as Murati struggled to think of a reprimand Aatto would not somehow enjoy–

There was a voice, low but with an undertone of distress, coming from all directions.

Accompanied by flashing red lights from high on every wall.

It hardly had to be said– before she understood the voice Murati felt she already knew.

“Alert Semyon! Alert Semyon! All personnel shift immediately to duty Semyon!”

Fatima al-Suhar was sounding an alert from the sonar station on the bridge.

One that they had heard a few times already– alert Semyon meant combat stations.

“Master, is this a combat alert?” Aatto asked with vivid excitement in her voice.

There was no time to try to correct her bizarre fascinations.

Once again the currents were sending sharp steel the Brigand’s way.

Murati and the rest of the crew would have to hurry to meet it, for all they held dear.


Previous ~ Next

Bandits Amid The Festival [11.11]

Throughout Kreuzung, the lights went out, and the festival commenced.

It began with the immediate panic of the K.P.S.D who were tasked with maintaining order in Kreuzung. In the suddenness of their surprise and the enormity of their failure, they exacerbated the nascent crisis by ignoring orders from the increasingly weakened central government of the station and taking matters into their own hands.

Forming their own patrols and roadblocks of both the upper and lower levels of the tower, expecting mobs and riots that, if they would not arise on their own, certainly would rise in response to random detention and profiling of civilians who were only afraid of the alarms and power outages and confused by the contradictory messaging. Nevertheless, they held the standard of policing: protecting the estate by beating the peasant.

Followed by the ineffectual response from A-block as the problem was clear as day and the solution as far as the sunlight. Kreuzung’s station government had long since subcontracted the work of maintaining Kreuzung’s core to a private entity beholden to Kreuzung’s own cabal of energy distributors. These companies who so bravely “took on the risk” of the “energy business” maintained the infrastructure in exchange for extorting rent on the piece of equipment which did the most to keep the entire population alive.

And so, the first course of action when a problem arose, even a problem so obviously out of proportion to anything the station had ever seen, was to first broadcast as much as possible that everything was actually fine– and then to make several audio and video calls.

While A-block conversed with a group of rentiers whose vested interest was to deny that anything was going on while asserting that they had everything under control, the station’s lowest bidder maintained infrastructure buckled and in several places, collapsed.

Core separation stressed the million heroic little circuits and thousands of tons of cables and all the computers and junctions and careful engineering that it took to balance and harmonize the running of humanity’s eden under the sea. There was immediately a civilian death toll. The vulnerable in hospitals with malfunctioning systems; people forgotten in areas with poor oxygen circulation; people abandoned in places with poor water control.

Without the God at the center of the tower, and its attendant angels in the walls, there was only the clamor of the frightened, the anger of the beaten, and they made the music of the festival and its dance of despair. Below strobing lights, amid sparking walls.

And the damage was disproportionately felt on the lower levels of the tower. C-block goers were trapped in elevators and trams and in hallways no one was meant to live in without oversight and stampeding to escape malls and shops and plazas to return to homes where nothing was any better; but it was even lower that the pain was most felt.

Near the baseplate, areas began to actually flood to what seemed an almost apocalyptic degree; systems that would be robust anywhere else like doors and ventilation suddenly malfunctioning, trapping, gassing and crushing a myriad forgotten innocents.

In this darkness, however, there was one growing light, shining on the coming restoration.

That light, stretching from Tower 12, was cast by the torchfire of National Socialism as practiced by the Volkisch Movement for the National Awakening. Crossing the bridges into the main station, the black uniforms and red armbands brought order and succor wherever they went. It was their time to crush the degenerate liberal structures that had Kreuzung under the sway and bring to heel both the enemy within and the wealthy hedonists above–

and everything between.


However, that grim light was yet distant; the festival had an altogether different character for the troops of the UNX-001 Brigand, awaiting the resolution of its retrofit in Alcor.

Above them, the false sky vanished, revealing the illusion machines, far simpler than those in B-block or A-block, that once made up the workman-like firmament. In their place was the intermittent red flashing of smaller alarm lights that were like eerie stars in a dark sky. Accompanying the alarms was the same message displayed hundreds of times across the walls of the module. WARNING: CORE SEPARATION. Diagrams of the station and its modules flashed by too quickly for anyone watching to process the information on them.

Warnings in High Imbrian and Low Imbrian with characters at poor resolutions for the wall passed incoherently. Sometimes the pictures on the display walls flickered and went out and briefly cast the entire module into even deeper darkness. Confusion reigned at first.

“What the HELL is going on?” Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya half-shouted, half-moaned.

She and Commissar Aaliyah Bashara rushed to a bridge full of grumpy, disheveled officers, with more on the way. Because they had been dismissed and given orders to rest, many of them were in varying states of undress, with officers like Semyonova wearing bath robes over nightwear, Kamarik in a pair of shorts and a tanktop– Santapena-De-La-Rosa and Geninov could have usually been counted on to be dressed, but they had been dismissed too, and came into the bridge in short nightwear dresses and shorts, covered only barely by their teal half-jackets. Commissar Bashara and the Captain were in no better state. The captain had laid down undressed, and had walked into the bridge hastily buttoning her uniform shirt without any underwear, wearing pants without a belt. Commissar Bashara had an actual set of pajamas, decorated with cats and moons, which would have been cute at any other time.

“Captain, apparently there’s a core separation underway.” Semyonova said in a tired voice.

“This wouldn’t happen unannounced.” Aaliyah said. “Something is not right, captain.”

“Well, it’s not our problem, is it?” Ulyana grumbled. “We’re not the K.P.S.D.”

From the helm, Kamarik raised his hand and yawned involuntarily.

“Captain, the Commissar is right, this whole thing is fishy.” He said. Ulyana paid him heed. The helmsman was fairly well versed with machines. Among the bridge officers, second only to the missing Zachikova. “They wouldn’t separate the core entirely for maintenance, you don’t need to disconnect it like that for routine stuff. Cores are the most solid builds humanity has ever devised. All of this makes zero sense.”

“We may have to consider this is an action taken against the station.” Aaliyah said.

“Maybe, but our interests and Kreuzung’s security don’t necessarily align.” Ulyana replied.

She cast a tired glance over to the Electronic Warfare console on the bridge.

“Where is Braya Zachikova?” She asked. “I would like her to monitor the network.”

Semyonova nodded and turned to her own console to check.

After a few minutes, she shook her head.

“Ma’am, she’s not responding to pings on her room, or to banners on the walls. Also, I can’t reach the surveillance team to patch me through to the cameras either.” She said.

Aaliyah’s ears folded. “Those three were in the special forces together.”

“I can’t imagine– no– they must just be out goofing off or drinking.” Ulyana sighed.

The more she thought about them being involved in something clandestine the more acute her quickly developing headache became. However, they would still need to be recalled to the ship lest they become involved in whatever panic might ensue from this mess. So something would have to be done. The captain thought for a moment about the best way to resolve the situation, when someone else ran into the bridge– she had a faint hope for it to be Zachikova but instead it was Marina McKennedy in her grey blazer.

“Captain, we need to start making final preparations for the Brigand to leave. Now.”

Ulyana turned and scanned McKennedy’s face through tired and irritated eyes.

The G.I.A. agent looked pale and shaky and unstable. It reminded her of some bad times.

“McKennedy.” Ulyana said in an unfriendly tone. “What happened? What do you know?”

“Can I please defer that to my report? Can you just trust me and get things moving?”

“I wish we could, but we clearly can’t.” Aaliyah interrupted. “I’m having bad flashbacks.”

Marina McKennedy raised her hands to her face. With everyone on the bridge staring.

“Look I said I’d help you with intel, didn’t I? I have intel that this place is about to become a battlefield and we need to get out now. All of that shit,” she pointed a hand at the main screen, which showed camera feeds from outside the Brigand. “Is the result of an– an enemy operation.” Her hesitation drew glares from the Captain and Commissar. Perhaps knowing she was in increasing amounts of trouble, McKennedy continued. “I’ll take responsibility and give you every single little detail later, but for now, can we please get things underway?”

Ulyana Korabiskaya and Aaliyah Bashara looked at each other, sighed, ran their hands over their own faces, and for a brief moment, quietly despaired together as if inwardly saying ‘AGAIN? THIS AGAIN?’ to themselves. Neither had to speak to know what the other was feeling. Marina McKennedy, unlike her proud and defiant conduct in previous deceptions, was reduced to begging, and quickly withered under their cold scrutiny.

It was an understatement to say this all sounded, looked and felt quite bad.

But there was no choice to ignore it. It made too much sense with the situation.

“What McKennedy said doesn’t leave this room until I say so.” Ulyana said.

Every officer nodded. Marina sighed in relief and covered her eyes with one hand.

“Captain, since Zachikova doesn’t seem to be around yet, I’m going to go see what I can dig up about the situation on the network. Do I have your permission?” Marina then asked.

“Good idea. Do that– but you’re not allowed to leave the meeting room.” Ulyana replied.

“Am I detained?” Marina asked.

“You are detained. We’ll talk later. Go do your job now.” Ulyana said stoically.

Sighing, Marina McKennedy nodded her head, accepting her fate without defiance.

As she shambled out of the bridge in low spirits, Ulyana turned back to her officers.

“Semyonova, raise alert Pyotr.” She said. “Have every single sailor and all of the managers and all of the pilots get up, get out there, and finish everything that needs finishing for the Brigand to leave. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to hold up to sailing. We’ll also need to contact Alcor about the elevator. Get Euphrates and Tigris to assist as well. In fact, call Euphrates up here so I can pick her brain. And call up Erika; call Erika first.”

It took some doing for Ulyana to get all her thoughts in order in this situation.

Once Semyonova was sure the captain wouldn’t ask for more, she began her work.

Alerting all of the sailors, summoning more of the officers, calling up the Premier.

–who was checked into her room, but took a few moments to respond to the audio call.

“Ahh– Captain, I apologize! I am presently indisposed I am afraid! My apologies!”

Olga Athanasiou was in the same room– they must have caught them at a bad time.

“I trust you’ll handle everything splendidly! I will be up there in twenty minutes!”

Semyonova turned a tired glance on Ulyana and shrugged her shoulders with a little smile.

Aaliyah meanwhile narrowed her eyes and threw an accusatory glare at the Captain as well.

“She’ll be here in twenty minutes.” Ulyana said in defeat.

“It’s fine. I am sure there was no way around it.” Aaliyah grunted.

Across Ulyana’s mind, there was the vaguest sense of shame at their shambolic state.

They had smartened up about their seafaring operations, then got complacent in a station.

There was nothing they could do but fight their best fight at this point, however.

Ana assefa!

Behind them, the bridge door slid open, and Ulyana once again wished dearly that she would just see Braya Zachikova walk through. Instead, it was Fatima al-Suhar, the Shimii operator for the sonar and various other ship sensors. Having had enough time to appear on bridge as the only officer who was fully dressed in uniform, she wore her long hair well-combed, even her cat-like ears getting a brush, and had even done some of her usual makeup. She saluted upon arriving on the bridge and then sat in her station besides Semyonova.

Al-Suhar then turned to the captain and clapped her hands together in a pleading gesture.

“Profuse apologies, Captain. I had imagined I had additional time to pray tonight and wanted to spend it in worship. I had to finish my prayers, so I figured I’d also clean up too.”

Ulyana shook her head, smiling. Fatima was a bit fragile and frequently apologetic.

“Don’t be sorry. You have religious freedoms. And it isn’t a big deal– for now.”

On the main screen, some of the hallway cameras now showed a stampede of activity.

Once the yellow strobing lights of alert Pyotr shone in every room and hallway outside the bridge, the crew got the hint very clearly about what they were expected to do. They began to scramble outside, gathering their tools as well as battery-powered light sources to help them work in the dark. Floodlights from the Brigand itself also shone to assist the workers, but these were designed to maximize visibility in the water, so they gave off an eerie color that could disorient anyone staring at them and were overpowered for land use.

Semyonova used only the top deck lights to add ambient illumination.

“Tell the pilots to pick up sidearms at the armory. Just in case they see anything outside.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“How much work is there left to do?” Aaliyah asked.

Semyonova checked. “All heavy duty assembly is complete, but the systems need to be calibrated, and some mechanical systems have to be stress tested and tuned up. Making sure the new missile bays open and shut properly, testing the strength of the new intake vacuum, that turret risers are working, that the water system is compliant, and so on.”

“How much is that in terms of time, which is what we don’t have?” Aaliyah asked.

Semyonova wilted a little bit. “I– I’m sure it won’t be too long, Commissar.”

At that point, the door to the bridge opened behind them once more.

Ulyana Korabiskaya was exceptionally ready for Braya Zachikova to finally appear.

Unfortunately, her worst fears were confirmed by the appearance of Evgenya Akulantova.

Dressed in riot gear, holding a ballistic shield, and with an uncharacteristic fire in her eyes.

“Captain. Permission to leave the ship and gather my team for departure.” She asked.

Akulantova normally had such a friendly tone of voice. She sounded so grim now.

The Commissar and Captain stared at her as if they did not know what to make of this.

“I’m afraid members of my team have been insubordinate and will require disciplining.” Akulantova continued. “To do so they must, of course, be gathered aboard, in the presence of the Captain. I request permission to bring them back aboard to face your judgment. We previously discussed optimal routes through the station in case of rescue situations on any of the modules. In addition, my nose is a mighty fine tracker too. I have the means and ability to bring back the stragglers, Captain. All I need is your permission to do it.”

Ulyana was still a bit stunned by the course of events. Her brain was turning to jelly.

“Yes, of course.” She said. “I authorize the mission. Be careful out there. And be fast.”

Akulantova nodded her head, and stormed out of the bridge as quickly as she stormed in.

For almost a minute, the Commissar and Captain were left staring at each other speechless.


“Can you carry her?”

“I have cybernetic enhancements just like you two do.”

“Can you carry her while moving quickly?”

“Hmph.”

Maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was the fact that she could have never left this woman behind, no matter the protest, no matter what it took, after having nearly eaten human flesh for her. But despite being a bit doubtful of her long-term ability to carry Arabella in her arms while running, Zachikova nevertheless took it upon herself to lift up the pale woman in the bloodsoaked robes into her own arms, and to carry her with her own strength.

She did not feel so heavy, not when she first lifted her up.

Not when they first began running down those puddle-strewn drainage tunnels between B-block and C-block, as if trying to outrun the alarms going off around them.

“You’re not in the security biz anymore,” Illya explained while they ran, “But Chief Shark and the rest of us went through dozens of meetings on the station’s internal layout. That fucking scary lawyer for Solarflare, Foss, she got us an entire wireframe data simulation of the station. We gamed out tons of scenarios for small unit rescue or assault on several modules.”

“From B-block,” Valeriya said, emotionlessly, “down this way. C-block, then home.”

‘Home’ being the Brigand’s position at Alcor.

B-block’s drainage infrastructure connected it to the lower C and D blocks, which in turn were connected in both formal and hidden ways to the E, F, G and H blocks. Illya and Valeriya seemed to believe the fastest way was to follow the B-block tunnels due east, to find a floodwater drainage junction that they could crack open, and then rappel down to a C-block module which was designated the emergency floodbreak point for B-block.

It was some kind of statue park according to the two. Nectaris Memorial Park.

From there, a public elevator, or another tunnel jaunt, would get them right into Alcor.

Zachikova believed them instantly.

Illya and Valeriya were geniuses at breaking into places they weren’t wanted.

Asking something snide like ‘are you sure this is the right way’ to them was wasting time and breath, even if they had spent minutes running through identical tunnels. This was known implicitly to all of them. Zachikova had been with them through enough operations to trust them without reservation that if it took ten minutes to run through some place, there was no faster way, perhaps not even if the walls could be punched through directly.

Even with the red lights bearing on them.

And even without the comfort of the station network.

Something that had alarmed Zachikova as they escaped was the state of the station network. She was so used to the ability to tap into the station securely to do things like extract maps and other data to make sure she never took a wrong turn and always reached her destination. She even used it to get trivia and make snide jokes. During the Core Separation, however, the station network was frequently offline or too slow for her to use.

Computing lag was exceedingly rare for Zachikova to experience.

It was impossible for her to get used to the current unreliability of the network.

She was used to working and directly interfacing with very high fidelity, high quality and durable devices that possessed the most sophisticated technology. In the Union, all of the infrastructure was built to be predictable, reliable and robust, even in civilian areas. In the Empire, in a place like Kreuzung, the hardware felt quirky but still slick and fast, and it remained rare for a computing system to take too long to give Zachikova a response when she connected. Now, feeling the lag of Kreuzung’s reeling and out of service computing systems was too offputting. Waiting for too-slow response to a query felt like holding her breath or perhaps staring too long at pitch black darkness in the corner of a room. It made her tense and uncomfortable. She disconnected quickly after such events.

A living machine, as she called herself, a robot; and yet, she was just another thin client.

Without a supercomputer that had all the data and actual power, she was useless.

Her head felt half empty without a computer that she could query with a single thought.

And yet, she wasn’t as distressed as she might have been if she had this experience on an ordinary day. Because she had Arabella in her arms. Because she saw how weak and still hurt her companion looked. Because they could lock eyes in the middle of those dark tunnels and thus exchange silent queries with one another that were full of greater meaning that any computer query. Arabella was still there, and still needed her.

Zachikova was fighting for someone other than herself, and it helped gird her loins.

Even ‘alone’ without the help of a computer– she could find a new source of strength.

Perhaps this was why Arabella felt so light for so long as they ran.

Then, Illya and Valeriya finally raised their hands, signaling for her to come to a stop.

And Arabella started to feel a little bit heavier when they started the climb down.

Illya and Valeriya together ripped the cap off a vent in the middle of a large room that branched out from the tunnels. Everything was pristine, as if a drop of water had never tarnished any of these walls and pipes. There was enough room to drop down one by one, even with their gear, and Zachikova could also drop with Arabella in her arms if positioned properly. This would be their escape down to C-block. They attached a cable to a valve handle out in the connecting tunnels that looked sturdy. Valeriya non-verbally insisted on going down first to make sure that it was safe, and Illya did not argue with her.

It was a fifty meter drop, and they would drop inside of a maintenance tunnel.

After Valeriya confirmed it was safe, Zachikova followed.

“Arabella, can you hold on to me? So I can hold you with one arm.”

“Yes. Don’t worry about me Braya. I can be strong for you.”

Zachikova saw her raise the remains of her tail. They could use it to assist the climb down.

Nodding her head, Zachikova held on to her cable, and Arabella propped her tail against the walls of the vent hole. With Valeriya below to try to catch them if they fell, and Illya following behind, they managed to slide all the way down to the bottom of the shaft. It was not possible to see much of anything in the tunnel, and there was not enough space for Valeriya, Zachikova and her companion, and Illya, to stand together.

Valeriya looked around with her hands for a panel to tear off so they could continue their trek, and found it on the opposite wall. Illya remained tethered.

“Braya, I guess it’s no use saying, ‘you should leave me behind if I’m slowing you down’.”

Arabella whispered in her ear.

Zachikova grunted and squeezed her body tighter while holding her up.

“I don’t want to hear that again. Ever again.” She said sternly.

Arabella rested her head against Zachikova’s shoulder, sighing.

“Alright. Braya– I’ll tell the Captain everything if we get back. I promise you.”

“We’ll have to. Don’t worry– the Captain is not the type of person to cast you out.”

“We’ll vouch for her compliance too.”

Illya spoke up from farther up in the shaft, still holding on to the climbing cable.

Zachikova looked up and grinned. “Thanks. I was honestly surprised you went out for me.”

She couldn’t see Illya’s face up in the shaft, but she thought Illya must have been smiling.

“No one gets left behind. Who will mess with enemy computers for us if you die?”

“Fair enough. You tech illiterate meatheads have your uses.”

“Such a conceited tone for a woman crying her head out and almost eating a corpse.”

“Please.”

From below all of them, Valeriya groaned.

While Illya and Zachikova shared a laugh at her response, she finally got a vent cover off.

Dim light streamed into the room. It was a very low vent, they would have to crawl.

“Arabella, do you think you can crawl through?” Zachikova asked.

Arabella nodded her head gently.

“Valeriya can go out first, then I will put you down and follow you out.”

As Valeriya crawled out, Zachikova put Arabella on the ground gingerly and helped her crawl through the vent hole, following close at her heels. Illya finally climbed down the shaft and followed the two of them out. They had finally made it back to a relatively open area.

“Let’s move. We’re close, and this place is too exposed.” Illya said, hefting her rifle up.

Their escape from B-block had led them to a module in C-block that was entirely taken up by a park over a hundred meters long. From the vent hole that Valeriya had ripped open, they exited out onto a landing at the top of a set of descending steps, where there was a large plaque dedicated to war casualties against ‘the bandits and criminals’– referring specifically to the Union, in this case. From the plaque and its surroundings, the stairs descended through a concrete archway into the bulk of the park; composed of a small plaza and two large statues surrounded by tiered gardens with tall grasses, small trees and wide shrubs on either side of the plaza and the statues. Another set of rising steps led to a second archway, mirroring the first, and then the elevator banks all the way across the park.

Due to the core separation, the park was cast into a gloomy red tinted dimness that at times strobed, at times died, and at times intensified as if they stood beneath a red moon on a black sky. Dim yellow warnings appearing and disappearing on the walls did the lighting no additional favor. Those grand structures built as centerpieces to the park cast deep shadows that cut eerily around the open lengths of the promenade and the tall steps.

There were no audio alarms, and so the only noise aside from their own breathing and boots was a light buzzing from the walls and ceiling. It was completely desolate.

Those shifting tides of dim visibility and silent, colorless darkness created a surreal sight.

Zachikova tore herself from it, crouched beside Arabella and picked her up again.

This time, her tail wrapped around Zachikova’s waist, and she hugged Zachikova closer.

“I’m steady. Run as fast and as hard as you need to Braya.” Arabella said.

“Got it. We’ll get through this.”

She was feeling quite heavy, even with Zachikova’s cybernetic enhancements.

Her limbs had biomechanical stabilizers implanted, which were not as extreme or high-tech as the biomechanical enhancements that Illya and Valeriya received. While they mainly assisted her in precision work, they did help her lift a bit more than she would otherwise have been able to. However, she was still a sedentary individual who, in her current roles, rarely exercised, and ate somewhat poorly, eroding her already barely average stamina. Not to mention how much harder maintaining that health was with Arabella’s needs. She could have done better, become stronger– but she only now recognized that there was any point to doing such things. And now, there was no time to prepare anything.

All she could do was run as far as she needed, and carry Arabella as much as she could.

“I’ll lead.” Valeriya said. Again there was no argument from the rest.

“Then I’ll take up the rear. Let’s go, Zachi.” Illya said.

“Got it.”

Valeriya raised her assault rifle to her chest and took off running down the steps.

Zachikova took a deep breath and ran after, following as closely as she could.

They charged down the steps, Zachikova trying to balance running quickly without losing her footing– suffering a few heart-pounding fumbles along the way that her leg stabilizers quietly assisted in recovering from. Behind her, Illya paused every so often to aim her gun in the direction of their flanks, looking through the sleek optic attached on its top rail. Valeriya led them into the archway, which was much larger up close than at the top of the steps, the path through it six meters deep and the walls three or fours meters thick.

They stacked at the other end of the archway for a quick breather.

Even in the dark, the sheer size and fidelity of the statues was arresting. Zachikova, out of pure habit, queried the network about the statue park, and in a brief burst of functionality, actually made a connection and received information in a split second. On the left, there was a statue of Konstantin von Fueller, the departed Emperor. Depicted in his late adulthood, with long hair and a full beard and a certain pity in his eyes, as if the statue had caught a glimpse of what might occur to the man in the future. Beside him was a statue of Norn von Fueller, the praetor, smiling with a glint in her eyes as if her presence here was itself a mischief. These were five or six meter tall statues, set on concrete pedestals a meter tall and two in diameter. They dominated the center of the park, white marbled walkways arranged to take the prospective visitor exclusively to and around them.

After a breather, Valeriya sprinted out to the statues. Zachikova and Illya followed.

Step by step, second by second, the statues which were about thirty meters from the first archway loomed closer and closer. There was a brief red and yellow flash as the alarm lights and wall warnings suddenly glitched again and became brighter than normal.

They buzzed louder than before, and then there was an eerie sound of several light clusters fizzling. Zachikova shut her eyes and kept running, her hands tightening around Arabella’s body. There was a disturbance in the air– but Zachikova failed to hear the first shot.

Something struck the floor just behind her foot. She hadn’t seen it nor heard it.

Zachikova was in a battle, but she was unaware for precious seconds.

Illya shouted from behind her, but it coincided with the final burst of ambient noise.

To Zachikova, rather than a warning it was just a guttural noise she heard the tail end of.

Then a bullet sailed past her antennae, and she finally felt the vibration.

“Duck! Zachi! Cover!”

Illya shouted again, Zachikova heard it, Valeriya stopped and turned and opened fire.

From the flanks, as she acknowledged the situation, two shots struck Zachikova in one leg.

Her feet lost all ability to hold her weight, even with the stabilizers.

“Braya!”

Arabella cried out as Zachikova fell forward, gritting her teeth.

She turned in mid-air, and her body hit the ground with all of Arabella’s weight on her.

All around her, rifle barrels whined in the distance, muzzles flashed near,

and chaos reigned.


Hunter VII let out an irritatingly wet and nasal little laugh that unsettled Wizard III.

“I’ve got ‘em. I know exactly where they’re goin’.” She said.

Her pale face stretched with her cheeky grin, little dark eyes narrowing into their dark bags, each labored cackle tossing the long white hair coming out in long wisps from beneath her grey hood. She was a very slight creature, long limbed and skinny, ghastly pale for an omenseer, a bit typical of her role and sphere, standing a head shorter than Wizard III.

“Where? Do you have personal experience with the area?” Wizard III asked.

“Yeppers! I’ve been in all these tunnels. They’re goin’ to the park, follow me.”

Wizard III was not keen on the Hunters and not too happy to have to rely on them.

The Third Sphere castes, which were the youngest and most specialized, had proven a bit bizarre psychologically and were difficult to incorporate into plans. Wizard III did not understand their dysfunction. Observers were lazy; Saboteurs too violent; Sentinels too stubborn. But Hunters– Wizard III would have classed them as abject failures. They had a myriad problems. Too greedy, cowardly and perverted. They were easily distracted because of their immense curiosity and intense desires. Too quick to pick up bad habits, they were each unique in what was wrong with them, depending on their initial assignments.

However, each of them had been uplifted for their prodigious clairvoyance.

More than any other Omenseer, Hunters were powerfully in tune with omens. Their senses, both physical and supernatural, were immensely keen. They could find any target after having seen it once, and the more information they were given, the more they could see in their otherwise dull brains. And if it was a person, they could easily eliminate them.

Hunter VII was even less disciplined than most Hunters, in Wizard III’s estimation.

But she was crucial to the mission, and to Wizard III’s squad, for her clairvoyance.

Having mastered the gift of the Oracle’s Voice, Hunter VII had near infallible foresight.

–that is, as long as she was given enough sensory information she could make use of.

In order to insure success Wizard III had offered her the thing Hunters loved most of all.

“Are we sure this pus-for-brains can actually find her?” Vanguard IX protested.

“I could never mistake that delicious scent for anything else!” Hunter VII shot back.

Her perverse smiling face and oddly good mood was all because of the taste she had gotten of a piece of Arbitrator I’s flesh, sheared off when the exalted Avaritia nearly devoured the heretic. And the promise that if she led the team and cut off the heretic’s escape, she would be given far more of the false Autarch’s flesh to enjoy. This both motivated her and asssisted her tracking. Wizard III could sense the sheer elation in Hunter VII’s aura.

More than her aura, however, her sadistic and bloodthirsty little mutterings made it evident.

“I can’t wait– Oooh I can’t wait– she was so delicious. So much more than any hominin.”

“Was it a good idea to give this fiend a taste of her own kind?” Vanguard IX moaned.

“It was strategically expedient. Just endure it.” Wizard III said, glaring at Hunter VII.

Wizard III’s squadron for the mission to eliminate the false Autarch consisted of two shooting sections of six Vanguards, a Sentinel, a Hunter, herself, and Vanguard IX, whom she had taken as an adjutant. That latter position was suggested by the Enforcers, and who was she to deny their repeated and irritating attempts to inflict hominin “culture” upon her? It was not her place to disobey them. Vanguard IX was motivated and competent.

With Hunter VII locked on to her target, Wizard III and the squadron followed her as fast as possible, down B-block, through C-block, to where the heretic would go.

All around them, the hominin were in a state of utter disarray.

Their station had some sort of malfunction– Wizard III was not too sure about what was happening to them. Even in the little picturesque town in B-block there were confused hominin on the street and armed forces at every corner. Thankfully, none of the armed hominin had any effective organization. All of the guards, at least in B-block, seemed to be running around like they had their heads severed and the rest of their bodies were just twitching this way and that. Because of their vulnerable emotional states, Wizard III could quite easily walk up to a group and manipulate them psionically to her advantage.

Thanks to her temporary thralls, the squadron was given a direct route to their destination through emergency transfer shafts normally reserved for staff. Then the guards were convinced they saw nothing, which was in their best interest to internalize. The Syzygy squadron arrived at the statue park in C-block well before their prey, and this allowed Wizard III to perfectly arrange her forces as she desired to maximize the chances of success.

It would be a simple and effective ambush from the flanks of the park.

In the tiered gardens, behind trees and bushes and grasses, she hid her Vanguards. Each vanguard had a spike rifle, ninety centimeters long, a living tool and covered in a smooth scar-like tissue shell that fired modified teeth as bullets. These composite bullets were expelled using strong pulses of bio-electromagnetism assisted by internal muscles. Varying in their rate of fire, the rifles kept their ammunition stored in a helical pattern in a lower gland. Wizard III believed these to be far superior to hominin automatic rifles, because they could be grown, and required less ores and foreign materials, being mainly composed of biomass. They were also quieter, since they did not require an explosion to shoot.

These weapons would be used to shoot at the heretic as she escaped through the park.

Hunter VII and Sentinel X would be positioned at the gate closest to the elevator banks.

At first they would be hidden, but could be moved to intercept or finish off the heretic.

Wizard III and Vanguard IX would hide atop the archway opposite the elevator banks.

They had the same role as Sentinel X and Hunter VII, as well as overseeing the mission.

Everything was in place. And if Hunter VII was to be believed, their quarry neared.

No wild tactics would be necessary. They just had to cover off escapes, and seal the trap.

Site the park center and await the appearance of the enemy. Enfilade on my command.

Wizard III could speak telepathically to her entire squadron at once.

Her ability to quickly convey complicated ideas via telepathy was one of the reasons that Enforcers I and III had chosen her for their retinue. She had practiced this skill diligently, knowing that it would serve her role well, and therefore serve the Syzygy well. Her range was limited; but her thoughts could span the length of the park without issue.

An intrusive, wet-feeling and irritating thought wormed its way into her mind soon after.

I can feel ‘em, I can smell ‘em, I can taste ‘em! Deliciousness is on the way!

Hunter VII’s disgusting telepathic reply. She could feel her nasally, horrid little voice.

Her slobbering mouth and the moistness of her general being–

Wizard III sent back a telepathic image of Hunter VII being beaten with a rifle butt, directly into her stupid little brain, in order to quiet her. Hunter VII made not one peep more.

To her Vanguards, she sent final warnings to set up and be prepared to fire.

Then she heard metal clang behind her. A vent cover hitting the floor.

Atop the archway, Wizard III urged Vanguard IX to crawl on her belly.

Both of them dropped low against the edge of the archway. Hiding from the hominin, letting them pass under. They would have sight on the middle of the park when the battle was joined. Until then, they just had to hide and let their senses tell them the story.

One after another– several figures left the vent that they had forced open.

Followed by hominin speech. Meaning unclear– but there was a small group of them–

“…Braya–”

Wizard III’s eyes widened as she confirmed the voice of the heretic.

So– she had the assistance of hominin.

There’s been a development. Shoot to kill the hominin in addition to the false autarch.

Footsteps. Three pairs. One hominin was carrying the false autarch.

Down the steps, beneath the archway. Stacking inside of it, facing the center of the park.

They had not noticed Wizard III’s perch. Her critical moment fast approached.

To the squadron, she quietly broadcast the thought of the hominin’s positions beneath the archway as she imagined them. She received two quick mental affirmations from the leaders of each three-gun section. When the hominin got to moving again, Wizard III stoically gave the order to unleash their barrage. As soon as she could physically see the hominin nearing the statues in the center of the park, she felt the breaking tension of her troops.

Their moment finally arrived.

Wizard III steeled her eyes as if her sight alone would kill the Hominin below her.

She watched them, the dawning realization that they had come under attack.

Small flashes of green bioluminescence from the vegetation, and a faint electric crackling.

Followed by the first bursts of long, thin and sharp black bullets converging–

Hurtling toward the hominin– soaring in their dozens– invisible lines grazing skin–

–scratching pits into the ground –as the hominin rushed to the cover of the statues.


“Throw smokes! Now!”

Her clothes dragged along the ground, she could feel it in the skin of her back.

Smelling smoke, taking deep horrid breaths of it that made her chest contract in protest.

Vision swimming. Bright flashes on the edges of her eyes. Everything was too dim.

Clicking noises of a myriad little objects falling around. Dust, chipped concrete, casings.

Along with the familiar bursting noise of Avtomat gunfire. Tremors right in her chest.

She became aware of an immense and burning pain, from lower down on her body.

And she could no longer feel the pressure and weight that had been upon her–

“Arabella!”

Zachikova shot up from the ground, only to feel a hand push her back down.

“She’s right here! Keep your head down god damn it! We’re under attack!”

They were huddled between the statues. There was smoke, bullets.

Illya was at her side–

Her heart jumped from a sudden burst of automatic fire. Her head snapped to the source.

Valeriya peered out from cover and fired two bursts into a tree fifty meters out.

And immediately ducked back into cover, avoiding fire from two different directions.

Impossible to see, but evident in the concrete dust that went flying all around them.

Zachikova shut her eyes hard, trying to clear the sting of her own tears and the smoke.

“Braya, I’m here. Don’t worry. Just stay safe.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

There was no describing the relief it brought. On her other side, Arabella, with her back to the statue pedestal. She was alive and safe. In the darkness she could see the faintest smile. Zachikova let out deeply-held breath. They had all made it to cover.

“Permission to arm GP-34.” Valeriya said calmly, just loud enough to be heard.

“You think you can get them?” Illya shouted, over the sound of bullets hitting rock.

Da.” Valeriya replied. Showing no emotion whatsoever even in the midst of this mess.

“Wait. Let me cover you. It will be more effective.” Zachikova said.

She quickly looked around herself.

Her gear had been on her back when she was carrying Arabella. Exerting herself, she felt pain shoot through her left leg, but she also felt the cold sting of wound gel like someone had shoved ice into the laceration. Knowing she was not bleeding, she could strain to move, searching in the dark with her hands and finding her carbine on the floor and her remaining magazines discarded near it. Her training coming to the fore again as the shocks began to wear off, she exchanged the spent magazine that was on her carbine for a fresh one.

Then she quickly stabbed herself with an injector of painkillers.

She grit her teeth from the pain, but only very briefly.

“I’ll shoot from farther back, around the statue’s legs. A different angle.” Zachikova said.

Even in the dark she knew Illya and Valeriya were exchanging glances. Valeriya did nothing without Illya’s approval. But Illya saw the value in this suggestion. She also trusted Zachikova to be able to do it. Even wounded, even in the dark, even years after their last operation.

“Good thinking. I’ll suppress the other flank first. Then Zachi can draw them out and Valeriya can put them down.” Illya said, hefting her assault rifle. “Zachi, Valeriya, on mark.”

“Acknowledged.” Zachikova said.

“Yes.” Valeriya added.

“Mark in five.”

As soon as Illya gave the word, the unit set about their tasks instantly.

In the dark, Zachikova could see the outline of Valeriya loading a 40 mm rifle grenade into the underbarrel GP-34 launcher attached to her assault rifle. Opposite her, Illya stacked at the edge of Norn’s pedestal, or as close as she could get to the edge. Zachikova crawled on her knees farther up the pedestal from where Valeriya had been shooting from, in order to draw a new angle. They had gotten lucky, or their enemy had been stupid with the positioning of their ambush. Between the statues of Norn and the Emperor, there was enough cover to keep them safe from both flanks of the ambush. If they were careful, they could still engage then quickly retreat to relative safety, as evidenced by all the useless, discarded projectiles that had begun to litter the ground just outside their stretch of cover, shimmering in the red of the alarm lights, muzzle flashes and bright tracers.

Zachikova had never seen these kinds of bullets. They were black and eerily organic.

Some part of her knew this was not the K.P.S.D., but she couldn’t connect any more dots.

Regardless of who it was–

She looked back at Arabella, briefly meeting her eyes during a flash of red lights.

For that strange and mysterious and solitary woman who had upended her life–

no matter the opponent, Zachikova would have killed anyone.

“Mark!”

There was no need to confirm that she was in position prior to Illya’s shout.

Of course Zachikova was in position– and of course her squad mates would do their parts.

Illya rose from behind the pedestal firing controlled bursts, sweeping across the left flank.

Zachikova rose with her and from the other side of the Emperor’s legs, she opened fire on the same trees and brushes on the right flank that Valeriya had been firing at all this time. She could not see her enemy’s movements in the dark, but from her line of sight, she knew her bullets were flying through the bushes and bypassing the trees.

There was no immediate return fire.

Three long, controlled bursts, and Zachikova ducked while Illya fired her final shots.

In the same instant as Zachikova’s gunfire abated, Valeriya angled her rifle up.

There was a chunky, popping noise as a 40 mm grenade sailed out of her launcher.

Arcing up into the air and crashing to the ground with a short flash and a burst of smoke.

Obliterating the bush and sending a chunk of the tree’s slender trunk flying in pieces.

Illya retreated to coincide with the explosion of the grenade.

There was no immediate retaliation– a long lull in the once incessant enemy gunfire.

“Even the left flank is shocked. These are fucking amateurs.” Illya said. “Valeriya, trade.”

“Yes.”

Valeriya and Illya retreated deeper into cover between the statues, and quickly switched places. Valeriya moved to Norn’s statue and Illya stacked against the statue of the Emperor. Moving the position of their grenade launcher, and enabling them to run the same tactic against the other flank. After moving, there was suddenly a renewed, but flagging salvo from both flanks, periodically sending bits of concrete flying over their heads.

Even Zachikova could tell that there were less bullets flying than there had been.

“Mark on five.” Illya called out, kicking away a dropped magazine and reloading.

“They’re encroaching.” Valeriya said. She loaded a new grenade into her launcher.

Zachikova could hear rustling and footsteps, but then they stopped and fire resumed.

“Mark on two.” Illya said. No use acknowledging.

It was their prerogative if they wanted to come closer and expose themselves.

“Mark!”

Illya rose and opened fire on the right flank.

Zachikova rose to cover the left around the legs of Norn’s statue instead of the Emperor’s.

Valeriya loosed another grenade.

On the right flank, the explosion of the grenade lit a flame, penetrating one of the garden plots. Whether it had set a bush on fire or caused an electrical fire, it was impossible to tell. But there was fire, and smoke, and with it, the darkness parted ever so slightly.

Around the pyre light, they could finally see the figures of the enemy scattering–

along with one figure struggling on the ground.

Illya grinned, shadows playing about her face from the flame. Her finger moved swiftly.

She put two quick shots into the downed enemy, causing it to thrash and rattle in death

and then she cried out as a bullet struck her in the sternum throwing her back–


“One down.” Vanguard IX said, licking her lips, rifle in hand atop the archway.

Beside her, Wizard III was shaking with a mixture of shock and frustration and fear.

Her mind registered the anguished cries of several injured Vanguards.

Those that remained had shaking hands on their rifles and their backs to cover.

Suppressed. Too afraid to shoot back, and growing increasingly more so.

In minutes, their ambush had been thrown back on them.

By three measly hominin?

What had happened? They had advantageous positions and an outnumbered enemy!

Even discounting the demonstrably poor aim and bad fire placement and tendency to clump together behind the same cover that her Vanguards had demonstrated– such conditions should not have even mattered, because the battle should have ended in seconds. Against mere hominin. How was the discrepancy this large? What had factored into it?

It should have worked– it simply–

She had given them a perfect plan!

She had demanded nothing from them but execution!

Wizard III’s mind was racing. She was ashamed, she was in shock, she was confused.

All of her theoretical knowledge, all of her theoretical advantages.

Why didn’t it matter? Why couldn’t she, a Wizard unit, manage a simple ambush?

Had the false Autarch done something to the senses of these hominin? Made them stronger?

No– It couldn’t have been– but it couldn’t be the hominin by themselves–?

“Permission to engage in close quarters, ma’am.”

Wizard III turned to face Vanguard IX. The shock shaking itself through her body.

Vanguard IX was a lithe and sleek young woman, with red and white hair, a conceited grin.

They had never locked eyes in such a deliberate way as they had then. She was– comely.

But what did she have to be so cocky about? Her caste was doing pitifully in this battle.

And yet– perhaps– maybe– she could be reliable– those eyes– that smile–

“Y-Yes. Yes. Go. Cut through them. I’ll– I’ll call in Hunter VII and Sentinel X as well.”

“Splendid! I shall bring you their heads, superior. Simply await my triumphant return.”

In a red flash of the alarm lights, Vanguard IX’s face appeared in stark relief.

Grinning wildly, keen on a fight. She patted Wizard III’s shoulder.

Then, leaving her rifle behind, she took something from her uniform pockets.

A silvery fruit brimming with stolen life.

While locking eyes with Wizard III, she deposited the morsel into her open mouth.

As if for Wizard III to see every bite.


Down on her knees, Zachikova waved her hands in every direction, struck the palms of her hands against the floor, scratched her fingers, scrabbling around for the rest of her gear in the dark. It had been kicked around everywhere in the panic. There was a lull in the gunfire, but that sniper that got Illya must have been repositioning, and they had to move. She found her flashlight, shone it upon the ground, and found her pouches and belt.

From it, she recovered and immediately threw a smoke grenade behind themselves.

As the smokescreen thickened to cover them from the sniper, Zachikova passed the flashlight to Arabella, sat beside her, who was surprised to be given it.

“I need your help! Gather up everything that was in my pack and pouches!”

Arabella nodded.

She took the flashlight, and quickly began to gather Zachikova’s gear together.

Zachikova took her assault rifle from the floor.

In the dark, she saw Valeriya on her knees in front of Illya, paralyzed.

Mumbling to herself.

“Valeriya! Move her back! Behind the pedestals!”

Whether or not Valeriya heeded her, Zachikova rose up on her bum leg and resumed shooting over the pedestal. Fire continued to spread on the right side of the park, and due to the core separation nothing was putting it out. That suited Zachikova fine.

In the light of the fire she could see a few enemies still scurrying about. Thin figures with long weapons, shadows from around raised concrete garden plots, enough to know where to direct her attacks. Forcing them to retreat and reposition, and preventing them from firing back. It bought them time, but it was not enough. She was not eliminating them.

“Arabella, did you sort out my gear?” Zachikova called out.

“Yes! I have everything laid out!” Arabella replied.

“Alright, take out any objects that have little metal pins, and hand them to me!”

“Yes Braya! I’m on it! I won’t let you down!”

Zachikova shifted positions, putting her back to Norn’s statue.

She drew a breath, reloaded her carbine and raised her barrel forward. Now aiming for the trees on the left flank of the park, she opened fire across the front of the Emperor’s statue instead. Without enemy shadows standing in contrast with the fire, it was hard to tell if anything was still there, but she could at least suppress the other half of the park–

Then Arabella darted up to a stand beside her, followed by a dozen strange noises.

In her hands, she had not just one of Braya’s grenades, nor even two–

All of Zachikova’s grenades hung on hands which now possessed a dozen fingers.

Enough fingers to lift them, pull out the pins in a chorus of clicking and clacking metal.

And enough dexterity to quickly toss them one after the other in every direction.

“Arabella!” Zachikova cried out, ducking and taking Arabella to the ground with her–


“I can smell it. I can smell it! That delicious meat!”

Hunter VII stuck her tongue out, slobbering and hyperventilating in anticipation.

She wrapped her arms around herself, and her knees were rubbing together–

“Shut up. Do you have no self-control? You were not ordered to be this disgusting.”

At her side, Sentinel X stood with her arms crossed, her back to the archway’s stone wall.

A living picture of stoicism.

Lean, well-muscled, fully in control of herself. Her face inexpressive, her pale hair cut short and without the colored streaks that brought many of the other casts such joy to dye into their hair to assert individuality. Her beret and uniform, both grey, each had a shield-shaped badge to denote her caste. Her uniform was pristine. Unlike Hunter VII, who was naked except for her hooded robe that looked to Sentinel X like she was dressed in a trash bag.

Because she was trash. Unlike the Sentinel caste, whom Sentinel X would make proud.

Her orders were to hold the position, and she would hold it with honor.

No deviation from Wizard III’s grand stratagem would be tolerated.

No enemy would escape.

Not without engaging Sentinel X herself in glorious combat.

Sentinel X was so honorable in fact that she would not leave her position for such trifles as hearing a string of explosions rocking the center of the park. Or seeing a fire begin spreading. Feeling the psionic fear and anguish of the Vanguards, whom, despite being older and higher ranked than Sentinel X, were quivering and buckling and hiding amid the carnage. Certainly they were locked in absolutely brutal battles the likes of which she could not even imagine. Certainly, such was the power of the false Autarch and her hominin escorts, to give her seniors such trouble. But Sentinel X knew her place. Wizard III was her commanding officer. And she respected her comrades. So she would follow her orders.

She would hold the position. Until commanded otherwise.

That was her solemn duty.

“Hey, the Vanguards are all screamin’ and cryin’ and pukin’– should we help?”

Hunter VII spoke up from beside Sentinel X. Sentinel glared at her.

“You will not move from this spot, unless you desire the justice of the battlefield.”

“Uh–!” Hunter VII bowed her head. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean t’cause offense!”

She waved her hands intensely, then stried to stand up straight and at attention.

Sentinel X smiled.

“Apology accepted. Little beast, in my heart, I understand that you crave blood and battle with what measly brains you possess. This is admirable, but honor binds us Third Sphere castes to the specific tasks for which we were born. Right now, you were born to stand here with me, and prevent the breaching of our encirclement. Hold firm your honor.”

“Ehh, I guess.” Hunter VII’s tongue rolled back into her mouth. “But I can’t eat honor.”

“Oh, but I thought Hunter caste ate anything. Have you tasted honor, little vermin?”

Hunter VII blinked. “Was– was that a joke? You can joke?”

Sentinel X grinned to herself and her arms still crossed over her chest, head still bowed.

In that moment, she felt something in the back of her mind.

Something that cut through the vague murmuring in her thoughts, representing the ambient terror of the Vanguards whom she was ignoring; and the bloodthirst of the Hunter beside her; all of that psionic noise quieted even further by a clear and authoritative voice.

Sentinel X stood in attention as if she was in the physical presence of her commander.

I have new orders for you! Turn and attack the hominin in the center of the park!

Wizard III’s voice, agitated and louder than she had ever heard it. Was she in danger?

“It shall be done, brilliant one. I must ask, however– what about this position?”

She saw in the back of her mind a clear image of Wizard III’s frustrated expression.

There’s nobody to defend it from! Unless someone attacks you right now, forget it!

Sentinel X dutifully stepped forward from the wall and got ready to cross the archway–

and stopped when she heard the sound of screeching metal from the elevator banks.

Something was forcing open the elevator doors.

Just as clearly as she heard the distress of her comrades, and the agitation of the officer in command, Sentinel X could feel the tension suddenly cutting across the aether. She could feel the colors shifting, the texture of the world turning, like the shifting direction of a nonexistent wind. Bristling in the back of her mind, brimming under her skin, shaking the tips of her fingers and toes. Just as the presence of meat aroused something inside Hunter VII; Sentinel X could now feel herself shaking in anticipation of the call to battle.

She tipped her head to look up, to where she had felt the clarion of challenge beseech her.

Heard the footfalls, heavy with strength and purpose, aggressive, consequential–

Then,

Atop the steps to the elevator banks, overlooking Sentinel X and Hunter VII–

Appeared a strong and tall figure, shield in one hand, a weapon in another,

eyes meeting under opposite banners amid the smoke of war,

aura tinged red and black with the determination,

 to stake it all on the battlefield.

“An opponent.” Sentinel X whispered to herself.

Near breathless, heart pounding. A grin on her face.

Every cell quivering with lust.

An opponent had finally appeared to challenge her in single combat.

With a wild smile on her face, Sentinel X adjusted her beret, and reached into her pocket.

For the fruit, grown from hominin, that would elevate her strength.


Tinnitus ringing in her ears for so very long.

Her entire body was shaking hard enough it was difficult to stand, as if the explosions were still circulating energy through the ground and into her. It was not fear. She was exhausted. She had been running at the farthest edge of breathing, on the thinnest line between impetus and inertia. Shaking to stand, struggling to breath the part-smoke air, hardly able to see in the dim dream-like reds that flashed distantly around her.

“Arabella.” Her voice shook itself out of her throat, a sputtering sound.

“I’m here Braya. I’m sorry. I made everything worse.”

Arabella was standing too. In front of Zachikova. She saw her when the lights flashed.

She laid a hand on her shoulder and urged her to move. Farther back, behind the statues.

“I’m doing better Braya, let me help you move instead.”

In the dark, she felt Arabella’s hands around her.

They lifted her easily, moved her swiftly.

“Valeriya, Illya? What is your status?”

Zachikova mumbled weakly. Half expecting not to receive a response.

What would even happen if Illya died? And if Valeriya was still alive?

It would be horrific.

She recalled her flashlight, and wondered if Arabella still had it on her person.

Then she realized she had another possible source of light.

While shambling around the statues, Zachikova removed one of her antennae.

Her audio sensors were still working, it was not the same as having “damaged” her ear, they were built to be detachable and to serve as semi-independent devices. On one end of the object, there were status lights. By flicking a switch, to physically cut off digital data flow to one of the ears, more of the status alert LEDs on it would turn on.

In the darkness, these were a dim flashlight that was nevertheless bright enough to use.

As Arabella helped her walk, she shone the lights forward.

Until they fell upon Valeriya, crouched and solemn.

Her hair falling over her face such that her expression was completely obscured. Her fingers, clutching her knees. All of her weapons and gear thrown at her sides, discarded. Zachikova felt her heart accelerating as she turned the light from Valeriya, to the rear surface of the pedestal. Against which, Valeriya had propped up the stricken down Illya.

“Is she alive?” Zachikova asked. Knowing she was tempting fate to say so.

Valeriya did not respond.

Zachikova tempted fate again by stepping forward from Arabella’s presence.

She crouched beside Illya.

Pausing every so often to glance at Valeriya.

Reaching out her hand tentatively.

Holding Illya’s face by the chin and lifting it.

No response from Valeriya.

Zachikova had not been hacked to pieces– yet.

She continued.

Lifting a finger to force one of her eyes open.

Feeling for vitals with her thumb.

There was a pulse–

“God damn it.”

Valeriya lifted her head a little.

Enough for Zachikova to see her eyes filled with tears.

Illya had grunted. She was awake.

“Let go of my face. I’m having trouble breathing.”

Zachikova glared at her. “Respond when I fucking ask if you’re alive.”

“Ugh. I’m spiraling in and out.” Illya mumbled. She raised a hand over her face.

On her chest, something that looked like a long, black fang, perhaps like that of a spider, shiny, but straight– it was the most bizarre projectile Zachikova had ever seen. It had pierced through Illya’s body armor. There was no question that this was the sniper’s bullet. It was long and thinner than an ordinary bullet, and even some time after being fired it remained warm, vibrating, and strangely enough, it was slightly moist. They had not designed the ballistic plates to fit the characteristics of this object, that was for certain.

Zachikova pulled out the projectile and pocketed it.

She shone her dim little lights into the orifice left in Illya’s armor.

There was blood, and ripped skin. Beneath it, however, was a second, thin layer.

Like a sheet of hexagon patterns just under Illya’s skin. Subdermal nanomail.

It had been penetrated. There would be bruising around it.

“You’ll live.” Zachikova said. She looked around herself. “But what the fuck is going on?”

Arabella approached and crouched beside Zachikova, joining the rest.

“This is my fault.” She said. “These are my people, chasing me. I’m sorry, Braya.”

“Doesn’t matter who the fuck they are.” Illya said. “We’re not letting them have you.”

She turned her face to Valeriya, who had remained dutifully at her side.

Reaching out a hand to caress Valeriya’s dirty cheek, gently pushing away her blond hair.

“Valeriya, I love you.” She said.

Valeriya nodded silently. Zachikova noticed that her mask was pulled down.

“I am sorry– you know I wouldn’t do this if I had no choice.” Illya said.

“No. Don’t be. Let me fight.” Valeriya said.

Illya nodded solemnly.

Zachikova averted her gaze. She grit her teeth, clenched her fists.

Valeriya and Illya’s gazes locked ever more deeply.

Illya held the cheek of her lover and partner in a gesture that, in any other circumstance would have been interpreted to lead into a kiss. However, they could only stare each other’s eyes with gentle and yet weak expressions. For a few seconds they held their gazes firmly before Valeriya lifted her own hand to touch Illya’s on her cheek.

Behind them, they heard footsteps encroaching in the dark on their position again.

Illya gently drew Valeriya closer to her.

Then, she clicked her tongue in Valeriya’s ear. Then, she spoke.

“Love is life; love hinders death.”

Valeriya opened her eyes wide, and the gentle smile she wore for Illya went away.

“Eliminate all hostile targets.” Illya then said.

With none of the love she put into speaking the trigger words.

Without expression, Valeriya stood to her full height, and seized a weapon.

Pulling off the hard plastic sleeve to expose the saw teeth of the diamond sword, its blade nearly a hundred centimeters long, the motor hidden in the square guard above the handle. As she walked, as if paying it little mind while doing so, she flicked the motor’s power switch with a finger and pulled the lever hidden on the blade’s guard to actuate it.

A metallic whining noise followed her from then on.

Zachikova felt a sudden and immense terror worming its way through her skin.

An otherworldly presence, an evil-feeling presence, seemed to exude from Valeriya.

Arabella, too, stared warily at the woman, but calmly and without Zachikova’s terror.

Her eyes remained fixed on the entranced Valeriya as she walked, first, and then sprinted.

Back around the statues and immediately clashing with the approaching enemy.

In the dark, the clashing of metal of metal– Zachikova shook her head.

She affixed her antennae back in its place, and began to search Illya’s pockets for gear.

“I’ll support her– or at least keep you safe. I can do that much still.” Zachikova said.

“Don’t let your girlfriend have any more of our grenades.” Illya said, grinning.

“You’re in good humor.” Zachikova sighed. “If you die nobody will be able to control her.”

Illya shut her eyes and took a deep breath, her hand resting over her wound.

“I trust her completely. That will have to suffice for you. Administer some painkillers.”

Zachikova wanted to shout at her, but she held her breath. There was no use arguing.

Showing her displeasure instead by how brusquely she jabbed Illya with an injector.

Valeriya was not looking, so this petty vengeance would not result in her dismemberment.


“I’m only going to say this once. I do not want to hurt anyone. Get out of my way. I’ll take my subordinates and we can defer whatever grief you have for another day. Otherwise, my conscience is absolved of smearing all of you across the wall. Your choice.”

Her conscience was not absolved. But she had no choice.

That hand holding her truncheon was so close to shaking.

It took all her strength not to.

Evgenya Akulantova looked down from the top of the steps.

Standing over a pair of pale women, horned and clad strangely, a skinny one in a black hood and the other in a unique uniform, not matching the Volkisch Movement or any Imperial unit she had ever studied up on. Behind her an elevator shaft she had broken into, climbed up, and forced the door open. There was no turning back. Here was the enemy.

All she could hope for is for them to see reason and avoid violence.

That hope faded quickly. She saw the expression on the uniformed woman.

While the hooded woman was terrified, the one with the uniform looked absolutely elated.

She stepped forward, flexing her fingers, grinning all the while.

Akulantova clenched her jaw.

The flashlight on her visor clearly illuminated the face of a madwoman.

“What is your name, hominin? I must know, for when I take you into my body as a trophy.”

The hell did that mean–? “Akulantova. You?”

“Sentinel X.” She said. Ten– why was she numbered?

“Sentinel X. Step aside, now.” Growing concerned she absolutely would not.

“It is my duty to hold this position. And perhaps it will be my honor to hold it against you.”

Despite being seemingly unarmed, Sentinel X merely took a striking stance with her fists.

Akulantova could still smell Illya and Valeriya. They were out there, fighting. There was blood in the air, smoke and fire, the smell of tungsten fragments and lead casings. There were many strange smells too– eerily organic smells like the skin and spit of animals. She had tracked her subordinates to this park because she knew Illya and Valeriya would follow the plans that they had already drafted for Kreuzung station, because they were efficient.

But the scent told her they were here and alive. Her tracking nose had its purpose.

“I’d like to remain a pacifist for at least a few more years. Please step aside kid.”

“Then I will have to come up there myself! I can sense the ferocious beast inside you!”

Akulantova felt herself pulled in every direction.

There was limited time to escape this emergency before the station began a crackdown; her subordinates were actively in danger and in need of rescue and a way out; there was a strange enemy barring her way; but she did not want to fight! Hadn’t her hands been stained enough? Was her body just not destined for something other than violence?

True to her words, however, Sentinel X quickly took her choices from her.

In moments, she broke into a sprint unexpected even for her lithe and agile-looking body.

Hurtling up the stairs in long bounds to punch with a fist that turned suddenly hard and hot.

Steam hissed from glistening, armored skin as if her sweat or even flesh were dissolving.

Akulantova stepped back, raised her shield and barely had time to put it in the way–

And nearly found herself bowled over as Sentinel X crashed into her at full speed.

Scarring in a fist-sized dent with an eerie torsion, into the multi-layered composite plate.

“You’re strong Akulantova! You’re so strong! This will make for a GLORIOUS battle!”

Akulantova stepped back, shield up, truncheon ready to respond to a strike.

She could not help but notice Sentinel X’s fists, vibrating and giving off heat like weapons.

Covered in what looked almost like the hard shell of a lobster, or maybe a crab.

It brought to mind a word–

Omenseer– she had been briefed by the Captain on that, but never what it entailed.

Simply, it was the kind of person the “specialist navigator” Arabella was. It allowed her to do whatever a ‘specialist navigator’ did. Akulantova did not question it. It wasn’t her right to. She put it out of her mind, giving no more thought to Arabella than whether she was being safe while messing around in the halls and whether her hyperactive antics around the ship caused any trouble. Over time, Arabella had even calmed down a bit.

Seeing this woman in front of her with crab-like vibro-weapon fists–

Arabella had gone missing– and now, there was this inexplicable maniac in the way.

“Nobody to blame but myself.” Akulantova said in a low voice.

“Not going to counterattack? Afraid of me already?” Sentinel X taunted.

Waiting her turn? Completely knackered. Her brain must have been vibrating too.

“S’not my style.” Akulantova said. “Why don’t you give it another go?”

Akulantova got ready to turn away the next strike. Her opponent took the invitation.

Sentinel X stepped forward, throwing all of her momentum into a charge.

If Akulantova could bash her back, she might have opening.

Expecting to be rushed down, Akulantova pushed back with her shield–

Where she expected to meet flesh heavily, there was air, and Akulantova nearly tripped.

At the last moment, Sentinel X arrested her movement and stepped back.

Precisely enough to avoid Akulantova’s counter while remaining in reach of her shield.

And responding with a punch flying sudden and strong as a gunshot–!

Sending the top third of the shield flying past Akulantova’s head in pieces.

Layered composites and glass shards. One cut across her cheek.

She felt the wound throb.

Each throb a slow, agonizing pulse of a heart beating for reprisal, a clamor to violence.

Despite being nearly two heads taller and probably a third again wider in the chest and back as her assailant was, Akulantova still found herself suddenly pressured by Sentinel X. It wasn’t uncommon for a Katarran to see uncanny strength in the world. But rarely was she on the other end of what her body and presence inspired in a fight.

Akulantova was a big girl. She had always been. Even as a larva.

Two meters tall, with a broad back, a big chest even discounting her bust, quite wide hips. Quite solid arms and legs and an effortlessly strong core. But people in the Union told her that she had a very pretty face too. She worked hard for that pretty face, her maidenly smile and soft features, for her silky, well-kept hair, for her easy, polite voice. Those things were difficult. She found it easy to build muscle. She found it easy to scream, to fight.

She found it easy to put people into the floor, alive or dead.

That ferocity began pouring back into her, began sizzling between her fingers.

She imagined herself crushing Sentinel X’s head like a grape and feeling the fluid drip between her hands. Like she was nothing but meat to be pulverized, and Akulantova the grinder. Like her body was a key to the lock that was Sentinel X, to make her undone and break her open. Casting her aside completely like she had been born to do.

And she hated it. Every second of it was torture.

She wanted so badly to defy that vision.

Her body had a destiny etched into it. Made to fight and kill and wreak ruin on the world. But she had made herself a body to love instead. Painstakingly. With all the world’s effort. She didn’t hate her body. Because she had etched out that evil destiny and inscribed her own.

And she didn’t want to use it to fight Sentinel X. To kill her and succumb to that fate.

But– god damn it all– without a shield, there was nothing to weigh down her arm.

And she couldn’t just punch back–

“Am I going to have to revise my estimation? Are you perhaps actually quite weak?”

Sentinel X bounded closer throwing another fast punch from the shoulder.

Clanging; the metallic sound of a truncheon falling to the ground.

Akulantova’s bare, closed fist met the Sentinel’s strike, blood drawing from the knuckles.

While a loose hand struck at her chest with enough force to drive her staggering back.

Sentinel X coughed, surprised, she had let her guard down. But smiling all the same.

Akulantova held a stance with a closed fist and a hand half-open.

Blood dripped down from sliced knuckles. Her own blood collecting on the floor.

It hurt like hell. Her wounds felt white-hot.

Despite this, a hint of a smile crept on Akulantova’s face. She had found a way out.

Her mind drifted back to her training in Union self-defense.

Maybe it was as simple as opening her fist. And knowing when to close it.


“Oh good. Two hominin down. After you, that means just one more.”

Vanguard IX grinned upon seeing the lone blond-haired hominin coming out from the fading smoke. Her body coursed with the possibilities provided by the marrow fruit, unlocking all of her innate potential. Abilities which once required much concentration came to her as easily as breathing now. She hoped Wizard III was paying attention to her deeds.

She wanted to impress her, to draw her attention.

From the back of her wrist, her flesh opened and extended. Using sinew and bone and the metals which she had ingested, as well as her own hard tissues and the enzymes from the fruit, Vanguard IX quickly grew a vibrating black blade as she walked, with nothing but a thought. Outwardly solid as any sword but composed microscopically of tight bundles of carbon and steel nanofiber the likes of which no hominin machine could manufacture. Her grown weapon ejected from her arm and hung on muscular sinews attached to the handle allowing her to control the electric vibrations and the heat that lent it killing power.

She wielded it as easily as flexing her own fingers.

Adjusting her eyes to see better in the dark, she felt she had every advantage on her prey.

Approaching, weapon in hand, full of confidence. She had killed the other hominin easily.

“Too bad for you! But as the exalted ones say: it ended romantically!”

Vanguard IX broke into a charge at the blond hominin and swung the blade in her hand–

Black edge meeting the silver teeth of the diamond sabre and grinding against it.

Vanguard IX put her weight into the clash, attempting to push the hominin back.

First a stalemate, and then, her efforts were actively thrown back, forcing her to retreat.

Her blade healing the deep gash left into its surface, sucking minerals from Vanguard IX.

Now closer and in the presence of the hominin, Vanguard IX felt an oppressive sense of bloodlust and her eyes flashed red, instinctually peering at the hominin’s aura.

She was astonished.

The blond hominin was completely wreathed in a black cloud that when examined closely had the impression of ghostly hands, mournful clawing and desperate. Some of her aura looked like it was trying to tear at her, other parts like they were pushing her forward, and the synesthesia Vanguard IX felt upon seeing it caused her to taste blood.

And yet, her mind was so poorly guarded. Vanguard IX could peer right inside–

Valeriya Peterburg, ‘Union special forces B.E.A.S.T.’

Images bubbling up through the surface of her mind so easily seen–

slashing, crushing, tearing, eviscerating, disemboweling, beheading,

shooting heads spilling brains, chests bursting hearts, belly guts flying spirals,

armbar head twisting slitting throats stabbing ribs ripping throats bare teeth

saw-sword swing cleaving corpses horizontal peak to groin

amid the vortex of violence Vanguard IX always the victim–

Screaming, she tore herself away from the psionic visions of that vicious mind–

It was no wonder it was unguarded!

There was nothing going through it but sheer brutality!

Shaking, having never seen a monster like this in her life, Vanguard IX put up her guard.

In the instant into which she had peered into this Valeriya Peterburg’s mind, the woman hefted her sword as if testing its weight, with her dead eyes permanently locked on Vanguard IX with a soulless, vehement expression. Vanguard IX felt her skin chill and the air grew hard to breathe as if the black tinge from that woman’s aura was growing to encompass everything. She could feel her mind succumbing, her own aura turning black at the edges with the fear of death just from staying near this hominin.

Was this the experience of being stricken by a King’s Gaze? But it couldn’t be!

Vanguard IX’s hands began to shake as the woman lifted her sword and broke into a run.

Valeriya swung from the right and Vanguard IX moved to block.

Holding her sword by both handle and the upper the section of the blade for added leverage, she batted away Valeriya’s attack with her flat. The clash threw Valeriya off balance, and Vanguard IX quickly seized the opening and stabbed the tip of her sword into Valeriya’s shoulder. Her thrust went through skin but she could go no deeper than flesh; Valeriya retaliated, the blade crossing mere centimeters in front of Vanguard IX’s face. Forcing Vanguard IX back, but giving her time to prepare her guard again.

Guard and counterattack– it could perhaps continue to be effective.

Her confidence was beginning to rebuild.

Valeriya was powerful, but a ravening beast.

Swinging vehemently, but how much more strength could she put behind it?

Blood drew from the wound she had left, middle of the shoulder, close to the neck.

Precise, in a place where there was nothing but that thick grey fibrous bodysuit.

There was no change in her expression. Valeriya hardly acknowledged the wound.

Exactly as before, she lunged for Vanguard IX and swung her sword.

Vanguard IX responded again with the same cover.

Holding her weapon by the handle and blade and connecting her flat with Valeriya’s diamond sabre to try to turn it away. However, she had executed much more clumsily, or perhaps, Valeriya was much more aware of it– her fingers were suddenly exposed close to the sawing teeth, and Vanguard IX had to throw herself back with a psionic thrust.

Creating a psionic pressure between herself and Valeriya in both directions.

Hoping to escape and perhaps to throw her off-balance.

She felt the moment of the blast that it had succeeded in moving her, but Vanguard IX could also suddenly see her kinetic thrust smothered in the roiling black aura around Valeriya. And rather than leaping back as she had planned, her thrust barely pushed her a few steps, and seemed to move Valeriya not at all from her position. They were still too close!

Vanguard IX felt herself shaking again and took up her guard.

Valeriya shifted her weapon from one hand, to the other– and then gripped with both.

She stepped forward, she drew her sword back in preparation, black aura crawling over it.

Swinging from the shoulder, darkness exploding behind her like a flame fed of shadows.

Suddenly panicking in the split second instant between blow and clash–

Vanguard IX fell back on the same guard that had proven effective.

Hand on blade, hand on grip, and meet the enemy’s edge to deflect it–

Flat met blade, the sawing teeth grinded for an instant,

cut through like fluid,

severed the shoulder,

cast the arm down,

sword and all leaving a hissing red mess of stringy flesh,

It had been so sudden that Vanguard IX could not even find the space to scream.

Before her Valeriya loomed ever larger,

she saw her no longer as a woman but as a titan with a black cloak and crown made of corpses, crawling over her body braying for her to kill or mourning their own deaths. Towering over her with inconceivable brutality and strength. She would join those bodies and have no future but to scream and scratch into the brain-dead ear of this gargantuan berserker when she smeared her next victim on the floor of this dying Empire.

Vanguard IX stumbled back, Valeriya recovered from the first swing,

swung again, sure to kill,

felt those horrid evil saw teeth kiss her ribs–

and gasped as a bright white light interposed itself.

Saint’s Skin: Anoint!

A brilliant white sword turned away that bloodthirsty black blade from further harm.

Valeriya was hardly unbalanced by the parry, but it was enough to spare Vanguard IX.

The Omenseer’s wavering vision and fading sense of touch registered her falling into the arms of someone holding her tightly. Someone strong, whose touch was comforting, who could hold her in her arms like she was but a doll, and whose voice she heard inside of her brain. I’ll protect you. I’m sorry. All of the fear of death and the weakness of mind had left her, and she felt a sudden ecstasy. Her eyes filled with tears of joy and relief.

Before passing out in her arms, Vanguard IX smiled fondly at Wizard III.

Wishing that, despite her failure, she could still become hers.


Sentinel X and Akulantova circled each other, locking eyes.

When one stepped forward, the other back.

Jabs flew past and retracted just as quickly, probing attacks, sizing each other up.

Even those jabs, whether deflected or allowed to hit softly, left an impression.

Sentinel X was monstrously strong.

Akulantova had always relied on her size and superior strength in a fight.

This had always posed a problem for her– because she was so big and so strong.

It was easy to hurt someone in training; she never got to hone a lot of techniques.

She had to admit however–

some of her fear had left her, because Sentinel X was so strong.

“Starting to enjoy yourself, hominin? I hope to see you die smiling. A duel’s pleasure!”

Sentinel X seemed to have gotten enough of probing.

One bound of those long, strong legs carried her far and quick in a second.

Entering Akulantova’s reach, she threw a right punch into Akulantova’s waiting guard.

Akulantova shifted her body to the side, so that her closed fist grazed Sentinel X’s fist without completely absorbing the blow. Just enough contact to shift the direction of the attack. Even glancing it this way it felt someone had smashed her knuckles with a hammer. She moved to strike herself, but in the next instant, she felt a shockwave push her.

Shifting immediately from the strike, Sentinel X suddenly bounded over Akulantova.

Clearing the floor, with what strength and what leverage she could not tell.

That leap saw her land briefly on Akulantova’s shoulder–

and kicking off it with unbelievable force.

Akulantova shoved forward, gasping with surprise, the wind beaten out of her back.

Sentinel X’s second leap took her right behind Akulantova.

In any normal situation Akulantova might have feared a grab, but she was well aware of how much this insane bitch loved strikes, and how her hands could harden or sharpen on command. She could tell in an instant that Sentinel X was bounding back toward her to strike again from behind. She was determined to keep punching until one of them died.

Knowing that, Akulantova also knew she would not just be knocked out with a head blow.

Bracing herself in the split second she had, she sucked in a breath and stepped forward.

It was now or never.

There was no escaping it. Sentinel X’s fist fell hard on her middle back.

Enduring the pain, Akulantova managed to stumble forward from the attack–

Recovered her footing, and turned around just outside Sentinel X’s second punch.

“You’re mine.”

Akulantova threw herself forward and with all of her strength, she grabbed Sentinel X.

Ensnaring her in her arms, lifting her, fingers intertwined behind her back and pushing in.

Sentinel X bent slightly back, gasping, her arms captive inside Akulantova’s grapple.

Their faces, their eyes, barely millimeters away. Sentinel X’s bewildered expression.

Akulantova’s toothy, satisfied grin.

Grappling– it was a way for Akulantova to use her prodigious strength without killing.

She felt Sentinel X’s knees, but her captive had no leverage to kick.

Even with her mighty strikes and bewildering agility.

“Stop moving already! I’m being merciful here!”

Gripping even harder behind Sentinel X’s back, Akulantova reared her head.

Shutting her eyes, she smashed forehead to forehead with all of her strength.

Shattering the glass and band on her visor, sending her cap and the enemy’s beret flying.

Breaking open Sentinel X’s forehead, drawing blood that fell over her pale features in rivulets. Akulantova could physically feel Sentinel X’s struggle weakening, though not ceasing, within her grasp. Dazed from the headbutt, crushed in Akulantova’s arms, she was finally helpless enough to be put down without having to murder her.

“I don’t know who you’re supposed to be, and I won’t learn. But whatever brain cells you have left, use them well: my closed fist would have beheaded you. I hit you with my open hand and with my glass shield for your benefit. So learn your FUCKING place.”

Then, she bent her knees, bore the entire weight of her captive, and leaped back.

Akulantova took her entire body with her, drew her back, and slammed her into the floor.

There was not a scratch on the metal tiles under them, but Sentinel X landed splayed on the ground, her limbs limp, blood rushing down from her forehead over her face, dyeing the tips of her white hair a dark crimson. Her chest was still rising and falling.

She was gasping for breath.

Alive.

Thankfully built of stern stuff.

Meanwhile, a shaken Akulantova rose back to her feet.

She collected the remains of her shield, and her truncheon.

She collected her hat.

Placing it on top of her head and adjusting it.

All the while, keeping alert for Sentinel X’s weird little partner.

But that coward had not moved a muscle the entire time.

She stood on the periphery, hugging herself, eyes darting, licking her lips every so often.

“Grab your partner and get out of my sight.” Akulantova said. “With you, it won’t start as a spar. I’m sick to death of this situation. I might even be sick enough of it to kill someone.”

In response, the hooded woman nodded her head rapidly and stepped forward–

“N-No. Hunter VII. We’re– holding–”

Akulantova sighed. Sentinel X rose unsteadily to her feet.

One of her eyes was red, injured. Her forehead continued to bleed profusely.

All of the scales or chitin on her fists had begun to peel away revealing shattered digits.

Despite her grievous state, she forced herself to stand to full height.

“Hunter– VII–” Sentinel X gasped for breath. “Kill– h-her– attack–”

Akulantova turned a forceful glare on Hunter VII and nearly caused her to jump.

But the choice was taken from the spindly, pallid woman soon enough.

Whether she had begun to move to grab her partner or in order to fight–

–a burst of several rounds of gunfire intercepted her path.

Hunter VII just barely avoided walking into the line of green tracers.

Automatic pistol fire– it had come from the elevator banks!

Akulantova turned around and spotted someone walking confidently toward her.

Shoulder-length brown hair, orange-brown skin with mottles on her neck. Small, sharp fins coming from where her ears would have been, from under her hair. A stern expression on a face with a round jaw and bright eyes. Her light frame and confident gait, and the careful hold her hand had on the machine pistol, all were quite familiar to Akulantova.

Syracuse Chernova.

Security team medic– Former special forces– Akulantova’s ex-wife–

Just as the distracted Akulantova turned her head to look, Hunter VII suddenly leaped.

From under her hood, a long and muscular tail like a reptile’s suddenly lashed out.

Wrapping around Sentinel X and lifting her from the floor despite her protests.

“Hunter VII! Stand and fight!”

“It’s not worth dyin’ over! You’ll never taste meat– I mean– you’ll never fight again!”

“I don’t care! Drop me! I can still fight!”

“We’re retreating! That’s an order! You just heard it!”

With incredibly agility, Hunter VII leaped back from the steps with Sentinel X in tow.

Hitting the ground on all fours, she scurried away like an animal into the raised gardens on the edge of the park, nimbly disappearing from view. Akulantova watched them go, speechless, all of that brutality she had experienced simply dissipating from the world like a flash of thunder. Who had told them to retreat, and how? Impossible for her to know.

There was something much more pressing at hand however.

Akulantova turned around,

so surprised to be meeting Syracuse’s eyes in the middle of a battlefield,

but expecting nothing–

“I’m not here to talk to you.” Syrah said pointedly. “I’m assisting my team. Let’s go.”

–and getting nothing as she expected. Of course.

She should have known.

“Right. I know you don’t care, but I am really grateful for the assist.”

“You’re right, I don’t care.”

Syracuse reached into her pocket, stood on her tiptoes, and smacked a sticky bandage on Akulantova’s forehead, where she had opened a bleeding wound from headbutting Sentinel X. Akulantova stood stupefied for a moment while Syracuse nonchalantly walked away.

“Stupid as it was for you to keep holding back; I suppose I can’t fault it.” She said.

Said without even turning to see her, and yet, it managed to lift Akulantova’s spirits.

Before she could get too far ahead, Akulantova collected herself and followed.

She looked down at the park, taking a whiff of the air. Smoke, fire, blood, grinding metal, spent lead and the scents of those two maniacs who needed their help. Valeriya and Illya were still alive. They were as tough as Akulantova had hoped. It was no wonder that they came so highly recommended from Commissar-General Nagavanshi herself.

But they were completely out of line now.

“They were attacked by a bunch of freaks. I can’t say how many.” Akulantova said.

Syrah quietly lifted her machine pistol as if it was the only answer she needed to give.

“Judging by the last one I pummeled within an inch of her life, I dunno about that.”

“I’ll double tap. If you’re so concerned, then lead the way, Chief.”

Akulantova hurried her pace, and overtook Syrah, with the remains of her shield up.

Syrah audibly sighed, but followed close behind.

Thankfully for the both of them, the park, though heavily damaged, had found peace anew.

As they walked down the steps at a moderate and wary pace, and approached the statues in the center of the park, unbeknownst to them, Wizard III had already beat a retreat.

Akulantova would not see Sentinel X and Hunter VII waiting for her around a corner, and the shooters who had dumped so much alien ammunition into the center of the park were nowhere to be found. And with them, their ringleader would not be found also.

Without further incident, they found Illya, Zachikova, Arabella and Valeriya.

Wounded in all manner of ways; Valeriya was sitting in a corner shaking, nursed by Illya.

But alive; and ready to return.

Akulantova produced a portable encrypted communicator.

“Captain, this is the Chief.” She spoke into it. Sighing in relief. “We’re heading home.”

Giving the wounded Illya a stern glare, before bending down to lift her to safety.


Retreat! Leave no bodies behind! Rendesvouz in the B-block underground!

Wizard III issued her telepathic proclamation and fled from the park.

In her hands, she held the wavering life of Vanguard IX.

Vanguard IX was smiling– despite everything she had been through.

Wizard III felt an unfamiliar emotion as she escaped with all her power.

She was so much more concerned with Vanguard IX living than with the failure of the mission. She could take responsibility and punishment from the Enforcers, but some part of her simply hated the idea that Vanguard IX could die in her arms due to her stupidity. That Vanguard IX fought so hard and brave for her, and was failed by her command. This feeling grew in her heart, ever more desperate. When she realized the hominin were not giving chase, and had chosen to retreat as well, she had nothing else to occupy her thoughts.

Sneaking into a maintenance shaft, she adjusted her eyes to better see in the dark.

Wizard III laid Vanguard IX against a wall.

Her arm had been completely severed. She had a horrific wound, enough of her had been torn away to reveal the sides of the upper ribs. Her collarbone was shattered where her arm had been sliced off. There was so much blood and stringy mutilated flesh and strips of skin and broken bones peering out of the mess. Wizard III searched through the pouches of her uniform for a marrow fruit and chewed it briefly before swallowing it.

Inside her own body, Wizard III synthesized a fluid form of healing biomass.

It traveled up her arm, through her sinews.

Her palm opened into a toothless mouth and the gel ejected from it.

Pale-colored secretions covered Vanguard IX’s wounds.

A primordial soup of benign cells slowly growing into a covering.

Using her psionic power of biokinesis, amplified by the marrow fruit, Wizard III could carefully alter the biological material to become skin, to become sinew, to allow blood to route through. She could never replace all of the mass that was lost as the entire arm was cut off, but she could accelerate natural healing of what remained to end the body’s crisis.

Without a thought spared to the condition of the other Vanguards, or whether Hunter VII and Sentinel X had gotten away. All of her mind focused on caring for Vanguard IX’s wounds as tenderly as she could. To restoring her body, avoiding necrosis and shock. As she worked, she telepathically induced comfort and calm on Vanguard IX’s vulnerable mind.

Her chest was still rising and falling, her heart beating. She was alive.

When her wounds were finally closed, and she was as safe as she could be, Wizard III realized she was looming over her body obsessively, sweating profusely, her eyes weeping and hot and her mind ragged from having performed so much advanced and precise psionics. She laid back on the opposite side of the maintenance shaft, gathering her breath.

She shut off her night-vision in order to conserve her mental strength.

But she continued to stare at Vanguard IX, now resting soundly rather than– dying.

It filled her with emotion that she could have never conceived of having.

They had never been in any danger on this scale. It had been nerve-wracking.

Her hands were still shaking. She could still see that monstrous hominin in her mind.

It was not supposed to be like this. None of it. All of it was terrifying.

Despite this– for whatever reason– the idea that Vanguard IX was still alive–

–it was a pathetic little comfort for Wizard III. It shouldn’t have been– but it was.

“I hate you.” Wizard III said, without truly meaning it. She wished she truly hated her.

“You’ve made me– not normal anymore. Now what will I do? I am defective too.”

Wizard III raised her hands to cover her face, gritting her teeth.

Reclaiming Aer should have been as simple as wiping out all the hominin.

No culture, no deviations, nothing but the directives given to her.

All that she learned and practiced in the Agartha was to fight for the Autarch’s orders. Even their homes in the Agartha had been nothing but temporary, there should have been no attachment to anything but the mission. Command and tactics; equipment; hunting and killing enemies; what supplies they needed and how to acquire them; hominin basics.

Wizard III had never learned what to do with the feeling that she wanted to take care of Vanguard IX. She did not know how it would feel if Vanguard IX was killed.

It was a terrifying notion.

Because it made her tasks so much more complicated.

And her future so much less predictable.

Perhaps the culture the Enforcers spoke of was a curse they had laid upon her.

Perhaps that curse was what made her heart quake.


Preparations for the Brigand’s departure were underway. In Alcor, where the artificial sky was malfunctioning and there seemed to be not one single reliable source of station lighting, the ground and sky and the surface of the Brigand’s armor was cut across by a dozen mobile floodlight units worked by sailors. While a lot of the remaining work was internal, there was one major problem the crew had to tackle in order to escape.

To solve it would require a lot of manpower to make up for time.

“Well, unfortunately, we’ve confirmed the conveyor out of here is out of commission. We should still be able to force the elevators manually but without the conveyor, we can’t move the Brigand through the tunnel.” Tigris said solemnly, speaking into one of the Brigand’s exterior cameras so the bridge crew could see her. “Luckily I came up with an ad-hoc solution out here. We’re going to modify Alcor’s mobile berth to actually be self-propelled. It already has caterpillar tracks and drive gear, but it needs an independent power source and a motor. We can cobble together both. It’s not going to be pretty, but it just needs to hold together until it gets the ship to water, which I’m almost certain that it can get that far.”

At the bottom of the hydraulic elevated platform that Tigris was using to stand before the camera, Murati stood operating the controls. She thought Tigris looked just a little too happy to have something to tinker with on the spot, especially in the dire situation they were in, but if anyone could do it, it was Tigris. Murati certainly did not have a better plan, so as the officer in charge outside of the ship, she would support Tigris–

“Captain, I would like to say I highly disagree with this course of action!”

From beside the platform, Gunther Cohen, one of the engineer leads, shouted up at the camera that Tigris was standing near. He had a disgruntled expression on his face. From atop the platform, Tigris looked down at him and stuck out her tongue. This did not endear her to the man one bit. Murati turned to Gunther and waved him off from making any more gestures at Tigris. In turn she urged Tigris to continue her report.

“Cohen, do you have a better idea for moving the ship out of here?” Murati said.

Gunther sighed.

“No, I don’t. But, Lieutenant, you have to understand that this is extremely risky. If that woman’s contraption breaks while we’re in that tunnel, we’re trapped. Not only that, but we’ll be stuck where it’s clear we had intent to escape, when the station announced the closure of its ports due to the emergency. It will look extremely suspicious.”

Murati crossed her arms, and shut her eyes. “I will support Tigris’ plan. We can’t stay here. We’ll deal with the rest when it comes. But Tigris is pretty good at what she does.”

“And I’m not, Lieutenant?” Gunther replied. He was taking some kind of offense.

Gunther and Murati had their problems with each other in the past.

Murati had gone against his wishes several times in using the dangerous prototype systems on the Cheka, a Diver that he knew much more intimately than her. She had also gone against his advice again by piloting the Agni, an even more obscure and experimental piece of equipment that had not passed formal Union vetting. Gunther was a good worker and stuck to the regulations to promote everyone’s safety– Murati did understand that.

He disliked Tigris, who had come out of nowhere and never followed regulations.

She understood that too. Cohen was very safety-minded. That was certainly valid.

But she also knew that under the circumstances, they couldn’t afford to be safe.

And that, under the circumstances, Tigris simply outshone him in her capabilities.

Ultimately, Murati was not an engineer with safety regulations. She was a soldier.

To complete her mission and defeat her enemy, a soldier accepted risks.

In that way, they would never see eye to eye. As much as it hurt to admit.

“Cohen, I’m not answering that question. Dismissed.” Murati said brusquely.

Gunther remained for a moment glaring at Murati before leaving her side.

She noted that he did not return to work, but losing one set of hands was no issue.

A few minutes later, Tigris signaled to be brought down from the platform. Murati flipped a switch to retract it. Tigris hopped off and waved at Murati with a little grin. She had her grey work coveralls on and the slick sheen of grease already covered her gloves. Some of it had even gotten on her otherwise bright red ponytail. She had an earpiece so she could talk to the Captain, but the Captain could only see her through the Brigand’s cameras.

“The Captain has cleared us to start working, if you agree.” Tigris said.

“Absolutely. I will defer to the Captain’s judgment.” Murati said.

Tigris smiled. “I heard you arguing with Cohen too. Thanks for believing in me.”

“All I ask is that your actions don’t lead me to regret my words.” Murati said, sighing.

“You watch! That ugly hunk of metal will be flying out of here!” Tigris cheered raucously.

Time was of the essence, so Murati was about to usher Tigris to work–

Until she heard heavy footfalls that were nearing from the direction of Alcor.

Murati did not know whether Alcor had any substantial contact with the Captain yet. 

In her heart, however, she knew what she would soon see.

She reacted, before she heard the call from an authoritative voice to desist–

“Stay back!”

“Huh?”

Murati at first withdrew her sidearm, but then she hid it behind her back.

She stood in front of Tigris, in time to meet the approaching group first.

Several flashlights shone upon her. It was hard to see at first, but there was no doubt.

Black uniforms, silver eagle insignias, red armbands with a black sun-disk icon.

The fascist troops of the Volkisch Movement.

“Stop! We told you to desist!”

Four of the men had their sidearms out, and one of them had a small submachine gun.

Murati kept one hand behind her back with her sidearm.

She felt Tigris tug on the back of her shirt. As if to say she was there in support.

“What is the meaning of this?” Murati asked. Maintaining a façade but saying little.

All of the men kept their weapons pointed at her– but parted to allow another through.

“An interesting hustle and bustle here. This is an emergency situation, you know?”

From behind the men appeared a young woman, about Murati’s age, perhaps just a little older. Surprisingly, she was a Loup, with long, brown dog-like ears atop her head of neatly arranged brown hair. Her uniform was black, the same as the rest, but unlike the troops with her, the collar of her coat had a red patch with a vertical, black symbol, the wolf’s-hook.

Murati knew the presence of that single hook meant an officer rank.

And the confidently smiling woman meeting her eyes confirmed it herself.

“Aatto Jarvi-Stormyweather.” She said. “Rottenführer in the Sicherheitsdienst.”

Volkisch intelligence. Murati tried to steady herself. The worst was coming to pass…


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